Ferzanna Riley – Fighting Honour

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Muslim author backs fight against honour crimes

WHEN Ferzanna Riley decided to publish her harrowing personal story last year little did she know much of an influence it would have. ‘Unbroken Spirit’ – a powerful account of a life tainted with abuse and a very-near forced marriage made Ferzanna Riley’s story one that needed to be told. As the government steps up in its attempts to tackle the problem of honour crimes and forced marriages, Ferzanna has found herself educating all on the real reality behind the crimes. We spoke to Ferzanna to find out why she’s backing the fight against honour crimes and forced marriages…

 

You were a guest at the Honour Killing and Forced Marriage Conference earlier this year. What was the aim of the conference?

In October 2007 I was at the Forced Marriage Conference held by the Foreign Office and the aim of that conference was to work with EU partners to share best practice on tackling forced marriage. 

In January 2008 I gave a speech at a conference organised by the Lancashire Constabulary & Lancashire Crown Prosecution Service. This was a strategy consultation on Honour based Violence and Forced. Its aims were to raise awareness, encourage victims and potential victims to seek help and improve the quality of police investigation and the presentation of cases at Court.

 

The issue of Honour Killings and Forced Marriages has always been a serious concern. Is the situation getting worse?

By writing my book and speaking in the media and at conferences, I help raise awareness of this issue. Furthermore in the past few years several very horrific honour based murders have been widely reported. Bringing any issue to the attention of the media means it will inevitably be more widely discussed and debated on TV, radio and in newspapers and magazines. The issue of honour killings and forced marriage has always existed within our community but the difference now is that the problem is finally being acknowledged nationally and internationally.

 

What are your thoughts on the current legislation in place to help victims of these crimes?

I strongly believe it won’t help to bring in specific laws to stop forced marriage and honour based crimes. Firstly, post 9/11 race relations are strained enough. Matters won’t be helped if certain ethnic communities feel any particular legislation is specifically targeted at them.

Secondly, in cases of forced marriage, force is applied both physically and emotionally. How can you legislate against emotional blackmail?

We have more than adequate laws in place to deal with the crimes involved and what is needed is for political correctness not to stand in the way of these laws being equally applied to perpetrators regardless of whether they are Christian, Sikh, Muslim or Jedi Knights. Take this sad true-life scenario. A fourteen year old girl is seen talking to a boy from school. Her parents immediately remove her from school, beat her and lock her up, deprive her of food, burn her clothes and hide her passport so she can’t escape. They make her go through a marriage ceremony with someone she scarcely knows who subsequently rapes her in the marital bed. 

Moral ethics aside and speaking from a purely legal point of view, the parents have committed numerous criminal offences for which they can be charged.

Assault (s.39 Criminal Justice Act 1988), Cruelty to Persons under 16 (s.1 Children & Young Persons Act 33), Failure to secure regular attendance at school of a registered person (s.444 Education Act 1996), Theft (of the passport) (s.1 Theft Act 1968), Child Abduction (s.1 Child Abduction Act 1984), Kidnap (common law offence), False imprisonment (common law offence)   Aiding Abetting rape (common law offence).

These are laws that govern all of us and why should anyone consider him or herself immune from prosecution because they come from a different cultural background? Family members who break the law should not have immunity because they commit these crimes against their own children. These offences are not crimes of honour. They’re simply crimes. 

 

What more can be done to combat this problem?

Raising awareness is always a good starting point.

 

Are we underestimating how big of a problem honour killings and forced marriages are in Britain?

We must never underestimate this problem because we only get to hear about the worst cases when women and girls die. We never get to hear about the cases where girls submit to being controlled by their families under threat of being beaten or bringing shame on their families. We never hear about girls who are subjected to enormous emotional pressure by parents who tell them their sisters will not get husbands or that the ‘izzat’ or honour of their entire family is at risk because they dared to want some say over their own lives, or because they are perceived as being unreasonable in wanting help to leave a violent husband.

My mother, having tricked my sister and me into going to Pakistan, taking out tickets and passports and threatening to have us killed, wanted my sister to marry this offensively ugly creature who only wanted to marry her for her passport. She told my sister if she refused, she was a bad, selfish daughter who didn’t love her mother enough to do this one small thing for her! Unbelievable! Victims are made to feel guilty that it is their fault and accept the most unreasonable demands because the families play on their sense of love and duty. This kind of pressure is being placed on women in our community all the time.   

 

When you think of honour killings and forced marriages many would immediately assume it’s a problem within the Muslim community only. Are these issues prevalent within other Asian communities?

These are cultural crimes that have no place in religion. None of the main Asian religions condone forced marriage or honour killings. None. Not Hindu, Sikh and certainly not Islam. The problem is one of culture and should be named as such.

However, because the majority of high profile cases have concerned Muslims, it is assumed it is a Muslim problem. That is not so. It’s cultural.

 

Your book ‘Unbroken Spirit’ was monumental because it charted your escape from a possible forced marriage. Did you ever think the book would be as widely known as it is today?

All authors hope their debut book will be a best seller and be the launch pad to a successful literary career!

Neither authors nor publishers can anticipate how well received a book will be but obviously I’m happy that people say how well written it is. Neil Mackay from the Daily Mail was the first journalist who told me that he doesn’t really read this kind of book but once he picked up my book he couldn’t put it down and had to read all the way to the end because he was totally gripped. That’s a relief because authors whose books are read, enjoyed and recommended tend to have long term careers as writers. Of course I’m thrilled that my book gets really good reviews and very relieved I haven’t had a negative review yet!

 

What type of response have you had from the book since it was published?

In a word, overwhelming! I never expected such a huge media uptake on my book. Something that I was really thrilled to discover was that Unbroken Spirit is being used as a text book at colleges and universities as a unique insight into the Muslim culture. That was totally unexpected.    

On the back of the book I have become a forefront campaigner on the issue of child abuse within the BME communities. Last year I was invited to join the board of the Roshni charity (www.roshni.org.uk). This is a charity that offers advice and training on the issue of child abuse from within the ethnic minority communities. It is hard enough for any child who suffers any kind of abuse be it physical, emotional or sexual abuse. But because of our concepts of ‘honour’ and ‘shame’ they face additional cultural barriers and this is something we at Roshni work hard to raise awareness of and as a director of Roshni I get asked to speak at Safeguarding children conferences and am, in fact, due to speak at the Afruca conference in Birmingham next month.

 

How have you found being a ‘spokesperson’ on honour killings and forced marriages?

Whether it is in my capacity as a spokesperson on ‘forced marriage and honour killings’ or as director of the Roshni charity on the issue of child abuse in the ethic communities, I tell my story as a survivor.

My story is not prescriptive but descriptive. I don’t tell people what to do but simply say what happened to me and the decisions I made in my life. I tell my own personal story and hope that others will be inspired by it.

 

What specific honour killings stick in your mind?

At conferences stories of girls like Bahnaz Mahmood and Heshu Yonas are invariably told, not least because of the sheer tragedy of young lives being so brutally cut short. I’ve heard these stories told in great detail many times but they never fail to move me to tears of sorrow and grief. People say I have strength and courage to do what I do knowing that I’m exposing myself and my family to potential danger. But every time I hear about these tragic girls it fuels my determination to never stop speaking out.

 

‘Unbroken Spirit’ is available to buy from all good bookshops

INTERVIEW BY ZAKIA YOUSAF

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