When Fatima Hassan’s daughter vanished one night, she discovered that the bright, happy 15-year-old was being groomed for marriage by her fundamentalist father – and was in danger of being taken to Syria. She talks about her frantic efforts to protect her children.
It’s two months since Fatima Hassan went into her teenage daughter’s bedroom one Monday morning and discovered that Aisha, 15, had disappeared overnight.
She is still in shock from what she learnt that morning. Her daughter’s clothes were gone, her belongings cleared out, her suitcase had vanished. “This had been planned,” Hassan tells me.
She now knows her daughter went missing at dawn. After sunrise prayers, her ex-husband was waiting in his car further along the street in the southeast town where she lives. “After she left I was like a zombie,” she says. “The walking dead. I didn’t see it coming. I felt like I’d failed her. Now, though, the pieces are beginning to fit together. I can see that he had been influencing her without my knowledge.”
What Hassan, in her thirties, goes on to describe has been pieced together with hindsight, from snatched conversations and by searching her daughter’s room for clues. Hassan now believes the man her North African parents forced her to marry when she was 17, and from whom she finally divorced a few years ago, had been attempting to radicalise her daughter for months.
“I was in shock at first and blamed myself,” she tells me. “But now I’m angry with my ex-husband for snatching a promising future from her, and with the school and social services, who allowed this to happen. They have been complicit because they failed to act.
“It would have been easier to lose my daughter to sickness or an accident, but I’ve lost her to the virus of radicalisation, and now I suffer the agony of not knowing whether I’ll ever get her back.”
Hassan is being supported by a charity working with women victims of domestic abuse. They are seeing a pattern in cases like Hassan’s, where family breakdown is a factor in young people being radicalised. In order to protect Hassan’s identity, the charity does not want to be named, but her daughter’s case has been referred not only to social services and the local authorities, but also to Prevent, the counter-terrorist programme set up to help identify people at risk of radicalisation.
According to the charity’s spokesperson, Hassan’s case is far from isolated and is a new development in the surge of British Muslims deciding to go to Syria. Often the radical estranged parent will secretly groom a child with whom he no longer lives, and without the knowledge of the parent who has legal custody.
“Following divorce, children are becoming a target to avenge the mother’s decision to leave,” she says. “We have seen cases where the father uses all his might to ‘convince’ the children to leave the ‘infidel’ mother. We see cases where mothers lose children to an unknown future – such as early marriage or being sent to Syria.”
The day Aisha left, Hassan searched her daughter’s phone – which she had confiscated because of her erratic behaviour – and found that messages had been coming in for weeks from her ex-husband with links to videos and texts about how to become a good Muslim.
Two years ago, Hassan’s eldest child, Salem, also left home to live with his father, lured away by the promise of new clothes and computer games. Last year, he took him to Syria to join a charity convoy, giving him no choice in the matter. He didn’t even know what country he was in and was too young to have any understanding of the grave situation in Syria. Salem managed to get hold of a phone and in tears told his mother how frightened he was by the bombing and shooting going on around him. He was confronted by amputees and seriously injured victims of the conflict. “My son witnessed terrible things there and feared for his life.” He’s back in England, but remains estranged from his mother.
“What’s to stop him taking my daughter there now?” says Hassan. She has informed social services of the risk. “They say because I have her passport, she can’t fly. But what’s to stop my ex-husband applying for a new one?” Because she is about to turn 16, social services have told her that from now on her daughter is free to make her own choices about whom she wants to live with.
Meanwhile, according to Hassan, Aisha’s school failed to tell her about her daughter’s non-attendance and erratic behaviour. “I’d told the school many times about the history of my abuse at the hands of my children’s father,” she says. “I told them that my girls were at risk. [Aisha has a younger sister.] Parents are told to report our fears to the authorities if we think our children are in danger of being taken out of the UK. But I’m not being listened to. I’m not being heard.”
The charity supporting Hassan says a clear trend is emerging. “Since her ex-husband managed to lure away her eldest child, he has now done exactly the same thing in the same way with the second. Fatima has every reason to expect the worst outcome and it is extremely unlikely her children will return.”
