June 13th & 18th @ Roxie Theatre
After an arranged marriage into an influential and wealthy family, the life of a young South Asian girl is drastically changed for the worse. Married in her late teens into a very wealthy and influential family, Kamal dreamed of a life as a princess. This dream soon faded and Kamal realized the harsh reality of her new life. With promises of a fairy tale life echoing in her ears, she is thrown into a world of abuse, violence and torture. Afraid for the lives of her family and children, she constantly looked death in the face but survived to tell her story.
Black and Blue Sari is a true story about the cost of leaving a toxic relationship and how the transition can empower you and those around you. Domestic violence is an epidemic that leaves no community unaffected; one in every four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime.
Since the release of her book in late November 2009, Dhillon has made appearances on both radio and TV and she has been the speaker and workshop facilitator at numerous venues including high schools, community events and places of worship.
Kamal is a mother of four and has two grandchildren. She has been described as an individual with powerhouse ability to encourage men and women. She shares her story both locally and abroad. She continues to be a voice to the voiceless. Through her presentations she hopes to empower men, women and children to live life to the fullest potential.
1. What do female equality and empowerment mean to you?
Female equality and empowerment mean that women are gaining power and control over their lives. It involves raising awareness, building self-confidence and expanding the number of choices women have. Empowerment comes from within, but it also means that we need to treat women as fairly as we do men. It is generally women who are excluded or disadvantaged in relation to the decision making.
2. Why was it important to you to write an autobiography of what you endured in your marriage? What do you most hope readers will get out of reading the book?
I wrote this book of my life’s experience as a tool to educate others on the severity of domestic violence. I wanted my listeners and my readers to journey with me through my years of emotional, physical, sexual and financial abuse and learn how we victims of abuse are robbed of our livelihood that is replaced with fear and hopelessness. I also want people to know that abuse breaks families, it destroys families, and it leaves the victims with life long scars – whether physical or emotional or both.
This book was meant to tell what happens behind closed doors. My hope is that people will find hope in my life’s journey, and feel inspired and encouraged in their own time of adversity. Everything I wrote was filtered through my life’s experiences. I didn’t have a perfect life – but I made a decision to turn my suffering into a story that can give hope to others, if not survival. I wanted to be clear that abuse is a crime and should not be tolerated. I wanted women to know that we are not destined to be abused but we are called to be more than conquerors. Our life has a purpose.
3. Writing your book must have forced you to re-live a lot of the pain you suffered through. How did you cope and what kept your faith in completing the book?
-I had a hard time writing my biography, not only because I had to re-visit my pain but also because of the unexpected emotional turbulence that came with writing about my painful experiences. When I started my memoir, I was hyped up and had lofty goals. Though it was difficult I wanted my voice heard, even if it was painful and made me cry.
-I wanted my book to speak to victims and let them know that there is a way out of the abuse they are experiencing. My faith in God and my prayer team kept me going. I knew I needed some good strong people to surround me.
4. Do you think gender discrimination and domestic violence has increased since you left your marriage, wrote your book and became a figure in the fight to end abuse against women? Or has it gotten better?
Since the release of my book, many women have found the courage either to leave their abusers or report their abuse. I don’t have the current statistics but I do know that I have become a voice to the voiceless. I have encouraged both victims and perpatrators to seek help.
5. What do we need to do to change the mindset of people to respect women?
It is a fact that most Indian women suffer silently from the cradle to the grave. There must be a change in the mindset of the people in this regard. Society needs to change its attitude towards women and only then can the country prosper as a whole. Let us change our attitude towards women. Let us change our perception towards women. Let us respect women. Women are the wealth of our country. Women are the true leaders who are leading us behind the scenes. Without the support of women we would not continue to grow. Without women we would not have come into this world
Men must change their attitude towards women and only then will the atrocities committed against women decline.
It is also the responsibility of parents to teach their children how to treat women. As mothers, women must take responsibility to educate their children, both boys and girls, to respect women.
6. What is your hope for women and girls of this generation? What are you most concerned about and what do you want women to be aware of?
