Islamabad, Pakistan—Her father said it would be a two-week holiday to learn about her Pakistani heritage. But the British woman soon found herself captive in a remote tribal village for over a year and promised in marriage to a first cousin she’d never met.
With the British High Commission’s help this month, the woman escaped Pakistan shortly before her planned wedding, avoiding the phenomenon of forced marriage that befalls scores of foreign women, including Americans, annually in this deeply conservative Islamic country.
“My dad made me believe it was just a holiday,” said the 20-year-old woman, who declined to reveal her actual name and asked to go by Shazia for her own protection. “But the weeks turned into months and months. I never believed my own father would have a plan to marry me to someone I didn’t know, but I was wrong.”
More than 100 British nationals of Pakistani descent—20 percent of them males as young as 14—have been rescued in each of the past two years after being forced into marriages here. Americans with links to Pakistan are also made to marry against their will but in fewer numbers, the U.S. Embassy said.
But this could be just the tip of the iceberg, officials say, as many women forced to marry live in isolated communities or at the mercy of authoritarian families.
Reasons abound for foreigners being forced to wed here. Britain is home to more than 800,000 Britons of Pakistani descent. Many of the first Pakistani migrants to Britain came from rural, conservative backgrounds and oppose letting their children—particularly daughters—marry into the more liberal British society.
“It is unacceptable for such fathers living in Britain to allow their daughters to grow up in an emancipated society with more freedom where they could possibly meet men,” Sumaira Malik, Pakistani minister for women’s affairs, said Monday. “So they force their girls to come back here and marry boys from their village.”
Malik described forced marriages as “despicable” and contrary to Pakistan and Islamic law. She said the government is committed to improving educational standards and women’s freedoms.
An example she cites is the proposed “Protection of Women’s Rights Bill,” which aims to change a controversial Islamic rape law—known as the Hudood Ordinance—that needs the testimony of four witnesses to prosecute a rape case. Voting on the law is expected within days.
Rape features prominently in forced marriages of foreigners, said Helen Feather, head of consular affairs at the British High Commission. Women forced to wed against their will are often raped so they become pregnant, produce children and, in turn, cement themselves in an unwanted family union. Obtaining British nationality is also sought after by the husband in a bid to improve his economic situation.
In Shazia’s case, she was accompanied to Pakistan last year by her father, who was born in Pakistan but migrated with his parents to Britain as a child.
After a short time here, her father returned to Britain but ordered Shazia to remain with his family here, despite her protests.
“I didn’t know what was going on. He never told me anything. But he told all his relatives that the plan was for me to marry some guy in the village,” Shazia said during an interview at the British High Commission in Islamabad.
Then for more than a year, Shazia was made to live as a rural Pakistani villager in the North West Frontier Province—wearing local clothes, cooking food, cleaning the house, fetching water from a nearby well and milking cows.
But all the while, she said she was treated as an outsider by suspicious relatives who were accomplices to the plan to marry her off to a cousin in the same village so he could eventually gain British citizenship.
“They didn’t care at all about me, they just cared about that little red (U.K.) passport,” she said. “My year here was horrible. I didn’t like the food, the way they dressed. I rarely left the house and whenever I did, I was always followed by 20 relatives in case I tried to make a run for it.”
About a year later, Shazia’s 18-year-old sister was also forced to travel to Pakistan to join elder sibling, believing it would be a short trip. But she too was being groomed for a village marriage.
“It will take some time to make people understand that parents can’t treat their children as commodities,” Salimi said. “But in Pakistan, women and children are generally considered as possessions, not people.”