How an 'arranged marriage' changed my life

Rupa Sudra

Jasvinder Sanghera's childhood came to an abrupt end when she was presented with a photograph of   the man she was to marry. She was just 14 years old.

The fifth youngest of seven daughters, Sanghera was born into a strict Sikh working class family in Derby. The photograph was no surprise to her. Sanghera's older sisters were married in the same way, only meeting their husbands on their wedding day.  "They all did it with no question, no protest, and no rebellion towards mum," explains Sanghera.  "That for them was the way of life." Marriage however, was the last thing on Sanghera's young mind.  "To this day, I don't know what his name is. All I was thinking is you're short and ugly," she laughs.

However there was no question, Sanghera was to marry. To buy herself some time, she kept up the pretence of going along with the marriage to pacify her mother, a battleaxe of a woman, reminiscent of Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.  "My mum always got her way," she recalls. However, when Sanghera learned of imminent plans to ship her to India, there was only one possible solution; to run away.  "At the time it felt like fight or flight. I'd seen all my sisters get married against all odds," she says.

Sanghera knew she had to follow strict rules, and in no way was she permitted to do anything that would bring shame to the family. She had enraged her mother when she dared to get her hair cut, something strictly forbidden in the Sikh religion.

 "She sent me to London to my sister's for taking a stand," in case anyone in the community saw her. This community Sanghera speaks of is the tight knit group of Sikh families whose mutual judgment and criticism dictates how people live their lives. She continues:  "It was about being conditioned to understand as a young Asian you were taught to not have a voice in the family, or speak back."

Sanghera dreamt of attending university, and seeing a different life to that of her sisters.  "Mum would always say you were the only one born upside down, born in a hospital while the others were born at home." Thinking back, Sanghera knows her mother's comments laid the foundation for her defiant behaviour. Now a graduate and single mother of three, Sanghera says:  "Maybe she did me a favour. I used to think it's not bad having an opinion, and maybe that was me testing the boundaries."

Making the decision to run away wasn't a light one. For Sanghera, her fear of marriage stemmed from the unhappiness she had seen in her sisters' nuptials.  "I kept thinking of the horrific (married) lives my sisters were living and thinking no one would rescue me."   Often her sisters would phone home to complain about the abuse they were suffering, upon which their parents would bundle Sanghera and her younger siblings into the car to resolve the unhappy situation.

Thinking they were going to rescue her sister, Sanghera would always see her mother mediating between the couple to ensure no further  'trouble' was caused. Her mother's meddling didn't pacify a single one of the marriages. Robina was Sanghera's closest sister, whose married life tragically spun out of control when she could no longer handle her husband's abuse.  "She committed suicide. She set herself on fire." For Sanghera, her sister's suicide was a turning point in her own life. She was angered that Robina was forced to die to gain her freedom. This was the catalyst for Sanghera to rebuild her own life and to set about doing something to help others.

Currently in the UK, the suicide rate for Asian women is two to three times higher than the national average. According to Sanghera there are many Asian women who are in the same position as her tragic sister. It was this that led her to set up Karma Nirvana, a refuge for Asian women, and she hasn't looked back since. Sanghera, now in her early forties, has written an emotional memoir about her painful journey to freedom, called Shame. Since the book's publication she has been inundated with letters and phone calls from women sharing their stories with her.

Sanghera believes it is the Asian youth of today who hold the key to change.  "The thing is to get younger generations to own this as a subject matter," she explains. It is not such an easy task, considering the results of a survey by the BBC, which claimed that one in 10 Asian people believe that  'honour killings' of allegedly wayward women in the family are justified.

For Sanghera this is a huge problem.  "The saddest thing I see is Asian guys perpetuating the abuse." Take the example of Samaira Nazir, a recruitment consultant from Southall, west London, who was stabbed to death in front of her two young nieces in the family home, for daring to ask to marry a Muslim Afghan man and not someone from the Sikh community. It is no mere coincidence that it was brother and male cousins who took it upon themselves to carry out the killing. Even the police seem to be out of their depth when it comes to honour killings and abuse.  "I really feel that front line officers want to do the right thing. But how many women are walking into a police station right now with an issue that's not being dealt with appropriately?" asked Sanghera at a conference about honour killings, which brought together police and representatives of the Home Office, Crime Prosecution Service and Sanghera's Karma Nirvana project.

Sanghera has faced constant death threats, broken windows and threatening letters from her family but she has never given up hope. She is passionate, funny and extremely on the ball. Her family's rejection of her and her children continues even after all these years.  "They totally go out of their way to cross the road whenever they see me." Although she misses some notion of family, she has her own children to look after now.  "My family has thrown me scraps. They know that I am living with the hope that they will take me back unconditionally. But now they have to prove to me it is for real." She continues determinedly:  "I am not prepared to sit at the back of the Gurdwara (Sikh temple) at my niece's wedding. I will not put myself in that position any more."