Sara El Maki says she was about to be forced into a marriage with a distant cousin in Saudi Arabia at the age of 18.
“I knew from an early age that my father had talked with his uncle about giving me away to his son, which made me feel very uncomfortable,” she said. She says she thought it was “morally wrong”.
Sara, who is now 25, had a “really strict upbringing” in a Somali Muslim family.
“My father were very paranoid about me becoming Western,” she say. “He think he was protecting me.”
Sara says she wanted to “have a voice”, express herself, dress differently and get “more from life” but extended family members complained she was “out of control”.
“It was seen as being too Western,” she says.
The day before her arranged marriage Sara packed her bag, along with her passport and fled from Birmingham to Bristol. Where she spent 3 months in a shelter for woman who seeks refuge.
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EIGHT YEARS – years are flying by and today marks 8 years since I ran away from a forced marriage. I think last years post helped me recognise why I always got super anxious in the run up to this day that this time I was anxious-free (to put it simply). I’d like to say thanks again for those who choose to be around me and support me and those I don’t get to see often because of distance but know they’re there. I’d also like to thank @monki for offering sick clothes. I don’t go anywhere else now. #runawaybride #8years #monkistyle
Sara El Maki is not the only girl who found refuge in Bristol.
It is estimated that around five girls each month flee to Bristol in seek of refuge in many of the women shelter from Northern England.
Forced marriage is a criminal offence. It occurs when one or both spouses do not consent to the marriage and violence, threats or coercion is involved. Coercion can include emotional force, physical force or the threat of it, and financial pressure.
The latest figures from the UK government’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) show they gave advice or support to a possible forced marriage in 1,764 cases last year – a 47% rise
A spokesperson from BAVA (Bristol Against Violence & Abuse) said that; “Number of people involved in forced marriages in Bristol area has risen drastically”.
On the Avon and Somerset Police’s website it says; the high number of people involved in forced marriages in Bristol area has risen “significantly”, “there had been a noticeable rise in forced marriages over the past five years.”
There are cases of young people being taken abroad in the summer to their parents home country, and are not “missed” until September.
The force said it was “difficult to provide specific figures” as each case was recorded differently depending on the circumstances.
After spending 3 months in a shelter in Bristol I feared that my father would find me, said Sara. “I decided to fly to the United States and stay with a friend”.
“I did not know what to do, other than stay low and disconnect all connection with my family”, says Sara.
In the latest case in the UK, Princess Haya of Dubai had fled her husband and have asked the UK court for forced marriage protection order. A order Sara did not know about.
“There wasn’t much information out there, it was my friend I went to university who told me about the shelter in Bristol.”, Sara says.
“I lived in the United States for six months, and decided to move to London, and try to sort my life out. I was done with living in fear, I just wanted to live a normal life” she said.
While living in London, Sara got a text message from her younger brother, where he that their parents had gotten a divorce and Sara’s father had moved to Somalia.
Living in fear and hiding Sara have now come out on the other side with a better relationship with her mother who still lives in Bristol.
“I never thought I would see my mother again”, she said. “There were times where I got harassed from family members, saying I brought shame to them”.
Although Sara did not experience physical abuse, there are cases where young woman have experienced harsh treatments from family members.
A young woman who was forced to marry her cousin was abused by her mother when she refused the arranged marriage.
The young woman faced years of anger and violence from her mum, including being dragged down the stairs by her hair.
Dr. Nazand Begikhani from Bristol University says that “They will arrange the marriage and if you reject the person they will force you to marry the person. “Say the girl is in England and the person is abroad and they want them to get married, even by raising the age they might then take her abroad, she might not want to go abroad and it might be worse for her.” Says Dr Begikhani.
“They force their daughter to go back to their country and never come back. And they told them to marry there. That is another issue. How they prevent it.”
BAVA in Bristol says on their website that a forced marriage is when you feel that you can not say ‘no’ to the marriage. Both men and women, of different ages, communities and backgrounds can be victims of a forced marriage. It is important to remember that forced marriage is not a ‘cultural or religious’ issue, it can be experienced by people from different cultural groups, and is condemned by every major religion.
It is important not to confuse ‘forced’ marriage with ‘arranged’ marriage. An arranged marriage is when the families are involved in helping to choose the marriage partner, but it is the choice of both the bride and groom whether they want to get married or not. A forced marriage is when they have no choice or feel that they have no choice.
On their website they have a safety plan for women who is in seek of protecting them self. It helps you plan in advance for the possibility of future violence and abuse. It also helps you to think about how you can increase your safety either within the relationship, or if you decide to leave.
Anyone with concerns about forced marriages is urged to phone 020 7008 0151.