The High Price of Freedom

4 Feb 2007


FOUR months after she ran away from home at the age of 15, Jasvinder Sanghera saw the sea for the first time. A granite sea that stretched out from the silver sands of Whitley Bay as far as the eye could see, and seemed somehow infinite in its possibilities. She had always felt the horizons of the world were more expansive than her family told her.

That's why she had run away, refusing to submit to the forced marriage that her Sikh parents wanted for her. For all the trauma her decision cost her - her family never fully accepted her again - the unexpected vastness of the sea comforted her, endorsing her decision. "I just thought, 'Wow!' I had been out of Derby before, but only to visit relatives. This was a feeling of... almost like the sea was telling me there was more in the world."

Water seems shapeless, powerless, impotent, until it is harnessed by tide and intent. There is a similar paradox about Sanghera. She is gentle and dignified, her voice as quiet as softly lapping waves, so quiet that at first you strain to hear her. Then, as her story unfolds, you gradually sense the enormous power that can be unleashed from her, waves of courage and determination emboldening her voice, until a gentle tide of tears pulls it back to a whisper. She now runs Karma Nirvana, a Derby-based project providing refuge for Asian women - women forced into marriages they do not want, or seeking refuge from abusive partners.

Sanghera has defied her own community by doing this work. They disown her. Her own sisters walk by her in the street. She has panic buttons in her home because of threatened violence and bought herself a dog last year for extra protection. But in her own quiet way, she remains steadfast against the force of opposing tides.

Her mother always said that Jasvinder was the most difficult of her daughters. She was born in hospital while her sisters were born at home, and her mother hated hospitals. And she was born upside down. Always awkward, her mother said. Like the questions she asked. Why did the women sit on one side of the gurdwara, the Sikh temple, while men sat on the other? Why did her brother Balbir have a different life to his sisters, with so much freedom, so much indulgence? Why could Jasvinder not go to university? Why was she not allowed to talk to boys or to choose her own husband? Her mother interpreted her curiosity as defiance, and became enraged, taking off her shoe and hitting out at her daughter. Insolent child. Why must she always question?

Silence was expected of girls. "If you saw my family you would have thought, 'How wonderful they are, how close-knit! So connected as a family.' But that was really about keeping you out. The perception that we are so close is actually preventing you from scratching the surface and seeing what is really there."

Each of her sisters in turn was taken away to India and married to a stranger, then returned. Her sister Robina, who was only a year and a half older than Jasvinder, was removed from school and then returned to the year below without any questions being asked. Often people don't like to interfere. "This fear we have of political correctness angers me. A wrong is a wrong. It's not part of a culture to force people to marry, to treat them like this, to disown them."

Every year in Britain, the Forced Marriage Unit, run jointly by the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, deals with 300 cases of forced marriage in Britain - a third of which involve minors. These public cases are the tip of the iceberg, says Sanghera. Her work has led her to believe that Scotland has a particular problem, yet the Scottish Executive has told her it does not have the funds to tackle the issue. Why, demands Sanghera, are we not all making more fuss? Asian women are taught to be voiceless. It is up to the rest of us to make a noise for them.

Both Sanghera's parents are dead now. She loved them, but she came to understand that they could never love her as she loves her own children: unconditionally. For much of her adult life, she says, she waited for affection from her family the way a puppy waits for leftovers from the table. It never came. Now her book Shame gives voice to both her story and the stories of the many silent women she helps at Karma Nirvana. "Part of making sense of it all was writing it down," she explains. "As a child, I was taught to be silent. Now I have broken that silence. There is nothing more they can do. It is almost like they have no hold over me any more."

SANGHERA'S father moved from the Punjab to Britain in the 1950s, swapping a life working the land with bullock-pulled ploughs to working in a Derby foundry. His wife arrived seven years later. His first wife had died of a snake bite, so, according to custom, he married her sister. Like many encouraged by a British government recruitment drive, he came in search of a better life for his new family.

He had six daughters and one son in Britain, but Sanghera never saw her mother and father show any affection to each other. They did not even share a bedroom. "I think that was how we were taught to be reserved and not show affection." But did her parents love one another? "I think they did the only thing they knew how to do. I don't know if it was love."

Sanghera adored her father, but while in the outside world the men seemed dominant, in the family it was the women who upheld customs and traditions. Her father never intervened. Down the road from their house was the red-brick building with silver domes that governed their lives: the gurdwara, or temple. The local gossip shop, Sanghera says. Her mother was terrified that her children would do anything to sully the family's reputation. At best, it meant your family became gossip fodder. At worst, it meant being disowned by the community. Respect was important to her mother. She always reminded her children that they were of a high caste and must not talk to those of a lower caste.

Sanghera watched as each sister was married off to a stranger of suitable background. First the photograph would arrive from India. Next her mother would begin collecting yards of fine fabric, rivers of rich, bright colours and delicately embroidered patterns, storing them in a trunk. Then the sister would disappear quietly, and Sanghera would discover that she had been taken to India to be married to a stranger.

