In Conversation with Asma Ashraf

On her experiences of breaking taboos, being a survivor of forced marriage, and sharing her story.

Writer: Maria Stoica
Editor: Andrey Chau

Asma Ashraf’s work confronts difficult subject matters, but that hasn’t stopped her from encouraging open and honest dialogue. As she said, she wears two hats. One is as a clinical research nurse at UCL, where she works on trials related to HIV and sexual health medicine. And the second is as a researcher on gender-based violence (GBV) at the UCL Centre for Gender and Global Health.

Personal experiences prompted her to join these lines of work. She spoke of the 1990s, when as a student nurse she was taught to “gloss over people’s sexual health when talking to patients in hospital wards” and not focus holistically on patient needs. Sexual health and HIV were largely considered taboo subjects — taboos that Ashraf challenges. Similarly, she challenged the expectations of the community she grew up in. Reflecting on her upbringing where a forced marriage was assumed, Ashraf says it felt like living in two different worlds. The pressure to not be disowned by the community manifested itself in not mixing with people who were considered ‘outsiders’.

Ashraf’s research primarily concerns forced marriage in the UK — who it affects, who can intervene, and the need to have frank conversations about it. She stressed the importance of a shift in perception of forced marriage. The Eurocentric view of forced marriages being isolated to certain communities must be abandoned. For instance, Pakistanis are reported to have the highest number of forced marriages, but as Ashraf emphasised, forced marriages exist in many communities. Because the Pakistani community is a large diaspora that has been migrating to the UK since the 1950s, we need to be earnest in interrogating the figures reported as they don’t immediately reveal the complexity of this issue. It works as a system: families believe they are protecting themselves and their community by imposing a predetermined future on their children where they have no agency in the partner they marry. Ashraf knows the damage that forced marriage does to people’s health — she is currently working on a global research project with Dr Rochelle Burgess that seeks to uncover the mental health consequences of child marriage and identify potential solutions.

When asked about the role of healthcare practitioners in forced marriage, Ashraf said they are well-placed to intervene with the correct support and training. “Patients trust their doctor and nurse,” she expressed. She cited a GP Patient survey from 2019 showing that patients trusted their general practitioners with disclosing sensitive information. This level of trust can serve as a bridge for more open communication with patients. Healthcare workers may have one opportunity to speak to a victim, referred to as the ‘One Chance Rule’, so it is imperative that questions are framed in an appropriate and sensitive way to enable the patient to disclose any harm they may be experiencing. Offering a supportive environment for these discussions to take place is paramount, and this extends beyond the four walls of the consulting room.

Ashraf started the conversation about her own experience of forced marriage at the UCL Forced Marriage Conference in 2014. As one of the organisers, and amongst a sea of academics and activists, she sought to create space for a first-hand perspective to be highlighted. She described the lead up to it as nerve-wracking, but a huge sense of relief came to displace those initial feelings after she had presented. Since then, Ashraf has done significant work within the UCL community to raise awareness about GBV. She works with various mediums to achieve this — from video to clay. For International Women’s Day in 2017 she set up an area in the UCL Quad where people were invited to mould clay to reflect their views on gender. People learn in different ways, so for Ashraf, bringing people together is important to raise public awareness about her message. 

She has carried this to her advocacy work for Karma Nirvana, which is an initiative she’s incredibly proud to support. The charity is dedicated to supporting victims and survivors of GBV and forced marriage. As part of the Survivor Ambassador Programme since 2014, she engages in outreach work in different communities, although this has been halted by COVID-19. Still, being sensitive to people’s experiences and coming from a place of understanding encapsulates her ethos.  

“It’s important to hear other people’s stories,” she believes, “no matter the difficulty, this is how we learn from each other.”

We would like to kindly thank Asma Ashraf for taking the time to participate in our special issue on diversity and share her unique ideas as part of this interview.

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