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WHEN DEFIANCE IS A DEATH SENTENCE

(Daily Express – 1999)
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 lives.'

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 couple.

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 distant.

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.
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