I founded Karma Nirvana as a helpline for people in
danger of honour abuse and honour killings in 1993.
It was as a result of my personal experience. I escaped a forced
marriage, but my sister Robin wasn't able to, and she committed
suicide by setting herself on fire. The charity is based in Leeds,
and now nationally supports victims of honour-based abuse and
My father arrived in Britain in the late 1950s from
rural Punjab in India in search of work. My family
were Sikh, and I was one of seven sisters - with one brother whose
life was very different to ours. He was allowed to embrace Britain,
have independence, and express himself. I was disowned at a young
age. I don't speak to any member of my past family today.
Shame is my personal
story, and I wished for it to be an honest account,
because I felt the responsibility of telling a story that I knew
was one of many. It took longer to write, as it was quite painful,
but the whole experience has been cathartic, and it has helped
shaped UK policy and practice today.
My proudest achievement will always be my
children, and now my grandson, too, but, when it
comes to awards, it is being honoured by the Queen and receiving my
CBE. I was born in Britain. I am proud to be British, and this
award gives me a greater sense of pride and the endorsement that
our cause has greater supporters.
Karma Nirvana serves all those affected by honour
abuse. The survivor stories are the most important
ones to hear. No one can argue with the testimony of real-life
experience. I feel that, in telling my story, it has given others
the courage to speak out, and our visibility enables others to
believe there is life when you take a stand.
Honour is a good thing, but not if it is
used to take a life. In these cases, perpetrators believe that
victims should live according to a set of rules so as not to cause
dishonour. Our victims understand this as a set of rules and codes
that they have to adhere to, or they put themselves at risk.
I regard myself as honourable and free,
though my family deem me dishonourable. The term "honour" is
misplaced in our culture. Honour can involve choice, freedom, and
dignity; but where you have an honour system, honour comes before
any other consideration - before even your children. You're taught
that you have a responsibility to your family, which comes before
yourself. To have your own rights and choices is deemed selfish,
because you're not putting the concept of family honour in front,
and that affects the family's reputation, and you're deemed to be
loving them less.
There were certain things in the family we were allowed
to do, and certain things not. Freedom to express
yourself, do what your friends do, integrate, and embrace British
culture, social networking - all those were deemed dishonourable:
not allowed to do that. If you did those, you put yourself at
I've achieved my personal honour, but at a
sacrifice. My children and grandson will never know
my family. I didn't love my parents and my family any the less, but
I made the decision not to marry a stranger, which made me an
outcast. I haven't been able to achieve being honourable and having
my family, because I will always shame them in their eyes. I don't
regret my decision.
I have three children, and I've brought
them up to have self-respect, to be respectful of others, with
discipline. I want them to be safe, and to make safe choices. They
were brought up within a family dynamic to have those values, but
not ruled by fear that their behaviour can shame and dishonour
Of course, we've had the teenage issues:
dating, falling out, conflicts. . . but they've had the freedom to
make decisions and be supported by Mum while they've been
Teenagers in some families can't sit down with their
parents and work things out. They'd be put at risk,
and need protection. There are 12 murders related to honour abuse a
year in this country: girls murdered by their family for
Shafilea Ahmed, who lived in a small Cheshire town near
Warrington, was an A* student who wanted to be a
barrister. She told more than five organisations that she was being
abused by her family, but she was always returned to her parents.
She was put in emergency accommodation when she was 16, and her
father attempted to kidnap her from the school grounds, but she was
returned again. Her parents drugged her, took her to Pakistan, and
presented her for marriage; so Shafilea swallowed half a bottle of
She came back to a hospital here for eight
weeks, and Social Services were involved, but she
was returned to her family, and was suffocated to death. In 2012,
her mother and father were convicted of her murder. Judge Roderick
Evans said it was because the family thought Shafilea was too
Westernised. She's a typical caller to our helpline. We get 800
calls a month.
The professionals are not identifying these
girls - even people like Shafilea, who was very
articulate, and had excellent awareness and understanding. They
situate this abuse as being part of religion and culture.
We're told that this abuse is acceptable,
"because you're different - you have a different culture. Isn't
that what you do?" We have to convince people we are British: this
is my home; yet I'm not afforded the same level of protection as my
A fortnight ago, my team were training police in Devon
and Cornwall. We have eight forces signed up, but we
want all 43. We hold 120 events a year, and we're a point of
contact nationally for professionals, many of whom now call us to
Since 16 June, we've got stronger
legislation, and there's the Forced Marriage Unit;
but what we don't have is school engagement. The majority of our
victims are aged between 13 and 18 years, and families keep them
away from support services; so the way to prevent this is to start
My belief comes from personal experience as a
survivor, and losing my sister to suicide. What
drives me is my personal experience, being a campaigner for 22
years. I've had many challenges and adversities - but that informs
me and Karma Nirvana. It shapes who we are and what we do to save
lives and reduce isolation.
I still feel that it's like talking to a brick
wall. We have many more like-minded people now, but
we are still a long way off.
What sustains me is the knowledge that there's so much
to do. I'm still driven to reach so many people. So
many people have never heard about the issue. Our helpline funding
stops next March, with no commitment that it will be renewed.
I didn't actually see the sea till I was
18, and was never encouraged to read a book; so I
didn't read until I was 27 years old. When I saw the sea, it was at
Woodley Bay, in Newcastle. I was disowned by my family, and missing
them terribly, but I looked and thought, "Wow! If this is on the
planet, what else can there be?" That gave me hope, and made me
think that I had the potential to reach for whatever more there
was. I travel internationally because of my work, but, wherever my
favourite place is, it's by the sea.
I've spent half my life reading people's life
stories: people in adversity. I draw from that, and
think that, if they can do it, maybe I can do it. I don't actually
Music was "wrong". Top of the
Pops was never allowed. We were never allowed to express
ourselves, but I explored the music I heard around me. My brother
was allowed to listen to music, and he liked Bob Marley. It's all
come to me very recently, and I love Cat Stevens, for instance, and
The Beatles. I did Desert Island Discs this year; so you
can see my choices on BBC iPlayer.
If I could choose to be locked in a church with a
companion, it would have to be Nelson Mandela. The
one thing that drew me to my faith - I was baptised in 1998 - was
Christian understanding about forgiveness. I was a dead person
walking, angry and bitter, made to feel like the perpetrator. My
faith taught me not only forgiveness, but to give yourself freedom,
not to put your life on hold. To be locked away all those years,
and still have the ability to live and to contribute! He wanted to
make his country one that black and white people can share. There's
some learning there to pass on to the world.
Jasvinder Sanghera was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
Her books include: Shame, Daughters of
Shame, and Shame Travels.