Honour abuse survivor and Leeds student, Saliha, talks to LS about her experience and how her desire for independence pushed her to leave her family.
Think about all the things in your life you have control over: what you wear, where you go, what you do and who you see. Now imagine if these choices were no longer yours, but your family’s. The pressure forced upon young people to conform to this strict and rigid lifestyle creates an apathy where you feel there is no escape. Going against them would bring shame to your family and lead to further restrictions on your freedoms. For many of us, this seems unimaginable, but for some, life is a daily struggle against this type of restrictive behaviour. In the UK, it’s feared that up to 12 honour killings occur every year and it’s expected that the actual number of honour-based crimes is much higher, as many go unreported due to fear of retribution from their families. Saliha, a psychology student at Leeds Trinity University, is a survivor of honour-based violence. We chatted to her about her story and the work she’s now doing to help change the laws about honour-based violence and supporting victims going through the same situation.
For someone who doesn’t really know what honour abuse is would you be able to explain a little bit about it?
Honour based abuse is not giving somebody their basic human rights. It’s a collection of practices used to control behaviour within families in order to try and protect perceived cultural and religious beliefs. This includes trying to prevent behaviours that would be perceived as dishonourable, so, becoming westernized, or, having a boyfriend and wearing make-up. Those would be deemed as dishonourable.
So, can you explain a little bit about yourself and your situation?
I was born in the UK and from a Pakistani family originally. I am blind. I had a normal childhood, then by the age of 13, secondary school, late teens, I started to experience this kind of honour abuse. My life was controlled, every aspect of my life, from who I went out with, the friends that I had, the people I associated myself with, things like that. That was all controlled, I was seen to become westernised. My family kind of operated this honour system.
Did you realise at the time what was happening or did you see this as normal?
I knew at the time that it was wrong this way. I was always told as well that because I was blind that I would never be independent, or live independently. But I couldn’t accept it, you know, I wanted to be an independent person, my friends were independent people. And you know I, at the age of 16, left behind, or tried to leave behind, that honour system that was operated in my family. And then I went back, because of lack of support when I left. And I left again, two years later and I stayed with a family member. Then I was subject to emotional blackmail, so I went back again. By this time, I kind of felt worthless, you know. I kind of felt like they were right when they said I would never be able to live an independent life. Twice I had left and twice I had ended up going back and it was always worse, it was always more controlled, so then I started university and I’m doing a Psychology degree, and the restrictions increased, because I could see what my life could be like when I saw peers at university. You know they were thriving off university life and I had to live this other life. I think it got to the point where I was considering dropping out of university and then someone I confided in was like, no, there is a way out and in April 2012 I left for the final time and I never looked back really.
Do you still maintain any contact with the family members who imposed these restrictions?
I have cut all my ties with them, but I still maintain contact with some extended family, but my immediate family I have cut ties with.
Did you know of any other families who had children the same age who were going through similar kind of abuse, or was yours an isolated case?
Yeah I did, I knew because I was always told that all parents do this to their children but I always knew that yeah maybe they did but it’s not right. I didn’t personally know but when I left I started to read books about people and come into contact with a charity called Karma Nirvana who I now volunteer for.
Were there any particular organisations or charities that helped you get away from that abusive cycle?
In my situation there wasn’t. I didn’t know charities like that existed and I didn’t have any knowledge of them so for me it was just that I moved to university and moved into university accommodation; they had emergency accommodation and a room free in the halls of residence but I didn’t know that there were these organisations. It was when I was in halls of residence that a friend of mine introduced me to this book written by Jasvinder Sanghera. I read that book and thought to myself that if she could go through this – she was forced into marriage so it was slightly different – that there are survivors of this and they’ve made something of their life, so can I. I volunteer for her charity now. Once I read her book I was kind of invested with it. The charity is called Karma Nirvana and that’s a charity that supports victims and survivors of forced marriage and honour based abuse, so I volunteer with them. I’ve done my volunteer training and everything, so now, I’m a survivor. I take calls from other survivors and victims, so they have someone to talk to. That empathy is really important.
Do you feel your experience has enabled you to be able to do something good?
Definitely. The opportunities that have been created have been amazing. I got to speak at the House of Lords about my experiences in January. I was also honoured with the True Honour Award by the Iranian and Kurdish womans’ rights organization (IKWRO) for taking a stand against honour abuse in my life and for the community. I still think there’s work to be done, I take these opportunities and these things as a chance to raise awareness for other people. I knew as soon as I left that there are still other people that are finding themselves now in the situation which I was in and I want to help, now that I’ve been blessed with a life of freedom and choice. So that’s why I am going again to the House of Lords to speak to Baroness Cox. I’m going to be speaking to her about my experiences, speaking on behalf of other survivors and trying to convince Parliament members that there is still work to be done.
Do you feel like there are enough laws in place to help protect against this kind of abuse?
There’s a law coming in against forced marriage in May this year. Honour abuse I personally feel is not really talked about. There is a lot of cultural sensitivity and I think people are too shy to say anything because they don’t want to be branded as culturally insensitive. People have to drop that, they have to say it as it is, and there has been discussion about that, especially now that Female Genital Mutilation has become an important discussion. I think people have started to talk about these things now but there’s still a lot more that needs to be done.
What would you say to anyone who may still be a victim of honour based abuse?
There is a way out. You might feel alone now, you might think that there isn’t a way out and there’s nobody looking out for you but there are charities to help you if you are going through this situation. You can contact various organisations. You can contact your students union; you’re not alone in this.
And finally, do you feel like you’ll ever be able to reconcile with your family in the future?
Well they say that anger is like a hot coal, and the more you hold onto it, the more you burn yourself. So I have forgiven them, because forgiveness is the key that frees you. The only way that reconciliation will be if these honour practices were dropped. But from my side, I’ve forgiven.