If you make her willing, she will be willing: ITV’s Exposure on underage marriage

Last night’s ITV Exposure on underage marriage offered chilling insights into the experiences of young girls forced into marriage as young as 13 or 14.  Although official figures suggest that around 400 British girls are forced in marriage during school holidays each year, it is widely believed that this estimate is far too low.

A recurring theme was the bitter perception that teachers and professionals are more likely to turn a blind eye if non-white girls suddenly go off the radar.  A misplaced fear of offending cultural sensitivities seems a particularly hollow reason for acting in this way after one has heard the stories of the victims and the forceful condemnations of such practices from a range of (mostly) non-white professionals, some of them former victims themselves.

These spokespeople included Nazir Afzal, Chief Crown Prosecutor for the NW, who asserted that human rights must always trump cultural rights, and Jasvinder Sangheer from Karma Nirvana, an organization set up to help girls threatened with forced marriage.  (As Afzal reminded viewers, Sikhs, Hindus and those from other backgrounds are victims of forced marriage, not just Muslims.)

Some participants had to hide their identities. ‘Meera’ described the sudden change from not being able even to sit near a strange man to being forced to undergo rape in marriage.  The issue of girls being taken on ‘holiday’ to Pakistan has attracted increasing publicity.   But this programme’s focus was on Imams in the UK who, when approached by undercover reporters, agreed to perform a Nikah  (Islamic marriage) for underage – and in some cases clearly unwilling – girls.  This is a practice given implicit approval by Haitham al-Haddad, as reported here.

18 out of the 56 Imams approached agreed to perform such a ceremony. Even if we believe the claim of one Imam (Mr Zafar of the Jamatia Islamic Centre in Birmingham) that he only pretended to go along with the idea to calm down the supposedly insistent and emotional reporter, it seems possible that at least some of the 38 who refused just might have responded differently if approached by someone they knew rather than a complete stranger.

It is often asserted that Muslims should obey the law of the land.  It is also pointed out that Islam teaches that girls must approve and consent to marriage. The programme showed the first ruling being brushed aside with contempt.  Several Imams clearly were quite unconcerned by the fact underage sex, within ‘marriage’ or not, is illegal. Some of the Imams approached did seem at least moderately alert to the idea that the girl should consent. However the programme revealed that some of the victims didn’t really know what marriage involved, and the quote I used for the title suggests that the mere form of ‘consent’, perhaps only achieved after extreme coercion, would suffice for some. This was certainly Meera’s experience.

Several statements from mosques distancing themselves from the actions of various Imams were included in the programme.  These became cumulatively unconvincing (though of course some of them at least may be sincere).  For example, an assertion that one mosque could prove no such marriages had taken place seems meaningless, given that it is easy enough to perform a marriage secretly, and keep no record. One Imam, Shahid Akhtar from Birmingham, explained that no formal record would be made and said ‘I’ve spoken to everyone, what happens, and that’s how they do it’, implying that these unofficial marriages are not so uncommon.

The same point was made by perhaps the most sinister figure on the programme, a Mufti from Kirklees, Shams-Ul Huda Khan Misbahi, who has spoken out against forced marriage and who is involved in community cohesion work. He first challenged the undercover reporter’s account of his sister’s character:

If she goes out with kaffirs, then how is she good? You’re saying she’s good.

He clearly had no qualms about breaking the law – as long as there is no paperwork to incriminate him:

“Do you think that anyone will write the paperwork against the law here?’.

At this point he indicated that there is a secret register kept only for the benefit of the community. He listens to her ‘brother’ explains how this girl wishes to stay at school and doesn’t want to get married but this seems to make the Mufti feel the marriage is all the more desirable.  It is at this point that he says:

If you make her willing, she will be willing.

Responses to the programme include a trustee of the Shahporan mosque claiming that the Imam filmed agreeing to an underage marriage did not in fact belong to the mosque.  He notes that anyone can pick up the phone as the office is open plan.  This doesn’t seem fully convincing.

The Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board has issued a response which certainly doesn’t condone what seems to have happened here, but appears not to want to engage with the report’s findings, preferring to cast doubts on the reliability of the evidence presented.  As it doesn’t offer any grounds for its scepticism, the anxieties of viewers (particularly potential victims) are unlikely to have been much allayed.