Forced marriages finally criminalised

Concerns over new anti-forced marriage laws miss the point. They're a step in the right direction of creating a much needed culture change

Is forced marriage finally on the way out?
Ghaffar Hussain
On 11 June 2012 08:48

Home Secretary, Teresa May, has announced that parents who force their children to marry in England and Wales could be jailed for up to five years. The announcement follows a Home Office consultation that ended in March, launched by David Cameron. Teresa May also announced £500,000 in funding to help schools and other agencies to spot early signs of forced marriages. 

When I first heard this news, I was slightly taken back because I thought that forced marriages were already illegal. Alas, I was wrong but still slightly surprised by the fact that successive British governments had taken so long to outlaw this unfair and vile practice. It seems that some felt existing laws that tackled manifestations associated with forced marriage were sufficient. 

Forced marriages are still fairly commonplace in communities in Britain that hail from South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. They usually take place when an individual refuses an arranged marriage and hence force is applied in order for intransigent parents to get their way. This force usually comprises emotional blackmail and other mental coercion techniques, though in some tragic cases intimidation and violence are used.

The notion that parents have the exclusive right and duty to select future life partners for their children is completely absurd by modern standards. It is, however, a practice that was prevalent in pre-capitalist societies all over the world at a time when marriage was the primary and only factor dictating financial well-being and security for women. Hence, parents didn’t want to leave such an important decision to the inconstant whims and desires of their imprudent offspring. Parents felt they had to choose well because the life chances of their children depended upon it.

Forced and arranged marriages were also a means of allowing the less socially able and eligible to get married, since remaining single and childless was taboo. This would happen by offering sufficient incentives to the family of the chosen partner. People also lived with their extended families and wives would spend far more time with their mother in laws than with their husbands, hence more incentive for mothers to have a say existed.

Furthermore, forced and arranged marriages were a means of securing family wealth, and thus, were popular amongst European aristocrats in the Middle Ages. People, especially the wealthy, were very suspicious of outsiders in those days and hence felt the need to keep wealth within families through inter-marriage and building strategic alliances through marriage in order to further consolidate their wealth and status.

However, whilst the advent of capitalism, equality and individual liberties changed our view of marriage in the West, societies not as affected by modernity and modern social and political ideas have maintained outmoded perspectives on marriage and individualism. Unfortunately, many first and even second generation South Asians and Africans living in the West seek to maintain a perspective on marriage in which the feelings of those entering the marriage are relegated to second place and marriages are viewed as a means of gaining favour with relatives and family associates, especially when partners are bought in from abroad.

Many of these marriages end up being, as one would expect, loveless and dull arrangements in which both partners feel trapped and the children are also made to suffer. After the wedding, families often continue to apply pressure on couples in order to keep the marriage together, knowing full well that affection and compatibility are absent. This explains why arranged and forced marriages have a very low divorce rate -- because the affected parties don’t feel they can exercise their rights to divorce.

A number of campaigners are already criticising the new anti-forced marriage laws on the basis that they will deter victims, concerned about sending their parents to jail, from coming forward. Yet this misses the point. These new laws will contribute towards creating a culture change which will force parents to acknowledge a more serious legal framework before coercing their children into marrying a partner against their will. 

This, I feel, outweighs concerns about the laws having a deterring effect. These new laws will also, hopefully, start a debate within affected communities about the outdated practice which should in turn lead to it becoming much less socially acceptable and much more difficult to get away with.

Ghaffar Hussain is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator

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