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Zee, Survivor of Forced Marriage reflects on Karma Nirvana’s Day of Memory Conference.

July 19th, 2017

Waking up to the third annual Day of Memory, I was very excited that this year it was being held in West Yorkshire – my home county. Feeling very proud that the authorities I grew up with who didn’t know about forced marriage and honour based abuse, were now united with Karma Nirvana in a mission to end it.

I am a survivor of forced marriage and fled Yorkshire as a teenager running away to London. As a result of my actions, I ended up in the British care system. The day I left home I knew I would never see my family again. Their honour meant more to them than their own daughter. But that’s OK, I did not want to be part of a family that cared more about these things than their own flesh and blood.

The Day of Memory is important to me as we remember those who are sadly not with us. This is a symbolic occasion and every year I leave feeling so blessed that I am alive. Had I not done what I did so many years ago, I too would not be here today. Before entering the room, I reflect on my life and what could have been, mixed emotions running through my head, feeling very grateful to be alive and living independently free from harm’s way. However, at the same time remembering those that were not lucky enough to get out, whom we have sadly lost, due to their parent’s actions.

The day was opened and hosted by BBC Asian Network presenter Bobby Friction who is a Patron of Karma Nirvana. This was followed by a few words from Jasvinder Sanghera CBE, the founder and CEO of Karma Nirvana. In her opening statement, the audience were reminded why we were here and that forced marriage and honour based abuse is a ‘child and public protection issue’ and how those we remember today were murdered by the family who were meant to love them the most. These murders were motivated by the fact that their lives were deemed dishonourable as they wished to embrace Britain’s democracy, rights and the rule of law.

We also heard from Education, Health and Local Authority representatives pledging to stand united in tackling these issues in their local area. This was music to my ears, decades ago these issues were not on the map and here we are today at an annual Remembrance Day, celebrating achievements of survivors and keeping the memory alive of those we have sadly lost.

This year we heard from several male survivors and relatives of victims, learning that honour abuse affects men too. Very moving testimonies from male survivors – Matt and Lucky brought tears to my eyes. Both of these survivors courageously spoke about their experiences giving us a profound insight into their lives.

As a society, we need to recognise that this is abuse and we need to stand together to tackle this issue. We mustn’t shy away and accept that it is a cultural issue as Jasvinder Sanghera says, “Cultural acceptance does not mean accepting the unacceptable.”

We ended the day cutting a cake on what would have been Shafilea Ahmed’s 31st birthday, her legacy and that of others lost lives on through Karma Nirvana’s work. As a survivor, I continue to thrive embracing Britain which is not a threat but an opportunity to embrace with honour.

I live my life freely and continue to be proud of what I have achieved. Most importantly of all, I continue to spread the word that forced marriage and honour based abuse is abuse FULL STOP. This remains a day to come together raising national awareness. Six UK Police forces and other partner agencies held their own events, as we work in partnership in the fight against forced marriage and honour-based abuse.

Zee

Asma, Survivor of Honour Based Abuse reflects on Karma Nirvana’s Day of Memory conference.

July 20th 2017

Karma Nirvana held its third Day of Memory  to remember those who have been killed in the name of so called ‘honour’.  The event took place in Leeds at the magnificent Civic Hall.

Travelling up from London for this event was an honour for me, an honour in its truest sense.  Not the misguided notion of honour that meant females, males and also non-binary people were  murdered by so called family members who were supposed to love and cherish them.

There were events to commemorate the Day of Memory all over the UK, I imagined all the gatherings and how they could be, some with flowers, some with balloons and some with samosas I hoped!

Leeds Civic Hall provided the ideal place to bring people together to carry out duties and activities for their local people, but also people from all over the nation to share in remembering the valiant people killed wrongfully because of culture or religion.

The images of victims of honour based violence in the UK were projected before us and left marks etched into our souls as each person’s face disappeared from the screen, I feel like I will not forget them.  The music that accompanied this seemed to me to have been written just for this occasion.  Time seemed to stand still, no one moved, just the tears that streamed down our faces.  There was an overwhelming feeling of wanting to turn back time and make sure these lost lives could be saved.