It is my hope that women will embrace their strengths as women and that they will continue to be brave and face their challenges squarely. It is my hope that women will not only lead the world but that they will inspire the world as well. I hope that women survivors of abuse will never make their abuse so confidential that no one knows about it. Every girl matters! Do not let anyone rob you of your God-given abilities! Be bold and take initiatives.
7. The 2012 Trust Law poll ranked Canada as the safest country for women. Does this apply to Indian-Canadian women too?
Indian women still live in extended families where they are subjected to daily abuse. They live in fear of deportation. Many women do not access to key resources because of the language barriers that exist for them. These vulnerable women often do not report their abuse because they are told that reporting it will only bring more harm to everyone. So most of them just suffer in silence. The lack of education in their communities also prevents them from getting the adequate and necessary help that they need.
Thank you to Roshan Gujar for interviewing Kamal Dhillon
1) What was your childhood like? Did you face any discrimination?
I faced discrimination from the day I was born and lived in constant fear. My parents, already had two daughters and desperately wanted a son. When my mother became pregnant with me, they began visiting temples to pray for a boy. The gurus blessed my mother’s womb, so when I was born it was a huge disappointment.
My father wanted me dead because I was “just a daughter”. I was later told by my family that my father was so drunk the day that I was born that he actually said, “Kill both mother and daughter!” After holding my nose and mouth for some time, my father thought I was dead. However, after a while I began to breathe again.
My grandparents told me that people condoled with my parents because I was a girl and said they would pray for a son next time. That was my welcome to this world 45 years ago. Unfortunately the same thing still happens with many newborn girls.
2) Your family moved to Scandinavia when you were 3 and you were sent to live with your father’s sister. How was this explained to you?
Since my parents did not have a son, they exchanged me for a boy. They adopted my cousin as their own son and moved to Scandinavia leaving me behind at my aunt’s house where I was treated as a slave. No one adopted me as their daughter and my birth was never registered.
As a girl I had to work hard to earn the right to eat and to survive. I don’t remember whether I was two or three-years-old when I was exchanged, but I remember when I was only four, I was made to do lots of chores around the house. I remember how my aunt hit me if I did not do things just right. My aunt and her children told me that I had to serve their family because they had offered their son/brother to my parents.
3) When you were young, did you have a sense that anything was out of the ordinary with respect to the way that you were raised as your extended family’s maid servant?
I was just a child and I did not have any sense for what was right and what was wrong. I was told that I born into this world with “mandi kismet”, bad destiny, and I believed that. I was told that I was a child of sin and had done something very bad in my previous life and I had to pay for it in this life. When I saw other happy families, I felt that this was not for me, because of my destiny. I believed that it was my duty to serve my aunt’s family since I was exchanged for their son. I tried to do my best and accepted my fate because I was told and believed that I was worth nothing. However, I hoped that God would forgive me for whatever sins I committed in my previous life and that my destiny would change. Now that I am an adult, I am sad to realize that I had been brought up to believe all this.
4) What was it like being reunited with your family as a teenager?
I had always dreamed about and hoped for the chance to live with my own parents and siblings who would love me for who I was. In my mid-teens I was finally reunited with my biological family, but it was not easy. They were my family, but they were strangers to me and it was very difficult in the beginning. Also, my father was a violent man who ruled the family with threats and frequent beatings so we all, including my mother, feared him.
5) What inspired/motivated you to put your story in writing?
Many members of my new Scandinavian and American family and friends encouraged me to write a book about my story. I didn’t think my story was that tragic compared to many other girls in the world. But, when my little sister, Guddi, got in contact with me after ten years, things changed. She was then in a psychiatric hospital struggling with depression, but she became healthier over time, finally moving to her own apartment. We met often and discussed our lives. She talked about her sad childhood and then her unhappy marriage with the man that my father forced her to marry. She said to me, “Big sister, you are the toughest woman I know and you should write a book about your story…our story.” That is when I started to write. Every time I met her I would write many pages and my book was soon ready. I decided to write the book not only because of my story or my sisters’ story, but because so many women still suffer as we did. So, with my book, I want to give a face and a voice to the discrimination and violence that so many women face.
