Fighting forced marriage in Scotland

I’ve been kind of bummed out with news recently. With all the bloodshed in Nigeria (read this excellent Associated Press report about a pastor who was killed by Muslim extremists as he prepared communion) the bombing in Kabul right after President Obama signed a pact in Afghanistan, what the Chinese government is doing to the family and friends of Chen Guangcheng and all the torture in North Korea, sometimes the news is just hard to handle.

But the BBC has a rather nice story about a Muslim scholar who is on a campaign to end forced marriage in Scotland:

A Muslim scholar has launched a groundbreaking campaign against forced marriage in Scotland.

Shaykh Amer Jamil says the practice has no place in Islam.

During the next few weeks leaflets and sermons are being given in mosques as part of an initiative to educate the community.

“In the Muslim community there’s a misconception amongst some people that religion allows this, that parents have an Islamic right to choose partner of their children, and that they don’t have a choice in this,” says the Glasgow-based Imam.

The article goes on to explain that the scholar receives calls, emails and texts every week from young people at risk of marriage against their will. The news alerts push forth a rather shocking number of stories about the plight of forced marriage around the world. And that includes Germany, Scotland and even in the United States. You may remember that the San Diego family of the murdered Shaima Alawadi — we discussed coverage of her murder here, here and here — was allegedly forcing a daughter into a marriage she opposed. (By the way, ever since the family drama was unveiled, coverage of that story has fallen off dramatically, but I did find this related story with another interesting religion angle to it.)

The story mostly gives the perspective of Jamil and has him explain what the youth are saying. We learn that his goal is to explain to parents that forced marriage is unethical, immoral and religiously wrong.

While there is a long standing tradition of arranged marriages in Muslim communities – that have the consent of those taking part – forced marriages can involve kidnapping, physical and mental abuse.

Although the majority of victims are women it also affects men.

I spoke to a young, successful businessman in the city.

Last year relatives in Pakistan forced him into a marriage against his will while he was there on holiday. It was to protect the family’s honour, which is why he does not want to be identified.

“There was a guilt factor about the image it would leave in the family. The relationship it would leave my mum and dad with the elders in Pakistan forced me into doing something I would never have done otherwise,” he says.

What frustrated me about this piece is that I wished for much more explanation of why Jamil teaches it is wrong to force a marriage. There are vague references to Mohammad being against it — and you can certainly find more about that on the internet but it would be nice to get some specifics. But what would also be helpful is to know how various other Muslims justify the practice, particularly in light of what is said about forced marriage in Islam’s sacred texts.

Here’s the bulk of the religion content in the story:

Shaykh Jamil believes that it is time for religious leaders like himself to educate the community that forced marriage is not allowed in Islam.

“The only thing that can break a cultural norm for Muslims is the religion,” he explains.

“So when you come down and say in Islam the prophet was against this practice, nobody can argue with you,” he says.

Shaykh Jamil admits it is a position that has made him unpopular with more traditional elements of the community.

“You’re seen as a troublemaker. But there’s a responsibility to young people who are suffering.”

Argh. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear from some of those people who are engaged in the practice or are advocating for it? It’s a huge hole in the story. I mean, I guess it’s possible that we’re talking about masses of Muslims throughout the world who have never heard what Muhammad said and will turn on a dime once they do, but something tells me the story is infinitely more complex than that. Are there ambiguous scriptures that others use to defend the practice? Since forced marriage is something that happens, sadly, in many diverse Muslim countries — from Asia to Africa and the Middle East — it’s not something that can just be chalked up to cultural traditions, but clearly cultural traditions are an issue and are shaped by many factors.

I’m left very confused as to why forced marriage remains such a humongous problem in some Muslim communities and this story doesn’t really do anything to change that.

I love that we learn about this campaign and how religiously focused it is, but more details would be helpful.

Image of bride via Shutterstock.

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  • Peter T Chattaway

    Heh. When I saw the headline, my first thought was of Pixar’s upcoming movie Brave.

  • carl jacobs

    The problem is that this particular Muslim scholar lives in Scotland. What particular credibility does he have to speak for the broad understanding of Islam that is found outside the West – specifically in those countries dominated by Islam? What, for example, would happen to him if he said these things in (say) Saudi Arabia? I worry that journalists are anxious to present a more western-friendly version of Islam, and so they go find ‘western-friendly’ stories. But we never hear the understanding of Islam from the locations where it is actually defined. After all, what happens in Scotland isn’t going to drive what happens in Saudi Arabia. What happens in Saudi Arabia is going to drive what happens in Scotland.


  • Bill

    There are many societies where family/clan ties are extremely important. Political power flows along ethnic and tribal lines, and allegiance to family, clan and tribe is far more powerful than loyalty to an abstraction such as the nation-state.

    In such societies, the stability of the family and clan is considered far more important than romantic frivolity, and marriages are often arranged to strengthen family relationships. I wouldn’t want to be in an arranged marriage, but when you look at the social context, they are not as irrational as first appears.

    It is interesting to see an imam trying to fit Islamic teaching within Western social structures. I suspect this is happening everywhere.

    The NYT has a breezy and positive piece this morning about a prom for muslim girls. No boys. (No word if they had their own prom.) The Times handled the story far more gently than they have stories about Christian abstinence.

