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An Open Letter to British Asians From Survivor Sara Karim

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Shafilea Ahmed, murdered by her parents

Trigger warning: This letter contains information about sexual assault and violence which may trigger a level of distress.

Dear Community,

My catalogue of transgressions began at the age of 14 when I was raped by a group of older teenage boys who had lured me away from the local youth centre for a game of hide ‘n’ seek in the stairwell of a local tower block. Here I was pinned up against a wall, before they took turns to rape me, running away when they heard my brother’s voice in the distance calling out my name in a bid to find me. As my brother entered the stairwell, he found me propped against the concrete wall dazed and in a state of undress. All I recall next are his vicious blows raining down on my head and face, whilst I was dragged home by my hair. Due to the extent of my injuries, which I found out at a much later date, included a fractured nose and cheekbone, I was absent from school for a fortnight. To this day, I have never spoken out about what happened to me.

“I was now damaged goods and I needed to be disposed of to the nearest taker, quick sharp.”

How could I? I had besmirched the honour (izzat) of my family; the very thing which I was indoctrinated to believe must be upheld at any cost.

My wanton behaviour needed to be curbed in order to repair the damaged honour (izzat) of our wider communal family. I was now damaged goods and I needed to be disposed of to the nearest taker, quick sharp. In my case, I was taken overseas under the pretence of a holiday (yes, that old chestnut) to attend a family wedding, only to find I had been promised to my maternal cousin, the eldest child of ten children, and 15 years my senior.

My only means of survival was to comply with the suffocating demands placed upon me as a newlywed bride, as I was fully aware that any further misdemeanours on my part could potentially lead to being abandoned, with very little chance of returning home – like so many others, I didn’t want to be another number missing off the school roll. Only when they thought my fate (kismet) had been sealed with the announcement of the impeding birth of my first child (only still a child myself at 16) was I allowed to fly home to begin the process of applying for a spousal visa for my cousin come-husband-come-rapist, to join me in the UK.

Only, being married and with child at 16 was not my fate (kismet), no, it was a well-orchestrated operation in reining me in. I was perceived as too great of a threat to their well-polished community image as a feisty, free spirited, and vociferous teenager. For many, like myself, our lives were severed at the artery the very moment we were deemed too much of a risk of tainting the good name of our family. But how? By simply stepping outside the realms of conformity. The women and girls who do challenge these age old draconian practices, despite the consequences, are either often subtly shut down through a convoluted process of being ostracised en masse by the community at large, or at the very worst, killed.

As my pleas for a divorce were rapidly dismissed, and further measures were sanctioned to restrict my movements outside the family home, I was left with no other option but to run away. Little did I know at the time that this would trigger a mass search initiated by my family, which would be led by the police, local councillors, and community leaders, all of whom colluded in perpetuating the cycle of abuse within which I had become entrapped. My family had gone as far hiring a team of bounty hunters to recover me from the safe house where I had been placed, whilst the Police Liaison Officer, who acted as the conduit between myself and my family, urged me to return home on the basis of the high volume of calls he had received from various members of the community, allegedly concerned for my wellbeing.

“I sit here quietly mourning my premature death at the tender age of 14, along with the deaths of thousands of other young women just like me – our lives brutally cut short.”

I returned home on the Officer’s assurances that no further harm would come to me. Within weeks of returning home, I was being coerced to remain in the marriage, to begin the process of having my husband join me in the UK, and to retract the police statement I had made against my brother for assaulting me. As their unrelenting pleas to comply with their demands mounted, I again felt I had no other option but to escape by running away again. Only this time finding myself completely homeless and living in a derelict property in a notorious part of town.

I sit here quietly mourning my premature death at the tender age of 14, along with the deaths of thousands of other young women just like me – our lives brutally cut short. I have since, like so many others before me been left languishing in the bowels of hell. 
The autopsies reveal a community complicit in these deaths, a community that chooses to remain silent in order to uphold the so-called honour (izzat) of its members. A community that turns a blind eye to the mass suffering among its women and girl folk. The very people it sets out to protect reflect the bizarre paradox, which besets the context of our very being, as British-Asian women living in Britain today.

