Arranged marriage, or forced wedlock?

Recent high-profile cases involving underage girls from Islamic nations have led to a call for legislation to ban the practice

The case last month of a 16-year-old Moroccan woman rescued by Barcelona police from a forced marriage to her cousin has prompted calls in Spain for legislation annulling arranged unions where coercion has been involved. A number of similar cases involving woman from Islamic nations abused by their husbands have hit the headlines this year.

Police rescued the young Moroccan woman after she contacted her former schoolteacher in Italy, where she had lived previously. She had sent a text message to the woman telling her of her situation, and giving details of her location. The teacher contacted police in Catalonia who went to the address, and placed the victim in the care of authorities, saying she had told them she had been sexually abused and subjected to physical violence.

Arranged marriages are common in much of rural Morocco, particularly between cousins. This makes it very difficult for either partner, but particularly women, to refuse to go through with the process.

Kept in isolation, and threatened with rejection by their family if they talk to the authorities, it is extremely difficult for young women in arranged marriages from countries like Morocco to find a way out of their situation, even when they are living in Spain. In a similar recent case in Barcelona, another young Moroccan woman who had been kept under lock and key by her husband (who had also physically abused her) told police that when she had made her mother aware of her situation, she was told she must accept such treatment as this was how marriages worked.

Organizations that work with women from Morocco and other Muslim countries say education is the key to helping women forced into arranged marriages in their homeland to find a way out. "Education is essential for women to have the confidence to exercise their rights and to build a life for themselves," says Laure Rodríguez of the Spanish Union of Muslim Women.

The Spanish criminal code, as in most countries, does not address the issue of forced marriages. Under certain circumstances, legislation exists to punish it, usually because forced marriages involve other crimes, such as sexual abuse, illegal detention, domestic violence, and even kidnapping. The question now being asked throughout the European Union is whether current legislation is sufficient to protect women, or whether specific laws are now needed. The first task is to establish just how many women in Spain are in forced marriages.

The opposition Popular Party (PP) announced recently that it will be presenting a motion in Congress making forced marriages punishable within the Penal Code. The PP has latched onto growing concern about immigrants - who now number more than 4.5 million, or 10 percent of Spain's population - in an economic downturn. The PP's leader, Mariano Rajoy, has called for tougher controls, saying "there is no room for so many immigrants."

The party has increasingly focused on the problems of integration. Mr Rajoy says a PP government would oblige immigrants to sign an "integration contract" like those being applied in France, and he would also ban the wearing of Muslim headscarves in schools, an issue that currently falls to individual schools to rule on.

The experts are divided over the issue of whether to make forcing a marriage an offense within the Penal Code. Alba García, the former head of a program set up by the regional government of Catalonia to combat gender-specific violence, supports the idea. "It would be a way of highlighting a problem that has been largely hidden until now, and it would allow us to combat it better. What's more, we need to be able to prosecute in such cases, even when the marriage took place outside Spain. García says that similar legislation already applies to female genital ablation."

But Dolors Bramon, a teacher of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Barcelona, has doubts whether such measures would be any use in combating the practice. "It would be very difficult to prove. The problem is that the victim is often not aware of her situation, and sees it as quite normal."

Sociologist and Islam expert Jordi Moreras says the law has an obligation to intervene in some cases, for example in the case of sexual abuse or violence. But he says it is important not to view all arranged marriages as necessarily forced. "Arranged marriages are common in many areas of Morocco, and are a tradition dating far back into history. Simply changing the law will not change the way people think and live," he says.

Catalonia, which has been combating forced marriages since 1999, is the only region in Spain with some data on the subject. The regional police says that it has prevented some 44 forced marriages. In the rest of Spain, the police can only act when a report is made. The Catalan government bases its approach on that of the British authorities. The British government's Foreign Ministry has a special department, set up more than a decade ago to deal with the problem. Last year, it received 1,735 requests for help. Around 86 percent came from women, and the rest from men. "We believe that the reality is much worse," says a Foreign Office official.

One in five victims is underage. According to a study by UNICEF, there are around 60 million girls who have been forced into marriage. In the United Kingdom, legislation was introduced in 2007 to protect the victims of forced marriages. "We need a legal framework that will make it clear that this is an abusive practice and that we will not permit it," says a Foreign Office spokesman. He adds that for legal measures to work, "root and branch" education is needed in societies where forced marriages take place. "It is not limited to a particular community, ethnic group, or religion. We deal with cases in the Middle East, in Africa, in Eastern Europe, and even within the United Kingdom," says the Foreign Office spokesman. Dolors Bramon points out that there is nothing within the teachings of Islam that "condones or tolerates these practices."

Organizations and officials working to prevent forced marriages, and to help young women caught up in them, say the practice is gradually disappearing in Morocco. "We are on top of the problem, and we are fighting to prevent forced marriages happening," says Pilar Duat, the head of Oxfam there. She says that although discrimination against women is widespread and deep-rooted in the country, some progress has been made through legislation. In 2004 major changes were made to the specific sets of laws governing women and the family. "The legal age at which a woman can now marry is 18, and the written consent of both parties is necessary," she says. Before then, there was no legal minimum age.

