After a five-month ordeal in her home country of Bangladesh, 32-year-old doctor Humayra Abedin confirmed a forced marriage at the hands of her parents. But what does the incident reveal about Bangladeshi attitudes on domestic violence towards women?
by Hana Shams Ahmed
[Altmuslim.com, December 22, 2008]
Humayra Abedin, the only child of Mohammed Joynal Abedin, a retired businessman, and his wife, a housewife, was trained as a doctor in Bangladesh. She went to England in 2002 to attend Leeds University, eventually moving to East London and working in hospitals across the capital as she studied to become a doctor. According to UK press reports, when her family found out that she had developed a close friendship with a Hindu Bangladeshi man in London, they were furious and since May of this year, they have desperately been trying to force her into a marriage with a Muslim man.
In August her mother sent news to Humayra that she was seriously ill and that she should immediately come to visit. When Humayra returned to Dhaka on August 5th for a two-day stay, she was manhandled into the property by a number of people and locked up. Her parents hid her passport and plane ticket and held her captive. On about the 10th or 11th of August 2008, her first cousin Masud Rana, who is the son of her paternal uncle, gave her some tablets and told her that she must take them. She refused to take them but was forced to do so. They were possibly sleeping pills. She was also forcibly taken to a psychiatric hospital and injected with what she believed were mood stabilisers and anti-psychotic drugs. She was given these drugs every day and told that she would not be discharged until she confirmed that she would not be returning to the UK, that she would be resigning from her employment in the UK and that she would disassociate herself from everybody she knew in the UK.
Her only ally was her cousin Dr. Shipra Chaudhury, who got in touch with lawyers at local human rights NGO Ain o Shalish Kendro (ASK). Other family members were hostile towards her, had no sympathy for her situation, or were afraid to break family silences. Although ASK staff and police, alerted to this situation, were able to meet her for a few moments in August 2008, they were obstructed by her parents from speaking to her in private. After that brief meeting, none of them were able to get back in touch with her.
The High Court of Bangladesh, on October 27th, directed the parents and uncle to appear and produce Humayra in person, after ASK and Humayra’s cousin filed a habeas corpus petition that she was being confined against her will. The parents and uncle repeatedly failed to comply and after the Court ordered the top police official to ensure Humayra’s recovery, lawyers for the parents finally appeared before the Court. But the parents continued to refuse to comply with the Court’s orders – keeping Humayra from appearing before the Court. The parents claimed through their lawyers that Humayra, though an adult, should be in her parents’ custody – first on the ground that she was ‘unmarried’ and, later, because she was ‘mentally ill’.
The parents refusal to comply with the order to produce Humayra before the Court continued throughout November. The Court issued a suo motu contempt notice on the parents and her uncle and directed them to appear in person on December 3rd. The parents and uncle came to court again without Humayra. At one point, Humayra was able to send an email to a close friend in the UK where she expressed deep depression and, under the circumstances, there were underlying indications that she was either contemplating suicide or that she would be killed. An excerpt from the email read – “I wish I could see you once in my lifetime. This is the only wish I have. Most important thing is please try to forgive me if you can. I AM SORRY. Please don’t hate me. My life is already ruined. I don’t care any more. I just want to end my life as nothing left to live and look forward to. You are one of the best person. I will always remember you. I wanted to grow old with you. It will never happen now”
At this point, a British court directed the parents and uncle to disclose Humayra’s whereabouts, not to harass her and force her into a marriage and hand her over to ASK or the British High Commission in Bangladesh. On December 14th, Humayra was finally produced before the court in Dhaka. She expressed that her movement was severely restricted since August. She voiced her desire to pursue her education in England. The High Court ordered the Police Commissioner and Court officers to escort Humayra to the British High Commission to arrange her safe travel to London and also directed journalists not to try to speak to her. She refused to speak to the press about the nature of entrapment at her parents’ home but after arriving safely in London she confirmed that on November 14th, she entered into a marriage ceremony against her will and under duress.
Humayra is just one of many Bangladeshis who are forced into marriages against their will every year. The phenomenon occurs not just in Bangladesh, but throughout South Asian and some African diaspora communities in the UK and USA. According to the Independent, in the first nine months of this year, the UK Government’s Forced Marriage Unit was contacted by 1,308 concerned callers fearing they or someone close to them might be forced into marriage. The unit directly helped 388 of these victims – nearly twice as many as in 2007. The new Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, which came into force in November 2008 because of the high number of reported cases, offers protection to all residents of the UK.
