By Claire Wilson and Christina Quaine
Smiling at the camera, these three young women had their lives ahead of them. Like many of us, they dreamt of having a career, of becoming a wife, of being a mother. Except their dreams led to them being horrifically murdered by those they trusted most – their families.
Their crime? They wanted to spend the rest of their lives with a man they loved, rather than one they’d been ordered to marry.
Banaz Mahmod, 20, Tulay Goren, 15, and Samaira Nazir, 25, made the “mistake” of insisting they had a “right” to choose their own husband.
For this, Banaz from Mitcham, London was tortured, raped and beaten to death by a gang on the orders of her father, Mahmod Mahmod, 57, and uncle, Ari Mahmod, 55, in January 2006.
The reason? She tried to escape the unhappy marriage she’d been forced into aged 16, and start a new relationship. She paid the ultimate price for bringing shame on her Kurdish family. Her father and uncle were convicted of her murder in 2007.
Schoolgirl Tulay is thought to have been smothered or strangled with a washing line in 1999 by her Turkish father, Mehmet Goren, 52. Although her body has never been found, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2009 for her murder.
The Old Bailey heard that he was furious when she began a relationship with a man from a different Muslim sect, when he wanted her to marry her cousin.
In 2005, Samaira, a recruitment consultant, was stabbed 18 times by her brother, Azhar, 37, and his cousin, Imran Mohammed, 24, at the family home in Southall, London. She wanted to marry Afghan immigrant Salman Mohammed, rather than one of the suitors her family had lined up. As the prosecutor at her murder trial said: “She lost her life for loving the wrong man.”
Every year, around 8,000 women in the UK are forced into marriage, with threats of kidnap, violence or even death if they refuse. Some, like these three women, lose their lives, victims of this far from honourable tradition.
But there is hope. One young woman and her colleagues are working hard to ensure others don’t become victims like Banaz, Tulay and Samaira.
Sophie Watts, 29, is a case worker at the Government’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU). It was set up five years ago by the Home Office and Foreign & Commonwealth Office to provide life-saving support to vulnerable people, and is responsible for rescuing British women from forced marriages.
Here, Sophie opens her diary…
It’s 9.30am, and the phone rings. When I answer, the girl at the other end of the line whispers in fear, her faltering voice barely audible.
Just 21, Asma* is in hiding from her family, who’ve taken her on holiday to Pakistan, only to reveal she’s to marry her 24-year-old cousin, whom she’s met just once.
“If I don’t marry him, my uncle will kill me,” she says quietly. “Please help me.”
She’s right to be terrified. Last year, nearly 1,000 women were victims of so-called honour killings in Pakistan.
Asma is in hiding with her boyfriend, Haroon*, 21, who followed her to Pakistan because he was suspicious about her family’s plans.
Her family are refusing to let her marry him because he’s not from a good enough caste – or social class. And they want her cousin to get a UK visa. Asma says the wedding’s been arranged and she’s expected to return to the UK a married woman, whether she likes it or not. She’s sure her uncle will be out looking for them, determined to wreak revenge for her disobedience.
I’m not allowed to encourage victims to escape – I can only help them based on what they want to do themselves. So as desperate as I am to make sure Asma is safe, I have to wait for her to decide what to do. She asks me to call her tomorrow.
Hanging up, I sit at my desk, contemplating what it must be like to be miles from home, petrified of your own family. I really hope she answers my call tomorrow.
I hardly slept last night for worrying about Asma. Although I’ve helped dozens of victims like her since I joined the FMU last August, it doesn’t get any easier knowing a scared young girl is at risk, thousands of miles away.
And because of client confidentiality, I can’t share my concerns with my friends or family. I feel sick with worry about some of the girls I talk to. Especially when they suddenly stop calling.
Sometimes it’s because their mobile phones have been confiscated by their families. But other times it might be for a more sinister reason, and I’ll never know because I don’t hear from them again.
So when Asma answers the phone my relief is palpable.
“I want to come back to the UK,” she says. “But I can’t afford the flight home. My family have all my money.”
Luckily, the FMU runs a scheme called Undertaking To Repay (UTR), where we provide an emergency loan in exceptional cases like Asma’s. The victim pays back the money interest free when they can afford to.
I quickly sort out a flight to Manchester for her while the British Embassy in Islamabad arranges for Haroon to be on the same plane.
But I’m still worried members of her family in the UK might wait at the airport for her and snatch her, once they realise she’s fled Pakistan. I call the police station at the airport and they agree to meet her off the flight.
Asma is not the only woman I hope to protect today and this afternoon I receive an email from Nina*, a 19-year-old Kurdish woman living in the UK, who was a student before her family forced her to quit college.
Last week, her father told her she is to marry a man she’s never met and live with him in Syria.
She refused, so he punched her in the head, spat at her and cut off her long hair. Now he and her stepmother are refusing to let her out of the house, and have locked her in their home.
I give her my office number, hoping she’ll be able to call without putting herself in danger.