I have dedicated my book to my little sister, Guddi, who is no longer alive. Because Guddi had tried to take her own life earlier, people were sure it was suicide because she skipped her life-saving medication. I know I am not the only daughter treated as an outsider and “just a daughter”; there are too many daughters like me in this world.My little sister Guddi often told me sadly, “ You know, my husband and in-laws ordered a son from me, but I was able to deliver “ just a daughter”. And that’s where the title of this book comes from – Just a Daughter!!
6) Do you think India’s girls are endangered? If yes, why?
I do not think that India’s girls are more endangered then many other girls in south Asia. Many girls in south Asia including our country are endangered and there are many reasons for that. First of all, many girls are still unwanted. The killing of new born girls unfortunately still occurs and there are still many parents who abort their daughters. As we all know, millions of girls are “missing”. Yes, I think we can say that many girls and mothers are endangered when a mother who loves her child more than anything in the world is forced to ‘kill’, that is, abort her daughter or a mother is forced to give away her daughters.
Because millions of girls are missing, the human trafficking of girls has increased. Because our part of the world lacks girls, many girls have become a commodity and girls are being bought and girls are being sold – in this case they certainly are endangered.
7) What advice do you have for other Indian women and girls?
There needs to be a concerted effort on the part of the government and non-governmental agencies to change the culture of discrimination. Women should be encouraged to go to school and learn that they are valuable human beings and have the same human rights as men. They should form small groups and share their stories and gain strength from shared experiences. And, they should become politically active.
8) What can we do to make India a safer place for girls?
Women have the capacity to make the change but they are held back and do not always have the opportunities. Education is an absolute necessity. Moving to stop the sex trafficking is a must. Men should stand up against violence and encourage other men to change their attitude towards women. Cultural change is slow but it must begin now so the next generation of girls, have a better chance to have a safe, peaceful life.
9) Is there anything personally you are doing to promote the value of girls and end gender discrimination and violence?
I try my best to spread awareness about discrimination of girls and violence against children and women – something I personally experienced both physically and mentally. I volunteer with the Support Centre for Victims of Incest and also with the Centre for Battered Women. I have also been a political advisor through the Norwegian Parliament’s Women’s Group, called the Reference Group and also spoken to the Parliament’s Men’s Panel and also other men’s group such as Men Against Violence.
Finally, because I have my opportunities and rights, I want to give the same to other children through supporting organizations who work with children and women who are victims of violence. I intend to continue to fight FOR children’s rights to education, good health, protection, economic security, and good social life and love, and will fight AGAINST misuse, abuse, exploitation and discrimination.
I am involved with organizations Plan Norway, Plan Sweden and Plan Finland and also sponsor children in India through Plan India. Plan Scandinavia sold my books and the money goes to support children of abuse. I also have a fund in India together with Children Future India called Fund for Higher Education of Girls in India.
For the last 25 years, I have been sponsoring children by helping them have a better life. I sponsor these children when they are only two to five-years-old and help them finish school, college and become independent. Despite being fairly young, I am already a ‘grandmother’, because my oldest sponsored daughters are now married and are mothers themselves.
10) How did you become involved with sponsoring young girls in India?
When I came to Scandinavia, I knew that I would have a better life than I had back home so I decided to help other children in India who were in need. I knew it was hard for many children who were poor and lived in slums. When I was 17, I wanted to support a child in India, but because of the laws, I had to wait until I turned18 to have an economic responsibility without an adults’ permission. So the day I became 18, I sponsored my ‘daughter’, Khushi. I was in school and did not have a lot of money but I was able to send 1,000 Indian rupees to Khushi every month. The money went for her school uniform, school supplies and healthy food. And very often, I sent extra money to her family so they could buy things they needed such as food, a stove, clothes etc. I sponsored Khushi through the organization World’s Children – Children of the World. I was happy to do something for my own country, and this proved to be a small beginning.
I wanted Khushi to have a better life and receive a good education, a chance I never got when I was a child. My small financial support prevented her from becoming a child laborer.
11) What do you hope will come of you sharing your story with a broader audience?