I would like to share Naz and Matt’s story which was heard by all that attended this event and resonated very strongly with me as someone who identifies with the LGBTQI community and is currently facing separation from my birth family.

Matt and Naz were together for thirteen years and they loved each other and were going to get married.  Naz was forced to come out to his conservative Muslim family.  Two days later Naz killed himself. Matt shared the loss of his partner Naz, who died because his family would not accept their love because of religion.

Matt talked so vividly of the day that he lost Naz; the pain he experienced could be felt across the room.  It felt like we were there with Matt when he discovered that he had lost Naz his soulmate. The loss was still evident in the words that he spoke.  Matt has channelled his loss and turned it into an energy and strength to help others by setting up the Naz and Matt Foundation to support LGBTQI+ individuals who are facing homophobia from family and friends to challenge this and resolve issues by encouraging communities to be open. The mission of the foundation “is to never let religion, any religion, come in the way of the unconditional love between parents and their children”.  Karma Nirvana and the Naz and Matt Foundation are starting to work together to tackle this.

I was in a very privileged position to hear all the amazing speakers sharing stories, poems, laughter and tears.  Hearing a brother talk about the loss of his sister was very sad but I am glad you were there and wish everyone had a brother like you – who would stand up for his sister. I am sorry we could not meet Sobhia.

The male theme was pervasive in this year’s Day of Memory because victims and survivors of forced marriage and honour based violence can be male too and it is important to recognise this.  Females remain the main victims however, forced marriage and honour based abuse and violence crosses into all walks of life, we therefore need to work together. The lives of those who do not fit the binary model of gender are not spared either if anything they are more at risk because sexual expression is wrongfully viewed as shameful.  Males are not all about being machismo, patriarchy is maintained by all genders and we need to work together to challenge this, this is a clear message from the Day of Memory.

As a non-binary survivor who has spoken at a number of events for Karma Nirvana about my experience of a threat of forced marriage and living within an honour code system, it feels to me that we have more allies and could support each other.  “Female” because I was categorised as this at birth and society puts me in a box and I have lived like this because I was not able to understand gender for myself growing up in a very binary system.

The work of Karma Nirvana continues to push through into society and is becoming more recognised, it was amazing to see that Leeds City Council, the NHS and West Yorkshire Police pledged to rid forced marriage and honour based violence from their communities in Leeds.  This is an action that needs to be taken up across the UK to protect all that reside in our nation.  After all we all have the right to choose, the right to be free and love who we want!

I just want to be able to cry and not feel shame anymore, I don’t want to be cured or “pray away the gay!”  This is what I hear and what I say in my head all the time and this was heard at the Day of Memory too.

I should not lose people I love and we definitely should not harm them in any way!

Asma

Fozia, Survivor Ambassador Programme.

July 13th 2017

I’ve given great thought as to how I might introduce myself to you. What would be most appropriate I asked myself – what should I be saying? A great woman once encouraged me to always start as you mean to go on, and with that in mind, today I open a window into my life.

I will write openly and honestly about the issues that matter to you. Above all, I am here for you, to show you that despite being in a violent forced marriage, years later being abused by my then fiancé, and being faced with religious and cultural barriers, I came out on the other side. It’s an ongoing process and by no means has it been easy, but it can be done. I am a great believer in women empowering women, and I look forward to sharing this journey with you. So, here it goes…

My name is Fozia. I was born and raised in Nottingham and forced into marriage aged 16 whilst visiting Kashmir. Following my fight to get out of my ‘marriage’ when back in the UK, I started working in politics to help other people.

Aged 21, whilst attending a political event I met, fell in love with and soon became engaged to, a man of my own choosing. I moved to London and we started planning our future together. But the feeling of new, positive horizons opening up in front of me was short-lived.

Upon returning to Nottingham I was stalked and harassed by my ex- fiancé. Desperate for a ‘normal’ life, in 2009 I moved to England’s former capital city, York. My location remained secret, even to my own family and friends (for their safety).   My days were spent writing, fencing (the sporting variety) and discovering York. This beautiful city became my haven, where I healed and picked myself up and carried on. It was time to start from scratch and build a new life in Yorkshire. I was determined to start again and move on from the past. I started applying for jobs, which was much harder than I anticipated, because of the gap in my employment caused by events. After many months I finally secured employment in a quaint little market town near York. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for….

