Critically discuss the importance of feminist theory in understanding forced and arranged marriage in the UK?”

Critically discuss the importance of feminist theory in understanding forced and arranged marriage in the UK?”


The third wave of Feminism today recognizes that women are of many ethnicities, colors, nationalities, religions and cultural backgrounds and that any feminist movement must take into consideration the plight of women everywhere. This essay takes into consideration a very important problem of today-Forced marriage and discusses the major feminist views which lead to the subjugation of women into such practices.

Calling Forced marriages “this most distressing issue” David Cameron said: “Forced marriage is abhorrent and little more than slavery. To force anyone into marriage against their will is

simply wrong and that is why we have taken decisive action to make it illegal. Forcing someone to marry is to become a criminal offence in England and Wales, leaving parents who coerce their children into a marriage facing the prospect of prison. We have spent time with those who work tirelessly to raise and address this issue and I want to send a clear and strong message: forced marriage is wrong, illegal and will not be tolerated (Alan Travis, Home Affairs Editor, The Guardian, Friday 8 June 2012).”

The Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, director, Diana Nammi said “Forced marriage is a violation of human rights itself, and can lead to physical violence, imprisonment, rape and even ‘honour’ killing. Women and girls from minority communities have suffered these violations for too long. The new law will empower them with the knowledge that what is happening to them is wrong and can be stopped (Ibid).”

The Home Office report for 2012 said that forced marriage unit set up by the government had provided guidance and backing to victims in nearly 600 cases this year, of which 14% were minors. Almost half of these cases involved families originally from from Pakistan (but living in Britain); the others were families from India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Turkey (Ibid).

These comments and statistics do reveal that arranged and forced marriages have occupied a lot of media as well as governmental attention. Let us then try to understand what is arranged and forced marriageForced marriages are forced marriages as the name suggests without the consent or against the will of the concerned party whereas arranged marriages are more or less match-making or match-fixing by parents, older relatives or a third party. Arranged marriages are more or less consensual though peripheral vested interests such as acquiring property or financial benefits, Visas etc cannot be denied. According to Enright (2009), “it is quite possible to identify the both in their individual context, the task of defining these concepts in more general terms is a complex one.” She rightly points out that “substantial slippage occurs across the forced-arranged divide. Thus, while forced marriage is the ostensible target of recent policy drivers, increasingly transnational arranged marriages come within their ambit-especially in the migration arena”.

Now it is vital for us to understand the dynamics of this forced attitude in feminist terms which has deep roots in “control” of the fair sex. By “control”, Connell (1987) refers to “the cultural lines of authority and coercion, the status differential between men and women that underlies the basis of our gender structure. There are countless means, both overt and subtle, by which male privilege is constructed in daily life”. This gender structure can easily be understood if we take into account the Feminist theory that defines gender as a system of stratification based on categorization that is created and recreated daily (Bem, 1993; Risman and Schwartz, 1989; West and Zimmerman, 1987).

Although gender is theorized within feminist scholarship as being forged at all levels of social life (Lorber, 1994), it is perhaps most evident in the family and other intimate relationships, where “gender is still seen even ideologically as a reasonable and legitimate basis for the distribution of rights, power, privilege, and responsibilities” (Thomson and Walker, 1995; and Komter, 1989). Historically, the family is a “gender-factory”, where the polarization of masculine and feminine is created and displayed (Berk, 1985).

This polarization can be seen quite apparently in the British families of South- Asian Muslim origin. And as far as forced marriages are concerned the Muslim women of South Asian origin are believed to be the main focus of new law-making in this area. The question that arises here is why are forced marriages linked mainly to South Asian Muslim population in the UK and also why only womenEnright says “In the first place, as a purely empirical matter, both forced marriage and arranged marriage are strongly, though not exclusively, associated with Muslims of South Asian origin: Similarly, the reputation of forced marriage is a profoundly gendered issue. The available data suggests that women vastly outnumber men in the pool of those who seek assistance in avoiding or exiting forced marriage (Enright, 2:2009).” This plight of women is precisely the reason that when one comes to think of debates about gender and gender studies, one witnessess that the tilt of gender studies today is more women oriented, though it is applicable to both the sexes. The reason for it primarily lies in the fact that women have been voiceless for long. And therefore today, most gender studies are almost identical with women’s studies. So our conclusion here is that forced marriage is a part of the cultural bent of South Asian communities which are more or less patriarchal, where male-domination is the norm and that is precisely the reason why women are mostly the victims of forced marriage.

