“Honour-based abuse” survivor Jasvinder Sanghera on the reality of Murdered by My Father

The campaigner talks to Kasia Delgado about the idea of "honour", whether British schools and services are equipped to deal with this violence - and why she's not afraid of offending hardline religious communities

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What is the reality of forced marriage and “honour” killings in Britain? How and why does this violence happen? BBC3 drama Murdered by My Father, written by Vinay Patel and based on testimonials from survivors of this kind of abuse, tackles this very real horror.

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One of the advisors on the drama was Derby-born Jasvinder Sanghera, who ran away at the age of 15 to escape forced marriage and was then disowned by her Sikh family. After one of her older sisters, trapped in an abusive forced marriage, killed herself, Sanghera set up the charity Karma Nirvana to support victims in similar situations and, despite receiving countless death threats for speaking out against the abuse, she’s continued campaigning tirelessly since 1993.

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We spoke to Sanghera, who told us about the reality behind Murdered by My Father, why she’s not afraid of offending hardline religious communities and whether there’s been any progress in Britain. Hear what Sanghera has to say, in her own words. 

“This abuse is happening to them in places they’re meant to be the safest”

“If you’re going to do a drama about this issue then it really has to be realistic, and not getting into the realms of fearing about cause and offence or offending communities — because these things are happening.

“We gave real life case studies from Karma Nirvana, which enabled the script writer to inform the programme and highlight how the abuse actually works. You think it’s usually one-on-one abuse; a woman, a man and then violence. In these honour-based violence scenarios, and in the drama, you always have multiple perpetrators and those people can be your nearest and dearest. In the case of the film, it’s the father.

“That’s a really important point to make because the people who call our helpline, they’re talking about abuse that is happening to them in places they’re meant to be the safest.”

“The people who ring our helpline have five to fifteen abusers”

“The people who are doing this to them are mothers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles so we are listening to victims every day who have got abusers of five to fifteen people, often part of the family dynamic. And what you see in the film is it’s not even just a father and the family but the wider community. It’s about his concern for what the community is going to think about his daughter who has dishonoured him by having a boyfriend.

“You see a young person born in Britain, a normal teenage kid, who can can be abused for wanting to sexually express themselves, dress to express themselves, wear makeup or have a boyfriend. Talking to a boy or even social networking can be seen as dishonourable.” 

“There is no honour in ‘honour’ killing”

“So this father in the film hears all this gossip in the community and he’s got no choice but to save face and his reputation to deal with his daughter by forcing her to marry. There’s a really close link between dishonouring your family and your family ‘dealing with you’ through marriage. Or through the extremes of murder, or taking you out of this country to India or Pakistan and ‘dealing with you’ there.

“In the drama, Salma’s [below] dad locks her up, removes all her freedom, and in the end, because she’s still protesting, he can’t take the risk anymore and the murder happens.

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“We know that there is no honour in an honour killing, we accept these are dishonourable killings — but what we have to have regard for is that the motivation for the abuse is honour related. 

“When you see the father in the drama [below], he believes himself to be dishonoured by his daughter and the only way he can reclaim the honour and his reputation is to claim honour by marriage or murdering her. The film is good because it shows the loving relationship between the father and daughter. It highlights how he’s a loving a father who is acting, as far as he is concerned, as a loving father.

“Yeah, try and work out the psychology of that…”

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“We have no idea how many unmarked graves there are in Britain let alone abroad”

“Nazir Afzal from the Crown Prosecution Service said a while ago that we have no idea how many unmarked graves there are in Britain, let alone the girls who are taken abroad, because their parents obviously don’t report them missing.

“And sadly, the NHS reports that for South Asian women born in Britain between 16 and 24 years old, the suicide and self-harm rate is three to four times higher than national average for the UK. I understand that statistic because the victims are so isolated because they internalize that guilt and shame.”

“I was born in Britain, I want to be afforded the same level of protection to my white counterparts”

“When people say ‘forced marriage a cultural thing, its their problem, we shouldn’t get involved’, what I say is this; ‘I was born in Britain, I want to be afforded the same level of protection to my white counterparts. It cannot be right that so many girls go missing each year in the summer holidays, the time when young people get taken out of this country and forced into marriages. Why is it that when we go missing the same questions are not asked about us as they are of my white counterparts? It’s the attitude of ‘oh its cultural’, but I expect people to take abuse for what it is — abuse.”

“We’ve got a long way to go”

“I’ve been doing this for 23 years and there has been a shift in perception without a doubt. We’re now seeing judges and the Crown Prosecution Service trained, honour based abuse is going to be an aggravating factor in terms of sentencing guideline [this factor will increase the seriousness of the crime] and forced marriage is now a criminal offence.

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“HMIC [the inspection body for police] recently did a review to see how 43 police forces are performing and responding to honour based abuse and forced marriage. That report came out in December last year and I’m sad to say that out of the 43 police forces only three forces are nationally readily prepared to effectively respond to honour based abuse, which is quite damning actually. So now we’re working on recommendations for that.  

“Where we’re not seeing the shift is on the ground, and that’s where the victims are. We’re not seeing that awareness in social workers, teachers, police officers on the ground and schools. It’s the same with primary care and GPs. These are the areas where victims are more likely to report their abuse, which is why we need to ensure that we are raising awareness among the professionals, otherwise the victims might get taken back to their family or get a response of ‘let’s go talk to your mum and dad and see if we can work this out’. They need to be able to protect this person, not talk to the family members.

“We are bringing forced marriage to the forefront but we’ve still got a long way to go. Nobody should be abusing anybody in the name of anybody’s culture. How can we accept abuse on the grounds of faith and tradition?”

Murdered by My Father is available to watch on BBC iPlayer from 6pm on 29th March, and will air on BBC1 on Tuesday 5th April at 10:45pm

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If you or someone you know is affected by “honour-based violence” please click here for Karma Nirvana’s helpline and more information on how you can get support. Call 999 in an emergency.