Noor Khan awoke one morning last September to a knock on her bedroom door. Several people, most of them strangers, stood clustered outside. It was Noor's wedding day, and she was the last to know.
A relative visiting from Amsterdam pushed forward in introduction her son, a pleasant-faced young man named Munir (like Noor's, his and other names have been changed to protect Noor's identity). This was Noor's husband-to-be. Noor's brother Ali embraced her, squeezing so tightly it hurt. "Don't embarrass me," he whispered. But when Noor, then 17, objected, he exploded. "I'll kill you. I'll do it right now, I don't care," Noor says he shouted. Munir and his companions went downstairs and Noor began sobbing uncontrollably.
Munir's mother handed Noor a beaded red salwar kameez the tuniclike top and leggings worn by women in northern India and Pakistan. "Put this on," she instructed. Faced with Noor's unrelenting tears, she tried to reassure her, promising that her son would make a good husband. But when Ali returned a short while later, the outfit still lay beside Noor on the bed. He threatened to kill her if she didn't change within five minutes. "I was so frightened," she says, "I just did it."
The nikah, the contractual part of a Muslim wedding ceremony when the bride and groom agree to the marriage, took place in Noor's bedroom. An imam came to oversee the proceedings, but Noor refused to answer him when he asked for a second time if she consented. A third failure to do so would stop the proceedings, so Ali took her aside and repeated his threat. Noor appealed to her father, who had just returned from one of his frequent visits to Pakistan, but he did nothing. Her body heaving with sobs, Noor quietly said yes. "Congratulations," the imam said. "You're married!"
Arranged marriages are not uncommon in immigrant communities across Europe. They are rituals faithfully carried over into a new, Westernized lifestyle, sometimes generations after immigration. Defenders of the practice argue that the resulting matches are often more successful than self-made marriages. But every year, hundreds of arrangements deteriorate into forced marriages, founded on emotional or physical coercion. It is an intensely private battle, an extreme manifestation of a complicated culture clash religious vs. secular, old vs. new, East vs. West that occurs in smaller ways all over Europe every day.
In Britain, where at least a thousand women are forced into marriage each year, most of the families, like Noor's, have South Asian backgrounds. Some are Hindu, others are Sikh or Muslim. Zafar Ali, who chairs the U.K.'s Slough Race Equality Council, concedes that "there are, and always have been, a number of pressurized marriages," but insists such cases would be condemned by "95% of all Asians and Muslims." In France, coerced brides tend to be of North African origin; in Denmark, most come from the large Turkish community. While one Europe is mesmerized by "reality" matchmaking TV shows, another is quietly enforcing an ancient, nonnegotiable version.
Women are often told that their failure to enter into a match will shame the family. "It's a culturally specific form of domestic violence that is far more common than people realize," says Hannana Siddiqui, director of Southall Black Sisters, a women's resource center outside London. But it's only in the past five years or so that social workers, judges and other professionals have begun to recognize these situations for what they are. Southall Black Sisters handles about 300 cases a year, and the figure is rising. The West Yorkshire Midlands Police, whose jurisdiction includes several cities with large Asian populations, has had an officer, Philip Balmforth, dedicated to the problem since 1995. He deals with about 200 cases a year.
In extreme incidents, women who resist their families pay with their lives. In 1997, the murder of Rukhsana Naz, a 19-year-old Anglo-Pakistani who had fled an arranged marriage, was one of the first cases to focus attention on forced marriage. More recently, in January, Sahda Bibi, 21, was stabbed to death on her wedding day in Birmingham. Bibi was marrying the groom of her choice with her parents' consent, but people close to the case believe that she had reneged on an earlier arranged match. A relative wanted in connection with the murder flew from England to Pakistan hours after the stabbing and has so far eluded capture. Weeks later, another young Anglo-Pakistani woman, Balqis Akhtar, was murdered in her family's home village in Pakistan. Her father is alleged to have confessed to shooting her for refusing to go through with an arranged marriage.
Like other first-generation immigrant children, Noor lived in the narrow gray space between the old country and the new. She grew up in the northern city of Bradford, home to 90,000 ethnic Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians who first arrived in the 1950s to work in the thriving regional textile industry. Noor lived at home with her parents. Her life revolved around school, where she was preparing for exams, her friends and a blossoming relationship with her first boyfriend. She was especially close to her mother. "I could talk to her about anything, tell her anything," says Noor.
