Forced Marriage - A Tragedy in Muslim Communities
“There is no compulsion in religion,
the right path and wrong path,
both have been clearly explained
and explicitly differentiated from each other.”
Quran, al-Baqarah 2:256
Forced marriage describes a marriage that takes place without the free or valid consent of one or both of the partners and involves either physical or emotional duress. Early, or child, marriage also is related to forced marriage as minors are deemed incapable of giving informed consent. Although the difference may be indistinct, an arranged marriage differs from a forced marriage since both parties consent to the union and assistance from third parties to identify a spouse. Forced marriage mainly affects women and girls, but there are instances where men and boys are forced into marriage, especially if there are concerns about their sexual orientation.
The practice of forced marriage constitutes serious human rights abuse. It violates the principle of freedom and deprives its victims of their basic civil rights. The requirement for the free and informed consent of both parties to a marriage is recognized in numerous legal instruments at international, national and local levels. These instruments, along with all major world religions, condemn forced marriage. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also stipulates that “marriage shall be entered into only with free and full consent of the intending spouses.” But only a few countries have criminalized the practice, and even with the existing laws and opposition, forced marriage remains a tragic reality for many women around the world.
Despite numerous contentions to the contrary, forced marriage is not an Islamic tradition; it is a jahiliyya custom (pre-Islamic era), rooted in indigenous cultures, that has persisted in some Muslim communities. Islam does not sanction or advocate any form of forced marriage. In Islam, marriage is a sacred contract between two people, which must be entered into freely and with mutual consent. The religion also mandates that the woman’s consent is a prerequisite to the validity of the marital contract. As such, the egregious institution of forced marriage is not the result of adherence to Islam, but rather that of a complete departure from the religion. So, those Muslims involved in the practice of forced marriage are distinctly acting against the precepts of Islam. We read in the Qur’an:]
“O you who believe, it is not lawful for you to inherit women against their will,
nor should you detain them wrongfully…”
-- an-Nisa` 4:19
To appreciate the Islamic stance one has to understand a fundamental aspect of Islamic ideology and law, which is the right of free will and consent, and the negation of compulsion and coercion within the human life. This principle is of such great importance in Islam that even acceptance of the faith is declared a matter of free will and choice. The Qur’an states:
“There is no compulsion in religion, the right path and wrong path,
both have been clearly explained
and explicitly differentiated from each other.”
-- Quran, al-Baqarah 2:256
Another related ethnic custom, wrongly attributed to Islam, is that of denying a woman the right to choose her life partner. Islam does not allow for parents, or anyone else, to enforce their will or choice on a woman as she is the real party to the marital contract. This is affirmed in reported commandments by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in several hadiths, which prescribed the foundational principles of formulating a marriage contract. Below are two such examples.
The practice of forced marriage is not solely a “Muslim issue,” but rather an endemic problem that crosses all religious, ethnic, social and economic boundaries. It is most common in South and East Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and persists in certain areas of Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union. In some of these regions, forced marriage is known to involve human trafficking, bride kidnapping, and the sale or trading of women into servile marriages, in exchange for a bride price or a dowry. In some cases, the marital contract is completed when the child is at a very young age. Furthermore, victims of forced marriage not only include the able-bodied, but also the disabled or otherwise infirmed.
There are a myriad of reasons for forced marriage. In Muslim communities, misguided religious teachings and perverted interpretations of Islam lead families to believe that they are complying with Islamic ruling. Other factors may include the notion of protecting children; upholding cultural traditions; preserving family honor; gaining economic security and social status; and building stronger families. Forced marriage also is used to prevent “unsuitable” relationships outside the religious or ethnic group; sponsor residency and citizenship (usually for a Western Country); ward off promiscuous behavior; and prevent gay, lesbian or transgender sexual orientation.
Effects of Forced Marriage
Forced marriage brings with it a range of dire physical and psychological consequences that are devastating as they are enduring. Some of its causes and consequences are intrinsically linked, such as the increased likelihood of the marriage becoming violent because the relationship is based on the power of one spouse over the other. As a result, many women become trapped in a cycle of physical, psychological and sexual abuse with significant long-term consequences, including personality disorders, depression, self-harm and suicide.
