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.”
Shaheen, who doesn’t want to reveal where in Scotland she grew up, received one of her worst beatings when she was just eight years old. She said, “Some things that happened are too painful to share – I don’t think I’ll ever share them. For me, it was the fear of being beaten, rather than actually being beaten, that I found most difficult. I was a chronically shy child and one day, I was asked to help in one of my family’s businesses. I was so scared of having to talk to people that I said I didn’t want to work. My family were so angry. I was beaten to the ground. I wasn’t to disobey the family and if I did, there would be consequences.” Shaheen says simple things such as watching TV or even how she sat could lead to furious family confrontations. Members of her extended family would regularly meet at her house to discuss her “disrespectful” behaviour. Shaheen said, “I wasn’t allowed to wear jeans – they were too Western. I wasn’t allowed to talk to boys and couldn’t visit the homes of my female friends. One time, a boy at school asked me out and I was so afraid that my family would find out that he had even asked me, I put my head on my desk and wept.”
Shaheen says that as puberty approached, she became aware of increased tension. She was forced to move closer to the one of the family businesses where they could keep a closer eye on her. And she was only allowed to leave home to go straight to school and back. Shaheen said, “I didn’t understand it at the time but I was living in lock-down. Other relatives could see things escalating and one of them got in touch with police and social services. With their help, it was arranged for me to leave home. In the weeks leading up to it, I would smuggle my things out of the house a little at a time, often passing them out of a back window to someone waiting in a car outside. I was terrified and spent every day walking on eggshells.”
On the day Shaheen finally left, police and social workers visited her parents to tell them she would not be coming back. She initially lived with the relative who had helped her escape, then another – before moving to London aged 20. She said, “I spent the first 12 years of my life growing up with no control over anything then suddenly at the age of 12, I was effectively on my own. I kept in touch with some of my family, but the emotional abuse continued. I didn’t cut all ties for another 13 years. It wasn’t until I finally broke all contact that I could step back and see the toll it had taken on me.”
Shaheen says a turning point in her life came three years ago when she read Jasvinder Sanghera’s book Daughters of Shame. The book, which tells the stories of women who have survived honour abuse or been forced into marriage, let Shaheen see she was not alone. She said, “I could really relate to these women’s stories. I hadn’t been forced on to a plane and forced into a marriage but I was still a victim of honour of abuse.” Around the time she read the book, Shaheen suffered a mental breakdown and was diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. She had previously turned to writing to help her express her feelings and was awarded a first class degree after studying English and creative writing at Brunel University in London. Shaheen now works for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and is a member of the Karma Nirvana Survivors’ Advisory Panel, who help women who have lived through honour abuse and forced marriage. One day, she hopes to set up a free mental health service for others who have suffered like her. Shaheen said, “When you are brought up believing you are so worthless, it is no surprise your mental health suffers. Writing really changed things for me – it helped me process difficult things. I have learned you have to be kind to yourself and have patience that you will be able to move on with your life. For me, one of the hardest things was the sense of estrangement – not having a family any more and having to learn how to make friends. Even now, there are times I find it really hard to cope but I know help is out there and no girl or woman should ever feel they are alone. The perpetrators of forced marriage and honour abuse should know that their time for beating, abusing and forcing their children into marriage without consequence is ending. People like me who are willing to speak out against such monstrous behaviour are gathering strength, garnering support and taking action.”
“Experts: Don’t suffer in silence – It’s a crime which experts believe affects thousands of girls in the UK every year. But latest figures reveal there have been no prosecutions over forced marriage in Scotland since a new law was passed three years ago. Forced Marriage Protection Orders came into force in 2011 to prevent people being married against their will. Those who breach an order can be jailed for up two years. But this week the Crown Office admitted that in the past three years they had received only one report of an alleged breach of an order – and no action was taken. They said: “We can only prosecute criminal allegations where these have been reported. To date, we have received only one report from the police alleging a breach of a FMPO and no action could be taken because of insufficient evidence.” In September, the Scottish Government introduced new legislation making forced marriage a criminal offence. Social Justice Secretary Alex Neil said: “Scotland has a strong record of tackling all forms of violence against women, including honour based abuse which is a breach of human rights. We strengthened the law on in relation to forced marriage at the end of September. We are also strengtheneing the law on Female Genital Mutilation to ensure that anyone practising this barbaric act, even if not a permanent UK resident, could still be tried in Scottish Courts. Our Equally Safe strategy is designed to tackle all forms of violence against women and girls including FGM, forced marriage and all so-called honour-based violence.” Prosecutors say that they recognise that victims of forced marriage may be reluctant to involve the police or to engage with the authorities for a number of complex reasons. These may include emotional bonds and loyalty to the family and fear of repurcussions including threats to their physical safety or child abduction. The Crown Office say they are working closely with the police and partner agencies working victims and those at risk.
Murdered in the name of family – Honour Crimes – This is the abuse which families believe is justified to protect or restore their honour. They believe their standing in the community may be damaged by someone defying the wishes of parents, including refusing marriage. They often see having a relationship or sex before marriage as damaging to how the family is regarded, especially if it is with someone from a different ethnic, cultural or religious group. Police believe that 12 women die in honour killings each year in the UK, although some campaigners fear that is an under-estimate.
Children under pressure to wed – Forced Marriage – A forced marriage is where either the bride, groom or both do not consent to the marriage and duress is involved. This can include both physical and emotional pressure. It is very different from an arranged marriage, where both parties give their full and free consent. In 2010, the UK Government’s Forced Marriage Unit, dealt with 469 cases. Almost three per cent of those originated from Scotland.”
NB: I’d like to clarify that I do not recall regular involvement from extended family members, although another relative does remember some intervention. However there was clear interference from other community members. Also, I was allowed to visit female friends in the years before the abuse escalated, although this was very rare. I am in contact with one member of my family now, so not every family tie has been cut.