Guest post: "Forced marriage - I was one of the lucky ones"
Nearly 11 years after being forced into marrying a man she barely knew, Fozia Shah still feels hurt, despite making the marriage work
Posted on: Wed 10-Feb-16 11:43:11
(14 comments )
I was 23 years old when I discovered that my parents had agreed for me to be married to a man I'd never met. I was, effectively, engaged. I'd just finished my degree and started work and suddenly my future looked very different to how I'd imagined it.
That was 12 years ago, and I have never stopped believing that forced marriages are immoral and unnecessary. They can have an incredibly damaging effect on men, women, and their relationships with their parents. They still happen in a number of communities and often result in unhappiness. From my own experience, I know that even if a forced marriage does work, the damage can be internal - in the heart, mind and soul of the person who is forced to marry.
My husband-to-be and his family believed I was aware of the agreement my parents had made for me, approximately five years before our intended marriage. As the marriage approached, I went through a very dark time. If I refused the wishes of my parents, I would bring shame upon them and our family. I'd been brought up to respect my parents and had already seen them go through so much with their other children. It would have been too difficult to go against them. I didn't want to hurt them - despite knowing they had no qualms about hurting me.
Forced marriage doesn't necessarily involve physical coercion. I experienced emotional abuse in the period preceding my marriage. I was subjected to silent treatment, screaming, shouting, swearing, and the 'let's be nice' approach. There was also emotional blackmail and tears, with my parents asking me to consider what it would do to them if I didn't agree to be married. What could I do? I had no support from my siblings, they had their own issues. I went ahead with it rather than be disowned. In the back of my mind, I was thinking it would be relatively easy to divorce him in the UK if I hated him.
My marriage happened in April 2005 in Pakistan - I was even made to purchase my own ticket to get there. I already knew my husband as he was a relative, but I didn't know him well enough to know what he was like or whether I'd consider marrying him. At the time of the nikkah (signing the contract), you have to say 'I agree' three times. At that point I hesitated. I had my future father-in-law sitting next to me and my mother hovering behind me. I felt boxed in and then when my mother demanded I speak up, I did, and I agreed.
I often thought about what my life could have been like if I had had the courage to walk away from my family when they were marrying me off.
Our wedding night was the first time we spoke to each other despite my family previously reassuring me that I would get a chance to speak to him before the wedding to decide if I wanted to marry him. Clearly that was a tactic to get me to Pakistan. He told me what he wanted from the marriage and I thought maybe he wasn't so bad. He talked about how he wanted the marriage to be a partnership and how he wanted us both to be happy. I left a week later and it was likely to be months before he would get a spouse's visa. That gave me time to return to the UK and decide what I wanted to do.
When I returned home we spoke once a week on the phone and often on Yahoo messenger. It gave us a chance to get to know each other and I decided I was prepared to give him and the marriage a proper go. Although it still would have been difficult to back out at such a late stage, I knew that I could get a lot of help and support in the UK if I wanted to end the relationship - and if I had the strength to do it.
We will have been married for 11 years this April, but it was only recently that I realised how much being forced to marry had affected me. There was a bitterness inside me which led to me being argumentative with my husband over the smallest things - because I was thinking I had never wanted to marry him. It was as if I was purposefully looking for the bad in him. I still do sometimes. I often thought about what my life could have been like if I had had the courage to walk away from my family when they were marrying me off.
The biggest relationship to suffer was with my parents. To anyone looking on, nothing seems wrong. But there is. I am quite sensitive to them trying to give me advice as I immediately think they are trying to control my life. They suggest I do something and I will do the opposite because I don't want them telling me what to do. Forcing me to marry was enough.
The pain and hurt of being forced into marriage stays with you. Especially the thought that to the parents, honour was more important than their child's happiness - and they were willing to be emotionally abusive to get what they wanted.
Parents must consider whether a forced marriage is worth losing their child's love and respect over. Is it really worth the heartache for all involved? We need to work together to wipe this out.
Forced marriage is illegal in England and Wales, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen. I know I could not have reported my parents. However if anyone is currently going through a forced marriage or think they may be forced into marriage then they can seek help and guidance from The Forced Marriage unit.
I do believe that younger generations are key to helping stamp out forced marriages. They better understand their rights and are usually more educated. They need to make sure they do not put the idea of honour above their children's future happiness, and that they put the needs of their children first. People who have already been forced into marriage also need to speak out to show the impact it has had - hopefully this will help deter people from repeating the process. The older generation still think that honour is the most important thing in life, but everyone has the right to choose who to marry.
This April is our 11th wedding anniversary. It has taken a lot of hard work and patience to get here. I was one of the lucky ones.
By Fozia Shah
Very brave post Fozia. I relate to some of it - I have very controlling, smothering parents who have always put their own needs above the needs of their children. I am no stranger to emotional blackmail either. It crushes you slowly. You feel like you're drowning in guilt and obligation. I also relate to the constant irritation you feel with your husband and your parents - when you feel forced into a situation, and feel that you have been controlled and manipulated, the rage and sadness you feel has to go somewhere, so tends to leak out slowly. It's a very exhausting and sad way to live.
Absolutely agree that parents should be putting their child's happiness and wellbeing ahead of their own needs. The concept of 'shame' is so very destructive and toxic. Well done for speaking out.
