Conservative Women's Muslim Group

Marriage – A Woman’s Choice?

* Sayeeda Warsi, Vice Chair of the Conservative Party – Inner Cities
* Jasvinder Sanghera, author of 'Shame' and co-founder of Karma Nirvana
* Caroline Spelman MP, Shadow Secretary of State for the Department of Communities and Local Government
* Dr Shazia Ovaisi, Chairman of the Conservative Women's Organisation's Muslim Group

Chaired by:
Lady Fiona Hodgson, Chairman of Conservative Women's Organisation (CWO)

Lady Fiona Hodgson

Lady Fiona Hodgson began by welcoming everyone to the meeting and introduced the panel.

Dr Shazia Ovaisi

Shazia spoke about the background as to why the Muslim Women's Group was set up, together with its aim and philosophies. The CWO she said, had been the backbone of the Conservative Party for the last 75 years. Without their tireless work and campaigning on behalf of women, the Party would not have won the women's vote and without the women's vote, there would not have been a Conservative government in previous years.

Last year, the CWO sent a delegation to the US to meet with the Republican Party and one of the issues that arose was the current level of tensions between the Muslim and non-Muslim world, particularly since 9/11 and 7th July. Many issues needed to be tackled. Shazia stated that 'we all have a stake in the future of this country, no matter what your political persuasions or religious affiliation. We are all in this together.'

However, she noted that historically in Britain, Muslims - who form approximately 2 million of the population and represent the second largest religious community after Christians - have tended to vote Labour. However, although Muslim men have been canvassed, the same cannot be said for Muslim women and issues which are relevant to them have not been championed by any political Party – that is until now.

After last year's trip to the US and as part of David Cameron's agenda of 'reaching out', the CWO decided to set up the CWO's Muslim Group comprising of both Muslim and non-Muslim Conservative women. Its aim is to promote greater dialogue and understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims and to dispel some of the myths and misconceptions that exist: 'We want to create and inculcate views amongst Muslim women which are open, expansive and all-embracing and to spread core Conservative values of equality and democracy and of aspiration, achievement and change'.
Shazia further noted that the Muslim Group was committed to working together to get its message out across the country and to regain the women's vote.
Finally, Shazia informed the audience that the Muslim Group would be looking at an array of issues affecting Muslim women and the first of these was marriage - with tonight's session exploring the problem of forced marriages. She then handed over to Lady Fiona Hodgson who was to chair 'Marriage - a Woman's Choice'.

Jasvinder Sanghera

Jasvinder began by saying that she always took every opportunity to speak before an audience on this issue as in her opinion she represented the survivors of forced marriages.

Jasvinder told the audience that she was now 42 years of age but was only 14 years when she first learnt of her parent's intentions to marry her off. She had come back from school and was presented with a picture of the man she was to marry. Of course, she had seen her sisters be married off but suddenly, it was happening to her. By the time she was 15, the pressure – mostly psychological – had increased. When she stood her ground, she was locked in her room and denied any freedom of movement.

Finally, she ran away to Newcastle as 'no wasn't an option' – that to her, signified it was a forced marriage. She further stated that it had not been her intention to run away but merely to prove the point that she did not want to get married.
However, the consequences of her actions soon became clear when she finally plucked up the courage to ring her mother after a few weeks of leaving home. She proceeded to read from two chapters of her book 'Shame' (her story about escaping from being made to marry a man against her wishes and the reaction of her family). Her mother had shouted: 'Thanks to you I can't walk the streets of Derby any more; I can't go the gurdwara (i.e. the Sikh temple) because people are talking. People spit at me'.

After a pause, her mother continued: 'You'll get what you deserve for ruining your family. You'll see. In a few months time you and your chamar (i.e. lower caste) boyfriend will be rolling around in a gutter which is no more than you deserve. You will amount to nothing, nothing, do you hear me? I hope you give birth to a daughter who does to you what you have done to me, then you'll know what it feels like to raise a prostitute.' Jasvinder tried to defend herself, only to hear: 'Live your life then, and good luck to you. In our eyes you're dead.'

Jasvinder then read a passage detailing a telephone conservation between her mother and herself about her older sister Robina – who had secretly kept in touch with her, despite disownment by the family.

