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A prisoner in the house


Jasminder1 was just 19 when she left her home, a village in India’s Punjab, to come to Britain. Her family was poor, and her parents had sold their house to raise money for her plane ticket and dowry. By arranging her marriage to a British Indian man – a stranger – they believed they were giving their daughter a better life.

The nightmare started as soon as she arrived in London. As Jasminder entered the house and put down her bags, her mother-in-law told her to start cooking. The next morning, her sister-in-law woke her at 5am and made her cook in preparation for a party that evening. Still exhausted and disorientated from the flight, she then cleaned the five-bedroom house from top to bottom and laundered the family’s clothes. That evening, she was told to dress for company. Her sister-in-law, on the pretext of helping her to get ready, smeared lipstick on her cheeks and brought her down to the guests. In front of company, Jasminder’s mother-in-law mocked her for being a villager who did not know how to use make-up. It was Jasminder’s wedding reception.

Over the next two years, the humiliations and cruelties continued. Her daily jobs included cooking for the family, dropping her sister-in-law’s children at school, cleaning the house, and doing the laundry and ironing. She was forced to wash her own clothes separately, under the cold garden tap, and to put the same clothes on before they had dried properly. She was regularly beaten and had her hair pulled. Despite cooking for the family, she was only allowed to eat once a day, often late at night. The portions, doled out by her mother- and sister-in-law, were small, and sometimes they would spoil the food first by running it under water. She could drink water only when given permission, and was not allowed to spend more than five minutes in the toilet, lest she drink from the tap. ‘I was a prisoner in the house,’ says Jasminder. She managed to escape only when she was taken – against her will – to have an abortion. She broke down in the session and told the counsellor what was happening at home. Staff at the hospital called the police.

Shame and honour

As shocking as it may sound, Jasminder’s case is by no means unique. Campaigners say that around 500 women every year face a similar situation. Brought to Britain as the wives of British citizens, these women – primarily from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan – face brutal domestic violence and enslavement. Domestic violence is always under-reported, but in this instance it is compounded by the uncertain immigration status of these women. If someone has come to Britain on a spousal visa, the marriage must last for two years before that person automatically has the leave to remain in the country.

‘With the violence comes control,’ explains Rahila Gupta, author of Enslaved: The New British Slavery. ‘The woman’s passport is often in the hands of the in-laws or husband, who can hold it over her, never actually applying for her leave to remain. That means that even when the two-year probationary period is over, the woman still becomes “illegal” if she leaves the marital home.’

Mandeep’s husband confiscated her passport and checked her mobile phone every day to make sure she made no calls to anyone else

There is also the importance of shame and honour in South Asian society. Many of these women come from rural, conservative backgrounds, where divorced women are socially ostracized. Some may even face the risk of death at the hands of their in-laws or their own families, and although husbands and in-laws are occasionally prosecuted, most go unpunished. ‘My family sacrificed everything for me to come here,’ says Jasminder. ‘I could not go back there, and they cannot afford to support me.’

Gupta confirms this: ‘The woman fears deportation and all the shame and honour issues back home. It is worse than death. With that level of control over someone, you can be violent, or you can use the woman as a servant, which is what a lot of families do.’

Over the past 20 years, there have been significant improvements in the way the Home Office (which handles immigration issues) deals with this group of women. In 1999, a ‘domestic violence concession’ was granted, which gives women on spousal visas the right to apply for leave to remain in the country – if they can prove they suffered domestic violence. However, with no recourse to public funds, these women could not access social housing, benefits or even refuges. ‘At that point, women faced destitution and a second form of domestic slavery: being picked up by a kind stranger, who then expects them to become a drudge once again in return for free accommodation,’ explains Gupta.

In 2012, after years of lobbying by women’s groups, Home Secretary Theresa May announced a rule change: women on spousal visas who have been victims of domestic violence can apply for temporary access to public funds while their immigration claim is processed. ‘No-one should be forced to stay in an abusive relationship,’ says a Home Office spokesperson.

In the dark

Hannana Siddiqui is joint co-ordinator of Southall Black Sisters (SBS), a London-based organization which has been at the forefront of the campaign on behalf of migrant women. The legal changes are a huge victory, she says, particularly at a time when immigration rights are generally being reduced. But problems remain; not all women with uncertain immigration status who enter abusive relationships are protected. ‘Women not on spousal visas do not have those benefits and remain vulnerable to exploitation, to sexual slavery, to domestic violence.’

There is also the fact that most of these women do not know their rights. Although most have a certain level of education, they tend to come from rural areas and do not speak much English. This makes it difficult to ask for help.

Mandeep was sent to Britain from India in 2010. On arrival in Grimsby, she was kept on a tight leash by her husband and mother-in-law, who lived together. Her mother-in-law said that Mandeep had to pay off a loan the family had taken to fund the marriage. Her wedding jewellery was taken and sold. Her husband confiscated her passport, and checked her mobile phone every day to make sure she made no calls to anyone else. She was not introduced to any of their relatives or friends.

In addition to a gruelling regime of house­work, the family found her a full-time job at a factory. Her mother-in-law escorted her to and from work every day so that she didn’t make friends. At home, she cooked for family parties and was then locked in her room. At mealtimes, she sat on a stool in the corner of the room while her husband and his mother ate at the table. She was forbidden to use the heating or electricity while she was alone in the house, so if the others were out, she sat in the dark.

An extravagant wedding ceremony can lead to a life of drudgery – and the cost may be seen as a debt the bride must ‘pay off’.

Blend Images/Alamy

Things reached breaking point about 10 months into the marriage, when the family went away for a weekend, leaving Mandeep gagged and tied up in the garage. It was the middle of winter. Amazingly, she survived until they returned and freed her. With no money, no friends and no knowledge of how to get help, she was desperate.

Her colleagues had begun to ask questions: why did her mother-in-law collect her salary, and take her to and from work? Suddenly, without warning, her husband told her to get out. ‘I didn’t know where to turn,’ says Mandeep. She broke down at work, and her manager helped her to find accommodation and make contact with a women’s group which took up her immigration case.

‘If their English is not good, these women are completely at the mercy of the family that brings them into this country,’ says Gupta. ‘Forms of control involve not being allowed to go out on their own – even to the doctor; not being allowed to make friends or even to receive calls from relatives. They are afraid of the police, of immigration, of not having legal status here. I’m sure there are women who we don’t even know about because they’ve never had the courage to leave home.’

It can be difficult to prove to the Home Office that domestic violence has taken place, particularly if the incident was not reported to police at the time. Given the problems of language, isolation and fear of the authorities, most of these crimes are reported only when the woman escapes. Accordingly, out of 980 applications for leave to remain in 2008 and 2009, only 440 women were allowed to stay, meaning that 540 faced deportation.

But the picture is not universally bleak. Siddiqui says that with training from SBS and other women’s groups, the Home Office has broadened the criteria for evidence. Figures obtained by a newspaper in 2011 showed a threefold increase since 2006 in the number of women being granted leave to remain under the domestic violence concession. While the government originally resisted liberalizing the rules for this small group of women for fear that it would be open to abuse, early indications are that this is not the case.

Around 45,000 foreign spouses – men and women – come to Britain every year. Many are from South Asia; the vast majority settle happily. The women affected by this issue are in a tiny minority – but that does not mean that their plight should go unreported. This is domestic slavery happening in modern-day Britain, and everything must be done to prevent further abuses.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist based in London who reports on social and religious affairs.

  • Some names have been changed.
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