“Forced to Marry”: A Look at the Documentary

Last week’s “Friday Links” linked to a story of a documentary about forced marriages of young Pakistani-British girls to men in Pakistan. I followed the link and decided to watch this new British documentary. I found the film, called Forced to Marry and which aired on BBC Two on December 1st: fascinating, frustrating, disturbing, chilling, sad, and, at times, hopeful and heartening.

Saira Khan. Image via BBC Two

Saira Khan. Image via BBC Two

The film, which was filmed, produced, and directed by Ruhi Hamid and narrated and presented by Saira Khan, begins with the dire statistics that each year thousands of girls from Britain are taken abroad and are forced to marry, many of them in Pakistan. In fact, Khan notes that more British people are forced into marriage in Pakistan than in any other country. In the documentary, Khan follows staff members Albert David, Neelam Farooq (both Pakistanis), and Theepan Salvaratnam (British Vice Consul) of a unit set up in Pakistan by the British Foreign Office which finds and rescues British girls in Pakistan who have been forced into marriages, in hopes of finding out why young British Pakistanis are being forced to marry.

In the documentary, we are presented with the cases of four British Pakistani girls – Tanya, Aaliyah, Zara, and Rubina (all aliases) – who the unit tries to rescue. With each rescue attempt, I found myself getting nervous and tense. The unit confronts those involved (without showing their faces on camera) and the chance of confrontations becoming tense and dangerous always seem high. However, each confrontation is resolved in some way or another, as the unit is intent on keeping tensions and altercations of any kind at a far distance.

The documentary is eye-opening as it tells the stories of the girls in order to to explain this particular, and seemingly increasing (a 40-45% increase in just one year), problem the U.K. and Pakistan face. When telling such stories, one has to perform a sensitive balancing act: expose the problem without stigmatizing a marginalized community. This documentary does this well. First, the documentary ensures to clarify the difference between forced and arranged marriages, the latter of which are still very common in South Asian cultures. The documentary also mentions numerous times that such forced marriages are un-Islamic.

At one point this distinction becomes bittersweet when Khan speaks with young British Pakistani girls about the issue and they state that it is not Islam but rather the culture. So in defending religion, they implicate culture. I was not sure how to feel about this. I cannot deny that the issues of family honour and “parents know best” are not a part of South Asian culture, but such expressions (i.e., forced marriages) are extreme. Yet, working as a double edged sword, this same depiction of culture as the culprit portrays the parents of the girls as victims of the culture, bound by traditions of honour and having to fall to the pressures of families and bradries (brotherhoods, or castes). This, because it is obvious that the young girls profiled in the film are torn and conflicted. They want to leave Pakistan, they do not want to be forced, but at the same time they love their parents and do not want to hurt them, despite their parents forcing them into marriages. By depicting the parents as victims just as much as victimizers, one sees the complexity of the issue as well as the inner struggles of the girls being rescued.

The film ends back in the U.K., with Khan speaking with British Pakistani writer and broadcaster Ziauddin Sardar who has written books on British Asians. He calls for a reform of laws criminalizing forced marriages. A law which has since become reality. He accurately points out that the attempt of the parents to create closer ties with family in Pakistan by forcing to marriage their children to family in Pakistan has actually ended up tearing families apart.

The film left me feeling sad for the young girls who although portrayed as victims in some ways, were also the ones who instigated the rescues. They were always given the choice of leaving or staying. The unit was just a means for them to escape. And the unit, although a British initiative, was made up mainly of Pakistanis rescuing British girls. However, I wondered, as did Khan, about the many girls the unit was not able to help.

The film left me feeling angry at the parents who force their children to marry to uphold traditions that they may hold dear but which are detrimental for the children involved. The film left me feeling frustrated at the loyalty some of the girls felt to either their parents or in-laws. However, being South Asian myself, I understand that sense of loyalty, honour, and respect. I also understand my own privilege for having parents who would never force me to do anything, thus making my adherence to such cultural practices easy. The film also left me feeling hopeful that there are resources for these young girls (and apparently boys as well). Finally, I felt sad for the Pakistani girls who are forced into marriages, who do not have the Pakistani government to come to their rescue. The issue of forced marriages in Pakistan, of both Pakistani nationals as well as British (and others perhaps), is obviously a problem which must be highlighted and thus such documentaries are a necessity.

You can watch the documentary below, or on YouTube here. I highly recommend watching it.


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