A question of honour


Jasvinder Sanghera <em>Hodder & Stoughton, 304pp, £12.99</em>

A little over two years ago, when I was in Pakistan reporting for the New Statesman, I stopped off in Jacobabad, a large town in the province of Sindh, where the ramshackle buildings and corrugated-iron huts are forever caked in the light-brown dust of the surrounding desert.

It was there, sitting in a crowd beside a night-time campfire that I met San Dino, a local man of 35 or maybe 40. (He didn't know his exact age because, he said, no one had recorded it.) Dino told me that, until a year ago, he was a very unhappy man. His female cousin had been accused of flirting with another man and his honour had been severely stained. But, after shooting her dead, he had finally regained his honour and for this he was very relieved.

When I asked him if he had any regrets, Dino replied that it was unfortunate that her brothers and her mother had stood in the way - they had also been murdered in the shoot-out - but, he said confidently, "I don't regret anything."

Dino had never been convicted of his crime. I imagine the only reason he could admit, to me and my Dictaphone, to having murdered four people in cold blood was that most of the 20 other men gathered around us had also killed for the sake of honour. This goes some way to explaining why Pakistan has the highest number of honour killings in the world. As one guy at the back so eloquently put it: "We cannot sleep until we kill the girl."

Jasvinder Sanghera's autobiography, Shame, is remarkable for its description of the way in which this oppressive cultural system and all its manifestations - physical and mental abuse, imprisonment, abduction, social stigmatisation and murder - migrated to Britain, where it has operated with impunity for decades. What is, perhaps, more remarkable is that a victim of this system has finally gathered the strength to put pen to paper and publish her story.

Sanghera offers a measured account of her life as a young Sikh girl growing up in Derby in the 1970s. After having watched her six sisters being sent off to marry foreign men they had never met, Sanghera describes how, at 15, she watched as her own wedding trunk was packed and she was handed a photo of her future husband. To this day, she still doesn't know his name.

When she finally decided to assert herself and escape with her lower-caste sweetheart from up the road, Sanghera was cut off from her family for ever. As her tyrant of a mother explained to her on the phone: "Thanks to you I can't walk the streets of Derby any more . . . people spit at me . . . in our eyes, you're dead."

Sanghera eventually rebuilt her life - she went on to marry and divorce twice, raise three children and get a first-class degree from Derby University - but, despite all her success (she fails to mention her numerous national achievement awards that adorn her mantelpiece), her family and the wider Derby community have continued to stigmatise her. Almost 30 years later, her older sisters still look straight through her on the streets of Derby. When, in the late 1990s, Sanghera set up Karma Nirvana, Britain's foremost charity for aiding and campaigning on Asian women's issues, she started receiving death threats. By writing this book, she will probably receive many more.

Perhaps death threats are just part of the deal when you're a women who stands up to the forces of murderous misogyny. But in Pakistan and India, when people of Sanghera's principle and mettle stand up to their fellow countrymen, they are supported by liberals. In Britain, where multiculturalism has long made criticism of culturally specific behaviour a taboo, Sanghera has for many years had to campaign against the honour system alone. When people with white skin, such as the former Met Police officer Andy Baker and the Labour MP Ann Cryer, have stood alongside Sanghera, they have regularly been called racist and subsequently sidelined, removed or ignored.

At a time when the ideal of multicultural Britain is in a state of turmoil, this victim's story, told without a trace of victimhood, is a burning example of what happens when the free expression of culture - food, clothes, language, literature - is not distinguished from the free expression of different value systems. And at the end of the book, when Sanghera draws upon a dozen stories of contemporary abuse and makes the point that, while she was writing, two honour killings had come to light, it is clear that for anyone who cares about women's rights, there is no better time to read this book.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour