By Neha Rassal
Two words, and then begins the happily ever after. Of course, there are ceremonies to be held and legal certificates to be signed but generally a marriage comes down to these two words. But what if they are spoken under duress? A person is backed into a corner and the only way out is saying these two words.
It sounds like the synopsis of a medieval story, but forced marriage is a sad reality of the world we live in. It exists not only in the developing countries but also in the so-called developed world.
More than 1,200 cases of forced marriage have been reported every year in the UK since 2012. Of the cases reported in the last year, 80 percent of the victims were female and 44 percent were of Pakistani origin. The rate of forced marriage is considered to be much higher in Pakistan itself, though it is hard to find a reliable number because the victims rarely come forward.
It sounds like the synopsis of a medieval story, but forced marriage is a sad reality of the world we live in. It exists not only in the developing countries but also in the so-called developed world
This International Women’s Day, we celebrate the achievements of women in culture, politics and society. Yet it cannot be forgotten that while women have come a long way, there is still progress that needs to be made.
Forced marriages are usually presented as an ‘arranged marriage’ by the families of the victims, so the two terms are commonly confused with each other. In an arranged marriage, the families are closely involved in the matchmaking process but the ultimate choice rests with the bride and groom to be. A forced marriage is a partnership that lacks the consent of one or both of the parties involved.
The majority of the victims of forced marriages are Muslim. People tend to twist Islamic teachings to fit their own agendas, and it can wreak terror domestically as well as politically. The virtue of obedience and the sin of adultery, like how having a relationship out of wedlock is a one-way ticket to hell, are used as tools to force girls into matrimony. Whereas in reality Islam dismisses the notion of forced marriage. The Quran says: “O you who believe! You are forbidden to inherit women against their will.”
ISIS clearly wasn’t paying attention during this Islamic lesson. In 2015, the jihadist group released a manifesto that declared that girls can be legally married as young as nine, and that their role afterwards is to “remain hidden and veiled and maintain society from behind”.
The horrors that these ISIS brides face range from rape to strict restrictions. Any disobedience is punishable by public lashings and stoning
The radical group is where the extremes of forced marriage can be clearly seen. Despite their claims of working in the interests of Islam, ISIS fighters tend to ignore the direct orders of the religion when they lure and force women from both Syria and the Western world into marrying them. The horrors that these ISIS brides face range from rape to strict restrictions. Any disobedience is punishable by public lashings and stoning.
While the lack of authentic religious knowledge is one of the culprits behind the phenomenon of forced marriage, it is cultural ideology that drives people to commit this heinous crime. The lives of young women are largely dictated by what society has decided for them.
There is a ‘marriage deadline’ for women in Pakistani society. The idea of a girl staying single till her 30s is unimaginable, and it is assumed there is something wrong with her if she does. People started asking me when I planned on getting married the minute I turned 21, and my parents were expected to look for a perfect suitor for me. Luckily I come from a privileged background where I’m not forced into marriage, but it is an issue countless women out there face.
In many families, daughters are intended for the marriage market. Their upbringing includes grooming and cooking lessons that would make them appealing. There is a constant pressure to behave like a lady at social gatherings so you can catch the eye of a mother who is searching for a potential daughter-in-law. Nothing kills your self-worth like being scrutinized to see if you are good enough for someone’s son or not.
In most Pakistani families, falling in love is considered a taboo. A girl who looks for a groom for herself is dubbed a ‘loose character woman’. Though this thinking is on a slow decline, matrimonial proposals are mostly considered by the patriarch of the family.
It is for this reason that refusal from the girl leads to so-called honour-based violence. In the last year, almost 1,100 girls were killed in Pakistan because they had brought ‘dishonour’ to their families by falling in love. British-Pakistani citizen Samia Shahid was murdered for divorcing her first husband and remarrying against her family’s wishes. Zeenat Rafiq, 18, was burnt alive by her mother for marrying the ‘wrong’ man. Khalida Bibi, mother of three, was hanged from a tree by her family for having an affair.
In the last year, almost 1,100 girls were killed in Pakistan because they had brought ‘dishonour’ to their families by falling in love
It’s outrageous that such incidents still occur in today’s modern world. Thankfully, the Pakistani parliament passed the ‘anti-honour-killing-law’ earlier this year, which mandates a life sentence for the offenders and closes a loophole that had allowed them to go free in the past. The UK government also criminalised forced marriage in 2014.
But these laws are not enough. It is hard to enforce them, considering the clandestine nature of the act, not to mention the complexities and cultural sensitivities. It would be incredibly difficult to draw a line between a forced marriage and an unhappy arranged marriage.
While legislation is a positive step towards protecting women, steps should be taken to change the pitiful ideology that causes forced marriage. It will take time to change such a conservative society, but the only way to save the lives of thousands of young women is by educating people about the hazardous consequences of forced marriage, which include rape, depression, torture, domestic violence and murder.
The year is 2017 and we are in an age where freedom of choice is considered a basic human right. It is about time the society accepts that it is well within a woman’s right to say: “I don’t.”