By Ann Czernik
A Bradford family’s painful history has lifted a veil on the problem of forced marriage. The story of Naz Shah, the arsenic killer’s daughter shines a light into the darkest corners of Asian family life. Every family has its secrets but it is rare for them to be aired so publicly and with such brutal honesty. Now other members of her family have come forward to put on record their version of the truth.
Naz Shah, the accidental Labour candidate, transformed an undoubtedly difficult childhood and the events that led to her mother’s conviction for murder into a political manifesto. In her account, she described a miserable existence living with poverty, squalor, abuse, and exclusion after her violent and abusive father, Abid Shah ran off with a neighbour’s 16 year old daughter. Naz said she was forced into an abusive marriage to a first cousin in Pakistan at the age of just 15 years old.
Naz told journalists that “We will only change things if we have frank discussions about violence against women on a day-to-day basis, and if that’s at the expense of my own emotional response, that’s the reality. Of course I am an emotional being, and it can be upsetting re-visiting stuff that’s happened, but I had to own my own narrative.”
When George Galloway accused her of having “a passing acquaintance with the truth” a row broke out over the nature of forced marriage. Galloway expressed the view that the story exploited negative stereotypes of some Pakistani men in a shameless attempt to garner votes.
Zaf Shah is the BME Engagement officer for the Conservative Policy Forum. He is also the Labour candidate’s uncle. He is fuming that his family and community have been represented in this way.
He told Asian Sunday “This isn’t about Respect or the Labour Party. This is about not duping the people if you are going to stand in a position of influence. I accept that people have a past. But you don’t play to all the horrible stereotypes of Pakistani men.”
Zaf said that “This plays into the mindset of people like Louise Mensch, the former Conservative MP, and the Daily Mail that the majority of Pakistani men beat and abuse their wives. If there had been inkling that my brother was beating and abusing his wife and family members in the way that has been described by Labour, it would have gone against everything I stood for, as a man, as a father and as a husband.”
The family deny many of the claims that were made by Labour and Zaf said “There were no question that anyone came to us and said Zoora is being abused. Nobody came to us and said Naz is being abused. I’m telling you now if we had known that was happening that men were going into our house and abusing our families – do you think we would have sat back and let it carry on? We’d have challenged them. If it wasn’t through the courts or the police we would have challenged it ourselves. We would have turned up at their house. Family members would have turned up at the house.”
Zaf Shah says “Labour’s strategy is a weak one to win over the electorate that are disillusioned with politics in general. It’s an angle to win over those individuals who are incensed at Pakistani men grooming, or beating their wives or forced marriage or whatever. I don’t accept forced marriage, nor do I accept men that abuse women. It’s deplorable that these men are doing it but would I then say that my sisters were abused by a number of men to win a few votes? It would be wrong and toxic and it’s what has happened here.”
The Labour candidate’s step-mother Nasim Shah told Asian Sunday that her step-daughter should have just gone for the election and thinks it was a mistake to politicise the family’s experiences. Nasim said “If anyone brought her past up, surely she could have kept a dignified silence. I’ve worked with Asian women on forced marriage. I work with people now. It happens, I’m not saying it doesn’t.” And she’s angry that the very real suffering of men and women forced into marriage is being manipulated.
Nasim Shah doesn’t recognise herself as the teenage home wrecker that the Labour candidate says was the catalyst for a series of events which led to murder. She married the Labour candidate’s father Abid Shah. Nasim sighed and said “It’s hard being an Asian woman. I was born and brought up in Bradford” and she knows all about the pain of forced marriage first hand.
In 1979, Nasim was told she was to marry her first cousin. Nasim knew immediately that “I didn’t want to marry my cousin. I remember one particular occasion. He said you will see what is going to happen to you, I’m going to marry you and then we will see. I was absolutely petrified. I was naïve and I was young. “
She said Abid and Zoora Shah lived next door with their two young children. Naz, his much loved daughter was about six years old when Abid noticed Nasim. She said Abid told her “they had their problems but he didn’t set out to have a relationship with me.” Nasim said “Abid said he liked me. He was showing me some attention which I hadn’t got when I was young. I was flattered. He was 29, I was 15. He would come to our house to eat “
The handsome business man told her that his marriage to Zoora had been arranged. Nasim said “His dad didn’t want him to marry her but his mum did. His mum had given her word so he went with that and didn’t say anything. His sister was married to Zoora’s brother and they had children. Abid knew that if there was ever a problem, two marriages would be at stake. He went to Pakistan and his mum said he was going to marry her.”
