In June 2014, forced marriages were outlawed in the UK, and last week, a 34 year old man was prosecuted and convicted, the first conviction ever for this crime. Asian feminists have been campaigning for this law for several decades. We were fobbed off, castigated, denounced as traitors by some foolish anti-racists for whom such struggles were frivolous diversions from the only true cause, Racism. Some Asian and white lawyers and academics also opposed legal measures and became articulate obfuscators and apologists for 'cultural rights'. People in power fudged or offered alternative responses, most as tepid as cold weak, tea. Over all the Blair years, ministers and the Attorney General argued that a law would destabilize family relationships and community trust. Worse than that, these abuses would be buried under ever bigger piles of secrets and lies. Hogwash and humbug.
David Cameron, in contrast, took charge and delivered long overdue legislative measures. In contrast, too many Labour MPs, fearful of losing 'ethnic' votes, shied away from opposing forced marriages. The PM has also just announced that new laws will be fast tracked in the next few weeks to protect young girls from female genital mutilation ( FGM). During the summer holidays, countless, young British schoolgirls are taken abroad by parents to be cut. In March alone, 578 girls were seen by medical staff after they had had their clitorises excised and vaginas sewn up. The total number is bound to be much higher. According to the National Children's Bureau, thousands of children go missing from school every year. A large number, I believe, are victims of forced marriage or FGM. Perpetrators now know that tolerance of the intolerable has been resolutely withdrawn. Young people can also use the law and assert their autonomy.
White liberals, have, for too long, closed their eyes and ears to these abuses. It's easier that way. If you allow yourself to think about internal as well as external repression, it all becomes too complicated, too messy. An acquaintance from Brighton, who works for an independent TV company texted: 'Hope you are satisfied. White people now think all Asians beat and bully their kids, that all marriages are sham. This law legitimises racism'. God save us from righteous liberalism. You can be a good, ethical anti-racist and at the same time stand up for the victims of religious and cultural oppression. Some black and Asian activists are similarly dismayed.
Forced marriages were once common in this country too. Remember Capulet's fury when Juliet refuses to marry Paris, the husband he has chosen for her? He calls his young weeping daughter a 'disobedient wretch', a 'curse' and issues an ultimatum: 'An[d] you be mine, I'll give you to my friend, an[d] you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets'. Well older Asians are still like those old Elizabethans, wanting to own and control their young.
The facts make me weep. 13% of those made to marry against their will are under 15 years old; some marriages are arranged at birth and the custom is becoming entrenched. Females and males too are coerced. Many turn for help to the Forced Marriage Unit ( FMU) , which is run jointly by the Foreign Office and Home Office. ( To be fair, this was set up by Labour in 2005 and it has rescued victims who were coerced to marry without their consent in South Asian. But these are SOS missions not tough, effectual deterrents )
According to the FMU, Pakistanis have, by far, the highest number of forced marriages, followed by Bangladeshis and then Indians. I think forced marriages among Middle East, Kurdish and Afghani immigrants are just as prevalent , but better hidden. As young people become more assertive, more of them are confined, caged and subjugated by families . A father Sadiq made his daughter Sadia, marry a cousin from Pakistan. She wanted to be a singer. He wrote to me because he wanted to explain: ' You write all this (sic) things about strict parents. You know nothing. She wanted to sing, in public. How can I show my face to my people if she is doing that? So Rahman was a good boy, my brother's son. He made her into a good, obedient wife. Then in Pakistan, she took poison and killed herself and the baby inside her. She cannot go to paradise. I wish this daughter was not born'. These are the attitudes we have to overcome.
Young men go through their own traumas. Hadi, second generation Indian Muslim and a doctor had a Hindu girlfriend. Both sides objected to the relationship and he was made to marry a relative from India. They are incompatible and miserable. There is no baby and she is blamed:' I can't touch her. She is still a virgin. I am going to get a divorce. At least she is unspoilt. But when I tell her that she cries, says no one will want her. The woman I love is still waiting. But for how long? She defied her parents and is now living alone.' Anecdotally I know that a large number of such men have lovers. 9 at least they can, unlike the women) I sometimes wonder too if the rapists in the Asian grooming gangs were forced into marriages and can only see women as sexual chattels.
No research has been carried out on children born into such unhappy marriages, but again I hear from some of them. Anisha, 19, is typical: ' My parents don't talk to each other, never laugh. They were made to marry and have been unhappy for thirty years. Now they push me and my brother into the same arrangements. They have never known love, never given it'.
The state has outlawed the marital enslavement and torture of young Britons by those whose love is distorted by cultural values. As you know, I am no Tory, but on this, I grudgingly, bitterly, have to acknowledge that deliverance came from a high Tory PM.
We campaigners, who grew old and lost hope, are thankful to have seen this day.
(All names changed) This article first appeared in The Independent newspaper