Forced marriages: In Kashmir, old habits die hard

Published: November 25, 2013
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Some legal support is available in Pakistan, but rights campaigners say only a minority get support. PHOTO: IRIN

Some legal support is available in Pakistan, but rights campaigners say only a minority get support. PHOTO: IRIN

MUZAFFARABAD: 

From a distance, Jalila Ahmed* and Nabila Ahmed* look like ordinary village girls in their late teens, shopping at the local bazaar in a Mirpur suburb.

But move in a little closer, and the differences are more obvious — they struggle to communicate with the vendors, sometimes giggling between themselves as they try to find a name for a particular vegetable. When they speak to each other, they do so in English, with an accent closer to Bradford than Bagh. But they are careful, because they have been told not to talk to each other.

The two teenagers, distant cousins, say they were both forced into marriages a year ago, after being brought to Mirpur from the UK to “attend a family wedding.” It was only after they arrived in the city that they discovered the marriages they were attending were their own, both to distant relatives.

Hundreds of cases of forced marriage involving British nationals married against their will in Kashmir are thought to take place annually, particularly around the industrial town of Mirpur. Since the late 19th century, Kashmir has had a large diaspora — estimated to be around one million — with many communities concentrating in British cities like Bradford, Glasgow and London.

To preserve their culture and traditions, some families favour sending their children — particularly daughters — back to Kashmir.

Campaigners say such marriages are cruel, leading to “murders and chaos”, either because couples fail to get along or when young women resist. Shafilea Ahmed, 17 at the time of her murder nine years ago in the UK, was the victim of one such crime, which made headlines when her parents were brought to trial.

“We hear of around 300 cases of such marriages annually, though many more may actually take place,” Khalida Salimi, executive director of the NGO Struggle for Change, told IRIN. She said most “but not all” cases involved girls. Thousands of those forced to marry remain in Kashmir, she said.

“This is a cultural practice. Families want to marry their children to the offspring of relatives as they believe they will prove to be good partners for them,” said Salimi.

She said that economic factors were also involved, either to keep wealth within families or because once a Pakistani man marries a UK national he can go to Britain to get a well-paid job. “This is the most common reason for such marriages,” she said.

“Ceaseless nightmares”

“I was a victim 25 years ago,” said Uzma Bibi, who lives with her adult son in Lahore, but frequently travels to the UK. “It was a terrible experience. I was only 15. I was told we were going on a family holiday to Kashmir, and instead was married to a cousin far older than me.”

Uzma’s husband died a year ago. “While he was not a bad man, the years in ‘captivity’ have scarred me for life,” she said. She regularly see a psychiatrist to help cope with what she says are her “ceaseless nightmares.” She also knows at least a dozen women who face similar situations today.

Other women have made dramatic escapes, using the internet to seek help from the British High Commission or hiding spoons in their underwear to set off airport metal detectors, giving them an opportunity to speak to authorities.

Staff at the UK’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) said they dealt with 1,485 cases of possible forced marriage in 2012, with 47.1 percent of these involving Pakistan, and most of these were from Mirpur.

Illegal

Laws in Pakistan bar forced marriage, said Salimi, while the practice is also regarded as a form of slavery by organisations dealing with such abuses. As awareness grows, attempts to dissuade parents from forcing children into marriage have grown.

“Marriages of this kind are totally against Islam,” said Maulana Shafiq Salim, a cleric in Mirpur. “But we all know they continue to take place, and it is saddening to see these young girls, some mere children, deluded by their own parents.” He said he himself refused to formalise such marriages, but said “other clerics did.”

“Changing attitudes is not easy,” Aziz Butt, a banker in Mirpur, told IRIN. “My brother, based in Manchester, wants me to find a match for his 16-year-old daughter here, in Kashmir, even though I keep telling him it is no longer the custom to marry off girls so young, that she should be studying and should have a say in her own marriage.” He said his brother wanted to “prevent my niece from moving away into an alien culture by marrying her to someone here.”

Some legal support is available in Pakistan, but campaigners say only a minority get support.

“Only a small percentage of the many cases of forced marriage that take place are reported to us,” said Asma Ali Shan, a law officer at the government-run Benazir Bhutto Shaheed Women’s Development Centre, Mirpur.

“We offer legal support, shelter and counselling if required, but what we need is raised awareness to prevent such marriages in the first place.”

*Names changed to protect identity

Published in The Express Tribune, November 25th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (18)

  • Waz
    Nov 25, 2013 - 10:15AM

    Wow, kashmiris really do tarnish the image of the average overseas Pakistani more so in the UK than in any other country, With their outdated customs and rituals, they have failed to integrate and assimilate into the British way of life unlike most other Pakistanis and immigrants in general. The only way to overcome and challenge such predisposed mindset is to see to it that the guilty are punished and that victims get proper support else we will continue to see more such cases.

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  • Ch. Allah Daad
    Nov 25, 2013 - 11:04AM

    And these people demanded an apology from British Attorney General and regretfully he apologized.

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  • Deen Sheikh
    Nov 25, 2013 - 11:11AM

    There is a lot more to this than you assume, there are social issues, economic issues and go beyond cultural one’s as well, if your going to look at cultural issues, look deeply into our shocking culture of honor, the need to maintain kinship ties and seeing one’s children as mere commodities.

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  • Nov 25, 2013 - 1:48PM

    What a pity

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  • Nov 25, 2013 - 2:26PM

    They are afraid that their children will marry someone from there and it will be against their so called honor. If you are that afraid then why you chose to go there, no one forced you. Is it all because of the money, and you will make your children unhappy for the rest of their lives? What a double standard people.

