David Cameron occurs Britain's first Girl summit in 2014. The summit discussed forced marriage and FGM. Photo: Getty Images
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Britain's first forced marriage sentence: a lot more still to do

This month’s forced marriage sentencing was a great step forward, but why is it the only one?

Last week, the British courts handed down its first ever sentence to a perpetrator of forced marriage. The perpetrator - a 34-year-old businessman from Cardiff - raped and imprisoned a woman, before forcing her to marry. It was just a year ago today that forced marriage became a crime in the United Kingdom.

What does this sentencing mean? Well, first and foremost, it will be a huge relief for the survivor, a young woman who had reportedly been dragged through the long and tortuous process of the defendant flip-flopping on his plea. This is all we can know about the case without putting the survivor at risk.

This unknown woman can now begin to try to put her life back together. Yet, she is the only one of an unknown number of victims living in this country to have been brought justice, those whose families – those who are supposed to support and love them no matter what – would often sooner see dead over shaming the family.

Due to the very nature of this vastly underreported crime, there is no way of knowing how many people go through the turmoil of forced marriage and subsequent marital rape each year. But it is in the thousands. In 2013, the government’s Forced Marriage Unit gave support or advice related to a possible forced marriage to more than 1,300 people.

This conviction was the result of several stars aligning. The first was that the victim felt she could talk to her family about what she was being put through by her perpetrator, and they had the confidence to report it the police.

Sadly, this is not always the case. Many survivors I have met grew up believing the ‘honour’ system they had been brought up in was normal. Going against that system - from wearing ‘Westernised’ clothes, to refusing to marry their promised stranger, to leaving home - is often viewed as shameful, not only by the perpetrators but by the victims themselves. As a result, many have claimed to feel like the perpetrator rather than the victim, someone who is hurting the people they love – their family – through shaming them in the eyes of the community.

Going to the police to ask for help is therefore seen as just another layer of betrayal, often by all parties involved. Last year’s criminalisation of forced marriage therefore enables victims to redirect the blame away from themselves to be able to say “what you are doing is illegal” to the perpetrator. It will also hopefully give families the confidence to stand up to the wider community and say “we don’t want to go to prison”.

Secondly, the South Wales police who handled the case had previously signed up to training by Karma Nirvana, a charity run by forced marriage survivor Jasvinder Sanghera and the driving force behind an attempt to change this lack of awareness among all professionals who regularly come into contract with victims. According to one of the officers involved in the case, PC Leane Caddick, Karma Nirvana’s forced marriage training and specialist risk assessment enabled her to “identify incidents and victims of forced marriage, [and] understand the barriers faced by victims, as well as how to respond, investigate and handle cases, conduct risk assessments and safeguard victims”.

However, not all police forces have been as proactive in engaging with Karma Nirvana, despite the group’s repeated attempts. According to staff member Natasha Rattu, “we really want to get into West Yorkshire because Leeds and Bradford are consistently among our top five calling areas. From West Yorkshire we do get calls from victims that haven’t had fantastic responses”.

Sara (whose real name cannot be revealed for her own security) from Bradford, West Yorkshire, was one of many to have been let down by untrained police officers. After initially ringing 999, her initial call was not followed up on, and she “went back into this hole of accepting that help would never come”, until a year later when she found the courage to police to ask for help for a second time. A police officer assumed the male friend she was with was a boyfriend. After being referred to a refuge, the police did not make contact with her again: “there was no welfare check made to see if I was ok. Until this day I've never been followed up on which is a shame really as the police have powers which could make the difference between freedom and being oppressed”. I have heard testimony after testimony of others being told to go home and try and make things work with those who are perpetrating the abuse. PC Caddick from South Wales adds that “untrained officers are fearful of upsetting communities by asking questions about culture and religion”.

While the law criminalising forced marriage is an important step, it is the first of many down a long road in tackling forced marriage. In order for more convictions to happen, all professionals who come into contact with potential victims and survivors need to be able to identify ‘honour’-based abuse and know how to deal with it appropriately. It is also time that we have an honest conversation about what one conviction means in the backdrop of over 1,300 reports to a government department. These steps forward cannot happen without groups like Karma Nirvana, who are experts in supporting victims and empowering survivors to gain the independence they have previously been denied. 

Emily Dyer is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. She tweets as @erdyer1.

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.