The Difference Between Choice and No Choice   1 comment


Whilst I was working towards my PGCE (a teaching qualification for those of you who don’t know), I had a placement in an all-girls secondary school in Birmingham.  Due to its single sex nature and the area of the country it is in, it therefore had a well-above-average number of Muslim students.  As my placement ran until the end of June, I became aware of one of the problems associated with Muslim schoolgirls that raises its ugly head at this time of year (i.e. the school summer holidays): forced marriages.

Before I begin to discuss this further, it is important to point out what exactly I mean by the term ‘forced marriages’.  You may have heard them referred to as “arranged marriages” by the media, but an arranged marriage is actually quite different from a forced one.  In the proper sense of the term, an arranged marriage is one in which the bride and groom’s parents have organised the coupling of their children during a process which allows the potential couple to meet beforehand to see if they are suited.  It is something which the bride and groom are encouraged to be involved in, even though the parents are suggesting possible suitors.  On the other hand, ‘forced marriages’ – as the name suggests – don’t allow the bride and groom to meet prior to the wedding and they are often thrown into it because one or both parties are not even aware that they are getting married until a couple of days before it actually happens.  It is an illegal practice (which is monitored) in the UK so the wedding ceremonies usually take place in countries such as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

This is in my mind because of a story which appeared in the news this past week.  A couple from Birmingham were reportedly murdered whilst they were on a trip to Pakistan to settle an “arranged” marriage dispute.  I say “arranged” because I am quoting the story as reported in the BBC News, but I am unaware as to whether this was more forced than arranged.  However, as the groom’s family were angry enough following an argument over it that they might have murdered the bride’s parents does suggest that it was more likely to have at least been forced by the groom’s parents though.  The MP for Perry Barr (in Birmingham), Khalid Mahmood, has said: “Honour killing is absolutely absurd in this day and age… Parents living in Britain should ensure their children understand the seriousness of rejecting a potential suitor from abroad.  If the child refuses the marriage, it’s seen as an insult.” That is, of course, another concern; that one family or the other feels angered or insulted by the potential marriage discussions – or either the girl or boy rejects the marriage proposal – and this results in a desire for revenge.  Obviously, so-called ‘honour killing’ is not the norm in the Muslim community; the media just wouldn’t be able to find a story if nothing happened (the same way they wouldn’t bother reporting if a bus manages to reach its destination, but they would get a story out of a fatal bus crash).

Forced marriages are a particular threat for Muslim girls from certain types of family and the risk is higher when they are in Years 10 and 11 of secondary school education, around the time of the summer school holidays.  The reason that summer is the peak time is because it is often presented to the girl as a holiday abroad or a trip to visit relatives who still live in their native Arab land.  Also, the age of 16, or nearly 16, means the foreign marriage certificate will be accepted more readily as valid in the UK because the child in question is over the age of consent (with parental permission) for marriage in this country.  Girls are the ones at risk because, in traditional Muslim culture, an unmarried girl is often seen as socially unacceptable: she should be encouraged (or forced) to marry as soon as possible.

Teachers are particularly concerned about this practice because it can lead to a disruption in the girl’s school studies and they understand that there is a real need to protect a child from this form of abuse.  The girl is being made to marry someone against her will and is left with no way out.  She will only go through with it because she realises that she cannot escape and would be disowned by her family if she did manage to get out of it.

The problems which secondary schools containing a female Muslim population face surround the issue of how can they keep these ‘at risk’ students safe?  Questions I find myself asking are:

  1. What support systems are in place?
  2. Does the “Every Child Matters” legislation help?
  3. How easy/ difficult is it for social services to ‘step in’ and help prevent it happening?

The answers to these questions are quite detailed – and you are more than welcome to explore these more in depth yourself (I would suggest starting with the Department for Education website) – but my simplified versions are below:

  1. Most schools don’t have specific systems in place unless they have a particularly high Muslim student population and there are no specific national systems either.  If a school has any procedures in place, it is most usually a sort-of teacher co-ordination scheme in which teachers collate information about students who they consider to be ‘at risk’ by sharing notes focusing on: monitoring a student’s behaviour (reporting any sudden changes); checking a student’s homework (for possible home-life disruption); highlighting any term-time holidays (might be a cover story); calling/ meeting with a student’s parents on a regular basis (to keep the family on side so may be able to have more influence later), etc.
  2. One of the things that the “Every Child Matters” legislation is meant to assist schools in doing is protecting vulnerable children.  It has given teachers more guidance on handling sensitive issues such as this and also more responsibility to report any concerns they have to the appropriate people (form teachers, heads of year, headteachers, and outside agencies such as social services if a serious matter).  Whether it ‘helps’ or not in this area is unclear.  The fast passing on of information is vital in these cases, but could also provoke a potentially damaging confrontation with the family.
  3. Social services can step in if the secondary school concerned can provide enough evidence, but the requirement of strict following of procedures can mean their hands are tied until possibly too late.

I would like to see more done to help stop the practice of forced marriages, but I recognise that it is a very sensitive area which needs to be handled with extreme caution.  What’s your view?

I hope this week has been informative – it has become more educational than usual because I realised that I probably needed to challenge some media stereotypes before I could introduce my arguments.

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Posted 14/08/2010 by thinkmindy in Morality, Religion

One response to “The Difference Between Choice and No Choice

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  1. Minders- If you want more info on this I have an article from the TES about a group that has been set up to monitor and stop forced marriages. They have a help line and will investigate any claims that are made by checking with the relatives as well as the boy/girl involved on a number of occasions to check that the marriage has not been forced. They will also bring girls back to the UK and give them a safe place to live while legal proceedings are brought against their relatives for the forced marriage. I’ll email you the rest of the details later when I’ve found the article among the 45 that are in my living room!

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