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Talking to Davinder Kaur About Her Autobiographical Book, ‘Forced To Marry Him’

January 7, 2022

Davinder Kaur was born and raised in England. Her early childhood was spent amidst the tight knit, conservative Punjabi community in Bradford. When she was 14, her mother got her engaged to a Punjabi boy in India who saw the marriage as his passport to England.  After that, despite her many pleadings to not want to marry him, she was forced to do so at 18. Prior to that, out of desperation, Davinder even ran away from home to try escape the marriage but was brought back. Her book ‘Forced To Marry Him,’ is an account of her struggles to escape the horrendous tradition of forced marriage, and her determination to seek her freedom and individual identity. Here Davinder speaks to Rita Banerji about her book and her life.

Rita:  Working with the 50 Million Missing Campaign for the last 15 years, it is very, very rarely that I find Indian women survivors willing to talk about the abuses they have survived, be it dowry, forced female fetal abortions, their infant daughters beaten or killed, rape or child and forced marriage. This silence is in fact forced by family and culture.  And so Davinder, having read your book, I must tell you I deeply admire your courage to break this huge cultural wall of silence. 
You were only 14 when you were engaged and 18 when you were forcefully married, and had led a very sheltered life within the Indian community in Bradford. Yet you decided to try to escape by running away to London just before the marriage your mother was forcing on you.  What gave you the courage, given your total lack of exposure to the world at large? Was there anyone you confided in? Anyone you could approach for help – a teacher, friend or neighbor? Is there anyone you confided in about this? Was there anything else you thought you could do then? Perhaps go to the police?

Davinder at 15 in the UK, a year after she was engaged to marry a boy in India

Davinder:  I’m not sure where my courage came from at age 18 prior to the marriage when I ran away.  I just knew it was something I had to do, and that I could not go ahead with this marriage.  I had somehow got trapped into this arrangement at 14 because I didn’t know any better, and had trusted my parents to do what was right, but as I approached 18, I knew instinctively that this was wrong.  There was no one I could confide in, not even my friends as they might have told their parents, and word would definitely have got to my mum since we lived in such a tight knit community.  I did not think about going to the police at all, as I knew this was part of our tradition, as wrong as it was, and therefore, the police would probably have not helped at all, and said that I should talk it out with my family.

Rita:   I also find it very interesting that you are unflinching in holding your mother responsible not just for the forced marriage but also for the trauma of an abusive childhood. Unlike other women I know of, your relatives didn’t seem to have collectively badgered or pressurized you. It’s true the women often function like foot soldiers (or like Margaret Atwood’s Hand Maidens) of the patriarchy by bearing the torch for traditions that abuse girls and women. What kind of a response do you get from feminists or women’s rights groups or women readers on this aspect of your book? What are your thoughts on this role of women in perpetuating culture? Do you think it’s necessary for women’s organizations to take this bull by the horn? Why or why not? What can be done in your opinion?

Davinder:  I haven’t heard too much to tell you the truth from women’s rights groups on the part about my mum being the sole person to really inflict this abuse on me, and how other relatives did not join in on pressurizing me.  The women readers who have left reviews about my book seem to be in agreement that my parents betrayed me instead of protecting and nurturing me.  Even though my dad was collectively responsible for what happened to me with the forced marriage, it was still mostly my mum who orchestrated the entire event, even though she had his support.  One reader depicted my mother as “merciless” and even though it saddens me to describe my own mother in these ways, I would have to agree that my mother was intent on getting what she wanted, and that was for me to conform to her expectations of us all having an arranged marriage and carrying on the traditions and culture.  I think it’s sad that women can perpetuate this kind of abuse on other women all in the name of culture.  We are supposed to be looking out for each other, and not continuing outdated traditions, just because “that’s what happened to us”.  We can and must end traditions that are harmful practices, and only do to others what we would want done to ourselves.  Women’s organizations need to do more in encouraging women to adopt ways of thinking that align with what they believe are fair practices and to challenge outdated and unfair practices.  What needs to be done is to stop beating around the bush about arranged marriages, and protecting that institution by saying arranged marriages are not a problem, and that both parties in an arranged marriage consent to the agreement, and that it’s forced marriages which are the problem.  It needs to be known that arranged marriages are very often forced marriages as who is going to say “I’m arranging my daughter’s forced marriage”?  They are only going to say they are organizing an arranged marriage, and are we always to then think it’s completely consensual?  My story will show you that is not the case.  We all have to rise up and stop being afraid of hurting the feelings of those trying to protect a tradition that doesn’t work or is outdated, and should be questioned.  If we tread so softly so as to not offend sensitivities, we are never going to get anywhere.  Sometimes, we have to risk the anger of those protecting a value that shouldn’t really be protected.  Dare to be different.

