The meaning of International Women’s day is to love and celebrate women
worldwide for their social, cultural and political achievements. This year, Rani
Bilkhu used the date to launch a new initiative.
As founder of the Slough based charity Jeena International, Rani Bilku has always desired
to help those in need and actively campaign for women to be able to live their lives.
‘Jeena’ translated from Hindi means ‘to live’. The charity aspires to empower vulnerable members of society by supporting victims of crimes ranging from domestic violence to extremism.
Forced marriage is another issue they tackle daily. Some may question why this is still such a prominent concern as it is not widely known how many forced marriages take
place in the UK each year. In 2015, the Forced Marriage Unit supported 1220 cases of forced marriage. And those were just the people brave enough to seek help. “We don’t
put ‘If you are a victim of forced marriage come to us’ on our website because people won’t seek help,” says Rani.
The issue requires a more subtle handling. The Ugly Side of Beauty campaign was launched
by Jeena International in the Houses of Parliament on International Women’s Day this year. Over the next twelve moths, 15 workshops will be held throughout England to train wedding industry specialists, particularly beauticians, to spot signs of forced marriage. They will take place in 12 regions that are recognised as being prone to forced marriage. Rani, along with her volunteers, will be running the workshops where local MP’s and police commissioners will also be invited to attend.
One of the most obvious signs of forced marriage that people will be informed about is a short notice booking, often by a third party, not the bride herself. This was experienced by Kamine Kumar, a volunteer for Jeena International. The beautician who has been doing hair, makeup and henna for brides on a weekly basis for 8 years was talking to Rani about forced marriage and was reminded of an an unusual experience with a bride. A bride’s aunt called Kamine to book a wedding for the following week. She had no interest in booking a trial or seeing any of the beauticians work. When she arrived on the wedding day, Kamine could tell the bride had been crying but was not left alone with her, even for a minute, so couldn’t offer any help. The unusual atmosphere in the house also caused concern. “I’m so used to the buzz, it’s such an amazing environment to be in, but on that occasion it really wasn’t,” Kamine recalls.
So far, reactions to the campaign have been positive with the British Association of Beauty Therapy and Cosmetology offering their full support. However, some beauticians fear this new role of responsibility could affect their business and deter new clients. When deciding
whether to volunteer for the charity and assist in the campaign Kamine also had her doubts. “Knowing that you could have helped someone but didn’t, that was the thought that changed my mind.” Kamine offered her advice to other beauticians considering getting involved. “The more you learn about it the more you realise it won’t jeopardise
anything. You’re just helping someone get out of something that could potentially ruin their life.”
NEDA BARZEGAR IS ABLE TO EMPAHTHISE WITH VICTIMISED WOMEN IN THAT POSITION. Desperation caused her to run away from home at the age of 18, after hearing a marriage was being arranged for her younger sister. Neda took both her sisters with her, aged 11 and 16 at the time, and they fled to a woman who had offered them help. Remembering the fear instilled in her by her father and stepmother, she admits that, “it was scary but we were also running away from something scary, having your life being taken away.”
Running away was Neda’s last option. She had contacted the police in 1996 when she feared her 16 year old sister was going to be forced to marry. The policeman who came to see the terrified girls left them feeling “hopeless”. Neda recalls the way he turned around
and said “but it’s your own culture.” Although there has been more training for police to handle these situations better, completely solving the issue of forced marriage is
problematic. Those victimised women see the marriage as a duty to their family to keep them happy.
Sharing her story was a huge decision for Neda. “I never thought our story was anything significant, what happened to us was sort of just part of life.” Going against that code of honour is feared by many victims despite the practice not actually being a part of the culture.
As a teen, Neda’s stepmother controlled her life by removing her freedoms such as her weekend job, time she spent with friends and time she used for studying. Having
always dreamed of being a doctor, Neda knew the only solution was to leave home. “Wanting to have a say over your own body, your own love life, your own future, is
really not wrong. It’s your right.” Two years ago Neda was watching a documentary about
forced marriage and was following the hashtag on Twitter when she was inspired to share her experience with the police all those years ago. She was sharing her story for the first time. The Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO) picked up on Neda’s tweet and wanted to learn about her experience. She now tells her story at events spreading awareness about forced marriage and also spoke at the Forced Marriage Commission before the act became illegalised. Neda believes that talking about her
experience has been a “healing process,” and that education is the key to inform communities and empower women. She remembers, “I had this immense sense of guilt that I had somehow rebelled but now more and more I accept that the experience we had was abuse.”
Having offered support to and already trained around 600 people, Rani Bilkhu understands the importance of building a bridge between legislation and educating communities. The charity is planning to launch the campaign in Scottish Parliament, the Irish and Welsh Assemblies, as well as train beauticians in colleges and salons. “We raise awareness
in a creative and sensitive manner. We want to bring communities with us rather than pushing them away.”