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Interview: Jasvinder Sanghera founder, Karma Nirvana, and author

05 September 2014

'We are British; yet I'm not afforded the same level of protection as my white counterparts'

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 forced marriages.

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 risk.

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 their mother.

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 rebelling. 

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 dishonourable behaviour. 

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 bleach.

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 white counterparts.

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 get advice.

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 with schools.

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 read fiction.

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.


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