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Forced marriage app – treating the cause or the symptoms?

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Originally published for The Backbencher on 23/12/12


This week, the Freedom Charity, together with the Metropolitan Police, launched a new smartphone app to help young people who may be at risk of being forced into marriage. The Freedom app, we are told, provides young victims with essential access to help and all the information they may need on the issue at the touch of a button.  Detective Chief Superintendent Reg Hooke, of the Met’s child abuse investigation command, said: “We wanted to produce something that would empower young people by giving them advice and information”.

Certainly, the problem of forced marriages is not going away. In 2011, there were 1,468 instances where the Forced Marriage Unit gave advice or support related to a possible forced marriage. But statistics are not always reliable. I know of at least a dozen people who were forced into marriage – yet they will not be counted in those statistics. Why? Because they did not tell anyone.

The problem with this app though is that, not only is it limited to those with smartphones, but also, if the victims of forced marriage are taken abroad, as many are, and their telephones (assuming they have a smartphone) are confiscated from them, how are they going to access the app?

Further to this, I’ve come across several people who, before going to Bangladesh or Pakistan, gave their friends in the UK copies of their passports and contact numbers to give to the police in case such a thing were to happen to them. So it is not that victims are necessarily unaware of who to talk to or who to contact, but rather their own reluctance to come forward to report that they are being forced into marriage. Those that do report it already know who they can contact. In this respect, the app does not seem to do anything new.

ForcedMarriage1  Should schools do more? Karma Nirvana, a charity that supports victims and survivors of forced marriage and honour based abuse, seem to think so. They received a letter from a teacher who teaches in a school in England. This teacher met Jasvinder Sanghera at the NUT conference stall and was encouraged to display our Helpline poster. This lasted 24 hours as within this time the Head teacher tore them all down and the teacher was called to her office and told they must not be displayed as she did not wish to ‘upset Muslim parents.’

I’m sorry but what does cultural sensitivities have to do with breaking the law and violating human rights? ‘Cultural sensitivities’ means, for example, being aware of not serving pork to a Muslim person or beef to a Hindu, not reminding parents that forcing a child into a marriage is against the law and a violation of human rights! This strange notion of not wanting to offend ‘cultural sensitivities’ is downright offensive in itself.

‘Honour’ and ‘Shame’

Asian and middle eastern women in the UK have to cope with conflicting roles and living two lives to maintain their cultural identity but survive in the dominant society. I’ll be perfectly honest here – there are certain things that even I cannot do, (or will not do) because I have been brought up with this notion that anything that goes against certain traditions and customs will bring shame and dishonour upon my family.

Admittedly, it is changing in my generation, and it is slowly dying out, and I could not care less what the ‘community’ say. This ‘community’ who, by the way, consist of a group of busybodies who take it upon themselves to know what everyone is up to in order to snitch on them to their families, while conveniently forgetting the fact that their own child is hardly perfect.

But every family worries what the ‘community’ will say, so because of this, even I have to take into consideration of how my family would feel of being gossiped about. It is still there in the back of my mind that I must do whatever is necessary not to bring shame on them. This can range from the more serious (marrying outside one’s ethnicity) to something so trivial (socialising in the evenings), and I’m certain that this is not just something I go through.

Victim of forced marriage  It is such a heavy burden to place on one individual, being reminded on a regular basis that they must not bring ‘shame’ on the family, that they are being watched all the time by members of the community to ensure they do not transgress.  It is something you cannot truly understand until you have been through it yourself.

One person, who is dear to me, was forced into a marriage, and almost escaped on his wedding day until he was caught by a relative and told to come back. “This isn’t right,” he was told. “Just come back, it will be fine, you’ll see.”  He had so much potential, so much he would have achieved in his life, but was never given the chance. He is a shell of his former self. But if that has taught him one thing, it is that he would never put his own children, nieces or nephews through the same thing.

A friend of mine was forced into marrying her cousin from Pakistan. She was not threatened with violence, or taken to Pakistan against her will. Rather, her own mother told her that if she did not marry this boy, she would kill herself. And so she obliged. Emotional blackmail is a powerful weapon.

