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'I'd seen four of my sisters abused in horrific marriages, and they were all told to go back to their husbands'

When Jasvinder Sanghera refused to marry the man her parents had chosen for her at the age of 14, she changed her own life, and the lives of other women, writes Emily Hourican


Freedom fighter: Jasvinder Sanghera

Freedom fighter: Jasvinder Sanghera

Jasvinder Sanghera's book

Jasvinder Sanghera's book

Jasvinder Sanghera's sister Rabina

Jasvinder Sanghera's sister Rabina


Freedom fighter: Jasvinder Sanghera

At the age of 14, Jasvinder Sanghera was shown a photo of the man she had been promised to from the age of eight, a man she had never met, and told this was who she must marry.

Her response, she says now, was that of a teenager. "I looked at that picture and I thought 'he's clearly older than me, he's shorter than me. I don't want to marry a stranger'." She said no.

From that act of teenage rebellion against the beliefs and traditions of her family and community, has come a lifetime of fierce and effective activism. She set up the charity Karma Nirvana to support victims of honour-based abuse and forced marriages, and has now won numerous awards - Woman Of The Year, The Pride of Britain Award, Commander of the British Empire, among others - and accolades. She is an expert adviser to the UK courts, and her work is recognised as being pivotal to the creation of a specific UK forced marriage criminal offence in 2014. David Cameron, while prime minister, said that her work "turned my head on the issue of forced marriage".

But none of this has come without great personal cost. In saying no that day to the man her parents had chosen, Jasvinder - who is in Dublin to support Plan International Ireland's Lost Girls campaign - soon found herself on a hard, lonely and dangerous path. Within her community, 'no' was not an option, and many women have been killed for the kind of defiance she showed.

Jasvinder's parents, both Sikh, came to England from the Punjab region. Their seven children were born in Derby, a city in the middle of England, and yet they were subject to a very different set of expectations and norms.

"I have five sisters and one brother. His life was totally opposite to ours. He was allowed to express himself, he went to a better school, while we were taught to cook, clean, look after him, and the whole household. We were conditioned from the age of eight, and groomed to understand that we had to behave in a certain way so as not to bring shame on the family. Not wearing make-up, not cutting our hair, not going out with friends, not having white friends. My mum would say, 'the worst thing you can bring to my front door is that you are behaving like a white woman'.

"My brother was allowed to date, which was an alien concept to us, because we weren't even allowed to talk to boys. We understood that someone would be chosen for us. The issue of shame is closely linked with honour," Jasvinder explains, "and the honour of the family is invested in the female, and her sexuality. We had the power to honour or dishonour our family, through our behaviour".

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In everything they did, Jasvinder's parents and community reinforced the idea of 'Them and Us' - "we were taught to believe that anything other than Us was different and wrong and shameful. Integration was a threat to their way of life".

One by one, Jasvinder's four older sisters, once they reached 14 or 15, were taken out of school, and married to the men chosen by their parents. No one asked any questions about their disappearance from the system. The sister above Jasvinder, Rabina, was gone for nine months, came back, aged 15, wearing a wedding ring, and was put into Jasvinder's year at school because she had missed so much, and still no questions were asked.

And then it was Jasvinder's turn. What made her say no? "I think my age had something to do with it. I'd seen this happen to four of my sisters. Women I knew, their marriages were horrific, they suffered physical abuse, but they were encouraged to go back to their husbands. They were raising children in these marriages. I thought, 'I don't want that'."

It was the first time Jasvinder's mother, the family matriarch, had encountered resistance. "Remember that it's the women who are the perpetrators," Jasvinder says. "And for the first time in her experience, she was coming across a daughter who said 'no'. The others went like lambs to the slaughter. If you've been conditioned to believe this is your norm by your family, culture, religion, community, to go against it is huge."

So Jasvinder was locked into her bedroom. Food was delivered to the door and she had to knock when she needed to use the loo. In the end, "I agreed to the marriage, so I could plan my escape. Because I knew no one was coming for me, without a shadow of doubt, and I knew that if I agreed, they'd unlock the door."

Once out of the locked room, Jasvinder attempted suicide. "I took an overdose, and what my family did - my sisters - they wouldn't let me have medical attention, because they were worried I would tell someone, so they made me walk up and down. They plied me with black coffee, and told me 'this isn't going to change anything'. There's never one perpetrator," Jasvinder explains. "It's the whole family. They gang up on you. They say, 'we went through it. Why are you any different?'"

This of course is the real pain - that the very people charged with caring for you are the ones who fail you, and that in going against them, you lose everyone who matters most in your life. But still Jasvinder was not prepared to give in. She arranged to run away, with a friend's brother, also Asian, who was some years older than her. Was there anything romantic to it, I ask? The idea seems only to make her sad.

"No, it was pure escape. He was in his 20s, I was 16. I hoped that by running away, my family would say, 'OK, we see your point of view. You can come back, and you don't have to marry this stranger'." But it didn't happen like that. When she contacted her parents, Jasvinder's mother said "either you come back and marry who we say, or from this day on you are dead in our eyes, and I hope one day you give birth to a daughter who does to you what you've done to me, and then you will know what it feels like to raise a prostitute."

And so, at the age of 16, Jasvinder found herself at a terrible crossroads: "You can have your family, but that means conforming and marrying who they say. Or, you can have everything that Britain stands for - rights and freedom - but it means not having your family."

She chose freedom, but it was of a very limited type. "Because you have no experience of life, you're so incredibly vulnerable. And so I stayed with the person I ran away with. It was a relationship I ended up in because there was nowhere else to go. It was a relationship that was doomed to fail."