I am lucky to have survived to tell mine and my sisters’ story. Many people may think the story is strong, unbelievable, tough and very sad. My appeal is not for sympathy; we need action to correct the wrongs and stop these violations against human dignity. We cannot close our eyes and ears to what happens around us. We cannot ignore this and say that it is a personal issue within a given family. The discrimination and violence my sisters and I, and millions of women around the world endured and are still enduring are not private issues; these are nothing less than criminal. When a particular conflict in a family becomes violent, it affects the entire society and redress must be sought. With my story, I hope to create awareness especially around gender disparity, incest and family violence. I also hope to stimulate dialogue around these issues so that our political leaders, government and people in positions of power can take more action to solve these crimes.
Thank you to Amisha Patel for interviewing Sarita Skagnes
Your art is centered around portraits of women and girls and many of them have text on them. Can you share why and what message are you hoping to convey to your audience?
My art is very female centered because I experience the world from this perspective.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I had to stop painting because of the toxicity of my painting materials so I took up scrapbooking. I loved the way I could use text to tell a story in a very visceral way. I loved the combination of words and images to tell deeper and multiple stories and so, when I did start painting again, it carried over into my art.
As for what message I am trying to convey to my audience…I think that when a person views a piece of art, they brings their own stories, their own selves to the experience. Therefore…each person may interpret my art in entirely different ways. I strive to honor my own truth by bringing everything to the canvas and then it’s up to each individual as to how they want to experience it. Are they more interested in the words, the colors and rhythm, the history and stories they can’t see or the whole?
Did you face any discrimination growing up? How did you handle it?
I grew up under apartheid so discrimination was not only a way of life, it was the law. As a child growing up in this situation, you pretty much accept it as “normal” because it’s all you’ve ever known. There really was no way to “handle it”…it was a matter of survival and living in a perpetual state of fear and disempowerment.
You are a survivor of childhood abuse and violence? But that did not stop you from taking charge of your life and becoming an empowered woman. How did you get to where you are today?
It’s a never ending journey. In retrospect I can see how I grew up under an abusive and dysfunctional family system that mirrored the larger political system of apartheid is many ways. So…my early years were ones of utter disempowerment on many different levels. When we moved to Canada I still experienced abuse and violence within my family structure but my entire world opened up now that I was living in a democratic country. I had access to books, an education that wasn’t distorted and I came into contact with people of different races and cultures. I think having experienced such extremes gave me a sense of gratitude and privilege that I certainly didn’t take for granted.
Basically I made a series of conscious choices, even as a child, that I wanted my life to be different than the one I had been forced to live. There were many things within the South African Indian community I strongly disagreed with (the status of women, the inherent racism, the hypocrisy) and throughout my teens and well into my twenties, I struggled with my identity. When I looked around to my family and community, I didn’t see anyone I could emulate or mirror myself upon; I was seriously lacking any role models or mentors. This turned out to be a gift in disguise for me because I started reading books and adopting mentors in the wider world that gave me a stronger sense of self and empowered me. So my mentors were the very best! Nelson Mandela, Toni Morrison, Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Alice Walker…on and on. These books, writings and life philosophies became my lifeline to a different world and sense of self. I left home in my late teens, put myself through University, travelled and built up a sense of self; of who I wanted to be..not who I was supposed to be. Not that there haven’t been major setbacks and failures and periods in my life when things came crashing down or I took a very bad turn. Not that mistakes haven’t been made or that I haven’t fallen back into bad patterns and engaged in very dysfunctional behaviors. I have come to the conclusion that empowerment/healing is a process…a journey. There are no easy answers or quick fixes…it all began with the decision that I wanted to live differently and then the commitment that, no matter what, I was going to move toward that. Empowerment starts with us making our own decisions (even though they may not be the “right” ones) rather than allowing someone else to make those decisions for us.
Some years ago you organized an exhibition titled ‘SHAKTI’ in Edmonton, Canada where the theme was violence against Indian women. Can you share why you chose this name for the exhibition and why you chose to focus on domestic violence?
I chose to focus on all sorts of violence that women face in Indian communities worldwide (sex selective abortions, Dowry death, female infanticide, domestic violence etc) because it’s an issue close to my heart. It’s an issue that really needs to be acknowledged and talked about in Indian communities. There is such a watertight shroud of denial, shame, blame and outright lies about the level of violence that girls and women are subjected to in our very own families and communities. I know from experience that our silence does not protect us.
