Forced Marriages: What Are You Criminalising?
By: Nazmin AktharBio
I will start by saying that I am against forced marriages. Not only do I openly speak out against it but also spend a substantial amount of time working towards its eradication. In my opinion forced marriages are a crime. Yet despite this, it was with great concern that I read the UK government’s plans for criminalisation1. This is because I do not believe that the legal system, ranging from the police to the judiciary, is capable of dealing with the problem of forced marriages. My concern stems from the fact that there is both a lack of understanding and no sense of responsibility on the part of the media and other bodies when it comes to dealing with forced marriages in the UK.
Despite being a British Asian and being very familiar with the tradition of arranged marriages, I frequently find myself confused between forced and arranged marriages. It is not always clear cut, and given the burden of proof is “beyond reasonable doubt” in criminal cases, I wonder how this confusion will play out in court.
Sometimes the marriage may not be a forced marriage but rather an arranged marriage gone wrong. At other times the marriage may look like an arranged marriage but is in fact forced. As an example, consider a situation where an individual believed that they had no option but to agree to the marriage and the reality of the situation was that, had they voiced their reservations to their parents, the wedding would not have continued. The silence may not be due to their parents’ demeanour either, that is, it may not be because their parents were generally controlling and overbearing. Rather it may be due to a sense of duty towards their parents. Many times I have heard peers my age advocating that our parents’ have done a lot for us and we should repay them for their sacrifices, which may be by agreeing to marry someone of their choice for their happiness. Many more will state that our parents’ will always want the best for us and therefore we should trust them. On the other hand, it may in fact be that precisely such sweet words of wisdom have had the coercive effect. Violence or threats are not always needed for someone to feel emotionally blackmailed and I believe any form of emotional pressure turns an arranged marriage into a forced marriage.
When considering the courtroom repercussions of criminalising forced marriage many problematic questions arise. At what point will such ‘advice’ be considered pressurising? How will a court decide if the victim was silent out of fear rather than a misunderstanding? Moreover, how is evidence to be weighed? Will it be easier to prove that fathers are perpetrators rather than mothers? Will it be harder for male victims to prove force than for female victims?
And should you not realise, marriages are marriages, or rather weddings are weddings, irrespective of which country or culture you are a part of. It may be that an individual had agreed to their parents’ choice happily but later got cold feet and felt they were incompatible but by then the wedding was all set. They may be told at that point that they must go ahead with the wedding or they may feel that they must go ahead. How will such situations be considered? Who is at fault? The parents, the bride, the groom, or the wedding hall that won’t refund the money in the event of a cancellation? It all boils down to specific circumstances of the case and I do not believe the legal system is capable of dissecting every situation. In fact, I know from experience that those within communities in which such practices occur do not know what a forced marriage is. It is pointless criminalising forced marriages when no one is sure of the actus reu.