She could have reported the incident to the police, you may be thinking, but what child wants to see his or her parents behind bars? All those gossiping busybodies pointing fingers and speaking in hushed tones as they walk by, “there goes that shameful girl/boy who reported her/his parents to the police”. No matter what the parent does to the child, only a handful of victims would want their parents to suffer. And so they suffer in silence instead.

This is what many organisations, including the police, miss out. It is not a case of threatening a girl or boy with violence. Most of the time it is done with emotional blackmail, as mentioned in the above case. Victims often endure years or months of psychological pressure, and often feel they have no one to turn to.

Many times I have spoken to non Asian friends and colleagues, who all just say the same thing, that they should live their own lives without caring what their parents think or say.  But that is easier said than done. Try telling someone who has had to endure this psychological pressure for decades to “just leave” and see what their reaction is. They are hardly going to thank you, because in many instances, there is nothing that they can do.

It does come down to a difference between the cultures. In south Asian and middle eastern families, you are not an individual. Instead, you are part of a collective identity, i.e. your whole family, tribe or caste, and anything you do impacts them. This is especially true of women, who are often seen as possessions of the male members of the tribe or family. Therefore, simply telling a victim of forced marriage or other disputes to leave their family is pointless. Without your family, without your tribe, who exactly are you? What is your identity without them? That is why many victims will not come forward, for fear of ostracising their entire family and being disowned. For it is far better to remain in an abusive family, and be part of that collective identity, than be outside the clan, having to forge a new identity for yourself.

Victims need more support rather than just more laws, as very few will want to report their parents. They need to know that there is a support system out there, people who will understand what they are going through, who will be there for them should they have to leave their family to start afresh, which is why more people need to be aware of the cultural reasons behind forced marriages.  So while the app is certainly an innovative idea, it ‘treats’ (if even that) the symptoms rather than the causes.


Written by Iram Ramzan

December 23, 2012 at 9:41 pm

Integration: whose responsibility is it?

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Originally published for The Backbencher on 16/12/12


FOLLOWING the release of the 2011 census, it was inevitable that immigration and integration were going to be subjects of great debate.

Earlier this week, the Labour party leader Ed Miliband, speaking in south London, described his enthusiasm for ethnic diversity in the UK, while claiming that ‘too little’ has been done to integrate people within British society.

He said:

    “Some people say that what we should aim for is assimilation whereby people who have come here do so only on the condition that they abandon their culture. People can be proudly, patriotically British without abandoning their cultural roots and distinctiveness.

    But there is another idea we should also reject: the belief that people can simply live side by side in their own communities, respecting each other but living separate lives, protected from hatreds but never building a common bond – never learning to appreciate one another. We cannot be comfortable with separation. It blocks opportunities, leaving people at the margins. And it breeds ignorance, suspicion and prejudice. Instead, we must think of the home we build together in all its richness, variety, diversity.

    With an immigration system (under Labour) that allowed two million people to come to the UK over ten years, there is a degree of anxiety about Britain’s cultural identity and the levels of immigration.”

   The issue of identity becomes even more complex when one learns that up to two million people in the UK are mixed race. Is this important for integration? Certainly: US scholars consider intermarriage rates as the gold standard of integration due to the intimacy and social implications.”

Why is your dad brown and your uncle is white?

A friend of mine, Omar Mehtab, who lives in Ilford, grew up in a mixed and diverse background. His maternal grandfather, an Indian Muslim, married a Pakistani Hindu woman, while his paternal grandfather, a Pakistani Muslim, married a German-Polish Catholic woman. Furthermore, his Hindu uncle married a Seventh-day Adventist  Brazilian woman.

Growing up, he said, he never noticed the differences in the family – as he rightly pointed out, children aren’t born racist or prejudiced. “The only time I noticed the difference is when someone asked me, why is your dad brown and your uncle is white,” he said.  As well as this, he went to a school that had a mix of pupils from diverse backgrounds.  “I’m glad I’ve had this,” he said. “It’s given me different cultural and religious viewpoints. My generation is a product of a mixed environment – we love it.”