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  • Toba Alu
    Nov 25, 2013 - 3:51PM

    @Aziz:
    Agreed but UK and other Western Countries are equally at fault. They should have never allowed these people to enter in the first place. In seventies this was lively debated in academic circles in the west. We lost the debate. Multicultural apologists assume that the basisc human values across cultures are more or less the same. They are not and these hardwired people are not going to change. Worse they are demanding their rights (Sharia, separated swimming, …) and are instilling alien customs and values in their children. Only solution is not to allow them in and sent violators of western values back to their ancestral homes (up to five generations). Cruel yes, but there is no other workable solution. Look Karzai is drafting a bill to reinstate stoning for adultery. Do we still need more proof?Recommend

  • murtaza jaffry
    Nov 25, 2013 - 3:58PM

    there is other side of this story ……..

    these kids use drugs ,alcohel and marry non muslims . UK ,US and every where people lose their PK identity in ten years .

    dual nationality comes in a very higher price , more than you want to pay .so make up your mind . Islam or forign national ……Recommend

  • Moiz Omar
    Nov 25, 2013 - 3:59PM

    We need to get tougher on people who such things. It is horrible.Recommend

  • Surya
    Nov 25, 2013 - 5:24PM

    Amazing the vast gulf between mindset between the Pandits and the other Kashmiris. On one side, we heavily focus on education while on the other, it is the complete opposite!

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  • 3rdRockFromTheSun
    Nov 25, 2013 - 6:30PM

    @Toba – “…UK and other Western Countries are equally at fault. They should have never allowed these people to enter…” – Really? They do you a favour, and yet they are the ones to blame?

    @murtaza “… UK ,US and every where people lose their PK identity in ten years…” well, if they live in US, UK for 10 yrs or more, they aren’t Pakistani any more – are they? But one can still retain one’s ‘cultural’ identity, despite being a Brit / American / Canadian, it doesn’t have to be Either OR.

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  • Ash
    Nov 25, 2013 - 8:33PM

    As a British Pakistani I feel ashamed pf myself when I read stories like these. These Kashmiris have brought a very bad name to Pakistanis in general here in UK and that attorney Journal statement was to the point for these people. My only worry is that people in UK think we all Pakistanis are like Kashmiris as obviously they can’t differentiate and this is what pisses me off! UK must introduce severe punishment for these so-called Pakistanis who actually are Mirpuri.

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  • zaman ali
    Nov 25, 2013 - 11:24PM

    there are around one million people from azad kashmir in the UK, most of them came in the 50s, and 60s to work in the textile, steel and car plants. most of them had little or no education, so it was a big culture shock for them to see western permissive society of teenagers taking drugs, alchohol and sex before marriage, to safeguard their daughters against these western influences some of them sent their daughters to live with their relatives in azad kashmir, but with time this practice is coming to an end. there are many examples of mirpuri girls becoming doctors and lawyers, to just give one example shabana mahmood daughter of a factory worker is an oxford graduate and MP for birmingham.

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  • np
    Nov 26, 2013 - 12:25AM

    @Ash: Good job on solidarity with your Kashmiri brethren! Also what makes you think this happens only with Mirpuris?

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  • Nov 26, 2013 - 12:48AM

    It’s not something novel but I’m speechless. All the atrocities committed against humanity in name of honour, shame, culture or religion is utter ignorance. We as people must do everything in our power to prevent it.

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  • Yasin
    Nov 26, 2013 - 2:06AM

    @Toba Alu

    You nailed it.

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  • Ash
    Nov 26, 2013 - 2:49AM

    @np – I don’t need brothers like these who bring bad name to my country and to my religion. I am better off without them! I have worked hard in this country to earn respect and position I am at the moment. Most of my English colleagues find it hard to believe that I am from Pakistan as they have come across very different breed of “Pakistanis”. I know not all of them are bad but I would say at least 90% of them are same. Just ask anyone in England why places like Bradford, Slough and Birmingham are regarded as “bad” to live. You will get the answer. This forced marriage issue is very common within Kashmiri community but yes you are right it’s not only them. I would estimate that at least 80% of forced marriage cases belongs to Kashmiri community and the rest 20% to Punjabi.

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  • Rao Farman Ali
    Dec 3, 2013 - 9:28AM

    @zaman ali:
    Also, this kind of practice is found in Indian Administered Kashmir (IAK), mostly among Gujjars and Bakerwals, who contribute 14 percent of our population in (IAK) and prefer to live within hilly areas. The cultural taboos, illiteracy and economic compulsions are main factors responsible for this ugly affair.

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  • Nobody
    Dec 3, 2013 - 9:15PM

    @murtaza jaffry:
    Some people in Pakistan drink, use drugs and/or have pre marital sex too, so what? Where you grow up is not an indication of the sort of person you can be. I was born and raised in the US to Pakistani parents and I still associate myself very strongly with Pakistan despite having been in this world and this country for 26 years. However, that was my choice to make, not something forced on me.
    Furthermore, being a “good” Muslim or abstaining from alcohol and/or sex does NOT magically make you a moral person just like taking part in such activities does not make you an immoral or characterless person. This self righteous and ignorant attitude is what turns people off from Muslims. One does not have to make a choice between Islam or “foreign nation.” I know plenty who choose both and plenty who live in Muslim countries and choose not to be Muslim.
    And if you give me a choice between the two, gun to my head, I’ll choose foreign nation every time since many Muslim nations will not be accepting of me the way I am and expect me to adhere to their ways, which I have no desire to, despite being a believer myself. I believe because I have the freedom to choose so, not because my culture or society or government or neighbors chose for me. Cheers.

    P.S. Dear ET Mods, you guys have been on a roll the last few days and posted most of my comments so please keep that going and post this. Many thanks. ;)

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