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     Volume 7 Issue 49 | December 19, 2008 |

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Special Feature

The Parent Trap

Hana Shams Ahmed

When 32-year-old Dr. Humayra Abedin came to Dhaka from London in August, she thought she would be attending to her ailing mother. Instead she was allegedly locked away by her own family, her passport taken away and cut off from the rest of the world. There were claims that her parents thought she was insane because she had fallen in love with a Hindu man and wanted her to marry someone of their choice. This year the UK government's Forced Marriage Unit was contacted by 1,308 concerned callers fearing they or someone close to them might be forced into marriage. It has become such a huge crisis in the UK (among mainly South Asian families) that the government recently passed a Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act to protect victims of forced marriage.

“I wish I could see you once in my lifetime. This is the only wish I have. Most important thing is please try to forgive me if you can. I AM SORRY. Please don't hate me. My life is already ruined. I don't care any more. I just want to end my life as nothing left to live and look forward to. You are one of the best person. I will always remember you. I wanted to grow old with you. It will never happen now” -- these are the words from an email that Humayra managed to send to a close friend in the four months that she has been held captive by her own parents.

Humayra Abedin, the only child of Mohammed Joynal Abedin, a retired businessman, and his wife, a housewife, was trained as a doctor in Bangladesh. She went to England in 2002 to study at Leeds University. She used to live in Leyton, in East London and was working in hospitals across the capital at that time. She was studying to become a GP. When her family found out that she had developed a close friendship with a Hindu Bangladeshi man in London they were furious. According to UK press reports since May of this year they have been desperately trying to force her into a marriage with a Muslim man. According to The UK Independent the Metropolitan Police launched an inquiry at the end of June, after she was held captive in her flat by her mother and uncle, who visited for several days. Her case had also been taken up by Interpol.

When the family realised that they wouldn't be able to force her into a marriage because of the strict laws it was alleged that they thought the best way to get her married to someone of their choice would be to bring her to Bangladesh. In August her mother sent news to her that she was seriously ill and she should immediately come to see her. Once in the family house from August 5 her parents hid her passport and plane ticket, and held her captive. She was allegedly physically and psychologically abused and not allowed to have contact with anyone outside the house. According to The UK Independent her family at one point tried to admit her to a psychiatric hospital saying that her relationship with a Hindu man was a sign of mental illness.

Dr. Humayra Abedin Photo: Source: www.theage.com.au

Her only ally was her cousin Dr Shipra Chaudhury who got in touch with lawyers at ASK who had been looking into the matter since August. Her other family members were hostile towards her and had no sympathy for her situation. Although ASK staff and police, alerted to this situation, were able to meet her for a few moments in August 2008, they were obstructed by her parents from speaking to her in private. After that brief meeting none of them were able to get in touch with her. The High Court had on October 27 directed the parents and uncle to appear and to produce Humayra in person, after ASK and Humayra's cousin filed a habeas corpus petition that she was being confined against her will. The parents and uncle failed to comply and after the Court ordered the top police official to ensure Humayra's recovery, lawyers for the parents finally appeared before the Court. But the parents continued to fail to comply with the Court's orders failing to produce Humayra before the court. The parents claimed through their lawyers that Humayra, though an adult, should be in her parents' custody first on the ground that she was 'unmarried' and later, because she was 'mentally ill'.

The parents continued not to comply with the order to produce Humayra before the Court throughout November. The Court issued a suo motu contempt notice on the parents and uncle and directed them to appear in person on December 3. The parents and uncle did come to court but without Humayra. At one point Humayra was able to send an email to a close friend in the UK where she expressed deep depression under the circumstances and there were underlying indications that she was either contemplating suicide or that she would be killed. A British court, at this point, directed the parents and uncle to disclose Humayra's whereabouts, not to harass her and force her into a marriage and hand her over to ASK or the British High Commission (HC) in Bangladesh.

On December 14 Humayra was finally produced before the court. She expressed that her movement was severely restricted since August. She voiced her desire to pursue her education in England. The High Court ordered the Police Commissioner and Court officers to escort Humayra to the British High Commission to arrange Humayra's safe travel to London.

Humayra is just one of many Bangladeshis who are forced into marriages against their will every year. Not just in Bangladesh, but throughout the South Asian and some African disapora community in the UK and USA. According to the UK Independent in the first nine months of this year, the UK Government's Forced Marriage Unit was contacted by 1,308 concerned callers fearing they or someone close to them might be forced into marriage. The unit directly helped 388 of these victims -- nearly twice as many as in 2007.

The new Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 which came into force in November 2008 because of the high number of reported cases, offers protection to all residents of the UK. This Act allowed the UK government to intervene in Humayra's case which otherwise would have been treated as a domestic matter for Bangladesh.

