Friday, 3 July 2009

When in Rome, how about remembering you are a Roman?

What are you up to this summer?
Island hopping? A beach holiday? A cricket tour? Watching Wimbledon? Whisking your underage offspring out to southeast Asia to marry them off to someone they've never met?
I'm only asking because, if that's your plan, the authorities are onto you.
Apparently teachers, doctors and the police have been given guidelines to help them 'identify and tackle the problem of forced marriage' now that forced marriage season is upon us. That's right, summer holiday is peak time for children to be taken to south Asia and forced to marry, says the British government. That makes sense, doesn't it? You don't want the sudden end of innocence and trust to mess with the underage bride's education.

But obviously this is no laughing matter.

According to recent figures released by the National Centre for Social Research more than 5,000 people are at risk of forced marriage each year. In Britain. The research is trying to stay neutral – to avoid accusations of Islamophobia – but the fact is that the vast majority of those 5,000 'people' are girls born to Muslim families of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin. That said, the research also has to stay neutral because their data is shaky and hard to obtain. For instance. The Centre believes that between 5,000 and 8,000 cases of forced marriage were reported in England in 2008 alone.
First thought: fucking hell that's a lot.
Second thought: if these forced marriages are reported, how can you be estimating in the first place, surely it's a hard number. Plus how on earth can you have a margin of error of this magnitude? 3,000 incidents is hardly a case of 'give or take a couple'.

Why on earth can we not count these incidents properly?
Part of it is because the people dealing with these incidents don't always understand what they are up against. And part of it is that those dealing with these issues, well, they'd rather they didn't have to.

The research found that there is a distinct lack of understanding among statutory service providers making the problem harder to spot. When is a marriage a forced marriage? Who needs to report it to make it real? If the bride bows her head and goes along with it yet her cousins call the authorities, is the marriage consensual? If the wedding takes place in another country, is it still our problem?
And isn't it altogether easier to put all this unpleasantness in the 'ethnic' box, plead 'cultural sensitivities' and let the whole thing carry on in that grey space of 'cultural practices' in which coexistence flirts with the ghetto?

Although schools have been instructed to be on alert, many are reluctant to look into this issue for fear of being accused of being disrespectful towards other cultures. Is that a true fear? Is that an excuse used by school staffers who do not want to have to deal with this? Is it a convenient shield for fathers who want to determine their children's fate in a country whose legislation does not permit it? And who should back down first in what starts as a conversation over a small girl's future and before you know it becomes a grand debate over multiculturalism? Well. That depends. On whether you care more about the epistemology of the question or the little girl.

Let me put it another way: Whose problem is it that underage girls are being married off against their will and before the legal age of consent?
If you ask me, I'd say this problem, like all others, belongs to those who cause it and those who can solve it. Those who cause it don't want to fix it on this occasion. And those who can solve it wash their hands on grounds of culture.
The government spokesmen are trying very hard to be firm in their opposition to forced marriages whilst not dismissing any religion or culture, coming up with the following gem in the process ' there is no culture, and there is no religion in which forced marriage […] is acceptable'.
I'll give you the religion bit, Mr spokesman, with the caveat that no religion embraces forced marriage in its pure doctrinal form. Because all religions have at some point condoned and many have embraced forced marriages in practice. And although I salute this commitment to wooliness, I'm afraid there are numerous cultures in which forced marriages are acceptable by default, because familial hierarchy means that daughters in particular (but also children in general) are not equipped with independent judgment or volition and decisions are to be made by the head of the household, family, clan or tribe for the good of all.
That's cultural. Not how we do things here. But how things are done elsewhere. Culture.
Culture is not all jingly anklets, lantern festivals and pinning money on the bride, you see.
Culture entails prohibitions and imperatives, duties and invisible lines of command. Every culture.
And in some cultural settings it is acceptable to marry off underage girls to people their families have chosen for them. In fact, in many cultural settings from South America to Africa and from Eastern Europe through Asia, this is hardly shocking. Not here. But elsewhere. The difference is that here 770 girls have already reached out to the Forced Marriage Unit this year. And it is feared that many more are too scared of their parents to pick up the phone, go to the police, speak to a teacher – in short, too scared to use the legal framework that exists and is on their side. They are here. And yet they are not.

But those who call, what do you think they say on the phone? Please sir can you protect me without antagonising my dad and insulting my culture? If not, forget about it and thanks for trying.
Or do you think they may be saying the exact opposite: I was born here and I was raised here and I used to think I belonged here. So if I am one of yours, regardless of creed and colour, why are you not making sure your laws apply to me when I need them most?

All I'm saying is their dads have forgotten about the old adage 'when in Rome'. Despite the laws and the discourse of freedom, their dads have forgotten to act like the Romans would.
What about the Romans?