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A diplomat's struggle against forced marriage

British diplomat Helen Rawlins struggles to help British women of Pakistani descent lured to Pakistan and forced, sometimes at gunpoint, into marriage.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Helen Rawlins climbed into her Toyota Land Cruiser at 7:30 in the morning, off to rescue another woman.

The British diplomat settled into the back seat as she whizzed by the baking bustle of the Pakistani countryside: the women in colorful head scarves sitting in three-wheeled rickshaws, donkey carts piled high with mangoes, and elaborately painted buses where women sit apart from men.

Rawlins knew a tense confrontation awaited. Lately, she had been making a trip such as this once a week -- to help British women of Pakistani descent lured to this country and forced, sometimes at gunpoint, into marriage.

The British government views forced marriages, often performed after beatings or threats of violence, as a human rights abuse, far different from arranged marriages to which the bride and groom consent.

It is Rawlins's job to stop them. In an age of increasingly fluid migration, and aided by instant communication, the British diplomat works 3,700 miles from London to help women from her own country.

On this June day, the victim was 21. A friend of hers called a British Embassy hotline, and Rawlins then exchanged clandestine text messages and telephone calls with the woman. Now she was on her way to take her back.

"She was very, very clear she wants out of here," said Rawlins, looking cool in a proper navy blue suit, despite the near-100-degree heat.

A security agent with a face wrinkled by years and sun, his gun hidden underneath a flowing white tunic, followed Rawlins's car in a white pickup truck.

Rawlins's cellphone rang.

She was still more than an hour away from the woman's village when she received word of another emergency: A 17-year-old girl, born and raised in Scotland, had taken shelter in the British High Commission, as the embassy is known in this former colony.

Rawlins listened as the British official explained the details. The girl said she hadn't realized that her parents had brought her to Pakistan to marry. She wanted to choose her own life. She has a boyfriend back home in Britain.

Her mother, furious and wailing, had followed her. She was demanding to see her daughter. But the girl was refusing to talk to her, terrified her family might kill her. They had already taken her passport.

In Britain, girls of Pakistani descent, many of them first-generation British citizens, are raised in a Western country where women dress, date and marry as they please. Some rebel against the traditions of their parents' homeland, where liquor is banned, women cover their heads, and it is scandalous for unmarried women to talk to men who are not their relatives.

No culture or religion endorses forced marriages, but parents often see it as a way of defending their traditions. Marriage to a first cousin or someone from the family's home village is viewed as a way to preserve family honor, prevent marriage outside their religion and keep wealth within the family.

So parents bring their daughters to Pakistan, revealing their true intentions only after they arrive. By then, the girls are surrounded by family, with no place to turn and the threat of violence if they resist.

Before 2000, British officials tended to view forced marriages as a foreign custom not theirs to judge. But these British-raised young women are increasingly worldly and assertive, and many now have cellphones hidden in their burqas or handbags.

From even the remotest villages, they are increasingly calling for help. And the British government has set up a special group to rescue them.

The Forced Marriage Unit operates out of an office on the edge of Trafalgar Square in London and rescues hundreds of women every year. Many of the 4,000 calls it receives each year involve cases in the United Kingdom, but the unit has diplomats in embassies around the world on standby for overseas rescues.

Rawlins heads the team in Pakistan, which handles about two-thirds of the cases reported outside Britain. It operates with the consent of Pakistani authorities.

On the phone, Rawlins talked about the teenage girl, who, like other women interviewed for this article, are not identified out of concern for their safety and as a condition of riding along with British officials. Rawlins conferred with her colleague Albert David, who sat in the SUV's front seat wearing Ray-Bans and a crisp dress shirt. David, 38, a Pakistani, has worked on hundreds of these cases.

"We have to get her out of the country quickly," David said.

The girl's boyfriend in London, desperate to stop the marriage, arranged to have friends drive her to the embassy after she sneaked out of her family's home. In retaliation, the family filed kidnapping charges with the Pakistani police, who threw the boyfriend's Pakistani father and brother in jail, a blunt tactic to force the girl to comply.

Rawlins dialed her office. She needed an emergency passport for the girl. And plane reservations. She called London to ask for money; the girl must pay for her flight, but the government would lend cash if she needed it.

'This is a family matter'

Along the road, Rawlins's face clouded as she read a new text message. It was from the woman they were on their way to rescue. "My parents have come around so you don't need to come today," the text read, "Sorry for the bother."

"Something is not right," Rawlins said. "She was absolutely clear about wanting to get out."

She texted a response: "We need to speak in person. We are already on the way. We can either come to the house or meet somewhere else."

Rawlins, 43, operates with quiet efficiency and attention to detail. A career diplomat, she is bright and serious, practical and thorough. Even her haircut makes sense -- close-cropped in the intense summer heat.

"I wouldn't want to be doing the same job every day for 20 years," Rawlins said. "Here we have a chance to help people."

She said she "manages the risk" with planning. "I don't want to put the victims or my staff at risk," she said. "But it's true that you can't control everything."

