Don’t protect us from ‘forced’ marriages

The government says it wants to liberate ethnic-minority women. Actually it’s infantalising us.

Rania Hafez

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Topics Politics

The UK government’s proposal to criminalise forced marriages is unfathomable, unworkable and, frankly, plain silly. It purports to be a progressive, liberal move designed to promote women’s rights. Instead, it infantalises women from ethnic minorities.

Supporters of a new law to criminalise forced marriage, including UK prime minister David Cameron, claim legislation is needed to deal with an odious practice prevalent in some ethnic-minority communities, in the main Asian or Muslim. Those calling for it to be a criminal offence argue that this will act as a deterrent against parents forcibly coercing their children into marriage. They claim that this is the only way to stamp out a foreign custom that is incompatible with British values. But their argument is flawed on many levels.

For starters, there is no such thing as a forced marriage. A person may be imprisoned, threatened, even beaten into consenting to a marriage, but the actions that are wrong are the imprisonment, threats and beatings, all of which are already illegal and punishable by current statute. However, campaigners are lobbying for the expansion of the term ‘force’ to include even emotional blackmail. So a mother who might threaten suicide if her son or daughter refuses to marry a chosen individual may very well find herself prosecuted for doing so. In reality, what she probably needs is a couple of valiums and someone to tell her to get a grip.

Secondly, it is not the state’s role to define British values, especially when it comes to personal relationships. Values and norms are social constructs that change with time. This is not to suggest that coercing someone into marriage is an acceptable social norm. But those on the receiving end of such familial pressure are quite capable of challenging and modifying that practice.

Which brings me to my third objection: the way in which females from particular ethnic backgrounds are infantalised by the state. Adult men and women of whatever background should be perfectly free to choose their partners and to discuss this choice informally with friends and family. It is true that there are some who feel restricted by social conventions or religious rules, and they may find it difficult to go against family wishes and cultural customs. But as adults, it is our choice whether we do so, even though breaking from traditions or saying ‘no’ to parents is tough. We should not be reluctant or afraid to assert our ability to choose – calling on the state to do so on our behalf is effectively admitting that we are incapacitated. Whatever happened to the age-old tradition of rebelling against one’s parents?

As for the legal objections to the so-called forced marriage, they have been summed up in the response to the consultation by the Family Justice Council (FJC). The FJC maintains that when it comes to protection from abuse, there is already a raft of legislation safeguarding individuals from harm, including harms such as the threat of kidnap and physical violence. Furthermore, individuals and the police already have recourse to Forced Marriage Protection Orders (FMPOs). The FJC also rightly challenges the accuracy of the statistics used by the government to indicate the extent of the ‘forced marriages’ phenomenon.

So what’s really behind this legislation? The avowed intention to support women’s rights is not convincing. That would be better achieved through education and the dismantling of the social and cultural barriers erected by decades of misguided multicultural policies, which have kettled Muslims and other minority groups into the equivalent of cultural reservations.

But recent government attacks on multiculturalism are far from convincing. This proposal is not upholding universal rights; it is laundering a new racism in the name of ‘British values’. As Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley state in their book, The Crises of Multiculturalism: ‘Situating racialised subjects as products of cultures that are at odds with liberal individualism has a further, laundering effect; it allows the failure of marginalised minorities to attain full equality to be attributed to indoctrination or unwillingness.’

Parents and children have always clashed and always will. Generational conflict is an integral aspect of social evolution. In planning to criminalise forced marriages, the government is proposing to subvert this essential conflict, and reduce adults to the status of abused children.

Rania Hafez is director of Muslim Women in Education.

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