A few weeks back, a three-year-old was placed in a government re-education programme, on suspicion of being an ‘extremist’. Though shocking, this story is very much in line with the current surveillance of young Muslims by the UK government under the draconian anti-terrorism laws and the so-called ‘Prevent Strategy’ which aims to counter terrorism and extremism.
Schools also now face a legal duty to ‘tackle extremism’; in other words, increase surveillance of children and teenagers in order to prevent them being ‘radicalised’. This has already resulted in bewildering questionnaires aimed at 9 to 10-year-olds, and older students who have dared to question the policy being suspended in the middle of their A-levels.
Over the last few years, the government has been claiming a link between forced marriage and extremism. It is against this background, that the book ‘But It’s not Fair’ by Aneeta Prem of the ‘Freedom Charity’, heavily promoted by the UK Home Office and Foreign Office is being distributed to schoolchildren for free.
The book is the story of two teenage girls, both British South Asian: Vinny and Abby (who is described as wearing a hijab), and details how Vinny helps Abby out of a forced marriage.
On the first page, the picture created of a forced marriage situation is a girl ‘looking sad and tired…sweeping the floor in a small and dusty Indian village’, instantly suggesting poverty. As counterpoint a few pages later, an arranged marriage is described: the man marrying Vinny’s friend, through the safe process of ‘matchmaking’ has ‘film star looks’, a ‘two-seater sports car’ and ‘an iPhone’, and plans to take his bride on an expensive honeymoon – in other words he is the ultimate romantic ideal. This gives a deeply misleading message: that an arranged marriage will always lead to an idyllic future, and more worryingly, that luxury is a sign of safety and choice in a marriage.
By using dangerous stereotypes, the book fails to warn girls that forced marriage may be (and often is) presented to them as highly attractive. Nowhere does it show that, in fact, forced marriage is clearly an issue of many grey areas – girls may realise that they are being pressured to marry against their will, but not want to face up to the fact that their parents are forcing them. Though unwilling to marry, they may be swayed from feeling it is ‘forced’ by the tempting promise of a wealthy lifestyle, even if it’s in a village. The book’s portrayal of forced and arranged marriages as so transparently different in terms of wealth and consumption it is deeply irresponsible. It suggests forced marriage is much easier to identify than it really is.
Prem’s novel gives the impression that poverty is really the issue at stake. Whilst she does dwell on the conflict between families and the threat of losing honour as motives behind forced marriage, what is never conveyed is that wealth and status are so often involved. Whilst these families may be village-based, they are just as likely to be wealthy –with a lot of ‘honour’ to lose in the first place – as poor. Hence to suggest forced marriage stems entirely from poverty – reiterating the Western view that ‘traditional’ always means ‘poor’ is not only dangerous to the children they are distributing the book to, but incorrect.
Yet Prem has no qualms in stressing the contrast between Vinny’s aspirational, education-valuing family and Abby’s impoverished family, which has already forced their elder daughter into marriage. The building where they live, Vinny explains, is ‘a bit grotty and not modern like the white flats we live in’. Prem goes on to give the opinion of an old English woman, a close friend of Vinny’s family: ‘Dirty beasts…they cook everything in this really strong, stinky fish oil…Before you see them you can smell them a mile off’. Though Vinny recognises that this is ‘so mean and racist’, she does not respond and Prem never explores this again, suggesting that she implicitly endorses it. And, despite her use of neutral, anglicised names for all her characters, it is made crystal clear that Abby is in fact Muslim whilst Vinny is not, thus contributing to the myth that forced marriages take place only amongst Muslims.
It is disturbing that in light of all these misleading stereotypes this book is still being promoted by the Home Office and Foreign Office, and given out in schools. There is a need to tackle forced marriage as detailed here by a survivor. However the Freedom Charity’s book does not effectively challenge forced marriage – instead it only increases the Islamophobia already stoked by the mainstream media and the government’s targeting of Muslims in Britain under the Prevent Strategy.
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Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya is an A-level student based in London. She writes on new fiction and politics from an intersectional feminist and anti-imperialist perspective. Find her on Twitter @AnanyaWilson