Nearly four years after the federal government passed legislative amendments aimed at combating forced and servile marriages, charges were laid for the first time in the Melbourne Magistrates Court last week.

In 2015 in New South Wales a 27-year-old man was sentenced to 10 years in jail for the persistent sexual abuse of a child after “marrying” a 12-year-old girl, and the imam who conducted the “marriage” was found guilty of procuring a child for the purpose of sexual abuse. The imam was fined $500 and his religious visa for residence in Australia was cancelled. That case was heard under New South Wales criminal law rather than under the federal forced marriage legislation because the defence argued that the marriage was consensual and at that stage, age was not considered a factor in whether or not a marriage was consensual — a loophole that has since been closed. 

Last Friday, Imam Ibrahim Omerdic was charged with “conduct that caused a minor to enter into a forced marriage” at a Bosnian mosque in the Melbourne suburb of Noble Park in September last year. The girl’s 34-year-old “husband” (a forced marriage is legally void) is charged with sexual penetration of a child under the age of 16 and of being party to a forced marriage. This case and its aftermath illustrate the need to better address the issue of forced marriage but also the fact despite the need for better awareness and education, any publicity is not necessarily good publicity.

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The Islamic Council of Victoria and the Victorian Board of Imams had known that the case was forthcoming and released statements condemning the practice of forced marriage in anticipation of Friday’s court hearing. Speaking on Sunday night, Islamic Council of Victoria president Mohamed Mohideen said that “both the ICV and the Board of Imams have worked closely with the committee of the mosque over this issue, but the police advised us that we could not say anything publicly about this until after the court hearing on Friday”. They are angered, then, by media coverage accusing them of doing too little, too late.

In particular, those attending the mosque at the centre of the case are distressed by the fact that initial media reports of the case described Omerdic as their current rather than former imam. In fact, Omerdic was suspended from his position with the Bosnian Islamic Society immediately after his arrest and subsequently sacked when it became clear that charges would be laid. The new imam arrived two weeks ago, and Mohideen says that he is reported to be have made a positive first impression.

Online comments calling for the mosque to be closed down because of the crime committed there have caused immense fear and trepidation: “[Omerdic] had been the imam for over 30 years so people had trust in him. But the Bosnian community had no part in what took place. [Other than Omerdic], those involved in the marriage were from outside their community.”

There is unhappiness, too, over articles accusing the Islamic Council of Victoria of effectively condoning forced and child marriage in its statement of condemnation. For example, in an article for The Daily Telegraph headlined “Unholy matrimony and the Islamic community’s hidden stain”, Piers Akerman seized upon the line in which the ICV noted that while marriage below the age of 16 was permitted overseas, this did not justify such marriages taking place in Australia. According to Akerman, the statement might “make some readers wonder why the Islamic Council members didn’t say they think forced child marriage is absolutely abhorrent wherever it is practiced?”.

Well, perhaps because the ICV recognises where its power ends and that of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade begins. As Mohideen notes: “The ICV has no control over what happens overseas.” The ICV understands the need to recognise that many of its members might themselves have been married below the age of 16 before their migration to Australia when notifying them that this practice is not acceptable in Australian society. (Removing a child overseas for the purpose of forced marriage is also illegal under Australian law.)

The ICV statement goes on to note: “The ICV does not believe that forced or child marriages are a widespread practice here in Australia, but regardless, one instance is too many.” However, Joumanah el Matrah from the Melbourne-based Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights was less sanguine. She notes: “We don’t actually know the extent to which early and forced marriage is a problem in Australia. There is no evidence from which one can really generalise. Also, there is a question as to ‘significant problem’ — compared to what? If we compare early and forced marriage to family violence, the numbers we do have suggest a manageable problem — but the reality of forced marriage demonstrates clearly that it is a significant problem in the sense that it an inherently harmful practice for the victim and for women’s status generally. It is useful to note that the number of cases our centre responds to annually has not significantly increased — that’s roughly seven to 12 cases per annum.”

El Matrah also noted the negative impact of racialised commentary such as Akerman’s: “The sensationalism and alarmism of the media make community engagement and education impossible in the period immediately following coverage of a story. Media coverage on this issue is characterised by gross generalisations and omission of important information. Presentation of an issue like early and forced marriage is often blatantly racist. This creates a view among some Muslims that they have to protect themselves against vilification and misrepresentation. It therefore becomes far more difficult to engage communities meaningfully on any difficult or controversial practice.”

On Monday, NSW Family and Community Services Minister Brad Hazzard flagged possible new state legislation to combat what he described as the “horrific” practice of forced marriage. Although The Daily Telegraph report on the mooted legislation described it as New laws to get tough on parents who force arranged marriages, in fact the options being explored are means of providing women and girls with a “softer” course of action than potentially sending their parents to prison. Such steps could include UK-style forced marriage protection orders, as well as the confiscation of the parents’ passports if they fail to disclose the location of a missing child to the Family Court. Such civil measures could be an important step forward, given evidence from both Australia and overseas that the possibility of criminal sanctions against their parents is a major factor deterring women and girls from reporting forced marriage. And since the burden of proof is lower for civil than for criminal cases, they are more likely to be successful.

Perhaps the most famous international account of the experience of forced marriage is that of Somali-born former Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who claimed asylum in the Netherlands en route to a marriage in Canada that she later claimed to have been forced. (Her family disputes this account and at the time of her asylum application, Hirsi Ali falsely claimed to have been fleeing the war in Somalia, despite having lived in Kenya for many years.)  Yet even Hirsi Ali illustrates the reluctance of women in such cases to entirely break ranks with their families. She continued to provide financial support to her family and to visit them in Kenya for years after she had settled in the Netherlands and broken ranks with her religious community. It seems vanishingly unlikely that she would have given evidence in court that would have sent her father to prison, despite having so publicly denounced both him and his religious beliefs.

Most women and girls seeking support in escaping from forced marriage do not wish to follow Hirsi Ali’s example by exiting their religious community, nor have their plight appropriated as a means of attacking it. They are unlikely to thank “supporters” like Piers Akerman or crime writer Gabrielle Lord, whose 2014 novel Dishonoured featured a forced marriage storyline and who is now listed alongside cartoonist Larry Pickering and ageing rocker Angry Anderson as one of the guest speakers at one of the anti-Islamic Q Society’s fundraising dinners in Sydney later this year. Rather, they seek to have parental plans disrupted and safe exit routes provided.

This, of course, requires not just more effective legislation and enforcement, but better resources for support services and refuges — something that the New South Wales state government in particular has been reluctant to provide.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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