Many friends and acquaintances of mine have said something similar – that the reason they are so open-minded and well integrated is down to, a) – their own open-minded and diverse families, and b) – their own willingness to integrate and mix with a diverse group of people.

Which brings me  to my next point – to what extent are families to blame for this? As pointed out earlier, racism is taught; no one is born racist or prejudiced.

The 2001 UK Census showed that people from South Asian backgrounds were the least likely of the minority ethnic groups to be married to someone from a different ethnic group. Only 6 per cent of Indians, 4 per cent of Pakistanis, and 3 per cent of Bangladeshis had married someone outside the Asian group.

This could possibly change in the next few years, who knows, but I believe that there are certain prejudices and barriers there that have been long-held by the elders. Although some of them are no longer with us, the subsequent generation absorbed some of those views – you are a product of your environment.

As the study by Shamit Saggar and Will Somerville shows, there are several factors that drive successful immigrant outcomes:

“One of these is proximity to…buoyant local labour markets. In London, the professional service and corporate business sectors have been important in generating demand for highly educated and skilled employees. This signal has been received and reflected in middle-class Indian educational patterns… This has not been seen in the case of many Pakistani immigrants, whose settlement patterns were concentrated in declining heavy industrial areas of northern England.”

Poverty and deprivation lead to a lack of integration

  Poverty and deprivation are major factors which lead to a lack of integration, and in areas with high levels of deprivation, there will be high levels of tension between the different ethnic groups, and people will live in clusters and blocks, not really mixing with people of a different background to theirs.

The Pakistani immigrants who first came to the UK to work in the mills brought with them their culture and their way of life. Subsequently marrying off their British born children to their nieces and nephews from their village abroad has continued this mentality. This trickles down to the children. (Forgive me for discussing Pakistanis mainly, but this is my background and a group that I’m more familiar with)

Lejla Kuric, a 36-year-old businesswoman in Manchester, originally from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, has faced racism from both English and Pakistani people alike, for being married to a British-born Pakistani man. Although his family accepted her without any objections, others have not been as tolerant.  She said: “On one occasion, a group of Asian lads had a go at my husband at the Trafford Centre, saying, ‘why, oh why is he with a white woman?’”

Of course there will be idiots, and downright vicious people everywhere. But there are people out there who will hold such views because of the way they have been brought up – certainly with some Asian children, they will pick up such prejudice from their parents, who will no doubt talk about the ‘shame’ and ‘dishonour’ of marrying someone from outside their ethnic group.

“We don’t like pakis, they smell”

  When I was in primary school, being the only Asian girl in school at the time was challenging at times but the overall experience was fine. The children did come out with racist terms, but I do not believe they were racist – I believe they were simply repeating what they had learned from their parents.  For example, in class one day, a boy sat next to me said, “We don’t like pakis, they smell…but we like you Iram, you’re okay!”

Of course I was okay (actually, no, I’m fabulous!), because they knew me, they were my friends. Which got me thinking, how many other ‘pakis’ would they think were ‘okay’ after they had bothered to get to know them?

Although Lejla was abused with terms such as “Eastern-European c*nt,” “immigrant,” “white paki,” and “guest in this country” that has “no right to comment on British politics”, her experience of Britain overall has been pleasant.

  She said: “In general I found British people open, friendly and tolerant and I found Britain multicultural and a very tolerant society. This meant it wasn’t difficult for me to accept the British identity, and preserve my Bosnian identity at the same time.

Again, we see this issue of identity cropping up again. How do immigrants preserve the identity of the homeland while maintaining their British identity too? If they are to live in the UK peacefully, tolerating other people, which aspects of their culture do they retain, and which do they abolish?  Additionally, whose responsibility is it to integrate – is it the role of the host community or the immigrants?

