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Child marriage is still legal in Britain. Meet the Kurdish woman campaigning for its end
By Shahla Omar for Rudaw.net
23-11-2020 - ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — A British-Kurdish woman readies herself for a television appearance, her distinctive pixie cut softened by growth at its edges.
Payzee Mahmod is on Rudaw’s Diyaspora, a show that examines issues affecting Kurdish communities overseas, to talk about a campaign she has helped spearhead – ending child marriage in the United Kingdom.
Kurdish girls in Britain have been among the most high-profile cases of child marriage and the sometimes deadly repercussions faced if they dare to resist familial and societal pressure.
Among them was Payzee’s older sister Banaz, nicknamed nasika for her gentle nature. Banaz was protective over her sisters, and sought to dissolve and prevent arguments at all costs. At the age of 17, she was married off to an older, abusive man who repeatedly beat and raped her. She would seek refuge with her parents, who would soon enough send her back to make amends with her husband. 
Banaz escaped her marriage after two years, and eventually fell in love with another man. She knew that seeing someone else would cause community scandal, and did her best to keep the relationship under wraps – but her cover was blown when a man who knew her father saw her kissing her boyfriend outside Morden underground station in South London.
Banaz knew she was being stalked by men in her community. When she informed the police, providing them with a list of names and warning of a plot to kill her, they thanked her for her bravery, and reassured her that her case would be followed up on. 
She went to the police five times before her body was found buried in the back garden of a house in the West Midlands, some 200 miles north of her home. Her cousins had raped then strangled her, all in the name of restoring family honour.
Payzee is apprehensive about appearing on Diyaspora, all too aware of the backlash that other Kurdish women have experienced for talking about the ills of misogyny. But the 33-year-old is already a seasoned campaigner, one that has not let the vitriol bring her down. She is hopeful that her appearance on the show will raise awareness of an issue so close to her heart.
True to form, her impassioned TV appearance is met with a wave of venomous remarks by viewers on social media – attacking her for her looks as well as her stance on child marriage.
With this short hair, I can’t tell if this is a man or a woman”, said one user. “How many boyfriends has she had?” asked another. 
But Payzee’s perseverance has been paying off. A petition to raise the legal age of marriage in the UK from the age 16 to 18 has garnered over 150,000 signatures to date, and the Minimum Age Bill to turn that into legislation was approved last month by British members of parliament at the House of Commons. The Bill’s second reading has been postponed until February 2021 because of national coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
Payzee knows that legislation is only the tip of the iceberg, but hopes parliament approval will match the public support she has seen for the cause.
I’m pleased about the second reading of the bill being postponed due to the room it gives us for support from not just the public, but also parliamentarians. I’m hopeful we’ll be able to build and present a strong case of this issue,” she told Rudaw English on Thursday.
The Mahmod family moved to the UK from the Kurdistan Region’s Qaladze in 1990, when Payzee was just a toddler. While some Kurdish families opt to start afresh in their new home country that affords them unprecedented autonomy, the Mahmods, like so many others before them, became enveloped in the local Kurdish community, benefiting from the protection and the recognition that comes with it.
But it came at a cost. 
News of wayward daughters travels fast in tight-knit communities. So when Payzee’s eldest sister Bekhal fled her oppressive home at 15, her father sought to repair the family’s image by marrying off his next two daughters, Banaz and Payzee.
Payzee was 16 when she was forced to marry a man twice her age, but was able to break out of her forced union, becoming a divorcee at the tender age of 18.
Nobody in her extended family, even those who disagreed with forcing girls so young into marriage, spoke up for her or Banaz. 
There was absolutely no support. Looking back now, everybody around us… they all thought that there was something wrong with the picture that they were seeing,” she told Rudaw English in September. “But no-one ever said anything… my cousins and extended family members were never part of any conversation to help us get any kind of support, whether it was moral, emotional support, nothing like that.” 
Forced marriage has been pigeonholed in the UK as an exclusively brown or Muslim community issue, but the weight of shame and honour are a burden on women of all kinds, according to Payzee.
In my campaigning work I’ve come across people from the traveller community… there are girls from the traveller community who are commonly married off to men at the age of 14, and from a young age it would have been promised to them… in the same light, you will hear of young British girls being pregnant and [family] wanting them to get married.
When campaigning to raise the marriage of 18, one member of parliament asked “what will happen if my daughter is 16 and pregnant?”, she added. 
The notion of shame and honour – although it may not be called that in white, British society – it definitely does exist, and it’s there… in every society, where you have people who are really deeply rooted in patriarchal, conservative ways of living.
Britain made forced marriages – defined in domestic law as the use of “violence, threats or any other form of coercion for the purpose of causing another person to enter into a marriage” without “free and full consent” – a criminal offence in 2014, seven years after Banaz’s death.
We’re saying that every child marriage is a forced marriage, because children don’t have the ability to give consent, to give informed consent,” Payzee said. Though they are legally able to consent to marriage, British 16-year-olds can’t drink alcohol or get tattoos, “things that… could potentially put them in danger.
But then when it comes to things like marriage, we’re not really aware of the dangers that decision can expose them to,” she said. 
You can’t even vote until you’re 18. But you can get married.
The United Nations has spoken about the issue, with the Committee on the Rights of the Child supporting a “global minimum” marriage age of 18 “without exceptions.” In 2016, it called on the UK to raise the minimum marriage age to 18, including in its overseas territories.
Child marriage is deeply harmful: its deprives girls of education, exposes them and their babies to serious health risks from early pregnancy, sinks their families deeper into poverty, and raises the risk that they will face domestic violence,” read a dispatch from Human Rights Watch on the issue, released in 2018.
Among British parliamentarians backing the campaign is Sarah Champion, former Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and MP for South Yorkshire
In the UK, the law is clear that you are a child until you are 18. It is an anomaly that the age of marriage, with parental consent, is still only 16,” Champion told Rudaw English.
We have to question why the couple cannot wait two more years, what is the urgency?” Champion asked. “Sadly, many of the child brides I have met describe intense family pressure to marry.
To be continued :

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