Some months ago, I wrote this post sharing the fact that I have experienced honour abuse. I was told in no uncertain terms by relatives that legal action would be taken if I continued talking about this on a public platform. I have encountered a range of reactions from others, from messages of support and encouragement to questions about why I would choose to sacrifice my relationships with those who are supposed to be dearest to me. I’d like to answer that question today.
I was lucky enough to have escaped my situation in November 1995, when I was twelve years old. Eighteen years have passed, and still I struggle at times to work through the bitterness, anger and despair that my experiences have left me with. I come from a large family and out of all its members, I am in contact with only one. When I was thirteen years old I tried to kill myself by overdosing on paracetamol. I lived with undiagnosed borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder up until the end of 2011. The abuse and subsequent mental illness left me vulnerable to rape, which occurred on several occasions. And I’m in a mountain of debt that I will be paying off for years to come. There is more, but some stories will remain between me, that person and God alone.
But despite all of this, I now appreciate more than ever the freedom with which I’m blessed. I live in a beautiful area of London and I have a part-time job where my colleagues are incredibly supportive and it allows me to take care of myself and my symptoms in the way I need. I count myself incredibly lucky that those symptoms are not so severe that I can’t work, or I would be in some serious danger. What keeps me going day to day is the knowledge that I am not alone, and that speaking out without shame about my experiences may influence others in the same situation to understand that, and to know that there is help at hand should they choose to leave, despite the risk to their own lives in doing so.
A couple of months ago, I attended an event on honour abuse, forced marriage and abortion. When I walked into the auditorium at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, I saw her: one of my all-time heroes, sitting quietly in a corner at the front of the room, waiting for the event to start.
Jasvinder Sanghera, CEO of the charity Karma Nirvana and survivor of honour abuse herself, is a woman very dear to my heart. When her book, Daughters of Shame, was passed to me by a relative a couple of years ago, I was told, ‘’You must read this! It’s what we went through!”
Whenever I see her now; whenever I hear of another case of honour violence and murder, I know what my duty is as a compassionate human being. The lack of understanding is still rife and where I had thought great inroads were being made to amend this, I was confounded to learn just how much work there is still to do. I value my experience now because I can inform practitioners, clinicians, managers, educators – all those in the position to identify and support victims – I could help them understand what they should be considering and what they should be looking out for. And more stories from those who have experienced honour abuse are needed; I am just one individual who can only advise on these things from my own limited experience. There are others who could add to that knowledge, who may even disagree with what I say is needed, but who in any case will help to inform policy and procedure when it comes to those at risk.
I have been told that I am a selfish publicity seeker for choosing to speak out about this in my real name, because it might link me to others involved who do not wish to speak out or be identified in any way.
Even I, in the process of writing this, ask myself, ‘why are you dredging all this up again?’ It doesn’t make me feel good to go back there, especially since I’m in such a better place now. I would far rather enjoy the feeling that my life is a holiday because I can enjoy wearing what I want, speaking to whomever I want, to dance without shame, get drunk on good wine and imagine falling in love with that guy who asked me out for a coffee in that beautiful voice without having to worry about whether I’ll be beaten, harassed, sexually abused or emotionally blackmailed by my own family. But I can’t – not when I know I have the ability to influence others in some small way, whether they are service providers, practitioners, clinicians or other victims themselves. I gave refuge to one young woman who had fled her abusive home environment too. She says to this day that she would not have had the courage to stand by her decision and against all odds begin to rebuild her life again had it not been for the knowledge that someone else understood what she had been through and had come out the other side with real hope of happiness.
Over the coming months, as well as speaking out about my own experiences, I will be working alongside my business partner, a highly experienced counselling psychologist, to set up a mental health service for those who have experienced or are at risk of honour abuse. And for those of you reading who have also suffered at the hands of their families in the name of honour, I would say this: You have a right to live. And I mean really live, not just exist. Whatever you are told about things being the way they are in ‘your culture’, know that nothing excuses emotional, physical or sexual abuse, wherever in the world it might occur. Nothing excuses forced marriage, slavery, imprisonment or a lifetime spent under the choking control of others. And understand that no matter who you are up against, or how many, there are people out there who will keep you safe and protected if you would only seek them out.