Duat says the practice remains more difficult to combat in rural areas. According to Justice Ministry figures, around 10 percent of marriages in villages take place between minors.

"We organize awareness campaigns that travel throughout Morocco to tell people about the rights of the family," says Jamila Garmouna, a member of the Democratic League for Women's Rights (LDDF). She says that when young women who have been married without their consent come to Spain, they are kept isolated, and rarely speak Spanish. "Moroccan women living in Spain live by the same rules that they would in Morocco," she says. "A great many of the migrants who leave to work abroad are from rural areas and have no education."

Bramon says that few Moroccan women in Spain who are in forced marriages are aware that they can do anything about their situation. But she believes that exposure to Western values, and particularly education, will bring about that change. "What we want to see is that, with time, these practices will disappear, but you have to remember that in some areas, particularly in the remote communities of the Atlas Mountains, these cultural practices have deep roots. Even today, many fathers still believe their daughters are their property." That said, she believes a change is underway, and that it is young Moroccan women who are driving that change.

Mariam El Mouden of the Arab Association for Education and Teaching is one of them. "I have friends who have come into conflict with their parents because of the restrictions they try to place on them. But these are young women who were born in Spain," she says. "But that doesn't mean that their parents are keeping them locked up in the house," she adds, laughing.

But the academic Jordi Moreras warns that the sensibilities of the older generation have to be respected. "They mustn't think that they are being asked to give up their traditions."

But a younger generation aware of its rights within Spain, and unwilling to accept what it sees as outdated traditions, is coming into conflict with that of its parents, warns Alba García. "Young women are increasingly prepared to go to the police or the authorities. This frightens many immigrants who may not have been in Spain for very long. These are intergenerational conflicts, but they are also about women's rights; inevitably, some families are going to feel threatened by change," she says, pointing out that young women who do oppose arranged marriages must understand that they will probably end up cutting ties with their families.

"Sometimes, the situation is so extreme that parents will use harsh methods to try to keep their daughters under control," she says. At the same time as protecting women who have been forced into marriage, Laure Rodríguez of the Spanish Union of Muslim Women, says that their husbands need to understand that the rules that might have applied in their homeland are not valid in Spain. "There are women who are brought here for marriage who have already had partners in their own countries, but when their new husbands see that they will enjoy even greater freedom here, they are frightened and react by trying to exercise even greater control," she says. "We come across women who are suffering from the kind of depressions that are associated with isolation. Particularly Pakistani women. There, they are kept segregated, but that is not the reality of our country," concludes Rodríguez.

But the majority of women who are brought to Spain for marriage are still from rural families; they do not speak Spanish; and have little or no education or training, says Rodríguez. These are the most vulnerable individuals, and if they find the courage to leave their husbands, they have few options unless they are able to get help from the authorities.

Hostages in the home

- María, a 16-year-old forced into wedlock by her family. In early March, Catalan police rescued a young woman who was given the false name of María. She had been living in a small town of around 5,000 people in Italy for the previous nine years, and had attended a local school. At Christmas, her parents took her back to their home in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. She was then married to a cousin who is 11 years older than her. At the end of February, she was then taken to L'Hospitalet de Llobregat, a suburb of Barcelona. As soon as she arrived in Spain, she sent a text message to one of her former schoolteachers in Italy. She told the woman where she lived, and that she had been forced into marriage against her will, adding that she wanted to escape from her situation. She told police officers that she had been subjected to violent sexual abuse. Her husband has been charged, and is now awaiting trial. Her mother traveled to Barcelona to see her, but the young woman, who is now living in a shelter home, refused to see her.

- Nacira, 28, was locked up by her husband. A 28-year-old Moroccan woman named only as Nacira was rescued by police last month after she had been shut up in an apartment for a year and a half by her husband and cousin Mohamed Kouba. He has since been sentenced by a Barcelona court to five years in prison for illegal detention. The woman had been confined to her bedroom and bathroom by her husband. She told police that she had wanted to have children with her husband, and that she hoped he would look after her. She was eventually able to make contact with a neighbor through the bars of her window. He and his mother supplied her with food. According to the court, the reality of the relationship "made her rethink her situation and she rebelled against it." The woman had originally accepted her captivity "because of her upbringing and other socio-cultural and family reasons, but this did not lessen her husband's crime," added the court in its summing up.

- Fatima, 26, trapped inside a full-body veil. Fatima Bumlaqi is the only woman in the Catalan town of Cunit (Tarragona province) who wears the burqa. She does not speak Spanish, has never been to school, and has no contact with the outside world. She was married off when she was 16 to a man 20 years older than her, but she says that she accepts her situation. She was brought to Cunit shortly after she was married. She has three children and has never worked. Her life consists of looking after the children, and taking them to school. Other than this she rarely goes out, has no friends, and never talks to anybody.