My article called ‘Choice, Culture and the Politics of Belonging: The Emerging Law of Forced And Arranged Marriage’, recently published at 72 Modern Law Review 331 (2009), generally reflects my interest in the construction of the female citizen subject in legal discourse. (photo credit)
The majority of reported victims of forced marriage in the United Kingdom are young women of South Asian Muslim origin. Because of this fact, the forced marriage project must be read critically against the background of a wider politics of British Muslim belonging, which is linked to the counter-terrorism and social cohesion agendas. This politics operates to exclude some British Muslims from full membership in the ‘we group’ of British citizens. The ground for exclusion is that of ‘excessive’ or ‘difficult’ culture. Those British Muslim who are presented as most bound up in cultural practice, I argue, have become the British citizen’s ‘other’, and are subject to law’s discipline on that basis.
I trace the developing construction of the act of forcing another to marry as the exemplar performance of difficult culture, and as the exemplar rejection of British values – particularly the value of autonomy – in the major policy statements on forced marriage prevention.
Within the article are two points of critique:
► First, the focus on culture borne of the present need for the politics of belonging to define its other as a ‘cultural’ other leads to an effective culturisation of forced marriage. This means that much effective work has been done to tackle the considerable ‘internal cultural’ obstacles to exit from an unwanted marriage. The third-party and secondary-offender provisions of Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC's Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 are excellent examples. A focus on culture also, doubtless, sparked the involvement of specialist women’s organisations such as Southall Black Sisters in the drafting of the initial bill, and this is a good thing.
On the other hand, I argue that the focus on culture has been almost entirely to the exclusion of other socio-economic factors which also contribute to the difficulty of ‘exit’.
So, for instance, it is very telling that, at the same time that the Forced Marriage Act was being birthed, many specialist women’s refuges and domestic violence services – the support organisations which are invaluable to women seeking to leave a difficult family situation – were struggling to remain open for lack of adequate government funding. The focus on culture served to hide the state’s contribution to women’s oppression.
► A second point flows from the influence of the politics of belonging on the forced marriage project. We might imagine that, in this arena, the relative (particularly the father, because a deeply gendered construction of the violence of forced marriage is at play) who forces a young woman into marriage occupies the most precarious position in the schema of British Muslim citizenship. But some perhaps counter-intuitive exclusions also take place when, particularly in the new immigration legislation:
- the often vulnerable immigrating spouse in a transnational marriage is reduced to perpetrator status, by virtue of his or her ‘foreign’ culture; or
- the young British Muslim citizen is the subject of wide-ranging protective intervention which has the effect of disciplining those who choose ‘with’ culture and in favour of transnational arranged marriage.
Questions arise about who is ‘permitted’ to occupy the ‘victim slot’ in the forced marriage debate, and about whether the right to make certain marital choices, and to claim that right from a position of victimhood if it is denied, carry a ‘duty’ to make the ‘more British’ choice. Since the article was written, an idealised forced marriage victim has begun to emerge in media coverage of the issue. This is reflected in the newspapers’ presentation of the case of Dr. Humayra Abedin, a British National Health Service physician. Hers is one of the first of 23 successful applications so far under the new Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007. (credit for photo of Abedin, center, with her solicitor, Anne-Marie Hutchinson, left)
What does the forced marriage project tell us about the citizenship of British Muslim women who do not sufficiently fit the model of victimhood: young, English-speaking, educated, thoroughly ‘Westernised’? Is there another subject position which they can legitimately occupy?