A few months ago I was asked by the wonderful Deeyah Khan if I would speak about my perspective on forced marriage at the second event in a series produced by FUUSE Forum, a platform dedicated to discussion of harmful practices and radicalisation. It was so refreshing for me to able to approach the topic from an angle of my own choosing, as most often I’m asked by the press to relate my dramatic story of escape from the threat of forced marriage when I was 12 years old. Although it’s clear that I do need to keep telling that story to reach those who are simply unaware of the very real threat to victims’ safety at the hands of their own families, I really wanted people to know that the story doesn’t just end with escape, and that it’s not a case of living happily after, basking in freedoms previously unknown. The psychological impact of sudden estrangement, suicidal depression, and continued vulnerability due to a lack of awareness in asserting personal boundaries are all very real concerns for anyone who has been ‘lucky’ enough to escape a forced marriage situation. Here is the link to my talk – I hope you find it useful.
Over the last few months, the topic of sex selective abortion has become an increasingly worrying issue for campaigners, providers and policy-makers alike. On 23rd February 2015, MPs will vote on an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill that explicitly criminalises sex selective abortion. The move has been driven by the well known pro-life MP Fiona Bruce, and is strongly supported by some charities that work specifically with victims of honour abuse and forced marriage.
As you may know, I’m a survivor of honour abuse and I escaped the threat of forced marriage at the age of twelve. I have been writing for several years to raise awareness of these issues, and up until recently have been a member of the Survivors’ Advisory Panel for one of the UK’s main charities providing support to victims of such abuses. This organisation has been a key stakeholder in the campaign to criminalise sex selective abortion. I also work full time as Executive Assistant to the CEO of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, one of the UK’s main abortion providers. I have a unique perspective on the issue, and am deeply worried that we are not only sleepwalking into a large scale attack on reproductive rights in general, but that vulnerable women in abusive situations will be victimised further as a result. Continue reading
It’s hard work running a charity. Not only do you have to make sure that day-to-day operations run with maximum impact on a shoestring budget to fully support those in need of your service, you have to justify your strategy to your Board of Trustees; spend hours and weeks filling out reams of forms for funding bids; contribute to government consultations, and on top of it all report on the measurable impact of your work constantly in order to secure future funding. One of the most powerful tools any charity CEO has to raise awareness of their cause to potential donors and policy makers is survivor voice.
As someone with personal experience of honour abuse who wants to highlight the suffering of others in my situation, I too have often taken the opportunity to speak out publicly about what happened to me. For about one and a half years I was a member of the Survivors’ Advisory Panel at one of the UK’s main charities providing support to victims of honour abuse and forced marriage. When I first took on the role, I was incredibly happy that painful experiences could be made meaningful and used to help others. Unfortunately, the reality was very different. Continue reading
This is the transcript of an article by journalist Jenny Morrison featuring the most in-depth interview about my experiences that I’ve done to date. It took me a while to agree to do this, as it would a mean a lot more detailed exposure closer to home and my fear of a backlash was greater. But the imbalance of efforts to raise awareness and provide support throughout the UK is too significant to dismiss an opportunity to at least try and address this. Please note the minor clarifications I’ve included below the transcript.
“When I was a girl, I didn’t even know what honour abuse was but I knew right from wrong… and it was not right” – Shaheen Hashmat
She was just 12 years old when she escaped from her family home. But Shaheen Hashmat says the emotional scars of her childhood have been harder to leave behind. Growing up in a large Pakistani family Shaheen, now 31, says relatives controlled everything from how she should dress, to who she should speak to. She was expected to work in her family’s businesses from an early age – and if she refused, she’d be beaten. As she grew up, Shaheen saw several female family members being put on a plane, sent to Pakistan and forced into marriage. When it became clear that the same fate awaited 12-year-old Shaheen, a concerned relative tipped off social services and the police. With the legal protection of the authorities, she was able to leave her family but it has taken years for her to come to terms with the honour abuse she suffered.
Now she is speaking out to try to help others going through the same ordeal. Shaheen said: “When I was growing up, I had never heard of the phrase honour abuse and, like many victims of abuse, I felt very alone. I always knew what was happening wasn’t right. I would see people getting beaten and there was a strong history of forced marriage in my family. Every single aspect of my life was under strictest control. When you are raised to believe you have no choice in anything you do, when every aspect of your life is so closely monitored, you feel worthless. At times, I have felt suicidal. But I am determined that I am not going to hide away – what happened to me is not my shame, I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m not going to change my name or adopt a new identity because I shouldn’t have to hide. Sadly I’m not the only person this has happened to but if I can help others by speaking out, then I must.”
Here is my discussion with Nihal on the BBC Asian Network, where I talk about how I escaped from abuse and came to be estranged from almost my entire family. Becca Bland, the CEO of Stand Alone, a wonderful charity that provides support to people who are estranged, was also interviewed with me. Although at the time I found the experience of speaking live on national radio completely terrifying, I’m now extremely proud of myself for having done it at all. My confidence and determination to continue reaching those who can identify with my experiences has increased massively. It took enormous effort to keep myself from disassociating when asked about the specifics of my story, while simultaneously articulating and defending my views about honour abuse and forced marriage. This is of course aside from my main priority of protecting the identities as much as possible of those who were also involved in my story.
In short, this was really fucking hard, but it turned out alright – enjoy 🙂
The last few weeks have been just incredible. After my appearance in The Telegraph’s Stella magazine, an editor and writer from their Wonder Women section got in touch to ask if I’d be interested in doing some writing for them. I of course said, ‘hell yes!’, and have since enjoyed writing two pieces for them, which have now been published, and others are in discussion. I’ve been approached via social media and asked if I’d like to take part in some pretty major radio and TV productions, but I’m too scared to reply to some of them yet! I have always wanted to reach as many people as possible and raise awareness about some of the incredibly difficult challenges I’ve experienced up to now, because I know I can’t be the only one affected by them. Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve been talking for a long time about mental health issues, rape and sexual assault, gender issues, multiculturalism, honour abuse and forced marriage.
I remember how excited I was about this wedding. I loved her so much; her kind face, her arms always open for a hug, and an ear to listen when I was hurting. It was she who compiled the mix-tape I listened to over and over as I lay in hospital after I’d tried to kill myself. It was she who offered me a place to live in London when the aftermath of escaping abuse proved too much for me to stay in Scotland where I’d grown up. She helped me believe in myself; told me I could be and do anything I wanted; that I was beautiful and that I deserved the world. I wanted to make her proud with everything I did.
The last eight months have taught me that sometimes, it doesn’t matter one tiny bit how ‘good’ a patient I am when it comes to mental health treatment – I can still be plunged into the deepest of crises and left gasping in panic at the seemingly inevitable truth that I just cannot not bear to be alive for one more minute. It doesn’t matter how good my attitude is, or how hard I work to remain positive. It doesn’t matter how much I bust a gut to work through frustration and despair to keep up open and honest communication with doctors, employers and therapists, or how often I practice my tightly-honed coping techniques – at times I am just a slave to circumstances and/or brain chemistry. And I’m tired of seeing other people with mental health issues being vilified for apparently not doing enough to control their symptoms. Continue reading
The legendary literary agent Diana Athill said in her memoir Somewhere Towards The End, written at the age of 91, that we are not afraid of death so much as we are afraid of the process of dying. I have thought about this a lot, and I agree wholeheartedly.