Honor violence is a “huge problem” in the United States and other western nations and President Obama needs to join the fight to put an end to it, according to prominent women’s rights activist Jasvinder Sanghera, who is a victim of honor violence herself.
Honor violence occurs when strict adherents to some faiths determine female family members have shamed them in various ways, ranging from an affinity for western clothes and culture to dating westerners and rejecting arranged marriage proposals.
The violence can range from murder to being disowned by one’s family. The custom is more common in the Middle East and South Asia in connection with the tenets of Islam, Sikhism and other faiths. But as those populations migrate into the western world, the scourge of honor violence comes with them.
“It’s a huge problem, certainly in the UK, certainly in America,” said Sanghera, who is also featured in the widely circulated film “Honor Diaries.”
She says there is a steep learning curve about honor violence in this country.
“Here in America, I’ve already met victim survivors who are saying that America is not accepting this as an issue. The problem here is heavily effected by the fact that you’re not even looking at it. There is no level of awareness or even an acceptance that this is an issue for American citizens, which it clearly is,” said Sanghera.
Sanghera was born into a Sikh family in Great Britain and watched as multiple sisters consented to arranged marriages without ever having met their prospective husbands. One of them ultimately took her own life.
She chose a different course.
“I was fourteen years old when my mother sat me down and presented me a photograph of the man. I was to learn I was promised from the age of eight. I was the one who said, ‘No, I am not marrying a stranger.’ I was born in England. I wanted to go to college,” said Sanghera.
Eventually, Sanghera’s family presented her with an ultimatum.
“I ran away from home at the age of 16 to make the point I was not marrying a stranger. As a result of that, my family gave me two choices. I either came back and married who they said or I was now dead in their eyes,” she said, noting that she remained firm in her refusal to enter the arranged marriage.
Since that time, Sanghera has become a very visible activist in Britain and has been able to help many others facing similar dilemmas.
“I launched a help line in 2008,” she said. “Within the first four and a half years, we’ve dealt with 48,000 calls to the help line. The majority are victim callers or repeat victim callers. That’s because we’ve been raising awareness for the past 23 years.”
Her cause recently received a major shot in the arm from the British government.
“Our prime minister in England (David Cameron) has given full support for a day of remembrance to honor the victims who were murdered in dishonorable killings. These victims are murdered by their family and being shamed for embracing everything that Britain stands for. So we have to honor their memory and use this day as an opportunity to raise awareness,” said Sanghera.
Great Britain will hold it’s remembrance day on July 14. Sanghera recently spent several days in the United States trying to raise awareness about honor violence and to convince President Obama to follow Prime Minister Cameron’s lead.
“We’ve launched a petition with “Honor Diaries,” petitioning the president to have the same day here in the USA. You’ve got victims here. I know of about 28 American citizens who have been murdered by family members. Who is honoring them?” said Sanghera.
“This is an opportunity to dialogue and raise awareness. It is not going to cost [Obama] any money. We want his heart and mind on this issue. All political parties should sign up for this as they did in the UK,” she said.
Whether or not, Obama calls for a day of remembrance for honor violence victims, Sanghera says the American people need to pay attention to a horror that may be happening in their own communities. She says that extends to law enforcement and political figures who often look the other way out of deference to the beliefs and traditions of immigrant communities.
“Victims are let down by the fact we’re looked at differently. We’re treated differently,” said Sanghera. “We have to train police officers. We are now training police officers in the UK. Sadly, that isn’t the case here in the States.”
On the international stage, Sanghera endorses western governments demanding better treatment of women by governments in nations that endorse honor violence and using diplomatic and financial tools to do it.
“There’s more than enough reason to have that debate with those countries. Otherwise, how are we going to shift attitudes,” she said. “We need to ask them for their sense on this. If it is not good enough, we need to get them uncomfortable and tell them this is out point of view.”
Sanghera eventually left Sikhism and is now a Christian. She does not believe her faith makes her more or less passionate about the issue of honor violence, but she does believe it helped her deal with a painful personal history.
“I actually became an atheist and then later on in my own life I became a Christian. It was a personal journey, a spiritual journey, and I had a lot of people to forgive. That is a core part of my being now,” said Sanghera.