Hold my hand until I will find my way
By Aruna Papp
Born and raised in India, my formative years were governed by three constants: my father’s pastoral service, the culture of honour and shame that dictated the behaviour of everyone in the society and my yearning for higher education. As a child I had internalized the belief that my entire family’s well-being and good reputation rested on mine and my five sister’s sexual purity and that this applied to all girls in our society regardless of their ethnic or religious background. From birth we knew that girls were less valued than boys. We were taught that until marriage, girls were the property of our fathers or brothers and after marriage they belonged to their husbands. We were told that being chaste and pure was our responsibility and deviant behaviour would be severely punished.
After immigrating to Canada, I slowly awoke to the rights and protection Canada offered women. I had arrived as a young wife in an arranged, loveless, abusive marriage with my two young girls and the equivalent of a third grade education. Canada offered my daughters protection and opportunities that were not available in India. I wanted these opportunities for my daughters. Working at menial jobs, I was able to earn two masters degrees. Meeting and working with other South Asian women, we founded three agencies that helped victims of domestic violence.
I soon learned that mainstream service providers had little or no awareness of the underpinning of cultural nuances related to immigrant women’s oppression. Women such as I. I witnessed many counsellors from non-immigrant communities trying to empower immigrant women in ways that endangered them. This lack of cultural awareness was publicly revealed to alarmed Canadians during the criminal trial of the Shafia family.
On June 30, 2009, three teenage girls and their father’s first wife were found dead, submerged in a canal in Ontario. During the courtroom testimony in the criminal trial of their father, mother and brother, Canadians were riveted and horrified to hear a sickening tale of domestic terrorism that exposed how the lives of four beautiful vivacious women were cut short because they craved social autonomy. All they wanted was to be like their peers, dress like them, date boys, go to the mall and watch movies. Activities perceived by their parents and brother as a defilement of their family’s honour. Canadians were also appalled to learn that these girls had begged for help from a system that could not compete with culturally barbaric practices. The compelling tape-recording of the father’s vicious reference to the girls as “filth” and “whores” sealed their death sentence. And yet, these were by no means the first honour killings in Canada.
For the past three decades I have been facilitating and working with frontline service providers in order to help them understand how domestic violence and intimate partner violence differs from honour based violence. Now, finally, the voices of women like myself and thousands of others have been heard through the passing of Bill S-7 by parliament titled Zero tolerance for Culturally Barbaric Practices. I view this bill as an educational tool that I can use to inform new Canadians about how the laws of this country protect women and uphold the human rights of each individual. It is important that new Canadians understand that, in Canada, women have the right to choose our spouses and it does not dishonour their families and that women have the same rights as men. Women have the right to a violence free life and life of dignity. This bill also allows me to inform the Canadian public about the urgency to train frontline professionals.
My life has been an amazing journey in which I have met incredible people who have held my hand during the darkest moments and have stood with me during the times of celebrations.
Aruna Papp - Key Note