Outsiders in London

All photographs:  copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK


Jasvinder Sanghera CBE

Age: 47

Born in Derby, England

Father & Mother both born in India

Ethnic heritage / Father & Mother: Punjabi


Jasvinder Sanghera CBE is a prominent campaigner and advocate for the rights of women and men who are forced into marriage and/or are subject to so-called ‘honour-based’ abuse.  She is the founder and currently the Chief Executive of Karma Nirvana, a national and international charity which operates the only national help line for all who are fleeing from forced marriages or experiencing honour-based violence.   Jasvinder herself fled from a forced marriage when she was 16;  she was subsequently ostracised by her family, becoming an outsider in her own community.   She tells this harrowing and deeply moving story in her best-selling story, Shame, which has now been translated into several languages.  

In recognition of her invaluable work, Jasvinder has received a number of prestigious awards: The Woman of the Year Award 2007, the Asian Woman Achievement Award 2007, the Inspirational Woman of the Year Award 2008, the Ambassador for Peace Award 2008, the Pride of Britain Award 2009, the Cosmopolitan Wonder Woman Award 2010 and the Global Punjabi Society Award 2012.  She has been instrumental in the campaign to criminalise forced marriage which will become a specific criminal offence in England and Wales in 2014.   In 2013, Jasvinder was honoured by Her Majesty the Queen with the award of Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to victims of forced marriage and honour-based violence and, in November of the same year year, was awarded the title Legal Campaigner of the Year by the Asian Law Society.

Jasvinder’s father was an Indian-born Punjabi Sikh who married early;  tragically, he lost his wife, the victim of a fatal snake bite, when she was still very young.   Following tradition, Jasvinder’s widower father then married his late wife’s sister, Jasvinder’s mother to be, who was just 15.   Jasvinder comments:  “My father’s first wife was promised to him and when she died, it was as if the family had to honour the marriage promise and thus her sister was almost offered as a replacement, like a sacrifice;  it was the norm.”  

In search of a better life for his family, Jasvinder’s father came to Britain in the 1950’s when Britain needed to augment the workforce.   He settled in Derby where he found  employment in the local foundry, working there until he retired.   Having married at the age of 15 - regarded as an arranged marriage - Jasvinder’s mother joined her husband in England some years later.   She never complained about her arranged marriage;  indeed, she ensured, right from their early years, that all her six daughters were continually reminded of the inevitability of such arrangements.   As the dominant force in the household, Jasvinder’s mother always impressed upon her children that arranged marriage was very much the norm in their society and religion.   But Jasvinder also had one brother who, as a young man, was treated very differently from his sisters - this was often the case.   Jasvinder comments:  “My family, and indeed most families like ours, lived in their own cultural bubble - they were sort of cocooned - and access to the outside world was strictly limited for all of us.”   Writing about her home life in her book, Shame, Jasvinder observes:  “My mother didn’t know anyone in England.   She didn’t speak English.   She never learned English, right up until the day she died.  Dad learnt enough to get by outside, but at home we always spoke Punjabi.   We ate Punjabi food, we had Punjabi friends and, although we wore our uniforms to school, we were expected to put on our traditional Indian clothes as soon as we came home.”  

Having attended the local primary school, Jasvinder joined two of her sisters at the Littleover Secondary School.   “I left school with no qualifications,” she recalls, “because I was not allowed to be fully educated:  my mother would say to me that she sent us to school only because it was the law and that, where I was going, I didn’t need any education.   What she meant was that I was just intended for marriage.  My brother, of course, was encouraged to get the most out of his education and to be independent;  he was permitted to date girls and later, he was even allowed to marry out of caste, religion and ethnicity.   My mother was the gatekeeper whose task it was to ensure that her daughters adhered to the rules of behaviour within our family and observed the codes of honour in our Sikh community.   We had to be dutiful daughters, and the principal agents of enforcement and repression were not the men;  almost without exception they were the women.   My father was actually a strong, silent man whom I respected and loved dearly.   I believed he had empathy with what his daughters were going through but was unable to express such feelings because of the total hold and strength of my mother.  From early on, there were discussions in the house about who my sisters were to marry and I was not excluded from such exchanges, of course.”

