Women who escape forced marriages
Aneeta is 20 and living in fear her male relations will discover where shes staying. Her crime? To want to study instead of submitting to a forced marriage. Cyrus Shahrad reports
Published: 7:00AM BST 08 Aug 2010
It's no accident that the Stonham women's refuge is a nondescript house in a nondescript street. Even inside, the untrained eye struggles to pick out signs of its deeper purpose: a coin-operated washer-dryer in the laundry; an Islamic prayer calendar pinned to the corkboard by the pay-phone; kitchen cupboards padlocked and stickered with names, those of past clients ghostly and peeling.
It could be a hostel or student accommodation block and, were it not for the way she fights back tears as she tells her story, 20-year-old Aneeta could be a student like any other. Aneeta was 15 when her father left Gujarat in India for London, where he spent two years setting up a home before returning to pick up his wife and children.
She says the difference in him was remarkable he had grown gaunt and distant but she threw herself into her new life, doing her GCSEs and an internship at her local youth parliament. Yet when she began speaking about A-Levels her father and younger brother closed in on her.
'They told me a girl my age shouldn't be wasting time on education,' says Aneeta, sporting metallic blonde highlights and a hoodie that muffles her miniature frame. 'They told me I should find full-time work and support the family financially. Slowly things got worse: my father began telling me I was ugly and a burden on the family, and my brother started to beat me.'
Aneeta spoke to a teacher who put her in touch with the police, who in turn relocated her to Stonham. She admits that she barely left her bedroom for two months, that she cried for hours each day and that it fell on other female residents to draw her out by taking her food shopping or having her stir the communal curries they made each evening. Then the phone calls began from her father and brother telling her that everything was forgiven, and from distant relatives insisting she return to Gujarat for a holiday.
'That frightened me,' she says, 'because nobody ever called me from India. I phoned my mum and she whispered that they were planning a marriage for me, and that I should stay where I was. She told me to carry on with my studies and never to reveal my location, because they would find me.'
In a neighbouring office, the walls tacked with drawings by children of older residents fleeing abusive marriages, the manager, Pinkie, describes a shock rise in the number of girls like Aneeta at the house.
'It's partly because there's more awareness out there,' she says. 'The previous generation was reluctant to talk about forced marriage for fear of bringing shame on the family, but kids today know more about their rights, and they know there are people they can go to for help.'
Not that it makes Pinkie's job any easier. She still suffers the heartbreak of returning with girls to pick up possessions from their family homes, where not even the police escort can stem the flow of invective from the parents. She's still forced to juggle 14 residents and their children between three staff members, as well as negotiating budget limitations and legal obstacles to her clients' wellbeing.
The current threat to 19-year-old Sumita's immigration status, for example, could see her deported to Bangladesh despite having been beaten by her father and threatened at knife-point by her brother for resisting a forced marriage.
'In many cases the abuse has gone on so long that the girls are depressed and mentally unstable. The good thing about the refuge is that there's no pressure on them to worry about paperwork or getting their stories straight; we move them in, make sure they have enough money and introduce them to other women in the house, who will usually welcome newcomers with a meal and a friendly ear. After a couple of days we'll sit down and get as much out of them as possible, but at their own pace. It's a refuge, at the end of the day, but we try to make it a home for them, too.'
Such sanctuary was unavailable to Jasvinder Sanghera in 1980 when, aged 15, she tore a page from her school exercise book, scribbled a reassuring note to her parents and fled Derby with her lower-caste boyfriend to escape a marriage being prepared for her in Punjab.
On her first call home she was told that she was dead to her family, and spent subsequent decades struggling to come to terms with her emotional exile while moving from city to city a journey she describes in her 2007 autobiography, Shame.
So complete was Sanghera's excommunication that not even the suicide of her elder sister could heal the breach. Robina, herself the victim of an abusive husband, took her life by dousing herself in paraffin and striking a match. When Sanghera called to ask about funeral arrangements she was told to stay away for fear her presence would further tarnish the family honour.
'The common thread in all cases is this concept of izzat,' says Sanghera, now 45. 'The honour that the daughter must uphold. The reputation of the family rests on her ability to make a good marriage and that reputation can be dented by rumours about her behaviour, even if those rumours are unfounded. When Robina died my mother told me I couldn't come to the funeral because “they” would talk, but she could never tell me who these people were, because she didn't know.'
Robina's death galvanised Sanghera to draw on her experiences and begin working to help those in a similar position. She returned to Derby (where she was regarded with shock by erstwhile schoolfriends who'd been told she was dead) and set up Karma Nirvana, then a women's health charity whose workshops on menopause and postnatal depression veiled a more pressing agenda one that Sanghera discussed one-on-one with those women brave enough to approach her. Soon there was lottery funding, a dedicated office and most importantly a helpline, which, 15 years later, receives more than 300 calls each month.
'Sometimes girls will call the helpline and not speak for the first five minutes. It's our job to coax them out of that silence, and slowly we'll learn that they're being sent abroad for marriage or that their brother is beating them up because of a text he found on their phone. We try to make them understand that they're the victim, because even now the number of excuses people make for their families is shocking. We've come a long way these past few years, but there are still a lot of myths that need exploding on both sides of the cultural divide.'
