(WOMENSENEWS)–Human rights activists say that in 2002 alone, 250 British girls of Pakistani descent were brought to Pakistan by their parents and forcibly married off to relatives, the Christian Science Monitor reports.

The majority of these marriages involve Pakistani teen-agers with British citizenship, but girls are also being brought from Norway, the Netherlands and Ireland to Pakistan, where forced marriages are rarely challenged.

The Monitor cited the example of Neelum Aziz. When the British resident visited Kashmir–a disputed territory between Pakistan and India–for the first time last year, she was told an arrangement had been made for her to be married.

She told the Monitor that her father took away her British passport, money, and other belongings and locked her up. “I screamed and shouted and kept on crying,” Aziz was quoted as saying. “My tears dried up, but my family elders did not listen to me and married me to a cousin of mine without my consent.”

Although the custom of forced-marriage is not new, activists say it may be on the rise.

“We are witnessing an extremist return to Islam, especially among Pakistanis living abroad,” Zia Awan, head of Madadgaar, a nongovernmental organization providing legal aid and crisis assistance to women in Karachi, Pakistan said. “They perceive the changing policies of the West to combat terrorism as a direct hostility toward Muslims living in the West, and we believe that the rise in forced marriages is linked to the changing attitudes.”

However, others say forced marriage is a cultural phenomenon, not a religious one.

“Islam is not a religion of extremism or coercion,” Anis Ahmed, professor of comparative religion at the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad, said. “It does not allow this practice. There is a difference in the social and cultural ethos in civilization of the East and the West. Here girls have to take their families and parents into consideration while marrying, it is not just one person’s decision.”

Some women have tried to challenge their forced marriages, but such attempts often go tragically wrong. In one such case five years ago, Rukhsana Naz, a British girl whose family was from Pakistan, refused to stay in a marriage arranged for her when she was 16. As punishment, her brother strangled her to death in Britain, with their mother’s assistance. Both perpetrators were sentenced in British court to life in prison. The incident brought the practice of illegal forced marriages into the forefront, prompting a strong British movement against the custom and leading to the establishment of a liaison between Pakistani and British authorities to aid victims of forced marriage.

This liaison has aided many women, including Aziz, in escaping their parents’ decisions. Older family members locked Aziz in her room after she refused to marry her cousin and said Aziz returned to Britain last week.

— Jill Filipovic.