She Was The Ticket To A Better Life

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Pawandeep holds a framed photo of her sister. In the photo, Amandeep is wearing a pink salwar-kameez, a Punjabi dress. “She dreamed of a better life for herself and her family. All she wanted was to live happily with her husband and son like any other woman.”

I don’t even know where to begin with this story. The grisly facts of Amandeep Kaur Dhillon’s murder and her father-in-law’s arrest have been covered before, but this weekend, the Toronto Star’s Raveena Aulakh wrote a detailed story. You can read the full article here and it will break your heart, not just because of Amandeep Kaur’s tragic story, but because her story is all too common in our community.

Baldev Mutta knows the stories of immigrant women all too well.

The executive director of the Punjabi Community Health Centre in Brampton says hundreds of young Punjabi brides arrive in Canada every year. Many have arranged marriages. “They don’t know anyone, don’t have any support system and battle pressures most people can’t even imagine exist,” he said.

In the Punjabi culture, men are raised to be dominant while women are expected to be subservient. “The level of thinking of men in the Punjabi community leaves a lot to be desired,” said Mutta, a Punjabi himself. Mutta, who runs programs at four Sikh temples in Brampton, Rexdale, Malton and Oakville, and hosts a radio show, wishes he had been able to reach Amandeep.
Some women are so isolated that they are not allowed to have any communication even with their parents, said Kripa Sekhar, executive director of the South Asian Women’s Centre on Lansdowne Ave. in Toronto. “There are times when we get emails or phone calls from a woman’s family saying they haven’t heard from her ever since she came to Canada, can we check on her,” says Sekhar.

In some cases women, bruised and beaten, have been locked up in their homes, not allowed to make or receive any calls. “It’s a problem women face everywhere, but what is unique among South Asians is that we don’t acknowledge it or want to talk about it.”

We can deny it all we want but here’s the sad reality for many (not all) Punjabi families:

Many families in Punjab are ready and willing to sacrifice the happiness of one child to pave the way for the others.

Though rarely talked about in Punjab, it is understood that when a son or daughter marries and moves to North America or England, they will apply for their family to join them. Amandeep was expected to do the same for her parents, her sisters Pawandeep, 20 and Jasvir, 16, and brother Rajvir, 12. When she flew to Canada in May 2006 to join her husband, her family was already counting the days until they would follow.

Some friends of mine played a cruel game growing up. Whenever they’d be at a community event, they would pick out a couple who they suspected were “fresh” from India. They then guessed which one had sponsored the other to Canada. They would always pick the less well put together person and would often be right. While the game itself is totally non-PC, it does highlight a point. Canadian citizenship becomes a trump card in the mating game. Add it to a person’s bio-data and you get instantly upgraded. So what if he’s a high-school dropout with a criminal record and only one good leg, he’s a Canadian citizen. Parents are happy to turn a blind eye to obvious incompatibilities in order to establish a beach head in the West. For the son or daughter being sacrificed, it becomes a nightmare. They have little or no say in their choice of partner and their parents, distracted by dreams of dollars, completely abdicate their duty as responsible parents. The line you always hear after the fact is “if only we’d known what was really going on”. It should actually be “if only we’d bother to do our research”. If every Punjabi is connected by less than six degrees of separation surely parents can find out what’s really going on with a prospective family. But do they really want to hear what the truth might be about their child’s prospective in-laws, if there’s a risk that it dashes their dreams.

Marginalization of females in the Punjabi family unit is commonly accepted.

The first couple of months that Amandeep was in Canada, she lived with her husband and father-in-law in a basement apartment in Malton. Within two weeks, she was working in a factory in Brampton.

At first, she met people from her village at their homes or the Sikh temple. Slowly all changed. Her phone calls to India became irregular and when she was invited, along with her husband and father-in-law, for a get-together she made excuses. When she did leave the house, she was always with her father-in-law or husband, say her extended family in Brampton.

“She was here for more than two years and I met her only about five or six times,” said Kirandeep Basran, a cousin who lives in Brampton.”She came to my house twice and barely stayed for 10 minutes each time.”

Basran says whenever someone called Amandeep, her father-in-law or husband either picked up the extension or switched on the speakerphone. “I started to worry about her and so I called up her husband one day,” said Basran. “He abused me, screamed and told me never to call again.”

This was early 2007 and Amandeep was about eight months pregnant. A few days later, Amandeep phoned her cousin and asked her not to phone or visit.

“I didn’t want to aggravate things for her,” said Basran, who next met Amandeep when her son, Manmohan Singh, was born on March 1, 2007. “Even when I went to see Aman and her son, the father-in-law hovered around.” Basran asked him if she could take Aman and the baby for a few days but “he refused.”

The dirty little secret is that in every Punjabi extended family, there are some individual women who are suffering through the same personal hell as Amandeep Kaur. It may not manifest itself in outright violence or abuse, but they are “kept in their place” by the threat of being sent back to Punjab or, even worse, her family’s immigration papers being withdrawn. Along with this threat, they are economically disenfranchised, physically isolated from friends and family and threatened into subservience. Sympathetic family members dare not speak for fear of “rocking the boat” and “sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong”. Furthermore, the girl herself is often reluctant to speak about her personal problems for fear of bringing “dishonour to her family’s name”. Tragically, the result is an educated female, once full of life and potential, is reduced to counting down the days to some kind of freedom, usually centered around her own family’s arrival in Canada.

A son is seen as an asset and a daughter is a liability.

The family didn’t argue when dowry was settled at roughly $54,000, an excessive amount but seen as an investment in their own future. This was in addition to $15,000 the family spent on a lavish three-day wedding that was attended by more than 600 guests.
A month after the wedding, Amandeep’s parents were asked by her in-laws to send an extra $2,500 to Canada or her immigration papers would not be filed. Her father, Avtar, pawned his wife’s jewellery and sent the money.

For Avtar, a farmer who grows mostly rice and wheat on nearly 5 hectares of land, a small-sized holding in Punjab, it was a lot of money. He sold some land, borrowed from family and friends and mortgaged his house. “It was very tough but we didn’t mind,” said Avtar. “We just wanted Aman to be happy.”

Dowries were outlawed in India in 1961 but it is common for the groom’s side to seek a dowry and for the bride’s side to provide one. The dowry cash and gifts is meant to smooth their daughter’s move into the new home.

So let me get this straight. If you have a son to marry off, you can demand money to have someone marry him, claim all the income that this person will earn in her lifetime, and at will, demand further compensation from her family for putting up with the burden of her presence. And if you have a daughter, not only do you raise her with all your love (and money), you deferentially bequeath her to another family to whom you now owe a debt of gratitude (and wealth) for taking her off your hands. Oh yes, you also get to cater to every whim of her in-laws for life. Hows that for a fantastic deal. Remind me again why Punjabis have the lowest female to male ratio in the world?

Now I purposely use Punjabi and not Sikh in this context, even though almost all the families I refer to are Sikh. Yes, the gurdwaras and other Sikh institutions have played a negligent role to play in letting this problem perpetuate itself, but Sikhi is not to blame. We are dealing with cultural issues here.

The worst aspects of Punjabi (and Indian) culture already stack the deck against females. Unfortunately, for many women, the willingness of families to do anything to emigrate abroad only makes it worse.


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