Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood
The problem of forced marriages of Asian girls or boys to a spouse usually in or coming over from the Indian subcontinent had its origins several decades ago when solitary males came to the UK for employment. In some cases, possibly with all his village friends clubbed together to put money into an individual’s bank account to enable him to get here. Once established, the Asian male then gradually gets his female relatives over – probably acquiring a first house by borrowing the money at no interest from a wealthier Muslim man here, and when that is paid off, get the next house and so on. Thus their community members may keep as close together as possible, even acquiring whole roads or at least the majority of houses in that road. There is no need for anyone to learn English – the communities may carry on speaking their native languages with no inconvenience. The usual employment is amongst their own, where they can carry on with their languages and customary way of life.
After a while, girl babies born in the UK or brought here when very small, arrive at an age when in their villages they would be traditionally married. Either there is an available husband here already, or very often, there is a relative back home that would also like the opportunity to come to the UK. The main attraction of coming here, it seems to me, is the currency exchange. An English pound is worth a lot of rupees, when a typical day’s pay for a basic labourer is very paltry. So if a family has one working relative here in the UK who can send money back to the family and village back home, they are enormously advantaged. It may well be the case that when a man came to the UK his friends financed him; then, when he has a daughter of marriageable age, he is beholden to his helpers, and if things work out well for him, his daughter can be married to another relative from the village, who can then come here too. With a bit of luck, this can be arranged to everyone’s happiness, and the couple are happy and successful. On the other hand, it can be absolute disaster.
I am assuming that everyone is familiar with the concept of arranged marriages, and is aware that this is normally a caring and efficient way of finding decent and loving life-partners for young people who do not normally have the opportunity to mix much in their societies. In Islam, it is seen as one of a parent’s most important duties to see their offspring settled in happy and rewarding marriages. It is extremely rare indeed for any parent to deliberately harm or hurt their offspring, or wish to consign them to unhappy and bitter lives. In Islam, potential spouses are not just permitted to see each other at least once, but should be encouraged to get to know the potential spouse and be content that they know why they wish to marry that particular person as opposed to any other person. ‘Falling in love’ is not necessarily required, but a willingness to do one’s best to make the chosen partner happy, and often to accept that parents would probably make a more sensible choice than the youngsters themselves. Love is expected to develop after marriage, as the partners support and care for each other and start bonding.
But what sometimes happens is that a father feels beholden to someone ‘back home’, or has some sort of debt outstanding. His girl might then become a means to an end – and he feels obliged to make her marry someone that she really does not wish to. In this day and age, when Muslim girls here are going ahead with their education in leaps and bounds, marriage to some virtually unknown cousin from a rural village is not always destined to be successful.
In the worst case scenario, what might happen is that a girl with a British passport, or dual nationality passport, in Year 11, round about the time of her mock GCSEs when she is 15/16, is suddenly taken on an extended family holiday back to Pakistan. She may or may not come back; what will most likely happen is that she will be married, and will return to the UK as a married woman, whether she knows it or not. In some cases, girls sign papers they are unable to read, and do not even know until later that they have been legally married according to the laws of Pakistan.
These days, most girls are in the know about these possibilities, and are much more outspoken about their fates. Some are desperately miserable, and do not know how to avoid being put into this situation. I get frequent letters and emails from girls who are worried that this is about to happen to them, and they do not know what to do. They are far too young and inexperienced to be able to walk out on their families and cope on their own. That is a horrendous and very drastic step – so they are stuck.
At this point, I must point out and emphasize that this is NOT an Islamic problem. It does seem to be an Asian problem, however, and it applies to Hindus and Sikh families as much as to Muslims. What is so shocking for educated Muslims, is that these practices are totally forbidden in Islam. I’m afraid I do not know whether they are in Hindu or Sikh circles, but they certainly are in Islam.
By UK law, if a marriage ceremony takes place in Pakistan, and all the consents are signed, it is counted as valid here. On the other hand, if what I will call a ‘mosque marriage’ takes place here in the UK, a nikah, it is NOT valid in UK law, and the couple must also register their marriage with the registry office authorities. It seems very strange, but a mosque is not recognised in UK law as an official place of worship unless it has filled in various forms and parted with a fee. More and more mosques are realising that this is necessary here, and it is to their advantage to register. Once they have registered as an official place of worship, they may then also register as a proper place for the registration of marriages – and have a person in attendance at the nikah who is able to get the necessary documents legally signed so that the marriage is valid in the UK and a separate registration is not necessary. This is one of the aims for the future – at present only a small percentage of mosques are so registered.
Therefore, if a couple are married by nikah only here in the UK, the marriage is not recognised as valid in UK law. The couple are simply regarded as ‘living together’. Most Muslim men know this perfectly well, but take the point of view that because they are Muslims, it is their own ceremony that counts as the real one, in the sight of Allah. One can understand this position, but it does leave the supposed ‘wife’ in a very vulnerable position. Since many Islamic marriages still take place without a civil ceremony, if the marriage breaks down the bride discovers that in the eyes of the law she had never been married.
If a husband has more than one wife, and married them in a country where this is legal, the legality of those marriages is also upheld here in the UK. But if a man has an existing wife back home, and marries a new wife here in the UK, it is not counted as a legal marriage here. For a man to have two wives here is bigamy, and against the law, and could carry a jail sentence if deception was involved; it might certainly end in a deportation.
The Muslim Parliament of Great Britain (109 Fulham Palace Rd, London W6 8JA – tel: 0208 563 1995: Fax: 0208 563 1993; email: firstname.lastname@example.org) has been very concerned about this issue, and is doing its best to educate Imams into the laws of the UK which are also required by Islamic Law (ie: a Muslim marriage is required to be legal!)
I have myself produced two reports on these subjects:
‘Thinking about Marriage’ – a consultation paper; part of the ‘Muslims Against Forced Marriage’ Campaign. A study sponsored by the Muslim Institute Trust and Bait-al-Mal al-Islami, published April 2005;
‘The role of the Mosque in Britain’ – a study sponsored by the Muslim Institute Trust and Bait al-Mal al-Islami, published July 2005.
The MET police authority is also working hard to see new laws and good practice brought into force.