Jewels and Stones

For many it’s the happiest day of their lives. For many, it’s the time to hang out with their friends in the sun and shake off any school woes. But for some, these are times where they are filled with fear and uncertainty.

I first came across the issue of forced marriage, in my early teens, when I stumbled across a website dedicated to victims of honour-based violence across the world, races, cultures, religions and backgrounds. The link is here, but I must warn you that it is extremely triggering – it’s a website that lingers at the back of your mind. It has certainly stayed in mine for the past seven years. Before I continue, I just want to clarify that a forced marriage is not the same as an arranged marriage; the latter has the option of declining a proposal and that decision being respected.

Today I was lucky enough to attend a meeting held by the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) in London to discuss the issue of forced marriage with organisations from across the UK. It was an eye opening afternoon where I learned so much and felt very privileged to be a part of.

73% of victims were under the age of 21 ~ FMU 2013

During the meeting, a lady from one of the organisations talked about the complexity and multi-faceted nature of forced marriage – it is not a simple problem which comes with a simple solution. It made me think of the way that issues such as forced marriage, FGM, acid attacks and honour-based violence are often assigned to particular ethnic groups or religions. Whenever someone mentions the words ‘forced marriage’ most people think of a helpless, young South Asian woman being carted off to Pakistan or India to be wed against her will to a stranger in a bid to uphold her family’s izzat (honour).

Despite what statistics say (given that many victims do not come forward) it is commonly mistaken as a ‘brown people problem’ which results in local authorities tip-toeing around in fear of being branded as racist. In June 2014, The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime & Policing Act came into legislation – this now makes forced marriage a criminal offence which means that anyone caught breaching this law can be incarcerated for up to seven years. But does criminalising something like forced marriage guarantee that it will protect victims?

I regularly go into schools and colleges across the capital to talk about entrepreneurship, tech, careers and Higher Education. While it’s generally uplifting and positive work, I remember a young girl saying to me: “I liked your talk and you, but I won’t ever be able to do those things. I’ll do my GCSEs and then get married.” It’s something that has stayed with me – I cried when I got home because it affected me that badly – and has made me painfully conscious of whenever I do visit a school.

Does the criminalisation of forced marriage guarantee protection for victims?

After I heard a 14 year-old schoolgirl say that to me, I felt like someone had punched me into oblivion. As an entrepreneur, I regularly have to be quite thick-skinned to deal with the influx of rejection and constantly work with uncertainty, but nothing could have prepared me for what I had heard that day. I wanted to help her or do something, but I didn’t know what to do (and I still don’t know). However, it did make me question the very essence of forced marriage and why it is something that is so difficult to dispel.

As a British Asian woman, I can only speak from my own experiences and the community that I ethnically belong to. I know from personal experience that various South Asian cultures either embed ideas of purity, honour and pride in women or view them as a burden because of the responsibilities that come with raising a girl into a woman. Such families discard or commit femicide because they simply can not afford the economic drain of having a daughter.

I vividly remember the sense of outrage I felt, as a teenager, whenever I couldn’t go out and have the same freedoms as my brothers. I remember the time-old phrase of: “Daughters are like jewels; we keep them close to home so that they don’t get ruined or stolen. Boys are stone; they won’t get tarnished.”

It infuriated me – firstly because of the blatant objectification and secondly because it was supposed to come from a place of love with good intention that still made me feel deeply uncomfortable. I believe that phrases like this form the backbone of an older generation’s psyche, which has unfortunately been passed down through the ages – often unquestioned –  until it has become steeped in various South Asian cultures and regarded as the norm.

“Daughters are like jewels; we keep them close to home so that they don’t get ruined or stolen.”

From the moment that they are born, many South Asian women have the importance of family, community and their culture ingrained into them. We grow up watching our mothers and grandmothers repeatedly prioritise others over their own health and well being with the resigned reply of: “It’s just the way it is.” Naturally, when one has a family, there are certain responsibilities and honouring certain family bonds that we undertake and respect – but at what cost?

When one combines all of this, many (including myself) grow up believing that it is more important to be part of a large family/community and be unhappy, than to stand up for ourselves and be isolated. It is a difficult, and often toxic, mindset to shake off or even address because it is so deeply imprinted in pockets of the South Asian Diaspora. So when a man or woman is forced into marriage and evidence is found that could incarcerate their parents/family members, given this backdrop, it comes as no surprise that they drop the case.

When I think about ways that I could try and help people who are forced into marriage, I have found myself facing a brick wall. I genuinely don’t know of powerful solutions that could have a significant impact. Forced marriage is a reality for some, that I will never experience or be able to fully understand. But what I can do is work with the right organisations and people to ensure that we continue to address and shift society’s gaze onto an issue that has been shrouded for far too long.


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