  • Protestant Sean

    Respectfully, the piece is rather better written than your post, which conflates “arranged” and “forced” marriages. The author of the article correctly distinguishes the two by stating, “While there is a long standing tradition of arranged marriages in Muslim communities – that have the consent of those taking part – forced marriages can involve kidnapping, physical and mental abuse.” Your headline conflates the two, as does the line “Since arranged marriage is something that happens, sadly, in many diverse Muslim countries…” In your usage, arranged=forced, when that’s not always the case.

    Arranged marriage has been the norm for most of humanity for most of its history and is still common in much of the world. In India, for example, arrangement is the common way of forming couples in all religious communities–Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. Sure, some are forced, many have problems, but most seem to work out at least as well as those of the “choose your own soulmate” method of the West.

  • Mollie

    Protestant Sean,

    You’re completely right. I meant to say “forced” in both of these cases. I’ll fix.

  • Jerry

    sometimes the news is just hard to handle.

    Amen. There are times when I also need to disconnect from the news and remember that God is in charge.

    And the distinction between forced and arranged is a good one. I worked with a Hindu man who went back to India to get married in an arranged marriage but one in which the two parties consented. I’ve not seen him for years, but the last time I did, the marriage was a happy one.

    carl jacobs is conflating Islam and Catholicism. There is no Muslim Pope in Saudi Arabia ruling ex cathedra on Islamic law.

    This is one case where we should have a direct reference to a Hadith, an example from the life of Muhammad. led me to another search which led me to

    “Khansa bint Khidhan who had a previous marriage, related that when her father married her and she disapproved of that, she went to the Messenger of God and he revoked her marriage.” (Bukhari, Ibn Majah)

    “A [girl who was not married] came to the Messenger of God and mentioned that her father had married her against her will, so the Prophet allowed her to exercise her choice.” (Abu Da’ud, on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbas)

    That original article should have included one of these two incidents in the story.

  • Julia

    What about all those arranged royal weddings over the centuries between Christians who happened to be sons and daughters of kings and queens? I don’t think they had much choice in the matter in most cases. Would they be considered forced marriages? What Christian writings or authorities justified them? How are they different from Muslim forced marriages?

  • sari

    Another thing missing from the article is nationality. Are the parents forcing these marriages natives of Scotland or are they immigrants from Muslim countries? The topic may have become relevant as children of immigrants internalized mainstream values and came into conflict with their more traditional parents. Tradition may carry the weight of law, even when no actual law, religious or otherwise, supports it.

    Anyone remember Fiddler on the Roof?

    This story is about religion -and- the conflict between competing cultures.

  • Bill

    Anyone remember Fiddler on the Roof?

    Sari, I thought of Yenta and I’ve been humming “If I Were a Rich Man” all day.

    I also thought of Julia’s point that there are arranged marriages in the West, too – or at least semi-arranged marriages. Charles and Diana had romance and choice, but there was an undercurrent of royal obligation, too.

  • sari

    Oh, yes, Bill. Arranged marriages have been around for a long time. In Julia’s example, when royalty were thought to rule by Divine decree, religion validated the practice.

    I thought of Fiddler, because it’s a good example of tradition superseding religious law. Nothing in the halakhah supports forced marriage, yet it became the norm in the Old Country for parents to dictate their children’s marriage partners. Some sought input from their children; many did not. There are still some groups, mainly Hasidic leaders, who arrange marriages when their children are very young.

  • John M.

    The Taliban–to the degree that the Taliban were ever monolithic on anything–forbade the long-standing “conservative” Pashtun practice of settling blood feuds by cross-marrying daughters in forced marriages between clans.

    This, along with forbidding pederasty–I can’t call it bacha bazi, because that means “boy fun” and that makes me sick to my stomach–is another example of the Taliban standing against conservative Pashtun culture.

    There is no one Islam.


  • Julia

    There’s also “Monsoon Wedding”, a movie from not too long ago wherein a modern Indian woman decides that she might do better having her parents pick the groom. It does turn out better. Great movie for many reasons.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The interesting thing is that in one article I read on the Alwadi case they quoted an aunt (I believe a sister of the deceased) saying that the girl was getting married to her counsin of her own free will and choice.

    This caused me to think that at best the marriage is more complexed than a simple “arranged” or “forced” marriage. The girl and her counsin evidently got engaged during a trip to Iraq in the summer of 2011. It seems that the family wanted the marriage, but the daughter at least for a time may have also come to decide she wanted the marriage.

    At some level I would say the biggest problem is the assumption that “foced” marriage is the ultimate antithesis of the “free and open” marriage we have in the west. Still, since in 1999 I had a high school counselor who would speak of her Polish/Italian American daughter marrying a black man with language straight out of Guess Whose Coming to Dinner and this counselor was at least as genrerally liberal as the white parents in that classic film, I would have to say that marriage is always a more prescribed act, at least having imput from family members at multiple levels, than we want to admit. The line where “arranged” or “forced” marriages start is much more fuzzy than we realize.

    Good journalists will avoid the term “forced” and will consider when speaking of arraged marriages, if the men and women involved have any choice to say “no” if they do not want it. “Forced” marriage just does not cut to the heart of what is actually happening.