Maryam (not her real name) was 15 when her mother took her and her younger sister on holiday to Pakistan. Once there, they were married, against their will, to their first cousins. Maryam’s mother told her that if she didn’t consummate the marriage she would tie her to the bed, then blindfold and strip her, to make sure she had sex with her new husband.
The same year that Maryam was forced into marriage, Parliament passed legislation allowing the police, a friend or possible victim to apply for a Forced Marriage Protection Order, which forbids family members from taking anyone abroad for marriage or intimidating them into marriage.
But the Forced Marriage Act is a civil law, meaning that there are no specific criminal charges available to prosecute individuals who contravene these orders or force someone to marry. The police can only charge individuals who commit crimes — typically assault, kidnapping or sexual offences — when forcing someone to marry.
After Maryam confided in a teacher in Britain, her mother was convicted of facilitating a child sex offence. The defence said that she had acted to “defend” the family’s honour in their Muslim Pakistani community after rumours of a relationship with an older man.
Sadly, Maryam is not alone. Women, and increasingly men too, from a range of different religious and cultural backgrounds are victims of forced marriage and honour-based violence. It is estimated there are more than 400 cases of forced marriage a year in Britain.
Forced marriage is not cultural, nor is it religious. It’s wrong. And it should be a crime. Maryam only got justice and freedom because her mother contravened child offences legislation — or, to be clear, because Maryam was under-age and raped.
A Home Affairs committee on forced marriage, however, recognises that experts as well as past victims are split over the effectiveness of criminalisation. Some worry it will drive the practice underground or that resources would be better invested in education.
Forced marriage is already underground — there are no announcements in the paper. A former Crown Prosecution Service representative on honour crimes says the two standard responses he got from community leaders were either outright denial or that it was not regarded as a priority.
Undermining the concept of honour and that the female body is a measure of virtue or a commodity is the single most important thing society can do to change this. But education is not just about schools or community-led initiatives. Societies also draw their moral codes from their laws, and criminalisation will help to change attitudes.
The Government first suggested criminalising forced marriage ten years ago, yet individuals still can’t be prosecuted for condemning their children to a lifetime of marital rape.
This is not about criminalising communities or families. It is about equality before the law.