Forcing Her Hand

Two families, several nods of appreciation, the bride’s head dipped in maidenly shyness, the promise of wealth and status, and soon the wedding bells are ringing. An arranged marriage is on the way – a marriage where the man and woman are both consenting to spending the rest of their lives together.

Coercion, threats, and deception are the three words that ring in my mind as I think of forced marriages. Usually organized by the family members, this issue cuts across cultures, religion, and ethnicities. Families force young women and girls into this type of marriage to control or punish unwanted behavior, for migration purposes, to strengthen or maintain business ties, or to protect cultural and religious ideals.

Once a woman has been chosen for this type of marriage, there is little opportunity for escape. Approximately 85% of the victims are female and aged 13-30, and the average age is dropping lower and lower.  

Forced marriages are an issue of human rights, gender inequality, and child protection. The impacts of forced marriage on victims are devastating - ranging from loss of education, domestic violence, sexual assault, poor mental and physical health to problems with pregnancy and childbearing due to the young age of victims, social exclusion, and domestic slavery.

While the majority of forced marriages tend to occur offshore, it is never just an issue occurring in the slums of Bangladesh or the high ends of Indian society. It is astonishing to know that over the past two years, there have been 147 identified community service encounters with forced marriage victims across all States and Territories in Australia. Levels of reporting of these marriages are low because of the coercive nature of the relationships, the young age of victims, and the cultural/linguistic barriers. It is also astonishing to know that professionals tend to view forced marriages as cultural or religious practices so they do not report cases according to the appropriate child protection guidelines.

It saddens me how some young women are tricked into visiting their family’s country of origin for a holiday, only to find that there are plans to force them to marry. It makes me angry that there are husbands of forced marriages who beat, abuse, and harass their wives senseless on a daily basis. Forced marriages have no place in a just world.

I come from a background where I have been presented with opportunities and choices. Of course, my parents gave me guidance and made choices for me when I was still tottering around as a toddler. As I grew up however, and began to learn about the world we live in, I came to make my own choices – ones that would align with my morals and values. So you can imagine my surprise and tentative anger when my parents casually mentioned how my sisters and I would be having arranged marriages when we are older.

Initial thought: I’m only 15!

Thoughts after the conversation: This is so unfair.  

I do not want to see marriage as a business deal, just left to be decided upon by the assets of the partner. It may be the Jane Austen in me, but I believe romance has a strong place in marriage. Love is what is fundamental to the human race, and it is what we thrive on.

Yet my parents, and many like them from my culture, reason that in arranged marriages, the man and woman come from a similar background are therefore more likely to share the same views of marriage and family. Thus, they say, the chance of divorce is not as likely as two individuals with different ideals falling in love. They also argue that arranged marriages also offer more protection and security to both involved (both sides of the family can be counted upon as support networks when needed) and that because of their wise judgment, their choice for their future in law would be more suitable. Eventually I see that parents who choose to arrange marriages mostly have good intentions - they just want their child to be happily settled and well-off.

I argued with my parents on how our culture tends to view women in a lower standing in terms of decision-making. I blamed my religion. Yet further research showed me that while a large majority of victims are Muslim, Islam does not approve of forced marriages. To the contrary - Islam teaches that consent from both man and woman is must before a marriage can take place – the Qur’an states “O you who have believed, it is not lawful for you to inherit women by compulsion…” (4:19). I can now see that forced marriages are not an issue of religion, but rather a cultural practice that violates rights as a woman. But my parents still agree with arranged marriages.

So, it comes down to culture and how we choose to live by it. I am Indian but I am also Australian, I am Muslim but I am also open to other beliefs, I admire the traditional pen and paper, but I also enjoy using technology. The point is, I, amongst many others like myself, value my culture and traditions but embrace new ideas and concepts. It is why I believe forced marriages should never be accepted, because they are socially unjust in light of the effect it has on victims and the twisted message it sends to both men and women. Yet it is why I believe that in the end, arranged marriages come down to choice.

Forced marriages have no place in modern society; I yearn for a day when wedding bells would never ring for them.

By Lubna Sherieff, 16

Lubna Sherieff
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high school student