Honor-based violence also can be a consequence of forced marriage as a penalty for refusing the marital union. To “cleanse and defend” the family honor, “disobedient women" are ostracized, physically assaulted, raped, disfigured, abducted, disabled or imprisoned. Some in immigrant Muslim communities are forcibly shipped off to their parent’s country of origin, usually a stronghold for the practice, where they are isolated, beaten, drugged or humiliated into submission. In some cases, families resort to the barbaric ritual of honor killing, which results in a woman being savagely murdered by her father, brother or another male relative. A disturbing report from the United Nations estimated that 5,000 women and girls around the world are murdered by their relatives each year for their “crime of disobedience.”
While it is true that honor-based violence occurs in Muslim communities, the simple fact is that it is a violation of Islamic principles. This appalling tradition emanates from an ethnic-based culture of “honor and shame” inherent in some patriarchal systems as a means of controlling, directing and regulating women’s sexuality and freedom of movement. Under such structures, honor is seen as residing in the body of a woman, and every aspect of her life is tied to her honor, which in turn serves as the marker of her social worth and the reputation of her male relatives. Therefore, any behavior that transgresses patriarchal system guidelines, as in a woman rejecting a marriage arranged by male authority, is punished and controlled with physical violence that often includes murder.
In Islam, however, the concept of honor is not associated with, embodied in, nor contingent upon the actions or behavior of another human being. Islamic scripture stipulates that “all honor and glory belongs to Allah alone” [4:139]; and no honor is attainable contrary to the laws of Allah (glorified and exalted is He). We read in the Qur’an:
"Whoever desires honor (should know that) all honor belongs to Allah alone. Unto Him ascend all good words, and the righteous deed does He exalt. But those who plan evil deeds, for them will be a severe punishment; and the planning of such (folk) will come to nothing.”
-- Quran Fatir 35:10
Furthermore, Islam considers the life of every individual as sacrosanct, regardless of their gender, religion, or ethnicity, and it also forbids killing innocent people, which is the case in honor killings. The Qur’an states:
“whoever killed a human being except as a punishment for murder or for spreading corruption in the land shall be regarded as having killed all mankind, and that whoever saved a human life shall be regarded as having saved all mankind.."
-- al-Ma'idah 5:32
“…Come I will recite what your Lord has forbidden to you…… do not kill the life which Allah has made sacred, except in the course of justice; this He has enjoined on you that you may understand.”
-- al-An'am 6:151
Forced marriage can be an infringement on women’s rightful access to education, driving many into a cycle of illiteracy, poverty and state of powerlessness. Education is not only about livelihood and technical skills, it equips an individual with social aptitude for accessing key resources that help alleviate poverty. A woman’s education, or lack thereof, has profound impact not only on her life and family, but also upon the community as a whole. Educated mothers are more likely to produce improved health, nutrition, and education in the family, and are vital to a nation’s economic success. Johnnetta B. Cole, the first African American female president of the prestigious Spellman College in the United States, stated that “When you educate a man, you educate an individual. When you educate a woman, you educate a nation.” Furthermore, Kofi Annan, former United Nations Secretary General, emphasized that study after study has taught the world that there is no tool more effective for development than the empowerment of women.
A devastating impact of forced marriage, often overlooked in discussions on the issue, relates to those Muslim women who refuse the marriage, and are able to escape to a new location where they live in hiding, but with the constant fear of being discovered. The callousness of such heart wrenching eventuality resonates in the haunting words of one victim which said “(it is) those who are meant to love you the most, your nearest and dearest, are doing this to you.”
Unfortunately, a majority of these women become forever lost to Islam, erroneously blaming and condemning the religion as the basis for their predicament. Some even choose to convert to the “more compassionate and equitable” religion of their non-Muslim rescuers or new “families.” The cold hard truth is that the Muslim community is failing these women. In all actuality, they are persecuted in order to uphold and protect a tradition that is in complete violation of the directives and principles of Islam. So, where the religion teaches love, mercy, freedom and compassion, Muslims practice hate, violence and oppression, often preferring the adornment of duniya (world) over Divine truth and scared duty.
“O ye who believe! Be ever steadfast in upholding equity, bearing witness to the truth for the sake of Allah, even though it be against your own selves or your parents and kinsfolk. Whether the person concerned be rich or poor, Allah's claim takes precedence over [the claims of] either of them. Do not, then, follow your own desires, lest you swerve from justice: for if you distort [the truth], behold, Allah is indeed aware of all that you do!”
-- an-Nisa' 4:135
Response to Forced Marriage in Select Countries
The proliferation of the practice of forced marriage, and its injurious consequences, has prompted the enactment of country-specific legislations aimed at confronting the problem. In most countries, which lack specific laws on forced marriage, crimes that occur as a part of forced marriage can be used to punish perpetrators. These include rape, sexual violence, assault, false imprisonment, kidnapping or abduction, and some child protection laws.
