How one woman is fighting to break the silence on forced marriage

Jasvinder Sanghera took control of her life - and is now looking to help other women do the same

By Robyn Wilson

Forced marriage is characterised by silence. The silence of young women and their silent, photograph fiancés. The silence of policymakers as they avert their eyes. Your silence as you squint into your memory and try to reconcile the Britain you live in with the Britain I’m telling you about. But Jasvinder Sanghera won’t be silent.

The daughter of a Derby Indian Sikh family, Jasvinder Sanghera watched her sisters vanish to become the invisible wives of invisible men in invisible houses.

Among a crowd of silent spectators, she watched her sisters become increasingly unhappy. So when, aged 15, Jasvinder was withdrawn from school expected to marry a man she’d never met, she broke the silence. She said no.

Forced marriages aren’t just sexless, loveless stalemates between strangers. They can also be violent, abusive, isolating, and psychologically crippling. Torn between the family loyalty and conflicts related to the shame of her family and the disappearance of her future, Jasvinder ran away from home and was disowned by her parents.

Whilst seeking refuge in Newcastle in 1981, she was told that her sister, Robina, had killed herself. Trapped in a physically and emotionally abusive marriage, Robina saw her life in the headlights. She saw two options: live as a prisoner to spare the shame of her family, or die. Tragically, she saw no way out – such is the power of the family.

Jasvinder saw another option: freedom. Something allowed to her brother but denied her. Something the silent spectators around her took for granted. Something her sister died for. In 1993, Jasvinder established the award-winning charity, Karma Nirvana, to give victims of forced marriage and honour-based abuse a third option – to live, in a Britain that stands for democracy, freedom and right to choose in marriage.

In 2007, Jasvinder published her bestselling memoir, Shame. Debated in the House of Commons and described as a “political weapon”, few books have changed as much in the 21st century as Shame.

In 2013, Jasvinder was awarded a CBE. But it wasn’t until 2014 that Karma Nirvana’s tireless lobbying smashed the silence to pieces, with the eventual criminalisation of forced marriage.

Of course, there is so much more to be done. Jasvinder, though, has no intention of doing it alone. Produced and staged at Derby Theatre, in the crucible of Karma Nirvana’s inception, ‘Beyond Shame’ is a new play that brings the issues of forced marriage and honour-based abuse into spotlights literal and figurative.

When I call Jasvinder from the lobby of Derby Theatre, I learn more from her about Karma Nirvana and the issues the charity works with than 20 years of collective news reports.

But Jasvinder can’t have a 30 minute chat with everyone in Britain. That’s why Karma Nirvana is commissioning and co-producing ‘Beyond Shame’. The play, she tells me, will “mobilise hearts and minds”.

Following its sold-out maiden voyage at Derby Theatre, it will tour schools, colleges, and stages across the country. She reminds me that this is everyone’s issue. Just because forced marriage might not happen in your community, it is happening in your country – and far too frequently.

In 2016, Karma Nirvana received over 7,000 calls to their helpline. The Guardian reports that in 2017, there were over 1,000 reported cases of forced marriage. Jasvinder tells me that hundreds of young girls reported abusive forced marriages last year. ‘Beyond Shame’ asks its audience to look closer: squint, and you might notice tear tracks on a cheek or scars on a wrist.

So what makes ‘Beyond Shame’ so special? What gives it the power to mobilise hearts and minds? Because it’s not fiction, Jasvinder tells me. It’s non-fiction. Every story in this play is somebody’s reality.

Much of the plot is based on her own memoir, Shame, and is told with such honesty by the cast of ‘Beyond Shame’ that Jasvinder became emotional during rehearsals. Other stories share the stage, however, including that of a young gay man whose very existence is denied by the concept of honour.

Survivors of forced marriage and honour-based abuse were involved at every stage of production. Their stories help to bring within touching distance an issue that we’ve held at arms’ length for far too long.

What’s important about the authenticity of ‘Beyond Shame’, says Jasvinder, is that it makes it impossible for audiences to dismiss what they’re seeing as “just a play” – an untouchable fantasy that shouldn’t leave the stage. In fact, it’s the input of survivors that allows ‘Beyond Shame’ to grow wings and soar up to the highest level of British politics.

It is another of Karma Nirvana’s “political weapons”. In the life that Jasvinder has planned for ‘Beyond Shame’ offstage, Karim Khan’s words will cease to be a script and become a manifesto.

The play will be filmed and used as an educational resource. Following the production’s tour of schools, Karma Nirvana will lobby to get forced marriage added to the OFSTED framework. Over time, Jasvinder hopes, as ‘Beyond Shame’ continues to speak out and sell-out, Karma Nirvana will mobilise the country in a national campaign against honour-based abuse.

As we discuss the need for greater involvement and engagement with Karma Nirvana’s work, I ask Jasvinder whether she considers forced marriage and honour-based abuse feminist issues. I’ve never received such a quick and sure response to a question.

This is an issue based largely on female suffering and female silence – if the feminist community isn’t paying attention, then we’re letting down women who need us to speak for them. When she was still struggling to be heard, Jasvinder spoke at a Women’s Health Day. She singles this out as a turning point for Karma Nirvana – and not just because Margaret Beckett MP was speaking.

During and following the event, Jasvinder became a one-woman audience for the stories of women from every different background. Every woman who heard Jasvinder’s story, and Robina’s, and was moved to share her own was an ally of Karma Nirvana. “I don’t see black, white, or Asian”, Jasvinder tells me, “Just women.”

She goes on to emphasise the importance of sharing the female experience – of educating women outside her community so they, too, can join in the fight. If you’re not willing to listen, to learn, to join fights away from your own battlefield, she wonders, then how can you call yourself a feminist? We share the silence, and only together can we break it.

When forced marriage is on the bestseller list, in the House of Commons, and on stage at Derby Theatre, though, it’s hard to describe it as an issue characterised by silence. No, survivors of forced marriage have a voice. That voice belongs to Jasvinder Sanghera.

‘Beyond Shame’ is written by Karim Khan and directed by Gitika Buttoo. It runs at Derby Theatre from September 6th to September 8th.

 If you are a victim of forced marriage or honour-based abuse, or you think someone you know might be, Karma Nirvana’s UK helpline is open Monday – Friday from 9am to 5pm. The number you need is: 0800 5999 247.


If you are interested in inviting Karma Nirvana to speak in your school or institution, please email: info@karmavirana.org.uk.  


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