Davinder at 18, during her honeymoon in Venice, soon after her forced marriage which was conducted in Denmark.

Rita:  It was perhaps 30 or more years after you ran away from your forced marriage that you decided to tell your story publicly – in a book.  Why did it take you that long? Did you  wrestle with the idea? What changed your mind? In your book you mention that once you publicy started speaking about what happened to you, your mother stopped speaking to you. Was this a big factor in your decision? How did you come come to change your mind? What are the mental and emotional and other changes and experiences that happened to you in this 30 year period that compelled you to break your silence?

Davinder:  It did indeed take me more than 30 years to open up about my life and write this book.  I actually opened up about my life with public speaking just very recently in 2019, and that was my first step to opening up about my life and revealing my truth.  I had been conditioned as a child to not tell family secrets, and that family business was no one’s business but our own, and I took that to heart.  I never opened up about my arranged marriage.  I knew that so many girls had arranged marriages, and that mine was no different to theirs, and coupled with the instruction to not speaking about it, I would only very lightly tell only a very few people that I had an arranged marriage which didn’t work.  I never opened up about it though and honestly, I was not asked about it by anyone.  I guess people don’t want to pry once you tell them that you had a divorce.  I knew I had to stay quiet about my past, and only started thinking about what had happened to me when I was asked a question at college about why I was in college at that time in my life.  Since I was a mature student, and nearly forty years old at that time, my answer was so different to everyone else’s.  They were all younger than me, and were in college straight out of High School, and all answered this question with normal responses such as they wanted to become a doctor, or a teacher, etc., but my response was quite different.  I mentioned rather innocently that I had not been allowed to go to college when I wanted to because my mother had wanted me to get married and that college was not important for me, just marriage was.  The room full of students was all of a sudden shocked and quite literally in amazement!  I was also stunned to see that their reality was so very different to mine.  None of these kids had gone through what I had gone through and this was the first time that I really started thinking what had happened to me all those years ago, and that it was not right.  Since then I started tweeting about my forced marriage, and found it easier to write about it rather than speak about it.  The public speaking started just a few years ago in 2019, but when my mother found out about it, this is when I was disowned for a second time.  I had already started writing my book in early 2019, just prior to my first public speaking engagement.  Realizing that my mum knew that I was speaking up about my life has worried me naturally as I don’t want to embarrass my family, yet I knew the time has come for me to talk about this finally and not to hold it all in anymore.  My silence has to be broken, and I’ve finally found my voice.  I know that it’s the right thing to do to reveal the truth and break the silence.  It has to be done, for myself, for my own healing, and for all the other girls who this has happened to and may potentially happen to.  If I tell my story and awareness can be spread, my hope is that forced marriages and child marriages will soon become a horrible tradition from the past that will be banned everywhere all around the world, and no other girl has to face what I went through.

Rita:  Were there other British Indian girls you knew of in the UK who were forced into marriages they did not want? What do you feel made you resist and seek an escape, while many  other girls who grow up in western societies, submit? Have you conversed with some of these women? What do they say? Or what do you know through your own observations? In fact your own mother too was only a girl of ten when her family immigrated so she too essentially grew up here . So why did she not understand how you felt?

Davinder:  Yes, there were other British Indian girls going through the very same thing as me at the same time.  We were all having our marriages arranged for us at age fourteen.  They were also Punjabi and it seems like we all had similar parents with similar desires who collectively did not care what their daughters wanted.  My friends and I did not speak about our engagements as they also had been warned by their parents or brought up similarly to not discuss family secrets and what was going on in the home.  We only knew that each other were engaged, but we did not talk about how we felt and whether we wanted to go ahead with the marriage or not.  You have to remember that back in those days in the mid 1980’s, we still very much believed our families had our best interests at heart and we didn’t question what was happening to us.  We also were exposed to Bollywood movies where arranged marriages were shown all the time, so we knew this was part of our tradition and culture.  I honestly can’t tell you what made me escape while my friends just submitted to what their families wanted of them.  Perhaps it had something to do with moving away from Bradford and going to a different part of the UK, even though it wasn’t too far, it probably had some bearing on my being somewhat different to my friends as I neared the age of eighteen.  They were still surrounded by a very tight knit community, all watching them carefully, while I was an hour or so away, and even though I was watched by my family, we didn’t have a large Indian community around us in the new city we had moved to.  
I have not conversed with my old school friends unfortunately as I have lost touch with them all.  I have heard from other girls who have had similar experiences to me who have told me they relate to what happened to me and that my story is really important to share.  There are some other girls that I know of who have actually done the same as me, ran away from a very early age or who got away from their arranged marriages, and in some cases, there are those who did go to college first, and escaped the impending forced marriage and stayed away from their families for the rest of their lives out of fear, there are some very heartbreaking stories.  Most of these stories unite the survivors and myself in similar experiences, even though our circumstances were somewhat different.  
My mother should have known how I felt since she grew up in the UK and moved there when she was very young.  She carried on the traditions of the past as she ascribed to those traditions and was heavily influenced by my grandma and her peers.  She believe in the traditions and culture, and did not question them.  In doing so, she inflicted damage upon her own children similar to what was inflicted on her.  This is the prime example of women allowing abuse to occur to other women and not wanting to stop the cycle of abuse.  My mother was unfortunately very complicit in this.

