It's hard to forget the film East is East (1999) - if you’re of the right generation that is.
This classic 90s comedy-drama Britflick was one of the first big-screen depictions of the post-war immigrant experience in the UK. With a large helping of delightfully British humour and plenty of candour, it depicted the trials of a Pakistani father trying to arrange marriages for his two mixed-ethnicity sons. Not only was it totally hilarious, it was also ground-breaking, bringing the experiences and culture of a minority group that most people in the UK had no idea about at the time right into everyone's living rooms and playgrounds.
The same could be said about Kelly Kaur, founder of the housing and support organisation ‘Throughcare’. She’s hilarious, candid and in many ways what she has created broke ground where support for people who have experienced domestic abuse, particularly in the form of forced marriages, is concerned.
“O.M.G.” she says repeatedly as she recounts her own story of narrowly escaping a forced marriage...by accident.
“I didn’t even realise I was in Birmingham,” she tells me through a wry laugh. Kelly was 16 at the time studying to become an art teacher when she’d taken her usual bus home from college only to realise too late that she’d forgotten to get off and found herself in Birmingham city centre with no phone (this was the 80s), no money, and no contact number for her grandparents, who were raising her.
A few weeks prior to this, she’d come home from school one afternoon to find something like a scene from East is East taking place in her ‘parents’ living room: about 15 Asians sitting around staring at her. Now, this wouldn’t have been unusual to most people growing up in an Asian household, but Kelly’s grandparents, who she classed as her parents, had chosen to live in a ‘white’ area of the Black Country to avoid facing the shame of their Asian community, so seeing any large number of Asians together in one space was a bit of a shock. You see, Kelly’s mother had fallen for and married a white man, a total taboo at the time, one her biological mother never overcame as, sadly, she left Kelly with her grandparents when she was just five and from then on, Kelly became their “tarnished” daughter.
The marriage had been arranged and Kelly had no say. The day she visited her future husband’s home in Wolverhampton, she was adorned with the red head scarf and the 20 or so people who were there started putting money down to symbolise her acceptance as the bride. Kelly began crying but everyone thought she was crying for joy and happiness.
“I didn’t disagree with [arranged marriage]. I always knew that’s my culture, but I assumed it wouldn’t have been arranged until I was ready.” She was wrong. From that day on she was expected to send love letters to her fiancé who was back in India.
“I went to school the following week and I started to rebel a little bit. The teachers didn’t understand. This was in the 80s. Nobody knows what this kind of thing is.”
Kelly didn’t know she was going to ‘run away’ until it happened. Not knowing what to do, she called her friend who picked her up from the city and in that moment, she said to her, “You know what? I’m leaving home.”
Eventually she got a flat, but there were times of immense hardship, living on the streets.
After a while she found herself working in an estate agent and, she recalls how “this woman came up to me and said, ‘my husband’s abusing me and this and that’, so I got the Women’s Aid number for her and [they] went to her house and left a card in the door saying ‘we’ve been told you’re under domestic violence, please contact us’. That woman came quickly to me and I thought O.M.G., that’s putting your life in danger! So I got her housed, sorted out her benefits and thought why don’t I just set something up myself? And that’s how Throughcare came about.”
It’s been a challenge to keep it going, to get funding, but Kelly is a determined woman who likes to do things her own way and finds it very difficult to work with people who try to follow a text book when working with people they don’t understand the lived experiences of.
“Nobody understood the concept of what a forced marriage was or what an arranged marriage was in the Asian community [context]. I don’t deal with just Asians; I deal with any ethnicities because there’re different types of forced marriage and domestic violence. It’s different across cultures and religions but when it comes down to it, we’re all the same. We’ve housed people from a white ethnic background, like skin heads, and they’ve gone and fallen in love with a black person.”
Despite what many of her haters might think, Throughcare isn’t all about teaching people to leave home and live independently.
“Back in my time all I wanted was for someone to mediate between [me and] the family and say ‘look, she doesn’t want to get married yet but she will in the next four/five years, you know, see how it goes.”
“We’ve had stories where we’ve housed some girls and the next thing, I’ve done mediation with their family and they’ve gone back home. I’ve had one Muslim girl who’s in love with a Hindu boy - we had to kidnap her from school - it was so bad! She got pregnant and all sorts. We did mediation, got death threats and everything and, guess what? They’ve been married for 6 years! And then you think to yourself what was all that hoo-har about at the beginning? But you do get the odd ones that just want their freedom.”
Ultimately, Kelly’s organisation is filling a gap in other services and that gap is the genuine knowledge of peoples’ desires and empathy for cultural practices that can only really come from lived experience.
About women’s organisations, she says it like it is: “we’re all aiming at the same goal but [we] all do it in a different way.”