One such myth surrounds the phenomenon of honour killings, a subject familiar to Yorkshire-born Zena, 38. Hers was a privileged, culturally integrated childhood. She describes reading Elle magazine and tottering around in three-inch heels, aged 15, and inviting friends over to watch Hollywood films, her favourite of which was West Side Story (she was, and still is, 'an incurable romantic').
Zena herself became a star-crossed lover of sorts aged 21, when she eloped with a local motorbike enthusiast, Jack Briggs, to escape a Pakistani marriage to her sister's brother-in-law, whom she'd never met. Zena describes the night of her departure with haunting clarity: lying in bed listening to Bach's Air on the G String and watching lights from passing cars paint the ceiling; the heart-stopping thud of her bags hitting the street as she lowered them from her room with bed-sheets; the cold January air on her legs as she climbed out the kitchen window.
The sadness of departure turned to dread with the first phone call home. Her father's assertion that Zena was 'dead to him' was given a literal twist by her brother, who told her that she and Jack would end up in bin-bags a threat he compounded by kicking down Jack's mother's door and introducing himself as the man who would murder her son.
Zena and Jack spent subsequent weeks travelling between B&Bs and struggling to stay one step ahead of her family, until it was revealed that there was a private investigator on her tail and a 9,000 bounty on her head. At that point the police intervened, giving the couple a complete identity makeover on the Witness Protection Programme and dispatching them to Norfolk.
'I had my first major breakdown a few weeks later,' says Zena. 'We'd fled because we wanted to live our own lives, yet here we were leading someone else's. The routine was soul-destroying: as soon as we left the house we were double-checking every car that passed; if an Asian man looked twice at us in the street we wondered why. We slept with knives and baseball bats under the bed, and we met a firearms unit who took our mugshots so they'd know who not to shoot in a hostage situation. How do you deal with that when you're trying to build a normal life?'
Zena soon gave up on her dreams of a baby with Jack she knew they could never subject a child to a life of such crippling paranoia. Instead, the pair began recording their experiences in a book, Runaways (1997) a project that was encouraged by the former hostage John McCarthy, who later became patron of the Zena Foundation, a charity offering support to girls fleeing forced marriages. Jack and Zena broke up recently, but their story has become a touchstone for victims and aid workers.
'That book paved the way for a lot of the changes that came later,' says Zena. 'Up until then forced marriage was a taboo subject that politicians avoided for fear of upsetting the Asian community. But when the Labour MP Ann Cryer read out parts of Runaways in the House of Commons, it began a landslide of activity that eventually led to the creation of the Forced Marriage Unit [FMU] in 2005.'
Olaf Henricson-Bell, the joint head of the FMU, agrees that his department wouldn't exist without the efforts of organisations like Karma Nirvana and the Zena Foundation. 'It's important to understand the difference between forced and arranged marriages,' says Henricson-Bell, the shelves around him lined with box files labelled with girls' names, the walls plastered with world maps covered in flags.
'We're not clamping down on the cultural practice of families introducing sons and daughters to potential partners and letting nature run its course that's fine. What we're talking about are human-rights violations. No culture says that rape is acceptable or that abducting and holding someone against their will is acceptable. Teachers we talk to freely admit that a few years ago they'd watch whole swathes of their classroom go abroad on summer holidays to get married, but they never said anything because they believed it would be culturally inappropriate. That's not the case anymore. It's everyone's responsibility.'
As a joint effort between the Home and Foreign Offices, the FMU regularly mobilises overseas units in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh to rescue and return British citizens who have been taken abroad for forced marriages. The team responded to almost 1,700 calls in 2009 and assisted in 240 cases, 88 of them in Britain.
Yet some, including Jasvinder Sanghera, believe there's still much to be done. She's lobbying David Cameron to make good on his electoral promise to criminalise forced marriage (the statutory guidelines of the 2008 Forced Marriage Civil Protection Act carry no penalty to enforce implementation, and the affiliated protection orders can lead to under-age victims being returned to their families, which she says is 'very worrying').
Others claim that victims are still falling into gaps between government policy and practice: Bita Ghaedi, for example, whom the Home Office has been trying to deport since she arrived in Britain without a passport in October 2006, having fled a man she was forced to marry in Tehran.
Ghaedi spent 45 days in Holloway Prison after being arrested at the airport, and has since been repeatedly removed to Yarl's Wood Detention Centre from the north London flat the front door of which is splintered from forced entries by the authorities she shares with her partner.
Ghaedi has asserted that she would be executed on returning to Iran, and has embarked on several hunger strikes the longest lasting 54 days to drive her point home. An intervention by the European Court of Human Rights looks set to solidify her position in Britain for the foreseeable future, but still she lives in fear.
'I feel I've been persecuted here as well as Iran,' she says, sitting on a bench in a local park, pulling her collar up against grey clouds overhead. 'All I want is for the Government to accept my story and allow me to remain in the UK. I have nightmares about being taken back to Iran, but I still dream about leading a normal life, too. I still believe it's possible, even after everything that's happened to me.'
Confidential helplines: Stonham, 0800 923 2852; Karma Nirvana, 0800 599 9247; Forced Marriage Unit, 020 7008 0151
Some names have been changed
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