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Marry—or Else

Forced weddings and ‘honor’ killings aren’t just a developing-world issue. New research shows how it happens in England and the United States.

| September 18, 2011 10:0 AM EDT

When Jasvinder Sanghera turned 14, she knew her time had come. As the sixth of seven daughters in a conservative Sikh family, growing up in the English industrial city of Derby, Sanghera had watched her parents pull her older sisters out of school, one by one, and send them to India to marry complete strangers—often men who abused them. The British educational system never questioned the girls’ long absences and ultimate disappearances. Then, one day, when Sanghera came home from school, her mother presented her with a photograph of a man. Sanghera was told that she’d been promised to him when she was just 8 years old. “I was the one who said, ‘No, I want to finish school, Mum. I just want to get an education,’” Sanghera said recently.

Her parents yanked her out of class, she said, and padlocked her in her room for weeks until she promised to submit to the marriage. “In the end, I agreed purely to buy back my freedom,” Sanghera said. When her parents relented and allowed her to visit a friend’s home, she ran away with the friend’s older brother—at first sleeping in his car, and then in a cheap boardinghouse. When she called her family, she says, they told her, “You are dead in our eyes from this day forward. You can come home and marry who we say; otherwise, you are dead.” When Sanghera refused, her family disowned her. “Even today, if I see my sisters, my family, they will cross the road and refuse to acknowledge me,” she said. “All of a sudden, I had become the perpetrator. I was the one who had dishonored and betrayed them, and I had no family.” She has lived as a pariah for the past 29 years.

Despite her ostracism, Sanghera eventually managed to finish her education and build a life for herself. Her obedient older sister Robina was not so lucky. The two girls had kept up a secret relationship and Robina told stories with allegations of horrific domestic violence inside her arranged marriage. Jasvinder begged her sister to appeal to their parents for help. But her mother and father made it very clear: it was Robina’s duty to make the marriage work, for the sake of the family’s honor. When Jasvinder was 22 and her sister 24, Robina set herself on fire. She suffered burns over 90 percent of her body and died a terrible death, leaving behind a 5-year-old son. When Sanghera heard of her sister’s suicide—not from family members—she journeyed home. “I naively thought my mother would somehow run and take me back into her heart, or into the family, because [she had] lost a daughter in such a horrific way. But no, she made it clear. She said to me, ‘You must not come to the funeral. You must not come to the house. You are not allowed to mourn her with us. If you come, you come when it’s dark and nobody can see you.’” When Sanghera went to the funeral anyway, her family walked out of the room as soon as she entered. “Those who are meant to love you the most, your nearest and dearest, are doing this to you,” Sanghera said. “You’re completely isolated.”

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Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

Forced marriage and honor violence are often viewed in the West as backward customs relegated to impoverished developing nations. But a spate of gruesome honor killings in the U.K., and new research about the prevalence of underage marriage in the U.S., for the first time show that this kind of violence against women is far more widespread. In 2005, the British government’s Home Office and Foreign Office launched a joint Forced Marriage Unit to address these crimes, and in 2010 it handled 1,700 cases of forced marriage. Catalyzed by her own ordeal, and by Robina’s suicide, Sanghera opened Karma Nirvana in 1993, a U.K. charity devoted to helping victims of forced marriages and honor violence. The group says that in 2008, 2,500 girls—suspected victims of forced marriages—went missing from schools in the U.K., usually during vacation. This year, that figure is expected to double.

In January 1999, 15-year-old Tulay Goren disappeared from her East London Kurdish community. Police eventually charged her father with murder, which allegedly had been planned by a family council after Tulay was discovered dating a secret boyfriend. Tulay’s paramour testified that she’d been beaten by her father before she vanished. In 2002, Kurdish patriarch Abdullah Yones slit his vivacious 16-year-old daughter Heshu’s throat in their west London home because he disapproved of her Lebanese Christian boyfriend. In September 2003, 17-year-old Shafilea Ahmed disappeared from the Cheshire town of Warrington, and five months later her decomposed remains were found near the River Kent. Before the girl’s disappearance, she had told friends that her parents beat her, and that she feared an arranged marriage in Pakistan. During a trip to the country to meet a potential husband, she tried to harm herself by drinking bleach. Her parents, who were arrested in 2003 and again in 2010 in connection with the death, maintain their innocence, but the local coroner has called Shafilea the victim of “a very vile murder.”

Perhaps the most high-profile honor-violence case in Britain has been the tragic 2006 killing of Banaz Mahmod. An Iraqi Kurd living in South London, Banaz entered into an arranged marriage at the age of 16 to a man who allegedly raped and beat her. Two years later, fleeing the union, she returned to her family and fell in love with another man. Enraged, her uncle and father, and other members of the Kurdish community, called a council to discuss killing Banaz and her new boyfriend to protect the family name. Knowing that her life was in danger, Mahmod reported the death threats to the police but was too terrified to move to a safe house. But after a brazen murder attempt by her father—that Banaz recounted to disbelieving police officers—she decided to cooperate in pressing charges against her family. She never got the chance. Several days later, a gang of men, including two cousins, reportedly trapped Banaz in her home, tortured and raped her, and strangled her with a shoelace before stuffing her body into a suitcase and abandoning it in another town. The two cousins immediately fled to Iraq, thinking they would be safe abroad. Eventually, the Metropolitan Police tracked them down and they became the first-ever honor-killing suspects to be extradited to Britain.

