Throughout November, The Huffington Post UK is running its Beyond Belief series, chronicling the remarkable lives of Britons who've taken on their faith to create a force for change.
Barrister Usha Sood is running almost an hour late for our meeting at London’s Royal Courts of Justice. “She bumped into someone in the corridor who needed help, so she’s going to take on their case pro bono,” her legal clerk explains on the phone.
That's a very noble reason to be late, I say. “That’s just the way she is,” he replies, matter-of-fact.
This spontaneity is typical of Sood. Approaching with an earnest smile, the 62-year-old wears a dark green sari woven into her black legal jacket and white shirt, in recognition of her Indian heritage.
Sood has devoted the past 20 years to defending the human rights of women, men and children in Britain's Asian communities, particularly around dowry abuse, forced marriage, child abduction and immigration.
Usha at the Royal Courts of Justice in London
A practicing Hindu, she is driven by an unwavering sense of justice, instilled with the most basic principles of her faith from childhood.
“My parents didn’t have a ritualistic approach to Hinduism," she tells me. "Their principle precepts were that you essentially do good, care for people and that you don't want too much, because things that were material were only going to go so far. You didn't have to live on millions.”
When we meet Sood is starving, after unexpectedly representing the man she met only a few hours earlier, who is trying to secure guardianship of his 13-year-old nephew whose parents have gone missing in Bangladesh. Now, in the court canteen, she considers ordering an omelette but settles for three already-cooked hash browns, to allow us more time to talk.
Sood has been a key figure in numerous trials for forced marriage, child abduction and dowry abuse. She advised the Home Office on making forced marriage illegal, and was part of the Lawrence Steering Group, overseeing the government’s implementation of plans in response to the bungled inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
She still speaks with an Indian accent, despite being raised in Malaysia and living in Britain since she was 18. She’s a woman who thrives off her work, constantly busy but utterly engaged, humble yet somehow stately.
She runs her own human rights practice, Trent Chambers, in her hometown of Nottingham, with the slogan “Integrity, strength and passion”. But today we meet in the Royal Courts in London, where she often argues complex cases. Its Victorian Gothic halls reflect an English legal system that has been in place for decades – but Sood is always setting precedents.
Her cases often have a “religious twist,” she observes. “When abuse is perpetrated in the name of religion, I am very, very upset about that. Recently, a woman was hung for challenging a rape in Iran. That to me is abominable: that a person who is a victim can be turned somehow into an offender.”
Posing as a model for a "wannabe photographer" friend at school aged 17
Until she was 40, Sood’s legal career was purely academic. She was a senior lecturer in law at Nottingham Trent University until 1990, when she met seven refugee children who would change the course of her life.
They were young Sikhs, threatened with deportation with their parents back to India where the entire family was in danger from attacks following Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s murder by her Sikh bodyguards. Their attempts to gain asylum in Britain had failed.
“I was approached by a member of the local city council, who had found these children hiding in a room and very upset, with their mother,” she explains. “He asked if there was anything I could do for them.”
Sood’s compassion for the desperate children – three of whom were born in Britain and were "very much British children" – compelled her to represent them in court, despite having no experience as a barrister and a hectic life with three young children of her own.
“I just jumped into it," she says, sounding still invigorated by the memory. "I knew what I was talking about legally, so I thought: ‘let me just do this.’ If I had been in my 20s I might have been nervous, but when you get older you just lose the fear. You are more life-experienced, and you also have an eye on the goal, which is that these children need help, and I’m going to say my piece.”
Sood succeeded in winning the children the unprecedented protection of the English court, through the principle known as wardship – the only time it has ever been successfully used in immigration law. The children’s parents were deported, but finally returned, with Sood’s help, nearly 20 years later.
The Royal Courts of Justice where Usha acts in high-profile cases
Sood was born in Malaysia, one of five siblings who moved around every few years, with a father who was the first Indian Assistant Commissioner of the country's police.
Sood’s father - a towering influence in her life - was driven by a liberal commitment to a multicultural and multi-faith existence. His children were educated in a convent, where he encouraged them to attend mass to soak up all the Christian values they could. “He was very broad in his approach,” recalls Sood. “He said you can gain value from reading about and learning about other religions.”
A gifted pupil, Sood recalls acting as the UN secretary general in mock debates under the watchful eyes of the nuns. When one of her teachers, Mother Superior Brede, met her 42 years later, she remembered Sood instantly as “such an unassuming but powerful girl”.
