Published by Daily Mail
I wrote some time ago of Halima (not her real name) who was one of my delights to teach. I’d identified her as ‘Gifted & Talented’ after just one lesson when she came to me in Year 10. She loved philosophy and was captivated by politics and theology, especially issues relating to the Middle East. She also had a flair for public speaking and a charisma for debating which frequently left her peers floundering. I always remember intellects like hers, not least because they made getting out of bed in a morning so much more worthwhile. She told me at one point that she wanted to go into politics: I’d helped to nurture a little future Aung San Suu Kyi. Brilliant.
Then, one day, she arrived at my class wearing a hijab. Nothing wrong with that: hundreds of girls in the school wore one, and seemed very content to do so. But Halima was no longer arguing or debating; in fact, she was scarcely speaking. This went on for quite a few weeks; neither her form tutor nor head of year could elicit anything from her as to why her demeanour had changed so profoundly; why she was suddenly so sad and withdrawn. And neither could I, until one parents’ evening when her father and elder brother came to see. In front of Halima, they began to explain to me how this straight-A* student was such a disappointment to them: all she talked about was religion and politics – men’s things – and she showed no respect for them or interest in getting married and being a doctor – the imminent life they clearly had planned for her. I listened politely, trying very subtly to reason with them by drawing attention to Halima’s outstanding grades. She became visibly upset as I made the defence. Her father scolded her, told her she was a disgrace, and they moved on to their next appointment.
The next day I tried to speak to her but she was too upset. I reassured her that I knew and understood something of what she was contending with at home, and that there were people who could help. She burst into tears. It was clear that she wanted neither to get married nor be a doctor, but I’ve seen too many just packed off to Pakistan, never to be seen again.
Not before time, the Government is to make ‘forced marriage’ a specific crime. Astonishingly, in 21st-century Britain, it is still not illegal to coerce someone to marry against their will. Politicians have shied away from making it so for the past 60 years, mainly for fear of driving the practice underground: if an Asian family or whole community are intent on treating their women as meat and trading them like cattle, who are we to impose our alien cultural values upon them? And the police routinely ignore such abuse for fear of being accused of cultural ignorance or, worse, ‘institutional racism’: women are already free to report incidences of kidnap, torture and rape, so what need the new law?
The Forced Marriage Unit at the Home Office deals with around 120 reported cases a month. Some are horrific: a young woman forced to marry her rapist; depression and suicide after years of slavery and abuse. Most disturbingly, 14 per cent of reported cases involve children under the age of 15 (some as young as five years old). That’s 200 children a year just disappearing from our schools and being carted off to Pakistan or Bangladesh for a life of nuptial bliss. A few involve gays who are coerced into a union of heterosexual normality, principally to protect the ‘honour’ of the family name. In my years of teaching in a predominantly Asian grammar school, I encountered incidences of both, but was completely powerless to intervene.
All the teacher can do is to make his or her concerns known to the headteacher, who can inform social services, who can involve the police. But unless the child is brave enough to report a family member for abuse and press charges, there is very little that can be done. As soon as the family closes ranks and denies all knowledge of the allegations, as they tend to, the case collapses. Victims often withdraw their statements for fear of the repercussions: life for some of these children really is one of perpetual terror. And Allah help you if you say or do anything that results in your father, elder brother or uncle being prosecuted and shamed in the community.
It needs to be observed that 120 cases a month really is the tip of a gargantuan iceberg. Moderate estimates put the figure at 600 a month, or around 7-8000 a year. Only a thousand or so dare to risk life and limb (quite literally) to seek the protection of the law. And it must be remembered that you won’t find an Asian community leader in the country who supports or recommends ‘forced marriage’. This is the frequent boast of prominent Muslims like Mehdi Hasan, and he’s quite right. But ‘assisted marriage’ is prevalent, and for many young Asians it amounts to the same thing. To force a Sikh or Hindu girl to marry the man of parental choosing is abhorrent to everyone. But to ‘assist’ her is reasonable and beneficial. To force a gay Muslim boy to marry is equally abhorrent, but to ‘assist’ him is morally reformative and so virtuous.
And it’s also worth pointing out that in all the reporting of forced-marriage victims and this proposed new law, you only seem to read of the appalling suffering of girls like Halima. I lost three of my male students straight after they had sat their GCSEs, and another one in the middle of Yr12. They had dreamed of becoming doctors and lawyers, of falling in love and marrying beautiful girls of their choosing. They certainly didn’t want to be packed off to Pakistan to marry some kutti they’d never met. But they showed no outward signs of distress; no trauma, no tears. They wanted to be men, to obey their god and bring honour to their family names. And so they were obligingly ‘assisted’ in their maturation. A law against ‘forced marriage’ will do nothing to help such children, for ‘force’ is very much in the relativist eye of the multicultural beholder.