Forced marriages are different from arranged marriages in that in an arranged marriage, the family will take the lead in arranging the match but couples have the choice as to whether or not to proceed. With forced marriages, there is no choice. As such, it is a form of domestic violence and an abuse of human rights. There is usually much emotional and physical violence and manipulation involved, where a person is sometimes forced to agree to the marriage in fear of his/her life. According to an article by Abedin’s lawyer in Bangladesh, Sara Hossain, and Suzanne Turner, at least 1000 women are abducted every year from the UK by their families and taken to a foreign country in order to be forced into marriage. According to the UK government’s Forced Marriage Unit 85 percent of victims of forced marriages are women and girls and 44 percent of the overseas cases dealt with by the government’s Forced Marriage Unit involved minors.
The particular case of Humayra Abedin portrays why forced marriages have increased so much in recent years. For many South Asian parents, there is a xenophobic and communal fear of their children choosing partners outside their nationality and religion. In a bid to marry their children off within the same community, parents try to ‘arrange’ their marriages. Parents also try to marry their children off early, thinking it is easier to coerce and manipulate children until a certain age.
It is important to note that forced marriage violates the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of Bangladesh. Humayra was fortunate because her case got coverage in the British media and the UK government got involved. But there are many more women and girls who are forced into marriages in Bangladesh that no one ever hears about. In Humayra’s case, there was little interest in from the local media until the foreign media got involved.
While the press all over Bangladesh have always worked as mouthpieces for political parties, trailing every public move of politicians, the interest in Humayra’s case has been slow. Even many progressive bloggers were sceptical about the nature of the case. Some quoted from Humayra’s father’s shock at the court verdict and his claim that they had ‘done nothing wrong’. One blogger even went on to quote “it is thought Dr Abedin’s relationship with a Hindu Bangladeshi software engineer prompted her Muslim parents to intervene” – was it an attempt to somehow prove legitimate justification for such brutal violence by the parents? Some were downright vindictive – “Who knows what she has been up to? It’s shameful to go to court against her parents who made her what she is today and act in such a disgraceful manner by fighting them in public. It’s shameful to see what greed for the Western way of life can change someone so drastically. Maybe she will be happily divorced and lead her cheerful life as and when she decides to.”
This surprising prejudice was not limited to Bangladesh. A British commentator, Mary Dejevsky, wrote for the UK’s Independent questioning the necessity of the UK Court’s intervention, saying that “this case is less about forced marriage than personal fulfilment.” She goes on to say, “Britain and other former colonial countries have to be particularly careful how they use their power vis-à-vis former colonies, where a sense of post-imperial grievance is never far below the surface. But they need to be doubly careful when, as in this case, the individual concerned is not a citizen. You can argue forever about the universality of human rights and individual freedoms, but there are difficult questions about the obligations of a state – if any – towards those who reside there as citizens of another country.” Dejevsky seems to be effectively saying that these human rights are a luxury for UK nationals only. A person resident in the UK, serving British nationals through their National Health Service, somehow did not deserve the same demands for ensuring her protection. Anila Baig of the Sun seemed to be more spot on in her analysis, that this was a case of forced marriage and a gross violation of a person’s basic right to life of dignity and liberty.
The marriage scenario in Bangladesh is far from black and white. In reality, although ‘consent’ of both a man and a woman is a must for a legal marriage to take place, in many cases a thin line exists between ‘social pressure’, ‘coercion’ and ‘consent’. Consent, particularly by a woman, can be coerced via emotional blackmail or under fear or emotional pressure. Also consent can only be given by the individuals if they have reached a certain age. While people can give the excuse of ‘religion’ or ‘culture’, the truth is that nothing supports parents forcing children to marry someone against their will. If the press and bloggers do not start paying more attention to these cases, then there will be many more Humayras. What is needed ultimately are proactive efforts to change regressive attitudes among Asian communities – both living in Asia and in Europe. The rationale of cultural relativism, or sensitivity to ‘Western intervention’ cannot be used to justify a continuation of these human rights abuses.