These days Khaleda Begum, 25, hardly leaves the confines of her one-bedroom flat.
And when she does, her heart thumps and she looks over her shoulder in terror. For, in the eyes of her Muslim family, Khaleda has done the unthinkable.
Disgusted by her arranged marriage to a cousin—a suitor found for her by her father—she has fled her family home and now, fearful of reprisals, lives under police protection.
Khaleda’s story makes shocking reading for anyone who is under the misguided belief that such marriages do not regularly go on in Britain today.
For Khaleda, who was born in Britain and took GCSEs and A-levels at her British school in the hope of becoming a teacher in this country, was forced by her father to go to Pakistan and marry his cousin—a man 20 years her senior, who spoke no English and whom she had never even met.
And according to Khaleda—who today, having escaped “the marriage from hell,” lives in hiding with her British partner, Phil—she is far from alone.
She says: “Virtually every Asian girl I have ever met has an arranged marriage and the vast majority of them are to their cousins.
“It is well known within the community that such marriages do produce deformed babies. No one talks about it, but it is one of the reasons why I found such a marriage to someone so closely related to myself to be so very repugnant.
“Just before I was forced to marry I heard of one of my cousins who’d been forced to marry her auntie’s son.
“They had a baby daughter who died and when they asked doctors why, they were told it was because of inter-breeding. They were told the parents were too closely related to have a normal baby.
“And this was just one of many instances I would hear of. Anyone who thinks it doesn’t happen is in denial. As I know from the most painful and personal experience, it is barbaric and unnatural.
“Marrying someone who is related to you—and being forced to do so—goes against all your natural urges. It is not racist to tell the truth. What I cannot understand is why it is allowed to go on in this country at all.”
Khaleda’s parents, Miryam and Khalid, came to Britain from Pakistan in the mid-1960s in search of work and a better way of life. The couple already had two sons, now aged 39 and 35, when they settled in a three-bedroom terraced house in the West Midlands near Khalid’s job in a steel foundry.
A third son, now 25, followed, before their much-wanted daughter, Khaleda, was born.
“I had a happy childhood. I was especially close to my mother and, until my wedding, I shared a bedroom with her,” she says.
“I loved it—we would spend hours talking, especially at night. I was the ideal Muslim daughter—I wore traditional Asian clothes and always helped with the housework.”
Many of Khaleda’s extended family lived nearby and weekends were often filled with family parties, some of them wedding celebrations.
“I was about eight when I remember the first ceremony I went to,” says Khaleda.
“I remember thinking how beautiful the bride’s dress was and I looked forward to having my own husband and family.
“But as I grew older I began to understand that any husband would be chosen for me. It was something I found extremely worrying. My mother’s marriage was arranged but my father was cold and dominant, and it wasn’t happy.
“When I was about 12, I remember saying: ‘You won’t make me have an arranged marriage, will you?’ I’d begun to realise that many Asian women were forced to marry, even forced to marry their cousins.
“The thought of marrying someone I didn’t know, and someone who was related to me, was disgusting.”
Yet, as Khaleda reached her teens her father became stricter.
“I went to local state schools but unlike friends who went to parties and clubs, I knew that wasn’t our way. It didn’t bother me—I accepted our culture was different.
“Instead, I concentrated on my studies—I was in the top set for virtually every subject and enjoyed family parties at weekends.”
Having gained nine GCSEs with top grades, Khaleda left school at 16 to go to college to do A-levels in English literature, Urdu and computing. Later, aged 19, she began courses in book-keeping and childcare.
“By now my father had begun talking about when I would be married and I realised that was my fate. I tried not to dwell on it but I purposely didn’t even bother with meeting boys as I knew it was pointless.”
Khaleda concentrated on her ambition to become a teacher, finding a job in telesales to fund herself through college. It was around this time that she met Phil Williams, a delivery driver.
“Phil lived down the road,” she recalls. “I used to see him when I popped to the shops or walked to the bus stop.
“At first we just nodded hello. I used to keep my head down—he looked so lovely but I knew it couldn’t go any further.”
However, after two months the pair began talking and Khaleda found herself falling for Phil.
“He was so quiet and I just liked him so much,” she says. “I used to see him when I went to college or sneak around to his house, telling my parents I was seeing a friend. I even bought a mobile phone—something my parents had forbidden—so I could speak to him secretly at home.”
Life seemed fantastic. Adds Khaleda: “I had met Phil and also adored earning my own money and being independent. Within two months of working I’d been promoted to a junior managerial role.
“However, one day when I came home my father was waiting for me at the front door. As I went in he said I wasn’t to go to work any more. Apparently some family members told him it could bring shame on the family and that a woman’s place was in the home. I was devastated.”
From then Khaleda was hardly allowed out of her room. Ominously, letters marked “private” began arriving from Pakistan addressed to her father.
“I knew something was happening,” she says. “I would regularly hear my father on the phone speaking in Urdu in muffled tones. I worked out the letters were from his family in Pakistan, discussing my forthcoming marriage.
“I was terrified that my worst nightmare was coming true. No one spoke to me about it at all but at night, when everyone thought I was asleep, I’d hear my parents arguing about whether I should have an arranged marriage.
“I even used to hear my brothers rowing with my father about it. I would lie crying in bed, hearing them shout they didn’t want me to be forced into marriage. But my father didn’t listen to anyone.”
Worse, was Khaleda’s father’s choice of groom. “Haram, my husband-to-be, was my father’s cousin and about 20 years older than me.