Undoubtedly, there are those who are quick to retort back (as is often the case) with an air of McCarthyism, at how ‘our women’ are no longer downtrodden, women who cannot step foot over the threshold of their own front doorstep without explicit permission from their kith and kin. Don’t I know there are British-Asian women who can now speak several languages, who hold down high-powered careers with a string of letters after their name, along with neat six figure salaries, and a weekend cottage in the Cotswolds to boot – as somehow these caricatures of women are immune from male (and sometimes female) violence and abuse!

Yet, never questioning why for a number of decades’ schoolgirls, some as young as 11 or 12 years of age, have been systematically sexually exploited during the course of their school lives. Whether it was during the Bhangra ‘day-time raves’ during the mid 80’s and 90’s, or on their way to a local takeaway during their lunchbreak, or as they exited the school gates where they were targeted as sexual prey.

Rather than reporting the matter to the authorities to tackle the perpetrators at large, over recent years, some parents’ disquiet has led to policing the movements of their daughters through hiring private minibuses to ferry girls to and from school. Once again, perpetuating the damaging message that we as women must take responsibility for curbing the sexual predatory behaviour of men, which ultimately restricts our movements, as well as our right to feel safe in the wider world. A message we all too frequently communicate to our daughters. Since 2010, over 12’000 honour based crimes, including violence, abduction, and harassment have been reported to the police across the UK. It is believed these figures are not reflective of the true proportion of these crimes, as women and girls are often too frightened to come forward and disclose information.

Ten years on, and I have managed to carve a life out for myself; I have acquired a professional diploma and a 1st class degree, quite a feat for someone who had left school with a handful of mediocre exam results and for someone who many believed wouldn’t be destined for much more than a life of servitude. Over time, I have made numerous attempts to reconcile the differences with my family, however, each time I choose to live a life which is not governed by their prescribed set of codes, the process of elimination begins: invitations to family gatherings, community and religious celebrations slowly cease. So do the occasional social phone calls, text messages, and social media exchanges – I’m either unfriended or blocked. My presence is far too much of a burden upon their respectability, with my absence confirming their quiet disapproval.

“British Asian women are three times more likely to attempt or commit actual suicide compared to other women.”

A decade has passed, yet a quick search reveals 3 cases of forced marriage alone are being reported to the authorities every day in the UK, with the Governments Forced Marriage Unit having received over 12,000 enquiries about forced marriage in the last twelve months. Despite the consequences, I continue to strive to live a life that is authentic, unlike other women from the British-Asian community whose only means of survival is to live a life often dictated by family and the wider community, whilst choosing to assert their autonomy outside the glare of judgement. I do not wish to be viewed as a victim of my circumstance, but rather as a woman who continues to survive despite the odds. Unfortunately, Rukshana Naz, Shafilea Ahmed, and Sahjdar Bibi, were all killed for dishonouring (bezhti) their families. According to the UN, 5,000 honour killings take place around the world each year.

Those of us who are not killed are often driven to take our own lives – British Asian women are three times more likely to attempt or commit actual suicide compared to other women. Something I myself have not been immune to – I’m all too aware of other women in my community who have tried to take their own lives.

As a community, it is our moral duty to begin the process of openly bringing some of these issues to the fore by raising awareness through dialogue and debate. This is the elephant in the room that we simply cannot continue to ignore any longer. The recent BBC drama ‘Murdered by My Father’ was able to draw on the complexities of honour (izzat) and the way in which it is woven into the fabric of family dynamics through a father’s compelling need to control his daughter’s increasing rebelliousness.

The drama is a starting point; what is needed is a much more robust support system in place, that is able to combat the diverse and multifaceted nature of the issues at hand, which are often inextricably linked with other forms of violence and abuse. This includes a country wide centralised monitoring system to be in place to comprehensively record incidents of forced marriages and honour based violence in order to develop a clearer understanding of the depth and nature of the problem across the UK. Bolstered by a cross-sector support response to create a raft of provisions, including public awareness raising campaigns, specialist refuges, alongside increased resources to specialist grassroots community-based women’s services.