Language is a gateway to a culture

Omar believes that while it is the job of the immigrants, he also thinks that English people, in general, are not really aware of other people and cultures.  Part of this could be down to the school education system. Apart from Ireland, the United Kingdom is the only EU country where learning a language at school is not compulsory. As a result, only 44% of school pupils took a modern language GCSE in 2009. The figures are even more dire at A-level: fewer than 5% of all A-level entrants sat a language exam last year. After all, language is a gateway to a culture.

Education and awareness should begin at an early age. But if parents are prejudiced, is it then the school’s responsibility to tackle such prejudices and allow children to become more open minded?  There are certain schools where 90% of the pupils will be of one ethnic group – although schools are reflective of their areas (in a majority Asian district, the majority of the children in that school will be Asian), there should be a policy which should tackle this.

In Oldham, two schools were closed down to merge into one big academy school in order to tackle the issue of segregation between Asian and white children (though many politicians still do not acknowledge that Asians segregate themselves from other Asians too, e.g. Bangladeshis against Pakistanis).

It is difficult to say whether this project has been successful yet, but it might be a case of too little, too late. The damage may already have been done, which is why early intervention is necessary.

There is so much more that I could say, but time is of the essence (and my editor must be furious!), but please do share your thoughts and opinions on what we, as a nation, can do to integrate better and educate our young.

Written by Iram Ramzan

December 23, 2012 at 9:35 pm

What’s in a name – for ethnic minority women, a job

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Originally published for The Backbencher on 09/12/2012


BEING unemployed does not do much for anyone’s self esteem. When you have sent countless job applications (I have sent at least 50 in the last two months alone), you begin to doubt yourself: “Is it my lack of qualifications”, you wonder, or “perhaps it’s the effect of the recession we are in”.

Or maybe it is because I’m too ‘ethnic’ for some employers?  The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) said in its report that ethnic minority women face discrimination “at every stage of the recruitment process”, which has led to BME women having to ‘whiten’ their CVs by dropping ‘ethnic’ names.

One woman, who is half-Bangladeshi and half-Arab, explained that changing her name to seem less typically Muslim had resulted in “a clear increase in interview offers”, and eventually led to a permanent name change by deed poll.  As if that was not bad enough, she then faced even more discrimination in her workplace for not being white enough.

I was tempted to pretend to be shocked and incredulous (we’re living in a multi-cultural country after all!) but why bother? I am not surprised at all.  We may all be British, but we are most definitely not equal.  Your race, religion or ethnicity are still defining factors that affect your employability and there has not been a significant improvement in the last few decades.

A friend of mine faced discrimination while on work experience during university. “When they saw my name on an application, they joked about having too many Arabs in the department already,” she said. “And I’m not even Arab!” As though that should even matter.

In 2011, the overall unemployment rate for ethnic minority women was 14.3%, compared with 6.8% for white women. Among Pakistani and Bangladeshi women it rose to 20.5%, and 17.7% of black women also being unemployed.

Muslim women who wear the hijab reported discrimination and women of all three ethnic groups reported questions asked about intentions regarding marriage and children, which was often tied to assumptions based on ethnicity – for example it was assumed that Muslim women would want to stop work after having children.

Sara Khan, Director and Co-founder of Inspire, believes this report  highlights how BME women face discrimination at every stage of the recruitment process.

“I’ve delivered empowerment training and worked with many Muslim women including Pakistani and Bangladeshi women who are identified as being particularly affected by high rates of unemployment,” she said. “These women fully recognise the even lower glass ceiling that faces them and this is highly dis-empowering. Much more needs to be done by the Government to assist these women, who remain colour-blind and whose policies, the cuts in particular, are hitting women the hardest in particular those from BME backgrounds.”

I could not agree more. As a female media insider, rather lamentably, told me, “the glass ceiling is still there. In fact, it has been cemented over.”  It is frustrating being told to “keep at it” and “just hang in there”, especially from my white, male associates who are in no position to talk, as most of them have no inhibitions and do not understand how it is to struggle financially.

