by Homa Arjomand
Bill S-7 needs to be amended. No doubt if it passes, it will put the safety of young girls and women in danger. A joined force is needed to prevent this from happening.
This Bill was introduced by Citizenship and Immigration Minister, Chris Alexander. This bill has already been passed by the Senate on 16 of December 2014. It was supposed to amend the Immigration and Refugee protection Act, as well as the Civil Marriage Act and Criminal Code.
This bill is an attempt to curb the practice of oppressive culture. And indeed it did so with respect to polygamy. But while closing one gate, at the same time it left other gates open allowing 7th century tradition to haunt young girls and women. This act is meant to be for communities under the influence of religion and “backward culture.”
Those communities practice the act child bride, forced and arranged marriage, child trafficking for the purpose of marriage and polygamy all are seen as the norm. By lowering the age of marriage from 18 to 16 years old, this provides an open invitation for backwards culture to freely practice their inhumane acts towards young girls; leaving the girls at the mercy of parents, sheik, imams and 7th century customs as well religious institutions to legally violate their rights. Lowering the age of marriage to 16 is in fact the equivalent of legalizing child bride and child trafficking.
Bill-S7 also fails to recognize that girls over the age of 18 need protection from forced and arrange marriage. According to Statistics Canada catalogue no. 85-002-X, half of all Canadian women have experienced physical or sexual violence. If we consider women and girls from communities influenced by religion and submissive tradition as Canadian too, then the expectation is for them to be treated the same.
For abused women in Canada there are tools in place to support them legally including, legal aid and outreach counseling services, to boost their self esteem as well as shelters for abused women, to provide a safe place for them to stay and to assist them in fleeing their abusers and ultimately in achieving their goals. All of the above services are there for abused women and their children and none would ever hold back their service because of their age.
The question is why does Bill-S7 fail to protect Canadian girls over the age of 18 who are forced to a forced and arranged marriages outside of Canadian borders?
What this act failed to touch upon is the psychological and social coercion that forces girls and women irrespective of their age to arranged and forced marriages; the role of culture and tradition pressure on girls and women is being completely ignored. As if girls over 18 are willingly with no pressure agree to marry someone who they have never met and associated with.
It is hurtful to see that bill S-7 only touched the surface of several problematic areas with respect to child bride, arranged as well as forced marriages. This bill also did not ban or put any restriction against Bride Price (that is a price paid by the groom to the bride) and dowry ( property , gold or goods given to the groom by the bride’s family) both of these traditional acts have already claimed the life of several women in Canada, particularly in communities that are influenced by tradition and religions. The bill must pay more attention to the effect of these anti-women tradition and legally ban them. By not mentioning Bride Price and Dowry means it is not a harmful practice even though people in Canada and elsewhere are witnessing bride burning or bride suicide rates rising.
To make this matter worse Bill S-7 did not place any supportive bodies for women and young girls who have been victims of arranged and forced marriage outside of Canadian borders. The question is which legal body can they contact outside of Canada? Where can they go if they finally manage to flee? How would they be able to obtain their legal documents again?
Sure enough they have been traumatized, who will be in contact with them to boost their courage and self esteem? I strongly believe that without placing the right legislative act and without proper tools in place to support all women irrespective of their age, women and girls would never be protected.
As a women and children’s’ rights activists I would like to touch base on issues that somehow have been accepted and gradually are being recognized as way of life by society at large. I want to emphasize that it is not ok to see tradition dictating the future of our young girls and women. Bill S-7 can be improved and can make huge progressive changes for a better life of all residents of Canada.
Polygamy, child bride, arranged and forced marriages, honor killing have great ties with anti-women culture and religious movement in particular with the Islamic movement globally. Canada is not immune from it either. As soon as the promoters of the religious movement in particular, the Islamic movement find an ability to penetrate into the legal system, more women, girls and children will be subjected to violence. Women and young girls will face harsh consequences for refusing to follow these backward traditions of their families’ culture.
My aim is to focus on child bride, arranged and forced marriages as this bill attempts to pay closer attentions to aforementioned issues.
With respect to arranged marriage and forced marriage which go hand in hand, the bill tries to water it down and sugar coats them. Bill S-7 indicates: “- in arrange marriages family and friends play a central role in bringing the couple together and arrange the term of a wedding with consent of individuals concerned.”
Several essential problematic issues are missing in this happy and sugared coated picture, the age of these two individuals is not mentioned, the fact that these two individuals have no rights to date or have any physical interaction before their wedding night, the pressure to marry someone from their parents’ religion or the same cast of their parents; there is no love or romance involved in an arranged and forced marriages; women have no control over their destiny plus the heavy obligation on both individuals in particular the girls and children in preparation of becoming a good bride, based on their parents value.
