In 2012, the UK’s Forced Marriage Unit dealt with 1,485 cases. 13 percent of those involved victims under 15 years old; 22 percent involved victims aged 16-17.
Under a section of the Antisocial Behaviour Crime and Policing Bill, now going through the House of Lords, parents who “coerce, pressure or abuse” their children into marriage could face prison sentences. In November, The Times reported that two anthropologists had warned the Home Office that the law is doomed to fail women, because brides who send their relatives to jail will be rejected by their South Asian families. Their report criticised the new law for demonising other cultures.
The authors, Roger Ballard, Director of the Centre for Applied South Asian Studies, based in Stalybridge, near Manchester, and Fauzia Shariff, a School of African and Oriental Studies academic, called supporters of the law “ill-informed pedlars of ‘improvement'”. Their report said the new law would be widely viewed as an effort to undermine minorities’ cultural traditions, in favour of “superior” Euro-American practices. The authors — while not defending forced marriage (which, in a chillingly Orwellian manner, they refer to as “myopically arranged marriages” or “ill-judged familial initiatives”) clearly believe criminalisation will do more harm than good, and instead recommend policy initiatives “supporting efforts to resolve intra-familial contradictions on the basis of ‘traditional’ processes of renegotiation” – whatever they might be.
We can all be sensitive to the idea that other cultures have ways of living that may be as valuable as the “Euro-American” model — a happily and consensually-arranged marriage may be at least as good an environment for children as a household of multiple divorces. But we should profoundly object to the moral relativism implied in the attack on the Bill. Forced marriage reflects a worldview in which women cannot act individually and cannot have agency over their sexual behaviour without bringing shame, and thus must be forcibly prevented from being autonomous. It reflects a culture where women do not have the freedoms accorded to men.
In a Times column criticising Ballard and Shariff, David Aaronovitch wrote: “We criminalise forced marriage because, as a society, we believe it is wrong and we stand on the side of the victim.” As a young woman in 21st-century Britain, I look back through history in horror at a time when I might have been bundled off to marry someone, perhaps much older than me, against my will, whom I did not love. Luckily for me that bleak prospect is a thing of the past.