I chose the name Shakti because it literally means feminine empowerment. My art exhibition focused on violence against women as well as avenues for empowerment and change. I feel that the arts (music, art, literature) are a way we can transform our selves, our lives and our access to power.
Did you face any flak from the Indian community in Canada for highlighting domestic violence?
I didn’t experience any direct confrontations…it was more muted. A strong sense of denial, lack of support and ignorance was what I faced.
How can survivors of domestic violence break their silence and seek help?
I think this depends on the individual and their circumstances as well as their access to resources. I am very unfamiliar with laws and societal structures in India; for example…I have no idea if there are even domestic violence shelters there. In a country like the U.S. or Canada I feel that these are safe places to be if a woman is in a violent situation. In can be as simple (though not easy) as planning ahead of time, packing a bag and picking up the phone.
Also, it’s imperative to break the silence by speaking to safe people; this places the shame squarely on the abuser and not on the victim. So often, our shame keeps us silent and this not only depletes us of our power but it empowers the abuser. I think it all has begins with us believing that we are worthy. And we have to be prepared for being shamed and ostracized by our communities because so often, that is what happens.
What is your perception of the Indian community Canada – is there a strong preference for sons as there is in India? Is there any difference in the mindset of Indians in this country?
I think the first thing to acknowledge is that within the Indo-Canadian community, there are various sub-sets of Indians that have very different experiences. For example there are Indian immigrants from India, British Guyana, Fiji, South Africa etc as well as first generation Indians from these respective groups. And while there are commonalities amongst these groups, there are also strong differences; they are not a homogenous group. I think there is a preference for sons but some communities tend to be more misogynistic than others. In very general terms I find the Indo-Sikh community in Canada to have the strongest instances of violence against women as well as male gender preference.
As for the United States I am unable to make any sort of generalizations because I haven’t had any exposure to these communities.
What do we need to do to change the mindset of Indians, both in North America and India, to value their daughters, respect women?
I’m not sure how one would go about changing the Indian mindset…I think it all has to begin with how we treat ourselves, what we are willing to tolerate in the name of religion, culture, status etc. That being said…I think a multidisciplinary approach has to include access to resources (education, health care, women shelters) as well as laws that have to be in place and enforced.
What message do you have for your own daughter? What are your hope and dreams for her?
I hope to instill in my daughter a sense of unconditional love and acceptance, a sense of her individuality and identity. My deepest hopes and dreams for her is that she is the architect of her very own dreams!
What are three things you like about India?
I love the art and classical music. I love the temples and architecture of India…it veritably sings to the deepest parts of who I am. I love Indian food! And, for sure, I appreciate the diversity of India in terms of religion, ethnicity and culture.
What is your favorite quote?
There are so many…it would be difficult to pick just one. This quote by artist Aaron Douglas is what I hope I can bring to my work:“ Let’s bare our arms and plunge them deep through laughter, through pain, through sorrow, through hope, through disappointment, into the very depths of the souls of our people and drag forth materials crude, rough, neglected. Then let’s sing it, dance it, write it, paint it.”
And I adore this quote by Marianne Williamson :
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Both are really important. Women need to be empowered and have equality; they need to feel valued. Women have a lot to give society and the world but are often held back. Held back due to tradition and abuse, their own understanding of what they are capable of is lacking. We need to break down barriers so women’s talent, power and dreams can be unleashed.
It is important to put women in the center of my book so their thoughts, dreams and challenges are show cased, and readers are drawn into their characters. I want readers to be forced to think of women. So often in art and life, women are pushed to the sidelines. What men and larger society think of them becomes the only acceptable representation. We are conditioned by society to think of women in a certain way. It is important for my characters to question their roles and restraints, and draw on their inner strength if they are in trouble.
In thinking of your work with women’s organizations in the United States, do you think gender discrimination and violence have increased since you first began work in this sector?