From the outset, Jasvinder seemed somehow different from her sisters:  she describes herself as a bit of a tom-boy, and she was the only one who dared to ask questions - this irritated her mother intensely.   She also managed to gain some freedom from the house, by doing a paper-round - something boys usually did.   She even managed to get a couple of part-time local jobs as a shop assistant.   She writes in Shame:  “When I said, ‘Mum, I want to finish school and go to university,’ she just laughed .... By the time I reached my teens, she had watched three of my sisters get married and Robina’s husband was already being discussed.   If I’d asked my three sisters if they were happy they would have said ‘yes’.  That’s what was expected of them;  if the truth was any different, they knew to keep it to themselves.   But I didn’t like what I saw of their marriages.”   Jasvinder continues:  “I was 14 when my mother presented me with a photograph of the man I had been promised to, from the age of 8.   So at 14, it became a reality for me.   Because immigration to Britain was difficult, he (my husband to be) was at that stage a ‘Gastarbeiter’ or ‘guest worker’ in Germany and getting married to me would have also helped him to get entry into the UK.   She writes:  “He was ugly as well as short, he looked much older than me, he had a stupid haircut and at that stage I didn’t even know his name.”

Asked if she was able to compare notes and experiences with other girls in the local (secular) school which she attended, Jasvinder answers:  “Actually, there was this silence amongst the girls;  we never talked about it or indeed ever discussed anything about our family life in public, but we knew. We saw some girls from similar cultural backgrounds simply disappearing from the school when they were 14 or 15, but we never ever talked about it amongst ourselves.   From the very beginning of our lives in our Sikh families, we girls were taught to be silent, recognising that there was a risk in speaking to others outside, for fear that it will reflect badly on the family.  It would have been seen as hugely damaging and thus dishonourable behaviour.   So actually, we never talked to each other, neither would we dare to talk to our teachers.  Talking to outsiders, to strangers, was simply not the done thing.”

“I was too young to witness the arranged marriage of my oldest sister, but I did witness the marriages of three of my other sisters.   As a young person, a young girl watching some of my sisters leaving school when they were 15 and being married, it was clear to me that they were expected to become dutiful wives and daughters-in-law.  If your husband beats you, you put up with it.   I remember Mother going to my elder sister’s house where I heard my own mother talking my sister into staying with her violent, abusive husband.   Even though she was black and blue from her husband’s blows, it would have been dishonourable in the eyes of the community for her to leave him.   Not surprisingly, I began to understand that this is what happens to you when you get married.  In my own mind, I started to harbour thoughts of not wanting to get married, of not having to have that kind of life.”   But voicing such thoughts would have been seen as almost heretical in traditional Sikh families and communities.  

Jasvinder continues:  “Of course, these thoughts had to be silent thoughts, thoughts within me.  I believed that my sisters must harbour similar fears and reservations, for I’d overheard their cries for help to my mother, but these cries never achieved anything.   In the end, my sisters sacrificed their lives and had to put up with it.”   Well, this proved not quite to be the case:  Jasvinder’s sister, Robina, finding a life of constant physical abuse intolerable, committed suicide;  all the other marriages, save one, ended unhappily, with a lot of lives permanently damaged as a result.  

