Justice in a culture of silence

Sisters Salakshana, Jeeti and Kira with their mother growing up in Williams Lake, where their parents immigrated from India.| Photo courtesy of National Film Board.

The Pooni sisters are after justice. Because We Are Girls is an upcoming documentary about the journey of Jeeti, Salakshana, and Kira Pooni as they try to bring a sexual predator from their childhood to justice.

The documentary received official selection at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto. Due to popular demand the documentary will have several screenings, as well as Q&As, in July at Vancity Theatre.

A painful secret

Salakshana, the eldest Pooni sister.| Photo courtesy of National Film Board.

Baljit Sangra, director of Because We Are Girls, has followed the sisters for the last several years in order to capture their ordeal in bringing their case to the higher court systems of Canada. The sisters emigrated with their family from India to Williams Lake, BC in 1973.

More of their Punjabi family soon came over to move in with them and this is when the abuse began. All three of the girls were soon in a cycle of sexual abuse by an older cousin, one who was considered a son by their parents. All of the sisters kept their painful secrets to themselves until 2006. Now, over thirteen years later, Sangra is bringing their story to light.

A culture of silence

Jeeti, the middle Pooni sister.

One should never bring shame upon their family in the Punjabi culture. Shame is almost considered a dirty word and shame is what prevented Jeeti, Salakshana, and Kira from bringing their claims of abuse to their parents, says Sangra.

“Honor is everything,” explains Sangra. “The words for shame and without shame are learned in childhood. The sisters’ father was the president of the temple there, they were very prominent in Williams Lake. He [the abuser] knows that these girls were not going to break their silence and if they did they were not going to be believed. Their family would never want this out.”

Kira, the younger Pooni sister.

After many years, the women, two of them mothers themselves, decided enough time had passed. They threw shame to the wayside to make sure that this man could not abuse anyone else ever again. Many scenes in the film depict the parents of the sisters trying to give support the best they can, but the deeply ingrained gray cloud of cultural shame still leaves the women feeling alone in their pursuit for justice.

“They [Punjabi society] believe that the girl is going to be blamed,” says Sangra, “like she did something that brought that on herself. Even today people ask why a girl was out so late, why was she wearing that. It’s ridiculous. Not much has changed. The person comes forward and says something happened to them and they are put on the defensive when they should be believed and not questioned.”

Making noise

In the documentary, the women are followed to their many court dates in Williams Lake, even spending one Christmas in the frozen city far away from their families in Surrey. They are dedicated to their mission and it initially pays off in the court system. Their accuser was charged with four out of six counts of sexual assault, but the fight is far from over. His charges were dropped by the court in June (2019) and the sisters’ fight continues.

“We were devastated and shocked and trying to make noise,” said Sangra, “We made a petition and Jeeti made a viral video to Trudeau asking where is the justice? And they are doing really well. So hopefully the Crown will appeal. This is a travesty.”

The theatrical run in Vancouver will make it possible for all viewers to support the sisters in their journey as well as normalize the conversation of sexual abuse in all cultures.

“Sisterhood is powerful,” says Sangra, “The audiences have responded well in the festivals we’ve done. I think it’s been cathartic for the sisters to feel that love from the audience and the understanding. We are going to put our energy to keep this conversation going. We are not going to give up on justice.”

For more information, visit www.viff.org.