My phone rings at 10am. It’s Nina. I’m so relieved to hear her voice. She sounds terrified as she explains that her dad and stepmum are out, but they’ll be back soon. Listening to her shaky, nervous voice, I know the courage it’s taken just to pick up the phone.
Nina says she wants my help to escape. She knows if she continues to refuse the marriage, the consequences could be fatal. With two hours before her family are due home, I have to act fast. Adrenalin kicks in as I start our rescue process.
The National Domestic Violence Helpline puts me in touch with a women’s refuge 30 miles from Nina’s home, and her local police agree to take her there. I call Nina and instruct her to pack a bag quickly, delete our emails and wait for the police.
She sounds desperate and exhausted and pleads with me to reassure her everything will be OK.
My heart’s pounding. I know that if her parents come home early her chance of escape will be gone.
Two hours later, I feel massive relief when Nina calls to say she’s at the refuge. I give her the details of a Kurdish support group who can help her find somewhere to live and meet new friends.
Her life will never be the same again.She’ll never be able to see or contact her family – who knows what they would do to punish her. It doesn’t bear thinking about and, although I’m hugely relieved she’s safe, it’s also a bittersweet moment for me as I have no idea of how her future may pan out.
Despite everything, Nina still loves her family. She’s had to make a heart- wrenching decision to start her life over again, in a place where she knows no one. But she’s safe and free. She’ll stay at the refuge for three months before moving to more permanent accommodation.
After today, I won’t have any more involvement with Nina. Now charities and other organisations will help her. It’s tough not knowing what happens next, but that’s part of the job. Tomorrow there’ll be another victim to help.
Talking to 18-year-old Zeena* today, I feel so angry. Nine months ago her family violently forced her to marry her cousin from Morocco against her will. She was held hostage at the family home in the UK, and brutally beaten by her father and brother as her mother held her down.
My heart breaks when I hear this. No one should have to suffer that, in this country or any other. Zeena hasn’t seen her husband since the marriage, but now he wants to move to the UK and her family are forcing her to support his visa application by playing the devoted wife. She doesn’t want him in her life. She barely knows him and doesn’t want to live with a stranger.
We talk about how she could prove to the immigration authorities that this isn’t a marriage of love – which means they could refuse his visa. She would have to make a public statement in court. It’s a huge risk and could lead to her family attacking her again.
She says she needs some time to think about her options and I reassure her I’ll always be here to listen.
It’s a great end to the week when Asma calls to tell me she’s back in the UK and her boyfriend is now her husband. They married in Pakistan before they left.
She tells me she was a nervous wreck boarding her flight, convinced her family would realise she’d gone and come to kidnap her. When she arrived in Manchester, she sent a message to her family telling them what she’d done.
Heartbreakingly, but not surprisingly, they responded by saying she was dead to them now. It’s not safe for her to return to her hometown, so Asma and Haroon are planning to move in with his relatives, who live hundreds of miles away.
She’s devastated at being cut off by her family, but happy she’s been able to marry the man she loves. They’ll start a new life away from all their problems.
Last year, myself and seven fellow case workers at the FMU helped 1,145 women like Asma.
Cuddling up on the sofa tonight with my boyfriend, Khaleel, a 32-year-old teacher, I’m so grateful I have the freedom to choose who I want to be with. We’ve been together nine months and he’s African-American. Our families accept our love for one another and the fact that I’m British and he’s from Texas isn’t an issue.
Khaleel supports me in my job, too, as it’s not your normal nine-to-five. But I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve always wanted to have a career working with vulnerable people. I feel we all have a responsibility to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves.
Of course, being part of the FMU involves lots of stress and is emotionally draining, but the reward when things go right is amazing. Nothing beats it.
Every day I communicate with women who face violence and intimidation, often from the people closest to them. If my work can make a difference to their lives, and gives them the freedom I have, it’s worthwhile.”
- To contact the FMU, call 020 7008 0151 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘I had a choice: run away or die’
Three years ago, Jazmin*, a 22-year-old nursery nurse, ran away after her family tried to force her into marriage. She says:”Walking into my bedroom, I stopped in shock. My computer was smashed, my belongings everywhere. I knew who was responsible: my older brother, Jamal*. He was furious I was refusing to marry my cousin in Pakistan. He’d sworn to kill me rather than ‘shame’ the family.
For two years, life was hell. Jamal would lock me up for days and beat me. I had to call in sick to the nursery where I worked, and hide my bruises. Mum was unwell with MS and Dad agreed I deserved Jamal’s punishment. Two weeks before I ran away, Jamal threw me to the ground and kicked me in the face. Blood spilled from my nose and I almost passed out. Dad did nothing.
When I found my room trashed, I knew my life was in danger. That night I went to the police with just the clothes on my back. I haven’t returned. They put me in touch with the National Domestic Violence Helpline, who found a refuge 200 miles away. I’ve now moved out, and have a new job. I’ve made friends, but I’m too paranoid to tell them about my past. Not saying goodbye to Mum broke my heart, but every day I remind myself why I ran away – to be free to live how I want.”