Earlier this year the British government passed a much anticipated law by some in the British Asian community to criminalise forced marriages in England and Wales. Forced marriages are strictly prohibited in Islam, so surely the onus of tackling them should be with the imams. As defenders of the faith, imams have a responsibility to tackle forced marriages through theology.
Consider this example: A woman approaches the most revered person in her community. He's a community leader as well as a man of religion. She bemoans, her father forcibly married her to a cousin, her father's nephew. The leader tells her that she has a choice of how to proceed. She can denounce the marriage, rendering it invalid and thereafter may marry someone of her choice.
Sounds pretty fair, yes? After all, we live in the 21st century where women are no longer pre-contracted at the disposal of their fathers. Wrong.
The opening scenario is of a woman who approached the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in 7th century Arabia - a time when ignorance, treachery, and tribalism characterised the status quo. The new faith of Islam bestows women with unassailable rights that are alien to that era. However, Muslim communities, particularly the Pakistani community in the UK have failed to evolve. Forced marriages have become a common feature of the Pakistani community. Prior to the new law, the government set up a forced marriage unit to deal with cases. Last year, the unit dealt with 1,302 cases with a staggering 43% concerning Pakistan.
From my work with the Pakistani community the new law is being received with mixed feelings, some welcome it and others are sceptical. Those that are sceptical fear that law will alienate victims further due to the threat of reprisals from family members and the community.
The Southall Black Sisters, a domestic abuse treatment centre state that their services are invoked on as a last resort. Potential victims try to resolve the problem primarily through the family and imams. Having failed victims then seek help from external agencies. Given the extent of forced marriages, it's evident some imams are failing the younger generation of their communities at the expense of appeasing the elder more traditional members.
I once spoke with a councillor from Burnley who told me that he was approached by a girl in the community he represents. She asked if he would approach the local imam on her behalf. She wanted the imam to intercede and dissuade her parents from forcing her into marriage. What was his response? He refused to do so telling the councillor that it was a private family matter. Relegating such matters to private sphere has paved the way to quietism among the imams.
Alarmingly the imams that do take a tough stance against forced marriages are often seen as trouble makers in their communities. Shaykh Amer Jamil, who in 2012 launched a campaign against forced marriages from his mosque in Glasgow, told the BBC at the time that the campaign had made him unpopular with the elders in his community. However, he firmly believes that he has a responsibility to the younger generation who are suffering from forced marriages. A practice that our own Prime Minister, David Cameron described as "little more than slavery".
Shaykh Amer Jamil said: "The only thing that can break a cultural norm for Muslims is the religion, so when you come down and say in Islam the prophet was against this practice, nobody can argue with you."
Naz Shah, an activist from Bradford said "The Imams are in a privileged position in that they can use their knowledge of faith, the teachings of the Quran to educate the community and it is incumbent upon them to have these conversations, to engage in discussions and influence social change".
Ms Shah proudly exclaimed to me that Islam accorded her the right to refuse forced marriages over 1500 years ago, well before it became law in this country. Therefore, the imams must make more of an effort to raise awareness of their Islamic rights to do away with unethical cultural norms, such as forced marriages.