Norway was the first country to introduce legislation to criminalize forced marriage. The law covers forced marriages in the country as well as transporting a young person out of Norway to force them into marriage in another country. Denmark, as do many European countries, associates forced marriage with its immigrant population. As a result, the Danish government has tightened the country’s immigration policy and placed restrictions on the right to family unification with a foreign spouse.
Among Muslim-majority countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh offer the most well-documented measures against forced marriage. In Pakistan, the practice has been criminalized, which further underscores the non-Islamic basis for forced marriage. The 2011 amendments to the country’s Prevention of Anti-Women Practices (Criminal Law Amendment) Act in part stipulates that “whoever gives a female in marriage or otherwise compels her to enter into marriage, or any other custom or practice under any name, in consideration of settling a civil dispute or a criminal liability, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to seven years but shall not be less than three years and shall also be liable to a fine.”
Although Bangladesh does not have a specific legislation banning forced marriage, nevertheless, its laws require the consent of both parties to a marriage. Hence, a forced marriage may be challenged and declared invalid if there is evidence to indicate that either party did not consent to the marital union.
The Forced Marriage Civil Protection Act also enables courts to issue a Forced Marriage Protection Order to protect victims. The order allows police and councils to prevent a forced marriage from occurring or help a victim already in a forced marriage. Although the order is issued in Civil Court, its breach is punished with a two-year jail sentence under contempt of court.But, by all accounts, the United Kingdom (UK) stands as the world leader in the fight against forced marriage. In 2007, it enacted the Forced Marriage Civil Protection Act, which extends to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In 2011, Scotland also joined the alliance with the passage of its Forced Marriage (Protection and Jurisdiction) Act. The laws provide civil remedies for victims of forced marriage as well as those threatened with forced marriage. But while the Scottish legislation makes forced marriage illegal, the UK law did not criminalize forced marriage. However, in 2012, the government announced plans for new laws that would make forced marriage a crime in England and Wales. Furthermore, parents who force their children to marry could be jailed under the new legislation.
Additionally, the UK created a Forced Marriage Unit (FMU), which works with embassy staff to prevent British nationals from being forced into marriage in other countries. It also rescues those who may be held captive, assaulted or already forced into a marriage overseas. In 2007, the unit rescued and returned 167 British citizens to the UK. Furthermore, within the UK, the FMU provides assistance for actual and potential victims of forced marriage, and fosters extensive community education and outreach programs. It has the first known national helpline and houses a staff fully trained to deal with the emotional, cultural and social issues surrounding forced marriage. The FMU also offers extensive guidelines to social workers, educators, police and health workers on providing services for forced marriage cases.
By comparison, the United States has no specific laws preventing forced marriage, and it has not done much to address the problem. The closest it came was at a federal level with The International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriages Act, which was proposed to Congress in 2009. But the bill’s focus is on protecting women and girls in developing countries, as opposed to tackling the problem of forced or early marriage within the United States. And although some states, including the District of Columbia, have statutes that criminalize forcing an individual into marriage, the laws are not designed to prevent forced marriage or punish its perpetrators. In all actuality, most of these provisions arise in the context of laws on abduction, prostitution and defilement of a minor.
The dearth of laws, and other supporting initiatives, in the United States could largely be attributed to the country’s perception that forced marriages only occur in lesser developed countries, and are not a problem within its borders. But as some of its counterparts have come to realize, a Western government cannot underestimate the nature of forced marriage as a deep-seated institution fueled by powerful value systems committed to ensuring its existence and continuity. Hence, even after settling in the West, immigrant families, from countries where forced marriage is the norm, continue to uphold their tradition for generations. Such was the experience for Australia. In 2012, its government awoke to the shocking prevalence of forced marriage in the country, following the publication of a report entitled Hidden Exploitation: Women in Forced Labor, Marriage and Migration. The Australian government immediately moved to criminalize forced marriage, with penalties reaching up to seven years in jail, and to set up services for victims and training programs for front-line agencies.
In 2011, a similar outcome was reported for the United States by the Tahirih Center for Justice (Tahirih), following its groundbreaking National Survey on Forced Marriage in Immigrant Communities in the United States. The results confirmed that forced marriage is an existing problem in the United States that affects people of different faiths from 56 countries. Respondents also identified as many as 3,000 known and suspected cases of forced marriage in 2009 and 2010. They also suggested a significant population of “hidden victims” beyond the cases identified through the survey. Almost half of the respondents reported that the victims had been subjected to physical violence. The survey further affirmed the deficiency in context-specific services for victims as well as proper training for front-line service providers to recognize and handle forced marriage cases.
