How Jasvinder fled a forced marriage but found her family again in India

Jasvinder Sanghera travelled to India to find a sister she’d never met because of a decades-long feud over forced marriage. Sheena Hastings reports.

JASVINDER Sanghera’s father left India’s Punjab region in the 1950s to live in England, bringing values and beliefs with him that included arranged marriage. After five of her sisters had already been married off to men they had not chosen, Jasvinder refused to follow the same path. When she resisted marrying a man in India she had only seen in a photo, she was incarcerated for weeks but managed to flee the family home.

Six weeks after the 14-year-old had disappeared, she heard that her sister Robina had committed suicide to escape the abusive marriage she had willingly entered into. When she could bear no further beating, Robina had poured paraffin over herself and lit a match. Even this tragedy did nothing to heal the rift with Jasvinder. She was allowed to visit the house just once to pay her respects to her dead sister, but her mother then made one thing clear: in her eyes, Jasvinder was also dead. Their parents are now dead, but still her remaining sisters cross the road to avoid her.

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Jasvinder struggled for years, sometimes living on the streets. She eventually found her feet, and went on to found the organisation Karma Nirvana, which helps women who are escaping the prospect of forced marriage, are trapped in an abusive relationship or are the victim of any kind of “honour”-based crime. She has also written two best-selling books, Shame – which described her own experiences, and Daughters of Shame, detailing the stories of some of the thousands of women who had been helped by the charity. They are tales of daughters who loved their families but were driven away by abuse carried out in the name of “izzat”, or the preservation of the family honour. The stories are a sorrowful catalogue of beatings, rape, kidnapping and torture.

Long before his death, Jasvinder’s father had made it clear that she had brought shame on her family by refusing a marriage arranged with a stranger. When she continued to resist, he said she could never go to India because “shame travels” and she would be shunned by everyone they knew.

Twenty-nine years after she escaped to Newcastle, Jasvinder lives in West Yorkshire and has two daughters, one of whom, Natasha, is about to get married for love. The prospect of a big Sikh wedding with one family joyfully celebrating their son’s nuptials but a great space in the temple where Natasha’s extended family ought to be prompted Jasvinder to have one more go at some kind of reconciliation. She chose a route via a much older sister called Bugenol, from her father’s first marriage. Jasvinder had never been to India, and had only seen old photographs of this sister, whom Jasvinder’s mother refused to take with them when she and her husband left for England.

Taking a BBC crew with her to witness the success or otherwise of her quest, Jasvinder said: “I know that in trying to contact my sister she could reject me and tell me that I am dishonourable. I doubt she knows who I am because my family never spoke about me.” It was a risk worth taking, she felt. Before travelling to her father’s village in the Punjab, she met Arti and Sanjay, a young couple forced to live in hiding in Delhi because they defied their parents’ wishes and married each other for love, and hears that the UK Foreign Office rescues many UK-born girls marooned in India and Pakistan through enforced marriage each year.

“This is man-made oppression, like any form of abuse,” says Jasvinder. “Hundreds or thousands of English girls are sent to India or Pakistan each year to be married, forced into marriage. It’s nothing to do with maintaining cultural values. it’s a scam to get their husbands into the UK and secure British passports.” She clearly still finds it difficult to come to terms with the way her mother, the enforcer of the family, used religion to convince her daughters that they must accept forced marriage. Sikh elder, J S Jassi, has validated Jasvinder’s work in the UK and reassured her that marriage against the will of an individual is not supported by the faith.

On arrival at her father’s village, Jasvinder feels curiously close to him and is poignantly reminded of stories he told to her as a child about the people, the countryside, and the crops that would grow. But she meets an aunt who tells her that Bugenol has been dead for six years. Jasvinder suspects the story to be untrue. “I won’t believe it until I go to her village. If alive, though, she may know nothing of me, and reject me.”

On arrival, a group of mothers tell the visitors that Bugenol is indeed alive. Only a few minutes later, a small and wizened 60-something runs toward Jasvinder, and a moment you can’t script happens, with the older sister crying: “You’re my sister! You’re my sister! This would be a good day to die!” For Jasvinder, frozen with fright over the outcome of her search, the realisation that here is a sister who will accept her puts her almost beyond speech. At last she says: “This is the best feeling I’ve had in my life...”.

Asked if she knew how Jasvinder had run away from the arranged marriage and whether she believe this brought shame on the family, Bugenol says: “Not at all. Just ignore them.” Jasvinder realises that the point of honour being defended so hotly by her parents in England seems to mean nothing to the family members she meets in India, who completely accept her. “I have lost 29 years of family who don’t have a grudge against me. I don’t know whose honour they were trying to preserve, because it’s nothing to do with anybody here. For the first time I am embracing my real culture. I can see beyond the oppression that my culture brought into my life in England.”

BBC producer Dan Farthing, who travelled to India with Jasvinder, says: “There does seem to be some kind of time shift in operation in all of this. The first generation immigrants to the UK became locked into an outmoded mindset. People in the village in India did not have the same feelings about it at all. It was a huge fillip to her that she had been right to believe what she believed about her mother using religion as a tool of oppression. Jasvinder heard from her sister that her father had been proud of her in many ways, which is perverse, given the situation that had gone on for so many years.

“As a film maker, rather than taking someone back to a place and reconstructing a story from the past, it was genuinely exciting and scary that we were doing the old-fashioned thing of facing real jeopardy in real time, facing the sister and waiting for her instinctive, spontaneous reaction. The experience also underlined how the work Jasvinder does is about fundamental human rights.”

Back in Yorkshire, her work goes on – still running Karma Nirvana, appearing before government select committees and trying to influence policy on arranged marriage, and involved in Natasha’s forthcoming wedding. Jasvinder keeps in contact with Bugenol and feels buoyed up that she has a sister who accepts that what she’s doing is right.

“Going over to India has impacted on my work in various ways. One of the key things is the question of those girls who are taken over there and trapped. I would not have a clue how to get back, so they will be completely isolated in rural villages. The Forced Marriage Unit has to link with us to prevent British subjects from going and to support those who they repatriate. What happens to those we rescue? No-one knows as no-one tracks them. I suspect many end up going back home and do become repeat victims.”