(Names have been changed)
Suhail Khan’s arms are nut-brown, hairy and muscular. He turns them over. No hair, but a crisscross of slashes- two bandaged and bloody; ‘See? These are the tattoos of tears I can’t cry because, hey, Pakistani men don’t cry. Right? We are hard bastard terrorists and groomers. Victims are all sad girls.’ Khan, 22, a web designer, was born in Oxford; his mother is from Kashmir. On his 13th birthday, the teenager was told he was betrothed to a young cousin from his mum’s village; ‘It didn’t go in. I was a young lad, you know? Five years later, they took me back ‘home’ – their home, not mine- and I had a wife, Samira. We were strangers. On the wedding night I tell her I want out. She starts crying, says her family will reject her cos she is no longer pure. I’ve never touched her. Four years she’s been here, living in the family home. Gina, my girlfriend is Scottish and pregnant. When I told my parents, they said, “That’s your business. Just make a child with the wife too. A boy. Then we are happy”. How fucked up are my people? Samira to them is a thing, currency.’ After two emotional hours , he waved his Swiss Army knife at me and walked away.
Lucky Roy Singh’s story is as poignant and more dramatic. Now 28, he knew from an early age, that he was gay and that Sikhs think homosexuality is filthy and sinful. So, in his teens, privately, he got into drag. Inside, the made-up, dressed-up, boy-girl was in despair. Suppressing his sexual identity felt like slow strangulation. At the age of 17, he met a young gay, Sikh man. They fell in love and were together for five years. His lover’s parents were liberal. They urged them to marry.
Then things started to get creepy. The mother of the ‘groom’ told Singh to dress as a bride, to dupe the guests into believing this was a ‘normal’ big, fat Indian wedding. She supplied the usual extravagant jewellery and garments. They pulled it off. Incredible, but true.
For Singh, ‘it felt like an out of body experience, like a movie maybe. I didn’t speak, just smiled.’ Everything changed after that. Singh was expected to stay at home, cook, clean, do as told. The mother-in-law, allegedly, turned vicious and violent. After months of relentless persecution, he tried to commit suicide. He came through all that, learnt invaluable lessons: ‘I must be the only Asian man in the world to know exactly how wives are treated in such families’ His parents are now being supportive, but his siblings still can’t understand why he can’t be what a man should be : ‘We have to be masculine, defend the family name and reputation. It is such a heavy burden. It really messes us up’. Of course it does. When their pampered childhood ends, they realise they are totally beholden to their families. Singh tackles these conflicts head on in his book, Take a Walk in my Big Indian Heels.
We know more about Asian girls and women who have to marry husbands picked for them by their families, almost nothing about boys and men who are also treated as transactional goods by their kinfolk. Dr Maz Idriss, a Lecturer at Manchester Law School, is an expert on honour based violence, forced marriages and gender: ‘Males are like princes in the home while females – except for the matriarchs- are treated as lesser creatures. When the sons are told to marry brides chosen by others, they have no emotional tools to cope. In patriarchal homes there is fear, bullying of daughters, sisters, sons and brothers. Their hearts, minds and souls are all denied.’ He told me he too was similarly conditioned as a Muslim to submit to elders. He might have ended up acquiescing to a marriage just to please them. The majority of subjugated boys and men are unseen and unheard.
Figures published by the Government’s Forced Marriage Unit are revealing. Annually they deal with around 1,200 to 1,400 cases. A third of these involve minors of both sexes and 21% of calls for help come from males. When I went to meet the FMU team, the phone never stopped ringing.
We now have a comprehensive definition of ‘forced marriage’. A Council of Europe study recommends the term should cover marital slavery, marriage for reasons of custom or expediency, perceived respectability, child marriages, sham marriages, unconsummated marriages and marriages to acquire nationality. Emotional as well as physical violence are outlawed. However, public agencies are still catching up with the scale and nature of these violations. Just three sets of offenders have thus far been found guilty of these crimes against their children. Not one of the victims was a male
The country with the highest number of coerced marriages is Pakistan, followed by Bangladesh, Somalia and India. Children and adults are duped and taken to old homelands, press-ganged and goaded into wedlock. Their education is curtailed. British men and non-British wives are thus subdued and enchained by both families. Tt is all done in the name of ‘izzat’, honour. How sick is that?