I am hopeful the next decade will bring real change.

Yours faithfully,

Sara Karim
,
A Survivor

Image of Shafilea Ahmed courtesy of Asian Media
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website. The copyright remains with the author, any reproduction of this post should accredit She Speaks We Hear.
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An Open Letter to Happily Married SuperMums (Who Got Lucky…)

Dear Happily Married SuperMum,

Hi there.

You already know me so I won’t go into too much depth describing myself: I’m basically the antithesis of everything you are – the all-too visible single brown elephant in the room. You know, the +30-year-old “bogey-woman” who looks like she’s having way too much fun being single to get married and who, instead of being the heroine little girls used to be told to look up to, is now used as the subject matter for multiple horror stories (“warning little would-be astronaut: this is what happens to you if you’re TOO outspoken/opinionated/intelligent and don’t get lucky like your mumsy did. You die ALONE”).

Image courtesy of Akeela Ahmed

Image courtesy of Akeela Ahmed

It’s hard being me.

No, really.

It is.

Mainly because the likes of me are constantly being compared to the likes of you. As though in between looking after ourselves and our families, holding down jobs, paying our taxes and mortgages, looking after ageing parents and basically surviving how we can, we’ve been sleeping away the years instead of attempting to reach that supposed pinnacle of human endeavour: marriage.

And to be honest, it’s exhausting.

Because at the end of the each and every day, what we are essentially having to defend ourselves against is a serious case of victim-blaming. We’re the victims – nay survivors – of a world (be you Muslim or not) that still places women’s worth on their marriage v singledom status. We’re not the ones at fault here. Trust me. And here’s why:

