Earlier this month, the UK Independent newspaper ran the following headline: “A question of honor: Police say 17,000 women are victims every year.” An “honor victim” is any woman whose liberty and wellbeing is threatened, or whose life is ended, as the outcome of a forced marriage somehow gone awry. A forced marriage is defined as one that is contracted, without consent of either the bride or the groom, for the purpose of gaining economic or social advantage, especially the right of residency in the spouse’s country.
In the past decade or so, the rise of Muslim and other immigrant communities within the United Kingdom has brought the cultural tradition of the forced marriage to this already troubled island. Such marriages are illegal contracts according to the laws of the United Kingdom, as well as violations of basic human rights as defined by the Untied Nations.
Muslims deny that Islam promotes such arranged relationships, though there is much evidence to the contrary. But the arranged marriage is standard practice among Asian communities. To be very clear, “Asian” is the term the British use as a designation for people whose countries of origin are primarily Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan.
With that understood, let’s unpack the headline figure.
There are four subcategories of honor victims. The first of these are the psychological victims who are unable to defy the pressure to enter a forced marriage. According to a recent report published by The Centre for Social Cohesion, many such women (exact toll unknown) suffer anxiety, deep depressions, and other psychological problems. Their anguish at not being able to comply with family expectations often leads them to self-harm, schizophrenia, and suicide.
Some honor victims are listed as assault cases. The families of these victims take brutal exception when a daughter — or son — rebels against a forced marriage or appears to be succumbing to the corrupt values of western culture. Dating — or worse falling in love with someone outside the family religion — is also unacceptable. Daughters who rebel against a forced marriage can be beaten within an inch of their lives, disfigured, or disabled.
Young Muslim women in western dress who turn up bloodied in emergency wards are easily spotted, but significant cuts and bruises can be hidden beneath head-to-toe Muslim garb. Escape is often impossible, especially if a young woman’s family locks her up at home until she submits. If she suffers scars and disfigurement, she will not be inclined to attempt re-entry into western society. Should the young woman have a personal checking or savings account, community bankers have been known to oblige a family’s request for a complete withdrawal, no questions asked.
Some honor victims are counted as “missing.” These are the ones who vanish without a trace. Take for example the town of Bradford. Located up north in Yorkshire, halfway between England’s east and west coasts, Bradford’s population is a relatively modest 240,000. Last year, 250 — yes — two hundred and fifty — girls between the ages of 13 and 16 left their classrooms in Bradford and never returned to school. When questioned by the authorities, these families explained that their teenage daughters had failed to return from trips abroad. If this sort of mass trafficking occurs within a single little town, small wonder the UK Police assert the national total of honor victims has reached the rate of 17,000 per year.
Finally — quite finally — we come to the category known as honor killings. These victims are, perhaps, the bravest of young women. They refuse to give up their western ways, date outside their tradition, and will not submit to a forced marriage. Their murders are usually carried out by an irate father, or by an assortment of brothers, uncles, or male cousins. Attempts to disguise their deaths as suicides or accidents are not always a success. Inconvenient corpses have been found buried in back gardens, tossed into the nearest river, or burned in metal trash bins.
Of those 17,000 headlined honor victim cases in 2007, the UK Police assert that only about one dozen were honor killings. Only. That’s a far cry from India (which is predominantly Hindu) where about 5000 brides are annually figured to be victims of honor killings, usually because their marriage dowries were deemed insufficient. It’s a matter of percentages and cultural relativity.
In 2003 the Metropolitan Police formed a task force to investigate forced marriages. A specialist unit was assigned to research cases of possible honor crimes — and also to review 100 suspicious murder files going back over the previous decade.
This effort has since inspired the British government to create The Forced Marriage Unit — a department fused between the UK Home and Foreign Offices. The FMU claims that last year it received 5000 requests to investigate possible instances of forced marriages. It was able to pursue only 400 of the cases brought to its attention. Of that number, FMU Interventions resulted in the rescue and return of 167 Britons who had been sent out by their families to enter into forced marriages. For the record, this is not just a women’s issue. Fifteen percent of FMU cases involve young men and boys who, like their female counterparts, can be honor victims.
But as the FMU numbers reveal, the vast majority of Britons sent abroad to enter into forced marriages are not found and repatriated. They marry and bring their spouses back into Britain according to the family plan. Their spouses are frequently first cousins, but this is far more than a Passport Ponzi Scheme. It is more than a human rights issue. It is a cultural practice that is bringing forth a tragic set of unforeseen consequences for the victims.
When first cousins marry, their offspring are inclined to have birth defects far above the national average. The National Health Service has just released its first accounting of the number of children — the products of forced marriages between cousins — who suffer from birth defects. The statistics are staggering. For example, one in three of all babies born to British Pakistanis — who account for 3 percent of all UK births — have genetic illnesses. In that town of Bradford, in a school where 90 percent of the students are Pakistani and Bangladeshi children, cases of autism and an array of learning and physical disabilities, are the rule not the exception. When the authorities try to intervene on behalf of the children, they generally discover the mothers speak no English. They are the forced brides who have been imported from “back home.”
There are a growing number of non-governmental organizations, including The Muslim
Parliament of Great Britain (a story in itself) which are active in trying to end forced
marriages. Multiculturalists insist that the problem is not a product of religion, but of tradition. Those who are critical of the practice are, predictably, labeled as racists. Two haunting questions confront the British: How many more women have to die before the society wakes up? How many more children will be impaired for life before forced marriages end?