Rita:   I know Jasvinder Sanghera who you admire much, and I do too, is a forced marriage survivor and has done much through her ngo Karma Nirvana to help British Indian girls being forced into marriages.  She established a police hotline and trained the British police to understand how to respond. Is there any such rescue hotline set up by any of the organizations in the US you are working with? You talk about one, Unchained At Last, for counseling women stuck in forced marriages that you volunteer for. What has been your experience working with them . At one point you mention that the US is 20 steps behind the UK in dealing with human rights issues. What specifically does this mean in context of women’s rights and dealing with forced and child marriage? Why are mainstream feminist groups or key charity foundations that hold feminist interests like Hillary Clinton’s foundation not involved?

Davinder:  I am actually not aware of any rescue hotlines that have been established in the USA for victims of child marriage and forced marriage.  Unchained At Last, which is the only organization in the USA dedicated to ending forced and child marriage, can be contacted by calling 908-481-HOPE.  My experience so far with working with Unchained At Last is nothing but positive as this organization serves a vital purpose.  I have been called once so far to assist and mentor a survivor of forced marriage, but it didn’t work out as the survivor lived in a different time zone and due to my full time job, I was not the most well suited mentor for her.  I have mentored a forced marriage victim who lives in India who was referred to me via a friend (this is prior to volunteering with Unchained At Last).   I was able to advise her and mentor her shortly after she went through her forced marriage, and she subsequently escaped from it.  
I believe the USA is 20 steps behind the UK in dealing with human rights issues because forced marriage and child marriage are not commonly understood problems here.  There is not enough awareness of it. There are so many charities in the UK dealing with forced marriage and child marriage, and so much support for the cause, that I am eager to see the same happen here.  We are not there yet.  Even though there is Unchained At Last, and Tahirih Justice Center, who support immigrant survivors of gender based violence, as well as the AHA Foundation who support individuals facing honor violence and forced marriage, this is not enough and much more needs to be done.  I am happy to see that just recently New York became the sixth state in the USA to raise the marriage age to 18, thereby putting a ban on child marriage.  However, there are still 44 states to go who have to do the same.  Why is there such a slowness in getting anything done here, when the UK has just recently passed a Bill banning child marriage, and also criminalized forced marriage at least six or seven years ago?  Chelsea Clinton and Hilary Clinton are both familiar with the work of Unchained At Last, and I feel that it will just be a matter of time before this great organization is given all the recognition it deserves for the amazing work that is being done.  They are the ones who were instrumental in getting six states to raise the child marriage age to 18, and it is due to their advocacy work, their determination and even to the chain-ins where women chain themselves while wearing white wedding gowns to show that they are imprisoned when married – these are all important initiatives that have to be undertaken to spread awareness so that the public takes notice, as do lawmakers.

Rita:   What strikes me throughout your book, is a certain absence of anger. Or would you say it is a withholding of it? After all anger is one of the taboo emotions for women. The one time you express anger is with your first husband to whom you were forcefully married and had to endure a violent rape. But often instead of anger there seems to be disappointment or sadness. In fact there is an astonishing amount of optimism too as you began to rebuild your life at 18. The kind of chances you took traveling to Europe and Australia and then the US,  finding love in new partners, completing college, and eventually working and raising three kids as a single mother, with no help from relatives, ngos or government takes an enormous amount of courage and will power. Where does this come from? How do you deal with the anger over your childhood? Where and how do you place this anger?  And how do you balance this anger against the optimistic focus you need to keep moving forward? 