The ramifications of forced marriages in society are evident. The United Nations consider it as a form of Human rights abuse, as forced marriages infringe upon the dignity of women curbing their freedom and autonomy. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “a women’s right to choose and enter freely into marriage is central to her life and dignity, and equality as a human being ( BBC (Ed). (n.d.). Introduction: Forced Marriage)”. In fact it is so demeaning for women’s dignity that some Feminists object to it even being called a marriage as it invokes the consensual legitimating language of marriage (such as husband/wife) for an experience that is precisely the opposite ( Bunting, 2012). Scholars suggest a variety of other names such as forced conjugal association and conjugal slavery (Catherine, D and Jenni, Millbank, 2010).

Since the past eight years, arranged and forced marriages have occupied a prominent place in the eyes of the Executive, Legislature as well as the Judiciary in Britain. Now there is bit of a thought to be given to this timing. According to Wright (2002) the impetus to this governmental intervention did not come from any single source but the beginning of the ‘war on terror’. Gabrrielatos and Baker (2008) opine that a media-driven growth in anti-immigrant sentiment played a significant role at its inception. Hussain and Bagguley (2005) believe that the violent social disturbances that took place in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley in 2001 were responsible for this increase in intervention. Ted Cantle’s (2001) investigation into the social life in the Muslim community moaned that “segregation was so pervasive in these communities that the Muslims and their majority neighbors were living ‘parallel lives’.” Cantle wrote that “[S]eparate educational arrangements, community and voluntary bodies, employment, place of worship, language, social and cultural networks, mean that many communities operate on the basis of a series of parallel lines. These lines often do not touch at any point, let alone overlap and promote any meaningful exchanges.”

Moving on to the cultural reasons behind such marriages, Baroness Murphy (2007) had some interesting comments on the topic. She says “Forced marriages are the consequences of medieval feudalism, paternal supremacy and the desperate desire to maintain one’s culture in the face of threats to it posed by there being insufficient local marriage partners of the desired restricted kinds for one’s offspring”. In a Choice by Right, we can see the cultural motivations and bindings of parents who force their children into marriages and who are misguided carriers of cultural norms. It opens with these lines: “Our journey as parents is our most difficult and treasured. As many of us have migrated to Britain, the innate sense of obligation to maintain our cultures, languages and traditions have sometimes overwhelmed our ability to develop as a natural family unit. The aspirations we have for our children are sometimes marred by the need to protect them from harm and from what is often seen as a Western influence”.

In the preceding two paragraphs we tried to understand the reasons for the prevalence of forced marriages. The first and foremost is the cultural reason whereby the parents of the immigrants are worried to save their cultural ethos form the influences of West. Coupled with it is the ‘Parallel Existence’ of different cultural groups where assimilation of cultural mores as Shared British Values has not been achieved due to the lack of any community binding, cohesive force. For sure, the social fragmentation as diagnosed by Cantle has been a direct result of racial and religious discrimination coupled with economic exclusion and then a subsequent ‘clash of cultures’. And then we see the hyper active governmental intervention that has steadily increased in the past decade, after the activities of home-bred terrorism increased. This has also added up to the prevailing atmosphere of doubt and distrust, thereby reaffirming people’s belief to stay aloof even as they stay together.

