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Monday, July 12, 1999 Published at 21:56 GMT 22:56 UK


Fighting arranged marriage abuse

One in five families in Bradford have their origins in Asia

In a special report for the BBC's Newsnight programme, Sue Lloyd-Roberts talks to women and men struggling with the cultural and legal misuses of arranged marriages.

At dusk in the northern English city of Bradford, a woman dressed in typical Muslim dress and trousers and made unrecognisable by a scarf pulled over her face scurries along the road, looking nervously over her shoulder.

She hurries into one of the small, terraced houses to attend a meeting of Our Voice, a self-help group set up to help women in the area campaign against abusive husbands and the increasing number of forced marriages among the Muslim community.

Not against Islam

"We are not against arranged marriages, you must understand," says one. Another says: "You must write that we are not against Islam."

Sue Lloyd-Roberts reports from Islamabad and Bradford
As the group gains in confidence, another explains: "It's just that we have all tried and we have got nowhere fighting our individual battles at home and so we are now getting together."

"It's the new immigration laws in this country", blurts out a third with her back to me to ensure her anonymity. "They were written by men for the benefit of men. No-one asks what we want."

Primary purpose

[ image: The queue for visas is always long at the British High Commission in Islamabad]
The queue for visas is always long at the British High Commission in Islamabad
An official at the British High Commission in Islamabad, who also asked to remain anonymous, said: "There is no doubt that a lot of the girls are being forced to bring husbands into Britain against their will but we are powerless to do anything about it.

"Someone back in London must face up to this problem."

The "problem" is that the present Labour government scrapped the hated, "primary purpose" rule in one of its first initiatives after coming to power in 1997. Labour wanted to appease the sensitivities of Britain's ethnic communities.

Under the old system, officials at the High Commission could ask couples intimate questions about each other ranging from favourite toothpaste brands to preferred sleeping positions to determine whether the "primary purpose" of the visa application was a marriage of convenience or based on true love.

The change in rules had an immediate effect. In 1996, there were 1,960 applications for entry from Pakistan to Britain from would-be husbands. In I998, after the law was changed, there were 5,080.

A personal story

[ image: Razia Sodagar went to Islamabad to warn the authorities]
Razia Sodagar went to Islamabad to warn the authorities
Razia Sodagar, 27, says hers was an arranged marriage and she had been happy to fall in with her parents' plans for her.

But after she failed to get pregnant, she says her husband took her back to Pakistan allegedly for fertility treatment. When they got there he left her and married another girl and she had to make her way back to Bradford alone.

When confronted, her husband, Mohammad Sodagar, was noncholant.

"So what?" he said. "I am a Muslim, I can marry two, three, four times. I gave Razia so much love but she still didn't know what I wanted.

"She would abuse me and she used to go out at night. She did not respect me. I did not like that and so I have the right to divorce her."

But according to Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, leader of the Muslim Parliament in the UK, a husband may not take a second wife without the permission of the first.

And what about the right to control their wives' behaviour?

"They do it because they see their fathers do it and then there are the imams who come to Britain from rural Pakistan, chosen for their piety rather than their scholarship, and they encourage this kind of attitude, bred in the culture of the subcontinent and not by the Koran."

Police to the rescue

The police in Bradford, where the Asian community add up to 19% of local people, are overwhelmed by appeals from Asian women for help.

[ image: Philip Balmforth: A knight in shining armour]
Philip Balmforth: A knight in shining armour
Their knight in shining armour is Philip Balmforth, a retired police officer who is employed by the West Yorkshire police Race Relations Department.

"We had 300 calls for help last year, mostly from women who were trying to avoid a forced marriage or who were trying to escape a husband who was foisted on them. I have dealt with over a thousand cases in three years and the number is increasing."

Bounty hunters

If the girls escape without police protection, they risk being traced by the local bounty hunters who are employed by families to track down wayward daughters and wives.

One of these, a man who calls himself Ahmed, said: "I use shopkeepers and taxi hunters to help find the girls. They usually know where they are and what they're up to."

He prefers to call himself a "community mediator".

"For example, I once found a girl and her father told me that he would kill her when she got home. I told him I would tell the police if he dared and I kept the girl hidden.

"I have met many parents who are prepared to kill their daughters if they go astray and, although I do my best, many of the cases I have been involved in have ended tragically."

His mobile phone goes off constantly. He fields calls from clients but refuses to say how much he is paid - rumour has it that he earns up to £5,000 for the recovery of a girl.

Fear and desperation

The girls themselves are terrified of the bounty hunters. And so the women remain cooped up in their refuges, with little hope of escape and with only their appalling memories for company.

"My husband beat, starved and raped me and so when I got back to England I refused to get him over. My family here then started beating me and they threw me out of the house. Even when it was snowing, they would leave me crying on the doorstep," said one woman at Our Voice.

Changing the law

[ image: Anne Cryer MP wants to stop this
Anne Cryer MP wants to stop this "cruel practice"
The local MP for Keighley, Anne Cryer, has been warned that she risks losing her seat at the next election because of her robust defence of the women in her Keighley constituency.

No-one wants to bring back the primary purpose rule, it was too offensive to too many, but Cryer believes protective measures must be brought in if the mainly Moslem community in West Yorkshire do not stop the "cruel practice of making their girls go back to Pakistan to marry first cousins or those to whom their family owe a favour".

Cryer warns of social and even civil urest if the present situation continues.

"God forbid that we should have a repeat of the Mannigham riots we saw here five years ago, but it could happen and I blame it all on these forced marriages."

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