It was an area just outside the main bustling city of Sylhet (northeastern Bangladesh). The house which provided temporary sanctuary for Fatiha (name changed) was a nondescript structure. Inside, Fatiha was coming to terms with the fact that her British citizenship has made her into a conduit for the wish fulfillment of others.
Still reeling from a forced marriage, Fatiha’s case was far more deviant than the basic “bring back home on false pretext and have the girl married” type. She was married to an unknown person over the phone and made to live in a hostile household of a relative of her husband in the UK, where the treatment she received was appalling.
When she came back to Bangladesh, the husband turned out to be a drug addict. And to make matters worse, her father, who had two wives, died suddenly, triggering a family feud over property. In the frenzy, Fatiha’s plight was forgotten. Thanks to the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) of the consular services of the British High Commission in Dhaka and the support office in Sylhet, she was saved from becoming a victim of unremitting sorrow.
The case I just mentioned dates back to 2009, when I was in the service of the British government, working as the press officer. As part of the team to rescue her and provide her with regular assistance to overcome the ordeal, I found that while she had strong belief in her faith and culture, she also loved football, hanging with friends, cycling in the park, and listening to Spice Girls. A balanced mixture of two cultures, one can conclude.
Before coming face to face with Fatiha’s case, we had, as journalists, a very vague idea about the whole issue of forced marriage involving Brit Bangladeshis. In light conversations, people raised the issue stating that a lot of young women of Bangladeshi families who were born and brought up in the UK were often brought back home and married off without their consent.
The major topic was how a burqa-clad girl was speaking fluent English whereas her husband could hardly speak a single line.
However, the human ordeal of such episodes never came out in the open for two reasons – firstly, many women, living within strict conservative social rules, accepted their fate, and secondly, those who somehow managed to escape these arbitrarily imposed weddings hardly came to the media with their stories because they were embarrassed that disclosure might humiliate their parents or relatives.
Scarring family honor is very much a vital matter among the South Asian communities abroad, which often leads to honor-based crimes. Just to recall a recent incident, a woman with two children was severely beaten and bruised by her Sikh father-in-law in Britain when the latter suspected her of having an affair with a Muslim man.
Again, another social anomaly surfaces – the schism between expatriate communities of different faiths, taken to a fanatical level. Anyway, now that a UK law banning all such unions without consent comes into effect, can we expect victims to step forward to seek help?
The truth is, the whole matter is riddled with mind-boggling social and moral conundrums – on one side, a girl may not be willing to marry someone she has never met, or with whom she has very little in common and may desire support, but from the other angle, she may be unwilling to have the forced-marriage law enforced to have her parents or guardians punished.
It is of course laudable that a law has passed in the UK under which the maximum sentence can be seven-year-imprisonment, though what is essential is a concerted movement to reform the mindsets of the South Asian communities in Britain and in home countries for any solid improvement in social cohesion.
British society in general understands marriage without consent is a severe breach of human rights. But the question is: When the notion of arranged marriage is firmly embedded in the psyche of the Asian communities, how can outlooks be revamped?
A practical idea is to merge Western-style freedom of choice with an arranged marriage format that is more attuned to the age. If the approach is one or the other, failure is inevitable.
Once outside the Sylhet Airport, signboards of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office urging young women to call a number for fast help in cases of forced nuptials underline a stark gap in assimilating the basic precepts of individual choice.
Surprisingly, parents of young British Bangladeshis are often silent on the matter. Does this mean they give tacit approval to such marriages? Not all surprise marriages arranged by the guardians end up in disaster though, some survive with lasting results, providing the rationale for the custom to survive.
On the other hand, the fear which haunts the South Asian communities is that unless a young girl born in the UK is married to someone from back home, she will eventually leave the cultural confines and become “Westernized.”
The term “Westernized” here is used as a pejorative term, carrying all the negative connotations. What is more unnerving is that people staying in first-world states are harboring and perpetuating some obsolete social notions in the name of preserving social and cultural identity.
This is definitely not to say that all South Asian families prefer a cloistered life. Many have blended with the British culture, making, if not a perfect then a practical combination of Eastern and Western values. Unfortunately, a lot of British Asian families still cling on to beliefs that clash with the perspective of their sons or daughters born and raised in the UK.
Faced with the prospect of the new law that stipulates incarceration, many parents now take a different course – indoctrination. The marriageable person, under relentless sermonizing, may capitulate only to discover later irreconcilable matrimonial differences.
Proselytizing has many other ramifications, leading victims to adopt zealotry in forming their own philosophies. Perhaps in addition to the new law, there can be an effort to sensitize the South Asian communities, not only in the UK but back in the home states, about a healthy middle path that is not extreme on any side.