  1. There’s not a woman I know, be they in their late twenties, thirties or forties and who is still single, who hasn’t tried EVERYTHING to find a man she won’t end up throttling 24 hours post meeting. Online dating? They came UP with the concept! Intestine-curdling “marriage events”? They’ve been there, done a thousand and puked up after most of them. Shaadi/Elite Singles/Believe-My-Lies.com? Tick, tick, and major tick. Agreeing to meet men who are ‘players’/ ego-maniacs / ‘religious’ stroke other-types-of hypocrites / bores / intellectual misnomers / straight out liars / happen-to-have-had-twenty-girlfriends-in-the-past / so-vain-it-hurts? Of course – in fact, they were starting points! In short, there is nothing that hasn’t been tried – every stone has been turned over so many times they’ve been worn away to mere pebbles. So to suggest that a woman in her thirties/forties is single because she hasn’t been trying hard enough is like telling Stephen Hawking he could walk – if he just had a little more willpower! It’s beyond insulting.
  2. Our careers are important to us, certainly – but mainly because it puts food on multiple tables and roofs over multiple heads. Please don’t use it against us. We need to work to pay our way in this world – whether it’s because we have a choice or not is our business. Some of us have ailing parents to tend to. Some of us don’t have parents at all. Some of us are solo bread-winners thanks to high male unemployment rates. Some of us work because we find home-making too hard and tedious and want to contribute to the wider world. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter, nor does it mean our job is the one solo thing we give our lives over to (we can do more than one thing at a time, remember?). Would we give it all up tomorrow to trot the globe at leisure and fill our days with afternoon teas? Hellz yeah – if we could afford to and not risk being dependent on anyone else. To suggest those of us who are single and working are placing our careers ahead of every other desire in life is to be grossly negligent of who we are, what we’re about and what we both need and want out of life – not to mention the financial pressures we face (which hint, hint, are the same as men’s). It’s tragic that in 2015, single women earning are still looked upon as wilful rebels. My male counterparts would never have to justify their economic activities in relation to marriage. If men don’t have to put up with searing judgements for simply being employed, women certainly shouldn’t. And if we should happen to be enjoying our careers as an added bonus, surely that’s a good thing? Isn’t it? Or do we need to be miserable on all fronts as a ‘punishment’ for being single?
  3. Ah! The Ultimate Classic Boogey-Card: babies.  There isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t hear the words “But don’t you want children?” Er, yes. I do. But only if I meet a man I would want to procreate with (so far numbering at zero). And besides: why is MY stance on the spectrum of motherhood of concern to you? Ah yes! Because it’s a viable threat to hold over my already over-burdened head! Well, let’s put this one to bed: fertility is SUBJECTIVE. There are women in Germany giving birth at 65, whilst I have friends as young as 22 who are having fertility issues. What part of children being a part of God’s blessings bestowed as is His/Her will is hard to understand? And who is to say that if I had married at 19 I’d have had no problems conceiving? Sure, my body would have been firmer/more adept/hotter, but then so would have my supposed hubby’s. And just in case you haven’t heard, men have age-related fertility issues too. So they may be able to produce sperm until death do them part, but the older they become (and the wider the age gap between them and their partner), the longer it will take for them to be able to impregnate an egg. Charlie Chaplin may have had Mavis at 76, but that’s probably because it took over a decade for his barely alive message to reach the mother-ship. Get it? Besides which, I’ve always found any discussion around “fertility” in relation to marriage abhorrent: call me whatever you want (fool, naïve, a gonner), but I want someone who wants to be with me for me – not for what my body may or may not be capable of producing. The last thing I want is for love to be conditional. Should I lose my legs or limbs or womb due to an accident or cancer or war (God forbid), I’d want my partner to…I don’t know. Stick around! Not scarper off and marry the next “fertile” woman he can get his hands on. Any children would be a blessing – an enrichment to a relationship that should be strong enough to survive with or without them. So please. Enough with the biological blackmail. I’ve seen this threat be used countless times to force both men and women into marriages they weren’t ready for, and the only thing given birth to is misery and divorce.
  4. 25 is NOT the perfect age. Hate to break it to you, but there’s no such thing. People are instinctively attune to when they’re ready for marriage – for some it hits young, for others it hits later in life, and for some (gasp!) it may never hit at all. It all depends on a whole world of things and again, is subjective. I’m a completely different person in my thirties than I was in my twenties and know myself far better – so my idea of what I want in a life partner is far clearer (and saner) too. The things I would have looked for a decade ago (basically a mix of Frodo and William Wallace) seem hilarious to me now.  And how many of us have friends and family who married too young because of family/societal pressures and are now traversing the earth in a state of Divorcedom? Time to let this myth go too: we have enough to be getting on with already.

 

So, to all Happily Married Supermums out there, I offer my congratulations. You got lucky – extremely lucky, and I’m truly happy for you. But your circumstances were/are not the same as mine, so nor will my life-path be.  I didn’t meet the love of my life in/before/straight out of university. Nor did I encounter him in my work-places or through my family’s attempted arrangements. So instead, I’m simply getting on with my life – refusing to marry men who I know I could never love and who simply wouldn’t “get” me. I don’t deserve censure for the way my life is going – nor do I need to be constantly treated like something that needs to be ‘fixed’.

So please, the next time a 25-year old comes to you for marriage advice, tell them what I tell their counterparts:  love and marriage will come, if and when God wills it. By all means look and be open to it, but don’t forsake your own life – or careers – or sanity waiting. Men certainly aren’t expected to. Women shouldn’t have to either.

Yours sincerely,

Onjali Qatara Rauf

Onjali was the former Assistant Editor for emel Magazine; Campaigns Manager for Women for Women International UK, and is Founder and CEO of Making Herstory: a self-styled human rights organisation working to end the abuse, trafficking and enslavement of women and girls worldwide.  She was shortlisted for the Care2Impact and Emma Humphreys Awards in 2014 for her works in the women’s rights sector. You can follow her on Twitter @OnjaliRauf  and follow  @MakeHerstory1 too