Dance of Honour

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.

Hers would be the first wedding that wasn’t forced, and we were all excited. I knew that after all she’d been through, I would be overwhelmed with happiness that she had found someone she loved, with whom she felt excited about building a life and family together. I knew I wouldn’t look at photographs of the bride this time around and feel a cold, hard knot of rage upon looking at her defeated expression full of sadness and fear. No. At this wedding, we would all be celebrating our freedom. A relative and I wanted to pay formal tribute as part of the celebrations, and the bride-to-be loved our proposal to perform a tasteful, elegant dance. So we worked with a friend who was a classically trained dancer and choreographer and put together an incredible routine. I practiced my spins until they were perfect; full of grace and seemingly effortless. I smiled with every undulation of the hips and twirl of the hands, daring to believe that at last I could perhaps be accepted as a woman who dreamed and swayed and yearned instead of a selfish, trouble-making rebel who shirked her duties. I thought about the man with the soft voice and secret smile who would be there too, and noticed a little jolt of electric heat in the pit of my stomach. Our eyes had caught a few times, and I wondered how he would feel about what he was looking at when he watched me dancing. I loved my outfit, which was a pure white lengha, the skirt full and weighted at the bottom with heavy transparent beaded embroidery, which flowed outwards beautifully around me when I span. I was so excited, and nervous too. By that point, a shy, fragile truce with an undercurrent of deep tension and discomfort had developed with my mother and father, who were invited to the wedding. But ten years had passed, and circumstance had surely taught them that they were no longer in any position to play judge or jury when it came to the choices I made in life. So I didn’t think about them as we stood up, our hearts beating as we walked to the front of the crowded room to perform our dance. We moved flawlessly and I felt so elevated in spirit as my body expressed the joy I felt. Afterwards, we were applauded by all, including the bride’s older in-laws, who said our performance was ‘beautiful and sweet’. My smile was almost as broad as the bride’s as I mingled with guests and drank in their praise.

But there was one group of faces that looked like thunder. When I saw those expressions as a child, fear dropped like a stone in my gut and I would turn into a jibbering, hyperventilating wreck even before I heard my name being called in the gravest of summons. I tried to tell myself that things were different now; that I had done nothing wrong and I had no one to answer to but the bride, who I knew was happy but exhausted at the day’s exertions. Apparently a friend of my father’s, upon watching the performance, had patted him on the back and said, “Well done. Looked what you’ve raised. You should be ashamed.” A family meeting ensued, much like those from childhood that were frequently intimidating, threatening and outright abusive. “How could you behave like that in front of everyone? How could you disrespect us like that? In our culture we don’t dance; it’s wrong. You have embarrassed us. We are ashamed.” Over and over the questions, accusations and dramatic incredulity.

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It was the continuation of incidents like this, for years after I left, that eventually led me to cut off contact altogether. Their final blow was delivered with the words, “If you are wearing wrong things; if you are smoking; if you are drinking and going out with boys, you do not step into this house.” For a long time before my dad uttered his indictment I was doing all of those things, although nobody mentioned what they all knew when I visited, and I compromised by dressing in a way that didn’t offend them when I was there.

But I suppose that increasingly, I actually felt the same as my father. I was sick of pretending to be someone I wasn’t. And he was sick of pretending that he could be tolerant. I haven’t spoken to my parents in over six years.

 

 

 

Forced Marriage IS a Crime

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A couple of weeks ago, I appeared in The Telegraph’s Stella Magazine following the recent passing of legislation criminalising forced marriage in England and Wales. I’m incredibly pleased that victims are now protected from such abuse by the full extent of the law. If it hadn’t been for police involvement in my own situation, I am certain that at age twelve, my so-called ‘attitude problem’ and resistance to exploitation and abuse would have landed me on a plane to Pakistan in no time – after being beaten into submission of course. The history of forced marriage in our family was strong, and affected not only the lives of its own members, but also that of one person who was brought into the family on similar terms. Although my life after escape has by no means been the happy ending I once hoped for, I still count myself incredibly lucky to have been aided by the law in the way that I was.

However, there are some activists, campaigners and survivors who are deeply worried about the possible consequences of implementing a law that they believe may escalate an already high-risk situation, where kidnap, violence and murder could occur in a very short space of time. In my case, as soon as my abusers became aware of police involvement, it was as though a magic wand had been waved. Their aggressive, threatening behaviour ceased completely (although their performance as totally baffled and loving caregivers had only just begun). With so many local authorities involved, including social workers, the Children’s Panel and an NHS psychologist, as well as the police, they knew they were being watched closely. An interdict had been taken out against them to stop them from coming for me after my escape, which was orchestrated with great care and in incredible detail. They knew nothing about what was going on until the night I left for good, smuggling out of our back window the last of my possessions that I could take without raising suspicion. On that same night, my abusers, who presented themselves beautifully to the outside world as fine, upstanding members of the community, were visited by the authorities. With their reputation and livelihood at stake, they took no action to have me forcibly returned and punished. Social services were involved for many months afterwards and although they made some huge mistakes (which I’ll go into another time), their presence kept the danger of further abuse at bay.

