Runaway Brides

Originally published in the Sunday Telegraph, photography by Spencer Murphy

It’s no accident that the Stonham women’s refuge in Slough is a non-descript house on a non-descript street. Even inside the untrained eye struggles to pick out the signs: a coin-operated washer-dryer in the laundry; an Islamic prayer finder pinned to the corkboard by the payphone; kitchen cupboards padlocked and stickered with individual names, those of past clients ghostly and peeling.

It could be a hostel or student accommodation block, and were it not for the way she fights back tears as she tells her story, 20-year-old Aneeta could be a student like any other. Aneeta was 15 when her father left Gujarat for London, where he spent two years setting up home before returning to pick up his wife and children. She says the difference in him was remarkable – that he had grown gaunt and distant, lost his warmth and the laughter in his eyes – but she threw herself into her new life with gusto, completing her GCSEs and a summer internship at Brent Youth Parliament. Yet when she began speaking about A-Levels, her father and younger brother closed in.

“They told me a girl my age shouldn’t be wasting time on education,” says Aneeta, sporting metallic blonde highlights and a hoodie that muffles her miniature frame. “They told me I should find full-time work and support the family financially. Slowly things got worse: my father began telling me I was ugly and a burden on the family, and my brother started to beat me.”

Aneeta spoke to a teacher who put her in touch with the police, who in turn relocated her to Stonham. She admits she barely left her bedroom for the first two months of her stay; that she cried for hours each day, and that it fell on other female residents to draw her out by taking her food shopping, or having her stir the curries they made in communal pots each evening. Then the phone calls began – from her father and brother telling her that everything was forgiven, and from distant relatives insisting she return to Gujarat for a holiday.

“That frightened me,” says Aneeta, “because nobody ever called me from India. I phoned my mum, and she whispered that they were planning a marriage for me, and that I should stay where I was. She told me to carry on with my studies, and never to reveal my location, because they would find me if I did.”

In a neighbouring office, the walls tacked with drawings by children of residents past and present, manager Parvinder ‘Pinkie’ Matharu describes a shock rise in the number of girls like Aneeta at the house.

“It’s partly because there’s more awareness out there,” she says. “The previous generation was reluctant to talk about forced marriage for fear of bringing shame on the family, but kids today know more about their rights, and they know there are people they can go to for help.”

Not that it makes Pinkie’s job any easier. She still suffers the heartbreak of returning with girls to pick up possessions from their family homes, where not even the police escort can stem the flow of invective from distressed parents. She’s still forced to juggle fourteen residents and their children between just three staff members, and she still has to negotiate budget limitations and legal obstacles to her clients’ wellbeing – the current threat to 19-year-old Sumita’s indefinite leave to remain, for example, which could see her deported to Bangladesh despite having been beaten by her father and threatened at knifepoint by her brother for resisting a forced marriage.

“In many cases the abuse has gone on so long that the girls are depressed and mentally unstable. The good thing about the refuge is that there’s no pressure on them to worry about paperwork or getting their stories straight; we move them in, make sure they have enough money and introduce them to other women in the house, who will usually welcome newcomers with a meal and a friendly ear. After a couple of days we’ll sit down and get as much out of them as possible, but at their own pace. It’s a refuge at the end of the day, but we try to make it a home for them too.”


Jasvinder Sanghera

Such sanctuary was unavailable to Jasvinder Sanghera in 1980 when, aged 15, she tore a page from her school exercise book, scribbled a reassuring note to her parents and fled Derby with her lower caste boyfriend in defiance of a marriage being prepared for her in Punjab. On her first call home she was told that she was dead to her family, and she spent subsequent decades struggling to come to terms with her emotional exile while moving from city to city, a journey she describes in her autobiography Shame.

So complete was Jasvinder’s excommunication that not even the suicide of her older sister could heal the breach. Robina, herself the victim of an abusive husband, took her life by dousing herself in paraffin and striking a match, but when Jasvinder called to ask about funeral arrangements she was told to stay away for fear her presence would further tarnish the family honour.

“The common thread in all cases is this concept of izzat,” says Jasvinder, “the honour that the daughter must uphold. The reputation of the family rests on her ability to make a good marriage, and that reputation can be dented by rumours about her behaviour, even if those rumours are unfounded. When Robina died my mother told me I couldn’t come to the funeral or ‘they’ would talk, but she could never say who these people were, because she didn’t know.”

Robina’s death galvanised Jasvinder to draw on her experiences and begin working to help those in a similar position. She returned to Derby (where she was regarded with shock by erstwhile schoolfriends who’d been told she was dead) and set up Karma Nirvana, then a women’s health charity whose workshops on menopause and post-natal depression veiled a more pressing agenda; one that Jasvinder discussed one-on-one with those women brave enough to approach while others filed out. Soon there was lottery funding, a dedicated office and – most importantly – a helpline, which 15 years later receives over 300 calls each month.

“Sometimes girls will call the helpline and not speak for the first five minutes. It’s our job to coax them out of that silence, and slowly we’ll learn that they’re being sent abroad for marriage, or that their brother is beating them up because of a text he found on their phone. We try to make them understand that they’re the victim, because even now the number of excuses people make for their families is shocking. We’ve come a long way these last few years, but there are still a lot of myths that need exploding on both sides of the cultural divide.”

