Aisha Elahi is an author and was born and raised in the UK. She grew up in a strict conservative Muslim environment and encountered honor violence and abuse first hand and watched it happen to many of her friends. She wrote a book about the experiences of South Asian women in the UK who experience honor violence called Shackled Sisters (available now on Amazon).
She graciously agreed to speak with Clarion Project Research Fellow Elliot Friedland about her book and her life.
She also included an exceprt from her book 'Shackled Sisters' included at the end of the interview.
Clarion Project: Could you describe your upbringing for our readers, who may be unfamiliar with the duality of living in the West but in a traditional Muslim environment?
Aisha Elahi: Being brought up in a strict Muslim environment in England was something that was normalised. The community tends to stick together and so, we were raised alongside other Muslim families. My primary school was completely Muslim, there were 6 mosques within walking distance from our house. We had Indian shops, Pakistani shops, Bengali shops at our doorstep.
I had no white friends, or friends from other religions until I was 17, its like living in a silo, everything is shielded from you. I had to attend mosque every evening, 5 days a week after school and in mosque, I along with my siblings, were taught how to live our lives as good Muslim women.
We wore shalwar kameez and headscarves to primary school and of course, to mosque. we fasted as children during the month of Ramadan and lived our lives like we had been taught to. Our friends around us, girls from other Muslim families did the same- it was normalised. Everyone else around us was dong that and so we did it too.
We believed white people, Christians and Jews to be dirty, unclean.
I did not wear jeans or any western clothing until I was 17. We were raised to believe that showing any part of your body was a sin. Wearing makeup and colouring your hair was a sin. it was all very controlling. I remember, looking at girls who wore skirts, sleeveless tops, makeup and thinking 'what a tart'
The problem with segregation is worse today in parts of the UK.
Growing up, I witnessed the formation of these 'ghettos' and this has only become worse over the years. It was within these ghettos, within these silos, an individual begins to become indoctrinated, their mind begins to close. You begin to think a different way, you begin to think that you are right, you are the good, clean woman, the good muslim and everyone else is dirty, everyone else is wrong.
I can say these things because I have lived and breathed that existence.
In secondary school, I had different cultures and religions around me, the school was split 48% Muslim and the rest Christian but still, the asians, the Muslims stuck together and the whites stuck together. There was little to no mixing.
You continue to float along, through high school acknowledging the presence of the white people but still seeing them as dirty and not someone you would associate with. As an example, at home, my mum had different cups and cutlery she kept in a cupboard for when any repair-men came out.
If they were white, she would serve them on different plates because they eat pork and mum felt there would be some contamination.
Clarion: What drove you to write your book ‘Shackled Sisters’? Was there a specific moment or event that made you realize you had to write this book or was it more of a gradual process?
Elahi: There was a moment that drove me to it. My mind could not take anymore. It became too much, watching my friends, my cousins and some of my family members who I had left behind living the existence they were. It was abhorrent, the things happening to them, the two sided nature of parts of the religion and the culture. My circle of friends could not believe what I would tell them over a glass of wine on a Friday evening, they could not believe the things that went on.
The more people I spoke to about it, who were not from that culture, the more I realised how desperately a book like 'Shackled Sisters' is needed.
Clarion: Out of all the stories you wrote about in Shackled Sisters, which one impacted you the most? Why?
Elahi: I really struggle to pick one, Nafisa's story I find heart wrenchingly sad not only because of what she lived through and continues to live through but also because she would do the same with her daughters! Parveen who was brought to the UK by her husband only to then be dumped here whilst he carried on to the USA where he married a white women and is now an American citizen. He remarried because he could, he didn't tell Parveen any of his plans because she was a woman and thus not entitled to know. he dumped her when it was convenient for him because he could and the community shunned her!!! How does that work? What did she do so wrong? Parveen's story makes me really angry. and then there is letter to my sister which breaks my heart overtime I read it. Not just because it shows the bond between sisters but also, because it shows the devastating consequences of honour violence on an entire family.
