The NS Interview: Polly Harrar, founder of Sharan Project

“Honour killing is murder in cold blood”

Polly Harrar

Why did you set up the Sharan Project?
I left home about 20 years ago. I was very young, and realised there is a huge gap for women who have left home and would like someone to help them to get back on their feet and build their confidence and independence.

What led you to leave home?
Cultural conflict. Being brought up in Britain, living in a very strict family environment, having my opinions and wanting to be independent. It was just the natural thing for me to do.

What kind of problems do the women who you encounter in the project have?
There's a range of reasons why women would leave home - things like cultural pressure or conflict and violence at home, perceived dishonour, getting pregnant, having a boyfriend.

How do you help them?
We're largely a web-based organisation, so a lot of our work is done through accessing support and information on our websites.

What is the demographic of women you see?
It's usually second- or third-generation immigrants, although there is a minority of women who have been forced to come to the UK [and are living] under oppressed conditions.

As communities become more settled here, will we see less of a cultural clash?
We have to talk about some of the taboo subjects such as sexuality and incarceration of spouses. The problem won't be addressed if nobody will talk about it.

Is enough being done to tackle honour killings?
More needs to be done. In essence, it is murder, taking someone's life. It is killing somebody in cold blood, for whatever misguided reason.

Does the discussion of honour killings and forced marriage risk reinforcing prejudice?
It's everyone's responsibility to look at the range of issues and ensure that Asian women are not just seen as victims. Forced marriage, honour killings and other violence are not the only problems to be addressed.

What are the others?
A lack of role models - women who are successful, who have had a challenging history. Within the culture, accessing support is not encouraged. Providing information to women reduces the barriers.

Do south Asians who are not affected by these matters have a responsibility to help those who are?
Absolutely. It's easy to say it is somebody else's problem, but everyone knows somebody who has been affected by some level of abuse or conflict. There is a culture of hiding behind closed doors. It's important that we engage in a conversation on a community level, and also as a society.

Why do we need to go outside the community?
Today, there are lots of strong women, many born in this country, who have the capability to be more than they've been brought up to be. Going out of the community for support, if the support within that community isn't available, is something we need to consider.

David Cameron made a speech last year about the failure of multiculturalism. What did you make of that kind of rhetoric?
It's a contentious area. The definition of what is considered multiculturalism has changed so much over the years. I prefer to look at the multicultural society within London, for instance, which is something we're all very proud of.

What do you think about the coalition's tightening of immigration laws?
I welcome the changes around protection of women. Hopefully it will reduce the number of women brought here at a young age as brides, then incarcerated in their marital homes and not allowed out, or to learn English, or to speak out if something is happening in the home.

Are issues which affect women taken less seriously?
Two women each week are murdered as a result of domestic violence. One in four women will be affected by domestic violence in her lifetime. The UK is doing a lot on this agenda but more could be done. This is an epidemic that has been going on for generations. Education is key, but we must educate boys as well as girls.

Is there anything you would like to forget?
Every experience takes you to where you are today and where you will be tomorrow. I wouldn't want to forget a thing.

Was there a plan?
The plan was just to help one person - to let one person know that there is someone else out there that understands their experiences and is there to support them.

Do you vote?
Absolutely.

Are we all doomed?
Definitely not. No.

Defining moments

1974 Born at New Cross Hospital in Wolverhampton
1991 Leaves home aged 17
2007 Sets up Sharan Project
2008 Launches the first online support network for women who have been disowned
2010 Sponsors Best Online Business category at the Precious Awards
2012 Sharan Project is granted official charity status