Jasvinder Sanghera, founder of the charity Karma Nirvana, in the garden of her Derbyshire home
Jasvinder Sanghera, founder of the charity Karma Nirvana, in the garden of her Derbyshire home © James Royall

Jasvinder Sanghera does not look like a hate figure. The 47-year-old mother of three opens the door of her quiet cottage in Derbyshire with a wide, lipstick-red smile. And as she leads the way to the kitchen with promises of tea and chocolate, it seems inconceivable that, in recent years, she could have received countless death threats, had excrement smeared over her office windows and had people shout at her in public.

Sanghera was once told a bomb had been placed underneath her car – a hoax that nevertheless meant local police came to teach her how to check for explosives with an under-car search mirror. “I said: ‘If you think I’m going to go out there every morning to check on the car with one of those, you’ve got another think coming.’ With the school run? Can you imagine?”

Sanghera attracts such animosity because for 20 years the writer and campaigner has been an outspoken critic of forced marriages and so-called honour-based violence, prevalent in some corners of the hardline British Sikh and Muslim communities. “Some families in these communities operate on an honour system that is tied in with the way daughters behave,” she says, “so mixing with boys can be dishonourable. Refusing an arranged marriage, having a mobile phone or wearing make-up, these can all be seen as shameful.”

The study with Sanghera’s desk
The study with Sanghera’s desk © James Royall

Reprisals can range from bullying and intimidation, to violence, disownment and even death, as in the case of 17-year-old Shafilea Ahmed, from Warrington, Cheshire, who was killed by her parents in 2003 after turning down an arranged marriage proposal and for perceivably acting in a “westernised” way – she had ambitions to become a lawyer.

A tour of Sanghera’s house passes the hallway where, knotted over the banister, is a Liverpool FC scarf belonging to her teenage son, Jordan, the last of her children to live at home. The family sitting room is cosy, with exposed wooden floorboards, a log-burning stove and, above the television, a shelf laden with awards that Sanghera has been given for her charity work.

“I don’t think it’s pride or anything like that,” she says, smiling, “but I keep them up there to remind me how far I’ve come.”

Sanghera was born and brought up in Derby during the 1970s and 1980s in what appeared to be a conventional British-Sikh family. Her father had moved to the UK from Punjab in the 1950s and found work in the local foundry. He was popular and spent time working in his allotment and occasionally enjoying a pint in the local pub. But behind closed doors, things were very different, and Sanghera’s mother, a devout Sikh, controlled every aspect of the lives of her six daughters, including their appearance, who they mixed with and who they were to marry.

The living room with family photos on the shelves
The living room with family photos on the shelves © James Royall

“Growing up, I had watched two of my sisters being taken out of school at 15 and married off to a stranger in India,” says Sanghera, who describes the moment each of her sisters was told about the man they were promised to as a kind of ritual. “They were taken into the front room, sat down and shown a photograph of the man they had to marry; then my mother and whichever one of my sisters it was would almost have a conversation with the photograph …and, with my mother talking about men for the first time with them, my sisters would feel excited and the centre of attention.”

At the age of 14, it was Sanghera’s turn. “I took one look at the photograph and I just thought: he’s shorter than me, I’m not marrying him – you can forget it.”

A model boat in the bathroom, a reminder of the sea
A model boat in the bathroom, a reminder of the sea © James Royall

Refusing the marriage made the weeks that followed very tough for Sanghera. Her parents locked her in her room and continued to plan the wedding regardless. As flights were booked and dresses ordered, Sanghera saw no option other than to escape one night and run away to Newcastle with her boyfriend, Jassey, who would go on to become her first husband. It was an act of defiance that would cut her off permanently from the rest of her family.

For someone disowned, Sanghera’s house is surprisingly full of family life. A wall in her kitchen is practically tiled with photographs of her three children, her sisters and a single, faded picture of her mother and father laughing.

“When you are disowned, what family you do have becomes very important to you. Some of these [photographs] are memories of my sisters and my mother and father, which are still part of who I am, and I like to have them around me.”

Red-coloured globe bought at a vintage fair in Europe
Red-coloured globe bought at a vintage fair in Europe © James Royall

One photograph on the wall is especially poignant for Sanghera, as it shows her sister Robina who, feeling trapped in an abusive marriage, killed herself in 1989 by setting herself on fire. Robina’s suicide was a turning point in Sanghera’s life, leading her ultimately to found the charity Karma Nirvana in 1993, which offers services and support to young women and men who are victims of so-called honour-based abuse in the UK.

“Today our hotline receives 600 calls a month,” says Sanghera, “and we’ve recently been over in Washington DC, advising the Polaris Project [which fights human trafficking and is helping to set up the first forced-marriage hotline in the US].”

In recent years, Karma Nirvana has worked closely with the UK government to refine the law on forced marriages, and the process of fully criminalising the practice is well under way.

Sanghera has spent a long time lobbying the powers that be. “We had a consultation with the last government back in 2005 …and they rejected us because they said ‘we do not want to offend communities’, which is unbelievable when you think this is a horrific abuse that is happening to British citizens,” she says.

Although the present government has seemed more supportive – this month issuing a warning about the increase in the number of girls being sent abroad for forced marriages during the school holidays, Sanghera still thinks more could be done.

Hanging basket and garden curios
Hanging basket and garden curios © James Royall

The latest advice from Karma Nirvana for girls who fear they are to be forced into an overseas marriage is to conceal a spoon in their clothes before they pass through airport metal detectors. Once the alarm is set off, airport security will need to speak to the girl in a private room away from her parents, potentially buying her time to explain her situation. “Sadly we have to resort to such desperate measures because professionals and schools are still failing to engage with the problem fully,” says Sanghera.

It is heartening to learn that her efforts have not gone unnoticed, and in June this year Sanghera was made a CBE – which, she says, was “unexpected and remarkable”.

Sanghera brews another cup of tea, and walks into the garden, where away from the densely potted plants is a bright yellow football – further evidence of Jordan – and a climbing frame. “I love coming out into the garden,” says Sanghera, who finds solace there, away from the pressures of work. “This climbing frame is important to me too. We’ve had it for years, and I sat up there and wrote my first book [Shame, which told the story of her childhood]. The book brought back a lot of painful memories, so it was nice to be up on there, somewhere peaceful.”

It is certainly worlds away from her study, literally in the middle of her home, which is over-run with books and papers relating to her work with Karma Nirvana. “I think there are three people living in this house sometimes,” says Sanghera. “Me, my son and the campaign.”


Favourite thing

A large, antique gramophone from the early 1900s
© James Royall

Sanghera’s favourite thing is a large, antique gramophone from the early 1900s. “I’m not sure when it was made exactly,” she says, “but it was last serviced in 1925, because it says so on the back.” Sanghera explains why she has chosen it: “It reminds me of my father. It’s not his one, but it’s identical to the one he had […] It was something we were brought up with, I guess, and it reminds me of my dad, and the music and the happy times I had as a child.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article