Choosing Death by Fire Over Marriage

By<a href="">Leela Jacinto</a>

Dec. 11, 2002 -- It was a scene right out of Romeo and Juliet, but with a modern, very ugly twist.

On a Friday afternoon in November 1995, while Sufian Miah was circling a four-story building in the eastern Bangladeshi city of Sylhet, he finally caught sight of his girlfriend for the first time in more than four weeks.

It had been a traumatic month for the British-born son of Bangladeshi immigrant parents. His girlfriend, Shipa, had been whisked out of Britain just three days before her 18th birthday to be married off to her cousin in Bangladesh, a country she had left when she was barely a year old.

The abduction came as a complete surprise to Miah, a London-based community youth activist who had been dating Shipa for several years.

Shipa's family had earlier accepted a marriage proposal put forth in the "correct way" by Miah's family, and the young Briton was unaware that her parents had no intention of actually allowing their daughter to marry a man of her choice.

On the morning of Oct. 12, 1995, Shipa was whisked to a cousin's place near Heathrow Airport, then flown to Bangladesh. She was not informed about her family's plans for her future until just a few hours before boarding the plane.

While the idea of a forced marriage may seem medieval, it is still common practice in many parts of the world. And many of these unwilling brides see death as the only way out.

‘My Family Was Selling Me …’

In the western Afghan city of Herat, there have been reports of an alarming rise in the number of women dousing themselves with fuel and setting themselves on fire in order to avoid unwanted marriages.

In July, Herat TV interviewed a 19-year-old Afghan woman called Shakiba from a hospital bed. She told reporters she burned herself because her family had sold her to a 28-year-old man for $10,000 as a second wife.

"My family was selling me and I didn't know what else to do," a severely burned Shakiba told a television reporter at the Herat Public Hospital.

In the absence of any state or nongovernmental services that she was aware of, Shakiba decided her only recourse was to commit suicide by an age-old method — she chose an incendiary death over the prospect of living with her new husband's first wife.

Shakiba's ghastly experience created a stir, with Herat governor and controversial Afghan warlord Ismail Khan even making a highly publicized visit to the hospital.

But the attention came too late. Weeks after she was transferred to a hospital in neighboring Iran for better medical treatment, Shakiba succumbed to her burns, joining an untold number of Afghan women whose options seem to include a range of ways to die, but not, apparently, to live.

Hard to Document

Estimates of self-immolations in Afghanistan are hard to come by, especially in the largely lawless northern and southern regions.

And even in the comparatively secure and affluent Herat province, estimates of female self-immolations in recent months vary widely. In the absence of governmental or nongovernmental reports, some human rights workers estimate that in the past few months, there have been roughly 27 cases of attempted self-immolations among women in Herat, all but three of whom died of their burns.

But in a report published in the Los Angeles Times last month, doctors at the Herat Public Hospital said they had received more than 100 female burn cases this year, with most of the women dying soon after arrival.

Rights workers, however, caution that given the lack of medical access in Afghanistan, there could well be several victims who never make it to the few, mostly ill-equipped hospitals in the war-ravaged Central Asian nation.

Zama Coursen-Neff of the New York-based Human Rights Watch also warns that before they succumbed to their burns, almost all the victims were interviewed by emergency room personnel in the presence of their families, making it hard to determine the veracity of their testimonies.

Activists working among South Asian women have long cautioned that some female deaths may be ascribed to suicide in order to cover up for "honor killings" — when women deemed to have "dishonored" the family are killed — or dowry deaths — when brides are burned for not bringing adequate dowries into their in-laws' households.

Girls As Young As 11 Married Off

Most of the victims in Herat have been women between 14 and 20 years old, desperately trying to escape marriages to older men. In a society where men pay a "bride price," it's often the older men who can afford more than one wife.

And in a country where war widows comprise a large section of the female population, relegated to the very bottom of the social and economic scale, poverty exacerbates the situation.

"I have interviewed women who have married off their daughters at the age of 11," said Coursen-Neff. "They told me they had no alternative, they couldn't feed their kids."

In addition to hard economics, political and security concerns also play a role, says Ayesha Khan of London-based Amnesty International, referring to the growing but as yet unconfirmed reports of self-immolation among young women forced to marry "commanders," or regional warlords.

Trying to Solve the Problem

For the Afghan administration, struggling to exert its power outside the capital, Kabul, the challenges are daunting. Although a spokesman for President Hamid Karzai initially said he was not aware of the reports of bride burnings, he asserted the government's commitment to tackling women's issues.

