Tricked into forced marriage: cultures of control
Eighteen year-old Fatima (not her real name) was tricked by her parents into leaving Australia.
On board the plane they told her she had to marry a much older stranger. She didn't want to. They threatened her and took away her passport. The wedding took place behind closed doors.
Distressed, she logged onto My Blue Sky, a relatively new website with a secure communications portal funded by the Australian government and operated by Anti-Slavery Australia. Its administrators contacted Foreign Affairs and arranged for a replacement passport. One of Fatima’s friends drove her to the airport. One of Anti-Slavery Australia's overseas partners helped fund the flight. It was a perilous escape. Much could have gone wrong, but Fatima made it home.
Others aren’t as fortunate.
“I am just worried about all the women and girls who don't contact us,” says Professor Jennifer Burn, the director of Anti-Slavery Australia which is housed in the law faculty at the University of Technology, Sydney.
“Getting the stats is difficult. What we do know might be the tip of the iceberg," Burn tells me.
Burn helped convene Australia’s first ever conference on forced marriage, held this week in Sydney. It took place as Australians were agonising over the brutal death of 22-year-old Eurydice Dixon in Melbourne. Neither evil happened in a vacuum.
Forced marriage isn’t the same as arranged marriage, which involves consent. It has more in common with abduction.
Australian Federal Police have received 232 referrals since forced marriage became a crime in 2013. About a quarter have been helped by a program run by the Australian Red Cross. Under a current trial, it offers up to 200 days of support. Both major political parties are looking at a system of civil protection so that people can get help earlier.
Anti-Slavery Australia is currently investigating 40 cases. More than half involve girls under the age of 18. Some are at risk of being married against their will. Others have been forced into a marriage and want to get out. And some are older women who have come to realise that their marriage was against their will. Some, like Fatima, are overseas, desperate to return to Australia. In just one week this month three Australians overseas accessed My Blue Sky to try to get out.
While there have been no successful prosecutions yet, Burn says the law itself is making a difference. “The fact that this is a crime and the police are involved is preventing forced marriages,” she says. “That’s significant.”
Often, the young women are reconciled with their families, who come to understand that what they thought was their culture is against the law. Still, the problem tends to exist in closed and socially conservative communities; pressured environments that limit personal autonomy and assert family honour.
“It would be a mistake to leap to conclusions that attribute behaviour to any particular culture,” says Burn. “But we do need to do the research to understand the reasons behind the conduct, respectfully.” Education is key.
Which leads back to the tragic killing of Eurydice Dixon, another side of the long battle to protect women and girls from violence inside and outside the home.
My teenage daughter called her dad a ‘girl’ the other night, when he teared up watching a gentle teen drama. He didn’t take offence. He is the kind of guy who takes spiders outside rather than squish them.
Toxic perceptions of masculinity influence boys from very young and are reinforced by girls who think boys should look and behave a certain way. Children are spongers of the culture around them, sometimes hardened by a lifetime of abuse before they are men and women (thankfully my husband had positive male role models in and outside the classroom, able to fix a motorbike, shape timber on a lathe, listen well and marvel at the stars).
What I have found troubling about the debate since Dixon’s death is the polarised nature of it. We’ve been in tribal corners, spitting poison on social media.
Celebrated author Tim Winton tries to shine a light on misogyny and aggressive behaviour by men. In his latest novel, The Shepherd’s Hut, the main character Jaxie has lost his mum, is bashed by his dad and wishes he was an orphan.
Winton says, “This is a profound and enduring injustice. We’re all deformed by it. Just as slavery deforms the slave-owner and slave alike.”
It is not fashionable to express sadness for perpetrators but it is important we find it within ourselves to do so; to register that savagery is learnt. It is observed, internalised and reinforced.
As Winton says with typical eloquence, “all of us, from infancy, are capable of cruelty and bastardry, but we only get good at it with practice.”
Just as we must not forget that women and children are disproportionately the victims of violence we must also resist stereotyping inherent in directing outrage at all men. We can show compassion without making excuses.
Victims of forced marriage often have parents who were themselves overly controlled by their families. Their reservoirs of experience are hard to shake.
First published in The Canberra Times, June 25, 2018. Picture found at Salford Women's Aid