“Abdullah is your husband.”
Fifteen-year-old Arab-British girl, Zana Muhsen, could not believe her ears. She thought it was a joke when she first heard it. After all, the visiting British schoolgirl had only met the boy for the first time that day in an isolated, Middle Eastern mountain village. Besides the fact the young tourist had no intention of marrying anyone, she was returning home shortly to family, friends and school.
But when the unwitting high school student realized the father of the “groom” had meant what he said, she suddenly felt short of breath, while her heart began to beat wildly. The pretty teenager could not comprehend what was happening, still unaware she was the victim of a cruel fate that befalls hundreds of innocent European and North American girls every year – a forced marriage.
Muhsen had just arrived in her father’s native country of Yemen for the first time, anticipating a holiday of a lifetime. Happily looking forward to exploring her father’s heritage during her summer vacation, the westernized teen had been told of sandy beaches and castles, and of relatives she would meet. So with the impatience of youth, she could hardly wait to get there. The “vacation”, however, was nothing but a ruse.
What Muhsen did not know was that, before the trip in England, her father had arranged her marriage without her knowledge to another Yemenite’s fourteen-year-old son, accepting $3,000 as the ‘bride price’. This man escorted his “purchase” to Yemen with the young girl, ignorant of the fact he was her new father-in-law. Muhsen’s equally unsuspecting sister, Nadia, 14, who arrived in Yemen soon thereafter, had also been sold into marriage for the same price; but her husband was thirteen.
So instead of a dream trip the two girls would always cherish, the first-time travellers found themselves stuck in a barbaric nightmare. It was 1983. Their youth and school days were now over forever.
Like the Muhsen sisters, it is believed hundreds of school girls disappear from across Great Britain every year, sent to Third World countries where they become victims of forced marriages. Some are as young as eleven. Most of these young females are never heard from again and seldom does anyone look for them, becoming, like Zana and Nadia, England’s lost daughters.
Most, it is suspected, are sent to South Asia, where arranged marriages await them in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, whose peoples now form large, immigrant communities in British cities. Like Zana and Nadia, many girls are tricked, thinking they are going on a holiday, and do not know they are to be married, only seeing their husbands for the first time on their wedding day.
Upon arrival, the unsuspecting “brides” usually have their passports confiscated, their western clothes taken away and are given local garments to wear, consisting sometimes of the burqa and veil. Any resistance on the girls’ part is often met with violence, and sometimes even death.
But this month the British government decided to act on this tragedy. It announced it will develop a national strategy to keep track of girls in British schools to prevent their disappearing into forced or arranged marriages. This decision was taken when authorities discovered 33 girls were missing from schools in the English city of Bradford, which has a large South Asian population.
As a result, a count of missing school girls has been ordered nation-wide to discover the true extent of the problem, which, one Member of Parliament believes, could run into the hundreds when the count is done nationally. Also as part of this first step, the government has called on local authorities to conduct checks immediately in 14 areas identified as “forced-marriage risk zones.”
However, while long overdue, these new measures have not gone unopposed by elements in the South Asian communities, which, according to a story in the Timesonline, engage in a conspiracy of silence regarding forced marriages. Deeply entrenched among South Asian peoples, the practice of forced marriages is centuries old and will, one observer said, take much time to eradicate.
As well, the evil of multiculturalism is also doing its part to hinder resolving this cruel and devastating social problem. The Timesonline relates that teachers are afraid of being called racist, or of not being culturally sensitive to the South Asian community, if they ask questions when a girl is removed from school. In Derby, headteachers even prevented the putting up of anti-forced marriage posters in their schools before the holidays, the “peak time” when girls disappear, because “they were worried about upsetting the community.”
But it is not just outside of Great Britain that this archaic and very damaging custom is being practiced but within her borders as well. The British newspaper The Independent reported that one former policeman in the city of Bradford, where the new, national plan got its impetus, said he saw 395 cases of forced marriages in his city alone last year. One involved a fourteen-year-old girl whose teacher contacted the police constable after the girl had told her she was married. Seeing that her teacher and the policeman were sceptical, the girl convinced her doubters when she showed them her wedding video.
However, The Independent also reported some of the unfortunate women and girls sent overseas into forced marriages are eventually rescued by the British government. The chairwoman of a British domestic violence group said three girls are being brought back each week from Pakistan, while the government’s Forced Marriage Unit returned 167 women to Britain last year.
Unbelievably, these women are unable to criminally charge those who sold them into what are often marital hells, since, under Britain’s Forced Marriage Act, they can only seek civil damages. The reason given is that these women are unlikely to “press criminal charges against their closest relatives.”
Unfortunately, there was no Forced Marriage Unit and sensitized government and public opinion in 1983 when Zana and Nadia were held against their will in Yemen with husbands they did not want. There were also no video cameras.
But in her best-selling book, Sold: A Story of Modern-Day Slavery, published in 1991, Zana related their tragic ordeal from their rape on their “wedding” nights to their medieval living and working conditions as well as the appalling domestic violence they endured. Zana also wrote it was not uncommon to see other married girls from England and America in their situation, victims of arranged or forced marriages, leading primitive lives in the mountain villages. (For an example of the daily violence within a forced marriage, click here).
In the end, the two girls’ mother, who had left their father after learning about the forced marriages, got Zana back to England after eight, long years with her tireless advocacy and assistance from the media. Tragically, the older sister had to leave her two-year-old son behind, since children belong to the groom’s family as part of the bride price. Nadia, however, could not bear to be parted from her two children and remained in Yemen.
While it is too late for the Muhsen sisters, Great Britain’s new initiative will hopefully prevent other innocent, young girls from experiencing their inhuman fate. Since like any family’s daughters, England’s should never go lost.