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Havens for Those Whose Love Is Seen as Crime

Britain tries to help victims of forced marriages, but the aid reaches only a few.

August 07, 2004|Chetna Purohit | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Jack Briggs is no criminal, yet he has lived on the run for 12 years. He is afraid to give his real name or that of his wife, Zena, because her family has threatened to kill them both.

Zena was born into a strict Muslim family of high caste in the northern English town where her parents had immigrated from Pakistan in the 1950s. Jack was born into the broken home of a working-class British family in the same town.

They met in a local park in 1992 -- Jack was 30, poor and uneducated; Zena was 21, rich and promised in wedlock to a distant relative in Pakistan whom she had met only once.

First friends, then lovers, Jack and Zena dreamed of marrying one day. Jack became a friend of her family, helping out occasionally in the family businesses, "but Zena told me never to speak to her father or brothers of our relationship," he said in a recent interview.

Later that year, Zena ran away from home to be with Jack. "She turned up at my place with about 12 suitcases," said Jack, a slight figure, soft-spoken but determined to get his story told. "She had to leave most of them behind in the end.

"We phoned the family that evening to tell them Zena was all right," he recalled. "The oldest brother came on the phone, and it was then that my education started. He said that no matter how long it took or how much money he had to spend, he would find us. He was going to employ bounty hunters, private detectives ... and when he found us, he was going to make sure we'd be found in several bin liners," meaning garbage bags."

The couple began an odyssey, moving from hostel to hostel, their story greeted with disbelief by police and social workers.

Twelve years later, police, government officials and local charities believe their story, but still, Jack and Zena are hunted by her family seeking retribution for damaged honor.

Arranged marriages, common in many cultures, are often celebrated between consenting adults. In such marriages, the families organize the introduction, but the couple has the final choice of whether to accept the arrangement.

But some families force their offspring into marriages of convenience, a form of barter in which it is difficult to resist family pressures.

The British government now recognizes that so-called honor crimes -- violence committed against those who are perceived to have dishonored the family -- are a real threat to men and women of many cultures and religions throughout Britain. But the help it offers reaches only a few.

Four years ago, the Foreign Office set up a Community Liaison Unit to help victims of forced marriages.

"We find it's a problem that afflicts people from everywhere in the world and from every religion. It is by no means just a Muslim or an Asian problem," said Margaret Walker, who works in the unit. "We see about 250 cases a year, but we don't see all of them, by any means."

Some who have fled their families stay underground. Others contact organizations such as the one run by Shaminder Ubhi, who is haunted by the memory of a girl forced into marriage at 16. "Her husband was violently abusive," Ubhi said. "She was pregnant several times but miscarried each time because he used to beat her."

Ubhi is director of the Ashiana Project, based in East London, which runs a refuge for women fleeing forced marriages. The group offers a culturally sensitive service to women seeking help and refuge from domestic violence.

The majority of Ashiana's clients are women ages 16 to 30 who are escaping forced marriages or the possibility of one. They come in search of either a haven or merely someone to lend an ear to their story.

Ubhi agrees that forced marriages affect many groups in Britain, including South Asians, Iranians, Turks, Chinese, Japanese and Africans.

"South Asian feminist groups are the ones making the most noise," Ubhi said. "In other communities, these networks haven't been strongly established, and so the problem hasn't come to the forefront, even though it exists."

Shahera Khanom, 21, lives in a women's shelter run by the Newham Women's Asian Project in London. Eighteen months ago, she ran away from home "because my father wanted me to marry a man in Bangladesh," she said in a telephone interview. "He said it would be a good life for me. I had never met this man, but I found out he was 40 years old and a milkman."

Khanom is young, educated and has "hopes and dreams for my life. But my dad only said if I didn't obey him and marry this milkman, for him I would be dead."

She left home when her father started beating her. "He threw me downstairs, and I was hospitalized several times," she said. "I do think my dad sometimes regrets what he's done, but he can't change the way he is, and I know that for him I'm dead."

In cultures that have forced marriages, Ubhi said, "everything has to do with family honor."

In this light, marrying into the same culture and thus maintaining a common heritage upholds family honor.

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