On Nasim’s 16th birthday, with the threat of another forced marriage looming, Abid went down on one knee. They married on Valentine’s Day 1980. On the day of her wedding, the frightened teenager got up, went to school, went to someone’s house, read the nikah and then went home. She said “Zoora came to see me at my parent’s house. She said I know he married you. I thought, she’ll tell my mum and dad. I don’t think I really knew what I was doing. He’d gone home, I’d gone home and that was it.”
When Nasim’s family found out she had defied them, she was shipped around the country and Abid followed. Eventually she was sent to Pakistan and although already married, was still expected to marry her cousin. Abid arrived with the police to rescue her. He had sold his business and risked his life for the young woman he loved.
It was Nasim’s first visit to Pakistan. She thought they danced and sang in the park like they did in the movies. The police officer was from Bradford and spoke English. Nasim said “He asked who is this man? I said he is my husband. I left with the police officer and we came to Mirpur”
Nasim spent a night in police cells and went to court the next day. She was held for four days in a Pakistani jail whilst the authorities sorted out the mess. Outside, there was a beautiful garden but inside the cell, she and two other women shared a mattress, taking it in turns to sleep, whilst the ants crawled over the floor.
Nasim was put under house arrest for 6 months. It was a terrifying time and she depended on her husband’s tenacity. She said “I was stuck in someone else’s house with people I didn’t know and I’d hear things. He’s gone back to England, he’s gone back to his wife, he’s going to leave you here. It was a nightmare and you forget, put it at the back of your mind. He came back, we went to court and they couldn’t decide, then it went to another court and they couldn’t decide.”
Eventually, it was agreed that the marriage was valid.
Nasim said “Abid came to the house, got in the car, went to the British Embassy, got me a 3 day passport and we left. Then his family intervened and said you all have to live together, play happy families. Zoora had moved from Hartman Place to go and live with her uncle Zaf and her father in law. Then she went to Derby St. Everyone sat there at Hartman Place and made a decision about my life, we had to live together because otherwise her brother was going to divorce Abid’s sister so off we went to Derby St to live with her. Can you imagine that – at 16?”
Zaf Shah said “Zoora wasn’t forced out of the home. My father – Barkat – isn’t alive now. My dad approached the man who owned the house and asked if he would mind – this was his friend – he asked if he was prepared to allow Zoora to live there with her young children. My dad helped her get the deposit and they bought the house on Derby St. The description that Naz gives is one of squalor and living from one place to another living on the breadline. That is incorrect. “
Nasim and Abid moved out when the tensions in the house grew too great. Nasim began working with women who were fleeing forced marriages and domestic violence at a landmark service in Bradford for Asian women. Today, she is an advice worker.
She is angry about the way her family have been represented and said Abid doted on his children. She remembers that “Naz would come around to the house. Abid used to sit with his paper out and she would sit on the floor with the fire on. They were talking and he was talking to her. She never told Abid she was having any problems – ever.”
Nasim said “I would never ever say, stay in this marriage. You have a life, you should never stay in an unhappy marriage.”
The Chair of Muslim Women’s Network, Shaista Gohar said “It’s time we had a discussion in the community. Forced marriage was criminalised last year. Young people reluctantly go into forced marriages because they don’t want to shame their family. We need to see a case which will set a precedent.”
Nasim said “It was different for me. My parents came from Pakistan. We were born and brought up in a different era. You can’t blame them. When I went to school, if there was a birthday party I wasn’t allowed to go. During the holidays we never went anywhere. My dad worked in the textile mills, got up, went to work, came home. We didn’t even drive a car. We had decent food on the table and decent clothing but that was it. The first time I got on a bus into Bradford city centre I got lost. We were sheltered. Now it’s different, young girls go to Shisha bars, they go to clubs, some do it openly, some don’t.” but many still arrange to marry close family members from abroad.
Gohar said “Twenty years ago we called them arranged – some of them might have been forced. If one of the parents is from abroad then they will be more likely to put pressure to marry a cousin or whatever from abroad. In twenty year’s time, they have children and her cousin will want a better life for his brother’s children. We need to break the cycle.”
Shaista Gohar said “Parents need to understand the consequences. When a person does not want that marriage it amounts to rape. We need to be brutally honest about that. It is rape because that person is not consenting to that marriage.”
There is no denying that the issue of gender violence continues to destroy many lives and it has to be challenged at every turn.
What has been forgotten amidst the drama, chaos and excitement of the campaign, a family has been pushed to breaking point. Their voices were drowned out by the politics of stronger, more powerful personalities and the press and media spin, who were centre-stage in this tragedy. The problem of making the personal political during an election campaign is that the complexity of truth needs to be cognisant of different narratives, different voices and every one of these competing and often conflicting perspectives deserves to be heard.
Whilst mainstream media accepted without question the story of the arsenic killer’s daughter, they forgot that you can’t choose your victim and in this story there are many victims, and many voices.
And now, at least a few have been heard.