Mussurut Zia jokes her marriage was arranged for her – but forced for her husband.
Those who love this formidable force for good know Mussurut draws strength from a partnership which helps her carry the torch for women oppressed by all too real forced marriages across this land and others.
Mussurut knows some women have no say over who they marry, and that refusal can mean retribution, even death, through the misplaced sense of “honour” of their nearest and dearest.
As more Muslims, including faith leaders, speak out against forced marriages and honour-violence, Blackburn-based Mussurut’s extraordinary mission has also helped shape legislation to offer civil protection.
She’s been in Blackpool to enlist the support of influential sisterhood, Soroptimist International, at the Fylde group’s conference, Speak Up For Women, at the Hilton Hotel, to mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. Soroptimist comes from the Latin “best for women”, the network established in 1921, with 90,000 women still striving for change today.
Linda Beddows, who helped organise the conference for 100 delegates, adds: “Soroptimist International is the only organisation of its type that has a voice at the UN, with a representative at each of the UN offices in Vienna, Paris, Geneva and New York.”
Mussurut’s campaign against honour-based violence, forced marriage and honour killings, has taken her to Syria, Jordan, Oman and Pakistan; her work used as reference and guidelines in the House of Lords, by police forces in the UK, and internationally.
It’s a message underlined by high profile cases in East Lancashire – and honour killings involving county families abroad too.
It seems worlds apart from Blackpool’s stag and hen culture, but Mussurut warns: “The smaller the community the more active the issues, the lesser the resources, awareness, and understanding.”
Mussurut’s link work with Lancashire Police’s Pennine, Burnley and Rossendale division helped police initially out of their depth in deep cultural waters.
Mussurut argues forced marriages span other cultures, too.
“We’ve helped gypsies, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Afro-Caribbean, more. Migration is global, it’s easier to take traditions away. We now even see acid burning in the UK, a practice common in parts of South Asia.”
Mussurut knew East Lancashire well.
“I grew up here, it made me a feminist in terms of justice for women. I was indulged to a degree, because people didn’t really know what I was talking about, so left to get on with developing policies. Lancashire Police led on tackling issues involved. Then I wrote what was used in the House of Lords in the debate for legislating against forced marriage.”
The Forced Marriage Act 2007 stopped short of criminalising forced marriages although perpetrators can be jailed for up to two years. It does provide safeguards and the number of Forced Marriage Protection Orders issued so far has exceeded expectations.
Mussurut explains: “Many felt it was too big a leap to go from nothing to criminalisation. We need funding and resources to reinforce the message for those at risk and educate those who assist those at risk too.”
She set up Practical Solutions, with private funds, a volunteer lifeline to those fleeing forced marriages, or honour-violence. Staff present workshops in schools, colleges, and faith centres “to show women at risk they have options.
Mussurut added: “I’ve had threats and abuse, my car damaged, been told to back off, my father called shameless for failing to control me as a daughter, but people have become more cautious since the legislation.
“The role of women, as perpetrators, is under estimated, with coercion and threats, false imprisonment, young girls withdrawn from college, denied access to money, each abuse a step closer to people being killed.”
Mussurut is winning more support. “I used to be seen as the bad girl who enticed their girls away. It has been getting easier.
“This is not about arranged marriages, with consent, but forced marriages, domestic abuse, although law enforcers and medical agencies didn’t used to recognise it as such.
“Perspectives change. My family didn’t understand what I was taking on but trusted me and supported me. Now the issue is in the public domain it helps. But it’s labour and resource intensive. I’ve worked for a year with a woman trapped in a forced marriage, fearful, because of family and cultural expectations, that she will be ostracised if she leaves, not wanting to take the father away from their children, until it became apparent staying was more damaging.
“There are times I don’t have the emotional reserves but then I learn of another outrage. I intervene at their pace unless there’s a child protection issue. It’s difficult to learn, sometimes intervention can endanger people, so you step back.
“There are successes. One young girl in East Lancashire, to escape forced marriage, started to truant, got involved in the wrong sort, was groomed sexually, plied with drink and drugs, pimped out. It went on for months until, with social services help, we got her to a place of safety, and turned her life round. She now wants to help others.
“Through the Forced Marriage Unit, we’ve repatriated women back to the UK. Through work in Oman, positive laws are in place for women. As women play their part in the uprisings against oppression elsewhere, they must be pivotal to change, win the peace, for we live in a global village, not isolation, and there is more good in society than bad.”
n For more information visit the website www.practical-solutions.info