Jasvinder married this man, became a wife and then, aged 19, a mother. She later divorced him, married again, had two more children, and divorced for a second time.

"As a woman, I was incredibly vulnerable. I've been divorced twice, I've been in relationships that have been horrendous, because I was constantly wanting to be loved. It was that vulnerability, of not having a family, just wanting to be needed, of never, ever experiencing unconditional love.

"When I married my second husband, it was an abusive relationship, and I stayed longer than I should have, because there was nowhere to go, I had no family to turn to."

When Jasvinder first ran away, she had no qualifications, no autonomy, no self-confidence. And she was consumed with loneliness and shame. Aged 17 she tried to commit suicide again.

"I couldn't cope. I remember being depressed. I was disowned. It's akin to grief, except that if someone dies, it's easier, because it's final. Getting to a point of acceptance is hard, but this was harder, because I was grieving them and they were living. Every day, I hoped...I would ring, write, and be ignored.

"My father used to work nights, and he would walk home at five in the morning, and I would get the person I was with to drive me to Derby at about three in the morning, and I would watch him from afar. I never approached him. When he was very sick in hospital, I watched all my family going in to see him, and I didn't go. I went up to the ward but I couldn't go in for fear of being rejected again."

Eventually, a feeble pattern of communication was established with her father, and then, towards the end of her life, her mother. But always secretly and on their terms.

"He would say 'you can come round now, nobody's here'. I never had full reconciliation, but it was something."

When her father died, Jasvinder discovered that he had made her executor of his will, and that in a corner of his bedroom, stuck to the wall, was a copy of her university degree. The love he felt for her, the secret pride he took in her achievements, just make his public rejection all the harder to understand.

Jasvinder was also secretly in touch with the sister above her in age, Rabina, who was repeatedly badly beaten by her husband. Several times she tried to leave him, and was persuaded to go back.

When she was 24, and the mother of a five-year-old, Rabina killed herself. She set herself on fire and burned to death.

Jasvinder, by then 24 and working as a market trader, was told by a stranger to ring home, that "something had happened". When she heard the news, Jasvinder said to her mother '''I'm coming to Derby'. I naively thought that, to lose a daughter in such a horrific way must change things for her." But her mother said 'don't come'.

"She knew I was stroppy and adamant, and so she said 'I know you will come anyway, but if you do, come when it's dark so nobody can see your face'. Those were the terms. She reinforced the fact that 'nothing has changed, you have still shamed this family'. I refused to do that."

Instead, Jasvinder came on her own terms, and it was there, watching the religious and community leaders who had so badly failed Rabina by persuading her to stay in a terrible marriage, now paying their respects to her body; hearing her mother say "that it was better for my sister to take her life than to bring dishonour on the family by leaving her marriage, and telling us not to talk about her again", something changed for Jasvinder.

"That was when I came out of hiding, I moved back to my home town and set up the charity Karma Nirvana."

She realised, at last, that the shame she felt was misplaced - that she had not let her family down, that they had let her down. "

After years and years of living every day and hoping my family would accept me back, of missing them, of feeling worthless, of thinking 'I've given birth to a daughter, they might accept me now', 'I earn more money, they might accept me now'. They did me a favour actually, that was a massive transition for me that day. One of the greatest things I learned was to remove all expectations of my family from my life."

At the same time as setting up Karma Nirvana, Jasvinder went to college, did her A-Levels, then went to university where she got a first class degree in social and cultural studies.

"You feel so worthless. I had no self-esteem. I entered university not thinking I could do it, and I did it. That gave me self-confidence to continue with the charity."

The charity was a long, hard slog. "For the first seven years, I couldn't get more than two people into a room at any one time to hear what I had to say. I set up the helpline and nobody rang it for years, but I always knew they would. I knew those women were out there. The more I talked about my experience, Rabina's experience, the more I realised how many there were."

She spoke at local meetings, women's meetings, any event that would have her. "I was a keep-fit instructor and I would go to community centres and teach around 30 classes a week. I would go to areas where there were lots of Asian women, and at the end of the class I would say, 'there's help available if any of you are affected by enforced marriages or domestic abuse'. Women would come to me and talk about their problems, and slowly, slowly, it began to happen. At the time, no one else was talking about it."

The hardest thing, she says, was persuading people this was happening in the UK, and that it wasn't, as so often assumed, a cultural issue.

"It's a child protection issue. You cannot justify these abuses in the name of cultural acceptance. If you are forced into a marriage, on your wedding night you are going to be raped, at the age of maybe 16 years old, even younger. You're going to be repeatedly raped, you're going to be forced to stay in that marriage, have children, and it just goes on and on and on. And that's your life."

I ask whether she has reason to believe that the same things are happening here in Ireland, where the Asian and Islamic communities although present, are so much smaller?

"If you have an Islamic or Asian community, it's happening, without a shadow of doubt. The attitude can be - 'there's not many of them here, so we haven't got a problem'. In fact, you've got more of a problem if you haven't got significant minority groups, because they're going to be more isolated and more enclosed."

The solution, she says, is vigilance - particularly in schools - and awareness among police and social services, along with the understanding that this isn't something that needs to be treated with cultural sensitivity, it is an abuse that needs to be stopped. These are all the things she has worked so hard to promote. And has she herself finally found happiness?

"I don't know if the word is happiness, but certainly greater peace, and purpose. That peace of mind didn't come to me until I had given birth to my own children. The charity was my salvation, without a shadow of doubt. I put all that pain into helping other people. Then I wrote my book, Shame, and that was therapeutic.

"For me, the biggest thing is that I have three children and two grandchildren. And they were born into freedom, because of the decision I made when I was 16."

  • To support Lost Girls, please sign up at plan.ie or karmanirvana.org.uk

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