"Marriage is the easiest chapter in the books of fiqh, but the hardest chapter in our society today." - Imam Suhaib Webb
The number of people in England and Wales living with or married to someone from another ethnic group jumped by 35 per cent to 2.3 million from 2001 to 2011, reported the Office for National Statistics in a newly published census figure analysis on 3rd July 2014.
In a country representing upwards of 270 nationalities, 300 languages and 400 registered political parties, it's difficult not to mingle. While it may seem inevitable that such exposure would lead to a rise in mixed attractions over time, this "natural" integration comes with more pain and hardship than one might expect, especially within British Muslim communities.
There is a taboo attached to inter-cultural and inter-faith relationships within British Muslim communities, and the stigma applies to Muslim women more acutely than their male counterparts.
Ibrahim Mogra, Assistant Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, speaks of the difficulties that families have in accepting interfaith relationships: "Islam says it's forbidden. And I think to have your daughter openly go against God's law is and can be very very difficult."
At times, this opprobrium can turn into outright violence and intimidation against individuals in interfaith relationships. According to the UK constabulary, 2,823 honour crimes were reported to the police in 2010, and an estimated 10,000 forced marriages take place in Britain every year. Many women confront shame, guilt and prejudice, hide their relationships, and live a double life for fear of not wanting to upset loved ones.
Muslim women should be able to love and marry outside their faith communities, and feel confident in doing so, without that neurotic voice in the background telling them they are necessarily doing something wrong. One way that we can boost this confidence is by providing a strong framework for the pastoral care of men and women in inter-faith and, to a lesser extent, inter-racial marriages.
Civil society has partially responded to this need. In November 2012, the Christian Muslim Forum launched its Interfaith Marriage Guidelines at Westminster Abbey, in co-operation with the Inter-Faith Marriage Network and the Muslim-Christian Marriage Support Group. A select group of Christian ministers and Muslim imams put together "When two faiths meet" guidelines, to help religious leaders support indviduals in such relationships. They featured case studies and reproduced statistics from the 2001 census, which recorded 17,163 Christian women married to Muslim men and 4,233 Christian men married to Muslim women. A further 2,295 Muslim individuals are married to men and women of other faiths.
While it is important for such discussions to take place among religious leaders, it must be recognised that attraction and compatibility cannot be number-crunched via some precise formula, and that the Human Rights Act expressly promotes the right of choice in marriage. The best way to generate discussion and eventually foster acceptance for these women is to share their stories and spread them loudly and clearly, like in the case of Zena Briggs.
Zena Briggs set up the Zena Foundation to help forced marriage victims after she escaped one herself, having eloped with white Englishman Jack Briggs. They were chased by a private investigator and ended up with a £9,000 bounty on their heads. After 16 years on the run, the couple split up. However, their book Runaways was read out by Ann Cryer MP in the House of Commons, eventually leading to the creation of the Government's Forced Marriage Unit in 2005. Earlier this summer, forced marriage became a criminal offence.
I hope to elicit a similar level of discussion and political engagement through Hidden Heart, a documentary I am executive producing with Christopher Hird of Dartmouth Films. Directed by Independent Filmmaker Zara Afzal, Hidden Heart offers a nuanced and sensitive portrayal of the backlash that heritage Muslim women often face when marrying outside their ethnic communities. It is a film which humanises these challenges, and will hopefully make them more relatable to people who might otherwise be inclined to oppose the marriage of their female relatives on religious or racial grounds.
It is time to make a distinction between actual wrongdoing - based on the fitra or the innate predisposition of human beings to do good - and guilt that has been induced by trying to do the hula with different community-based "rings of expectation" all at once. One by one, the rings will eventually fall down.