Iram Ramzan talks to feminist activist Habiba Jaan about women's rights, the ban on forced marriage and cultural double standards.
Iram Ramzan talks to feminist activist Habiba Jaan about women’s rights, the ban on forced marriage and cultural double standards
“When we’re born, we have that seed embedded in girls on how to behave and what to do. When you grow up we put food in front of the men – they eat first, we pick up the dishes and we eat last.”
Mother-of-four Habiba Jaan is not shy about expressing her thoughts on the issues facing south Asian women in Britain and a culture that keeps them under control.
The mental health worker, from the West Midlands, has spent many decades and her own financial resources in helping vulnerable women who have had to leave home because they were being forced into marriage.
And she has even more of a reason to help such women because as of June 16, parents who force their children to marry can be punished by up to seven years in prison. Previously, courts have only been able to issue civil orders to prevent victims being forced into marriage.
Jasvinder Sanghera of the Karma Nirvana charity appeared on Woman’s Hour to defend this legislation, which she believes is a step in the right direction and many victims who she has spoken to wanted forced marriage to be punishable under the law.
According to Amrit Wilson, however, BME women regard this as “an example of the government’s hypocrisy, and its cynical use of gender to intensify repression, criminalisation and Islamophobia”.
Let us believe for one moment that is is only Muslim families who have forced their children to marry against their will (Jasvinder is Sikh), surely it would be more ‘Islamophobic’ to allow victims to continue to suffer for fear of being labelled Islamophobic.
It seems at times that there is one law for the majority of the population and another for those with brown skins. This would not even be an issue if the girls involved had been white.
Habiba believes it is too early to know what effect the legislation will have:
“It has sent a strong message to parents, that you can’t take your girls to Pakistan,” she said. “It probably has worked in other places and it probably will work here in time. Some will prosecute, some won’t but I just want them to be safe and we have to respect that.”
She believes more needs to be done to support those women who have left home and for this she has set up a refuge in Wolverhampton – ‘Aurat supporting women’. She has been working on this for the past two years but has only managed to find like-minded women in the last year.
Their aim is to help south Asian women who have been victims of anything to do with so-called honour violence, trafficking or grooming.
“I thought: someone needs to make a move,” she said. “We have had no funding from anyone, we’re just a group of women. We’re trying to make a change within our culture – that’s what my aim is.
“It’s early days. We found that there was nothing in the West Midlands that’s actually catering for South Asian women. There’s no helpline, no support network for them. There’s nothing here.
“It’s a shame, there’s so much abuse going on out there and they don’t know where to go.
“We got to the stage where we said it’s about time we create something here. We don’t care about religion because the culture is the same.”
And who better to advise such vulnerable women than someone who was a child bride herself. Aged 15, Habiba’s father decided that it was time for her to get married to someone in Pakistan.
Thankfully she was able to escape at the age of 19, with two children in tow at the time.
She then started voluntary work in refuges and hostels and went back into education in order to make something of her life.
“We’ve put our personal money into this because there’s a big need out there,” she continued. “I think the government is too shy and hesitant to put its hands in to anything to do with culture or Muslim women.”
Aurat (meaning ‘woman’ in Urdu) are trying to get a helpline within the next month and trying to gather statistics so that that the women will no longer be under the radar.
But what is the difference between Aurat and the other refuges and charities in the country?
Habiba hopes to offer support not just during their time in the shelter but after they have left.
She said: “We may offer them a job to support other women too. Because what happens next. what happens to those women? They’re left on their own, they don’t know what to do. They need a lot of support after that.
“All these groups create awareness but what are they doing to take these problems away? We’re saying there’s a problem, we’re working on it. We want these women to be successful in life. I want someone to come back in ten years time and say ‘you’ve changed my life’.
“Once up and running, we can expand to support these women.”
One of the reasons young girls and women are reluctant to leave abusive homes is because there is nowhere for them to go and some organisations may not understand their cultural needs. For south Asians (and many other cultures) one is not an individual but part of the family and the wider community. Without that family support and backing, those individuals can feel lost.
Aurat is setting up a helpline and one-to-one counselling to continue supporting these women. The people they are unable to help will be signposted to organisations that can help them
“Everyone in a Western society should have a choice, but our cultures hold girls back. A lot of incidents within our communities are brushed under the carpet. There’s so much abuse within Asian communities
“Let’s face up to it, let’s say it’s wrong, it’s happening and let’s deal with it. We can’t keep destroying children’s lives because our culture doesn’t allow us to say it’s wrong.
“If we don’t raise these issues then no one else will. If I can make a change to one woman’s life then I’m happy.”
Anyone wanting further information can call Habiba or her team by sending an email to
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