Press Association via AP
Dr. Humayra Abedin

Bangladeshi Woman’s Legal Victory Step Forward Against Forced Marriage

December 16, 2008 10:30 AM
by Anne Szustek
A Bangladesh court called for the release of London doctor Humayra Abedin, who had allegedly been held captive by her parents to get her married to a Muslim man.

Humayra Abedin Wins Fight against Forced Marriage

Echoing a British court injunction on the case, a court in Bangladesh forced the release of Humayra Abedin, marking the first time Britain’s Forced Marriage Act, passed in November, has been extended to someone who is not a British citizen.

Sara Hossain, Abedin’s lawyer, announced after the verdict was issued, “Our courts have shown that we can guarantee the liberty of our citizens. This is quite a precedent.”

Abedin, a 33-year-old Bangladeshi national training in London to be a general practitioner for the U.K. National Health Service, was allegedly tricked into flying back home on Aug. 3 by her family under the guise of her mother being gravely ill.

Soon after arrival, as Abedin contends, she was then drugged, gagged, beaten and held hostage for four months in a house in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, as her family begged her to marry a fellow Muslim.

According to court reports, in London, Abedin is dating a 44-year-old Bangladeshi software engineer who is Hindu, a fact that apparently drew the ire of her family. The Times of London quoted the boyfriend as saying, “They told her they’d prefer her to die than return to London.” He also said that his family in Bangladesh had received death threats.

British authorities issued an injunction under the newly promulgated Forced Marriage Act, which permits anyone to request that courts block a wedding ceremony if it is believed that it is forced or involves one of the spouses-to-be being taken across national borders for the purposes of marriage. Barristers in London had filed a case for Abedin, even though she is not a British national, on the grounds that she is a resident of the United Kingdom.
Bangladesh courts were under no legal obligation to enforce the U.K. court case, but Judge Syed Mahmood Hossain did so in a Dhaka courtroom anyway, commanding Abedin’s parents to hand back over her passport, credit cards and drivers license.

“It perplexes me as to why the parents kept her confined and interfered with her personal life,” Judge Hossain was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse.

Her parents meanwhile, continue to maintain their innocence. “She has not been held captive,” said her father in the courtroom, who reportedly wailed after the verdict was issued and needed to be propped up as he exited the chamber. “These allegations are all false.”

London’s Metropolitan Police force began investigating the case in June after hearing reports that Abedin’s mother and uncle were attempting to keep her captive in London over marriage disagreements. The investigation went into full force when Abedin sent her former roommate a text message on Aug. 11 saying “Please help me. My life is in danger. They have locked me in house. My job is at stake. They are making my life hell.”

Abedin, who says she harbors no ill will toward her parents, is set to return to London this week. But thousands of other young Bangladeshi women have found themselves struggling to get out of similar plights.

Background: Britain, Germany strive to curb forced marriages

During the first nine months of 2008, Britain’s Forced Marriage Unit handled more than 1,300 cases paralleling Abedin’s, many of which involved families from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, where arranged marriages are common. The statistic marks a 79 percent increase from last year. And the British High Commission office in Dhaka told AFP that it mediated in 56 cases involving forced marriages between April 2007 and March 2008.

But Abedin’s case marks a leap in the United Kingdom’s fight against forced marriages, says Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, a member of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain.

“It will send out very positive messages to all young people who are taken for a variety of reasons to Pakistan, India and Bangladesh,” he told the BBC. “It also sends a positive message to parents that they have limits to their rights. Young people’s lives must dominate all other rights.”

In an effort to prevent forced marriages and immigration abuse, the British government has raised the minimum age at which foreigners can apply for a marriage visa to enter the country. Effective Nov. 27, the minimum age for an immigrant visa changed from 18 to 21.

“It is important that we protect vulnerable young people and this measure will help avoid exploitation,” U.K. Immigration Minister Phil Wools was quoted as saying in The Daily Telegraph. “We believe it is important to protect young people from being forced into relationships they do not want at a time in their lives when they could be establishing a degree of independence as an adult through further education or work.”

The new minimum age for U.K. marriage visa eligibility came into effect a few days after the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act.

Comparable measures have been discussed in other parts of Western Europe recently, based on similar concerns of exploitation and societal subjugation.

In October 2007, the two biggest parties in Germany’s parliament, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD), were discussing a coalition deal to criminalize forced marriages.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a member of the CDU, said in an October 2007 speech, “I think the demand to make forced marriage an offence is absolutely right.”

A law that raised Germany’s minimum marriage visa age to 18 already had been “showing positive results,” a spokesperson for the German Interior Ministry told Reuters.

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