Davinder:  I’d like to say that I’m not angry about what happened to me.  It’s very disappointing, and sad, but anger is not going to get me anywhere.  I understand that my mum was following tradition and culture and did not do this to me deliberately.  She tried in her own way to do what she knew had to be done, she was also listening to her peers and family.  I’m still not sure where my will power and courage come from, perhaps it was all I had to endure as a child, that was a lot.  I have to be optimistic about the future and focus on spreading awareness about what happened to me so that it hopefully will not happen to anyone else.  There is more reason to work with an optimistic mindset than with an angry mindset.  The first one can propel you with positive energy going forward, while the latter can drag you down and hold you back in the past.  

Rita:  Talking about marriages in your book you say “I still haven’t ruled out marriage,  even though I feel bad that I’ve been married three times.” Do you think marriage is a necessity for you? What are your opinions and feelings about marriage in general as an institution given you have experienced both sides – the cultural forced marriage and marriages by choice and love? Do you think it is still a patriarchal set up even outside the customs of arranged or forced marriages? 

Davinder:  I do not feel marriage is a necessity for me any more.  I have gone through it three times as I mentioned in my book.  If it happens again, it will be a bonus and especially if it works out!  I obviously have slowed down compared to how I was in the past.  All my three marriages happened within the first nine years from the time I was 18 and forced into the first marriage.  It has been over 26 years since I entered into my last marriage which was my third marriage which lasted just a year.  Unfortunately, what happened to me is that after my first disaster of a marriage, I rushed into marriage two more times.  I strongly believe that once you have been in an abusive relationship, somehow you are drawn to abuse again or perhaps are just a target for abusers, or you try to compensate for something that was lacking in your childhood.  When a pattern emerges such as mine, it really is time to stop as I did even though it was after the third marriage, and say to oneself “no more, until I can get my act together”.  I think I’ve finally got to the point where I’ve got my act together.  I have slowed down and actually was in a relationship for ten years where I did not succumb to marriage, and I’m actually glad I didn’t because even that relationship wasn’t right for me.  My feelings about marriage as an institution are that it can be obviously a beautiful union when both parties enter into it wholeheartedly, full of love, optimism, dreams and hopes.  I am still very much a romantic, and have not forgotten all those books that I read as a teenager. I think marriage can and is often very much a patriarchal set up even outside of arranged marriages and forced marriages,  in which the man is considered to be in the leadership role.  With everything I’ve been through, I will only go forward with another marriage as an absolute equal in every sense of the word.  I have not ruled marriage out as again, I’m still a romantic at heart.  

Rita:   Many believe that we undo or heal the trauma of an abusive childhood, in how we raise our own children later on. You talk about how you are careful not to overburden them with household chores like you were, so you didn’t have a carefree childhood.  Do you discuss your childhood or forced marriage with them? What else did you want for the child in you, that you try to give to your children? 

Davinder:  I have discussed my childhood with my children.  I want them to know how much better their life is compared to what I had growing up.  I want them to value their freedom, their right to choose, and their childhood in general.  I want them to enjoy their childhoods and to be kids, carefree and unburdened.   I have also discussed my forced marriage with them, without going into details especially with my youngest who is only thirteen years old.  It’s important for my children to know that not everyone has had the right to freedom, independence and choice.  They need to really value what they have as that is priceless.  Not everyone has had that, and I’m a prime example of it.  As far as what I wanted for the child in me that I try to give to them now is the power of my wisdom.  I was denied the right to education when I wanted it which was right after High School.  I wanted to go to college, but was denied that right due to having to get married.  I was told he’s been waiting to marry me for the last 4 years, since I was 14.  That was the most unfair thing ever, because who was the cause of him waiting for me for 4 years?  Since I had to go to college later on in life, I realized that it’s not easy when you are older to study, especially when you have kids and a full time job.  It’s so much easier to finish your education when your brain is fresh too and you are younger as the older you get, the more difficult it can be to retain information.  Therefore, I try to give all these examples to my children and I’m proud to say that my oldest daughter who is now 24 years old is studying for her Masters Degree in Nursing and I just couldn’t be prouder!  It gives me so much joy that she has experienced all the things that I never experienced – dorm life, living on campus, college right after High School, etc., not to mention doing this all when it makes sense to do it and not later in life when it’s already more difficult and there are other complications that can be a factor such as age discrimination when competing in the job market after graduating as a much more mature student.  My son who is 20 years old is also studying for a Computer Science Degree, and again, this makes me just so proud that both my two oldest kids are free to pursue their education and were not stopped in order to get married.  None of them were forced into arranged marriages.  I broke the cycle of abuse, and would never dream to do to them what was done to me.  

Follow Davinder on Twitter @luchanik at https://twitter.com/luchanik, on Facebook @luchanik https://www.facebook.com/luchanik, and on WordPress @luchanik https://luchanik.com/about/

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