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WORLD

‘Love Doesn’t Exist’: Immigrants Defy Forced Marriage Abroad

February 27, 2023

GUASTALLA, Italy — From the day of her birth in Pakistan, Iram Aslam was betrothed to a cousin 17 days older. But to the young woman, who emigrated as a teenager to this Italian farm town on the Po River plain, the cousin felt like a brother. So on a visit to her homeland, she played for time, telling her aunts she wasn’t ready for marriage.

“They did everything possible to make me marry him,” said Aslam, now 29. She said she told them: “‘I don’t want to marry him and please don’t ask me anymore.'”

Her family, in both Italy and Pakistan, kept scheming to have her wed a man of their choice — and their caste. Aslam dismissed around 30 potential husbands.

“In the end, I made everyone angry, and no one talks to me anymore,” she said of her relatives in Pakistan.

In two murder trials this month, Italian prosecutors are seeking justice for Pakistani immigrant women allegedly killed because they refused marriages imposed by their parents. The cases highlight differences, often misconstrued as religion-based, between centuries-old immigrants’ cultural traditions and Western values prizing individualism.

“I liked another person, wanted another one,” Aslam said of her own situation. “But they didn’t want it, because among us, love doesn’t exist.”

Love is viewed “as a sin,” she added, her thick, wavy brown hair covered by a multicolored headscarf. She asked that her face not be fully shown for fear of further antagonizing Pakistani neighbors in Guastalla, a town of 15,000 where they are the dominant immigrant community.

To escape marriage-obsessed relatives, Aslam went for a time to live in Germany.

But there was no escape for 18-year-old Saman Abbas.

Like Aslam, she emigrated as a teenager from Pakistan to an Italian farm town, Novellara, 11 kilometers (seven miles) from Guastalla.

In what appears to be an identity card photo taken shortly after her arrival, Abbas’ face is framed by a black hijab, or headscarf. But the young woman quickly embraced Western ways, appearing in social media posts with her hair tumbling out from under a bright red headband. In one, she and her Pakistani boyfriend were shown kissing on a street in the regional capital, Bologna.

According to Italian investigators, that kiss enraged Abbas’ parents, who wanted their daughter to marry a cousin in Pakistan.

In November, her body was dug up in the ruins of a Novellara farmhouse. She had last been seen alive a few hundred yards away on April 30, 2021, in surveillance camera video as she walked with her parents on the watermelon farm where her father worked. A few days later, her parents caught a flight from Milan to Pakistan.

Abbas had reportedly told her boyfriend she feared for her life, because she refused to be married to an older man in her homeland.

An autopsy revealed a broken neck bone, possibly caused by strangulation.

An uncle and a cousin were extradited from France, and another cousin from Spain. They are now on trial in Reggio Emilia, the provincial capital with jurisdiction over Novellara, accused of Abbas’ murder.

Also indicted is her father, Shabbir Abbas, arrested in his village in eastern Punjab. The whereabouts of her mother, who is also charged, are unknown.

A lawyer for her father, Akhtar Mahmood, told Italian state television that the young woman’s family is innocent. He disputed prosecutors’ allegations, contending that she had wanted to return with her family to Pakistan to flee Western ways.

Asked about Italy’s request for Shabbir Abbas’ extradition, Pakistan’s ambassador to Italy, Ali Javed, told The Associated Press that the Pakistani government would “not hesitate” to do so. However, Italy has no extradition treaty with Pakistan.

Javed blamed “individual ignorance” for forced marriage, which is illegal in Pakistan.

In 2019, Italy made coercing an Italian citizen or resident into marriage, even abroad, a crime covered under domestic violence laws.

Late this month, police in Spain detained the father of two sisters who were allegedly murdered while visiting family in Pakistan. The women had reportedly refused to have their husbands come to Spain after being forced to marry their cousins.

In the United Kingdom, home to Europe’s largest Pakistani community, the government’s Forced Marriage Unit cautioned that the problem of forced marriage isn’t “specific to one country, religion or culture” and said statistics don’t reflect “the full scale of the abuse” since forced marriage is a “hidden crime.”

Under the Italian justice system, civil plaintiffs can attach lawsuits for damages to criminal trials, and two organizations representing Islamic communities in Italy are among those suing in the Abbas trial.

Other plaintiffs include women’s advocacy organizations.

Tiziana Dal Pra, whose group, Trama delle Terre, promotes intercultural relations, said that while violence surrounding forced marriage “gets interpreted as religious,” what’s really at play is “patriarchal control” of women’s bodies.

In December, a court in the northern city of Brescia convicted and gave five-year prison sentences to three Pakistani immigrants — the parents and older brother of four girls — for beating them and keeping them out of school.

According to court documents, the parents threatened their daughters that if they refused arranged marriages, they would end up like that “girl in Pakistan.”

The court said that threat referred to 25-year-old Sana Cheema, who was slain when she returned from Italy to Pakistan in 2018, allegedly at her parents’ insistence.

By her friends’ accounts, Cheema, who had taken Italian citizenship, loved her life in Brescia, where she worked out at a gym, went out for coffee with girlfriends and danced with them at a disco. She was proud of her job teaching at a driving school in the northern city.

Brescia prosecutors are now trying Cheema’s father and brother in absentia on a novel charge: murder in violation of the political right to marry one’s own choice.

In 2019, a court in Pakistan acquitted the two on murder charges, citing insufficient evidence. But Italy’s justice ministry ruled the Brescia trial could go forward since Pakistan and Italy have no agreement governing cases involving so-called judicial double jeopardy.

Cheema’s family initially told Pakistani authorities that she died of a heart attack the day before she was supposed to fly back to Italy. Two friends testified in Brescia this month that Cheema told them her parents wanted her to marry a cousin in Pakistan.

They also quoted from Facebook messages in which Cheema said her parents had confiscated her passport and phone in Pakistan.

With the Italian Embassy closely following the case, Cheema’s body was exhumed. An autopsy indicated she was likely strangled.

Prosecuting the case in Italy sends the message that “exercising the right of who you want to live with, above all, who you want to marry, is a political right” to be guaranteed “with utmost firmness,” Brescia Prosecutor General Guido Rispoli told the AP.

At the edge of a field near the farmhouse where Saman Abbas’ body was found, mourners have left a stuffed toy squirrel and bunches of flowers at an improvised shrine.

“It will continue to happen, I tell you, that’s how it is,” Aslam said of violence linked to forced marriage.

What progress has been made with trials like the ones in Reggio Emilia and Brescia isn’t enough, she added: “It’s like salt in flour.”

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