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Wednesday, May 26, 1999 Published at 14:05 GMT


The arrangement

The case of Rukhsana Naz, who was murdered by her family after fleeing from her husband, has highlighted the thorny issue of arranged marriages in the UK.

The BBC's Community Affairs Correspondent Reeta Chakrabarti reports
For the majority, making the most important decision of one's life without undue coercion, is a given.

But in Britain's burgeoning Asian communities, tying the knot is traditionally a more premeditated issue.

Whether Muslim, Sikh or Hindu, tradition holds that marriage is something arranged by parents for their children.

[ image: Rukhsana Naz: Murdered after fleeing her husband]
Rukhsana Naz: Murdered after fleeing her husband
Many on the "receiving end" say the practice is a successful one which leads to long, stable and fulfilling relationships.

It avoids the "lonely hearts" syndrome which is now so prevalent in Western culture and brings families closer together, supporters say.

They also claim it promotes a more level-headed approach, looking beyond the first flush of romance that can lead couples to take their vows, but eventually end up in the divorce courts.

Yet examples such as Rukhsana Naz, and that of another Asian woman whose case is being raised on Wednesday with the Home Office Minister Mike O'Brien, have given the institution of arranged marriage a bad name.

Jamie Coomarasamy for the BBC's Today on arranged marriages that are forced
Nasser Hanif, a journalist with BBC's Asian Network programme, blames the tendency among some hard-line Asian parents who force a partner on an unwilling daughter.

These are in the minority, he says, while in general arranged marriage has become more flexible.

"There's been a shift away from the old trend of arranged marriage where everything was set up and you had no choice," says Mr Hanif.

"Parents have become more understanding and it can take two or three years for them to find the right partner."

[ image: Most Asians have happy and peaceful marriages]
Most Asians have happy and peaceful marriages
This is partly down to the fact that inter-family marriages are now less common. The tradition whereby two cousins marry - something designed to strengthen family ties - means options are inevitably limited if one rejects the other.

Savraj Bains, a spokesman for the British Sikh Federation, says the culture of arranged marriage has become "more relaxed" in the past five to 10 years.

"It's a case of maintaining your own cultures but also having the flexibility to make your own decisions," says Mr Bains.

There are no hard and fast rules to setting up an arranged marriage. In general "the word" goes out in the community.

Getting to know each other

Contacts then set up an initial meeting which involves the parents and their children.

After the first two meetings, the couple will then spend more time alone, getting to know each other.

But family is still a crucial factor and although a couple may be mutually attracted, they may not consider marriage suitable because they do not fit in with the other's family.

Social status us also a consideration. In Indian culture there is a tradition of matching castes, and among Pakistanis a man's trade or profession is an important consideration, says Mr Hanif.

Subtle pressure applied

But while Islamic leaders and others stress that arranged marriages should always be on a voluntary basis, it is clear that in some cases an obligation is implied.

"Arranged marriages can become forced. Often there are subtle pressures because young people do not want to alienate their family," says Hanana Siddiqi, of the women's help group Southall Black Sisters.

Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, leader of Britain's Muslim Parliament, said it was "time the Muslim community" took the issue "very, very seriously".

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