Forced marriage, honour violence, Jihadi brides – teacher, trainer, government influencer, Mussurut Zia is the woman who stands as protector for the victims.

She talks to Diane Cook... 

Mussurut Zia called to apologise profusely. She couldn’t make our meeting because she was desperately trying to find a place of safety in a refuge for a girl who was being forced into marriage.

As a person who played a key part in the fight to get forced marriages criminalised and has been a champion for the rights of abused women and children, publicising her work has to be a lesser priority for obvious reasons.

Mussurut is ‘in her 40s’, has two grown-up children and lives in Blackburn with her husband Asif. She married at 16, as soon as she left school.

“I had an arranged marriage,” she says. “It wasn’t the way that I had planned things, but it didn’t occur to me to say no. It’s just the way things were done. Asif and I have a joke where I say my marriage was arranged and his was forced. As with any marriage, there were adjustments to be made.

He’s a very decent man, which is helpful, but there’s also a part of me that won’t accept defeat. I wanted to make it work. But I can’t take all the credit. He’s never stood in my way. He encourages me in all I do.

“I had my daughter at a very young age, but I got a lot of help from my parents. Then I went back to finish my studies, to do a degree. But all the time I was concerned about injustice perpetrated against women and I saw a lot of it in the communities that I lived in.

“Even as a child I had a strong sense of justice and never had any qualms about speaking out even though it wasn’t culturally done. Within my family and social circles I gained a reputation for being hot-headed and outspoken.”

Mussurut has been involved in the areas of community cohesion, enhancement and diversity for 17 years. She managed and developed a four-year project for disadvantaged women and children in the Rossendale Valley.

“That’s where I got really involved in this kind of work. These people were suffering sexual and domestic abuse. So I started to look at empowerment. It needed more than empowering people to leave their circumstances. They had to be able to survive on their own and believe that they didn’t have to sit there and take it. No matter what culture you come from abuse is wrong.”

She went on to work for Lancashire Constabulary, initially in Burnley just after the disorder of 2001. Her role was centred on community cohesion, dispelling myths and stereotypes, and working with Black Minority Ethnic Women. Counter-terrorism was also part of her remit.

In 2007, she set up a community organisation, Practical Solutions, which raises awareness of forced marriage, honour-based violence and much more. She has written papers for the Home Office which were used in the debate for criminalising forced marriage.

“I was really very happy about that. But the issue with women remains. It’s something that drives me. I can’t explain it, it’s almost genetic. When I look at Muslim women I have to accept that I can’t do everything. I have to break it down into battles rather than try and win the whole war.

“I am a practising Muslim. It’s a journey I took and I’m in a place where I am comfortable. But when I look at the atrocities perpetrated against women in the name of faith that angers me very much.”

As a director of the Muslim Women’s Network UK, Mussurut was recently asked to provide insight into the subject of Jihadi brides — the British girls joining the IS cause in Syria.

“We live in a country that is a strong proponent for equality and justice,” she says. “Women can do whatever men do and that features in what these girls are doing. They think, ‘why should a man’s piety to his religion be any more than a woman’s?’ The sentiment is there, but I’m not sure how many people will go and do something about it, especially now that we are seeing some disillusioned with it and wanting to come home.

“We have a responsibility to raise awareness of religion and get some clarity as to what these people are actually going to do when they get there — why they’re going and who are they fighting. Let’s ask them what they are running away from and what is lacking in our society here that they feel they have to go somewhere else and pick up arms and fight. They are taking on someone else’s cause to their own detriment.”

Mussurut has also played a key role in the recent child-grooming scandals in Oxford, Sheffield and most recently in Rotherham.

“Before Rotherham, we launched a report on child sexual exploitation. We were getting reports, not just about white girls but also Asian girls being exploited by Asian men. People think it’s only white girls, but it wasn’t. We have a whole section of the community whose needs are being ignored and we are condoning this by not acknowledging it’s happening.

“It seems to be a huge issue and it is very significant, but 95 per cent of the general public are law-abiding citizens that wouldn’t ever dream of doing anything like this. But there is a criminal element everywhere. It’s not restricted to one community. In terms of paedophilia and celebrities like Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris, we do not demonise the whole community for the actions of two people.

“The only difference is that the abusers in those reported cases operated in gangs, which is quite unusual. What I couldn’t understand is when you had brothers from families who talk about shame and honour but who go about doing this sort of thing and have a meal and a cup of tea together afterwards. Why did nobody say anything. I can’t get my head around that.

“There is no rationalising their behaviour and I’m extremely glad that it has come out and been exposed. My work is about community cohesion, but when political correctness overrides the needs and welfare of a young person I can’t accept that. The authorities in Rotherham were afraid of upsetting the community. After speaking to people in Rotherham I know those authorities weren’t speaking for them because they wanted them to act as they should have acted and so many people would have been prevented from being hurt. It’s actually very insulting to say that you can’t say something about a particular community because they’ll all kick off.

“It isn’t about race or religion, it’s about children being abused, particularly young women, most are white but there are some Asian and some males too.”

Mussurut says more women are finding the courage to seek help on the issue of forced marriage and the incidences seem to be plateauing, although she accepts it will never be eradicated.

But she’ll do all in her power to get the message out. Her next project is to go into schools to talk about the sanctity of marriage, advise children about the laws related to marriage and where to go if they find themselves in a forced situation.

This dynamic woman fights for change. Communities – regardless of race or religion – need more women like Mussurut Zia.