"It is not realistic to say we don't have this problem, but we are trying to solve this problem and it will take more time than just one year," said Karzai spokesman Fazil Akbar, referring to the period since the fall of the Taliban. "The [Afghan] Ministry of Women's Affairs was especially established to solve this type of problem. We are still at the beginning here and this is a problem that has existed for more than 20 years."

Facilities for Afghan women attempting to flee forced or oppressive marriages are virtually nonexistent, although the newly formed Human Rights Commission currently runs a safe house in Kabul.

But according to Fatima Gailani, a prominent Afghan women's rights activist and legal expert in Kabul, there's a dire need for more resources.

"It [the safe house] only exists in Kabul," she said. "We would like to see it very much in other cities. We also need lawyers, both men and women, who would work from a government office to help poor women in this situation."

One Happy Ending Leaves Bittersweet Aftertaste

Shipa, the young woman whose family dragged her off to Bangladesh against her will, was lucky: She had someone to help her.

Despite his parents' concerns, a desperate but determined Miah — who was 21 at that time — had caught the earliest possible flight to Bangladesh. But it was only during the Friday prayers on Nov. 17, 1995, while he was circling Shipa's relative's building on his cousin's motorbike, that he caught sight of the love of his life on the fourth-floor balcony.

"I got off the motorbike and I started talking — yelling, actually — to her from the street," Miah told in a phone interview from London. "I didn't give a damn. I was very lucky — most people were at prayers at that time and I got to talk to her for 10 to 15 minutes. But I got a pretty good lowdown of the situation before they [her family] came from the mosque."

The impromptu balcony scene was followed by days of nail-biting drama that involved the British High Commission, the British Foreign Office, the Bangladeshi police, the Bangladeshi media, and a complicated legal juggernaut involving a battery of lawyers and abduction charges flying back and forth.

In the end, it all turned out OK. After the very public stink Miah created, Shipa's family agreed to hand over full responsibility for their daughter to the 21-year-old Londoner. In return, he agreed to drop all charges against them.

Barely a few hours after the agreement, the young couple had a hasty marriage ceremony in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. Today, they have two children — Sara, 3, and 18-month-old Zidan Yusuf.

Seven years of marriage and the birth of two children has still not healed the rift between Shipa and her family, and that, she says, upsets her.

"I have mixed emotions because I am really happy and I never ever thought I would be so happy in my wildest dreams," she said. "Yet at times I do miss my family because they were a part of my life for so long, but I have come into a wonderful family as well."

The Line Between a Forced and Arranged Marriage

Shipa and Miah were lucky in that they could appeal to British authorities. While other governments are struggling over how to deal with forced marriages, British officials have come a long way in addressing the issue.

In October 2000, the British Foreign Office and Home Office established a special unit to tackle forced marriage, following a study that found the suicide rate among young British Asian women two or three times higher than among their white counterparts.

Since it was established two years ago, the unit has dealt with more than 400 forced marriage cases. Most of the victims are from the Indian subcontinent, although Richard Morris, deputy head of the Consular Division of the Foreign Office, says victims have also included first-generation immigrants from countries such as Tanzania, Egypt, Syria and Turkey.

A critical issue, according to Morris, is to distinguish between arranged and forced marriages.

"We're not attacking arranged marriages, which involve the consent of the individuals and are as culturally valid as love marriages," he said.. "But forced marriages are an abuse of human rights under the [U.N.] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and that lack of consent — it is important to note — affects men as well as women."

A Million-Dollar Question

Despite the commonly held belief that forced marriages enjoy religious sanction, Islamic experts dismiss the notion.

"In Islam, marriage is a social contract only to be entered voluntarily by two adults," said Riffat Hassan of the Religious Studies Program at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. But she concedes that in reality, "the practice is so common, it's mostly not even recognized as a violation of human rights."

While experts say that is still largely the case in South and Central Asia, a growing number of British Asian young people are rebelling against a practice that is widely seen as a means to restrain increasingly independent young women — and in some cases even provides for an immigration route for relatives into Britain.

Indeed, seven years after his dangerous bid to rescue his love from the hell of a forced marriage, Miah says he has no idea why Shipa's family opposed their marriage. After all, he is a fellow Muslim and a fellow Bangladeshi immigrant.

"It's the million-dollar question, and I can't answer it to date," he said. "Whether it's ego, stubbornness, pride, we just don't know. By now, all we want is to bury the past, and we have opened our arms to her family, but they have not accepted it, they can't accept it."

ABCNEWS' Gretchen Peters in Afghanistan contributed to this report.

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