Can I ask - would you say you are happy enough in your marriage right now, or would you prefer to leave if you felt you had the choice?
This is very interesting and close to my heart. My parents wanted a similar path for me which I refused using my faith as a reason to say no (forced marriage is a cultural thing) but the silent treatment, the mood swings and the emotional blackmail is horrendous and scarring to live with and I totally agree it affects your relationship with your parents for life. You don't mention if you are happy now or just stuck?
Thank you for your messages...I should have said in the post. Thankfully my husband turned out to be a decent man and I no longer feel stuck and wouldn't leave now even if I had the chance and choice.
Thank you for sharing your story Fozia.
Having come from a community where arranged and forced marriages are common, I hate it when people in the UK (even activists) are quick to distinguish between forced and arranged marriages. In my experience there is a very very thin line between the two. Most arranged marriages I have encountered have an element of force. This is often psychological, or economic violence and threats rather than physical violence. We have to come forward and talk about this.
I'm really glad that you are genuinely happy with your husband and that you are content to stay in your marriage.
I agree bedhead - a relationship should be for the people involved to arrange and conduct, no one else.
Can I ask what's in it for parents? I mean can understand if you were marrying into rich family or something (sort of) but is it just a case of marrying you off ASAP so you don't get a boyfriend or do they not trust you to met someone suitable yourself?
Is it just girls? I know happens to men but don't hear as much. Or to men get pick for themselves?
I am so glad that you are happy in your marriage and I'm sure you won't be continuing the tradition either in forcing your DC into an arranged marriage or more generally emotionally manipulating them into doing what you want.
You can start to break the cycle
Thanks for talking about this. I'm very glad that you had a good husband, it could have turned out very differently. Jaswinder Sanghera who is from a Sikh background writes very eloquently about this in her book 'Shame'. Her sister was in such a bad marriage that she eventually killed herself and Jaswinder ran away from home to avoid a forced marriage. She now runs a helpline for people needing help with this issue called 'Karma Nirvana'. A very brave and inspiring woman! I hate these concepts of shame and honour which mainly only seem to apply to women!
Great post and def needs to be highlighted.
I am related to Jas Sanghera (through marriage) and think she and her cause are wonderful.
I'm glad things turned out okay for you (although part of me wonders whether this means your parents think they were right all along, they did only have your interests at heart because look! They found you a husband you are happy with! Hmmmm...).
I disagree with pp re forced marriages vs arranged marriages. In our culture (not a million miles from yours) they are two completely separate things. No man or woman is forced into marriage using the techniques you describe (shame, guilt, honor etc). But it can and often is arranged for a man and a woman to meet to see if they might be compatible. It's an introduction only with no pressure applied to marry/ not marry any given man.
Like anything, there's a sliding scale of objectoinability. It's important to distinguish between situations where a woman is coerced and where she has free will to say no.
I want to ask a question about forced and 'arranged' marriage. especially in the UK Pakstani community.
Frankly is it about money and I specifically mean the hawala system where a long term debt in Pakistan is essentially paid off by arranging a marriage and from there an immigration visa to the UK once the couple are married?
The question about 'what do the parents get out of this' in many cases seems to me to be essentially about money and the 'honour' part is about the way the hawala intergenerational debt obligations and the retention of assets within a family like land are paid off and passed around through marriage.
The hawala system operates between the UK and Pakistan. It is well known and not illegal.
I am glad that your husband is a decent man and that your marriage has worked. Was he pushed into the marriage as well? I think it has to be remembered that young men can be under immense pressure to marry someone they don't know or don't want to marry. Forced marriage is not just a women's issue.
What is the Pakistani government doing about forced marriage? Forced marriage is wrong wherever it happens on the planet. I feel sorry for rural Pakistanis with limited education who are forced into marriage.
I'm so glad that you're happy now OP. However, I was just wondering - in your post you said that your DH and his family thought you knew about the arrangements that your parents made 5 years beforehand.
What did they think when they discovered that you didn't know about them, and that you had been promised a chance to meet your dh before the ceremony but that had never been honoured... Do you think they would have changed things if they knew - even if just to have a chance for you to meet your dh first?
And what about your parents - do they fully realise what they have done and the impact it's had on you - and how much worse it could have been (thank goodness it sounds like you were quite lucky in so far as getting on with each other eventually). Or do they think that they just 'arranged' your marriage rather than 'forced' your marriage?
And your dh - how much did he know about the situation - both from what he felt about it beforehand and what he'd been told, and the reality of your situation - and if you have children, would he put them through the same (either arranged or forced) or is he against it too now?
Sorry for the questions - I'm just comparing your story with my own and thinking that my 12th wedding anniversary is coming up - but that I'd been going out with dh for 13 years before that - so I'm at completely the opposite end and knew dh very well before we got married. I can't begin to imagine being in your situation.
Here's hoping that your relationship carries on going from strength to strength and is happy.
Fozia - obviously you don't have to answer this as it's rather a personal question, but don't you sometimes wonder what it would have been like to fancy a boy, dream about him, arrange 'accidental' meetings either at work or at school, get butterflies in your tummy, and fall in love?
Your post made me a bit sad because I don't think you've ever had that "does he like me too" feeling... and the excitement of going on a date..
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