Clarion: In the prologue to 'Shackled Sisters' you describe the process of helping women in dangerous situations. How did they react to your helping them? How did you protect them from their own husbands and families? And did you have to keep everything secret from the broader community?
Elahi: I am seen as a disgrace by members of the community. I was spat at when I was 21, by a group of Muslim men in the middle of a city centre because I was dating a white man.
They actually spat on me, called me a dirty prostitute before asking if I would perform a sex act on them.
I have been threatened by Muslim men when I have helped their sisters or wives even when the help has been something like lending the women some money to buy food. I allowed the mail of many women to be directed to my home so that these women could have their own bank accounts and some financial freedom. It allowed them to save a few pounds here and there.
I kept western clothing like jeans and t-shirts that belonged to some girls at my house because they were scared of what would happen if their parents,uncles, brothers found out.
I confronted and threatened one Muslim man who had been having sex with a friend of mine since she was 14. When she tried to break away, he threatened to tell her family and would blackmail her with pictures he had of her. I simply made him aware that by having sex with a 14 year old, he had broken the law and I was going to report him. He soon stopped harassing her.
Sometimes, these men just need a strong female to talk back to them, to let them know that they cannot control a woman because she has a sexual history.
I had one Muslim homosexual male, forced into marriage after being beaten to an inch of his life by his brothers, sleep on the floor of my University room for weeks as his family hunted him.
We eventually found him a safe hostel hundreds of miles away with the help of the police.
I have also had many women blame me when their husbands, fathers, brothers have found out about their bank accounts, about a night out somewhere, about their western clothing- this is something I encourage them to do.
The men in these situations would rather hear that their female was led astray by someone like me because its too frightening for them to consider that their female has become empowered.
I have little doubt too that if the men suspected that their female was becoming more westernised, she would be in a lot of danger.
Clarion: What, in your eyes, are the specific cultural factors that make the problems of honor violence and abuse so extensive in the communities that suffer from them?
Elahi: For me the roots lie in the religion and have, over the years, become entwined with cultural practices.
Thrown into that mix the incompatibility of these cultures with that of the western world, the rapid expansion of globalisation and technology allowing people to see how others live and it all gets messy.
There have been archaic practises in other religions if you go back into history enough but these have, over time, eroded away with the advent of things like the womens vote, democracy and feminism in the western world.
The subjugation women, right across the world, gave rise to honour based violence although for me, this problem is worse within Islam. It exists in other religions too, for example, you can argue that in the Hindu/Sikh religions, women are subjugated through the way in which they taught and told how a good Hindu/Sikh woman should be- demure, softly spoken, dress in traditional dress, not be out late at night- where a female is not any of those things then she is seen as deserving, by some people, of whatever misfortune befalls her including rape and murder.
We know what the perpetrator of the the horrific gang rape of the Indian student certainly thought, whilst incarcerated, that she deserved what happened to her. She was out late with a male and she fought back against her attackers and therefore in their eyes, this legitimised shoving a pole into her vagina, this legitimised pulling out part of her intestines with a bare hand- it is barbaric.
In the Muslim world the fallen woman, the jezebel is the one who talks loudly, doesn't cover her hair, has pre marital sex- she gets what she deserves. a good muslim woman is one who forgives, one who has sabr, (patience), one who listens to her husband.
Any woman who deviates from that set norm is seen as a sinner.
Clarion: In England the authorities have largely overlooked these issues in the past due to a variety of factors. What do you think those are and how can they be combatted?
Elahi: For me, there is most definitely a fear shown by authorities to tackles specific issues related to a community for fear of being branded racist.
I don't believe that is the sole reason though, I believe that the complex nature of the issues acts as a hindrance. How can you deal with something if you do not understand it? How can you understand something if you have not lived it? You need to hear it from those people who have lived in that existence and are speaking up.
