Jasvinder Sanghera CBE on forced marriages and the new play commemorating the founding of Karma Nirvana
PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 August 2018 | UPDATED: 13:40 16 August 2018
Pat Ashworth meets Jasvinder Sanghera CBE, the Derby-born founder of the national award-winning charity Karma Nirvana
No-one encountering Jasvinder Sanghera CBE today would guess the traumatic events that have shaped her life. She’s beautiful, she’s animated, she’s clever, and born as she was in Derby in 1965, is as much a product of the city and her education as any of her peers.
But they weren’t faced at the age of 15 with forced marriage to a stranger. Jasvinder’s father came to Derby from the Punjab, in response to the British government’s invitation to citizens of the Commonwealth. He came two years in advance of his family, found a house and got a job at Qualcast Foundries, where he worked until he retired.
Jasvinder and some of her seven siblings – six of them girls – went to Littleover School. But where her brother was freely allowed to express himself, it was the opposite story for the sisters. ‘Our lives were very different from our peers,’ Jasvinder remembers. ‘From the age of six, we had a restricted and monitored life. We couldn’t go to a school disco or out with friends, as that would have been considered shameful and dishonourable.’
She watched her older sisters disappearing one by one at the age of 15, ‘taken out of the classroom to marry a man they’d only met in a photograph. They went to India, had long absences and nobody questioned it – it was a way of life and conditioning that was deeply ingrained,’ she remembers. ‘My mother would use the argument of religion and tradition. She’d say, “This is our culture, this is what we do.” She was a decent Sikh woman but there was no counter-narrative – these were your norms. And none of my sisters protested.’
Her sister, Robina, missed nine months of her education, returning to school to be put back into Jasvinder’s own year. ‘She was now somebody’s wife, married abroad. She had a wedding ring on and nobody questioned. And then she went off to become this dutiful wife and daughter-in-law.’
Jasvinder was 14, and next in line for marrying. No matter how often she tells the next part of the story, it’s obvious that it still appals her. Sitting here in the sunny arbour of a pub in Quarndon, with roses coming into bloom and a robin flitting from bench to bench, the whole thing seems even more outrageous as she begins, ‘I came home from a normal day at school. My mother presented me with the photograph of a man whom she said I had been promised to from the age of eight. She was jovial, matter-of-fact. I remember looking at him and thinking, “He’s older than me. He’s shorter than me.” And I said to my mother, “I’m not marrying him.” She’d never had this challenge from any of the others. She responded, “It’s what we do.” I said, “I want to stay at school and do my GCSEs.” She said, “Where you’re going, you won’t need an education. You won’t dishonour us by not marrying this man.”’
Jasvinder’s mother insisted that it was all prescribed in the Sikh bible, the Adi Granth, which as she now knows, was untrue. In Sikhism, some marriages are still arranged but both individuals have the right not to marry the partner chosen for them. ‘She was using it as a tool to repress me as many have done and continue to do,’ she says. ‘But I couldn’t answer that then. I protested again at 15½, telling them I wanted to go to college. School was the only place where you could think freely and independently. We used to dread the summer holidays.’
In the face of her rebellion, her parents took her out of school and padlocked her in her bedroom. Schoolfriends queried her absence: her best friend, Caroline, with whom she was recently reunited, is one who remembers knocking on the door and being sent away. ‘Locking me in was their way of making sure the marriage went ahead. I’d become a risk now and could run away from home,’ she says.
So she agreed to the marriage in order to plan an escape – finding herself then having to participate in the planning of a wedding she had no intention of going through with – ‘It was as if I was looking down on all this and pretending I was okay with it.’ Allowed out of the bedroom, she had freedom of movement ‘of sorts’ and permission to meet an Asian girl of whom the family approved.
The girl’s brother helped her run away from home. Fearful of being chased, she crouched in the footwell of his car all the way to Newcastle, which she’d chosen because she had ‘looked at the map and thought, they’ll never find me there.’ When they got to the Tyne Bridge, she felt free for the first time in her life. Later, she discovered that her friend’s brothers had beaten her in order to get information on Jasvinder’s whereabouts, but she had not yielded.
Weeks later, a policeman arrived on her doorstep, saying she had been reported missing. She is eternally grateful for the professional response he gave her. ‘First, he believed me,’ she says thankfully. ‘And secondly, he supported me in not telling my family where I was. If he had taken me home, my parents would have given an Oscar-winning performance on the doorstep, but as soon as the door closed, it would have been the worse for me.’
The policeman did ask her to ring home and tell her parents she was safe, which she did. ‘My mother answered the phone and was livid,’ she remembers. ‘She said, “You either come back and marry whom we say, or from this moment you are dead to us. I hope you give birth to a daughter who does to you what you have done to me. You’ll know what it’s like then to raise a prostitute.”’
Jasvinder was 16 and recognised that this was a junction in her life: ‘I could have my family and conform. Or I could have everything that Britain stands for and which should be an automatic right – the right to an education, the right to marry whom you like, independence and freedom – but it means losing the family completely. I chose the latter and they disowned me.’
So began the rejection that has persisted to this day. Reconciliation was only possible on her mother’s terms. When she made her escape, her younger sister was subsequently forced to marry the man to whom Jasvinder had been promised. The next seven years was a period of depression during which she even tried to take her own life. It was when Robina committed suicide after failing to win support to free her from an abusive marriage, that Jasvinder decided to speak about her own experiences and Robina’s, who had begged for help both from the family and the local community leader.
