AUTHOR Sufiya Ahmed was working as a researcher in Parliament when she was told women’s harrowing tales of being forced into marriage.

It prompted the 39-year-old, who lived in Bolton as a child, to write the multi award-winning and thought-provoking novel, Secrets of the Henna Girl. 

Published in 2012, it tells the story of an everyday teenager, waiting for her GCSE results, looking forward to college and dreaming of the day she will meet her one true love.

But her parents have other plans and, in Pakistan for the summer, Zeba's world is shattered as her future is threatened by an unthinkable - and forced - duty to protect her father's honour.

Sufiya, who now lives in London, is heading back up North to take part in the Manchester Children's Book Festival at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) to talk about the human rights issues around forced marriage which are covered in the book.

She said: “I’ve always wanted to be a writer and it’s great that my first book is one lots of people think is hard-hitting and tackles a serious issue.

“Just to get published is a dream really but to get this kind of reaction as well from organisations who see it as an important book.

“I always knew forced marriage was out there but I didn’t really think about it.

“It’s something that happens in their family, it doesn’t happen in my family so it’s got nothing to do with me.”

Sufiya was working in the House of Commons as a researcher for an MP when she encountered countless brave Asian women who shared their harrowing experiences with parliamentarians so awareness of the issue could be raised on a national level.

She said: “I was horrified at what the survivors were saying.

“I was shocked that British-born women who were brought up in this country were going through this in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

“We had this attitude that it’s the Asian culture, we mustn’t interfere.

“We had this liberal idea that we can’t interfere in other people’s cultures.

“Actually no, we need to talk about these things.

“Talking about it does raise awareness.

“The survivors talk about just 15 years ago, they were on the receiving end of hatred, people would attack them.

“They had their tyres slashed and windows broken, just for speaking out.

“It’s no longer okay to say, this is our community — you can’t interfere.

“If there’s a human abuse going on, social services and the police should be involved.”

A forced marriage is where one or both people do not, or in cases of people with learning disabilities cannot, consent to the marriage and pressure or abuse is used.

The Home Office describes it as “an appalling and indefensible practice, recognised in the UK as a form of violence against women and men, domestic/child abuse and a serious abuse of human rights” which will be illegal from today.

Sufiya said: “I love being a writer but I also love being out there talking to people about the issues and listening to what they have to say.”

Born in India, she came to Bolton with her parents when she was a few months old and lived off Derby Street.

She said: “It’s part of our heritage.

“My community came over in the ‘50s and ‘60s with the mill town industry.

“I lived there until I was five.

“I’ve always had that connection with Bolton.

“I’ve still got family there and come back every year.

“Of course it will always have challenges.

“I consider it a great place, it’s really close to me.”

Sufiya, who set up the BIBI Foundation which arranges visits to the Houses of Parliament for diverse and underprivileged school children, will be joined by other panellists attending the event at MMU on Thursday, June 26, at 10am.

It is suitable for ages 12 plus but also may be of interest to older readers and a limited number of places are available for post-16 students to stay on for an extended discussion with lunch.
The event is organised and run by the Manchester Writing School at MMU and tickets cost £5. Visit