It was too close for comfort when Robina left. "We didn't dare ask questions about why this was happening. This goes back to the secrecy and the silence of the family. She was taken out of school, sent abroad to get married and then she went back to school and was put in my year. No one asked any questions."

Robina was a different person on her return. "She just turned into this silent being. Her whole persona changed. Even her dress changed. All of a sudden she was wearing traditional dress and being put on show when people visited the house. She was no longer the sibling, the playmate. Then, at 16, she disappeared to go and be with her husband in Germany. I was really saddened by that."

When Sanghera was 14, it was her turn to be sent a photograph. She was horrified when her mother showed it to her. She wanted to finish school, to go to university. Secretly, she began seeing Jassey, the older brother of a school friend who worked in a local engineering works. When she told her mother that she could not get married because she had a boyfriend, her mother erupted in fury. The girl would be locked in her room whenever she was alone in the house.

One evening she heard a sound at her window. Looking out, she saw Jassey under the streetlamp, acting out a mime. He loved her, wanted to run away with her. Plans were laid. Secret calls. Surreptitiously passed notes. When her older sister forgot to lock the door one day, Sanghera simply took her chances and ran, turning up at the engineering works as Jassey finished his shift. Jassey walked away from his job, his family, his life, to help her.

For many months they existed in squalid bedsits. Sanghera suffered badly from depression. She had wanted to run away from marriage, not from her family. She resented Jassey's family accepting him back because he was a boy, while hers would not. "You are dead in our eyes," her mother told her when she phoned, hoping to heal the rift. She told her daughter she never wanted to see her again. Sanghera had to go through marriage and pregnancy alone, though Robina did bring her mother to the hospital to see the first baby, Natasha. Her mother simply looked in the cradle once, said nothing and left early.

As a child, Sanghera had watched her sisters' marriages falter in turn. One of her strongest childhood memories is of going to their houses on a Sunday while her mother tried to deal with their marital problems. Even when physical abuse was involved, her mother ignored her daughters' bruises, refused to countenance separation, and simply insisted that they learn to pacify their husbands better. Sanghera hated those visits. She would sit quietly against the wall, listening, watching her father's uncomfortable silence. "I always thought we were going to rescue them, bring them home. We never did."

Several of the marriages ultimately ended. So why did the sisters continue to disown Sanghera? Because they had initially submitted to their arranged marriages, she explains. She was the only one who didn't. And because they didn't dare embrace someone the community had rejected - her. "If you seek independence, they see it as a threat: 'Go to college or university - where did these ideas come from? You will follow the path like the rest of us.'"

Perhaps the truth is that if her sisters - and even her mother - acknowledged Sanghera's right to behave as she did, it would invalidate their own lives. Perhaps they resented not having the courage she did. "I think deep down inside, though they will never admit it, my sisters want this life. They can be spiteful to me, but ultimately I think I did what they could only think about doing."

Yet when their marriages fell apart, it was to Sanghera they turned. And when the community accepted them back (because at least they had submitted to the marriage in the first place), they turned their backs again on their black-sheep sister. Sanghera's own life was difficult. She had two children with Jassey, but admits that she never really loved him as she should have. He was kind and caring and considerate, but they were thrown together because he was the only person who could get her out of her predicament. She was grateful. But gratitude wasn't enough to build a life on.

Neither was obedience. But the interesting thing about Sanghera's life is that, despite her obvious defiance, on a subconscious level her craving for the love and acceptance of her family and community influenced her choices. She behaved with the self-destructiveness of the abused woman whose partners all turn out to be violent. While married to Jassey, she had an affair with an Asian man who revealed himself to be traditional, violent and obsessively jealous. Her seemingly forward-thinking second husband also turned out to be less progressive after marriage, and was a bullying womaniser. When Robina's marriage collapsed, she too chose a man who was physically abusive. Was that coincidence? Or were these women subconsciously tying themselves back into the community, in search of acceptance? Perhaps their feelings of failure made them feel they deserved no better. "Maybe it was the kind of victim-blaming scenario," admits Sanghera: "'I deserve this because I had been told in my lifetime that I would amount to nothing.'

"The biggest impact on me was when my mum told me I was dead in her eyes. 'But, Mum, what did I do? Can I come back?' 'No, you can't.' All the love you could have given me would not replace the love of my family. Imagine waking up tomorrow and never seeing a member of your family again, being told that you are this prostitute on the streets - because that's what my mother said. My whole family set me up to fail, they willed it on me."

When Sanghera realised that Robina was trapped with a violent man, she encouraged her to seek help. The family called in a respected member of the local community - a man who would later become the lord mayor of Derby. He simply instructed Robina to go home to her violent husband. Robina's mother agreed, refusing her daughter sanctuary in her home.

Robina's story ended in tragedy. Driven to desperation, she told her husband that she was going upstairs to set herself alight. "On you go, then," he told her. She poured paraffin on herself and set it on fire. She died from her horrific injuries. When she was laid in her coffin, the lid was kept closed, with only a picture on the outside to identify her. Sanghera was told to stay away from the funeral, but she refused. "When I went to the house defiantly, my sisters walked out of the room like a bad smell had entered. I thought, 'She's dead, she died horrifically, and you can still treat me like this?'"