Hassan has two pictures on her phone. One is of a strikingly beautiful teenage girl with long, auburn hair. She is laughing with her mother. The other is of a plain, unsmiling girl, her hair cut short, her head covered with a veil. They look like completely different young women, but they are both pictures of her elder daughter. “They are the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures,” says Hassan. “The ‘before’ is the last picture of us together.” She had saved Groupon vouchers and treated her daughter to a day out.
Soon after that outing, Aisha began to change. They were subtle, small things to begin with, and her mother put them down to typical teenage moodiness. Aisha became secretive. She ended her relationship with her boyfriend, a young man her mother describes as “open-minded”. She kept her bedroom door closed. On the landing, Hassan could just about make out the murmur of hushed conversations. What she didn’t realise at the time is that these changes coincided with this new phase in her relationship with her father.
Hassan has since found out that, at the same time, Aisha’s school began to notice changes in her daughter. She was not informed of this. This outgoing student lost interest in her studies despite her upcoming GCSE exams. She was often emotional and tearful. This was unlike her. She stopped chatting to the teachers. It was as though she was withdrawing.
Suddenly, Aisha announced that she wanted to wear a headscarf. There were furious rows. Aisha begged her mother to be allowed to wear it despite the fact that she had never worn one growing up. Hassan, adamantly opposed to the idea, confiscated it.
“I’d already closed her WhatsApp account, because my ex-husband had been communicating with her on there, and introduced her to a number of older men. Now I can see he was grooming her for marriage.”
What Hassan didn’t know – and, nor, it seems, did her teachers – was that Aisha was also reading hardline Islamic texts and hiding the books from her mother in her locker at school. She had dropped her old friends who wore western clothes. Her attendance at school became erratic. She was tearful, withdrawn and wasn’t turning up for lessons. On Fridays she would go to the mosque. This promising student didn’t even sit all her GSCEs this year.
I sat next to Hassan when she called Aisha’s school and talked to the only member of staff who seemed willing to give her any information. The staff member disclosed that, in the days after Aisha had left home, she had asked her why she was covering her head. “To prepare for my husband,” Aisha replied.
“I was chilled to the bone when I heard that,” Hassan says. “Why didn’t the school tell me earlier? I could have prevented her leaving. If it hadn’t been for this staff member I wouldn’t know she is talking about getting married.”
Now the girl who used to love dancing and shopped at TK Maxx wears dark, baggy clothes and keeps her head covered in public.
“In my ex-husband’s eyes, a good Muslim woman covers herself from head to toe, stays at home to cook and clean, misses school to pray at the mosque.” The mosque, says Hassan, is where the girls are sent to find a husband. “It is a trend around here. They’re marrying off girls at 16 and 17. It’s like a cult. The mosque has become a dating agency. Boys go there to size up girls for marriage, and vice versa.”
She had banned her daughter from going to shisha cafés but has since found out that her father is now giving her money to spend at them. “He is even giving her money to hang out with older, influential Muslims.” She has heard that he tells her that her mother is not Islamic, and that by humbling herself she is compensating for her mother’s sins.
Hassan believes signs of radicalisation need to be picked up earlier – especially in schools where they are being left unchecked. Mostly, this is her last chance to get back the daughter who, for now, is lost to her. Her greatest fear is that even if her daughter does come home she will have changed beyond recognition.
To understand properly what has happened to Aisha, it helps to understand her mother.
Hassan believes her ex-husband radicalised her when she was 17 – or at least attempted to. But despite years of emotional and physical abuse, she stood up to him. She is adamant that he never broke her spirit and sense of identity.
“I always knew that wearing a veil and serving an abusive man made me no more Muslim than I already was.” Attractive, with bright, captivating amber eyes and long hair, she is too frightened to be identified. It has taken months to gain her trust and for her to be confident enough to tell her story. As she tells it, she is by turns defiant and distraught.