As they become more westernised and conscious of rights, young people are breaking out of those communal cells where screams and protests are contained. Daughters and daughters-in-law started to reject these conventions some years ago . Now sons and sons-in-law too are becoming recalcitrant. Growing resistance to old values resistance is making families more paranoid and draconian
In 2007, Protection Orders were instituted to safeguard potential forced marriage victims. Breaching the orders is a criminal offence. Parents, the FMU tells me, are not ‘criminally minded’ and so they back off. However, these laws seem to have had no deterrent effect. According to various support charities, more people than ever are being subjected to honour based violence and repression. A shocking report this August revealed that Somali youngsters, particularly those in trouble with school or the police, were being sent off to Somalia by fathers and community leaders. There they were severely disciplined, beaten and compelled to marry local girls. Polly Harrar is the founder of The Sharon Project which supports South Asian women who have been disowned by their families. Increasingly, calls come in from desperate men who have been forced to marry. Years on they still feel trapped. Something triggers that earlier trauma and they disintegrate. There are hardly any emergency refuges for them.
Khatidja Chantler, a social policy academic at the University of Central Lancashire, has been working intensively with a with a small group of such lost men, almost all in their forties. They look back in anger, can’t easily express their feelings, are embittered. One of her interviewees deliberately committed small crimes so he could go to prison and find ‘freedom’. A few managed to escape the marriage trap; they were never forgiven. Some turned to religion, others sought escape in promiscuity, alcohol and drugs.
I spoke to several South Asian and Somali men who, as reluctant husbands, were either depressed or full of rage. Prem, a Punjabi, tried to kill himself twice because his mum died soon after he refused to marry a girl from India. A British Bangladeshi, 25 and an engineer, savagely mistreated his wife till she left him. Some men had fled from their homes, changed identities, but instead of feeling liberated, were remorseful. Four of them agreed to the marriage, made kids with the official wife and found love and or sexual fulfilment with lovers, mostly white females. Several had been through multiple forced marriages and divorces. That shocked me more than almost anything else. The pitiful wives were clearly dispensable goods, like throwaway plastic.
Extraordinarily, female relatives are the most ruthless perpetrators of these injustices. NAME CHANGED My friend Anand’s mum became hysterical, took fifteen painkillers after he spurned a woman they found for him. He gave in. They divorced three years later, and the mum passed on. Anand remains single and hates women. Abdi Abukar, a British Somali bus driver was also manipulated by his mum and gran: ‘They shout, they cry. I had to do it. Now I have four kids and no peace. They only want us to follow rules’
Why do these rules and values persist in the modern age? It’s complicated. Elders have given up on the idea of return. The longer they live in the west, the more they cling to dying old roots. Without those, they would be adrift, people of nowhere. Moving to western countries is liberating as well as discombobulating. Marital bonds with relatives in their original countries keep up ties. Their children seem to be changing too fast. Liberal, open societies feel to them like bedlam. Intolerant white Britons fuel the siege mentality.
Twenty five years ago, Jasvinder Sanghera, who herself was forcibly married, founded Karma Nirvana, a charity to help other sufferers. She believes prejudices go the other way too: ‘These families think in terms of them and us- westerners are unclean, we are clean, they are bad, we are good’ Migrants in the fifties and sixties tried hard to integrate. Racism then was the barrier. Today, integration can be seen as an existential threat, even by the educated, rich and upper classes.
In the late nineties, Dharam Hinduja, 22, the only son of the billionaire Srichand Hinduja immolated himself in front of his young, new bride, Ninotchka Sargon. He was Hindu, she a Catholic. His family is courted by British Prime Ministers, yet their children, apparently, can’t choose their partners. Matrimony is a family business. The couple fled to Mauritius. His parents followed them. Fearing that they would be forcibly separated, the couple made a suicide pact. She survived. The clan preserved its ethnic purity.
The strongest imperative is the family name, reputation. That façade is now getting cracked and blistered. But traditionalists still hold on to those values and retain clan connections at any cost. It is an open secret that marriages with non-British relatives is a cunning a way of facilitating migration. As immigration laws tighten, more matrimonies are agreed and processed. Unions within the extended family also protect jointly held land and wealth.
Meanwhile British born children of migrants are now getting into higher education in unprecedented numbers. They mix with all sorts, find themselves. Community control is no good in these free spaces. When the younger generations become ‘too educated’, too independent, families feel a mixture of pride and apprehension.
