People congratulate me when I tell them my story. They are pleased for me. Relieved for me. They feel like I won. And of course, I did. I managed to get through the shit that comes with being forced into a marriage. I managed to get over the fact that they- my entire family who I loved and who loved me- left me in a foreign country with a foreign old man who wanted to do nothing more than get me pregnant as quickly as possible. Yes, I got through all the sexual, physical and emotional abuse that comes with being forced into a marriage. I whored myself to him for my passport. I used my body as currency to negotiate my way out of India and get back to the UK where I was born. A country, which afforded me rights as woman. In India, I was nothing. Just a woman. You could do whatever you wanted to a woman there. She became your property. I became his property. I belonged to him, his family and genuinely feared for my life at times.
The first time was when I answered him back. Why wouldn’t I? I was a cocky 15 year old teenager, who had left behind high school (where I was the most popular girl in my year), my jeans and baggy jumpers, my chocolate brown lip liners and hair mousse for a shalwaar kameez, a duppatta, perfumed face powder too light for my skin and deodorant which just did not work in the Indian heat. Answering him back resulted in a smack right across my face, first by him and then by his mother. I realised quickly I had to placate him. To somehow appeal to him, make him feel manly and make him believe I was under his control. After all, he was in quite a quandary himself. He needed to get me in line because he wanted to come to the UK, where he believed money grew on trees and the pavements were made of gold. He wanted a decadent life in the west, a job that paid good money, a government that takes care of its people, a safe place away from the harsh realities of India. He felt he was owed that future. And I was the mule that would be used to fulfil this dream of his. He could only come to the UK if I returned first and submitted a visa application requesting that my husband join me in the UK. He couldn’t send me back to the UK still cocky, wild and full of hatred, he had to send me back as a broken woman, too scared to run away, too scared to do anything except what the families demanded.
The best plan was to get me pregnant, there was next to no chance that an Indian Muslim woman would run away from home pregnant at 16. Where would I go? What would I do? I would be shamed forever. The pregnancy would mean that I would have to stay with him. Just like my mum had to stay with dad. Just like my sisters had to stay with their husbands. I heard that excuse often from my sisters in later years. When they were battered again by their husbands their excuse for staying was the children. Their excuse for not starting a new life at 25 years of age was that they already had 4 children by then- who would want them? They really did not know me. They had no idea that I would not have hesitated to have an abortion once I was back in the UK. They did not contemplate that I, at 16 years of age, would be absolutely fine making it alone should the worst happen.
Still, plan A for me was to find a way of not letting the pregnancy happen which was tricky without having any access to contraception. I had to find a way to make him believe that I was happy with him, that he fulfilled me and I could not wait for us to start a new life together in England. And so the acting started. It was horrific, pretending to enjoy the things he did to me, encouraging him and smiling, laughing with him and his family. Pandering to his every need, talking to him at three in the morning about how we could build a life in the UK. Agreeing with him that is was a great idea to call over members of his family once we were settled. Convincing him that I should not get pregnant until we returned to the UK because it would compromise the benefits I was entitled to – a complete lie. Learning to cook so I could serve him his food when he decided to eat.
It worked. I eventually got my passport back and was allowed to return to the UK without becoming pregnant. I enjoyed hugging him at the airport genuinely excited and terrified at the prospect of getting on the plane. Excited because this was it. I had done it! Terrified because I thought this chance would be snatched from me. They would find out it was all a plan and would not let me go. But I did it. I made it home and was greeted by my parents, siblings and cousins at Gatwick airport. The trouble was no one thought they had done anything wrong. My parents genuinely believed this was the right move for me. My sisters, already wed when they were the same age as me, thought it was a normal thing. My cousins, some jealous of the fact that I was now married, also felt nothing was wrong with what had happened. I refused to cooperate with my parents almost immediately. I refused to sign any documents, I refused to find a full time job, something which was necessary if I wanted to call my husband over. I wanted to go onto college and university and experience those freedoms that had been snatched from me. The following 14 months were a rollercoaster. I found myself some white friends – I had never had white friends before! I started to attend college and push the boundaries at home. I managed to placate my parents, I said I would call him over once I had completed college; they took that on board and agreed to it. My husband, unable to do anything from India, also had to agree.
I managed to keep things in some sort of order but the tensions at home grew. They didn’t like my new friends, they didn’t like the clothes I was wearing, or the makeup and hairstyles. Unbeknown to them, I had boyfriends too. White ones! It was bloody great. Learning how to snog. Drinking alcohol and enjoying the sensation that comes with losing your inhibitions. Dancing like an idiot until the clubs closed, having the freedom to do that and not give a shit about what others thought. It was liberating. Showing my legs, my torso and bare arms. Flirting outrageously and openly with males I liked, having the freedom to do that. Eventually I had to leave home after I was seen by a member of the community leaving a club and staggering to the local kebab shop. Dad was hospitalised after suffering angina attacks because of the shame. No one answered my question which asked what the hell was that particular person also doing out at that time? It all became too much for them and for me.
Dad managed to pay a factory owner for fake wage slips which showed I was able to provide for him. Papers were lodged for a visa application unbeknown to me. I found out about it when one my sisters told me he had been granted his visa and would be arriving within the week. I spent the next few days calling every solicitor I could find in the phone book. This was over a decade ago, and we did not have the services we have now. Not a single one could help me. They just had no idea on what to do. One even said it would have been better if I had not gone through with the marriage. What? Really? And be killed? It was so much safer to go through the marriage, to suffer the abuses and get myself back to the UK.
