Jasvinder Sanghera had an unexpected conversation when she was boarding a flight from Heathrow Airport one day. The security officer, an Asian woman in her 30s, looked up from her passport and said, “Jasvinder Sanghera? You saved my life.”
While other passengers stood restlessly behind them in the queue, the security officer went on: “I read your book Shame and because of your story, I found the courage to leave my husband. He would have killed me if I hadn’t gone.” The woman told Jasvinder that she’d been born in England and had been forced to marry this man from Canada. She ended the conversation with: “I follow you in the news. You must keep doing what you’re doing, because you save lives.”
The moment recharged Jasvinder, and reaffirmed to her that she was on the right path. That all her life’s pain and struggles hadn’t been in vain – escaping a forced marriage, being disowned by her family, setting up a charity to help victims of honour-based abuse and forced marriages, speaking at countless forums and educating Asian women and girls on their rights. Jasvinder felt vindicated.
Yes, by then, she had won numerous humanitarian awards; been listed amongst the Guardian’s top 100 most inspirational women in the world; had her first memoir Shame on the Times Top 10 Bestsellers list and described in the House of Lords as a ‘political weapon’; and had even been appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2013 in recognition of her services. But it was testimonials of young women like the customs officer that Jasvinder sought most, her raison d’être.
Born in Derby, UK, in a conservative Sikh family as one of seven siblings, Jasvinder was brought up to believe obedience was the mark of a good child and to shame one’s family was a fate worse than even death. “Shame is something that was at the heart of all my young experiences that governed my life and something I had a responsibility to from a young age,” Jasvinder told eShe just after winning the 2019 Robert Burns Humanitarian of the Year Award.
“This was something I learnt from my parents, family and community: that I must never bring ‘shame or sharam’ to the front door. This is when you learn what you can and cannot do, what is deemed shameful and honourable, and I experienced great inequalities as a woman in this space. It can prevent you from integrating, being independent, educated, empowered and most importantly make you feel less valued as a woman.”
Despite living in a first-world country, her family and community followed the customs and cultural codes of the villages in Punjab where they’d all immigrated from, and changing to fit British ways of life was considered a kind of betrayal to their kin. Many didn’t even know English despite being UK residents for decades.
“I think it is incredibly important to understand that the issues of forced marriage are a global problem,” avers Jasvinder, 53. “Regardless of where you were born, they take place in democratic countries. As a campaigner I have had to create a cultural shift in advocating these abuses as happening in the UK, as many believed it could not be possible here,” she says.
By the time she was 14, Jasvinder had seen all her sisters married off against their will, and submit themselves to miserable lives of slavery and abuse. She herself was shown a photo of the man chosen to be her husband. Terrified, she ran away two years later and had a relationship with a Sikh boy, but one who was considered ‘low-caste’. Her family disowned her for smirching their honour, and warned her never to come back.
“As a woman, I am ashamed to say that women are complicit and have also been convicted in the UK for forcing their children into a marriage,” she says grimly. “My mother was the main perpetrator who would argue she was only doing what was expected of her and what happened to her, therefore these practices are deemed a responsibility to be upheld,” she shares, adding, “The fact remains these practices are embedded in cultures that operate codes of honour and therefore the women have a role to ensure daughters behave according to this honour system.”
Grief-stricken after her family disowned her, the teenage Jasvinder tried to build a new life. She got married and divorced, and had three children. But the most momentous point of her life was when Robina – one of her dearest sisters who had been married off against her will when she was just 15 – set herself on fire and committed suicide when she was just 24 because her parents didn’t let her leave her violent husband.
Plunged into darkness and despair, Jasvinder decided to dedicate her life to helping women like Robina and herself to escape from honour-based abuse, and established her charity, Karma Nirvana, 26 years ago. As a campaigning organisation, it has made a lasting impact with a new law against force marriage, providing a helpline that receives over 800 calls a month, and training many UK police forces and other agencies.
“Forced marriage is not a tradition. It is abuse, a harmful practice that perpetuates itself by consent in communities that are not willing to tackle it,” says Jasvinder. “It is now a criminal offence in the UK and our hope is that this will help to create a cultural shift for them to be recognised as a crime.”
According to Jasvinder, whose family would cross the road to avoid her after the shame she brought them, in cultures where codes of honour exist, there is an overwhelming drive and motivation to collective morality that supersedes a child’s happiness. “Hence my own family chose to disown me. I understand my parents needed the acceptance of the family and community due to the expectations placed upon them, but this is not a justification,” she says.
Jasvinder believes that we as women have to stand up for our daughters in being clear that they have the right to choose and be free individuals, by encouraging their independence, education and empowerment and enabling others not to see this as a threat.
“I am a mother with one son and two grandsons,” she says, “and it is my responsibility to ensure they understand gender equality and advocate for their sisters and not feel any special privileges by virtue of the fact they were born boys. We as women have to give other women permission and support to break this cycle of abuse. Then, slowly, it will change.”
Jasvinder has written three memoirs: Shame, Daughters of Shame, and Shame Travels. Last year, she was also in the news for another reason: She spoke up about the sexual harassment she’d had to face from a peer in the House of Lords. It was the first such claim in the 479-year history of the House that was upheld by two committee reviews, and led to an increase in reporting of similar cases, a detailed investigation, and changes in policy.
To women and girls who face a similar situation as herself and are disowned by their families, Jasvinder encourages them to connect with other survivors and to read their stories on how they rebuilt their lives.
“My message is to stand by your decision as I have over the past 39 years!” she says. “This decision has to be owned by you: change disowned to being owned! My decision means that my children will not inherit legacies of abuse and I get to see them grow with freedoms and independence that I never had but it makes my decision more worthwhile.”
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