On a bitterly cold winter morning in Williams Lake, B.C., three sisters – Salakshana, Jeeti and Kira Pooni – arrive at the courthouse. The camera pans to reveal them staring up at the imposing four-storey government building, possibly the tallest structure in this sleepy northern B.C. sawmill town. The women steady themselves. After years of waiting, the next steps they take will be down the corridors of Canada’s justice system, where the three will finally get their long-awaited day in court.
The new documentary Because We Are Girls shares the story of the Pooni sisters, three second-generation women from a close-knit Punjabi Sikh immigrant family. As adolescents, the siblings were repeatedly sexually assaulted over years by an older male family member. For five of those years, that cousin lived in their Williams Lake home, where the children referred to him as “bhaaji,” or “older brother,” a term of respect and endearment. For the three women, their teenage years were an ordeal; adulthood since has been a series of trials.
Nearly three decades since that time, the sisters are still seeking justice against their abuser and to repair the parts of their lives that remain fractured. And so from the opening scenes of Baljit Sangra’s new film, viewers accompany the women on this uncertain journey as they negotiate unfamiliar grounds, from hostile courtrooms to difficult conversations with their children about the enduring trauma from abuse.
In the 1970s and 80s, when the sisters were growing up, the first large wave of Punjabi Sikh immigrants were moving into small blue-collar towns like Williams Lake. While their parents’ generation was optimistic about economic prosperity, they were equally anxious over losing face among family and community networks, particularly by their children deviating from expected cultural norms. This often led to heavy-handed treatment of daughters – as the title of the film suggests. Dating in that second generation was forbidden, marriages often still arranged, and any hint of scandal concealed. When the youngest of the three, Kira, tried to come out to her mother as far back as 1991, she was rebuffed because, as she explains, “it would have such a big toll on [my] sisters’ future [prospects]” – or, as she paraphrased her mother, “I have other daughters to marry."
As girls, the sisters were silenced. As women they have sought to be heard, pushing back against resistance from family, the authorities and cultural conditioning in coming forward to expose their abuser. Each small victory has bolstered hope and reinforced their confidence. In the visceral climax to the film, the sisters confront their mother and father about their perceived sense of “shame” and how they feel suffocated by its heaviness whenever they are in a room with their parents. Where the Pooni sisters couldn’t get all the support they needed from their family, they leaned on each other, going it alone, for example, when initiating the legal process and filing a police report in 2007. But now having finally reached trial, they may find what awaits isn’t catharsis but just more trauma.
The Vancouver-based Sangra was the creative force behind the new doc. For her, the story of the Pooni sisters is a pivotal #MeToo moment for Canada’s South Asian community. “This was a very empowering journey for me. Jeeti is a friend and, coming from the same cultural background, I could relate to her story,” says Sangra, who has also produced documentaries on South Asian gangs in Vancouver as well as culturally sensitive care homes catering to South Asian seniors. “This story began before the #MeToo movement began. We were already in the trenches – they were being silenced by their families, they were being silenced by the justice system – and then suddenly in the background the #MeToo movement picked up. These women have gone from being silence-breakers to change-makers.”
It is well documented how the court process can make survivors feel revictimized, like they are being made to stand trial. And then there are the long odds. Even when sexual assault survivors come forward and submit to repeated probing into their private lives, and sexual history, the likelihood the case will end in retribution is slim.
“My entire sexual history was explored. Even though the crimes occurred from 1980 to 1985, but my entire history was probed beyond that,” says Jeeti Pooni in an interview. “You have no privacy. It’s like you are not believed. It felt like I didn’t matter. I felt like I had no rights. For 12 years I had to put my life on hold to get justice.”
In Canada, only in one in 10 sexual-assault cases reported by police end in criminal conviction. For historic abuse cases – such as the Pooni sisters – where the assault(s) occurred in childhood but were reported much later in adulthood, the rates are even lower.
“Only 1 per cent of women make it to where we have made it,” Jeeti Pooni, the middle of the three sisters, remarks shortly after the film begins. “Now we go into verdict and whatever happens, happens.”
As it would turn out, the accused – who isn’t named in the documentary – would be convicted of four of six counts of sexual assault on April 6, 2018 – 11 years after the crime was reported to police. But in a move that reveals how difficult it is to win historic abuse cases, this decision is now pending appeal because the accused is claiming his “right to be tried in a timely manner was breached.” (In an e-mail, the National Film Board had this to say on the decision: “While these legal proceedings are still underway, the outcome would not change anything in the film. The legal proceedings that are still ongoing pertain to the sentencing of the convicted abuser – and not the conviction itself. He was found guilty on four of six charges of sexual assault by the Supreme Court of B.C. in 2018. The film doesn’t discuss or highlight the sentencing, it doesn’t reveal his identity, it focuses solely on the Pooni sisters’ experience and their fight for justice.")
If the courts stay the proceedings, it will be a blow for the sisters in their quest for justice. But by documenting their journey, they will have already inspired countless other silenced survivors of sexual abuse from the South Asian community.
Because We Are Girls provides a rare glimpse into family and social dynamics in Canada’s Punjabi Sikh community and how that community, now three and four generations into settlement in this country, is still struggling to reconcile shifting #MeToo values with old-world patriarchal interpretations of family honour and shame. Families in this community continue to “save face” from a scandal by silencing female victims, while conveniently overlooking how this enables male abusers.
But a new generation of this community’s social workers and Sikh youth are beginning the conversations to integrate the #MeToo awakening into this Canadian community’s social and even religious practices. And in the years to come, this film may one day be seen as having been a critical part of that historic correction.
Because We Are Girls has its world premiere at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto on May 1 (hotdocs.ca); it screens at Vancouver’s DOXA Film Festival in Vancouver on May 3 and May 7