Jasvinder Sanghera still remembers leaving her dad the note 35 years ago. He worked nights, and while he was asleep one day she wrote to him, saying: “I love you, but I’m not the daughter you want me to be. I can’t marry a stranger.” And then she ran away.
She waited for her best friend’s brother outside the factory where he worked, and when he came out, she says, “I told him ‘I need to run away, you have to help me.’ And he filled his Ford Escort up with petrol and got out the map. I hid in the footwell all the way from Derby to Newcastle because I was so scared we would be intercepted.”
For the next few nights they slept in the car and on park benches. “My parents reported us missing to the police, and they traced us. I begged the police officer not to make me go back, and he said he wouldn’t, but I had to phone home. So I called up my mum from a phone box; I thought she’d say, ‘Come home now, you’ve made your point.’ Instead, she said: ‘If you don’t marry this man, you’re dead in my eyes.’”
What Jasvinder didn’t realise, on that day in 1981, was how serious that threat was; and also, that although time would make it easier, it would never entirely erase the pain.
“Losing my family was a bereavement; for many years, I grieved, I was bereft. In many ways it would have been easier if they’d died, because at least that is final.
“But I did it because I knew I was entitled to choose my own partner. But I also did it because I knew if I didn’t, my children would one day have to go through arranged marriages. Someone had to opt out, however hard it was; and that someone was me.”
Her parents are now dead, and her sister Robina killed herself after she was told that leaving her husband would be too shameful; but five sisters and a brother still live in the UK – and none of them, or any of her nieces and nephews, are in touch with her.
And while today Jasvinder, 51, fights for the rights of Asian women who, like her, refuse forced marriages, and although she’s told her story many times, the reality of losing those fundamental ties still hits hard.
“Being Asian is all about family: our traditions, our culture, everything is rooted in family life. So to walk out on your family is a very, very tough thing to do – and if I’m honest I probably didn’t realise all those years ago how hard it would be. But I survived – I’m living proof that you can survive.”
Jasvinder was 14 when her mother first sat her down at the family home in Derby and showed her a photograph of a man in his 20s who, she was told, she had been promised to when she was just eight. “My mother said, ‘You’re going to marry him. You don’t have a choice. I had to do it at your age, and you’re going to have to do it now.’ She said this is our tradition: it’s what we do in our culture.”
Jasvinder was horrified – but she wasn’t surprised. Her three elder sisters had already been married to men chosen for them by their parents. “It was always the same rigmarole,” she says. “You got to 14, and a picture would come out; the picture of the man it had been decided you would marry. My sister Robina had been married two years before me. I knew my turn was coming.”
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