Of course not. Forced marriage, as opposed to arranged marriage – a distinction I'll focus more on in a moment – has no place of honour in any culture. To think otherwise is to be ignorant of what constitutes traditional matrimony in many non-Western countries. Though perhaps I shouldn't exclude the West; for most of human history there was little freedom of choice for conjugal unions anywhere 'developed' societies flourished.
Let's get this out of the way early; arranged marriages - common worldwide, especially between aristocratic families, with parents, grandparents, respected third parties such as religious leaders or even professional matchmaking agents being involved - have the consent of both parties.(1)
Forced marriage, wherein one or both participants feel they cannot refuse to wed, continues in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which seeks to protect individual autonomy, dignity and equality. Several nations have outlawed such unions, viewing the practice as little more than slavery.(2)
The Special Court for Sierra Leone's (SCSL) Appeals Chamber went so far as to declare forced marriage a crime against humanity.(3)
The two also differ in origin; while arranged marriage promoted cultural purity and ties between new alliances, the original purpose of forced marriage was as a tool for integrating captives into the conquering society by way of binding a man or woman to a new life via a spouse and children. Today, both continue to be practised in parts of Asia and Africa, and often come parcelled with immigrant communities originating from those regions. Arranged marriage is favoured to insulate people from modern culture, enabling families to preserve social and religious traditions under pressure from an increasingly secular and multicultural world and, while it attracts questions from those outside the practising communities, continues to serve it's purpose and results in, on average, more successful matches than modern Western courtships.(4)
While arranged marriage is very much a cultural and religious construct, no mainstream religion condones eliminating the right of refusal. Forced marriage is NOT an Islamic, Hindu or Sikh requirement, yet nearly 50% of South Asian girls are married before age 18, many coerced into accepting unsuitable husbands and raising families rather than attending school.(5)
Pakistani (and to a lesser extent Ghanaian, Afghan, Indian and Bangladeshi) communities internationally often find themselves at the centre of forced marriage dramas. The habit of parents choosing partners for their children - male and female - to boost family social standing, to reinforce cultural tradition by pairing offspring born in the West to spouses living abroad and to ease immigration frequently push them into the Western spotlight.
But wait, I know what you're dying to say; Eastern and African girls from poor families might be forced to marry, but how does that happen to 16 year old teens in downtown Toronto, London or New York. Aren't there laws against this?
Well, yes, there are
legal avenues and increasing numbers choose to follow them - the latest trick young girls in the UK are using to avoid being sent overseas to marry is to hide a spoon in their underwear to alert airport security to their plight(6)
– but it being a family crime makes criminalizing forced marriage contentious. While no one wishes to be married against their will, people love and respect those who place them in that position. Else-wise, threats of shunning and damaged family honour would hold little power. When asked, many who report the situation would not do so if their actions would lead to punishment for their parents. Making forced marriage a criminal offence must be paired with awareness and educational programs encouraging those at risk to realize that they as individuals matter as much as the family or social unit.(7)
Despite the portrayals of frightened girls escaping abusive middle aged husbands so popular in both mass and independent media, not only young teens and preteens are in danger of being partnered unawares – even toddlers and seniors have been sent by family members to marry men they have never met. And, as briefly noted earlier, it isn't limited to females; male victims are often forced into compliance by guilt.(8)
The more traditionally conservative the family, the more appearances matter and respect for elders is ingrained, the easier it is for someone to be pushed into a marriage they do not want.
The treat of being disowned often weighs heavily on those who don't wish to consent. People at risk of being forced to marry almost always come from closed communities where families are bound over generation by culture, usually involving strong religious ties. To be left with no one - no family, no friends – overnight because of a refusal to marry is daunting, especially to a female who may have little education or funds of her own. Many times, the reluctant bride or groom is held captive by family, becoming a hostage in their own home until they agree to the union. Devious means are used to trick savvy youngsters; a supposed family vacation can turn into a foreign wedding.(9)
Adherence to old ways is strong within families that embrace forcefully arranged marriage; many, if not most, think they are doing their children a favour. Girls will not go unwed and be left vulnerable as aged and childless crones, boys will marry into a family with proven fertility, partner a virgin free of HIV, gain useful social connections or they will be 'cured' of unacceptable sexual orientations. What these families fail to see, so blinkered as they are by tradition (and sometimes greed), is that denying their daughters the educational tools to be self-sufficient and their sons the opportunity to meet and marry well-rounded individuals of whatever gender they desire accomplishes the opposite of what they seek for them – fulfilled and happy lives. Instead, they keep them excluded from the mainstream, prepped to continue the cycle of denying future generation the right of choice.
