WHEN DEFIANCE IS A DEATH SENTENCE
Against forced marriages
The case this week of a young Asian woman murdered by her family
because she tried to escape a forced marriage has brought into
sharp focus the problems faced by Moslem girls in Western society.
Labour MP Ann Cryer was yesterday holding talks with the Home
Office to call for greater help and protection for women in
the Asian communities and to raise the case of a couple who
have been in hiding for the past six years. A couple of years
ago I was introduced to these same two very frightened people.
Zena was a beautiful young woman of Pakistani origin; Jack was
English. They both lived in Leeds. When I heard their extraordinary
story it was hard to believe that such events could take place
in Nineties Britain. Zena's parents had first arrived in England
in the Fifties. Zena was born in the Seventies, the third of
a family of four. Though the children went through school dressed
in their traditional shalwar- kameez, they made Western friends
and absorbed Western influences.
The first inkling that Zena had of her arranged marriage was
when she was 13. The family went for a 'holiday' to Pakistan,
where she was introduced to her cousins Salim and Bilal. Already
steeped in Western attitudes, Zena found their treatment of
women appallingly old-fashioned. She resolved that she would
never marry the arrogant young hill farmer who was intended
for her. Suicide, she told me, would have been preferable to
a forced marriage to a man she couldn't stand the sight of.
Back in England, at the age of 20, she fell in love with Jack,
a white Leeds wheeler-dealer 10 years her senior. It was an
innocent enough affair for Zena, a strict Moslem, would never
countenance sex outside marriage. Nonetheless, it had to be
conducted in secret. As Zena told me: 'I knew that if anybody
found out, the ultimate price we'd have to pay was with our
Jack assumed, as many people living in Britain today would,
that this was all so much exaggeration. He was to be given a
rude awakening. When first Zena's sister and then her two brothers
got wind of what was going on, they ordered Zena to end her
affair with Jack. She was meant for Bilal, they told her, and
if she didn't comply she and Jack would end up dead.
Zena decided to run for it. She crept from the house in the
small hours carrying all she owned in four bags and the couple
began a journey that is still continuing today. Few in authority
understood the seriousness of their predicament - they were
refused welfare and were reduced at one stage to living on crackers
and water in an attic room.
But the threats they received were real. Zena's brothers smashed
the front door of Jack's sick elderly mother, broke her windows
and introduced her to 'the man who is going to murder your son'.
The family engaged a professional bounty hunter to find the
Photographs of Zena were circulated among the Asian community:
'I'm going to make it my life's mission to find you,' Zena's
brother told Jack when he phoned to try and negotiate a settlement,
'and when I do you're both going to end up in bin liners.' When
Zena finally spoke to her father these were his chilling words.
'You died for me the day you left, Zena. You can't hide from
us for ever. When we catch up with you you're both dead.'
Six years later they are still in hiding, still sleeping with
knives by their bed, just in case. Although they have married
in secret and have welfare provision, Jack is still too scared
to seek work. The prospects of children and a normal life are
Ann Cryer is a brave woman to take up their case and those of
couples like them. She is, in my view, absolutely right. This
is not an easy issue to take a clear line on, and in our ever-developing
multiracial society the law must be sensitive to the traditions
and rules of minority communities. But the treatment of some
of these women is nothing short of barbaric. If a young person
grows up in a Western world they are bound to develop Western
habits and attitudes. It is both
ridiculous and wrong to then force them into marriages that
are inimical to everything they have grown up to think and be.
The threats of violence they receive from their own families
must be treated as they would in any area of society - not ignored
or regarded as the private matter of communities which are somehow
outside the rule of law.