Through an extraordinary set of circumstances - the help of a dear friend and thanks to her limited freedom of movement outside the house - Jasvinder gained the acquaintance of a gentle, kind and generous local boy called Jassey, who fell in love with her and they managed to arrange occasional, brief, clandestine meetings.   That was precisely the time when Jasvinder’s mother had started to finalise her marriage arrangements.   In a moment of desperation, and in the hope of halting the inexorable progress of these arrangements, Jasvinder told her mother of her firm wish not to marry the man she had never met but to continue her schooling instead.   She also confessed her clandestine liaison with Jassey.   Her mother’s reaction was explosive and, from that moment, Jasvinder became a prisoner in her own home:  she was locked in her bedroom and kept under constant supervision, while the preparations for her marriage became more urgent and focussed.   Then one day, finding the door left accidentally unsecured, Jasvinder escaped.   She met up with the devoted Jassey and, with but a single suitcase each, they fled to Newcastle, a place unknown to either of them.   From that moment, Jasvinder was rejected by her family and by her community - she had now become an outsider.   Jasvinder writes:  “As far as they were concerned, I was an outcast and outcasts belonged to the gutter.   ‘Without us, you’ll end up on the streets’ is what Mum had threatened when I first called home ... I understood that my parents cared more about honour than they did about me... When I was young, I thought my mum was motivated by arrogance.  Her obsession with the hierarchy of caste, with the family’s reputation, with our honour, I thought all these things were signs of her pride.   Now I wonder if she was driven by fear.   In some ways, she and Dad were just like I was when I ran away:  displaced persons, severed from their roots and families.   In England, their precious community was the only framework they could cling to, the only familiar thing they had - it’s where they sought approval and acceptance.”

Jasvinder’s book, Shame, charts her life from childhood, her escape from home and the arranged marriage she clearly did not want, and her exclusion and rejection by her family;  it is the story of an almost total outsider’s extraordinary struggle to survive while managing to complete a university degree, bring up a family, and set up the charitable organisation, Karma Nirvana, so helping thousands of women (and indeed men) who are equally desperate to escape forced marriages and honour abuse.

In a recent interview in London, Jasvinder said:  “Karma Nirvana is shaped by my own experiences and the key thing we do, is we are there to break the silence for many here in Britain who are suffering forced marriage and honour-based violence.  We provide some services directly:  we launched the helpline in 2008, since when we have dealt with over 30,000 calls.   Currently, we are dealing with about 600 calls a month (and increasing) mainly from people who have been born here in Britain, from both women and men, who are being forced into marriages, and who are suffering ‘honour crimes’ - basically, our callers are people whose families consider them to be behaving dishonourably.   For example, simply integrating into wider British society is perceived as dishonourable;  simply becoming westernised is considered dishonourable.   Families want, and expect, their offspring to stick to their own community, with its traditional rules, rules that are quite often at odds with those of the host country.”  

“On the helpline, we hear stories like:  ‘I am being beaten by my brother, or by others in my family, for dating ... for wearing make-up ... for cutting my hair ... for wanting to have further education ... for wanting to be able to choose my marriage partner.‘   We have most certainly seen murders in this country, honour killings, where girls are murdered just for being too westernised - families actually say this in Court, they plead guilty, and they say openly, ‘She was too westernised, so we had to take her life.‘   Personally, I don’t like the term ‘torn between two cultures’ because if we think of culture as a way of life, our callers, who are born here in Britain, should have independence, a right to education, and the right to choose whom they want to marry”.

The other part of Karma Nirvana’s work is lobbying, campaigning Parliament for the same rights as the host community and for the protection of these rights through the law.   Jasvinder explains:  “So we successfully campaigned for the introduction of the specific criminal offence of forced marriage and we are very pleased that from 2014, for the first time, this new criminal offence will be on the statute book in England and Wales.   We lobby on others issues too, campaigning to have the same rights as our white counterparts.   I remember raising, in 2008, the issue of the thousands of Asian girls who went missing from education, yet schools weren’t asking where they were.   In one local authority alone, over 100, mainly south-Asian, girls aged 15 and 16 were absent from their classrooms.   Questions like this seem often not to be asked because of perceived cultural sensitivities.   Even when official, formal enquiries are held, statements like:  ‘It is part of their culture...’ or ‘That is what they do...’ are frequently heard.   In many cases, people just simply turn a blind eye.   I strongly maintain that it is not part of my own, or indeed anyone else’s, culture to be kidnapped or abused.   Cultural tolerance does not mean accepting the unacceptable.  I am proud to live in a multicultural country, but I do notice that some professionals seek to avoid causing offence to communities for fear of being labelled as racist and I accept that the perpetrators of abuse will always play the race card whenever they can.   Authorities and professionals therefore tread very carefully indeed, and that reticence has not helped those of us who are in the field of protecting the victims of forced marriage and honour-based violence.”

