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A mother’s tale of regret: I feel devastated that I forced my daughter to marry for ‘honour’...nobody should do it
Tomorrow London hosts the world’s first Girl Summit, aimed at ending FGM and forced marriage. Rosamund Urwin hears one mother’s tale of regret, and of how she finally put her child first.
In 2006, Zarina* and her husband took their 16-year-old daughter to Pakistan. They told her they were going to visit their extended family; their daughter, who grew up in north London, had never been to her ancestral homeland, nor met her grandparents. But in reality, she was being taken there to marry her cousin, the son of Zarina’s brother.
“We fooled her,” Zarina admits. “We thought she should settle down. In the culture in this country, people inter-marry, and it’s quite open [whom you pick as a partner] — I wanted my daughter to escape that. We were worried that she would have boyfriends. So we decided that she should marry in the family, to keep the honour within the family, and to say that she couldn’t challenge us, that she must do what the elders are telling her.”
Zarina has never spoken about this before, and has asked for her identity to be disguised, because she fears reprisals from her community for speaking up. When we meet, she’s wearing the niqab in a colourful and intricate print. She speaks to me through a translator, as her English is limited, but there’s a word I keep hearing: “izzat”, which means “honour” in Urdu.
Zarina was born in Pakistan and came to the UK 23 years ago to join her husband, who already lived here. He was also her cousin. Zarina says there is a long tradition of marrying within the family.
“It’s been going on for centuries — and we didn’t want to break that,” she says. “Because there was a young boy in the family, we wanted to get her settled [married] with him, and then bring him back here. If she had married someone outside the family, there would have been a complete commotion — it would be like breaking the whole family structure.”
When her daughter discovered what was happening, she was devastated. “My daughter was crying constantly,” Zarina recalls. “She was very obstinate that she didn’t want to marry. She said she was brought up in the west and that she can’t marry a man she hasn’t seen, and even if she had seen him, she is not interested.” Her daughter also felt that their backgrounds were too different. “She felt it was a village culture there.”
Zarina admits she assaulted her daughter in order to force her to marry this man. The future in-laws were also physically abusive. “My daughter said this wasn’t her choice, but as soon as she said that we oppressed her by really hitting her and abusing her. We used violence against her, as well as emotional abuse, pressurising her — ‘You must do it’. Our aim was to get her married, come hell or high water. With all this force, the marriage went ahead.”
Zarina’s younger daughter had also travelled to Pakistan and was very disturbed by what was happening.
After the wedding, the family returned to London to make arrangements with immigration officials for the groom to come here. “When we got back, we told [our daughter] that she couldn’t have any friends. She should be isolated so she couldn’t talk or get support from anyone.”
Instead, Zarina’s daughter contacted the JAN Trust, a charity that has worked with immigrant communities for 25 years and campaigns to end forced marriage. “When she got back, she
was very upset and unhappy. But because she was brought up here, she found out through the internet how to get support.”
After the girl approached JAN, Sajda Mughal, the charity’s project director, contacted Zarina. Initially, Zarina was very angry: “We didn’t want anyone to know that this [forced marriage] took place. We were very unhappy about what she had done.”
But Zarina, who also came to the JAN centre, near Alexandra Palace, was eventually won round. The JAN Trust also enlisted the help of an imam, who talked to Zarina and her husband; it is rare for women to get the chance to have a one-on-one discussion with an imam. He explained that forced marriage had nothing to do with Islam, that Zarina and her husband were mistaking tradition for religion.
The discussions — with Zarina and her husband — lasted for more than eight months. Zarina recalls the imam telling her that “forced marriages ruin lives and generations — all on the basis of izzat” and that Mohammed had never said that parents should force their children into marriages: “I have now learned that the children come first, that their happiness comes first, rather than our own aims.” The imam also reinforced the charity’s message that their daughter needed to get a divorce — a “hulla” — and advised them on the steps that had to be taken.
Zarina says she was facing intense pressure from her family in Pakistan: “They said, ‘You have to take our son, he must go and live with you.’ It was a dishonour for them, because it’s a tight-knit community there. When you marry, everyone knows; when there’s a divorce, everyone knows. Everyone was asking them, ‘What happened? What happened?’ They thought it was a disgrace for them. It was all: honour, honour, honour.”
The marriage was eventually made void but, Zarina’s family have been cut off from the rest of their relatives: “The whole circle of the family — uncles, aunts, everybody — has discarded us. They won’t speak to us at all.”
However, their smaller family unit is content again. Zarina’s daughter is now 24 and has just finished studying law: “She’s not talking about marriage at the moment. She’s out of this world happy now.” Her younger sister is also studying, and is relieved that the same fate will not befall her.
Zarina is full of remorse for what happened. “I look back on this time, and I feel devastated that I did this for ‘honour’. I feel very guilty. Nobody should do it. The best thing we did was break away from this forced marriage — everything else was wrong. Seeing my daughter happy is so wonderful.”
Her husband shares her feelings. “He has changed completely and he really regrets what he did too,” adds Zarina. “He feels like there is nobody above our children when he sees them happy. He says our children come first — before family and before honour.”
She admits, however, that they cannot tell people in their community what happened. “It would be very dangerous if the story got out. People would say, ‘She is divorced’. Our daughter could suffer more — perhaps our family could suffer honour-based violence from the community.”
She is full of praise for the “intense” support of the JAN Trust in combating forced marriage. “Laws have been passed but people are still doing it. We need organ-isations such as the JAN Trust to talk to younger generations and their parents to change mindsets. The way to resolve it is for parents to be educated, and for the younger generation to know their rights. JAN saved my daughter’s life.”
The charity opposed the crim-inalisation of forced marriage because its research suggested it would drive the problem further underground, with victims unwilling to see family members jailed. Does Zarina believe these women and girls would come forward, and risk seeing their parents prosecuted? “No, they would never come forward. No one will say, ‘I am going to be taken,’ because they won’t want their parents in prison.”
The JAN Trust is the only charity in the UK that works with perpetrators. Although men are also forced into marriage, the vast majority (around 90 per cent) of those who contact the JAN Trust are women.
Mughal says: “The only way of getting rid of this practice is to change those mindsets, otherwise we will be chasing our tail. We’d be supporting victims and looking after them, but continually having more victims — year on year, day by day. Why do these victims exist? Because of mindsets that need changing. It’s not going to happen overnight but it’s a drip, drip effect. Eventually we’ll get there.”
Zarina agrees: “The majority of people who carry out these practices are not educated about it. And they are very community-based — they don’t want to open the doors to anyone else. They don’t want to come out of that [way of thinking] — but we did.”
* Zarina’s name has been changed.
For more information about the JAN Trust’s work, go to jantrust.org