An Asian woman murdered by her family for getting pregnant - it's just the tip of the iceberg. LOUISE FRANCE on an organisation that's trying to help
There is a popular saying in Asian culture. It goes: "A woman leaves her father's house in a doli (marriage carriage); she leaves her husband's house in a coffin." These words - repeated often - took on a chilling significance last week when Shazad Naz and his mother Shakeela were found guilty of murder in Nottingham Crown Court.

The jury had heard how in March last year, mother and son held down and strangled the youngest member of the family, Rukhasna Naz, when they discovered that she was pregnant by someone outside her marriage.

The violent details of the case have horrified many. However, for for a small, closely knit group of women in London the story, while shocking, was by no means unheard of. Sudarshan Bhuhi runs Apna Ghar (which translates as Our Home), one of the few support groups for Asian women who have suffered domestic violence and the only one which runs a telephone helpline.

With very few resources and relying mainly on volunteers, Apna Ghar attempts to help women in abusive relationships and also to re-educate London's Asian community. Some days it must seem like an uphill battle: unofficial figures indicate that as many as 60 per cent of women in Asian households experience some kind of abuse, be it physical, emotional or verbal.

Apna Ghar sees four new cases every day. There are the young women who call from Heathrow airport, literally minutes before they're taken to Pakistan for an arranged marriage, begging for help. Wives whose husbands keep their passports - "They threaten them with deportation, knowing that after years of marriage the woman is legally allowed to stay in the country," explains Sudarshan.

Or the family who discovered that their unmarried daughter was expecting a baby. They escorted her to India where she was forced to have an abortion. The woman was seven-and-a-half months pregnant. Immediately after the termination she was made to wash floors.

Domestic violence is a complex issue in any culture. In Asian communities it's especially so. Often violence is exacted for reasons of "honour". If a woman, for instance, rebels against a forced marriage, the family see this as a betrayal of trust. Words like "fate", "justice" and "family honour" are heard repeatedly by Apnar Ghar as justification for violence.

Neither is it always the husband who is the perpetrator of the violence. The wife is traditionally caught between the demands of her husband's family, her own family and her children. Everyone - including her mother- in-law - has power over her. "The fact that the mother-in-law may have been abused herself makes no difference," says Sudarshan. The older woman will be the head of the family and therefore she will feel within her rights to lash out.

Research shows that many women stay in violent relationships because, after years of abuse, they lose the ability to make decisions for themselves. For Asian women the situation is even more difficult - brought up in a world where the family and the home means everything, they simply may not have the experience to cope with life outside.

Women from all parts of society are affected. "It's just as bad for the middle classes," explains Sudarshan. "Often women who have good careers - solicitors, teachers - will be abused. They don't dare tell anyone. It's as if because they come from a well-known family they are even more ashamed of what's going on behind closed doors." There is, in other words, even more honour at stake.

The emphasis on family honour means that abuse remains a taboo subject. When Sudarshan goes fundraising, people often refuse to give her money. "We'd help you if it was the local hospital, they say. But not this. Why are you washing our dirty clothes in public? This has been going on for centuries. Why do something now?"

Despite such antagonism, Apna Ghar runs three support groups, six weekly open-door advice sessions and a multilingual, 24-hour telephone counselling service. They're hoping to raise enough funds to make the telephone line nationwide.

The situation is better than it used to be, says Sudarshan, but recently they've noticed a new and worrying development. The number of teenage girls ringing for help has increased. The younger generation, keen to break free from restrictive upbringings, is posing a threat to the status quo. The older generation reacts as it always has done - with violence and threats.

Sudarshan believes that counselling has a limited effect. Education, she says, is the only way her community is likely to progress. Most of all they need the public backing of religious leaders.

Meanwhile, she has a new and potentially powerful patron on her side. Ramola Bachchan, the sister-in-law of India's most celebrated film star, Amitabh, has given her public backing to Apna Ghar and will act as a spokesperson for the group. In a culture where Bollywood is more influential than Hollywood, perhaps this time a family connection can be used to do some good.

Apna Ghar telephone line: 0171 474 1547. Donations can be made to Apna Ghar, c/o Real Life, the Independent on Sunday, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL.

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