“My brothers nicknamed him Fatso because he was so overweight. As he spoke no English and had always lived in Pakistan, his life was a world away from mine and I couldn’t imagine how my father could have matched me with him.
“By now, Phil and I were very much in love. We regularly met in secret and I saw my future with him, not with some ugly man who I’d never even met.
“I told my mother I couldn’t have an arranged marriage but she said I had no choice. I had no one to turn to. I knew then that refusing to get married would bring enormous shame on my family and that if I did, I may live in fear of reprisals from my family for the rest of my life.”
A date was set for Khaleda’s £25,000 wedding in Pakistan in December 2004 and preparations began in earnest with enormous shopping sprees to buy the ornate clothes, jewellery, decorations and food for the ceremony.
The celebrations, including dancing and singing, would last for two weeks.
“Almost immediately family members visited with gifts and greetings,” she says, “but I couldn’t stop crying. I was still seeing Phil and, when I told him, he was completely shocked. Like me, he couldn’t believe such a thing was happening.”
Four weeks later, the whole family flew to Pakistan for the ceremony. “My parents had a house there but once I was married, it was expected that I would go to live with his family,” she says.
“Haram had a large family of eight crammed into a tiny two-bedroom house, so there would be no privacy. I felt as if my whole life was ending.”
On the day of the ceremony, held at the family home, a priest arrived. Khaleda, adorned in a gold wedding dress and surrounded by family and friends, sat with her husband beside her, choking back sobs. She had only ever seen him from a distance before.
“I couldn’t look at him,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to speak to him. As a little girl I’d always dreamed of a perfect wedding day. The sick reality was I was marrying a relative. It was a nightmare.
“After the ceremony I sat on a bed in his home that was decorated with petals for our wedding night. Haram locked the door and began to touch my face and take my jewellery off. His hands made me feel nauseous.
I kept brushing them away, repeating ‘no.’ Tears rolled down my cheeks and, even now, I cannot talk of that night as it totally disgusts me.”
The following day Khaleda could take no more, running back to her mother—but she was furious.
“She told me I was married and I would just have to get on with it,” she says, “I was distraught and felt so betrayed. I couldn’t believe how my parents could have done this to me.”
For the next four weeks Khaleda lived with Haram and his family. During this time she regularly texted and rang Phil. Eventually, she was sent back to the UK, to find work. Haram would follow once he’d received his visa.
As soon as the plane touched down at Manchester Airport, Khaleda ran into a waiting Phil’s arms.
“Seeing Phil again made me realise how much I loved him. I knew then we could never be apart again,” she says.
Within four months the rest of Khaleda’s family and Haram had come back to the UK, living again in the three-bedroom house. Haram was expected to share the bedroom with Khaleda but she made excuses and always ensured she slept on the sofa.
“My worst nightmare was that I would get pregnant,” she says. “But it wasn’t only the thought of having a baby with Haram that revolted me, I was simply terrified that any baby would be terribly deformed or even stillborn.”
Research has shown that babies born to cousins are twice as likely to suffer a birth defect than one born to a couple who are not related. While the risk is lowered if someone marries their father’s cousin, it is still “reasonably high,” an expert said.
So Khaleda refused to sleep with her husband and her whole family refused to speak to her.
“Then one day, about six months after we married, I went to my bedroom to get changed to find Haram lying on my bed,” she says, “I just looked at him and realised I couldn’t go on living like this, desperately unhappy, as an unwelcome stranger in my own home.”
The following day, when everyone was out, Khaleda plotted her escape.
“There wasn’t time to pack,” she explains, “so I quickly gathered up just my passport and a small make-up bag. Then, I took a few photos as mementoes of my family and walked out.”
Khaleda knew her family would report her missing so she fled to London, staying with a friend of Phil’s. A few days later the couple flew to France, staying in cheap hotels, and later with friends abroad, for three months.
When she came back to the UK, she found she was listed as a missing person and the police wanted to speak to her.
Once she explained her plight they put her in touch with IKWRO, an organisation that helps women in such situations, and it helped her and Phil find safe accommodation.
“But then a relative, a distant cousin, told Phil in March last year that my mother was seriously ill and had been asking for me,” she says.
Worried her mum would die and she’d never see her again, Khaleda went back home with a police escort, only to find her mother was well.
“It was just a trick to get me to come back,” she says. “This time I told them I was leaving and I wasn’t coming back at all. I haven’t heard from my family since and I have to accept that I won’t ever see them again.”
Khaleda went into hiding in London. Since then a friend of Phil’s has been threatened by thugs, who said they’d put a gun to his head because he wouldn’t reveal the couple’s whereabouts.
Consequently, today, they live under police protection, their flat alarmed to alert the local police station.
“While I know I made the right decision to leave, I have lost all my confidence and I am frightened that a relative will see me and find out where I am, and there could be reprisals,” she says.
“Sometimes I just sit and cry and I’ve since been prescribed anti-depressants by my GP.
“I feel so guilty at the shame I know my family has suffered and not a day goes by when I don’t wonder how my mother is. I miss them so much.
“Even as a Muslim I have no idea why families want to intermarry like this. I can only think it is to keep wealth within the family. But unless this practice is outlawed, more young Muslim women like me will have their lives ruined.”
Sadly, Khaleda’s future is far from clear. She longs to marry Phil but is still legally wed to Haram.
“I desperately want a divorce but I am too frightened to make contact,” she says. “And as for my career, well, I am too scared even to pursue my dream as a teacher.”
And so another young Muslim woman’s life is ruined by this outdated practice. Just how many more babies will have to be born deformed, or even dead, before it is finally stopped?