On the face of it, Zakir was simply a veteran taxi driver and a popular member of the community in Bradford. Few customers would have realised that behind his bubbly exterior he provided another, much more sinister service. For around £5,000, Zakir would track down women and girls who had run away from home to escape a forced marriage. A bounty hunter, Zakir’s mission was to bring them back to their families.
While most locals in the tightly knit south Asian community thought Zakir was merely picking up and dropping off passengers each day, his work provided perfect cover to exploit his contacts with fellow drivers and shopkeepers to hunt down runaway teenagers. According to Zakir, some bounty hunters would also befriend officials in housing departments and in the Department for Work and Pensions to get National Insurance numbers–a strategy confirmed by campaigners against forced marriages.
Zakir’s job was never to harm his targets, but to return them home to face their “destiny” of being made to marry someone their parents had chosen. Despite the fact that runaways can be beaten for having escaped, he sides with the families on the issue. The softly spoken driver, speaking to G2 on the condition his real name was not used, insisted: “I did it as a favour to the families, as I knew most of them. It wasn’t about the money. It was about izzat [honour]. I saw the effect it had on them when their daughter ran away. The worry and the shame from the community talking about them. I was part of the ‘taxi driver network’, so we shared information about who we picked up and where they got dropped off.
“I didn’t harm any of the girls: among aapnes [the Asian community; literally ‘ours’] discipline is up to their families. Only a couple of occasions I had to speak forcefully to them because they wouldn’t come home. But it is obviously not a career, so I stopped. I got tired of chasing people around.”
Zakir prowled the streets of Bradford, Huddersfield, Leeds and Sheffield. According to women’s groups, bounty hunters are more common in places such as Yorkshire and Lancashire because the large south Asian populations are more closely knit, entrenched in conservative values, and there is a better chance of finding women who disappear in the north than in London. The community grapevine is a powerful tool in those areas; word spreads quickly about a person’s whereabouts and welfare. And while this can nurture a closer community and ensure everyone looks out for one another, it can also be used to patrol the behaviour of those who do not conform to the unwritten rules–meaning young women may be ostracised by disapproving elders for wearing “western” clothes or speaking to a boy.
Some families are so fearful of this kind of gossip they agree a verbal contract with a bounty hunter where the reward can be as much as £10,000. Others even hire female bounty hunters to pose as domestic violence victims to enter refuges and find their target.
One woman who knows what it feels like to be hunted down is Jaspreet. She ran away from her home in Sheffield after discovering that her father was arranging her marriage. The 21-year-old said: “I overheard my dad talking to his brother in Pakistan about getting me married to my cousin over there. He’d never discussed marriage with me.
“I didn’t want to get married yet. I wanted to finish my law degree. I would have been happy to have an arranged marriage in my mid-20s. But when I protested, my dad threatened me physically and said I would be letting the family down if I refused. I couldn’t take any more of the rows, so I ran away.”
Days later, Jaspreet found out that her father had asked a family friend to track her down. “It didn’t surprise me; towards the end, my dad pretty much disowned me. The hardest thing was leaving my mum and sister–they weren’t fussed if I got married to my cousin, but were powerless to stop my dad. I was told [the family friend] was passing my photo around and contacting my friends. So I moved down to London to stay with a friend and changed my appearance.
“It was horrible waking up and having that fear that someone is looking for you, and could hurt you. I used to always think ‘when will this end?’ I had counselling for my anxiety and panic attacks. My dad would have probably beaten me if I returned home; he had no love for me any more. That’s why I moved to London.”
Another alarming case was Zena Briggs, who was forced to live on a witness protection scheme after fleeing an arranged marriage in 1993. When she ran away with her white partner Jack Briggs, her Pakistani family in Yorkshire hired a bounty hunter to try and kill them both. She has since divorced and set up a charity called the Zena Foundation to help victims of honour violence.
So why do families pursue such ruthless tactics to hunt down their missing child? Southall Black Sisters (SBS), who support victims of domestic violence, says south Asian and Middle Eastern families are under huge pressure to conform to the traditional values of their community. “Conservative sections of the community will go as far as hiring a bounty hunter as they have a shared value system which takes priority, along with patriarchal structures and religious value systems,” explains Hannana Siddiqui, an SBS spokeswoman.
“The family’s future is down to marrying their daughter. Men can have friends, get an education and job, and can get married when they’re older. But women are [seen as] the embodiment of honour, so their sexuality and moral behaviour is controlled.”
Karma Nirvana, a charity which recently put on a touring road show on forced marriages, is calling for people fleeing them to be given extra police protection. They want a “witness protection” type-scheme, as recommended by a home affairs select committee inquiry into domestic violence in 2008.
Jasvinder Sanghera, the founder of Karma Nirvana and herself a survivor of a forced marriage, said: “Currently, there is nothing to wipe a person’s history if they want to start a new life. Under the scheme, the police would wipe out your history so you can’t be traced, and would give you a new passport and National Insurance number.”
Campaigners point to the success of the government’s Forced Marriage Unit and the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act as justification for a specialist strategy. The unit rescues around 300 people each year, while the Act gives courts the power to stop families taking their child abroad, and has resulted in more than 120 injunctions preventing children from leaving the country.
But campaigners are troubled by newly announced cuts to the legal aid system. A recent survey by Resolution, the family lawyers’ association, found that denying people the right to free legal advice would have a “devastating” impact on family law cases such as forced marriages.
Not everyone, though, agrees that a specialist strategy is required to address the problem. Nazir Afzal, community liaison director at the Crown Prosecution Service and an expert on forced marriages, says: “There is a scheme for additional protection for any victim of crime. It already exists and is an individual response to individual cases. What we have suffices.”
As for the former bounty hunter Zakir, he is clear about what will stop the problem. “Nothing. Families will do anything in the name of honour.”
Some names have been changed.