Every day, Noor negotiated a culture gap, trading in some customs and holding onto others. Traditional in some respects, Noor's parents also took steps to ensure that she felt at home with British culture, and sent her to a school that was not predominantly Asian. "They wanted me to have English friends," she says. Unlike many Muslim girls in Bradford (and her own mother, who always wore a scarf in public) she does not cover her hair, and the Western clothes she favors are modest yet fashionable. Her accent features the elongated vowels of northern Britain, but she speaks in Urdu with her family.
Last spring, Noor's life began to splinter when her mother died after a brief illness. Her father soon went to Pakistan, leaving Noor in the care of her brothers, one of whom is Ali, who began to run the household in a much more authoritarian way. In September, Ali suddenly announced that a relative from the Netherlands was coming to visit. That's when Noor's nightmare began.
The visitor shocked Noor by mentioning that Noor was to marry her son. When Noor protested to her brother that she was too young to marry, Ali began dropping ominous hints about Asian girls who had been killed by their families for refusing to obey similar dictates. Although Ali had never hurt her, he'd had a few run-ins with the police, Noor says, and she believed he was capable of violence. For two days, her brothers would not allow Noor to leave the house. "Every time I went downstairs and said I'm going to the shop or going to see my friends, they said 'No, we'd rather you stayed inside.'" Terrified, Noor barely left her room. Still, she couldn't believe that the threatened marriage would happen and certainly not that very week.
The morning after the ambush nikah, Ali woke Noor, handed her a bridal dress and told her they were expected at the wedding hall in two hours. A beautician arrived to do her makeup, but Noor's tears made her job difficult. "She had to keep wiping my face and then applying the makeup again," says Noor. The rest of the day, the celebration of the marriage, was a blur. At one point Munir leaned over from the chair beside her to ask why she was crying. "Because I don't know you, you're a stranger, you're not my husband," she replied. He turned away and continued talking to his friends. After the party, Ali embraced her, saying, "I don't know when I'll see you again." The remark struck her as odd, but Noor's immediate worry was the wedding night ahead.
Noor's clothes had been sent over to Munir's sister's house, and her suitcase was in an upstairs bedroom. Her sister-in-law told her to get changed, so Noor took off her gown, put on her lilac-colored silk pajamas and sat on the bed, rigid with apprehension. "I was so scared, because I knew that no one of my own was there and I was with strangers," she says. When Munir eventually came in, he made a few attempts at physical contact, but Noor pushed him away. He protested that he was her husband and could do what he liked, but soon fell asleep. Noor lay awake most of the night, too afraid to doze for long. The next day brought yet another surprise. "Pack your things," Munir's mother told her. "We're going to Holland tomorrow." Noor followed her new family through the airport in a daze. "I was just so scared, so scared," she says.
Noor's new home was a four-bedroom house on the outskirts of Amsterdam, where Munir lived with his family. On Noor's third morning there, her father-in-law asked her to prepare a meal. Noor, showing a glimpse of her old self, told him that she couldn't cook and that he should ask his own daughter to do it. Except for a single conversation with an aunt, Noor was not allowed phone calls. "After five days, I was so depressed, I felt like killing myself," she says. Munir's advances became more determined, and Noor was exhausted from lack of sleep.
After Noor had been there for about a week, she was home one afternoon in a nearly empty house when her sister Aziza called. "I'd tried to ring and they'd told me that she was out, even though I heard her shouting that she was there," Aziza recalls. They spoke for a few moments until Noor's father-in-law forced her to put the phone down. "I didn't want to get married, and I'm going to run away," Noor told him. The family decided to consult with Ali by phone. He threatened to get on the first flight to the Netherlands and kill her. According to Noor, her father-in-law told Ali that he and his family would support whatever course of action Ali took.
Noor sat and waited for what seemed like hours, pleading with her father-in-law and expecting her brother to burst through the door. A knock finally came, but it was the Dutch police. "I was so happy, so relieved, I just stood there. I wouldn't even move to go with them," she says. The police told her to gather her things.
