Forced Marriage Victims Offered Legal Protection

The BBC has a great audio report on forced marriage victims in Pakistan:

Some are taken to Pakistan by their parents, ostensibly on holiday, and are then forced to marry a man they’ve never met.

Usually he will be a relative, and by marrying a British citizen, he wins a visa and the prospects of a better life.

For the girls, though, forced marriage can be a misery. Now the British government is giving them legal protection.

This special legal protection amounts to the British High Command in Islamabad often traveling to very rural towns in Pakistan and sneaking a one-on-one, secret meeting with the women who are either asking for help, or who have come under the radar of the BHC via a family member’s plea for assistance. They offer protection from family reprisal, attempting to convince her to sneak out with her belongings, often clandestinely out the back door, ducking into the British vehicles. This can happen quickly for the woman who is in dire situation and has been waiting for saving grace, or through different channels, sometimes bringing in the families, in almost an intervention-style setting, attempting to press on the young women that the choice is ultimately theirs to make, not their families’.

But what is most interesting to me is that a family’s culture will sometimes override the culture of the young woman who has been forced into that marriage. Often these woman are British, through and through, with Western educations and very British lifestyles. One girl tries to compare the feeling of loneliness she had at that moment in her life with the happiness from her British lifestyle, surrounded by friends at school, and seems baffled at how she got to the current state of emptiness, alone, married to a young boy, expecting a child. Yet when push comes to shove, and the BHC offers these young, often educated girls, a life back in Britain, they cannot fathom going outside of their families’ wishes. It isn’t even the threat of their husbands that seem to hold the most sway, particularly as the BHC is offering protection from domestic violence, but their fathers and grandmothers. So I don’t think they are sticking with ‘their’ culture by staying perhaps, but remaining under the authority of the generation before them.

Often I try to keep myself from objecting too strongly to such traditional practices that in the West we are not familiar with, nor can understand the grammar of. But this is not a Western imperial injection of our ethical code into a rural, Islamic ethical code that is untouched by our secularist traditions. While these young British citizens have grown up in British society, whether she shares an embodied sense of Pakistani marriage tradition or not, we must assume, even if she lives in the most conservative Pakistani home in Birmingham, England, through exposure outside of the home she also shares an embodied sense of Western tradition. Therefore options have been presented, which include educational and, perhaps, career success and independence, as British female citizens are afforded. The BHC is not going into small villages and breaking up forced marriages between two Pakistani citizens who may have no concept of an ethical code outside of their rural tradition.

It must be made clear that women in the West certainly still have their struggle for equality, and life is not perfect for the Western woman. Especially for immigrant citizens in Britain. And Pakistan is not overtly and completely patriarchal outside of family norms. After all, Pakistan itself has had a woman at the highest position in government like in Britain, and almost did again before she was assassinated almost one year ago. But these situations that the BHC intercedes in are situations that even the young girls, who again have also embodied a Western ethical structure (like Benazir Bhuto for instance), see as abusive and utterly senseless, serving only the interests of the elders in the family who made the arrangements.

I applaud this effort by the BHC, but we’ll see how local shari’a courts handle the legality of this, especially when rural conservative judges not only see this as against their skewed versions of Islam, but also make the case for state (therefore even village) sovereignty in legal matters. I imagine the BHC has Pakistan’s permission, but we’ll see.

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~ by The Common Man on December 2, 2008.

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