Lina, a wide-eyed 18-year-old, is still trying to get the hang of freedom in three-inch heels.
Until a month ago, Lina had never worn Western clothing. Her parents, immigrants from Pakistan, insisted she wear the jilbab, the head-to-toe covering favored by conservative Muslims.
When she turned 16, her parents informed her that she was "engaged" to her first cousin, a 21-year-old man she detested. When she balked, she said, her parents withdrew her from school and locked her in her room, where they told her she would remain until she consented.
"They put two padlocks on the door and they locked the windows," she said. They also installed spikes along the top of the backyard fence so she couldn't climb over.
Lina's imprisonment lasted nearly two years. The only time she was allowed out of her room was to do housework. There were frequent beatings, she said, and endless mental cruelties.
"My mom threatened me with a knife. They also cut my hair off."
One day, Lina saw an article in a women's magazine about a shelter in Derby for women who were victims of forced marriage. She called, and Jasvinder Sanghera, who runs the shelter, helped her plan an escape.
Lina's story is not unusual. Each year, hundreds of South Asian women living in Britain are forced into marriages. It is a growing problem that authorities have only recently begun to tackle.
These marriages are generally arranged to satisfy traditional notions of family honor or prestige, but personal misery and domestic violence are the frequent by-products. For some who resist, the consequences can be fatal.
Scotland Yard recently reopened the files of 109 suspicious deaths of young women over the past 10 years. They believe that many of these may have been "honor" killings related to forced marriages. Authorities also note that the suicide rate of South Asian females ages 16 to 24 is almost triple the national rate.
The British government is considering legislation that would make forced marriage a specific criminal offense. The proposals will be presented early this year.
But even in cases clearly involving gross rights abuses, legislating cultural norms is tricky. The Home Office, responsible for drafting the laws, sees forced marriage as a human-rights violation but has no qualms about "arranged marriages," which it describes as "a tradition ... (that) has operated successfully within many communities and many countries for a very long time and remains the preferred choice of some people."
"The lines are quite blurred," said Sanghera, 40, who knows from personal experience. She ran away from home at age 15 to avoid an arranged marriage.
"A girl will often say yes to an arranged marriage, but only because she is under tremendous pressure. She thinks she has to for the sake of the family," she said.
Sanghera is the sixth of seven daughters born to a family that emigrated from India's Punjab region in the 1950s. Growing up in the drab industrial town of Derby, where her father worked in a foundry, Sanghera watched as one by one her older sisters dutifully acceded to her mother's wishes and married men from the family's home village.
"When I was 14, my mother presented me with a photo of the man I was to marry," she said. Sanghera, however, had other ideas. "I wanted to go to school and to university. But the more I opposed my family, the more they restricted my freedom."
Her sisters were unsympathetic. At school, authorities seemed oblivious to the problem, not that Sanghera was eager to discuss it with them. "I was so embarrassed that I was being married off," she said.
The battle at home continued. Sanghera was locked in her room. Food was brought to the door. She was told that her refusal to accept the marriage would bring shame to the family, that her sisters' husbands might demand divorces.
"My mother threw herself on the floor and threatened to kill herself," she recalled. "It was emotional blackmail."
When a wedding dress was purchased, Sanghera knew that time was running out. She agreed to the marriage as a ruse to get her parents to drop their guard. A few days later, the front door was left open, and Sanghera bolted. With the help of a friend's 21-year-old brother, she fled to another city.
After a few months, Sanghera tried to reconcile with her family. She called home, but was told by her mother, "You come home and marry who we say, or you are dead in our eyes."
Sanghera eventually married on her own terms. She would not return to Derby until she was 24. Over the years, she managed secret reconciliations with her parents a public reconciliation was out of the question but to this day some of her sisters refuse to accept her.
"They cross the street when they see me coming," she said.
Sanghera opened her shelter for women in 1994 because, as she said, "I knew I was only one of many." Since then, she has dealt with thousands of cases.
Typically, the victims are young females, some only 11, who are taken abroad to be married. More than 90 percent of forced marriages involve British citizens of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin; the rest are scattered from Albania to West Africa.
The abuse is not restricted to the poor and uneducated. Sanghera helped two women who were lawyers. Nor are all victims are female; about 15 percent of the cases that come to the attention of authorities involve males.
The marriages are often used to help relatives back home immigrate to Britain, something that can bring prestige to a poor family. Such marriages also are seen as a way to preserve identity in an alien culture.
"When my parents came over, they weren't accepted by the British people," said Sanghera. "They struggled to hold on to their own values and traditions. They worried that we would lose our Asian identity."
For the children of these immigrants, the problem often starts with a boyfriend or a girlfriend. Dating, even within the ethnic community, is frowned upon, especially for girls. When parents see their sons and daughters becoming too "Westernized," they hustle them off to be married.
"The parents tell them it's a family holiday, or that they have to go back to visit a dying relative, or to attend a family wedding. When they get there, it turns out to be their own," said Detective Constable Yvonne Rhoden, a member of Scotland Yard's forced-marriage team.
"I've seen cases where girls were drugged and taken to the airport," said Sanghera.
A reluctance to pass judgment on the cultural norms of others or to meddle in family matters has allowed school authorities, social workers and law enforcement officials to ignore the problem.
British teachers, for example, are trained to spot the symptoms of child abuse and report suspected cases to authorities, but nothing is said when a bright 14-year-old girl suddenly disappears from school for months.
When Lina escaped from her parents' house, she ran to the local police only to encounter officers who wanted to send her back home.
"They said it was just a little family tiff," Lina recalled. A quick intervention by Sanghera and a phone call from Scotland Yard's forced-marriage team rescued the situation.
Since then, Lina the name is part of a new identity given to her by police has lived in several women's shelters in various parts of Britain. She now dresses as she pleases and has joined with Sanghera to help other young women trying to escape forced marriages.
Not everyone is convinced that criminalizing forced marriages will help.
"There's a need for more education, not more laws," said Aisha Gill, a lecturer in criminology at London's Roehampton University. Gill said that existing laws for assault, abduction and child cruelty offered sufficient protections if authorities were more aggressive in applying them but that new laws would merely be "symbolic," giving the false impression that the government was dealing with the problem.
Scotland Yard's Rhoden argued that while some legal gray areas should be clarified, criminalizing forced marriages could drive the practice underground. She noted that laws banning female genital mutilation were introduced to Britain in 1985 but that there has never been a successful prosecution.
One "gray area" mentioned by Rhoden is the need for a law that would enable young women who had been disowned by their families to recover identity records and other necessary documents. The biggest drawback to criminalizing forced marriages is that the victims would be reluctant to bring charges against their parents. Criminal prosecution also would make future reconciliations more difficult.
Despite those concerns, Sanghera argued that there is a need for tougher laws or at least to group existing laws under a specific offense clearly identified as forced marriage.
"It's like rape. It's the woman's decision whether to prosecute. Please don't take that choice away from her," Sanghera said.
"To this day, I don't know if I could have prosecuted my parents," she said. "But if there had been a law, at least I would have been able to say, 'You can't do this to me, Mum, it's against the law.'"
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