The rate of violence is the same, but now more women are willing to talk about their situation. Women are reaching out with stories and asking for help. When I started working in this sector 20 years ago, there were taboos that if you were a woman in an abusive relationship something was wrong with you. You wanted to keep it quiet so it would be better for your children and not bring shame to your family. Women are now willing to take a risk to get help and are questioning whether they have another option to their situation. Instead of wanting to save face they want to save their lives. This raises awareness. Many organizations are offering support through seminars, with topics such as immigration or making financial decisions. These seminars give women real skills, but also create a safe space for women to dialogue about being independent and breaking away from an unsafe situation. Organizations have been smart about the ways they increase consciousness and increase women’s independence so it is done discreetly. Since women are often in a situation where it’s okay for them to say they are going to seminar about finances, but not okay to go to seminar about domestic violence, a call for empowerment is woven through the seminars.
What is your perception of the Indian community in the US – is there a strong preference for sons as there is in India? Is there any difference in the mindset of Indians in this country?
There is a difference, but there are still traditional families who place greater value on sons and view sons as more integral to the family. It is not as extreme in the US where education is denied to girls, but there is still a perception that girls leave their family after marriage. I believe in the US daughters are treated differently, but just as well, as sons – especially in regard to education. This goes for about 70% of Indian families in the US. The longer people live here, the more change occurs in their views. There is a huge leap in the second generation and when they have kids they make different choices. The biggest factor is whether you’ve had an education here and what values you grew up with. This makes a big difference.
Beyond the plain deaths, what is the most damaging effect of the genocide of girls in India?
The greatest negative consequence is that the gender balance is skewed. There are more men and less women which leads to more problems, especially sexual crimes including rape. Many rape cases involve men who aren’t married; this will only increase.
What do we need to do to change the mindset of Indians, both in the US and India, to respect women?
We should do what we can to get women economically independent, get jobs and have micro businesses, so they contribute to society and are valued more. These skills would put women in a place of confidence to leave an abusive situation. We also need to empower women and girls more by educating them. We need to help women gain literacy so they are savvy and are not as easily taken advantage of. These are basic, but hard, things to do. We have seen that educated and financially independent women come out of abusive situations quickly. We need women to gain self-confidence. Education and economic empowerment and independence are the most important things. The media can and should start portraying women in a more positive light. Too many movies portray women as unequal and as sex objects. We see this in the clothes women wear; women dressing in a sexy manner are portrayed as integral to them being special. These portrayals subconsciously have made us think about women in these devalued terms. We need more movies and books that break these mainstream portrayals. We need to show women as powerful and not portray that as exceptional. Women can be attractive and elegant without being a sex object or wear skimpy clothes.
What can people do to help the cause? How can we make a difference?
We can use social media to raise consciousness. People need to start writing about this issue and discuss it in a social media forum. We need to ask for, and demand, books and art that are socially conscious and attentive to ending the devalued perception of women. People can help by volunteering for organizations that are working for the cause; people can help raise money or give time. Also, people can help by speaking up if they see something wrong. If you see a women who is being treated badly, befriend her and let her know there are options so she feels valued. So we can help at the volunteer, work, personal and social media level. You can do this on your school campus or at work. There are organizations in India that are fighting against the problem women and girls face. We can get the word out about these organizations. Post on your Facebook page about important issues like women’s empowerment. Support filmmakers who are making films about this issue like Petals in the Dust.
For more information about Chitra Banerjee Divakurni, go to her website at www.chitradivakaruni.com
Petals in the Dust: The Endangered Indian Girls examines the condition of an endangered class of people living in one of the most populous, culturally and economic vibrant countries: modern India. They come from all walks of life and share only one common trait: they are female.
A patriarchal mindset, a preference for sons and a deep-seated intolerance has led to the murder of 50 million girls and women in India in the last century. They continue to lose their lives in this century to infanticide, sex-selective abortions, starvation and medical neglect, dowry deaths and brutal gang rapes. The declining female population is also leading to increased crimes against women including trafficking and bride buying. By 2020 there will be 20 percent more men than women.
The film explores the cultural origins of this vast genocidal crime and includes the voices of activists and gender experts. By profiling the unimaginable stories of brave survivors, viewers enter the chilling realities girls and women are currently enduring, NOW, providing a sense of urgency in helping to change status quo.
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