“I’ve had enough of being judged,” she says. “First by non-Muslims as a faceless covered woman during my marriage, and then by the Muslim community as a prostitute, a whore. Once a woman divests herself of her veil, she is dishonoured. It no longer matters what people think of me. I know who I am, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I have my children to protect I would show my face.” She says her reason for speaking out it is partly to warn everyone – parents, teachers, the authorities – that British children are vulnerable.
Hassan – like Aisha – was a happy-go-lucky teenager. She grew up in a liberal Muslim household in the Midlands with her brother and sister and fully expected to go to university after she finished school. Everything changed when her sister got pregnant without being married and her parents suddenly clamped down on Hassan. They decided she needed to marry and a husband was swiftly found for her.
At first, the 17-year-old Hassan rebelled against her new husband. She refused to read the Islamic books he gave her “on how to be a pious Muslim wife” and tried to educate herself in an unused room of her mother-in-law’s home where she was forced to spend her time when she wasn’t doing housework.
“They kept me as a slave,” is how she describes it now. She was naive and frightened. “He had a lot of heavyweight friends who would come round. I had to cook big pots of food every night for these people.”
Although she had not worn the veil growing up, her husband forced her to cover up, telling her that if she refused she would never again leave the house. She describes being beaten and raped. “His mentality was that you couldn’t rape your own wife,” she says. He would bring “respected” imams to the house to “exorcise” his wilful wife. She would be held down, have water thrown over her. Her feet were burnt with a lighter. On one occasion, an imam strangled her until she lost consciousness.
During her pregnancies she would be punched in the stomach. When her ex-husband had to call an ambulance he maintained his pregnant wife had fallen in the shower. “He told them I had slipped. All he could think about was covering me up so that the male paramedics couldn’t see his wife’s naked body.”
Hassan tried to hide her bruises from her children (she suffered multiple internal injuries and still takes strong pain-killing medication for the traumas resulting from her abuse). “I would lie under the blankets and cover my face when they came up to kiss me good night. I used to tell them I was sick. I swore to myself that one day I’d get us out and that my daughters, especially, would never suffer what I did.”
Like many victims of domestic violence she found it impossible to leave or tell her family. A mixture of fear, shame and powerlessness kept her beholden to her husband. Then, one day, he threw boiling water at her in front of her children. Her screams were so loud that the neighbours called the police. Hassan and her children were placed first in a refuge, and then in emergency housing.
Nevertheless her husband continued to harass her. “He would follow me down the street, calling me names. Saying I was a prostitute and adulterer. Finally, I grew sick of looking like a victim. I stood on the pavement of a busy street and ripped off my veil. I didn’t care who saw me. I threw it all off and lay my Islamic clothing on the pavement. I said, ‘There, are you happy now? I’m a whore, just as you say. Everyone can see me now.’ For the first time in years I felt alive. It was like a new beginning. During my marriage, my veil served a purpose. It hid me. It hid my suffering. It hid my pain and bruises. In a way, it helped me to survive. Finally, I had no need of it.”
Hassan says, “I never dreamt that my daughter would cover herself too after she had witnessed the suffering the veil symbolised.”
Mother and daughter have spoken briefly on the telephone just once since she left. “She sounded cold and told me she was living with her dad now. That was the last time we spoke. When I called my son, he confirmed that she was there. All I could hear was my ex in the background, shouting and swearing, calling me a prostitute. He doesn’t care about his daughter at all – this is all about punishing me.”
Aisha will be 16 soon. Old enough for a Muslim girl to marry in an unofficial ceremony. (And to marry with parental consent in England and Wales.) Hassan’s hopes that her daughter will return are fading. “She had so much freedom with me, and I kept her safe. He’s wiped out her future, like he did mine. He’s suffocating her, like he did me. He’s shattering her hopes and dreams. He’s taken her at the most vulnerable age, two years younger than I was when I married him.”
Now Hassan is concerned about her younger daughter, Amineh. “She has told me her dad spoke to her at school after he dropped off her sister. He told her her sister is very happy, cooking and cleaning, and that he is getting a bigger house so she will have a bedroom if she wants to come, too. He’s taken two of my children; now he’s after the third. If he has his way he’ll end up with all of them.”
All names and some details have been changed