I thought the reason for my lack of success may have been down to lack of experience in certain areas, geographical location, or even certain cultural factors, such as not being able to move out (though that is an article for another time), but now this report has made me doubt my abilities and qualifications.

Maybe my ‘ethnic’ hard-to-pronounce name (I am often, quite frustratingly, called ‘Imran’ instead of Iram) is holding me back?

Perhaps, dear readers, I should do a James Caan, and ‘whiten’ my name. Any suggestions?

Written by Iram Ramzan

December 23, 2012 at 9:24 pm

Stalkers Stalked: New Law Is Just The Start

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Originally published for The Backbencher on 02/12/2012


ALICE (not her real name) was stalked for five years. Her stalker sent her husband poison pen letters, type- written in order to conceal their identity.  Everything was noticed and mentioned in detail: the car she drove, her clothes, the friends she had, the parties she attended, where she went, who she saw. Everything.

The letters proceeded with alarming regularity, often two in one month. Someone was out there, watching. The language was crude, offensive, personal and hateful.  It affected Alice greatly.  She’d walk through the town centre wondering, “Is it you…is it you? Are you doing this?”

Eventually, three years ago, she called the police, who she says were sympathetic. Although they made the right noises, the investigation was closed as they couldn’t find the culprit. Fingerprints were evident, but as the person wasn’t on their database the case was closed.  Although the five-year ordeal stopped, Alice never found out the identity of her stalker. The most incredulous thing, however, is that until this week, what happened to Alice would not have been described as stalking in the context of the criminal justice system.

Previous laws on harassment and stalking were “not fit for purpose”

On Monday, two specific criminal offences of stalking (stalking and stalking involving a fear of violence) came into force in England and Wales for the first time. The new offences sit alongside ones of harassment in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.   The Home Office minister Jeremy Brown said the new offences are designed to provide extra protection for victims, highlight the serious impact stalking can have on them and help bring more perpetrators to justice. This comes after an independent parliamentary inquiry, which found the previous laws on harassment and stalking were “not fit for purpose”.

They also found that 120,000 victims, mostly women, were stalked every year, but only half lead to a reported crime and only one in 50 incidents leads to a conviction. Mr Brown said there is some evidence that making stalking a specific offence helps convict more people, after Scotland brought in similar laws two years ago.

He went on to say: “Stalking is an appalling crime that destroys lives. The impact on victims can be devastating and we are doing all we can to make sure they have the protection they need and do not have to live in fear.

“These new offences send a clear message to offenders that stalking is a serious crime and they will be brought to justice for making others’ lives a misery.”

Certainly this legislation will be welcome from organisations such as Protection Against Stalking and the Network for Surviving Stalking who have been aiming for precisely this. These new laws are long overdue. Stalkers wreck decent peoples lives. But this legislation must not be the be all and end all – legislation can only do so much. The system needs to try to stop the cases from escalating. Abusers were often charged with the less serious offence of harassment. This resulted in more lenient sentences of 12 months or less in prison, and many being granted community orders.

Stalkers will repeat-offend until they are treated

This is just the beginning of a wide range of measures that should be implemented to tackle this crime seriously. Alexis Bowater, chiefexecutive of the NSS, said that stalkers will repeat-offend until they are treated, so there needs to be mandatory treatment, and there needs to be better support for victims. Police have, at times, been accused of not providing adequate protection and support for victims of stalking as they do for the rich and celebrities.

Harry Fletcher of Napo, the probation union, who was an adviser to the parliamentary inquiry, said: “What you have is the ‘fixated threat assessment centre’ set up by the Met in 2006 to protect the rich and famous but the thousands of ordinary people do not get anything.”

This must be addressed. Many years ago domestic violence was dealt with in the same way as stalking is now. Hopefully, with better training and guidance from charities and organisations that deal with stalking, police can stop stalkers and victims can feel more confident in the system, knowing that the authorities understand their ordeal, which can then lead to more prosecutions of perpetrators.

There is still a lot that needs to be done. Let us hope that this legislation is one step in the right direction.

Written by Iram Ramzan

December 23, 2012 at 9:18 pm

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