One such myth surrounds the phenomenon of honour killings, a subject familiar to Yorkshire-born Zena Briggs. Hers was a privileged, culturally integrated childhood; she describes reading Elle and tottering around in three-inch heels aged 15, and inviting friends over to watch Hollywood movies, her favourite of which was West Side Story (she was, and still is, “an incurable romantic”).

Zena herself became a star-crossed lover of sorts aged 21, when she eloped with a local biker, Jack Briggs, to escape a Pakistani marriage to her sister’s brother-in-law, whom she’d never met. Zena describes the night of her departure with haunting clarity; lying in bed listening to Bach’s Air On The G String and watching lights from passing cars paint the ceiling; the heart-stopping thud of her bags hitting the street as she lowered them from her room with bedsheets; the cold January air on her legs as she climbed out the kitchen window, and the frost glimmering like stars underfoot.

The sadness of departure turned to dread with the first phone call home. Her father’s assertion that Zena was ‘dead to him’ was given a literal twist by her brother, who told her that she and Jack would end up in a series of bin bags – a threat he compounded by kicking down Jack’s mother’s door and introducing himself as the man who would murder her son. Zena and Jack spent subsequent weeks travelling between B&Bs and struggling to stay one step ahead of her family, until it was revealed that there was a private investigator on her tail and a £9,000 bounty on her head. At that point the police intervened, giving the couple a complete identity makeover on the witness protection program and dispatching them to Norfolk.

Zena Briggs

“I had my first major breakdown a few weeks later,” says Zena. “We’d fled because we wanted to live our own lives, yet here we were leading someone else’s entirely. The routine was soul-destroying: as soon as we left the house we were double checking every car that passed; if an Asian man looked twice at us in the street we started wondering why. We slept with knives and baseball bats under the bed, and we met a firearms unit who took our mugshots so they’d know who not to shoot in a hostage situation. How do you deal with that when you’re trying to build a normal life?”

Zena soon gave up on her dreams of a baby with Jack – she knew they could never subject a child to a life of such crippling paranoia. Instead the pair began recording their experiences in a book, Runaways, a project they were encouraged to embark on by former hostage John McCarthy, who later became patron of the Zena Foundation, a charity offering support to girls fleeing forced marriages.

“That book paved the way for a lot of the changes that came later,” says Zena. “Up until then forced marriage was a taboo subject that politicians avoided for fear of upsetting the Asian community. But when Anne Cryer MP read parts of Runaways out in the House of Commons, it began a landslide of activity that eventually led to the creation of the Forced Marriage Unit.”


Olaf Henricson-Bell, Joint Head of the FMU, agrees that his department wouldn’t exist without the efforts of organisations like Karma Nirvana and the Zena Foundation. Since 2005 the FMU has occupied a partitioned space midway down the consular corridor of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, its team constantly scribbling notes as they offer reassurances to potential victims over the phone.

“It’s important to understand the difference between forced and arranged marriages,” says Olaf, the shelves around him lined with box files labelled with girls’ names, the walls plastered with world maps covered in flags. “We’re not clamping down on the cultural practice of families introducing sons and daughters to potential partners and letting nature run its course – that’s fine. What we’re talking about are human rights violations. No culture says that rape is acceptable, or that abducting and holding someone against their will is acceptable. Teachers we talk to freely admit that a few years ago they’d watch whole swathes of their classroom go abroad on summer holidays to get married, but they never said anything because they believed it would be culturally inappropriate. That’s not the case any more. It’s everyone’s responsibility.”

As a joint effort between the Home and the Foreign Office, the FMU regularly mobilises overseas units in countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh to rescue and return British citizens who have been taken abroad for forced marriages: the team responded to almost 1,700 calls in 2009, and assisted in 240 cases, 88 of them in the UK. Yet some, including Jasvinder, believe there’s still much to be done. She’s lobbying David Cameron to make good on his electoral promise to criminalise forced marriage (the current Forced Marriage Civil Protection Act works on a system of injunctions that she says are “essentially toothless”).

Others claim that victims are still falling into gaps between government policy and practice: Bita Ghaedi, for example, who the Home Office has been trying since 2005 to deport back to Iran after she fled the home of a man she was forced to marry. Bita was first arrested at Heathrow airport for travelling without a passport; she subsequently spent 45 days in Holloway Prison, and has been repeatedly removed to Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre from the Barnet flat she shares with her partner Mohsen, the front door of which is splintered from forced entries by the authorities.

Bita Ghaedi

Bita has constantly asserted that she would be executed on returning to Iran, and has embarked on several hunger strikes to drive her point home – the longest of which, in January this year, lasted 54 days. A recent intervention by the European Court of Human Rights looks set to solidify Bita’s position in the UK for the foreseeable future, but still she lives in constant fear.

“I feel I’ve been persecuted here as well as Iran,” says Bita, seated on a bench overlooking the green patchwork of Mill Hill Park and pulling her collar up as grey clouds gather overhead. “All I want is for the government to accept my story and allow me to remain in the UK. I have nightmares about being taken back to Iran, but I still dream about leading a normal life too. I still believe it’s possible, even after everything that’s happened to me.”

Certain names have been changed.