Jasvinder Sanghera: She Refused a Forced Marriage and Fights for Other Women too!
I learnt that mine wasn’t the only Asian family held together by a suffocating web of secrets…[And so] I have also tried to batter down the wall of secrecy. I realized that by staying silent, women like me were making it impossible for anyone to help and I wanted to change that.
Jasvinder Sanghera, who is of Indian parentage, was born and raised in Britain. As a young girl, she witnessed her sister being forced into a marriage, and then having to endure abuse and violence from her husband. Tormented and trapped, and finding no sympathy from her own parents, her sister committed suicide, dousing herself with gasoline and setting herself on fire while her husband stood nearby and watched. Determined to escape a similar fate, Jasvinder ran away from home when her family wanted to force her as well into a marriage that was not of her choosing. Her book Shame is an account of her experiences. Later Jasvinder set up an NGO — Karma Nirvana, that helps Indian and other Asian women escape similar situations, find support and/or protection from their families (particularly in situations where the women’s lives are in danger – the so called “honor” killings), and get a new start in life. The following is an excerpt from her book Daughters of Shame, in which she shares the stories of the women she has encountered through Karma-Nirvana. In the excerpt below she talks about what prompted her to write her books.
I was brought up to keep secrets, ugly secrets about bullying, coercion and fear which were all part of everyday life in our family. I believed it was shameful to discuss things with outsiders and if I did I would compromise our honour—izzat—the most important thing in my mum’s life. That’s why I didn’t tell anybody when she showed me a photograph of the man she said I had to marry. I knew it wasn’t right; I knew I was too young to leave school or get married, and it felt all wrong being forced to marry a man I didn’t know, but I didn’t tell. I kept the secret and it festered inside me, feeding on my feelings of shame, resentment, fear and guilt.
I ran away rather than go through with that marriage and my family disowned me: ‘You have shamed us. You are dead in our eyes’, my mum said. I kept that secret too. As I struggled to make my way in life I kept my head down and my eyes averted: I didn’t want people knowing how worthless I was…[Later I] learnt that mine wasn’t the only Asian family held together by a suffocating web of secrets…[And so] I have also tried to batter down the wall of secrecy. I realized that by staying silent, women like me were making it impossible for anyone to help and I wanted to change that.
I started journeying across the country telling my story, and that of other women like me, time and again. It wasn’t always easy. With your head above the parapet, you feel very alone. I often felt exposed and scared…
My decision to write Shame, to lift the veil of secrecy that cloaked my family was not taken lightly—I knew it would extinguish all hope of reconciliation between [me and my family]—but it has been vindicated by all the people who have said to me: ‘I read your story and it gave me permission to tell mine.’
THE WEBSITE FOR KARMA NIRVANA IS www.karmanirvana.org.uk
Their Honour Network Helpline which provides support for Asian women in Britain trying to escape forced marriages and/or honor killings is 800 5999 247
From 2008-2010 Karma Nirvana has received over 9000 calls for help and support.