‘My father performed exorcisms and tried to push me into forced marriage after discovering I was gay’
A young woman has told how she was pushed towards a forced marriage and choked unconscious by her father who performed “exorcisms” in a bid to rid of demons after her family found out she was gay.
The harrowing case is one of many incidents examined in new research that found forced marriage remains “rife” in England and Wales but the number of people coming forward to alert authorities has plummeted in recent years.
The first-of-its-kind study, by the University of Lincoln and the University of Bristol, found queries to the government’s forced marriage unit dramatically decreased from 1,507 inquiries in 2018 to 337 in 2021.
But experts told The Independent the “alarming” fall was caused by Covid restrictions and victims, relatives, lawyers, teachers, social workers and others working for public agencies being less likely to report to the unit during the pandemic.
Aisha K Gill, who co-authored the report alongside Professor Sundari Anitha, said the “steady use of” the orders demonstrates forced marriage has not gone away and warned it was not an issue that can be eliminated “overnight”.
One case involved a 20-year-old Saudi woman, who grew up in the UK, who was tricked into moving back in with her parents after she told them she was in a relationship with a woman.
She later eavesdropped on a conversation in which they revealed plans to make her travel back to Saudi Arabia where she would be married off.
“Her father choked her unconscious repeatedly whilst performing exorcisms to rid her of ‘demons’ and she was forced to drink and bathe in ‘holy water’,” the report states.
“With the help of her girlfriend, she escaped and applied for a forced marriage protection order (FMPO) and eventually managed to be housed safely in a secret location. Today she is rebuilding a life with her girlfriend.”
FMPOs are civil injunctions intended to stop forced marriages issued by family courts. Legislation that made it illegal to force someone into marriage in England and Wales was introduced in 2014 and anyone found guilty of doing so can be imprisoned for up to seven years.
Another case saw parents try to force their 17-year-old daughter into marriage after she was raped because they said the sexual violence brought shame on the family. They said the marriage was a way to tackle this.
The girl, who was from India but lived in the UK, pushed back against the marriage but finally bowed to pressure and consented to an engagement.
However, as the marriage grew closer she contacted the police and a FMPO was issued enabling her to move out of her family home to secure accommodation.
Another woman, aged 28 and who had recently moved to the UK from India with her family, told researchers how she was hit by her parents and made to do household chores and caring duties when she was just nine years old. Later, when she was 16, she was told she would be married off instead of going to college.
“He wanted me to be there just to cook and clean and look after the kids. They had been talking about my marriage to someone in India for some time,” she said.
Researchers also cited the example of a 21-year-old Somali man living in London who had managed to get his parents’ begrudging approval to marry his Somali girlfriend.
However, they later changed their minds, saying they disapproved of his wife’s clothing and the fact she smoked. The young man was lured back to Somalia under the false pretence that his grandmother was unwell but when he arrived, he was detained in a so-called cultural rehabilitation centre.
Once inside the centre, his parents tried to coerce him into divorcing his wife and force him to instead marry a woman they chose.
Recounting the ordeal in a police statement, he said that four men came “as if to ambush me”, adding that “a big guy grabbed me and lifted me up, they chained my legs together, close around my ankles. One chain was around my arms. They put me on a chair”.
He continued: “My mum said, ‘I know what you get up to in London – smoking and drinking. Until you stop all this you are not coming out of this centre’”.
The man noted his “mum was watching all of this”, which made it “hard to deal with”, adding he was in chains during the first week in the centre.
While he attempted to escape the centre, his wife notified the police and they gained a FMPO that demanded the man’s parents return their son to the UK.