Aruna Papp’s life in India was so coloured by emotional and physical abuse she believed herself to be worthless, just another unwanted girl being raised in a culture that only values males.
This idea of having no value to society or her own family was so ingrained that Papp titled her 2011 book Unworthy Creature: A Punjabi Daughter's Memoir of Honour, Shame and Love (Freedom Press)written with National Post columnist Barbara Kay.
Papp was the keynote speaker at Wednesday’s International Women’s Day gala, presented by the Zonta Club of Kitchener-Waterloo at the Walper Terrace Hotel and she delivered a strong message about societies where family honour is more valued than female family members.
“I was told I was stupid since I was little,” said Papp in an interview before her talk.
During a few short stints when she was allowed to go to school, her self-esteem did not improve because she was much older than her classmates after a late start at age 10 and she struggled with an undiagnosed learning disability.
“I was also the tallest, the darkest, the ugliest and the stupidest,” she remembered thinking about herself at the time.
Despite low self-esteem, Papp was desperate to learn. But for a girl growing up the eldest in a family of six unwanted girls and one beloved boy, she was more workhorse than cherished daughter.
Papp now holds two master’s degrees, specializes in cultural conflicts and plans on entering a PhD program in the fall. The Toronto-based activist, lecturer and workshop leader came to Canada in 1972 with her then husband and their two little daughters, equipped with only a Grade 3 education and no idea that life could hold more.
“I had said I wanted to finish school, but my mother wouldn’t hear about it,” she said. “I didn’t know I had an option.”
Papp spent the past three decades devoted to helping Southeast Asian women in Canada and serves as research associate with the Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy. She is also an outspoken advocate for women from cultures that devalue females and she is most appalled at the murders of females at the hands of their fathers and brothers.
In her book, Papp cites the 2009 case of Kingston’s Shafia family. Father, son and wife were found guilty of killing three daughters and a first wife, apparently motivated by the desire to protect the family’s honour.
She also recalls a horrific scene when she was young, living in India and awoke one night to the screams of a beautiful young neighbour who had been set on fire in the street by her brothers because she had her own ideas of who she would marry. Those images burned into her mind and made her fearful for her own safety.
Papp grew up the daughter of a Christian pastor who moved his family around the country for his job. She adored her father, though he was often cruel, as was her mother.
“When I was 17, my sister came and said, ‘You’re getting married next month,’ ” she recalled. There would be no discussion.
“The wedding tent was set up on the (apartment building) roof and I thought, if I refused to climb the stairs … I told my mother I didn’t want to get married and she told me to either climb the stairs or you get slapped. I know I didn’t have a choice.”
The arranged marriage to an older man would prove disastrous.
“All your life, girls growing up are told, ‘Don’t talk to boys, don’t let them touch you.’ Then in one night, they give you to a man and he does all that to you.”
Papp’s life didn’t change until she, her husband, daughters and parents immigrated to Canada, settling in Kitchener for a couple of years. Her parents would eventually move to Toronto and Papp and her husband headed to the U.S. where he attended seminary.
For Papp, the U.S. first glimpsed a world where women had choices, where education was for everyone.
“I used to sit in on classes, just to see what they were saying,” she said. “I met a woman … she started to introduce me to American history and she said, ‘Why don’t you apply for a student loan?’ ”
It was an awakening of sorts.
“History fascinated me, people fascinated me,” she said. “Now I read seven, eight, nine, 10 books a week.”
When the couple returned to Canada, Papp landed a clerical job at York University where she had another fortuitous meeting with a supervisor.
“The woman wanted a liaison person,” she said. “There were all these apartments around, full of Southeast Asian women and she said, ‘We don’t know how to help them. How about we hire you as an outreach worker?’ ”
As her confidence grew, Papp divorced her husband of 18 years, and then 27 years ago married a man of Hungarian and Scottish descent. Every day is like a honeymoon, she said dreamily. With a supportive husband behind her, Papp is free to devote her life to helping women and changing attitudes.
“A lot of people don’t like my mission,” she said. “They say that I’m perpetuating racism, perpetuating stereotypes.”
She has been threatened, but it hasn’t stopped her speaking out to protect those who lack a voice and who live in fear.
Papp wants to make it clear that honour killing is different than domestic abuse.
“The motivation for honour killing is different. It’s pre-planned. It’s always father and sons. This abuse of girls is rooted in culture.”