The plight of thousands of young women, who are deceived, abducted and forced into marriage in Pakistan by their families settled in the UK came into the limelight at The Second Floor (t2f) Café through the screening of ‘Forced to Marry,’ a documentary by noted Producer/Director Ruhi Hamid on Tuesday evening.
The documentary was as an attempt to create a ‘space for dialogue’ about key issues in Pakistani society. A crowd of sixty, ranging from young college graduates to senior citizens had gathered at the cafe for the event. The film, which has been aired on the BBC, gives the viewer a candid, often heart rending look at what it means to be in the shoes of a young girl being made a pawn of arcane traditions demanding that she must uphold family honour, while serving to unite the community through marriage.
Much of the documentary is shot in various parts of rural Pakistan, where the team joins the British High Commission rescue unit in extracting girls who are UK citizens. The young women are essentially trapped by their in-laws with no means of escape, as there is little or no public transport in remote areas of the country, and victims are under constant surveillance. The few who do manage to make contact with British authorities do so by means of hurried calls or text messages through mobile phones.
During the discussion that followed the viewing of the documentary, Hamid pointed out that many of the girls were forced into these situations as minors, when they were as young as 12 or 13 years old. She said that the film aimed to generate awareness regarding the fact that arranged marriages such as these are a clear infringement on fundamental rights of a human. The documentary also touched upon the role of religion in this issue, showing how Islam was being misconstrued by parents to create added pressure against any resistance offered by their daughters. Through the words of many Muslim girls shown in the film, it was made clear that Islam does not allow for someone to be married against their will.
The documentary was also quick to point out subtle nuances involved in this destructive tradition. British writer and broadcaster, Ziauddin Sattar who was interviewed in the film said that while the parents of these girls believe marrying their child back in Pakistan will serve to bind the, ‘clan’ together, in reality, many of the girls are exiting such marriages and returning to the UK with permanently broken ties with their families. “We need to declare forced marriages as a criminal activity. We have to criminalise it. There is no other option,” he said.
Currently, the Forced Marriage Act in the UK gives British courts the power to issue protection orders that can stop intimidation or violence and prevent someone from having to go abroad, but it is up to the women being forced into marriage to stand up against their families. Hamid said: “If I, as an Asian woman don’t challenge this issue, no one will.”
The overall consensus of the discussion was one of recognition that forced marriages are not binding clans together, but causing the destruction of families. Much of the debate and questions raised by the audience focused on the need for documentaries such as this to reach out to audiences inside Pakistan, so that much-needed change in culture can begin from its root source. While being aired on the BBC, a number of younger audience members pointed out that the film was also accessible via downloadable torrent files on the Internet, which allowed the dialogue to move to a larger forum.
Hamid has been at the forefront of tackling the oft-ignored issues of Muslim women during her career as a director/camerawoman. She has made numerous films for the BBC, Channel 4, Arte and Al Jazeera International including “Women and Islam” and “The Rockstar and the Mullahs”.