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The body of Banaz Mahmod (left) was found in a suitcase buried in a Birmingham garden in 2006. Mahmod Mahmod (top right), her father, and Ari Mahmod, her uncle, were found guilty of the “honor” killing., Met Police-UPPA-ZUMA Press

According to The Guardian, police believe there are at least 12 such “honor” killings a year in the U.K. and that a quarter of the victims are under 18. While forced marriage has long been illegal in Britain, in 2007 the government enacted a Forced Marriage Act thanks in part to Sanghera’s own story, which she wrote about in her book, Shame. The act created deterrent measures such as the Forced Marriage Protection Order—today, anyone in Britain who suspects that a girl is in danger of being forcibly married can ask a court for an injunction against the girl’s family or community. The order can require family members to surrender their passports and prevent them from applying for new ones, lest they try to take the girl out of the country. More than 300 such orders have been issued since the act came into force, and violators are subject to up to five years in prison. The act also mandates that police, housing authorities, educators, health providers, and social-service agencies must take certain measures if they suspect a girl is in danger of forced marriage, or face a financial penalty. The Forced Marriage Unit also rescues and repatriates British victims who have been taken abroad to marry against their will. There is no equivalent agency in America, where forced marriage isn’t explicitly outlawed and where social-service groups struggle to help protect victims. Still, says Chief Crown Prosecutor Nazir Afzal, “there is a real appetite in the United States to learn from our practices. There is an appetite for change.”

Aiding victims of forced marriage often provokes a fierce backlash within immigrant communities. Sanghera has received death threats and has had feces smeared on her door. She remains undaunted. She has even contemplated reaching out across the Atlantic. Karma Nirvana often gets queries from girls in America, where there’s increasing evidence that forced marriages are occurring, with very little being done about it. “There is legislation that exclusively addresses this issue in developing countries, but there’s an absence of similar legislation addressing this issue domestically,” says Julia Alanen, founder of the Global Justice Initiative, a Washington, D.C.–based organization. Even though the State Department considers forced marriage a violation of human rights and, when involving minors, a form of child abuse, “there’s no awareness of the practice here in the U.S.,” Alanen says.

Layli Miller-Muro, the executive director of the Tahirih Justice Center, is trying to change that. This week Tahirih releases results from the first-ever nationwide surveyof forced marriages in the U.S. The study found as many as 3,000 cases of known or suspected forced marriage over the previous two years. “We’ve already learned enough in the survey to tell us we’re just hitting the tip of the iceberg,” she says.

Miller-Muro awoke to the issue about three years ago, when Tahirih, which works to protect immigrant women and girls from gender-based violence, started getting calls from police, school counselors, social-service providers, and even congressional offices seeking to help girls whose parents were coercing them into unwanted marriages. The cases came from all over the country, including Iowa, Tennessee, and Texas, and from at least 56 different ethnic communities. Some involved girls as young as 13. “As we looked into it, we realized how few legal resources and remedies there were for forced-marriage victims,” Miller-Muro says. “It became clear to us that there was a huge need for greater attention and advocacy to this issue.”

Without legal recourse, girls often fall through the cracks. Such was the case with a 14-year-old African immigrant who contacted the Bronx-based nonprofit Sauti Yetu, which serves African women. The teen was a stellar student who excelled in math and sciences at her New York City high school. She desperately wanted to stay in school and become a doctor or a lawyer, not end up as a child bride to a man she’d never met. But she’d recently learned that her parents planned to marry her off to a 24-year-old man in her home country, and they were uninterested in her professional ambitions. “Most marriages that happen with our young people are marriages that their families arrange,” says Zeinab Eyega, the executive director of Sauti Yetu. “The decisions are made well before the girls are old enough. In most of the cases, girls accept it. In rare cases where girls know about it and don’t want it, that’s when they seek us out for help.”

Sauti Yetu lobbied the girl’s parents to forgo the marriage, but they were unyielding—they’d already bought the ticket to take her away. The girl, they said, had been promised to the man’s family from the time she was 2. “The parents felt they couldn’t go back on their word, that it would look bad for them and impact their reputation,” says Eyega. “That’s a very serious thing—if your peers and community members don’t trust your word, that can impact your whole family.”

As a last-ditch effort, Sauti Yetu took the teen to a city-run children’s home. Since the girl was under the age of 16, Child Protective Services was called, but the agency had no protocol for dealing with such cases. “Since there was no physical abuse or imminent danger, they were not willing to protect her,” says Eyega. “They sent her back to her family.” Eyega believes the girl was taken out of the country soon thereafter. She never heard from the girl again.

Few social-service agencies, in fact, know how to intervene in such situations. The laws in many states—written without forced marriage in mind—are more concerned with parental consent; they generally don’t require the consent of the young people themselves. Often parents will take children out of the country to marry them off—again, not an illegal practice. In some cases, there has been clear violence or the threat of violence, which allows agencies to interfere, but in others, the pressure is financial or emotional. “When we get calls from advocates, the threats they are hearing range from ‘My father has said he would behead me’ to ‘They’re going to throw me out of the house, cut me off financially. I’ll be considered dead to the family,’” says Miller-Muro.

In order to figure out how to address the issue, Tahirih knew it needed to understand the scope of forced marriage in the U.S. To that end, working with the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, Tahirih conducted a survey of people and organizations that might have encountered forced marriage, from law enforcement and religious leaders to legal advocates and social-service providers. The 500 responses suggested a widespread knowledge that forced marriage is occurring in America, and an equally widespread lack of resources to deal with it. Only 16 percent felt that their organizations were properly equipped to help victims.

In mid-September, Karma Nirvana’s Sanghera traveled to the U.S. to see what she might be able to do. “One of the reasons I made the effort to come here is, yes, to collaborate,” she says. “But also, I haven’t ruled out opening a Karma Nirvana based here in America.” She was especially eager to meet Miller-Muro. “Maybe from our work together, something will come out of this,” she says. “I feel very hopeful about working to raise awareness here.”

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