Underground Railroad

Bahar knew there was no going back. Her father, a Turkish immigrant in Berlin, had threatened to kill her "with 100 stabs of the knife." Her crime: refusing to marry her cousin Hassan, as her parents had arranged when she was 12. Since then, she hadn't been allowed to talk to other boys. Catching her chatting with one at a bus stop, her older brother hit her so hard she collapsed; her mother, she says, regularly beat her with a wooden rolling pin.

One attempt to run away had already failed. Her father and brother lured her back and, amid more beatings and threats, told her to get ready for the unwanted wedding. But Bahar (not her real name) called a German friend, who sent the police, who in turn took her to Papatya, a secret hostel for abused immigrant girls. With the help of the German-Turkish team of social workers at Papatya, she has since moved to another city, changed her name and begun to build a new life. "I am on the run," the 20-year-old now says, "only because I want to be free and lead a normal life."

In America before the Civil War, the famous Underground Railroad whisked black slaves from the South to freedom in the North. Papatya is a link in a European incarnation of that old "freedom train," ferrying escapees like Bahar from tradition to modernity. Hard numbers are elusive. But if experts are right, forced marriage--and the severe emotional and physical violence that often accompanies it--is on the rise across Europe, affecting tens of thousands of young women. Recent studies suggest that up to 80 percent of marriages in some immigrant communities involve spouses "imported" from the home country. The numbers are especially high among Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants, particularly in Britain. The dimensions of the problem come as a surprise to most Europeans, who have long assumed that second- and third-generation immigrants would assimilate Western ways. That hasn't happened. With more and more immigrants entering marriageable age, in fact, the problem is only getting worse.

The plight of young women like Bahar has thus become almost commonplace. Nearly every major city in Europe these days has its own version of Berlin's Papatya safe house, many of them linked in an informal network. In Britain, immigrant-women's groups such as the Southall Black Sisters have pushed authorities to set up the Community Liaison Unit, a one-of-a-kind dedicated forced-marriage department. It distributes pamphlets and educational materials to schools and doctors' offices and has already handled more than 600 cases of forced marriage in its first three years. In Germany, activists from Terre des Femmes in Cologne visit Turkish mothers and their daughters over cookies and tea, educating them about their rights.

Activists say they're seeing only the tip of the iceberg. "For every case that comes to us, we hear about the same thing happening to a friend of theirs, a cousin, a sister or their mother," says Heather Harvey, a British caseworker. Within the immigrant communities themselves, the subject often remains taboo. Says Serap Cileli, a Turkish-German victim of two forced marriages who now campaigns against them: "When I talk to Turkish groups, I get called a slut and a traitor."

Not everyone is enthusiastic about Europe's new activism. Many Muslims feel stigmatized by the focus on forced marriage in their communities. Non-Muslims worry, too. Afraid of stoking resentments, German publishers refused for four years to publish Cileli's book, a heart-rending account of her own forced marriages, suicide attempt and subsequent road to freedom. None of this deters the activists. "The young people who come to us for help are really glad we're doing this work," says Harvey. And in the end, they're the ones who count.