The problems do not end here. This prevalent atmosphere of distrust raises two more pertinent questions. Even if the state has an agenda in the post-terrorism era to discipline the Muslim population by intruding in what is called the Muslim culture, what are its limits To what extent can the state play a savior or emancipator On the other hand, should forced marriage be tolerated by the state for the sake of tolerance or to uphold respect for minority cultural mores. Even if the Muslim Culture or for that matter a broader South Asian culture puts bindings on women which are against all human dignity. As Gill (2005) points out that “these cultural precepts combine to construct gender roles which dictate precedence and control for men and accord Izzat based on the ability to control and protect women.” Women, she states, are expected to adopt a correspondingly passive role. The life of a South Asian Muslim woman is tied to two precepts of Izzat and Sharam, i.e. prestige and proper behavior to uphold and protect the family honor. Gill emphasizes that the task on women in South Asian Muslims of upholding the family honor may become more important than personal safety. Women are also used as a means or instruments of cementing business and personal bonds through forced marriages and this too is considered to be a part of their duty. The government’s role in this matter could be questioned, but what is beyond question and doubt is the plight of women who suffer at the altar of such religio-cultural beliefs. Even if we consider it as a well planned intervention by the government to get hold over the ever-growing Muslim population, we would still welcome steps to remedy the sorrows of the innocent victims caught between the cross-fire of religio-culture fanatics on one side and the opportunist government on the other.

To address this issue, the Cameron government intends to bring in legislation by 2013, which is designed to “give victims the choice of taking the civil route or making a complaint to the police leading to a possible criminal prosecution.” In addition, it will also be guaranteed that “victims will not be forced to support a prosecution against their wishes.” Furthermore, “a new forced marriage crime could also involve the creation of a new criminal offence of ‘luring’ somebody into a forced marriage.” Ministers have stressed that “arranged marriages are not to be mistaken with forced marriages, where no consent is involved.”

A Home Office impact assessment published earlier this year said that “a new offence could mean about 20 extra prosecutions a year and would need only eight additional prison places.” Officials have long argued that “existing offences of kidnap, abduction and harassment can be used to prosecute” in most cases. This announcement also includes a ?500,000 fund to “help schools and other agencies to spot early signs of a forced marriage over the next three years. A major summer campaign to raise awareness of the risk of forced marriage abroad is also to be launched (The Guardian, 8th June, 2012).” Furthermore, the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 is also appreciated for its praiseworthy effort to overcome culturally-specific hurdles and in facilitating exit from ruinous forced marriages.

However, all this is done at governmental level. At our level there is an urgent need to review issues of family and society, religiously public and private, male and female. King in the Introduction to her book says that “throughout most of human history there has existed an asymmetry in the relations of power, representation, knowledge and scholarship between men and women and thus there exists a large agenda to be addressed in order to overcome women’s invisibility, marginalization and subordination in history and society.” Agreeing to this Diana Eck and Devaki Jain in “Speaking of Faith” (p 64) say that from experience we know that many of the issues with which women struggle- the control of fertility, the responsibilities within the family, the inequality of wages, the distribution of economic and political power, the rampant spread of militarism-the resistance of women’s leadership- are deeply rooted in an old cultural presupposition about gender. If any change with regard to women is to be achieved, if their marginalization is to be marginalized, we will have to revise this religio-cultural understanding in order to not only grasp but modify the social role of gender. And this revision has to be very decisive as we see that there have been cases of passive agreement of young Muslims to arranged-forced as they have strong liking for resolving any disturbing dispute within the family to uphold the tenet of Izzat. Here Stopler (2004) applies Diana Meyer’s theory of traditional feminine socialisation. She argues that traditionally socialized women tend to lack the ability to disregard social pressures and to form a global plan for one’s life necessary to escaping a violent

relationship. Also as Phillips (2007) has observed, a woman is unlikely to be able to choose against culture and family unless she has somewhere ‘else’ to go. Reece (2006) agrees that “aside even from cultural matters, financial issues and the need to provide for any children of the marriage constitute significant obstacles to leaving an unwanted relationship.” Therefore, it is imperative to not only make laws but also to see that a conducive environment be provided for people to take courageous steps to mouth their views against their own subjugation at the hands of their own religio-cultural norms.

Considering the views of all feminists: Diana Meyer about the socialization of women whereby we come to know that the training which women undergo as women, somewhere, make them bear the burden of cultural subjugation, or Diana Eck who says that all problems which women face are deeply rooted in an old cultural presupposition about gender, that women find difficult to challenge or Reece’s view that financial issues and concern for children makes them toe the line of tradition: all these views point out to one reality that it is the women themselves who will decide individually what they want to make of their lives-maybe a Fourth wave of Feminism which will be an Individualistic Feminism rather than a movement, where each woman across the world rises to preserve her own dignity as a human-being, challenging such regressive traditional concepts as forced marriage!


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