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23 March 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Cultural myth-making at the Met
Police campaigns against 'forced marriages' and 'honour killings' are a pretext for intervening in immigrant communities.

by Munira Mirza

As a young Pakistani growing up in Britain, I used to be asked all sorts of daft questions in the playground, such as 'do you eat curry for breakfast?' or 'is Eid like your Christmas?'. The most embarrassing question was always, 'will your parents force you to get married to someone you don't know?', to which I would roll my eyes and answer a firm 'no'.

A 'forced marriage' is one conducted without the full consent of both parties and usually under physical duress. For a long time, such marriages were assumed to be a typical feature of Asian culture, but today's younger generation of British Asians are far more likely to oppose such old-fashioned arrangements and stand up to parental pressures.

Yet the issue of forced marriages is increasingly in the spotlight. This week the London Metropolitan Police will urge tough new legislation to ban forced marriage and protect vulnerable young people, especially young women. In June 2004, a conference at The Hague brought together European police forces in an effort to tackle what is seen as a growing problem. In January 2005, the Forced Marriage Unit, jointly run by the Foreign Office and the Home Office, issued guidance to schools to be aware of potential victims by checking for 'warning signs' such as poor homework, emotional withdrawal, self-harm or anorexia. Concerns have been fed most recently by high-profile cases of 'honour killings', where family members commit murder for shame brought on the family.

But does the rising concern about forced marriages and honour killings mean they are a growing phenomenon?

Experts and lobby groups concur that such violent incidents are on the rise in Europe, and that the authorities need to take the issue more seriously. But as one BBC report states: 'as the issue remains largely hidden from public view, exact numbers are unknown.' (1) Lobbyists have argued that while the Metropolitan Police reported only 492 incidents of forced marriage in the past two years (of which it is unclear how many were carried through to criminal convictions), 'many more go unreported' (2). Like all crime, there will be hidden victims who do not go to the police, but such speculation doesn't provide evidence of an upsurge in the problem.

There is also much confusion over what is meant by 'forced marriage'. Certainly, there are extreme and tragic cases of young people taken abroad under physical duress and married against their will. However, these are rare cases and are covered by existing law against kidnap, false imprisonment and rape. Ethnic minority females who are trapped in abusive marriages are today more likely to be able to walk away than their mothers once were, because they are more likely to be educated and be able to support themselves financially.

It also seems that young people are not as concerned about forced marriage as the media hype suggests. Shareefa Fulat of the UK Muslim Youth Helpline told me that while the problem of young people feeling pressured into marriage was 'notable', she doubted it was 'huge'. Since the helpline was set up, it has not received any telephone calls from young people being pressured into marriage by physical violence. In the past year, it had received four or five calls from young people concerned about forced marriage, out of over 3,000 calls in total, but these dealt with emotional rather than physical pressure.

Does emotional pressure from parents mean that somebody is being forced against his or her will? Even the threat of being ostracised by one's family, as painful as it might be, does not rob a person of their power of consent. Relations between children and parents may be severely strained and even dissolved, but it's doubtful whether a new law is the answer. And is it right for the state to intervene in what is essentially a private dispute?

Immigrants are portrayed as backward and authoritarian
Fortunately, forced marriage remains rare, and 'honour killings' are even more atypical - they seem to be isolated incidents rather than being embedded in any cultural system. Honour killings are widely condemned by religious authorities, most notably the Muslim Council of Britain. They seem to be rare cases of deranged individuals, rather than systematic punishments carried out by ethnic communities. That such honour killings lack a solid basis in cultural systems is testified to the range of victims' nationalities. Hannana Siddiqui of Southall Black Sisters said she had even dealt with victims of Greek and Italian backgrounds (3).

Indeed, such incidents perhaps bear more resemblance to 'crimes of passion', where jilted lovers exact revenge and angered fathers punish their children. But honour killings have now become mythologised as part of a coherent cultural system. The Metropolitan Police have discussed how bounty hunters can be used, and say that there is a 'culture' of honour killings (4). Although there may be much secrecy surrounding such murders, this is more likely to be the result of relatives being reluctant to testify against each other, than any codified sense of duty.

So why should forced marriages and honour killings be on the agenda as a social problem, when all the signs suggest they remain rare and are overwhelmingly shunned by immigrant communities? Much of the explanation lies with the desire on the part of the police to engage with ethnic minority communities. A number of lobby groups and self-appointed community leaders have sought attention from the police by raising the issue of forced marriages. But such an alliance leaves immigrant communities feeling even more alienated, as they see new legislative measures as intrusive (5).

In particular, the government's proposal to increase the age at which an applicant can enter the UK as a spouse from 16 to 18 is a direct curb on immigration. The government has also proposed placing specialist immigration officers in Pakistan to help prevent 'forced emigrations', which could be interpreted as an acceptable guise through which British authorities can tighten their monitoring of immigration from source countries.

Most importantly, the anxiety about forced marriages betrays a deeper nervousness about immigrants. They are portrayed as backward and authoritarian, in need of education by the Home Office about the acceptable modus operandi of family life. Such intrusion is an extension of the logic behind parenting classes and the promotion of 'appropriate' child rearing. Underlying such educational measures and policing controls is an assumption that parents are less well placed to know the child's interests than the state. Left to their own devices, it is assumed that parents will marry off their children or subject them to violent or emotional abuse in the name of 'culture'. Worryingly, such stereotypes are not simply the stuff of playground chatter but are becoming institutionalised in law.

Far from being on the rise, it is more likely that forced marriages are becoming a thing of the past in the UK. Social and cultural changes mean that children and parents must negotiate new ways to act together, but intrusive legislation will not help them.

Munira Mirza is researching cultural policy at the University of Kent.

(1) 'Europe tackles honour killing', BBC News, 22 June 2004

(2) Ram Gidoomal, South East Partnership Development Charity, cited by BBC News, 30 Sep 2003

(3) 'Honour killing' cases to reopen, Guardian, 6 December 2004

(4) 'Europe tackles honour killing', BBC News, 22 June 2004

(5) 'Marriage policy is immigration curb', BBC News, 12 November 2002

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