At the funeral, she felt contempt for her own people. "I looked around at the family and the people from the Asian community, and the lack of remorse in their faces... They thought it was almost an honourable thing that she'd done. The fact that they could stand there like a bunch of hypocrites and cry crocodile tears... They could have prevented her death. It was the injustice of it. Nobody ever spoke about her again."

Sanghera hoped that her sister's death would bring reconciliation with her mother, but it didn't. "My mother's cold response to me really hurt me. I thought when Robina died she would embrace me. The loss of a daughter would make her think, 'I have to embrace this daughter that I have shunned.' But she didn't, and that spoke volumes to me. That was the day I mentally let go of the expectation we have of a mother, a father, a brother, a sister. I realised that you can't make someone love you."

Her mother's health deteriorated after Robina died. "She was this bold, proud, strong woman, quite a defiant being in her own way, but when Robina died she shrivelled - it was like a light had gone off inside her."

Before her mother's death, Sanghera became partially reconciled with her, but she had to visit secretly, so the rest of the family and the community wouldn't know. They never talked about the lost years and the reason for them, but when her mother died Sanghera felt despair. Her mother's life had been a narrow river of convention, not a great sea of possibilities. "Her last words were, 'Robina, I'm coming to you.'"

SOME would argue that criticising arranged marriage is racist. It is, they say, a cultural tradition that is statistically far more successful than western 'love matches'. The Forced Marriage Unit makes a distinction between this "valued tradition" of arranged marriage and the "duress" involved in forced marriage. But Sanghera finds this distinction difficult to accept. "It's not as easy as that. My sisters went like sheep. There was a huge sense of obligation to the family to go through with it, and there was a lot of emotional pressure. You have to acknowledge that in arranged marriages there can be psychological abuse, and that rather than face the prospect of losing your family, you go through with it."

Sanghera eventually broke free from the psychological abuse that ruled so many of her life choices. She left her second husband and, despite struggling on her own with three young children, managed to get a first-class honours degree.

She has found happiness with a new partner, but he is white and she says she could not now be with a member of her own community. "It doesn't matter how progressive an Asian man is. My second husband appeared to be independent and forward-thinking, but at the end of the day what mattered to him was what his mother thought.

"I think most Asian men will ultimately have to stand up for their partners and face that dilemma. Whether they are strong enough to do that, I don't know, but I certainly don't want to take that risk any more. It means you get pulled back into that community, the dynamics, the family, all that struggle - and I don't want that in my life any more."

Yet she is proud to be an Asian woman. She loves Indian food, Indian music, Indian festivals and colour. She loves the fact that her parents came from the Punjab, that they embarked on such an enormous adventure for the sake of their children. But not one member of her Indian family speaks to her now. She would like to be both Indian and British, but she has been forced to choose - she chooses the part that offers freedom and independence. "I always say that if you show me a truly independent Asian woman, there has been some loss attached to earning that position. I have had to fight hard for this space. And I have no intention of letting it go." r

• Shame (£12.99, Hodder & Stoughton), by Jasvinder Sanghera, is out now
The price of love: four victims of an unforgiving custom

Samaira, a recruitment consultant from London, was murdered in a savage attack in front of her family in April 2005. She was stabbed 18 times by her brother and had her throat cut by their 17-year-old cousin at the family home. Samaira had fallen in love with an asylum-seeker from Afghanistan and rejected the suitors her Pakistani family wanted her to marry. According to Nazir Afzal of the Crown Prosecution Service, "Samaira was murdered because she loved the wrong person, in her family's eyes. In that sense, it was an 'honour killing', to protect the family's status and mark their disapproval."

Banaz, from London, disappeared in January last year. Her remains were found three months later, decomposing in a suitcase buried in the garden of a house in Birmingham, more than 100 miles away from her family home.

The previous summer, Banaz, who was of Kurdish origin, had walked out of an arranged marriage which had lasted three years before ending in divorce. Her father, uncle and another man have been charged with her murder, while two other men were charged with perverting the course of justice.

Rukshana, from Derby, who was forced into marriage at 16, died because her parents believed she was pregnant as the result of an adulterous affair. She had been forced into an arranged marriage in Pakistan and had two children by her husband.

It was reported that Rukshana's family were angry that she had become pregnant by her boyfriend in England while she was still married (she was six months pregnant when she died). Her mother and brother were jailed for life in 1999 after her brother strangled her while her mother held her down.

Shortly before she disappeared in 2003, Shafilea, from Warrington, had been in Pakistan, where it is alleged that she turned down a suitor in an arranged marriage. She then swallowed bleach, badly scarring her throat - an injury that required continuing medical attention when she returned home. A nationwide hunt was launched when she failed to turn up for treatment for her damaged throat. In 2004, her body was found in the River Kent. The investigation into her death remains ongoing. Eight members of her family are awaiting trial for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.