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Will Sharia Courts in the UK Sabotage Forced Marriage Act?
by Victoria Golshani
In February, the stories of a Muslim teenager and a 22 year old Muslim girl, who were saved from arranged marriages under the newly minted Forced Marriage Act hit local UK papers highlighting the potential success of the act as the number of reported cases increased by 80% in 2008. Yet, as more cases come to light, so will a variety of weaknesses in the law.
The act, passed in November of 2008, is a civil measure, preventing parents and family members from forcing their children to marry against their will. In many cases, family members use emotional manipulation to coerce the victim into leaving the UK with convincing stories, such as a mother having fallen ill, as was the case with Dr. Humayra Abedin, who moved to the UK six years prior to her forced return to Bangladesh where her parents drugged, bound, and imprisoned her for four and a half months. She was forced to marry a stranger while heavily sedated. The reason? Dr. Abedin had a Hindu boyfriend in the UK at the time.
Under the Forced Marriage Act, the High Court ordered Dr. Abedin's return to the UK. If the marriage has already taken place, the Act enables the victim to annul the marriage and empowers courts to take protective steps such as changing the victim's name, seize and suspend an individual's passport, or reveal the location of the victim or other persons involved in the crime.
According to the act, any person involved in the "aiding, abetting, counseling, procuring, encouraging or assisting [of] another person to force, or to attempt to force, a person to enter into a marriage" or "conspiring to force, or to attempt to force, a person to enter into a marriage" will be held liable for their actions. However, the act remains rather shallow, and with little deterrent effect since it does not allow the victim to sue for civil damages (money), or provide criminal punishment against individuals found guilty. The Act argues that penalizing violators will deter victims from coming forward since victims will not want their family members to go to jail. The Act specifically states that orders should "have such regard to the person's wishes and feelings." Unfortunately, such sentiment is misplaced. As Jasvinder Sanghera, a survivor of a forced marriage, and now activist against it, states, "If you refuse your parents' wishes, even though you know what they are doing is wrong, you end up feeling like the criminal. You are the bad daughter because you have shamed them." But that does not mean that the state should reinforce that cycle of self-blame. Just as similar excuses are not instituted for crimes such as domestic abuse, incest, rape or molestation, they should not be for forced marriages.
Moreover, most women with the courage to come forward will not do so because the Act does not allow them to sue for support, or allow access to housing, job training, and other social services that could put them on their own feet. The majority of forced marriage cases deal with minors or women without financial independence like that of Saamiya, a 16 year-old Pakistani girl whose father pointed a gun to her back during the "marriage ceremony" and is in hiding after her brothers threatened to kill her for shaming the family. Thus, an Act that was supposedly meant to protect women fails to create an environment where they can come forward by leaving them alone and destitute instead.
Legislators defend the limited prosecution of the act by offering related offences such as kidnapping, abuse, and coercion upon which a victim can further sue the perpetrator. But with most cases coming from families of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, it is unlikely that anything will change. The UK has excused otherwise illegal activities by these groups for fear of "alienating," "radicalizing," or offending their cultural sensibilities. Schools have refused to display warning posters produced by the forced marriage unit without any recourse from the government; and according to a report by Centre for Social Cohesion, a non-partisan think-tank that studies issues related to community cohesion in Britain, women who do go to authorities to seek protection have been tracked down by leaks from Asian officers colluding with families.2
The Act brings a far bigger question into mind as well. What of those marriages the Act dissolves? Last April for example, a fifteen year old girl was forced to marry a forty year old man with the mental age of five. Her mother-in law forced her into prostitution and invited men over to rape the girl before she managed to escape. This marriage was not recognized by the Home Office but was and is still recognized by the Sharia courts that flourish in the UK. Moreover, what will the government do when foreign clerics defend the marriage of minor girls as one in Saudi Arabia did, or when another says its ok to rape your wife? Given that Sharia courts are binding in the UK, this Act seems even more meaningless.
Thus, once again, when a government justifies human rights abuses as an acceptance of "cultural diversity," the attempt to absolve itself through the Forced Marriage Act is not worth the paper it is written on. The UK has created a state within a state where an individual's rights depends on their religion. A piece of legislation that touts that it is "not okay" to force someone to marry another is meaningless without a legal system that does not excuse human rights abuses based on supposed religious tolerance.