Jasvinder continues:  “It is the first week of September and today is also the first day back at school for many youngsters here in the UK.   Today, many of our girls will be sitting in classrooms, already married - an event which will have taken place during the summer holidays - but there will also be many girls missing altogether.   Will the teachers notice who has disappeared?   And if they do, will they ask questions?   Will they take action?   We, at Karma Nirvana, campaign nationally, constantly urging schools to pursue this issue;  yet to date, we have only managed to persuade six schools to engage with us, an appalling record.   We recently received the dispiriting report of a head teacher who tore down our helpline poster from the school’s notice board where it had been displayed by a concerned teacher who felt strongly about the matter.   He was severely reprimanded for his action, being given the explanation that the school could not afford to offend Asian parents or the local community.”

“Twenty years ago,” says Jasvinder, “I felt trapped and unable to voice my concerns within my own family and, because of the fear of what would happen to me if my family found out how I felt, I would have welcomed the opportunity to speak out and to seek help, but there was no-one.   Honour-based violence mostly happens behind closed doors, but it is there nevertheless, spreading  silently like a cancer through our society.   We, at Karma Nirvana, try to reach these victims, constantly endeavouring to break the silence and to enable them to speak out, despite the fear they have of their families.”   Jasvinder writes in her book:  “Two terrible cases were reported while I was writing this book [Shame].   The brother and cousin of twenty-five year old Samaira Nazir stabbed her eighteen times before cutting her throat, because she wanted to marry for love. They made her little sisters watch them do it, and the two girls ended up spattered with Samaira’s blood.   Nineteen year old Arash Ghorbani-Zarin was stabbed forty-six times by the brothers of the girl who was carrying his baby, the girl with whom he planned to spend his life.”  

“Nowadays, there are numbers of organisations which work with us:  for example, we have worked successfully with almost half of the 43 police forces in England and Wales.   We feel strongly that the impending changes to the law should help in this.   Sadly, I have no platform or voice in my own community now and I continue to feel that there is little point in my trying personally to communicate with those parts of our society where these issues are prevalent.   But I also understand that it is the leaders of our communities who will have to be the change agents for breaking down these abusive traditions.   As always, lasting change has to come from the inside.   I have been obliged to work from the outside of my community and even then, I always need to bear in mind the risks to me personally and, indeed, even to my children - the risk of attacks which may come from that very community.   While such dangers were real, and continue to be, they have neither stopped us at Karma Nirvana from speaking out and helping those who flee this dreadful abuse, nor from holding to account those public bodies who should be providing the services to help us.   I do hope that, in my own lifetime, I see some changes within our community and I long for the day when more of our own people will start taking a stand on these issues.”

“I had to leave my own home, to be disowned by my own family, so that my children will not inherit the legacy of abuse.   I am proud to say that they are truly integrated, but at what a cost!   I had to become an outsider.   I would have liked these changes to have happened in our community but without such personal cost.  One thing I can say with conviction is that although, as a 16-year old back then, I did not know that I was making a decision for my future children, I am proud that I did what I did.   Nobody in Britain should go through the experience of a forced marriage or honour abuse - when I was growing up, there was no organisation like ours, no infrastructure or support for those who are victims.”