The barrister is proud that traditions like observing the caste system, and dowry played no part in her childhood. “You do lead by example, my father insisted that if his sons got married, the daughter-in-laws brought nothing but the clothes they were wearing."
Playing the UN Secretary General in a school debate aged 18
Her family moved to the UK when she was 18, after she was accepted to the University of Cambridge unconditionally, but decided to study law in Nottingham. They lived in Bramcote, a Nottingham suburb where they were the only non-white residents. “My dad deliberately chose an area where we could share our knowledge and values with the whole community," Sood recalls. "He didn’t want to move into an area that already had Asian or black people, he felt it was important to integrate.”
But less than a year later, Sood's mother died of a sudden cadio-vascular illness, and her father passed away from the same cause soon afterwards, leaving Sood as sole breadwinner for four siblings.
Usha (R) with her older sister Anjana when they were 6 and 8, at their house in Malacca, Malaysia
The loss nearly broke her: “Being left at a young age without parents, before any of your siblings are married, is a very significant feeling. I almost went adrift. I lost a lot of weight and people were worried," she says.
“Then, a few weeks after father passed away, an elderly relative sat with me and said that he was absolutely ashamed of me, because I was letting my parents down. Until then, everyone was molly-coddling me. But he said the best testament to your parents is if you walk in their footsteps, and if you do what would make them proud.
"That evening, I had my first proper meal, and I never looked back.”
Her parents’ values and teachings were what inspired her to carry on, she says now. “They had shown how they were able to achieve so much in terms of their life. My father’s father died young, so he was responsible for five siblings.
"My mother was a wonderful stoical sort of lady." She pauses, letting the next words hang in the air, even 40 years on. "She taught us that Diwali means that before you light a lamp in your own home, you light it in someone else’s.
"I thought that was a beautiful sentiment: you don’t approach your festivals without thinking 'have I brought some happiness to someone else?'”
For the last four decades, Sood has led the celebration of Diwali in her area, welcoming around 150 neighbours to an annual all-day open house with glimmering window displays.
But some could argue her most significant contribution to Hindus, and to British law, has been taking on the culturally ingrained practice of the dowry, something which occurs in most Hindu, Sikh and Muslim Asian marriages, through lavish gifts from a woman's family to her new parents-in-law. “In some marriages it is only tokenism, but in the bulk of them, it is quite lavish, partly because of the subtle pressure that is applied to the girl’s parents," Sood says.
Sometimes that pressure can become criminal, when a husband's family view his wife as a financial pawn and demand more, while subjecting the woman to violence, manipulation and even murder. Sood has seen requests for thousands of pounds, houses and cars, and even a helicopter.
“If the in-laws say could we have another £10,000, her parents will find it somehow, because they would rather their daughter’s marriage doesn’t break up. The parents of the girl sometimes don't recognise the the fact that anyone who is demanding money in exchange for a daughter-in-law can't possibly have any respect the woman," she says, her voice faltering.
“There have been instances of explained burnings, or women who have supposedly committed suicide or had an accident and died in a fire, where we are not sure whether those are actually triggered by dowry abuse, and where the authorities haven’t had the knowledge to go and ask these questions.”
Sood has worked with women who have been imprisoned over long periods. “One hadn’t seen light for so many years that she couldn't cope when we came outside. I’ve seen Muslim women in Yorkshire physically chained to work stations in a house: they are basically slaves in those situations.”
It’s easy to see why Sood is a comforting presence for the hundreds of people she has helped. She gives off a calm determination, a measured sense that ultimately, good will prevail, despite the horrors she hears about.
Sood worked to win the first civil compensation for dowry abuse in Britain using harassment laws in 2006, for Gina Singh, who married into a family who tortured her for four months.
She handles around 50 dowry abuse cases a year and he sees herself as a “problem solver” - she has to be creative with different pieces of law as issues like forced marriage and dowry are relatively alien concepts in British law.
In fact, dowry was not a recognised legal term until Sood pressed for it after her first dowry case in 1997. She defended Dwinderjit Kaur, a 26-year old from Nottingham who was threatened and kept in isolation by her husband’s family, and forced to cook and clean for long hours as her father could not afford their escalating financial demands.
When Kaur was pregnant and went into labour, her in-laws refused to take her to hospital because she been a ‘bad investment’. “My son had a heart attack inside me,” Kaur says, “we thought he was stillborn. Thankfully he was revived but there was a risk of brain damage. I believe it was from all the tension I was under: I was imprisoned and was told by my in-laws that they knew people who could kill my parents, they’d just have to snap their fingers. I was terrified every time the phone rang that it would be the news of their deaths.”
