Telegraph Wonder Women, June 2015
In many parts of the world, we are taught that our value and self-worth is based on our ability to attract a romantic partner.
But in some societies, there is much more at stake than self-esteem: social status, economic stability, and participation in community life are all considerations. Approaches to entering relationships are extremely strict, as perpetrators believe that family honour is demonstrated through ability to restrict individual autonomy; especially that of women.
That’s why we should be applauding the UK’s first ever conviction for forced marriage. Yesterday, a 34-year-old man from Cardiff – who cannot be named for legal reasons – was jailed for 16 years and also charged with rape, voyeurism and bigamy.
This case marks a victory for campaigners who fought hard for many years to make forced marriage a criminal offence.
Personally, I am very glad to see the proof that local authorities are becoming more adept at recognising where it happens, and how it might be an indicator of other symptoms and forms of honour abuse – which can include sexual and physical violence, female genital mutilation, exploitation, imprisonment, and forced childbirth or abortion.
Having escaped the threat of forced marriage at the age of 12, I wonder today how differently the lives of my own family – from who I am now estranged – might have turned out had this legislation existed when I was growing up.
The particulars of this case also highlight an increasingly common threat to individuals who are already at risk of honour abuse: revenge porn.
Merthyr Crown Court heard how the man lured his victim, a 25-year-old woman, to his home and raped her before secretly filming her in the shower.
This footage was then used to blackmail the woman into becoming his second wife. In societies where honour abuse is an issue, any perceived expression of sexuality, whether real or otherwise, can provoke extreme punishment, from family and the local community.
There is also no distinction made between sexuality and sexual assault – the victim usually bears the full brunt of abuse regardless. With the availability of new technology and the prevalence of social media, the ways in which victims can be coerced and silenced have become more sophisticated.
Polly Harrar, founder and Director of The Sharan Project, says: “Revenge porn is used as a catalyst to control a woman’s behaviour. There is a genuine fear of being exposed to family members and the community and this places many women at risk of further abuse due to so called honour.”
To try and understand honour abuse, it’s worth considering how perpetrators view sex and relationships – as something that has a direct impact on the standing of the family in the local community.
It can take painfully little to breach the bounds of ‘propriety’.
Choosing the ‘wrong’ kind of partner might be seen as shameful if they are from a caste, religion or ethnic background different from your own.
Deciding that you want to choose your own partner can provoke abuse. In the most extreme situations, simply being born a woman can escalate the risk of violence.
In these cases, female genital mutilation is seen as a preventative measure to control a woman’s sexuality, even before she has reached puberty. If existing in a world where you already adhere to accepted social norms incurs such severe abuse, it’s no surprise that those who identify as LGBTI often live in fear for their lives.
Indeed, there are ‘dating’ websites in existence that specifically cater to the needs of LGBTI Asians seeking to enter ‘marriages of convenience’. It’s not hard to understand why the element of blackmail in the Cardiff case was so effective, and you can appreciate the victim’s extraordinary bravery in speaking out despite the risks she most likely continues to face.
I can remember clearly where the boundaries of ‘honour’ lay in my parent’s view. As a young girl, I was expressly forbidden from talking to boys. A female relative once asked, ‘but what if we’re at the train station and a boy asks us for the time? Can we to talk to them then?’ The answer was no.
When I was eight, I remember being ‘asked out’ for the first time. I felt such a visceral sense of shame that I laid my head on my school desk and cried. Somehow I knew I’d done something terribly wrong to attract my classmate’s attention, or he wouldn’t have asked such a thing, and in front of other people – what if my parents found out?
In the run-up to my escape, aged 12, I dared to imagine some of the things I might be able to do that until that point were strictly forbidden. My dreams were not adventurous: being able to wear jeans, previously outlawed for being ‘too Western’, spending more time with friends, and not having to avoid social gatherings simply because members of the opposite sex might be there.
In later years, I understood clearly how I might expect to be punished for acting outside the strict bounds of propriety: I could realistically find myself on a plane destined for a strange country to be forcibly married to a man Id never met. After all it had happened to two close relatives before me, when they were teenagers.
Of course I’m one of the lucky ones – I was helped to leave before this happened to me. There are many others who remain trapped in forced marriages who are subjected to years of abuse and violence.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of my escape from the family home, and I’ve come a long way from those feelings of fear and shame that paralysed my ability to move on for many years. Besides understanding that I have the right to make my own life choices without incurring punishment, I also understand that I am worthy of love and respect, and this includes the ability to enjoy healthy sexual relationships – casual or otherwise.
Being accepted and celebrated as an individual has a hugely powerful impact on wellbeing. For many victims, finding love and sexual fulfillment after honour abuse is the ultimate act of rebellion against some of the most severe forms of misogyny.
It’s why we must continue to help those who have suffered honour abuse and forced marriage. Not just via justice in the courts, but long-term.
As well as being able to identify where it’s happening, it’s also crucially important for policy-makers to acknowledge the importance of providing continuing support.
Because the ordeal doesn’t simply end when the abuse does.
That’s something this young woman is only just finding out. But it is possible for her to rebuild her life, like me and so many others before her.