Aziza had overheard Ali's end of the conversation in Bradford. Although she had never discussed it with Noor, she too had been forced into marriage several years before during a trip to Pakistan. "I didn't know how unhappy she was; we never talked about it," Noor explains when asked why, given her sister's experience, her own marriage came as such a shock. "I didn't talk about it with anyone," says Aziza, who returned to the U.K. without her husband. But she resolved to rescue her sister. "I'm going to get you out of there, don't worry," she told Noor during their brief exchange. Aziza eventually got in touch with Balmforth, the West Yorkshire community officer for forced marriages, who in turn contacted the Foreign Office.
The law is a woefully blunt instrument when it comes to domestic violence of all kinds. Some have suggested tweaking immigration laws to reduce forced marriages. Legislation introduced by Denmark's right-leaning government last May raised to 24 the minimum age at which a spouse can sponsor a partner for immigration. But that kind of broad-brush approach only undermines basic civil liberties, says Siddiqui of Southall Black Sisters. After the fact, police can invoke a range of laws to extract women from forced marriages. (Forcing someone into marriage is not a crime in the UK, but since the cases often involve underage brides and violence, related charges like child abduction, assault or unlawful imprisonment can be applied.) But after marriage, most women or girls are too ensnared to seek help.
Balmforth, who has worked on more than 2,500 forced-marriage cases, is empowered to act only when a specific request has been made. And he still sometimes encounters cultural landmines: "People do say that [because I'm not Asian] I just don't understand. I tell them there's nothing in the Koran that says forced marriage is allowed."
Prevention would be far better, of course. And there are the first sputtering efforts of such a campaign. The Community Liaison Unit of the Foreign Office deals with some 200 forced-marriage cases a year, many of which involve the repatriation of a UK national who has been taken abroad against her will. Tying the Knot?, an educational video produced by the unit, has been screened at dozens of schools. "Marriage is your choice," the voice-over intones, adding that "If you find that you are being forced into marriage, you can get help." Teachers can potentially learn to spot signs that girls are being forced into marriage, says Fawzia Samad of the Community Liaison Unit. A sudden loss of interest in schoolwork, for example, can be telling. Why bother to study if you know your school days are about to end?
Efforts to help women escape forced marriages still suffer from a lack of organization and funding. In June, the Foreign Office will sponsor a conference on forced marriage with representatives from eight European countries, Turkey, the U.S and Canada. But any action governments take is susceptible to accusations of cultural bullying. It is perilously easy for white Western Europeans to reflexively judge all arranged marriages forced and voluntary as wrong. Last year, UK Home Secretary David Blunkett clumsily suggested that, in the interest of integration, British Asians should try to find partners in Britain rather than entering into arranged marriages with spouses from abroad. Several Asian community leaders were outraged. Others, like Manzoor Moghal of the the Muslim Council of Britain, who defends arranged marriages that "happen with the free will of the young people," conceded that Blunkett had a point.
In reality, as is so often the case for children of immigrants, life usually becomes a series of compromises made day by day, individuals sacrificing more or less autonomy in order to stay connected to their families and maintain a slippery sense of cultural identity. The choices can be diabolical.
After spending her first night of freedom at a police station in Amsterdam, Noor flew back to the UK. She was initially housed in a women's shelter near London. She soon left to stay at a friend's flat in Bradford but, unable to contribute enough to the rent, moved to a hostel for battered and homeless women after a few months. Bradford is small enough that Noor often runs into people she knows and sees family members from afar. But for an 18-year-old without a diploma or a salary, it is hard for her to imagine how to create a life anywhere else. She is trying to get a job, but has had little luck. Her only source of funds is a fortnightly allowance of $100 in government aid, a third of which goes to the hostel. A year ago, she hoped to someday go to university, but she does not talk of that anymore.
Noor's marriage was never valid under English law, since the statutory notice was not given to civil authorities and there was no registry service. But if she chooses someday to have a Muslim wedding, she would have to have her first marriage annulled or dissolved by a Shari'a court. And the rest of the slate is not so easily cleansed. Noor has stayed in close touch with Aziza, but resisted any real contact with the rest of her family. Then she heard that her brother Ali was hospitalized. Despite everything, she rushed to visit him last week. Groggy with medication, Ali seemed pleased to see her. So has all been forgiven? "No," says Noor. "Too much has happened." Though she hopes relations with her family continue to improve, she knows that what happened last year means things will never be the same. And so Noor remains torn between two worlds.