‘All my sisters’ marriages were abusive. My mother would go to the house and tell my sister that a husband was like a pan of milk: when it boiled to the surface, you blow on it. Your job is to cool him down,’ she says. She thought that her mother, having lost a daughter in this horrific way, would have welcomed her back but it was not to be so.
At 28, and in Robina’s memory, she founded the charity Karma Nirvana (meaning peace and enlightenment), to support victims of ‘honour-based’ abuse and forced marriage. Its national helpline offers support and guidance to victims and professionals. It provides training to the Police, NHS and Social Services, acts as expert witnesses in court, speaks out in schools and attends awareness raising events both at home and abroad. Crucially, Karma Nirvana lobbies Government.
Setting up this human rights charity – the helpline was initially run from Jasvinder’s kitchen – wasn’t easy. Accusations of shaming her family came even from within her own community. She campaigned strongly for justice in the case of 19-year-old Rukhsana Naz from Normanton, strangled by her mother and brother in 1998 for ‘insulting the honour of the family’. The girl, who was pregnant and refused to have an abortion, had wanted to divorce the husband she had been forcibly married to at 15, and to marry the man she loved.
The mother and son were jailed for life for murder. The case highlighted the many misconceptions around forced marriage, notably that, ‘It’s part of their culture; it’s what they do.’ Karma Nirvana had hotly campaigned for a civil law and was turned down twice before it was granted, in 2007. But more was needed. A victim reporting to a teacher or a member of the police would fail to get an effective safeguarding response because, she points out, ‘Britain has never had a law such that I could say to my mother, “You can’t do this to me because it’s against the law.”’
Jasvinder appealed directly to David Cameron, bombarding him with letters until he agreed to a consultation, and sending him a copy of her book, Shame, a Sunday Times bestseller. Shocked, he promised to outlaw forced marriage if the Conservatives got into power, and she held him to it. She hand-delivered 3,500 postcards which overwhelmingly showed support for making forced marriage a criminal offence, having enlisted the help of the Soroptimists in handing out the postcards on the streets of Derby.
Forced marriage became a criminal offence in 2014. But the work goes on. ‘So many of our victims don’t know forced marriage is a criminal offence and despite thousands of reportings, there has only been one conviction under the law so far,’ she says. The reason she is here in Derby today is because she might be called to give evidence as an expert witness at a court case in Birmingham. She is called. And the news comes days later that the mother in question has been jailed for four-and-a-half years for duping her 17-year-old daughter into travelling to Pakistan and forcing her to marry a man 16 years her senior.
What she wants now is a national awareness campaign, as happened with the issue of domestic violence. She’d like not to have to struggle quite so hard to get into schools with the message, ‘Forced marriage is an abuse. It’s not part of your culture or tradition.’ Furthermore, she is lobbying OFSTED inspectors to put the question, ‘How do you safeguard children and young people from forced marriages?’ into their inspection framework.
Karma Nirvana is 25 years old this July and has been heaped with national awards. Its helpline is now funded by the Home Office. It is all-consuming and feels like a huge responsibility, acknowledges Jasvinder, now a nationally and internationally known figure. She has a CBE. She has made a documentary for Panorama and been a guest on Woman’s Hour and Desert Island Discs. She has three children but remains disowned by her entire family, an anguish that never leaves her. She mourns the family relationships her children have never had, and there are times in her life when missing her family becomes magnified, perhaps a birthday, at Christmas or Diwali celebrations. However, she doesn’t look back and notes that ‘wonderful friendships in my life have taken a place where there once existed a hole for my family.’
But when her father died, he made her the executor of his will. ‘I don’t think he wanted all this,’ she says. When she graduated as a mature student from the University of Derby, she gave the vote of thanks and invited him to be present. He didn’t come but she sent him her graduation picture and when he died and she had access to his house, she discovered the picture as though hidden, in a frame on the wall. When she made the journey described in Shame, to visit a sister in India whom she had never met, the sister told her, ‘When he came to visit me, he spoke of you with pride and told everyone you were a professor.’
Her daughter, Natasha, who was a pupil at the Landau Forte College in Derby, married an Indian boy and wanted ‘the big fat Indian wedding, with 300 guests’ she says with her warm smile. ‘It was painful on the day that I had no family to share it with but she was beautiful and attentive of my feelings and we embraced all the traditions.’ She wore a sari for the first time in years with pride, ‘I embraced the wonderful things about my heritage, with the knowledge that cultural acceptance does not mean accepting the unacceptable.’
Of Karma Nirvana, she concludes, ‘The wonderful thing is the likeminded people who join you. It galvanizes you and it becomes bigger and bigger and bigger. We would not have got to 25 years without the partnerships we’ve had. I just want people to look at me and see me as a human being who has had a less privileged life even though I was born here. I don’t take my freedom and independence for granted. I have had to fight for them.’
The anniversary is being marked in September at Derby Theatre, with a specially commissioned play with the working title, Beyond Shame. It is rooted in the real-life experiences of people who have called the charity’s helpline, and will tour to schools and colleges after its theatre performances. Jasvinder hopes the audience will feel ‘educated, moved and inspired to act’ after seeing it. Amen to that.
Beyond Shame can be seen at Derby Theatre from 6th-8th Sept. Box Office 01332 593939.