Sophie Hardach wrote her novel The Registrar’s Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages while working as a journalist for Reuters in Paris. Originally inspired by the fragments of stories she was told while out on various reporting assignments, the novel follows the intertwining lives of a Kurdish boy struggling to build a life in Europe and a Registrar working at a Parisian town hall. Today, Sophie writes about the French pamphlet that inspired the novel:
Inspiration comes in many different forms: a thunderbolt, a light bulb, or, in the case of my first novel, a pamphlet printed by the French government.
About three years ago, I was working as a correspondent for Reuters news agency in Paris when the French government launched a campaign against forced marriages. I interviewed some activists in the field – like the victims, many were of North African, Turkish, Kurdish or Senegalese descent – and was struck not just by the fact that the problem persisted, but that it was much more pressing than I had expected. During one interview in a cramped little office in a Parisian suburb, staffed by one lone activist and her assistant, the phone kept ringing with calls from girls seeking help. A rescue mission for a girl whose parents had already booked her ticket to the country where she would be married off against her will was planned for that night. Another organisation had just taken in a girl whose own grandmother tied her to a bed on the wedding night – and this happened not in some remote, deserted location, but in the trendy 10th arrondissement.
So the French government decided it was time to do something, and one of the things it did was print a peppy, pink-and-red little pamphlet titled “Prévention des Mariages Forcés – Guide à l’usage des élu/es“. It was a guide for bureaucrats in town halls all over France who might unwittingly preside over forced marriages. It was also, in a way, a tour through the hopes and dilemmas of modern France, or rather, a France that is figuring out how to be modern. There was great idealism in the way the pamphlet directly addressed the reader: you – yes, you, mayor of Boondocks-Sur-Seine – you too can be a soldier in the fight for good. But just how that fight should be fought wasn’t quite clear. The intention was there, but as soon as it went into detail, the guide sounded curiously helpless. So how do you spot a forced marriage? Well, apparently an age difference of 10 years is a bit suspicious, and so is a “menacing attitude” by the bride’s entourage. Certain communities are singled out as higher-risk, but there’s also a stern warning not to become too wary of foreign and mixed marriages as that would be against the European Convention of Human Rights.
Sitting in a press conference under the high stone arches of an old Parisian town hall, I pictured an anonymous official reading the guide and scratching her head: “Hmmm…they say that ‘Yes’ does not always imply consent…I’m meant to be suspicious if the bride cries…and then alert the prosecutor if I think it’s a forced marriage… but oh dear, if I get it wrong, I’ll have an enraged bride, groom and two families accusing me of ruining their big day!”
It’s not surprising that a real-life French official told me he didn’t know anyone who used the guide.
And one of the seasoned, tough activists I interviewed simply said: “There’s no way the girl would show any opposition once they’re all at the town hall. There’s simply no way she would suddenly confide in the mayor, or cry or something like that. She’d feel like a traitor.”
Incidentally, that activist’s organisation – Elele, which mainly advised Turkish and Kurdish girls – had to close down in 2010 after its government subsidies dried up. Elele was listed in the Mariages Forcés pamphlet, but that did not protect it from the budget cuts. Given this rather depressing development, it would be easy to write off the pink pamphlet as yet another example of political cynicism: print a few thousand brochures with great fanfare and lots of press coverage, then withdraw funds from the very people who are helping the victims.
And yet, something about the pamphlet stuck with me. It seemed to encapsulate so many of the issues we grapple with today, and have grappled with through the ages: whether, and how, a society should interfere with a private issue such as marriage; whether it’s better to stay out of certain conflicts and risk being accused of turning a blind eye, or try to help and perhaps make the situation worse.
The news cycle soon moved on to the burqa ban and the economy, but in my spare time I continued to think about all those questions, and about migration in general, and about my own experiences as a migrant in particular. Eventually I wrote a novel: “The Registrar’s Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages”. It’s about a woman who works at a Parisian town hall, about her friendship with Selim, a Kurdish refugee, and about a pact they made in the past that overshadows the present. The manual in the novel is fictional, though it shares some characteristics with the original, such as a fondness for capital letters and exclamation marks. Since the book was published in April 2011, I’ve had lots of interesting comments from readers. Some are especially intrigued by Selim’s story, since the plight of the Kurds is not a common subject in fiction. Others see it as a story about identity, or about the joys and challenges of multi-culturalism. And others again simply read it as a story of two people trying to make their way through this often delightful, often bewildering world.