Since August this year, when the Taliban took over Afghanistan, award-winning London-based philanthropist Mandy Sanghera has been part of efforts to rescue over 60 Afghan citizens. “Women had grown used to their freedom in Afghanistan. This freedom is now at risk. They can no longer live a life they are used to. We cannot sit and watch it with our mute buttons on; we must intervene,” declares the human-rights campaigner who has been supporting victims and survivors of honour-based violence and cultural abuse for over three decades.
As a global catalyst, Mandy urges everyone make some noise over the burden of tradition that Afghan women are being subjected to under the Taliban regime, “We must put pressure on our respective governments to negotiate with the Taliban and even press sanctions against them if necessary. The Taliban is practising a warped version of Islam that is harming good people, law-abiding citizens.”
It always boils down to controlling women, says Mandy, who has been driving innovation, building strategic partnerships, promoting advocacy and programming in the areas of human rights, gender equality, accountability and social justice globally.
“There are numerous households in war-stricken regions of Afghanistan where men are absent and women are forced to take care of expenses by working. How are these women and girls – who are widowed, or single with no living male member, or orphaned – supposed to survive? How do they move around in public, work, earn, or receive an education, without being accompanied by a male family member – a rule that Taliban vehemently insists on? The Taliban need to learn to move with the times,” she asserts.
Mandy spoke at eShe’s South Asia Union Summit Led by Women on October 2 in a panel titled ‘Burden of Tradition: Gender Equality and Social Justice in South Asia’. The session will discuss the unwavering importance of traditions for South Asians, and yet how many traditions are also cruel, misogynistic, divisive and inhumane.
Mandy’s own human-rights journey started in 1990 when she helped a friend with a disability, who was forced into a marriage, escape. This opened her eyes to many similar practices happening in families of South Asian descent even though they had been living in the UK for years or decades.
She saw many other instances of forced marriages in the UK where emotional blackmail was used by families to coerce girls as young as 15 or 16 into marriage – family members declared they would kill themselves if the girl didn’t go along with the chosen match.
Mandy currently serves as an ambassador and adviser for several charities and social groups such as Psychreg, and has since supported over 200 disabled adults who have been forced into marriage.
Mandy, who is a cancer survivor, also found herself disgusted by the practice of khatna or female genital mutilation practised by the Bohra community, many of whom hail from the Gujarat region in India, as well as by the superstition of visiting so-called holy men, whose abodes are spaces where women and children are routinely abused.
Marital rape is another issue Mandy wants to highlight. “It is widely accepted in South Asia that, after marriage, a woman loses her say in conjugal rights, handing over the complete control of her body to her husband. And this happens to seemingly educated and empowered, even Westernised women who, when faced with domestic abuse, find themselves unsupported by their families,” she rues.
Mandy cites cases she has worked on in the UK where young men who may have been homosexual, impotent or disabled were forced to marry to “put a curtain on their truths” since it would damage the family reputation.
“Such South Asian families usually use their position of high status and money power to procure brides from India or Pakistan and, once married and in the UK, these innocent brides are forced to have intimate relationships with the father-in-law to ensure they produce a progeny, to save the family honour and continue the lineage. They are also forced to be caregivers to their disabled partners,” Mandy testifies.
This pushed Mandy into extensive involvement in writing the guidelines on disability and honour-based violence for the Forced Marriages Unit. She was one of a panel of speakers at the United States House of Representatives and spoke about honour-based violence and cultural abuse. She has also spoken on regressive cultural practices at the United Nations, the UK House of Commons, and the European Parliament.
“We don’t just need to provide these women with support to help them survive, but also thrive. We must enable and empower them enough so that they can rebuild their lives,” she says.
Mandy was on the team that worked on the “My Marriage, My Choice” project at the University of Nottingham. She shares her thoughts on the traditional resistance to inter-caste and inter-faith marriages in the Subcontinent and the current political hullabaloo in India with respect to inter-religious couplings:
“Love is love. People must always have a choice to marry who they wish to. And while I am strongly opposed to religious conversion for marriage, if women have gone into it with an open mind, and taken an informed decision, we need to respect their agency,” says the TEDx speaker.
Having said that, she cautions against forced religious conversions brought on after marriage, and stresses on how it is imperative that families support their daughters unconditionally, no matter who they marry.
“A woman marrying into another community is treated as a second-class citizen by both her birth and marital family. What we observe in such cases is that if the marriage doesn’t work out or the woman suffers abuse, she has nowhere to turn to, as her own family often cuts off all relations with her,” she regrets.
Historically, she says, “Men have always tried to control women using tradition and they shall continue to do it until we break the cycle of power and control. We need to give more women positions of power and control.”
For this reason, she believes the legislation against the practice of triple talaq was a good step in the direction of Muslim women’s empowerment in India. “All women have a right to live the way they want to; and they cannot be forced to toe the line of tradition.”
She also believes women who have been privileged enough to break the glass ceiling have a duty to “send the elevator back down” to support others who may be struggling for want of resources.
“Don’t just mentor, but also sponsor these women, and give them opportunities. The intention with which you do this work also counts,” stresses Mandy, who worked with the European Parliament until 2018 on the issue of forced marriages and has prepared a report based on information from the 28 EU Member States and the selected associated countries.
She wants to change the South Asian societal set-up that restricts women to homes, and keeps them away from public spaces. “We must promote street safety through street lighting and other ways that encourage more women to come out. There is safety in numbers.”First published in eShe