'What's happened?
She said, It's Robina….She died….She's dead.'
My brain refused to process this. No….Robina was my living, breathing, vibrant elder sister; she was part of me…We'd shared a bed, we'd walked to school together, she bought me clothes for my wedding, I'd seen her just a week ago. 'What do you mean, dead? How has she died, Mum?' The word came out mechanically. I was on autopilot.
There was a pause. I thought I heard a sob. 'She committed suicide. She set herself on fire and died in hospital'.
The world seemed to stop.
My legs went weak and I felt completely hollow. Numb with shock, I stood there listening to this weird, sub-human noise. Then I realised it was howling, and it was coming out of me. I steadied myself up against the wall and said, 'Mum, I'm coming to Derby, Right now'.
'No.' she said it really loudly. 'Don't come to Derby. Don't come here; don't show your face here. You'll just make things worse.'
'Mum. Robina is dead. Are you not going to let me come to the house?'
'No. You will make it worse.' She hesitated. 'You can come when it's dark and nobody is here.'
I said, 'Mum, please….'
'No. I'm telling you, you'll make it worse.'

Jasvinder closed her book and turned to the audience: 'That's what you get when you fight for your rights. You're seen as the perpetrator, not the victim'. Jasvinder told the audience that suicide amongst 16-24 year old Asian women was 2-3 times higher than the national average. Forced marriage was a real issue. Her organisation, Karma Nirvana, dealt with 7 forced marriages cases a week (of both men and women). She implored the audience that one should 'Never make a woman believe forced marriage is alright'. Her family had made her believe that to go against her family, she had shamed them.

She observed that the Home Office's Forced Marriage Unit dealt with 250 cases a year, 50% of which concerned minors. She lambasted the political correctness that had allowed the practice of forced marriage to continue. It was a human rights issue in her eyes. She supported Lord Lester's Bill on Forced Marriages as it ensured that forced marriage was seen as a crime.

Jasvinder then told the stories of two women who had not survived:

Ruhksana Naz
Her family had found out she had a boyfriend and was forced to marry someone of their choosing. Upon marrying, she became pregnant and her mother, on the mere suspicion that the child was not her husband's, told her to abort the child (she was 7 months pregnant) or the family would kill her. One day, her mother and brother took her down to the cellar. Her mother sat on Ruhksana's legs whilst her brother strangled her to death.

Banaz Mahmoud
Banaz was 16 years old when she got married. At 20, she walked out on her arranged marriage and went to live with her family. She went to the police on 4 occasions and informed them that she would be killed. Each time, she was set home. She then wrote a letter to the policy naming the people who she thought were going to kill her, including her father and uncle. Her body was eventually found chopped up in a suitcase in Birmingham.
Jasvinder said that sponsors needed to understand that family members are capable of hurting these women. Normally, women who come to Karma Nirvana have already been to 4 sponsors.

She finished by saying that her struggle was not about demonising Asian culture – none of the Asian religions promote forced marriage. She said that she would continue to fight despite the increasing threats to her life. However, she needed support from like-minded individuals.

Alistair Burt

He spoke briefly on the need to tread on the cultural eggshells that have allowed the practice of forced marriage to continue.

Sayeeda Warsi

Sayeeda began by saying that normally, whenever she starting she speaking, she started with a joke, but not today. Jasvinder's story had left her speechless.
She said that a friend had bought her a copy of Shame in March. She read it during an 8 hour flight to Pakistan and somewhere over Russia, she cried. Her mother had turned to her, asking her what was wrong and Sayeeda had heard herself saying, 'Mum, you probably wouldn't understand'.

She told the audience that so much in Jasvinder's book had resonated with her as a woman. The issue of forced marriage was now fashionable but when she was practising as a lawyer, it had been impossible to get people engaged in the debate, as they were worried about being 'culturally sensitive'. She borrowed a phrase from the Labour MP Mike O'Brien that 'cultural sensitivity was not a reason for moral blindness'.

Sayeeda also said that one reason that she became involved in politics was that she was appalled that Asian women were not seen and when they were seen, their voices were not heard. This fact was brought home to her when she was watching the coverage of the July 7 bombings – everybody was speaking on television but where were the women? And again during the debate on the veil, she saw Jack Straw and Muslim men appearing on television but again, not a single woman.

She also told Jasvinder that she would not describe her own emotions towards her as empathy but rather a deep-seated respect. Moreover, it was interesting to hear Jasvinder use the expression 'prostitute'. It was one of the words that she had heard when she stood for election. A man asked her why she was standing: 'Politics is like prostitution,' he said. She knew what it was like when honour and shame are used as ways of holding women back.