None of the above problems have been touched upon or even mentioned in the bill. The reality is that arranged marriage is not a contract between two individuals. It is a moral and financial contract between two families. This fact alone is against the Civil Marriage Act.
Marriage by arrangement is a dreadful violence against children and young girls as they are all pressured by the members of their family, relatives and community members to conform to it. State legislation and proper tools are needed to ensure that girls and women are free and to end this ancient regressive traditional way of marriage. State has a duty to protect all individuals within the community. It can be done by putting the right progressive, modern and compatible 21st century legislative Act and the creation of enforcement tools.
To understand the complexity of arranged and forced marriage I will present the following case; the name and country of origin have been modified to protect the individuals identity.
Minasadat is a young woman who was arranged to marry her first cousin at birth. He was 12 years old when she was born. She stated she cannot remember when she was told that Omar is her future husband as far as she is concerned she always knew. She was constantly reminded by all her family members and relatives as well as all of her neighbors that she is the chosen one for Omar.
She remembers several harsh incidents that caused her to be very fearful of him and made her freeze as soon as she heard his voice, his smell or presence in the house. One particular incident sticks out with her even now. When she was picking up small round stones from her back yard when she was in grade one, Omar, who was 18 at the time, suddenly appeared yelling and picked her up, rushed inside and threw her against the wall, where her mother was sitting talking to other guests at home.
She said that she remembers blood was covering her face and Omar was still yelling and her mother was apologizing to Omar. She ended up having 22 stitches on her head. She was told at the hospital that Omar was angry because his future wife was playing with dirt instead of be trained to be a good wife. It was her duty to learn to become a good wife like all her aunts, her grandmother and exactly like her own mother.
She was watched and disciplined not only by her own parents but also by the parents of her future husband and by her future husband, Omar. To make the matter worse the future husband can dictate her how to behave and what to wear or whom to play with. Everything that she did needed to be approved by Omar as well. That is the tradition of arranged marriage.
There are other cases of arranged marriage too and that is when parents decide that their children are at the right age to marry. They would find a bride or a groom according to the parents’ value and belief. In all of the above cases the parties involved are not allowed to date or be seen together alone.
If on a rare occasion the parents permit them to go out, a trusted person must accompany them. That person could be a brother, younger sister or an adult. That trusted person has to spy on them and report back to the parents or guardians. In fact this backward tradition is imposed on them by their parents or guardians or other members of the family and relatives.
These types of marriages are happening in Canada even among well-educated boys and girls due to fear of rejection from their parents and their communities. These young educated boys and girls become the victim of their parent’s tradition despite of having a thirst for a romance in their lives.
Sometimes these individuals won’t see each other until the wedding night, they are arranged to marry someone in other provinces in Canada. Sometimes their marriage is performed without both parties being present as one might be living in Canada or elsewhere and the other in a different country; in this case the parents will opt for someone to act on his or her behalf to perform the marriage. As result the first time the couple will meet each other would be at the Airport.
Women and children’s rights activists in Iran and globally are running an International Campaign against arranged and forced marriages as they are both in the same category. Some of the activists are losing their lives in order to get rid of this backward tradition that has been a barrier for a healthy relationship between couples. Most of marriage sponsorship in Canada or elsewhere is done through arranged marriages. “Azdevaj posty” translation of that is “Parcel Marriage” is a name given to these types of marriage.
The question is what tools a civil society is going to put in place in order to protect these vulnerable individuals?
The other issue with arranged marriage or “Parcel Marriage” is that it is putting the safety and wellbeing of women in the hands of their so called husbands. If there is no law to protect them then the abuse escalates and their marriage life becomes unbearable. Suicide rate is very high among these victims. One of my clients “Zamaneh” (name altered to protect the clients identity) married by arranged and met her husband at Pearson Airport for the first time after being married with him for almost two years (parcel marriage).
Two days later she was asked to return back to her home country because according to him she was not virgin. They both are holding a degree, one from a university in Canada and other from his home country. The police was called but he was not arrested as he committed no crime. Instead she was sent to a shelter for abused women as she said that she cannot return back home because of the embarrassment that she has caused her family and relatives.
She might even face much harsher consequence, if she returns back home. If she was from one of the countries ruled by an Islamic state, she would face death by stoning. According to her so-called husband she was in relation with another man while she was married to him. Bill S-7 states there is consent for marriage by both parties but it refused to state that these consents are not based on the free will of both individuals.
Fear of being disowned by her parents and family members, fear of isolation without any legal protection from the state and society at large leaves them with no other choice but to agree with the parents’ way of marriage.