I recently ran a session with a local mental health team. It was only through speaking with these people who are very likely to have someone on their caseload who was forced into a marriage that I realised something. You are not just supporting a woman to get over the effects of a forced marriage, of sexual, mental and physical abuse but you are also starting a rehabilitation process where the female needs integrating into a western world.
This means, knowing what size of jeans to buy, this means knowing what a thong is, how tampons are used, the importance of washing everyday, how to use bank accounts- it needs to be that basic because these women are kept sheltered from what we would see as absolute and as necessary.
There are many advocates of arranged marriage but again for me, there is an issue here. A forced marriage for me is a woman sat in a prison with a man holding a gun to her head saying you have to marry this man right now or I will kill you. An arranged marriage for me is that same woman sat in the same prison but instead of 1 man, there are now 10 and no gun She has choice but is still constrained- this needs breaking.
The authorities need to understand the indoctrination that occurs from childhood, the silo within which hundreds of thousands on british citizens, within these communities grow up. The role of the mosque, what exactly is taught? How is it right that millions of Muslim children will spend hours in a mosque to learn how to recite and pronounce a language – they don't understand it! They recite it.
There is an issue with Pakistani Muslim men and grooming white girls- say it! There is. White women are seen as easy, used, there to be practised on. I was raised in this! This is not new to me.
Muslim girls who have had boyfriends are in the same category: 'used,' 'damaged goods' and therefore 'fair game.'
The communities need educating, the authorities need to take a strong view of this and not be afraid. For me, the communities need breaking up, there needs to be less segregation.
The schools need to encourage mixing; sociology, philosophy and feminism need to be taught in schools and not be an option only in college or university. The upcoming generation of Muslim women who will go onto be mothers need to instigate the change.
They need to teach their sons that its not ok to practice on a white girl and demand to marry a virgin. They need to teach their daughters to have aspirations and not fear the consequences.
It can be done. It must be done. If Islam is to have a place in the Western World, then it requires a transformation because currently, it is incompatible with western values and is responsible for the honour killings and honour related violence.
Clarion: You speak in your book about the transformative role of teachers for the lives of women and girls. Can you describe a teacher who made a major impact on your life?
Elahi: Yes, my english teacher. He was a lovely man and took a keen interest in me and my writing. He would bring books in for me from home and believed in me when no one else did. He made me want to continue my education and gave me the strength which I would later need after my forced marriage.
He made me believe in myself as a woman and this belief got me through the darkest periods of my one life
Clarion: You are writing a new book about your own life in which you describe being sexually abused and then forced into marriage with your abuser. Was your abuser ever brought to justice? How can telling your story help others?
Elahi: I was raped by an Asian man (he was 24 I was 15) whilst at school. In truth, this man would wait for me every lunchtime, every evening, and shower me with gifts. So I agreed to meet him outside of school and he raped me. I told school who in turn notified my parents. My parents felt the best thing to do, seeing me as 'used' now, was to force me into a marriage abroad with a man 19 years my senior. He abused me for months before I was able to return back to the UK.
I tried to stop my 'husband' from entering the UK but no one knew what to do. I remember contacting every lawyer I could find but no one knew what to do, this was over a decade ago and things are a little but better now but there is so much more to do.
For example, one friend of mine, forced into marriage in Pakistan, was then forced by her parents and family, to call her 'husband' to the UK. she was pressurised, emotionally blackmailed and regularly beaten until she confirmed to her parents wishes.
Once he arrived to the UK, he lived away from her and her family working to earn money and send it back to his parents in Pakistan.
She was told, categorically, by her parents that her husband would divorce her (as she wanted) but only after he got his citizenship. Weeks after being confirmed as a British citizen, he divorced her, flew back to Pakistan and married his 17 year old cousin who he is now in the process of calling over. My friend cannot do anything now, even if she found the strength from somewhere, she would not be able to send him back but may be able to prosecute her parents- how is this right?