This a culture clash resulting in devastating psychological schisms within individuals and households. Westerners are individualistic, we easterners are raised to subsume the self to the clan and community. Rabeya Khatun is a Bangladeshi therapist at Nafyisat, a cross-cultural therapy centre in North London. Ever more Asian males are turning up for sessions: ‘They want to find and know their own selfhood, the ‘me’ inside. I tell them they are not displeasing God or their mums, when they make their own decisions. These men are brought up to be macho, but are scared of their mums. The boundary between a son and mother is often not clear. The men feel split, fragmented. Some talk to me intimately about their sexual desires and frustrations’
The consequences of mental and emotional chaos can be catastrophic. Muslim social workers have told me that extreme family pressures can drive men to become groomers and criminals. It is a form of escape, a form of revenge. Terrorism too appeals to individuals who feel emasculated. Idriss’s uni friend, Abu Adam al Britani, had a Porsche, ran successful law firms. And yet went off to join Isis in Raqqa. Idriss strongly believes his friend changed after two failed, forced marriages. His feelings of failure and anger led him to a terrible place. This has happened to others. One of the triggers of terrorism may lie within some homes.
I uncovered other layers, hitherto undisturbed, noxious. Mentally or physically disabled Britons are being forced into marriages. 55% of them are males. Potential brides are not informed about the disabilities. Duplicity and tricks are used. It is how they get unpaid help. One set of British Bangladeshi parents, have a thirty year old son with the mental age of 10. They told me – between sobs- that they got him hitched to a motherless girl from Dhaka so she would look after him after they were dead. The girl ran away to a refuge. Their tears were for the boy.
Sunny Angel, now 40, was born into a middle class, Hindu household. She was a rebel child. When she turned 17, she was seduced and groomed by a much older, Asian taxi driver. Caught up in that dark world, tried to kill herself. Instead of helping her recover, her parents married off their twenty year old daughter to a man with learning difficulties. That was their way of avoiding shame and a scandal. Romantic calls were made to her by an imposter, lovely things promised. When they met- once- he was ‘like a silent robot’. On the wedding day, they covered the bridegroom’s face with a veil of flowers. She never saw the dribble and confusion till it was too late. His mother got him to penetrate her: ‘It was rape. He did it and like a child shouted, “I’ve done it mum. Can I come out?” He was a simple minded guy. I felt as sorry for him as I did for myself’. Her mum and dad didn’t want her back. The gutsy lady survived and now wants this unspeakable cruelty exposed.
Suzanne Wilson is a clinical psychologist who has worked with some of these hapless men and boys: ‘I look at social competence, do they have capacity to consent? Often they don’t. The parents decide they must be married. Most are of South Asian background. Some become excited about the wedding but don’t understand what sex is. It must be traumatic. Sometimes there is domestic violence. If it all fails, the man feels abandoned. This is a safeguarding issue. Austerity has made it worse. As benefits are taken away from many of the disabled, families look for other options. It’s all terribly sad.’
Rachel Clawson, assistant professor at the University of Nottingham, is a leading expert on this widespread, foul practice: ‘It’s a way of getting lifetime carers, most are innocent girls from rural areas.’ Clawson has come across mothers who make their childlike, adult sons watch porn and some cases where marital rape was facilitated. These stories are barely ever reported.
Now thankfully, but slowly, information is being disseminated and that is resulting in better interventions. Clawson and her team have produced a valuable report on what is going on and an excellent website called My Marriage, My Choice which aims to educate families about consent . The UK Border Agency officials are becoming more vigilant about imported carer-wives, acting, in effect, as the good guys.
Another largely unreported outrage is the victimisation of gay men from several minority communities. They are also ambushed and made to marry by parents. A wife, they think, will cure‘ sexual deviancy’. This has led to terrible tragedies. In 2013, Jasvir Ginday, a British-Sikh graduate, murdered Varkha Rani, whom he had married six months earlier in India. She was 24, highly educated, beautiful. He was a clandestinely gay. She, allegedly found gay porn on his Ipad and confronted him. He murdered her and burnt her body the patio incinerator. Idriss sees this as a double tragedy: ‘The man felt so emasculated, he preferred to live a lie and commit murder rather declare his true sexual identity’.
