More needs to be done to help the men who are victims of so-called honour-based violence (HBV) in the UK, researchers have told VICE World News.
Forced marriage (FM), threats, verbal abuse, blackmail, humiliation, abandonment and physical violence are just a few examples of HBV. HBV is a global issue and not specifically endorsed by any religion or culture, but is nevertheless most associated with the Middle East or South Asia. In Britain, many HBV cases occur in South Asian communities.
2,024 cases of HBV were reported in England and Wales in 2019-2020, according to official Home Office statistics, but the true figure is likely to be much higher, due to a reluctance by victims to come forward. 80 percent of HBV victims are women, but a significant number of men are suffering in silence.
For Saad Azam, a 24-year-old software engineer from Reading, the moment of clarity came when his mother struck him in the face with a rolling pin. Dealing with domestic abuse from his parents was no longer an option – especially with the knowledge he would be forced into marriage if he stayed.
Speaking via Zoom, Azam depicts a strict childhood. Coming from a “hectic household” Azam and his siblings lived a secluded life, any social interaction with friends was forbidden. It was only later did he realise his life was drastically different to most of his classmates: “We didn’t really have similar lives to even our Muslim friends, they would be allowed to go to town but we were always at home. We were either at school or at home, there was no other place we ever were.”
“Luckily for me, and unlucky for them, I saw my two brothers be forced into marriage. So I had an early warning of, ‘I've got to get myself ready now so I can either leave, or I can work something out’. My only choice was to leave. And that's what led me to apply to university behind my parents back – I applied to universities further up north just to get as far away as I can.”
“When my older two brothers were married, it was just put on them. Like, ‘oh, you’re getting married by the way’. As a family we always did as we were told because our father was the muscle of the house.”
HBV stems from a grossly misinformed notion to protect a family’s “honour” from anything that might harm the family’s reputation – like premarital sex, divorce proceedings and refusing to get married to a person of their parents’ choice.
Dr Mohammad Mazher Idriss of Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) is one of few researchers investigating male victims of HBV, describing it as “under-discussed, under-researched and under-funded”.
Since 2005, the UK has had a Forced Marriage Unit (FMU), run by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, operating nationally within the UK and internationally, providing support and advice to victims of forced marriage.
Idriss is calling for more governmental action as progress is slow, and “The government promised to pledge £500,000 for all male victims – whether domestic abuse, HBV, forced marriage, sexual assault or trafficking.”
This is, Idriss says, “clearly not enough when 20 percent of the Forced Marriage Unit’s workload itself consistently concerns male victims – compared to the millions the government spends on women. I am not suggesting the amount should be the same, as women experience more abuse and violence, but there needs to be improved funding for male victims.”
“Campaigning and awareness is steadily progressing,” he says, “but there has still been no separate strategy for men.”
Karma Nirvana, a national charity dedicated to victims of HBV and forced marriage, says 10 to 15 percent of their HBV cases involve male victims, equating to 200 to 300 cases per year. In 2019, the FMU reported 19 percent of HBV victims were male.
For Azam, the software engineer from Reading, finding work gave him an opportunity to escape. In 2015, aged 19, he took a job installing new computers at Reading University. By 2017 he had used the job to make his escape from home, by sleeping in the store cupboard at work for the summer.
“I left home in July 2017. It was the summer period for university and students weren’t at university... I was still working full time, but it was quiet, so at 4PM I would go to the back of the store room and set up my bed. I slept on a camping mattress, the floor was marble so it was always really cold. I was always last on shift so I locked the door and that was it.”
In 2017, he gained admission to Lancaster University as a student, still holding down a job for financial assistance: “When I got to Lancaster University, in October 2017, it was the exact same job I was doing (at Reading). So it worked out for me.”
Azam’s escape was far from easy. But for some people, escape is not feasible at all.
Daniyal, whose name has been changed to protect his safety, is gay but was forced to marry a woman in the UK when he was just 18 years old. His marriage allowed him to move to the UK to live with his wife.
When Daniyal disclosed his sexuality to his wife she started to blackmail him for money. Her ultimatum: either comply with her threats or face the wrath of his parents. He feared for his life.
With help and support from Karma Nirvana, Daniyal is now living in a safe accommodation and has access to much needed mental health and legal support.
Homosexuality is taboo in many South Asians homes and is often considered a source of shame for stricter families.
Manjinder Sidhu, a 34-year-old diversity and inclusion manager from Birmingham, suffered from HBV as a consequence of his homosexuality. After coming out to his extended family, he was threatened with being beaten. His family was concerned for what they called “honour” and was told him coming out could have a negative impact on his sisters. “Some of my extended family felt that if I was gay, why did I need to advertise it? Because they felt shame, and may have got questions by the community,” he says “They felt it was a bad thing, and not something to be proud of and thus affecting them.”
Realising his sexuality was for Sidhu, “a total shock to the system. I tried to deny it, brainwash myself to heterosexuality to no avail.” The prospect of being forced into a heterosexual marriage made this all the more difficult: “I would not ruin a woman's life by marrying her. I accepted the worst case scenario of disownment or even death.”
Like Azam, Sidhu had a strict childhood. “I have been told in most Punjabi household's domestic abuse is common. I grew up in a turbulent household and… the threat of being disowned or worse was real,” he says. Sidhu turned to education saying, “books became my friends, I saw it as a way of buying my freedom...all I was concerned about was getting a great education to be able to find a job that supported me to be independent from anyone.” At 18 he left home to go to university, and did not repair his relationship with his parents until he was 25.
Both Azam and Sidhu emphasise how isolated this situation made them feel, and both wanted to make a change.
Azam was inspired to start a website, called Why Can’t I, for people in abusive situations to find a means of escape. “I remember spending days straight googling people in a similar position to me trying to find someone that went through what I went through and I couldn't find anyone or much support on it,” he says. ‘I thought if I create something where… they can see that and say, ‘if it works for him it can work for me’.”
Having escaped the prejudice of his family, Sidhu went on to face racist discrimination in the gay scene. So he wrote Bollywood Gay, a spiritual self-help book for LGBTQ+ South Asians where terminology and advice is translated into 13 different languages – a tool he would have liked growing up.
Karma Nirvana employs a number of measures to ensure the safety of HBV victims, such as putting them in touch with appropriate support agencies or the police. The majority of UK refuges are women-only, but Karama Nirvana has access to temporary housing across the UK.
“There are many agencies now working to support men experiencing domestic abuse such as Respect and Mankind as well as those organisations who support LGBT individuals,” a Karma Nirvana spokesperson said.
HBV can begin from a young age, so campaigners say schools should raise awareness about it. “It's important for children and young people to understand this practise is not part of any religion or community,” the spokesperson says.
Over time, Sidhu managed to reconnect with his family and his mum appeared in YouTube videos discussing his sexuality and parental pressure in South Asian households – but due to family pressure, she stopped. Now, he creates content to help people in a similar situation to him.
Azam's family moved without telling him – and now he has no idea where they are.