The Drubbing of Mohammad Sarwar

Published in the London Review of Books on 22 January 1998


I went to see Mohammad Sarwar one March morning in 1996, a good 14 months before he became Britain’s first Muslim MP. I drove to the office of his cash and carry firm that day, quite sure he was every bit the coming man. I had no sense just how coming – or indeed how going – and little notion of what my own part would be in this Clydeside drama of a man on the make. But I knew I had to see him and seeing me changed everything for him.

I had just returned from Pakistan, where I had been investigating the case of two Glaswegian Asian girls who had been abducted, with their mother Fatima and sister Somera, by their father, Abdul Haq, when they flew to the Punjab for a holiday. Rifat Haq, who was 20, and her 13-year-old sister Nazia were apparently forced into marriage two weeks after they left Scotland. Their mother and sister were virtual prisoners in the Haq family compound in a village called Jahania. I had heard about the case through a contact who had no connection with politics: a man who told me that the girls had allegedly been beaten, drugged, forced into marriage, that their passports had been confiscated and that they were prisoners in a country they did not know as their own. Letters had been smuggled out. In one, Rifat said of her sister: ‘the last time I saw her was on 4 September, she had put on weight and looked beautiful, but said: “Rifat, please get me out.” Those words don’t get out of my head. I’m going mental here, I need to help her, but how?’

Chak 132 is a village a few hours’ drive from Multan, a city famous mostly for its heat, dust and beggars. It isn’t marked on the map but it was there that I found Rifat, at the home of Khalid Mehmood, the illiterate factory worker she had been forced to marry. Behind the mud-baked walls and through the steel door of a flat-roofed house women were gathered round a fly-plagued courtyard: here, in purdah, they had discarded their veils. Rifat Haq had been set to start a biosciences degree at one of Glasgow’s universities. Now she was helping to make flat roti bread on black pans sitting on the top of two circles of burning coals.

When they arrived at Multan airport, the Haq women were allegedly beaten and forced into a van by their father, their half-brother, Zulfiqar Ali, and some hired help. They spent the next few days in a darkened room, where they were injected with a sleeping drug known locally as nushi dia golia. They had no clean clothes or water to wash in, very little food and none of the tablets that Rifat needed for her arthritis and Somera for her bowel disorder. They were continually beaten, drugged, verbally abused and threatened with guns. On 30 June 1995, Nazia was coerced into marriage with her father’s 40-year-old nephew, Mohammed Iqbal. She was still 13 years old, which makes the match illegal under both Pakistani and Islamic law. Rifat had been married the day before. In the months that followed both of the girls tried to kill themselves.

I found Abdul Haq in his house at the end of a row of mud huts that ran parallel to a railway line. He was shirtless and his distended stomach was hanging over his sarong. ‘You cannot ask me to see my daughter,’ he said. ‘I married her eight or nine months ago to Iqbal; you must ask him to see her. You must ask her husband. She is not mine.’

When I spoke to Iqbal in his tiny motor-parts shop just across the road, he said that he was only 27 and that his wife was happy. He took me to the room where the two of them lived but would not let me see her. It was dismal: nothing other than a perfume bottle sitting on top of a concrete shelf suggested that a young girl spent her days there. Nazia, he said, was a big girl, very mature for her age – and besides, such marriages took place all the time in Pakistan.

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