Anoop Manota of Karma Nirvana told me about one client, a man in his thirties, who has serious mental issues. It goes back to when he was 18. His brothers found out he was gay, and stopped him from going to University, destroyed his future. He was beaten, forced to marry over and over again, broken. He finally got away and is trying to put himself back together. I know gay Asian students on many campuses. Most will submit to marriages. It’s easier that way. And they can’t displease their mums.
Maternal love can turn to cold control. As Nazim Mahmood found out. Born into a conservative Muslim family in Birmingham, he kept his homosexuality well hidden. While studying medicine, he met Matt Ogston, white British and a web designer. They got together but covertly. Eventually they moved to London, city of the free. Both did well. Mahmood owned Harley St clinics and Ogston worked for a software company. They bought a top floor apartment with wonderful vistas. Thirteen years passed. Every time Mahmood went home, he felt bad about the lies and pretence. He emailed me once, asked whether he should come out to his mother. I advised him not to because I feared she would not understand or forgive him. In July 2014, he went home to celebrate Eid and found himself telling her everything. She instructed him to seek a cure. Her broken-hearted son went back to London jumped off the apartment balcony. His family deliberately gave Ogston the wrong time for the funeral. He is still grieving. There are now many gay and lesbian Asians who have got married, even had artificial insemination to placate families. The charade works but takes its toll.
What cruelties are committed by the so called custodians of morality. Two gay Pakistani men I know were subjected to violent ‘cleansing exorcisms’ and then made to wed. They carry on having sex with men. Naz is an organisation which reaches out to men from Asian communities who are physically and emotionally vulnerable. They are taught how best to protect themselves, to have tests and seek medical help when necessary. Several clients are married men who use saunas, parks and car parks to meet up with others seeking casual sex. Some of their wives end up infected with STDs. Aaron Chady of Naz told me: ‘They are besides themselves about the way their wives are suffering the consequences of their sexual activities’ Some are too frightened to take an HIV test. The stigma would be unbearable. Naz director Fraser Cook added: ‘They are totally conflicted. What does that do to your head? Many have low esteem. They must choose to stay true to themselves and leave loved ones, or stay within the fold and lead a hidden sexual life.’
Those who walk away from or are ejected from their homes often have nowhere to go. There are few refuges for such men. Exile is a terrible thing. A number then have to beg to be allowed back.
Professor Rusi Jaspal, 33, Sikh and openly gay, has been studying the inner lives of Asian gay men. Interviewees keep a dairy and record their thoughts, ups and downs. A number of respondents describe constant micro-aggressions, intolerable intrusions and demands. Tension and fear hits them when they step in through the front door. Many are in denial or have internalised homophobia. So they obey the commands to marry, almost as self-punishment. They cannot reconcile their ethnic, sexual and religious identities. (In one poll of attituded among British Muslims, not a single interviewee thought homosexuality is acceptable.) In South Asian families there is no language, no will no talk about sexuality: ‘Women suffer in silence. With man there is more anger, sometimes aggression. I have met men who are in a really bad way.’ One man felt he was doing something disgusting; another felt like a complete failure. Jaspal interviewed some parents whose sons are out. They feel its their fault for bringing their children up in the west or see it as a test from God. .
Some positive changes are emerging. The issues are being dragged out into the open, exposed and discussed. Ogston has set up a charity which works with parents of gay Asian men and gets them to realise that religion or culture should not come between them and their child. The Sharon Project had a stall in Trafalgar Square during a Sikh festival and Harrar tells me several men came over for leaflets and a chat. Karma Nirvana, is launching a male survivor’s website, with pictures and real stories. An international conference will be held in London this November to share good practice. Naz had been asked and funded by Public Health England to create better outreach and effective sexual health messaging. The aim is to get into conservative enclaves, not easy, but brave and about time.
Cultural changes are slower. Sanghera thinks families, places of worship and communities have to be part of this process and to commit to human rights: ‘People have been conditioned into these perverse, perverted belief systems. They think it is normal. And it is not’
A Quranic teacher I know, has terminal cancer. While I was visiting him, his only son confessed that he was gay. The teenager had confided in me previously. The father laughed out loud: ‘ You are like I was. But they got me a wife. Forty five years your mother and I have been so unhappy, it was death in life. You must not make that mistake. Go be happy. God is merciful’ many tears were shed. Maybe there is cause for optimism.
This article was published in The Sunday Times Magazine in November 2018