The Tahirih Center for Justice, which also launched its Forced Marriage Initiative in 2011, is an award winning nonprofit organization that has long been on the forefront of a movement to confront forced marriage in the United States. In addition to tracking and responding to forced marriage cases, it is focused on creating more awareness on the depth of the issue and the dire need for supporting services. Tahirih further aims to establish a national response to the crisis that can enable victims to safely resist or escape forced marriages.
To a large extent, the practice of forced marriage exists in Muslim communities because conflicts between Islamic precepts and local or jahiliyya customs and values have remained unchallenged. The disturbing trend has been that Muslims often make Islamic ideals subservient to their ethnic customs. The ability of parents to force their marriage choices onto their children can be reinforced by the attitudes of spiritual leaders who share the cultural norms and values of Muslim parents. Efforts to condemn or halt the practice are often met with great resistance amid cries and allegations of a “Western propaganda against Islam.” Sometimes, those attempting to stop the practice are accused of causing fitnah (disruption) in the land, and risk being ostracized, physically assault or even murdered.
Therefore, given this seemingly hopeless state of affairs, enacting laws to criminalize forced marriage does appear to be the most viable option for controlling and ending the problem. But, while it is important to call for such laws, however, legislation is not enough. The ineffectiveness of the law lies not in its content but in its implementation. Even the UK, with its formidable legal framework, recognizes that its laws alone would not make a difference without additional comprehensive community-outreach initiatives. Furthermore, in Muslim society, it is not uncommon that those charged with enacting and enforcing the laws are themselves involved in the practice of forced marriage, and may very well have a vested interest in preserving the custom. It also is highly imperative for all to recognize that unless the practice is tackled at its core, the world will only continue to treat the symptoms and not the disease.
So, when it comes to Muslims, the absolute key to eradicating forced marriage is correct religious education; only Islam can overpower cultural norms in Muslim communities. Imaan (faith) is the most superior value of Muslim life, and a sacred spiritual contract between a person and his or her Creator. The goal of every Muslim is gaining the pleasure of Allah (glorified and exalted is He) and attaining paradise; and anything that can jeopardize this desirable outcome is avoided at all cost. Hence, the educational initiatives also must excavate faith from patriarchy by incorporating curriculum that distinctly separates indigenous cultural practices from Islam. As an anonymous author aptly stated “These things don’t happen, because of people obeying the doctrine of their religion, but because of people staying ignorant towards it.”
An ideal methodology for the educational program would be a top-down approach with religious leaders, across the globe, being in one accord and consistently communicating and enforcing the message that forced marriage is definitively unacceptable in Islam. One such laudable example is the campaign launched in 2012 by Sheikh Amer Jamil, an Imam in the city of Glasgow in Scotland. Sheikh Jamil firmly believes it is time for religious leaders, like him, to actively take on the responsibility of educating the community that forced marriage is not allowed in Islam. To that end, he has begun spreading the message through teachings and educational leaflets that he hands out in mosques and Islamic centers. The campaign, which also is backed by the Scottish government, is expected to be rolled out to other cities across the country.
Quite simply, there is no justification for forced marriage, and, clearly, the practice is unacceptable in Islam. Those who invoke Islam to justify this outrageous custom do so for ulterior motives. The versed and the empowered, with the ability to halt the practice, choose to look the other way while thousands are compelled into matrimony, raped, physically assaulted or murdered in the name of “worldly honor.” As I conclude this piece, which became a personal journey and more than just words on a screen, yet again, my heart is heavy for my many Muslim sisters who sit in fear, and sometimes in hope that is dashed as they are led as sacrifice to the alter. So, once more, I put forth the questions that have and continue to confront our Muslim community: how many more lives have to be devastated before Muslim leadership stand up for true Islam; how many more women have to be impaired for life before forced marriages end in the Muslim community; and how many more women have to die before the life giving hand of Allah (glorified and exalted is He) is allowed to supersede that of the deadly claws of jahiliyya.
“Verily, Allah does not do the least wrong unto men,
but it is men who wrong themselves.”
Qur’an, Yunus 10: 44
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This above was written by Habiba Kavalec,
an IslamAwakened contributer and Director of Hospitality at Masjid At-Tawhid