However, I am only one survivor of honour abuse out of many, and I know that every case is different. There are others who were glad to have avoided police involvement at all cost, because in a culture where sharing ‘family business’ with the outside world is in itself a breach of ‘honour’, just imagine the punishment for involving the law. Sadly, the reality of what happened to Shafilea Ahmed, Bahnaz Mahmod, and many others negates the need to imagine. Personally, I believe that the threat of murder indicates a greater need for effective legal intervention, not less.

The bottom line for me then, is the crucial importance of each case being entirely victim-led, and I understand from guidance issued by the Crown Prosecution Service that this is exactly what is supposed to happen (see point 24 under the heading ‘Legislation regarding Breach of a FMPO’ (Forced Marriage Protection Order):

“For a victim who does not want to pursue criminal proceedings, the option will still remain of applying for an arrest warrant for breach of a FMPO in the civil court.” 

The criminalisation of forced marriage simply offers both a civil and a criminal route for helping victims out of abusive and often life-threatening situations. The law is not excessive, and those who say that elements of forced marriage are already addressed through legislation against rape, kidnapping and violence would do well to consider that those at risk might understandably not wish to suffer any of these things before feeling they can approach the police, particularly when they’re already certain about what is going to happen to them. Also, I don’t believe it’s actually considered legally possible for a parent to abduct their own child.

Domestic violence offences are and should be a crime, because abuse is wrong – why should forced marriage be any different?

NB – although the Telegraph/Stella article states that I’m 29 years old, I’m actually 31!

The Good Patient

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

Islam and Honour Abuse

Over the last year, I’m delighted to have made some great strides mental health-wise in continuing to heal from some pretty painful life experiences. I’ve become stronger in my purpose of helping others who might need support in identifying, escaping and recovering from honour abuse, and I’m glad that people finally appear to be paying attention to the issues involved, although there is much work yet to do. There’s little doubt, however, that a great deal of this interest from many quarters stems from the fact that I am quite willing at times to link Islam to my story as a cause or reason for the abuse.

I was interviewed recently by a PhD student in criminal justice from the US, whose research on institutional responses to honour abuse will be used to inform policy there. I definitely do not include this lovely woman as being one of those parties who is only interested in hearing what I have to say for its reinforcement of prejudiced thinking. But she did ask as part of her pre-prepared questions (as it was absolutely right of her to do given the current political climate) if I thought honour abuse had anything to do with religion. It was, of course, a loaded question. Continue reading

Mental Illness: Nature or Nurture?

In my last post, I was writing while in the midst of a highly dangerous BPD trigger episode that took me fearfully close to attempting suicide again. Before I go any further, I should make it clear that I am no expert in mental illness except when it comes to describing my own experience of it. There may be times when I use terminology that feels absolutely right in doing so, but which those who are experts may well apply more knowledgably. I’m glad to say that I’m feeling a lot better since then, although I’m still angry that I didn’t get the care I needed, and indeed am still not getting. I did, however, manage to get one session in with my psychotherapist, and as predicted she helped me to identify the trigger for this severe episode.

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The Anxiety of Happiness

Today I’m remembering a therapy session I had with *Maria a few years back. I hadn’t been diagnosed with BPD or bipolar disorder at the time, although that’s not really what’s important here. I’m just remembering the strangest dilemma I had, and it’s one echoed by several people close to me who, through circumstance or self-development, have made real progress in enhancing their emotional well-being, but were finding that instead of feeling content and happy, their levels of anxiety and even panic were becoming more pronounced the better they got! Talk about a ‘can’t bloody win’ situation! But nonetheless, the feeling of overwhelm, dread and mistrust that came with feelings of increased contentment and happiness were very real.

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Eid Mubarak

So it’s Eid today. For years before now, it’s been a day of heartbreak for me. It used to be the one time in the year when everyone in the family was together; so many siblings and nieces and nephews running around; so much excitement and banter and happy noise. We would think for weeks beforehand about what we were going to wear. I used to always love choosing the brightest, most intense colours and matching them up with bangles and earrings and embroidered shoes.

Shaheen shalwaar kameez Continue reading