(1) The AHA Foundation Official Website, Issues > Forced Marriage, The AHA Foundation,130 7th Avenue, Suite 236, New York, NY 10011, 2013
(2) The Forced Marriage Project Official Website, Forced Marriage & the United Nations, Forced Marriage Project - Agincourt Community Services Association, 2013
(3) Frulli, Micaela, Advancing International Criminal Law: The Special Court for Sierra Leone Recognizes Forced Marriage as a ‘New’ Crime Against Humanity, Academia.edu, 2008
(4) New World Encyclopedia, Arranged Marriage
(5) Against Forced Marriages Official Website, 2012
(6) Goldhill, Olivia, Girls Escape Forced Marriage by Hiding Spoons In Their Clothes to Set Off Airport Metal Detectors, The Telegraph, August 16, 2013
(7) Ovenden, James, How To Deal With The Problem of Forced Marriage, Planet Ivy, 2013
(8) The Forced Marriage Project initiative of South Asia Legal Clinic, 2010
(9) KarmaNirvana Official Website, 2013
Government of Canada Official Website, Canada and Ghana Take To The Airways To Fight Early Forced Marriage, 2013
ECPAT International Official Website, CSEC Terminology > Forced Marriage, ECPAT International 328/1 Phayathai Road. Ratchathewi, Bangkok, Thailand 10400, 2013
Humanium Official Website, Child Marriage: The Practice of Arranged and/or Forced Marriage Involving Children, October 3, 2011
Zaatari, Sami, Forced Marriages, Muslim Responses.Com
Gelbfish, Ezriel, Study on Arranged Marriages Reveals that Orthodox Jews May Have it Right, The Algemeiner, July 6, 2012
No, people should not have to accept anything as part of their culture, including forced marriage. The practice of arranged marriage is different than the practice of forced marriage. While nobody should be coerced into marriage by their family, matchmakers, religious leaders and tribal elders, this situation is different as an arranged marriage is typically consenting, voluntary and not mandatory thing whereas a forced marriage is non-consenting and mandatory. In forced marriage, a young woman or even a girl as young as 5 years old is forcibly “married” to a much older man. In some cases, these forced marriages are terroristic acts of war and are deemed “conjugal slavery.” Clearly nobody should be forced into a sham marriage to be somebody’s maid, punching bag and sex toy and no, nobody should be expected to accept such barbarous behavior as part of their culture.
The first thing to note is that simply because something is “part of a culture” does not mean it is a good thing. For instance, for most of mankind’s existence, slavery was ubiquitous and practiced on religiously bigoted and racist grounds in which one group would own a member of another group. This was widely practiced even until the 19th Century in most of the world. However, people rightly saw that slavery was a great moral evil and fought valiantly to overthrow slavery. Forced marriages are often compared to female slavery and sexual slavery. Young women are kept in these relationships as property, just as slaves were, and are frequently emotionally, physically and sexually abused. Who in the world should have to “accept” that as part of their “culture?”
There are two main forms of forced marriage. One is the forced marriage in which one or both parties, typically the woman, does not consent to a relationship or marriage but is forced into it. The other is “child marriage” in which a child is married to a much older man. (1) One case that received widespread publicity was Nujood Ali, a 10 year old girl who was married off in Yemen and repeatedly raped by her “husband.” Legislators in that country did not idly stand by and say “Oh well. We should accept the rape of 10 year olds. This is part of our culture!” No, they are trying to raise the age of marriage to 18. (2)
The extent of forced marriage is staggering. There are approximately 70 million of girls and women in these forced marriages and child marriages and they constitute a majority of marriages in some African and Middle Eastern countries. An example is Niger, a country in which 75 percent of women are married before they are 18(3). These facts raise issues of consent but in severe cases in which the girl is 16 or younger, these constitute institutionalized statutory and marital rape. The consequences of this are grave: A woman who gives birth before 18 is twice as likely to die in childbirth and for women 15 to 19, pregnancy is the leading cause of death. These women are also at least twice as likely to be physically and sexually abused and the effects are so profoundly damaging physically and emotionally that many of these women exhibit the symptoms of battle-weary troops and are diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (3) Nobody should “accept” this.
The practice of arranged marriage is common in the Middle East, Africa and South Asian, notably countries such as Pakistan, Iran and India. The practice of arranged and forced marriage has made the news quite a bit when people from these countries go to other countries and practice arranged marriage and forced marriage which is against the modern Western convention of marriage by love. The coercion into marriage is illegal in most of these Western countries and was recently criminalized in the UK with the 2008 Forced Marriage Act. (4). It is clearly right for these countries to criminalize abusive forced marriage and to prevent forced marriages from happening in their countries. There is a difference between culture and religion and these disturbing practices.
It may be tempting to think of these issues as something very far away or exclusive to people of different races and to immigrants but they are right here at home. These forced marriages and child marriages are often arranged by religious groups such as Orthodox Jews, extremist and fundamentalist Christians and Mormons. Perhaps the most infamous case in the modern era is the legal case against The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This group was found guilty in participating in forced marriages and rapes within these “marriages” of many women 12 and younger and practiced forced marriage and child marriage. This despicable group tried to get away with it but said it was part of their “culture” and “religion.” Well, those excuses were not good enough in the United States and the sick ringleader of this freakshow, Warren Jeffs, was tried in court and rightly convicted and sentenced to life in prison for his crimes against women. (5)
International Law considers these forced marriages and child marriages to be shams, human rights violations and 21st Century Slavery. The United Nations and many other righteous groups do not “accept” these horrors and shrug them off and go “Oh well. Part of their culture.” In much the same way that we almost universally agree how despicable female circumcision/genital mutilation is, we should all agree that abused forced marriages and child marriages are gross affronts against human decency. No amount of handwringing and cultural relativist reasoning can make these practices right. All groups such as the United Nations, Interpol, UNICEF, ICRW and other agencies and legislators and women’s rights activists are to be commended for struggling against the injustice against forced marriage. They don’t “accept” it and neither should you and me.