My Sister Set Herself on Fire

When we think of the most horrific acts of violence against women around the world — female genital mutilation, sex slavery, child marriage, honor killings — we tend to picture the Third World. We assume this can happen only in places like Afghanistan, Iran and Somalia, only in countries that don’t have democratic governments or are ruled by religious zealots, only very far away from us. Right?


In America, as many as 1,500 forced marriages happen every year. And more than 150,000 girls are at risk of female genital mutilation right here in the U.S. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called gender-based violence “an issue of international human rights and national security.” Many times, these atrocities are tied to honor, a value more important than any other in many cultures.

The documentary film Honor Diaries (which will be released on iTunes March 4) explores the history and immediacy of these problems. In it, nine female activists from around the world discuss the systematic history of what they call “honor violence” — oppressive or violent acts against women taken out in the name of culture, religion or reputation.

Jasvinder Sanghera is one of those women. Today she is abestselling author, an internationally recognized activist and a mother of three young adults. But before this life, she survived physical and psychological abuse, and an attempted forced marriage — all before the age of 16, all while living in the United Kingdom, one of the largest democracies in the world. She shares her story.

I’m number seven in order of my eight siblings. We grew up doing normal things kids do, and I remember being happy. But there was also this code of conduct that was ingrained in us by the time I was 8. It was very clear the things we could do, couldn’t do, and must do in the name of honor.

I watched my older sisters be taken out of school at the age of 15, sent back to India, and forced to marry men they had only met in photographs.

When they returned [with their new husbands], they had sometimes been gone nine months and were held back two grades. They now wore only traditional Indian dress and sported wedding bands on their hands. Nobody asked any questions about their absences from school, or about this drastic physical change.

My sisters didn’t protest. It was instilled in them as the norm and it was dressed up as being part of our traditions, religion and culture, which is Sikh. We lived in such an isolated community, we were never exposed to a counter message to say that it was wrong, that it was child marriage. You just went with it.

My sisters were very unhappy. They would be physically and psychologically abused. My mother’s response was always to encourage them to stay with the perpetrator to make it work for the fear of shaming and dishonoring the family.

When I turned 14, there was an expectation that it was my turn. I said no. I wanted to stay in school. I didn’t want to marry a stranger. But also, my view of marriage was that you get married and you get hurt and nobody comes to rescue you. I was terrified.

My mother spoiled me at first, trying to sweet-talk me into changing my mind. When it became clear that I wouldn’t, the emotional blackmail began. She’d say things like, “You’re ruining the lives of all your sisters.” “Your dad will die of a heart attack and it will be your fault.”

I couldn’t talk to anyone about it because we had been taught to never discuss things outside of the family, because it was very dishonorable. So I retaliated. I got a haircut.

At the time, I had hair so long I could sit on it. Cutting your hair in our culture made you a hussy of a woman in the eyes of everyone. I tried to hide it by wearing a towel on my head, but my mother knocked the towel off on the fourth day. For this offense, my mother physically beat me and sent me to live with my oldest sister and her husband in London until my hair grew back. The punishments of daring to step outside of the honor codes were very real.

When I eventually was allowed to return home, my family held me prisoner. I wasn’t allowed to go back to school, and I was locked in a room, with the lock placed on the outside of the door. To go to the toilet, I would have to knock on the door and be escorted. They would bring food to the door. My family, including my sisters, would enforce this. I was not allowed to leave that room until I agreed to the marriage.

In the end, I acquiesced, primarily so I could plan an escape. My mother instantly went from vicious captor to fawning mother of the bride. It felt like an out-of-body experience. I was looking down at this marriage being planned, and it happened to be mine.

The day before I was to get on a plane to India to be married, I ran away with my friend’s brother. This was the first male I had ever had any sort of conversation with in my life. He liked me and I liked him. So he helped me. We drove to a town about 180 miles away from my hometown of Darby. The whole trip — about four hours — I sat crouched in the foot well of the car. I was absolutely petrified that if I put my head up, my family would be behind me.

We lasted about three months, sleeping in the car, in the park, at motels, and washing in public conveniences. I remember the knock on the door when the police found us. My friend denied I was there, but I eventually burst to the front door and hysterically begged the policeman not to send me home. Thankfully, he agreed. This isn’t what happens to most women, but he had seen cases like this before. He did make me phone home to tell them I was safe and well.

I was hoping my mother or somebody would say that I could come home now and not marry this stranger. I didn’t want to be out there in the world, homeless and uncomfortable. I was only 16. My mother answered the phone. Her ultimatum was, “You either come home and marry who we say or you are dead to us.” I chose not to go back.

When you’re disowned by your family, it’s very lonely. I missed them terribly. And I loved them. Your home is your home. It’s like me asking you to wake up tomorrow morning and never be able to see any person or any thing that was familiar to you ever again. And be made to feel that it was all your fault. I constantly wrote to them, I called them, I would show up at the house, only to be shunned at every single point and be reminded of my low worth.

I had a secret relationship with my sister, Robina, who is two years older than me. We were comforts for each other. She was miserable in her marriage. When I would meet her in secret, I would see the bruises. I’d go to her house and there were smashed windows and holes in the door where her husband had kicked it in.

I begged her to come stay with me. I was living in a nearby town with the boy I ran away with. We eventually got married, but of course that was destined to fail — we were so young. Robina wouldn’t listen. She said, “It’s easy for you to say. You don’t have to think about Mum and Dad, what people think, or your honor.” She was absolutely right.

I begged her to at least go talk to our parents, which she did. They called our local community leader, who was a Sikh counselor. He basically reinforced that she should go back to her husband and make the marriage work. He made it quite clear that I had left home and disgraced them so, if she left her husband, it would kill my parents. What he meant by that is it would kill their reputation.

Within a few days of that meeting, she set herself on fire and she died. She was only 25.

That was a turning point for me. When Robina lost her life, I remember feeling a sense of complete outrage at my mother and my community. I thought that they had killed her. They may not have physically done it, but they had driven her to that. They could have protected her, but they were more concerned with protecting their honor.

Overnight, I owned being the victim. All this time I had placed the blame on myself. Slowly, I made the transition into being a survivor. And that’s when I started making decisions about showing my face where they said I couldn’t. And, especially, wanting to help others. Nobody could bring Robina back, but I could give justice to her voice, which is how I found my own as well.

I established Karma Nirvana as a place for victims of honor crimes and gender-based violence to find help and support. Now, 21 years later, we handle up to 700 calls a week within the U.K.

The only way to stop the proliferation of these crimes is to look for them. People have to acknowledge that even though you’re born in a democracy — in Britain or America — where you know you have rights and independence, those rights are not accessible to all. We, as a community, need to be looking for these invisible women who are suffering and help them find access to the human rights they deserve.

I’m 48 this year, and I do not take my independence for granted. I had to fight for that. There have been some costs attached, but my children will not inherit that legacy of abuse because of the choices their mother made.

A link to the article can be found here.