Over the years I have held various roles – political campaign assistant, prison monitor for the Home Office and sub-editor for the largest Islamic magazine in the UK. When I’m not giving speeches in Parliament about Sharia Law and women’s rights, you’ll find me satisfying my obsession for Kate Spade products, in Betty’s tea shop writing blog posts and drinking Earl Grey tea (always with lemon), and continuing my work for various charitable organisations. So you see it’s not as glamorous as my Instagram posts!  I’m always on the go, keeping busy, for me it’s the best way. What can you expect from me? Well, I’ll be writing regular blog posts for Karma Nirvana, bringing you up to date news, events and sharing real life stories.

What’s my aim? To use my experiences to try to help make a positive difference in the world.

Fozia

Fozia, Survivor of Forced Marriage reflects on the Day of Memory conference.

July 24th 2017

I was delighted to attend the annual Day of Memory this month, remembering those lost to so-called ‘honour killings’. Of course it was Shafilea Ahmed who inspired the event, murdered 14 years ago by her own parents for becoming ‘too westernised’ in the UK.

A day to raise national awareness. Here it goes…

As I made my way from the train station, I couldn’t help but think about what Shafilea might have been doing on her 31st birthday. What was I doing on mine…? Celebrating my last birthday as a ‘Miss’ and excited for my wedding the following spring. I feel privileged to have something which is denied to so many young girls, even in the UK which is supposed to be a champion of equality. I wonder how many 16 year-olds are out there now that will never reach their 31st birthday.

Upon approaching the corner of Great George Street I saw a hearse and a flower-laden coffin. I remembered Shafilea’s headstone engraved with the ironic quote: “in loving memory of our beloved daughter”. Her parents buried her knowing they killed her.

Part of the problem is that ‘honour killings’ are considered ‘normal’ by some people within certain communities. They don’t think that it is a problem. So whilst it is shocking, one can imagine how they may have justified such an immoral act to themselves. They have attitudes from the distant past which must change.

That morning I walked into a room of survivors and supporters and I must say I found it a little overwhelming. I knew I was there to remember and celebrate the lives of victims, but seeing the display of images of those who were murdered was upsetting. Suddenly I was taken straight back to being overseas when my uncle was contemplating whether or not he should let me return to the UK, or ‘get rid’ of me and tell my Mum I ran away.

I decided to make my way to the ladies to freshen up and have a moment to compose myself. I met Jasvinder on the way and she greeted me with a hug, which I have to say was most comforting. I needed it.

It was not your average Friday morning in one of the most ‘developed’ countries in the world, discussing how local and national partners can do more to tackle so-called honour-based abuse and how the UK can prevent further murders.

Albeit brief, it was a morning of highs and lows. The emotion was tangible, to say the least. The event started and we were shown a presentation projected onto a screen. I could see the shock, terror and sadness filling everyone’s eyes as each new image appeared. You could hear a pin drop. The silence of the audience at that moment was total. Photos of young faces, one after the other, and the one thing they all had in common was simply wanting to choose who they married. Is that not a right for everyone? Is that something we should have to ask for?

There weren’t enough tears for every life lost.

We cannot, and must not, tolerate illegal, culturally-based abuse. How in the UK can individuals be denied basic human rights?

The morning flew by and with a heavy heart I had to say my goodbyes and leave before midday in order to get back to my day job. As I returned to the station for my train home, I couldn’t help but think about those who died yesterday and had plans for this morning. Those who died this morning had plans for tonight. Life is so short. We shouldn’t take it for granted.

To all the survivors out there, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world. Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice. If we all did this, it would change everything.

Sadly, this ends with me logging onto my public Facebook page and reading this comment about Shafilea from a male follower:

“I know the story she is a bad person she put the dignity of her family down to the ground she did what the western girl can… I don’t know how you can memorize her”

We all have so much work yet to do.

Fozia