After Kaur used her hospital visit to call her family and escape, Sood visited her as a concerned family friend, but then helped her become the first British woman to successfully sue through civil court for the return of her dowry of several thousand pounds.
Usha (second from L) on her 50th birthday with her best friends and daughter, Raina
Kaur describes Sood as compassionate, supportive and fair. “She’s so inspiring that you feel that the world’s your oyster when you talk to her, but she’s very realistic too.
"She’s incredibly intelligent and articulate, but that doesn't take away her human side. "Everything else is on back burner when she’s dealing with difficult cases, but at the same time she’s perfected her work life balance. She fights for what’s right.”
“She had to have relevant case law, she had to be very articulate in how she put things across, which was fantastic because I think it was quite educational for the judge, at the time. She’s an absolute strength for everyone around her."
Death threats were sent to Sood’s home – not for the first or last time – during the case, as some in the Asian community felt she was bringing it into disrepute. “That didn't deter her – she was even more determined,” says Kaur. My family went through a lot emotionally, but Usha went through a lot herself because she was endangering her own family.
With her husband Naresh on a weekend away for their 30th wedding anniversary
"It was very scary, but we carried on because it wasn’t just for me, it was for other women. We opened the door for this quite taboo area of our community to be exposed. A lot of women have brought forward other cases and a lot have contacted me through Usha so they could see a living victim, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel."
Sood admits she has "had the odd death threat" and hate groups have been set up against her by enraged mothers-in-law. "My attitude to that was that they were the ones that were actually bringing every human value into disrepute, with their demands for dowry and their ill treatment of their daughters-in-law. So I didn’t feel any problems there.”
British authorities sometimes lack the cultural knowledge to understand the cases she works with, and Sood believes being from an Indian Hindu background is key. “I am absolutely convinced that having some cultural insight is an essential part of preparing and presenting a case.
"You can explain to a judge why a woman wouldn’t have left her husband’s family, even after a lot of humiliation and ill treatment, why she couldn’t demand to take her gold with her, why sometimes, some women actually give up their children to their in-laws, because there are certain types of pressure that nobody else understands. The idea of marrying someone you may have never seen, for example. Unless you understand the culture, it’s hard to describe and explain.”
The issues sometimes go beyond religion: she’s dealt with cases of forced marriage in migrants from Italy, Albania and Argentina, spanning different races and even gender. She knows of young, educated men forced to wed a stranger, and vividly remembers a Pakistani student who visited her with a heavily pregnant English girlfriend.
“He’d gone back to Pakistan with his family for a holiday, and was sitting in a garden when an old man came up to him and muttered in Urdu," Sood explains. "Not fully understanding, the boy grinned at him and nodded his head. Then, he’s presented with a marriage certificate. In a Muslim ceremony, the man and the woman do not sit together for the wedding. The old man was actually the celebrant, asking him if he agreed to marry the woman inside.”
Growing up in Malaysia, acting as speaker in a mock Malaysian Parliament at school, aged 16
Sood’s own marriage came at 26, to Naresh, a doctor who is also from an Indian background. Their partnership is a world away from the abusive and controlling relationships she works with. “We’ve really based our professional work on that philosophy of treating people as equals, and as human beings. My husband certainly is responsible for the fact that I am in practice; he was the one who said [after the refugee children case] 'You have skills that you can help the world with.' He had no prior notion that I should just be a homemaker.
“This is very unusual among Hindus,” she adds. “Even after migration, people still hanker back to tradition roles of men and women. But my husband certainly is an example of somebody who is very progressive, he doesn’t think that there are any real restrictions.”
Sood believes that the vulnerability she defends transcends religion – yet her work gives her evident spiritual fulfillment. “I don’t believe in hell, but I do believe that you gain a certain amount of peace in this world through not hurting anyone, and trying to help other people,” she says.
“So if there is such a thing as religious satisfaction in your lifetime, I think I am a very happy person, because I never need to look at the mirror and think ‘why did you do that?’ Hinduism believes in the afterlife, and I hope that the soul has a place in that. I haven’t got any kind of concrete image of what the afterlife is, I’m just happy that while I’m alive, I do good.”
As part of the Huffington Post Beyond Belief series we want to know how your religion goes beyond just a faith in a God or Gods, or a cultural association. How do you incorporate or use faith in modern life? Tweet us with the hashtag #HPBeyondBelief to tell us in 140 characters and we'll feature the best contributions.
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