My book focuses on my own story and will be out in the next few months.
Excerpt from Shackled Sisters:
I know how very different my life is from the lives of the family and friends I've left behind. Women who considered me lucky to have my own bank account, to be able to buy fashionable clothing, to be able to drive a car – things most of us take for granted.
We hear a lot in the press from brave survivors and campaigners who tell stories about the lives they escaped.
But I wanted to tell the stories of the women who haven't escaped. What about those women who stay in a forced marriage? And those who suffer abuse? What are their lives like – today, right now?
I wrote my new book, Shackled Sisters, to highlight the voices we don't hear. Below is one of them – a letter to one of my old school friends by her sister, who was raised a British Muslim. In just a few words, it says so much.
A LETTER TO MY SISTER
"I often think about you. You enter my head when I least expect it. I wonder how you wear your hair, whether your laugh is as loud as it used to be and if you still cry at sad films.
"Mum and Dad are both old now – their eyes have the look that only comes with a lifetime of sorrow. I often think back to all those years ago in Pakistan, how beautiful you looked on your engagement night. You were beautiful and yet so sad.
"I knew you didn't want to marry him, but I never understood your sadness. How could I, at eight years of age?
"I have never felt as scared for you as I did the night you took dad's beatings for calling him a monster after he arranged my engagement to that man with the big moustache. I was quite happy at what had happened – I had a new gold ring and lots of new clothes and toys.
"But you were livid, and promised me you would not let it happen. I remember how much they beat you when you refused your marriage. Do you remember your henna night? Grandma refused to attend, she was so angry with Mum, her own daughter for allowing this to happen. ""Mum sat with you, staring into nothingness, tired from Dad's beatings. You stared at your lap while the groom's family danced around you. That was years ago – almost another lifetime ago.
"We were watching a Bollywood film the other day. You must be surprised to read this – a film? Yes my darling sister, Dad really has mellowed. The film was about Nila, a free spirited girl who had a strict father.
"He wouldn't let his daughter marry the man she was in love with. Stuck between the love of her father and the love of her life, Ajay, Nila takes her own life. The father doesn't shed a tear for her – he is too angry."
"Years pass, and his other daughter falls in love. The father is distraught and says he'll gladly lose another daughter instead of having his honour tarnished. At this point, Ajay shows him a letter written by Nila. Her father reads that she sacrificed her life so maybe his heart would soften towards those in love.
"The father, overcome with emotion, allows his remaining daughter to marry whomever she wants, and even dances at the wedding.
"This film broke Dad. At first, we thought he was having a heart attack, but quickly realised he was sobbing. Mum and I rushed to him, consoling him. He said, "I did it, it's my fault. Its all on me, I killed her, its all on me."
"And that's when I knew he always blamed himself for the day you took your own life.
"I remember the scene like it was yesterday. You, curled up on that bed in your wedding outfit, blood everywhere. Mum screaming, then hitting Dad, who just stared at the sight.
"He had a massive heart attack and was hospitalised for a week. Mum stopped speaking. Grandma rushed to the house and started to hit Mum, who just let her.
"The bunting for your wedding was still up in parts of the village as we lowered your body into the ground. Grandma couldn't attend – she wandered around, clutching your photo to her chest.
"You were right though – things changed for us. I married of my own choosing and had the freedoms you never did. Losing a daughter was too painful for them. I know Dad read the letter you left him and translated it for Mum, too.
"Sometimes, I hear him crying in the bedroom and then hear the soft clicks of the suitcase in which he keeps your letter. Mum and Dad are much closer now, they sleep in the same bed and sit together in the evenings.
"They love my little daughter. She has the same eyes and temperament as you, and so I named her after you. At first, they couldn't even say her name, but now they bounce her on their laps and devote their everything to her. Little Sabrina – she is their second chance.
"Sleep well, my beautiful sister."
Adapted from Shackled Sisters by Aisha A Elahi