It is estimated that over 3 million people are living in conditions of modern slavery in Pakistan (GSI 2018). Children are subjected to modern slavery in the form of forced marriage. It is estimated that 21% of girls in Pakistan are married before the age of 18. Child marriage in the country is connected with tradition, culture and custom. It occasionally involves the transfer of money, settlement of debts or exchange of daughters sanctioned by a Jirga or Panchayat.
This woman tells of how despite asking to continue with her education, at the age if 19 was forced to travel to Pakistan to marry. Despite being subjected to physical violence, this woman’s family maintained that she must stay with her husband. After five years, she finally left the abuse and is now happily married to a man of her choice.
I was born and raised in the West Midlands, part of a traditional Pakistani family living in the heart of an Asian community. Despite being am academic high achiever my family only ever had one ambition for me... to marry me off as soon as legally possible.
My years at school were difficult in that my parents did not care for the fact that I was always top of my class neither were they interested in reading my glowing reports. An unhealthy amount of importance was placed on me learning domestic chores, cooking, cleaning, ironing and looking after younger siblings. All the things, which would make me a good wife.
My secondary school years were much the same my schooling was always seen as secondary to domestic responsibilities. My father would always say" it's not how many ‘A’s you have that helps in life, it is whether you can make round chapattis that's most important!"
Discussions about my marriage began just before I turned fourteen, everything was discussed in my absence at my uncles house, where every few days my father would meet with his brothers and parents and discuss and decide my future. My aunt was quite friendly with me and as the discussions took place at her house she was always up to date with all that was being discussed. she would find her moments when she would discreetly tell me what had been said.
It was a frightening time, I was completely left out of all that was being discussed about my life, my family showed a blatant disregard for my future and my life. I felt like a piece of furniture, which they could place wherever they wanted, this country or Pakistan and I was expected to remain quiet.
The September that I started year 10 I was sent abroad so that the potential rishtas could see me and decide whether they wanted to ask for my hand in marriage, it was also a ploy to pull me out of the education system. My family knew how intelligent I was, and they also knew that I wanted to be a lawyer. All the staff at school were keen to see me progress but family disapproved of women having an education, having a job, signing at the job centre and driving cars. in order to ensure I complied to their rigid ideology it was important for them to remove me from a society that encouraged freedom of choice.
I lived in Pakistan for around five, six months and when I returned I was no longer allowed to go to school. I sat at home getting depressed wishing I could go back and complete my GCSEs. I think God may have been watching my silent tears because one day social services were alerted and I returned to school.
Although it was difficult and I had to bargain a lot I managed to complete my GCSEs and also my Levels after which I could no longer put off the impending marriage.
Throughout my A level years my marriage was spoken about in a roundabout sort of way. Female relatives hinting at the fact that next year I would be celebrating my birthday in a different home. the women spoke of ‘kismet’ and how daughters are brought up to be handed over to someone else. My aunt had already alerted me that 'the' conversation about marriage would be taking place soon. Every day I would brace myself when my father looked at me, secretly knowing what he was about to say but for many weeks he did not speak to me about the marriage. Then one day my mother, whilst I was helping her with housework said "you are of that age now where you need to get married. A few men have expressed an interest in you and your dad wants you to decide which of these you will marry". The shock reduced me to tears, I had just turned eighteen, I wanted to go to university and to be a lawyer.... I wanted to live!
I tried to reason with her say if they would allow me to go to university and get my degree, I would marry whoever they chose but my mother would not have it. She was adamant that I had to decide within the next few days as my father was waiting for a response. She said "your father will not have you blaming him if your marriage breaks down later so therefore you must say with your own mouth which of these men you choose. Tomorrow when your marriage faces trouble you can't blame me or your father as you have chosen!" It was not the obvious form of blackmail, but I felt that it amounted to the same if not worse as they were being very subtle and clever in their tactics.
I was taken to Pakistan just after my nineteenth birthday. I had eventually told my mother I will marry the most educated of the three even though I hardly knew him. I had briefly met him when I was fourteen in Pakistan but could not remember much about him. I tried to make the best of the situation and make the best choice I could out of the limited choices I had.
The date was set, and my wedding began, I felt so isolated in a strange country surrounded by strangers singing at my mehndhi. I kept wondering where the nearest well was so I could jump in.... I would play out scenarios in my head of the bharaat turning up and finding me dead. I dreamt of overdosing as I felt no one cared, my mother and father the two people who were responsible for my wellbeing had allowed my uncles and grandparents to make this arrangement. I wondered if they realised that me and this man were not compatible.
During the nikkah when the mullah asked me if I accepted this man as my husband I remained silent the first time he asked there was no response from me I sat there frozen, the second time he asked there was silence on my part again, the third time he spoke my grandmother nudged me with her elbow and said 'say qabool hai!' which I muttered and was greeted by fireworks.
My heart was shattered I was crying inconsolably, my life had crumbled. Everyone else rejoiced and congratulated each other whilst I said goodbye to my life and freedom.
The marriage was a violent one it lasted for five years. Every time I came to my family for help, I was told that I had to accept my lot, that this was my ‘kismet’ and my life from now on. I had a child, the violence continued and sometimes was directed towards my beautiful baby. He was the most uncaring father and husband. My grandmother kept telling me that my wedding procession at entered this man's house and it would be my funeral procession that should leave. Before the birth of my child I had attempted suicide on a number of occasions, I had even overdosed whilst three months pregnant. After the birth if my child I knew that I did not want another life ruined In the same way mine had been. It was the birth of my child that gave the courage to leave. Eventually I decided to stand up to him and my family and community. He was arrested for being violent and charged.
I broke free.
I am now happily remarried to wonderful man of my choice and live a wonderful life in London.
Narrative produced and provided by Muslim Women’s Network UK