Jasvinder continues:  “As a consequence of the ever-growing number of faith schools in Britain, traditional religious values are starting to be reinforced with new vigour.   Indeed, we are already starting to see the consequences of these developments and we fear that opposition to Karma Nirvana may grow stronger.   For example, there is such an increase in the numbers of callers who are being deliberately prevented from integrating, that I feel we could be sleepwalking into segregation within the UK.  The victims we are dealing with are mainly of South Asian descent but we also get Afghans, Kurds, Iranians, and Somalis, all of whom are similarly taught to stay within the silos of their communities and not to integrate, because that is disrespectful to their traditions.  They are taught from a very young age that this is wrong.   My own mother used to say to me that the worst insult I could bring to her door was that I behaved, ‘like a white woman’.   These are the very same concepts we are hearing on the helpline today.   This lack of integration permits the reinforcement of the codes of honour which exist within our families and communities, and it prevents young men and women from embracing the opportunities that life in Britain can offer.   We have to have an honest debate about these things for, as I sit here, I know that there are an estimated 12 murders every year in this country, 12 young women whose lives are taken from them only because they have integrated or tried to do so.   That cannot be right.   There are estimated to be 5,000 honour killings taking place, worldwide, each year.   Some of these murders happen in Britain today and as we see the growth of faith schools, and we see more communities confined in their silos, things will not get better.   My own father lived exclusively in his Indian community - he felt safer there, felt that he belonged, and I understand that - but for those born and brought up in Britain, the circumstances are (or should be) different.   There are days when I fear that, if anything, we are going backwards.”

It is well understood that men in Asian societies are treated differently from women.   While they are also expected to comply with social norms, they are generally given greater latitude and are often allowed, even expected, to secure an education.   Men generally enjoy greater freedoms both at home and outside it.   Jasvinder’s only brother also enjoyed such privileges.   It was therefore interesting to hear that Karma Nirvana also receives calls from many men in despair.   Jasvinder explains:  “In the beginning, Karma Nirvana only supported women but from 2007, we started to support men too, simply because of the sheer volume of calls to the helpline, calls from men who have nowhere else to go and no-one to turn to.   Since then, we have deliberately striven to make ourselves more approachable but the continual struggle was how to  identify men in trouble, how to reach the ones who were unable to break the silence.   Despite the greater freedoms men enjoy in our society, when it comes to marriage, young men are in the same boat as young women.   They too are denied choice when it comes to the selection of a life partner;  that decision is made by the families.    

Now about 15% of calls to the Karma Nirvana helpline are from men, though it has to be said that the majority of these callers are men who have issues about their sexuality;  most commonly, they are gay (some are already in same-sex relationships, with no-one knowing, of course) and their families force them to marry so as to conceal their sexuality.”   Of course, in traditional societies, the majority of homosexual men did, and still do, marry and have children, with their families often quite happy to turn a blind eye to their relationships with other men outside the home, so long these remain ‘invisible’ and unacknowledged.  

Jasvinder continues:  “But of course, marriage is a must in order to maintain an honourable facade for presenting to the community.   At Karma Nirvana, we hear over and over again from gay men who are forced into marriage, who are then expected to have sexual relations with their new wives (for procreation if for no other reason) and who call the helpline in desperation.  These men will often be beaten by their brothers or their fathers for failing to have intercourse with their wives.   They are compelled to impregnate their partners because with marriage, the stakes go up and the community expects to see a child as the product of the new union, some evidence of conjugal bliss (or should one call it a ‘conjugal nightmare’?)   We therefore now also have a men’s refuge - a refuge that also takes couples who have to flee their homes.   In my eyes, it is important that men share a platform with us women, because as I regard myself as a survivor, I think it is essential to have men taking that platform and breaking that silence so as to help other men to report their suffering and to speak out.   Unfortunately, we don’t have enough men coming forward to speak;  we don’t need to see their faces necessarily but we do need to hear their voices.”  

Asked what she feels to have been the most notable disadvantages in being an outsider, Jasvinder replies without hesitation:  “Never sharing a birthday with my family, not being able to share the joy of the birth of a child, not sharing those special achievements, like my graduation, or other significant events in my life, but also not being there when there are deaths in the family.   Not being allowed to be part of family events made me feel like I was this person who was not human, someone not worthy, not only of acceptance, but also the love and affection given to those born into a family.”  

