Parvinder Matharu is in the business of saving lives. But she doesn't spend her days in an emergency room; doesn't charge fearlessly into burning buildings or carry a badge. She runs Kinara, a small women's shelter on the outskirts of London, a sanctuary for women and girls desperately seeking refuge from abusive husbands, boyfriends and families. Parvinder provides a home for women who have nowhere else to go, and she gives hope to those who cannot imagine life without fear.
I met Parvinder this past August when my colleague Lisa and I were in England conducting research for a 48 Hours broadcast about honor killing in America that will air April 7. Our focus was Noor Almaleki, a 20-year-old college student of Peoria, Arizona who in 2009, was killed by her father for being "too westernized", according to investigators. She was deliberately run over by an SUV driven by her father. Noor never had a chance to tell her story, but we hoped to find a victim of honor violence willing to share their journey of survival.
Honor killings are a wide-spread problem, and despite common generalizations, these senseless acts of violence are not exclusive to a single culture, ethnicity or religious group. We chose to focus our research in England because there is an infrastructure in place to support victims and prosecute perpetrators of honor-related crimes. As we sat down with Parvinder for tea, I did not yet realize that these days would be some of the most heartbreaking and moving of my life.
I was immediately struck by Parvinder's warmth and generosity. It was my first time visiting a women's shelter and as a stranger it was uncomfortable at first -- especially being the only man in the room -- but somehow, Parvinder put me at ease. It was with great tenderness that she introduced us to the women of Kinara who would so bravely share their stories with us, some of them not more than 17-years-old.
Our visit coincided with Eid al-Fitr and Kinara was filled to capacity with 14 women and 18 children living in a house half the size of a city brownstone. After a couple of days of introductions, we were invited to share in the preparation of a celebratory meal. It was in the kitchen learning to prepare Kofta, traditional Middle-Eastern meatballs that the women really started to open up to us.
(The following women's names have been changed to protect their identities)
As an Afghani teenager, "Jasmin" sought the help of a solicitor for protection from her violent, controlling husband. When her husband discovered her plan, he tortured her in front of their two young children and threatened to take her life.
"Shakiba" came from Delhi as a teen and had been living at Kinara for over a year with her two daughters. She also sought sanctuary from an abusive husband who had refused to allow her to leave their home alone. Watching him throw their infant daughter against a wall in a rage finally gave her the courage to flee.
Originally from Pakistan, "Sophia" had been forced to marry her cousin when she was just 15 years old. Upon arriving with her husband in England, she was forced to clean the homes of her in-laws and was never permitted to leave the house. Over a period of nine years she was subjected to regular beatings and was only allowed outside three times.
By phone I spoke with "Sweetie", a young girl who had escaped a violent home-life. She had left Kinara and was attending college - but she had spent about a year at the shelter after refusing to comply with her parent's demand for a forced marriage. As a consequence for her defiance, her father beat her and her brother threatened to kill her.
All of these women were tied together by violence, by abuse and pain. In some way, they had all shamed their families and were paying the price for their actions. This shame, Parvinder explained to us brings dishonor.
According to Jazvinder Sanghera, an author and activist we interviewed for the broadcast, shame follows these women their whole lives. "They're stigmatized," she says. And in many cases, the only recognized way to remove that shame from the family is to take the life of the dishonorable person. An honor killing. This was the case with Noor Almaleki in Arizona. Noor's assimilation with Western culture, having a boyfriend and the trendy clothes she wore, were considered an affront by her father. The only way to remove the shame she brought, was to kill her.
Noor's friend Adhi told us that his biggest regret was not pushing Noor hard enough to seek help, to file for a restraining order against her parents, one of the only mechanisms available to protect her. Had Noor done so, maybe she could have taken refuge with someone like Parvinder Matharu, maybe she could have found strength in the suffering of other women who had their own experiences to share. Perhaps we wouldn't have to tell this story.
In many ways, honor violence is a silent epidemic; violent acts take place behind closed doors and often, by the time a dangerous situation is recognized, it's too late. I think about what happened to Noor. I think of the friends I made at Kinara, the women and children who let us into their home; who shared their stories that touched our hearts so deeply. I think about those who were too fearful to speak with us, and the many others who have yet to arrive on Kinara's doorsteps seeking a better life for themselves and their families.
I hope they are safe.
48 Hours: "A Family's Honor" airs Saturday, April 7th at 10:00 P.M. ET/PT.