Caroline Spelman

She proceeded to inform the audience that it takes someone like Jasvinder, with direct personal experience, to make politicians sit up and take notice. She hoped to see Jasvinder in politics one day and of course, also Sayeeda Warsi.

She noted that before she entered politics, she had not realised how difficult it was for men to listen to the needs of women. Caroline also emphasised that an issue such as domestic violence or forced marriages need to be treated cross party, simply because 'it was right to do so'. One also needed to 'do the right thing' in drafting the legislation dealing with such issues and specifically, unintended consequences needed to be thought through. The best way to do that she said, was to road test the legislation and talk to past victims.

More importantly however, it had to be understood that legislation could not fix the problem. For example, 200 women a week still die every year due to domestic violence. Baroness Scotland has noted that we still see the same number of cases of domestic violence as when the legislation was first brought in.

However, Caroline observed that the underlying culture behind such practices was one of the hardest things to change. She said that one needed to put up an adequate support structure to ensure that victims are taken care of. However, statutory authorities such as schools, which can be on the look out for early warning signs, are not stepping up the challenge. Until they do, we will not get a safety net around the victims. Caroline finished by saying that we have got to look at the underlying causes behind any practice and tackle that root cause just as effectively as passing appropriate legislation.


Q1: 'What is the Conservative stance on the forced marriages Bill? Has the party taken of board the recommendations of others?'

Answer: 'The Conservative Party supports the Bill. We decided to take the bill into the field of civil law as criminalising forced marriages would have taken the practice underground. In opposition, we have tried to make the bill more effective - particularly to make it safer for victims to come forward – and to change the culture. Yes, we need to listen to the recommendations of the various groups who came forward before the bill was formulated. The key now however is to make subtle changes to make the bill more effective' [Caroline Spelman].

'I have heard that perpetrators of forced marriages should be treated the same as paedophiles. However, a girl won't come forward if she feels that her family's actions have been criminalised. I would love to see forced marriages criminalised but it would actually hurt many girls' [Sayeeda Warsi].

'Women don't even own forced marriage as a crime. The issue of forced marriages is underground anyway. One of the things that has happened due to not criminalising the practice is that it has sent a message that 'it's not even against the law. We have got to do preventative work. Social services don't cater for forced marriages as they first contact the parents, who are the perpetrators! Also, the guidelines need to be made into statutory instruments to ensure that statutory authorities implement them' [Jasvinder Sanghera].

Q2: 'How does one deal with the question of arranged marriages? There can be a fine line between an arranged and forced marriage. Often a woman's consent is only due to psychological pressure. My answer would be to say that we need to ascertain valid and true consent and the only way to do that is through dialogue'.

Answer: 'I have seen that 20 years after an arranged marriage, the woman says she was forced. Sponsors do not understand the fine line between arranged and forced marriages. But it is important to remember that many marriages also go wrong and we need to respect the tradition of arranged marriages. That said, we need to ensure that support networks exist to help women when they need it' [Sayeeda Warsi].

Q3: 'We have the same problems in Canada. Legislation doesn't solve the problem and we need to try and change the culture. The keys are education, social services, the police and media (in particular). We need to secure the goodwill of these keys. Moreover, the UK authorities would be advised to get in touch with organisations operating in other countries e.g. the Iqbal Institute in Pakistan, which I recently visited'.

Answer: 'The media has helped immensely in raising these issues. Prime time television, radio and newspapers now devote stories to issues such as domestic violence. With respect to the police, a commons phrase used to be 'it's only a domestic'. However, because statistics show that victims are more often than not, domestic, the new line is 'It's a domestic – get down there'' [Caroline Spelman].

Q4: 'At my college in Croydon, 70% of students comprise of minorities and 50% of those are Muslim girls. I did a survey with parents on the issue of marriage. They would say: 'You understand our problem. We get them forced married as: (a) there are not enough Muslim boys in the UK; and (b) we promised relatives that we'd get their sons here. When there are lots of Muslim boys from the same family living in the UK, we won't be forcing marriage on our girls'

Answer: 'At a time when there is a heightened media campaign, the type of campaign that was used for domestic violence could be damaging to the Muslim community. Therefore: (a) the Muslim community must own the campaign so that they are not victimised; and (b) we need Muslim men to take this issue forward' [Sayeeda Warsi].

