Recently, I came across this article about the alarming rate of forced marriages of women living in Britain and elsewhere. Essentially there is an increasing trend for families to arrange for women to be married without their knowledge or say-so. This is something quite different from other current arranged-marriage practices in which all parties involved are made fully aware of what is happening and often get to meet the person chosen—or sometimes have the opportunity to date a few selected possible future spouses to determine compatibility.
The article addresses approaches these women (and girls) can use to help themselves escape this, and ways that travel officials, teachers, healthcare providers, and other people in positions of authority can keep their eyes open and alert for signs of impending forced marriages.
Reading this article set off giant alarm bells for me, but I’ve been cautious in writing up a critique. While I very much believe that it is a problem to marry off any woman (or girl!) and send her, in some cases, away from her home to a stranger in a strange (to her) land, I’m aware of my bias as a White, Western woman and will critique only the impacts of this practice on the women, not the practice itself. When I call this practice abusive, I am talking about the impact it has on the people it affects most, rather than passing judgment on a history and culture I know nothing about.
My purpose here is actually to critique the way this was reported. I’m appalled by the level of detail given in this article for the approaches used to help these women.
Who thought it was sound to make public the tools someone might use to help herself escape an abusive, unsafe, unwanted situation?
In the same way that many shelters for people escaping domestic violence need to have their address kept secret and their physical location guarded with locked doors and video cameras, so to do the techniques for people to escape or avoid other types of abuse need to be kept close to the vest. People who exert control over others will use any information they can get their hands on to help them maintain this control.
It’s foolish to think that they won’t see this article, or any other news sources reporting on this organization, and become more vigilant of their womenfolk.
Making public that this organization advises the women calling them for help to put a spoon in their underwear before flying so that they’ll be pulled aside for extra security screening and can then ask for help out from under the eyes of their family makes many of these women susceptible to being searched after they dress, or scrutinized while they’re dressing. Not only does this violate their sense of safety even more, but it opens them up to emotional, or even physical, violence, should family members in control discover that they are indeed doing the very thing that might help them escape.
They’re not expected to be able to escape, not expected to be able to decide, and act on the decision, that this isn’t what they want for themselves.
Let’s stop for a moment to remember that this is not likely thought of as abuse in the circles in which it is happening. No, it’s more likely to be couched in terms of financial need or obligation and family honour.
While I detest the idea of women—from little girls to elders—being shipped off like so much property, I do think it’s important to remember that I’m not in this world. Any judgments I pass are about the safety and welfare of the unwilling brides. The impacts of western colonization and world and civil wars on the development of cultures is a long and involved discussion, not for this post, but the impacts of all these factors on cultural growth, such as seeing all people as human with the right of self-determination seems pretty obvious to me. It’s hard for cultural mores to develop when a country, or specific population within a country, is in a desperate bid for political or cultural survival.
The women being married off, sent to (or left in) places they may never even have visited before, let alone wanted to live in, are, of course, not property, but breathing, thinking human beings.
They have the right to have their story told with respect, and with consideration of their safety.
There seems something unacceptably titillating about reporting that one way these women can help themselves is to put cutlery inside their clothing. The public likes sensationalism, and this story is sensational, made even more so by the feel-good aspect of there being an organization that is “doing something” about this, and the implicit, subtle, behind-the-scenes imagery of women putting foreign objects in their clothing, next to their bodies.
We’re still far from a space in which women’s bodies aren’t seen as sexual, or as objects of curiosity and open access. I’m worried that sharing a specific detail like this invites people to think about women’s bodies in a way that is neither necessary nor respectful, and this doesn’t make me feel at all comfortable.
I’m done with feel-good articles! We want to know everything these days, and the hard, hard reality (a bitter pill to swallow when we, for example, have Web sites called Gawker) is that we can’t know everything and shouldn’t know everything. When our quest for more and more salacious information means we’re interfering in people’s safety by reporting on the things they can do to keep themselves safe, it’s got to stop!
Giving these women tools to give them a hope of self-determination is terrific. We need more grassroots work like this. What we don’t need is the media reporting on this grassroots work and allowing the information to get into the wrong hands. Not only might it prevent some women from finding escape, but, again, might put them in danger of emotional abuse and physical violence.
Lest I sound holier-than-thou, do know that I’m as interested as the next person in unique ways to help people. I love the hidden stories, the community-driven movements to help people. I get this wonderful tingly feeling of amazement when I read about something I didn’t know before, some behind-the scenes movement or action that confounded or went against the grain in some way.
Learning about the “Great Spoon-Rescue of 2013 and beyond” is something I want to hear about in 25 (or more) years’ time when forced marriages are a thing of the past. I love hearing about hidden pieces of history, but this piece of history needs to be hidden in the first place. I’m really distressed that it wasn’t and am disappointed that the organization suggesting this approach chose to make what should be secret information part of the story.
We always need to put human safety–not public feel-good–at the forefront.