A few days before, the windows had been blown out of her house; eight people were killed in a bombing at the nearby Danish Embassy.

On roads where donkeys weaved between buses, Rawlins headed northeast to Mirpur, a district where most of the million Pakistanis living in Britain have their roots.

One of the world's biggest dams was built in Mirpur in the 1960s, and Britain gave visas to 5,000 people whose land was swallowed by water.

Immigration snowballed after that, and now nearly everyone in Mirpur has a relative in Britain. On any given day, an estimated 80,000 British citizens are living in or visiting Pakistan, many of whom have built large homes in Mirpur.

Though they embrace Britain's economic opportunities, many of these working-class immigrants reject a culture they see as polluted by alcohol, promiscuity and divorce. Parents who force their girls to marry a relative or local man say they are resisting that Western influence, a move that enhances their status in the community.

More practically, it also makes it easier for another person in their close circle to get a visa to Britain, where taxi drivers earn many times more than lawyers do here.

Rawlins sent another message. Still no reply.

David tried another tack. He called the woman's boyfriend, who had helped him locate her. The couple had met in the Middle East, and both had since returned to Pakistan.

"It is her boyfriend who has changed her mind," David said, shaking his head. If they married here in Pakistan -- and she didn't leave for Britain now -- it would be easier for him to get British residency.

Nobody, it seemed to him and Rawlins, had this woman's best interests at heart.

The SUV wound down a rocky path to a one-story house with a dirt courtyard behind an iron gate.

Rawlins and David walked up to the house. Four men working outside a neighbor's house glared at the strangers in Western clothes.

A thin man in a loose-fitting, blue salwar-kameez strode toward them.

"Who called these people?" he shouted in a thick British accent.

"We just want to talk to her," Rawlins said to the woman's brother.

"Everyone knows these cars," he shouted, upset that this visit would cause him embarrassment in the village. "This is a family matter."

After a bit of diplomatic coaxing, he calmed down. Rawlins and David asked to speak privately with the woman, draped in a red head scarf and tunic. Her mother stood nearby, crying and screaming.

In private, the woman agreed to go with Rawlins and David, saying she wanted to escape the pressure from her family. She had already packed a suitcase, and the security guard carried it to the SUV.

But she still seemed conflicted. If she stepped into the Land Cruiser, she would likely never see her family again.

She called her boyfriend and spoke in hushed tones. When she hung up, she told Rawlins she had changed her mind. She wanted to stay "one more day" to work things out.

Rawlins asked if she was sure, and she nodded.

The guard silently fetched her suitcase and brought it back inside.

Back in the SUV, Rawlins let out a long breath, her frustration obvious. Rawlins said her main worry is what happens "to girls left behind." Those who enter into forced marriages are often beaten and forced to have sex. Those who divorce are stigmatized -- or even killed.

Driving away from the house, Rawlins said she would try to keep in touch with the woman. But families often take away girls' phones, and it would be harder next time.

"I think it was the wrong decision," Rawlins said. "But we don't force anyone to do anything."

A predawn flight home

The SUV rolled back into Islamabad in the late afternoon and pulled up outside the office of Khalida Salimi, a vivacious woman who runs a shelter for women fleeing violence and forced marriages.

"This is a male-dominated society," Salimi said. "Women have not attained the status of human beings; they are still considered commodities, possessions."

The 17-year-old Scottish girl who had taken refuge in the British Embassy was on her way to the shelter.

Her boyfriend in London -- whom she met by chance at a restaurant counter -- had already wired money for a flight. She was booked to leave for London at 4:40 a.m., in just a few hours.

Working his cellphone, David smoothed things over with the Pakistani police, arranging for release of the boyfriend's father and brother. He would personally go to the airport, despite the hour, to ensure that the girl walked safely onto the plane.

Rawlins headed off in the SUV, more messages waiting. Two more women needed help.

The teenage girl sat in Salimi's office, wearing a black niqab that covered everything but her sad brown eyes.

"I don't want to hide; I want to be free, open," she said in a pronounced Scottish accent. She said she usually wears jeans.

Lowering her niqab enough to reveal her long, dark hair and pretty earrings, she said she is scared of her family. Her brothers, she said, had already beaten up one of her friends because of her, and she believed they would kill her for shaming the family.

"My father would shoot me before letting me go," she said. "My parents say things are screwed up in the U.K., so they want me to marry a guy from here, who doesn't drink and smoke."

"My boyfriend is even a Muslim and from Pakistan, but they don't accept him," she continued. "I am British, but I am Pakistani, too. But why shouldn't I get to decide whom I marry?"

She looked tired, and she bent over several times complaining of stomach cramps. The pressure of recent days had been too much.

"I have left everyone, everything," she said. "I have not been a bad person to anyone. I don't know why this happened to me."

At 9 p.m., she lay down in one of the shelter's beds and pulled a clean, flowered blanket over her.

"When I get home, I will feel better," she said, hoping for a few hours of sleep before the long journey ahead.