Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Forced to love

Living in the society I do, where marriages are based on love and affection, it's hard to believe there are still many countries where a forced marriage to someone you don't like, don't love, or don't even know, is commonplace.

It's bad enough when they're similar ages, but even worse when the bride is still a child and the bridegroom maybe decades older, and the girl has very little idea what she's getting into or how she might be treated. It may seem quite romantic until she's faced with the reality of an uncaring husband.

Noora Al Shami's story is horrific, but I imagine all too typical of what a forced marriage can really mean in practice. Her husband treated her like a sex object, like a toy, and it was only after ten years of constant physical attacks that she managed to escape and rebuild her life by training as a teacher.

Of course it's not so long ago that British couples were forced into shotgun weddings by parents embarrassed by an "out of wedlock" pregnancy, and many of those marriages were also disastrous. Thankfully attitudes to unmarried parents are now more relaxed and this home-grown variety of forced marriage has ended.

But elsewhere the custom is alive and well, with many declared and undeclared reasons for marrying someone off. It can be to provide citizenship, to attract a bridal dowry, to increase the population, to resolve tribal feuds, or for the sake of family pride. The obvious potential for conflict, violence and misery between two people who turn out to be incompatible is routinely ignored. Likewise the likelihood that a strong and arrogant older man will treat his young wife like a doormat.

Even a relationship based on love and affection can be hard enough to maintain in the face of everyday problems and challenges. The chances of a forced marriage being successful must be very low indeed. Yet utterly reluctant girls and women - and presumably some of the men - are still pushed into it by determined families unconcerned with the possible consequences.

There must be many women like Noora, trapped in dismal marriages, who at times wish they'd never been born at all.

Pic: Not Noora Al Shami


  1. That's awful but not surprising in countries where women are second class citizens. What is worse to me is that it happens in the good ole USA in cults such as fundamental Mormonism.

  2. Bijoux: True, it still happens in certain communities in our own countries. It doesn't get much publicity either, through a misguided fear of "cultural insensitivity".

  3. That's a horrifying story and I had the same thought as Bijoux about the parallel with fundamentalist Mormon sects in the US. There's a really good book, "Under the Banner of Heaven," that looks at the history of the marriages within that religion. Also, have you seen the 2003 movie, Osama? It was filmed in Afghanistan and involves a child forced into marriage with an old man. Chilling.

  4. Agent: I haven't seen either the book or the movie. I must track them down. Fundamentalism in general so often involves compulsory behaviour of one kind or another that ignores individual sensitivities.

  5. It's absolutely unacceptable and it disgusts me to think of those poor little girls - and older girls too - forced into pain and terror for a few hundred dollars or the equivalent. Of course, we in the Western world have no clue as to the hardships suffered by the truly poor in other parts of the world but there must be other ways than selling your children to the highest bidder.

    It was worse in the past though, because often these children were married to old men (those being the ones with the money) and were expected or coerced to commit suicide on his funeral pyre in the ritual known as 'suttee' or 'sati'. Some say it still happens in some parts of India.

    The world makes me very sad, sometimes.

  6. Jay: It's very sad that parents feel forced to sell their children in this way, and that as you say they know of no other way to survive.

    It seems that marriages between young girls and old men are still very common. In just a few minutes I googled examples in Gaza, Tanzania, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Zimbabwe. At least suttee now seems to be rare.

  7. A forced marriage must be hell on earth. I would have preferred to remain alone than marry a man I did not love.

  8. Grannymar: It must be. Clearly in other parts of the world people have a very utilitarian view of children.

  9. Who can disagree.
    The broad-based local collusion in the practice is striking too.

  10. Paul: Indeed. How can a young girl possibly resist when maybe her entire family and half the neighbourhood are supporting the marriage?

  11. Without taking the importance of the child bride phenomenon needing attention, let me assure you that there are men too in miserable marriages who are unable to get out of them for social, family or wealth reasons. It is as debilitating for them to be in such relationships.

  12. What about this 8 year old who was raped to death by her 40 year old "husband"??


    I'm still sick.

    we're an appalling species.


  13. Ramana: I guessed that was the case. And how many men would be happy to marry a girl or woman who obviously disliked them?

    www: It's a sickening story. And surprise surprise, "religious clerics are saying that restricting the age of marriage is unIslamic."

  14. I had a friend when I was younger who married a man her parents had chosen for her. She and he got along and made the best of things and were happy, according to her. The marriage lasted until he died. She told me that had she disliked him intensely, her parents would not have gone through with the arrangement between the families. At least they cared enough about her to realize things could be nasty and let her have the final say in the matter.

  15. e: It's good that her parents gave her the final say, but I can't help wondering if she would have been happier had she been left to find someone for herself? Making the best of things doesn't sound too healthy....

  16. I used to agree with this but after writing my biography of Lewis carroll, I changed my mind a bit. I researched middle class Victorian attitudes to marriage and these were very much based on "arranged marriage" ideas and only secondarily about love. In Britain we weren't as savage as some other countries are but the idea was that love was supposed to grow. And the women did have some choice, they weren't forced into marrying men they didn't know at all.
    It was a complicated situation, but clearly the stability and security of a marriage that wouldn't end, must have been good for many people, and the importance placed on the family was good for the kids, in many cases. At least, no worse than now, when you meet so many people whose childhoods were scarred by their parents splitting up. I suppose it depends on whether you see marriage as a community thing for everyone, or whether you see it as an individual thing for the parties concerned.
    Another post full of interesting issues to think about, Nick.

  17. Jenny: Some interesting thoughts there. I understand your point about the aim of arranged marriages being a degree of stability and security that may not be present in today's love-based marriages, but surely arranged marriages might still have led to mutual disappointment and frustration, with the added drawback that divorce was either not possible or stigmatised?

    A community thing or an individual thing? I think in the end it has to be an individual thing, otherwise individual happiness could easily be sacrificed to the supposed community interest.