'I cannot speak in my community, even though I am a survivor. Survivors want to engage with the community' [Jasvinder Sanghera].

Q5: 'We have an enormous amount to do, but our group of diverse individuals in Wolverhampton has been very successful in getting people involved. Change is not going to happen in 5 minutes, as the problem is multi-layered. Legislation is helpful, but we need to also have some complimentary legislation to ensure that the culture behind such practice is also changed'

Answer: 'The response needs to be the same response and there cannot be excuses for cultural sensitivity' [Jasvinder Sanghera].

Q6: 'I work with Jasvinder. One case we saw was that of a girl whose father had murdered her. He was sentenced to 14 years and the judge said that the sentence had reflected that he had taken on board 'cultural issues''
Answer: 'You saw that attitude in domestic violence cases. It was better to hit a stranger than one's wife' [Caroline Spelman].

Dr. Shazia Ovaisi then read a piece from a woman who could not speak at the panel discussion. The lady in question had been married at 14 without any formal education and had become clinically depressed. She was determined to change her life and at 27, enrolled in Muslim girl's school. She became the first pathaan (i.e. from the Northern tribal belt of Pakistan) women's development worker. She then studied complimentary therapy and is now a therapist. She was 'fed up with dreaming and found a reason to hope' and is now trying to provide a beacon of light to others.

Q7: 'We need to look at the reasons why parents force their children to marry and why a loving parent suddenly becomes a monster. Two reasons are that: (a) economical – parents marry their daughter to someone back home so that the boy in question can come over the UK and then support his family; and (b) the ideology that girls in Britain are seen as not being good. They need to get married to a boy back home so that they become culturally good and get in touch with their roots'

Answer: 'I hear the reasons but it doesn't make it right. How can a family treat you that way? The biggest challenge is to reduce the isolation of women' [Jasvinder Sanghera].

Q8: 'There seems to be a reluctance to move towards legislation as it would alienate the Muslim community. How can you prevent trampling on some rights in order to protect others?'

Answer: 'As the opposition, we can seek to better the law through amendments. When the House of Lords raised the point that by criminalising forced marriages, one would drive the practice underground, I agreed. We should not see the issue of forced marriages in a short-term prison, linked to issues such as Iraq. It is a fact that in cultural geography, subsequent generations become more pure than from where they started from. Furthermore, as can be seen from today's discussion, we are not singling out Muslims. This issue affects other cultures as well' [Caroline Spelman].

'In 1999, the first report on forced marriages, prepared by Lord Nazir Ahmed and Baroness Uddin, was published. It has been 8 years since that report. There has been a period of inaction on the part of the Government. As a result of the Government's inaction, one will soon see certain announcements by the Conservative Party' [Sayeeda Warsi].

Q9: 'The amount of forced marriages between cousins has serious health implications. Also, as a result of my research, I've found that Asian girls have a dressing table culture. However, parents are forcing us to tell lies'.

Answer: 'We need to realise that: (a) this practice is happening in the UK; and (b) it is not a vote winner (but that is not a reason not to do it). The Government should send out a strong message on forced marriages. One also needs to note that the world doesn't revolve around London. However, people elsewhere don't know that the Forced Marriages Unit is a national resource and that it's for them too' [Jasvinder Sanghera].
Q10: 'Can the panel please tell me their views on raising the age of sponsorship from 18 to 21?'

Answer: The age was raised to give a girl some breathing space. But at 18, girls could be forced to support the boy or be sent to Pakistan. We need to make people aware of this problem' [Jasvinder Sanghera].

Q11: 'I just wanted to clarify that the bill is a civil bill, it is aimed at prevention and that the Bill now gives statutory backing to the guidelines'

Answer: 'When someone goes overseas to get married, the marriage should only be valid in the UK if they had first registered their consent to marry so that parents know that if they force their children to marry without their consent, it won't be lawful (currently, if you get married overseas, you don't have to register your marriage in the UK)' [Sayeeda Warsi].

'The question is getting the right piece of legislation. A declaration of consent would shift the position where the girl is made to feel like a victim. It puts young women in a position that they know that their consent becomes essential' [Caroline Spelman].

For further information about the CWO, or to arrange an interview with anyone named in this release, please contact:

CWO Chairman
Tel: (020) 7984 8139