“The feeling of being an outsider at various stages of my life was acute:  I attempted suicide twice, at that point in my life when the sense of alienation and the feeling of rejection seemed to be insurmountable.   As an outsider, it took me a long time to recognise that I was not the perpetrator;  for years, I had felt responsible for causing this alienation and for my being totally excluded from my family.   I even felt myself to be the horrible person who had disowned her family, who had betrayed them, when in fact the reverse was true.   I internalised these feelings for years.”

Asked if she thinks being an outsider had brought some advantages, she says:  “I have no regrets about the decision I made when I was 16.   Thanks to that decision, I have independence, I have the right to think freely, and my children enjoy an enlightened existence.   Because of that decision, I have what I can only describe to you as freedom.   You cannot think freely if you’re in shackles.   I am free to express myself - it might sound a small thing to some people but it is hugely significant to me.   If I make a wrong decision, I am not berated for it;  I can live without fear, free to make my own choices.   The strength which I gained allowed me to help others and has sustained me in continuing to do so.   Together with my marvellous, loyal team at Karma Nirvana, we provide support to thousands of others in desperate need.   To escape a dismal life with her tyrannical and abusive husband, my sister, Robina committed suicide -  she poured petrol over herself and set light to it.   The sense of injustice I felt over her terrible fate was acute, and I was determined to turn those feelings deep within me, the great passion and the fierce rage, into a real force for change - the suicide rate among young Asian women in Britain is three times the national average.   Conceiving, planning and setting up Karma Nirvana was without doubt my own salvation.  To go from never being allowed to speak, to finding the strength to speak out loudly and publicly, achieving a quite unimagined impact, even speaking to politicians at the highest level and helping to formulate policy for change, it was all immensely healing.   And every day, we help real people on the end of the help line.   Karma Nirvana is part of my life to such an extent that I cannot imagine ever ceasing to be a part of it.   But without any doubt, the most important thing, my greatest achievement, is that I feel I have left a legacy.  Karma Nirvana initiatives are now growing and spreading.”

Asked whether she would stay on the outside or, if she could, would rejoin the mainstream, Jasvinder replies without hesitation:  “To be honest, I prefer to be on the outside.  With hindsight, being an outsider has empowered me to such a degree that I would not swop it for anything now. My estranged family did say to me at one stage, ‘give up what you are doing and we will accept you back’ and without a moment’s hesitation, I said, ‘No, thank you’.   Because I continue to live with the real, constant danger of some kind of revenge attack, when I was revising my will recently, I stated clearly my wish not to have so much as one member of my family present at my funeral.   I know they will be keen to show their faces after I’m dead, because that is what hypocrites always do, and there are certainly a lot of them in my own family and in my community - I find it so sad to hear how my own sisters with, to some degree, their daughters too, still reinforce this legacy of abuse.   If they could not love me, accept me and show their faces when I was alive, they should not parade their self-righteous, hollow piety at my funeral.   I should much prefer the unfeigned mourning of even a few of those friends who, over time, became and still remain my true family, of those gentle, loving people whom I have been able to help when they too were bereft of all human kindness.   The achievements of Karma Nirvana will serve as my true epitaph.”

Interview Date: 4th September 2013

Updated:  3rd November 2013

Books by Jasvinder Sanghera:

Shame (2007)

Daughters of Shame (2009)

Shame Travels:  A Family Lost, A Family Found (2012)

To learn more about the work of Karma Nirvana go to:


Jasvinder Sanghera CBE is a prominent campaigner and advocate for the rights of women and men who are forced into marriage and/or are subject to so-called ‘honour-based’ abuse.  She herself fled from a forced marriage when she was 16, being subsequently ostracised by her family and becoming an outsider in her own community.   But because of that decision, she now enjoys what she can only describe as “freedom”, maintaining that you cannot be free when you’re in shackles;  you cannot think freely if you are chained.   Now she is free to express herself and the strength which she gained has allowed her to help others - together with her marvellous, loyal team at Karma Nirvana, she provides support to thousands of others in desperate need.

Photography: London 4th September 2013