Forced marriages are different from arranged marriages. In an arranged marriage, the family will take the lead in arranging the match but couples have the choice as to whether or not to proceed with the marriage. With forced marriages there is no choice. It is a form of domestic violence and an abuse of human rights. There is usually much emotional and physical violence and manipulation involved, where a person is sometimes forced to agree to the marriage in fear of his/her life. According to an article by Sara Hossain and Suzanne Turner every year at least 1000 women are abducted from the UK by their families and taken to a foreign country in order to be forced into marriage. The majority appear to be Hindu, Muslim and Sikh women from the Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi diasporic communities in Britain. According to the UK government's Forced Marriage Unit 85 percent of victims of forced marriages are women and girls and 44 percent of the overseas cases dealt with by the government's Forced Marriage Unit involved minors.

In 2007 the UK government's Forced Marriage Unit rescued an 11-year-old British girl of Bangladeshi origin whose parents married her to a Bangladeshi man in Dhaka. She was the youngest helped by the unit. The girl moved to Bangladesh at the age of six, where she cared for her two younger siblings and her disabled mother. She was rescued after her aunt, who lived in Britain, learnt that her parents had forced her to marry. This particular case of Humayra Abedin portrays why forced marriages have increased so much in recent years. Too many South Asian parents seem to be paranoid about their children choosing partners outside their religion and nationality. In a bid to marry their children off within the same community parents try to 'arrange' their marriages. Parents usually try to marry their children off early thinking it's easier to coerce and manipulate children until a certain age; many cases get hidden under the carpet.

“[In Bangladesh] there is no definition for 'forced marriage' but there are family laws which provide that consent is required to validate a marriage -- this is required under for example both Muslim and Christian law in Bangladesh,” says Sara Hossain, who fought Humayra's case in the High Court, “so a Muslim marriage is not valid unless both parties have given their free and full consent. There is an important case from Pakistan, also regarding a woman called Humaira, where the court made very important observations on how Islam also guarantees women's right to consent, and that this is in conformity with basic human rights guaranteed in the Pakistan Constitution and in international law.”

During Humaira's case the Pakistan Court observed: '… in matters of marriage a woman was given equal right [by Islam] to choose her life partner… Unfortunately, in our practical lives, we are influenced by a host of other prejudices bequeathed by history, tradition and feudalism… It is that culture that needs to be tamed by law and an objective understanding of the Islamic values… Male chauvinism, feudal bias and compulsions of a conceited ego should not be confused with Islamic values. An enlightened approach is called for (taken from Pakistan Legal Digest 1999 Lahore, page 494).'

Bangladesh, as party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 (CRC), the government is obliged to protect the basic right of every person's right to marry or not to marry, and when and whom to marry and also to prohibit child marriage. In case of minors, although the Bangladesh government has set the minimum age limit for women to marry at 18 and for men to marry at 21, it is not enforced, and underage marriages take place all over Bangladesh everyday. Sometimes there's a fine line between an 'arranged' marriage and a 'forced' marriage.

“[Bangladesh] does not have a separate law on forced marriage but we do have laws that criminalise acts that are committed in the course of committing a forced marriage, and also remedies for those affected/threatened by forced marriage,” says Hossain, “so for example abduction for the purpose of forced marriage is a criminal offence under the Bangladesh penal code and writs can be filed in our High Court [under the constitution, as in Humayra's case] and if the person is found to be 'held in custody in an unlawful manner' the court can order their release (even where held by their own family). There are other remedies too, for example injunctions to stop child marriages, divorce or annulment (the latter rare) following a forced marriage.”

Forced marriage violates the fundamental right of a person guaranteed by the Constitution of Bangladesh although the right to marry is not explicitly protected by legislation in Bangladesh. Humayra was lucky her case got coverage in the British media and the UK government got involved. But what would happen if Humayra had not been a resident of the UK? Hossain hopes the Court proceedings would have been the same since it applied the Bangladeshi Constitution as it did in this case. But there are many more women and girls who are forced into marriages in our country and no one ever talks about them. This can be illustrated by the fact that there has been so little interest in Humayra's case from the local media until the foreign media got involved. Here was an adult woman imprisoned in her own home against her will and physically and emotionally tortured and told she was a lunatic because she fell in love with a man of another faith, and when her lawyers tried to get in touch with the media here some responded by saying that this was 'a family matter'.

And the marriage scenario in Bangladesh we know is far from black and white. In reality although in any religion 'consent' of both a man and a woman is a must for a legal marriage to take place in many cases there's a thin line between 'coercion' and 'consent'. In too many cases it is coerced or emotionally blackmailed or given under fear or emotional pressure. Also consent can only be given by the individuals if they have reached a certain age. While people can give the excuse of 'religion' or 'culture', the truth is that neither religion not culture supports parents forcing children to marry someone against their will. It is a person's legal right to choose who they marry.


Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008