I failed to stop him. He arrived and straight away, everyone agreed that he would divorce me once he had his permanent stay. What could I do? It was decision that haunts me today still. I spoke to individuals in confidence who told me that I should go to the police but that would implicate my father. My whole family was dependant on him. He was old, with a heart problem and we had been conditioned to fear this. It meant that his heart could give way at anytime. It meant we would run the risk of being labelled as the daughters who killed their own father. I was still petrified of this. They would all cry, beg, and wail at me to keep my mouth shut and to go through with this. Eventually I gave up. I did as I was asked.
He gave me what I wanted. A divorce. Weeks later I moved away for university and never returned. So here I am. An escapee from a forced marriage. Living with my most wonderful white partner. In my lovely home and my spoilt cat. And yet I miss them all. I miss my parents, who genuinely thought they were doing the right thing, the same thing, which had been done to them. I miss my sisters, though I talk to them and we meet in secret for coffees. I hear about their lives and I feel a great guilt. I should be living the life they are. But I am not. I should be in the same position they are in. But I am not. They tell me I am so lucky. They smile and gasp in delight when I tell them about our recent holiday or how my partner massages my head when I have headaches. They look at me in shock when I tell them he does not control my money, we have joint and separate accounts.
I have often wondered if I should cut contact with them all. It must hurt them seeing how different my life is. It must hurt them to see that a life such as mine can be achieved and with someone who is not the same race or religion. I miss the type of love that comes with a family. I miss the smell of home, the smell of my mum and dad, the smiles on their faces when I would say something witty. I miss the hustle and bustle of home, the constant cooking, the smell of spices and the flurry of guests. I know they miss me. My sisters tell me that mum cries over me. But still, I am too much of a risk. I would give too many new ideas to others who would do as I did. They will never accept me back. They will never meet nor love the wonderful man I have chosen as my life partner. They will never accept their grandchildren nor have a relationship with them. So much sadness and so many hearts are to be hurt because of this thing called religion, this thing called culture, these teachings and beliefs that are so wrong. I feel utterly lonely sometimes. I have to remind myself of those in this world who have no one, who are living in a war torn country, who will fall asleep with hungry tummies, this helps me keep things in perspective. But still, sometimes, it becomes all too much. And the tears don’t stop for the love I have lost out of no fault of my own. And I know that I will never do this to my own children. It is true I guess, to see the change you want, you really have to become that change.
Yes, I finally did it. I published Shackled Sisters – a book containing 8 stories that tell you about the lives of British Muslim women living in the UK today. Its not a fun book to read, I’ll be brutally honest about that. But it is important. Really bloody important. People need to know about these women and their existences because only then can we look to address the issues and ensure that we no longer have the need for books like Shackled Sisters ever again.
Do you know many Pakistani Muslim girls? Or Indian Muslim girls? Or Indian Hindu girls? I do. And I started to notice a big difference between my life and theirs. I left behind an oppressive existence. I escaped and took on the estrangement and loneliness which comes with making these sorts of decisions. They were not able to do that. I noticed how as my freedoms grew, how I became more liberated they followed opposite paths. They were married as teenagers and then became baby making machines. I left and started my degree in Sociology whilst getting pissed most weekends and vomiting in toilets whilst friends held my hair back, laughing at me. The friends and family I left behind had their freedoms stripped from them. I had more freedom than I knew what to do with. They started to see emotional, physical and financial abuse as normal traits within a marriage. I started to demand that my partners are my complete equals but only after being ok with not being the main breadwinner- something I ensured I was for years in relationships. We became so different. There were others, friends and cousins who I knew and who broke free, went onto university where they found love. They saw different cultures and they fell in love. Yet, they gave it all up to marry a cousin. I noticed the way some men used women to get what they wanted before dumping them. Dumping them because they could. Because the community allows it to happen and because few people challenge it. Women are still seen as second class citizens, bodies with which a man can do as he pleases.
Nafisa’s story is just tragic. I don’t know what is more heartbreaking, the way she was snatched away from the love of her life, her life today, the fact she has never been snogged by her husband, has never had an orgasm with him or the fact that she would allow the cycle she experienced, to be repeated on her own daughters? You see Nafisa fell in love at high school. The boy she fell in love with was from a lower caste than her, he had darker skin and was deemed not good enough for her. Her parents found out and took her abroad. She returned married to her first cousin and pregnant. She recounts in detail the events that took place and how she ended up sitting in a café, talking to me about her life. Some of you may have read the stories of some poor girl who was forced into a marriage but who escaped it and survived. We see lots of books like that. What we don’t see however, are books which tell us about those women who couldn’t run away, those women who accepted the forced marriage as their fate. Women like Nafisa.
Salma and Ameera are sisters who I adore. They are a rarity in the community being Indian Muslim women who are in their 30’s with careers and neither are married. Their conversations always make me laugh and cry. They tell you what it was like growing up, how they believed beer was urine, how they were kept in order through mosque classes, how the community told them their worth and how they found a balance between the western freedoms they desired and the culture and religion which opposed those very desires. They discuss the difficulties they have dealing with parents who want them married ASAP. They discuss Islam and what it means for each of them and bicker throughout as though they are still the teenagers I would go to the park with.
These are just two of the women who shared their stories, Shackled sisters also covers the story of Parveen who was brought to the UK by her husband to then ‘disappeared’ into the system before finally being dumped by her husband who found a white wife, America and a green card. It covers the story of Farzana, sexually abused by her uncle in India as a child, the story of Saira who experienced freedom, college, university and found love in the form of an afro-Caribbean. She ran away with her love only then to choose to leave him, her western life, return home and marry her cousin. What was going through her mind? Why and how did she come to that conclusion? These are just some of the individuals and their stories covered in Shackled Sisters- a book which should have been written a long time ago and a book which, if we all work together to stop the subjugation of women, should have no need to be written again.
You can buy Shackled Sisters here.
- Aisha A Elahi