Amelia Gentleman - This is the story of a painful divorce, one which may be dimly familiar, because for a few weeks in 2006 the unhappy twists of this family’s breakdown were front-page news. For a while, Molly Campbell’s endearing 12-year-old face regularly headed news bulletins, as details emerged of the Scottish schoolgirl’s apparent abduction from her mother’s home on a remote island in the Outer Hebrides and her removal to her father’s house in Pakistan.
The headlines summarised the situation in a crude and oddly racist way. “Girl ‘snatched’ from school gates and taken to Pakistan for ‘forced’ marriage.” “‘Barbaric’ practice among third-world immigrants.” “Fears grow for ‘kidnap bride’.” “Mother of all battles. If it was a movie it would be a blockbuster.”
What happened was much more complicated, and also, paradoxically, much simpler. At its core, this was just an unhappy saga of two parents fighting with all their might to keep custody of their youngest child.
Reflecting on her experiences for the first time since returning to Scotland, Molly, now 19, and living again with her mother, remembers the misery of that battle. “I think that no parent should put their child in a situation where they have to choose between the parents,” she says. “Never. The child suffers so badly,” her mother, Louise Fairley, says, stroking her daughter’s hand.
A new play, My Name Is …, reflects on how this domestic calamity was seized on and made to symbolise something bigger than a simple marital collapse, blown up by the media into a catastrophic clash of cultures. Sudha Bhuchar, the playwright and co-founder of the Tamasha theatre company, remembers feeling dismayed by the coverage as the drama unfolded.
The play touches on British attitudes to Islam. “We see communities reduced to these stereotypes and Photofits. I thought: here we go again; the west versus Islam. It gets pegged on to everything - particularly then, just after 7/7, Afghanistan, Iraq.”
Molly and her mother are perplexed at the way their story was pumped up into a national crisis. Louise recoils from the idea that this was ever really the story of a clash of two cultures. “[The media] ran away with it. The children got separated and religion and culture were to blame … but, for me, it was a breakdown of our lives. Our whole family was shattered and the children paid the ultimate price for it. That was the sadness of it,” she says.
There was no threat of an arranged marriage by her father, Molly says; he just wanted to reunite the children, and continue to bring them up in the country in which he felt most at home.
When we meet in Glasgow, she says it is only now that she feels she is beginning to think independently. She is concentrating on “getting to know who I am, being me - not being told what to do, where to go, how to do things. This is my story, my life … It’s about time I got control of it.”
Naturally, she is still scarred by the experience. She reveals a tattoo up her arm, inked only the day before, which says: “Live every moment, laugh every day, love beyond words.”
“I wanted something that when I read it, it will inspire me to just be happy, live life, where you are, laughing, positive, because you never know what’s going to happen to you,” she says.
Parts of her time in Pakistan were happy, she says, but she has only begun to appreciate how much she had to adjust and change herself when she went from one home to the other. “It was a happy time; I was with my dad, I had all these animals - cats, two geese, 20 chickens, five parrots, four or five goats,” she says. She particularly loved her goats. “I would shampoo them and condition them. My dad would say: ‘You’re wasting all my money, stop shampooing the bloody goats!’” She laughs at the memory.
“But it was a big culture shock: the heat; the lack of freedom. I would stay home, unless either my dad or my brother was with me. I was at home most of the time. I didn’t think of it at the time, but looking back at it, there were a lot of things I had to sacrifice. The freedom, not being able to have my friends knock on the door, and then go out, go to the park, to the shops, to the town.”
“The fact of being so far away from my mum … it took a toll on me. I spent lot of years, just talking to my mum on Skype, I just wanted to be close to her.”
Bhuchar’s play is built from transcripts of interviews she did with the three protagonists in 2008, travelling to Lahore to meet Molly and her father, Sajad Rana, and later flying in a tiny plane to the Isle of Lewis to meet Louise, still grieving for the loss of her daughter. It presents a heartbreaking account of relationship breakdown, but begins by telling the story of how well things began. Louise and her ex-husband were both invited to recount how they met in Glasgow as teenagers in the 80s, Louise on roller-skates, Sajad in his tracksuit, fresh from the gym, and how they fell in love.
They married in 1984. Louise converted to Islam and gave birth to four children, whom they brought up as Muslims. When, after 16 years, the marriage ended, Sajad decided to move to Pakistan.
For a couple of years, all four children lived with him in Lahore; Louise had had a breakdown around the time of the divorce, and did not feel up to fighting for custody. But the children felt the pull of both parents, and hopped between countries; they returned to live with their mother in Scotland for a while, before their father persuaded the elder children to return with him again to Pakistan. This time Louise fled with her youngest child, Molly, to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis.
But Molly’s siblings tracked her down and when her older sister Tahmina arrived unexpectedly at her school one day, asking whether she would like to come back to live with her father, she said yes.
Cheerful pictures of Misbah, smiling in her salwar kameez, a dupatta wrapped around her head, were syndicated globally. She was shown saying firmly: “I don’t want to meet my mother, I don’t want to see her. She made me do things which I didn’t want to do. I have my rights about where I want to live and who I live with and I want to live in Pakistan with my family. My name is Misbah Rana. My mum changed it to Molly so my family couldn’t find me. She was the one who abducted me. People say that I got abducted. If I had been abducted, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
Memories of that press conference remain painful, and Molly doesn’t feel able to talk in detail about why, at the time, she appeared to turn her back on her mother.
“There was a sea of press, all these cameras, all these heads, all these cameras, going click, click, click, and all these flashes while I was talking. When they would ask me a question, I would look to my dad, because I wouldn’t know what to say. It was a really hard time. I was just a little girl. As a child, you look up to your parents for answers. I would look up to my dad. I was just a little girl,” she says. Misbah, she explains, was the name on her birth certificate, but Molly had always been her nickname. She had always been known by both names.
“I didn’t want to hurt my dad. But I didn’t want to hurt my mum either,” she says. “Children change their minds so often. You take them to a toy shop and they choose a toy; then the next day they see another toy and they think: ‘Oh no, I want that one, I don’t like the other one any more.’ When it’s toys, it doesn’t matter, but when it’s your parents, and you love both of them with your heart …”
Molly, who still acts as a loyal mediator between two parents, is pleased that the play weaves together three stories. “The main reason I’m happy about the play is that it shows all stories, from all sides,” she says, and laughs at the idea that people are interested in what happened to her. “I didn’t think it would happen. I don’t think it’s that much of an amazing story.”
Louise won the legal battle in Pakistan for Molly, but was unable to persuade her ex-husband to return her. “It was so frustrating. It was a horrific situation. I fought and fought,” she says. Meanwhile, Molly got on with life, went to school in Lahore and made new friends. Some of the girls at school were advised not to associate with her - because she was half-white, half-British, she says, but others were interested in her unusual background. Their parents would say: “She’s British - bring her in, have a cup of tea, there’s my son if you want to marry him.” Molly still finds talking about this time of her life upsetting. Mother and daughter are very close, physically, and finish each other’s sentences. When they want to have a private moment, they switch into Urdu. “I just want life to stay exactly how it is,” Molly says. “I think that of my whole life, this is the most perfect time. I’m with my mum. That’s meant a lot. I love it.”–Guardian