THE car pulled up in a quiet side street with its two young occupants chatting animatedly about their night out. Harpinder Kaur smiled warmly at her new boyfriend and the pair kissed each other goodnight before arranging when they could go out again.

But little did either of them know that they were being watched from across the street. Behind the closed curtains, Harpinder's brother-in-law quietly seethed with shame and anger as he contemplated his independent sister-in-law. Not only was she an Indian Sikh seeing a Muslim boy from Pakistan, she had already been promised to another, a suitable match arranged by her family. As Harpinder stepped obliviously from the car, her brother-in-law was waiting.

"He beat me up really bad," says Harpinder, which is not her real name. "I just took it because I was used to it, because I used to get beaten up by my step-dad. I know it's wrong, that you shouldn't do it, but it's just an Asian thing. I thought 'fair enough' if he does it once, but if he does it again, I won't stand for it."

Harpinder is defiantly recalling the beatings from within the safety of the Middlesbrough women's refuge which she turned to for help. Describing her ordeal at the hands of her brother-in-law, she speaks matter of factly and her acceptance at being beaten up - as part of an "Asian thing" - comes across as deeply disturbing. But when she describes how her step-father used to hit her with his belt as a child, on one occasion so badly that she could not move from her bed for two days, it is clear that violence has been in her life for a long time.

Harpinder was born in the Midlands and spent part of her childhood in the north of Newcastle.

"My family was modern, but not that modern," she says ruefully. "I was very Westernised, I wore Western clothes and I went out drinking, but the only thing you couldn't do was mention boys. My parents always said if you find someone, tell us, but he has to be Indian, the same as us."

Like most teenagers, Harpinder was rebellious and enjoyed drinking with her friends. But in her parents' eyes, one night she went too far. They had forbidden her to go clubbing, but she had ignored them and escaped out of her bedroom window. When she returned, her mother and step-father told her they did not want her back.

"I didn't expect my mother to say that," she says, as if some part of her still cannot believe it. "I used to go to the shop every day, and I would try to talk to her, but she would say 'if you don't leave my property, I'm going to call the police'.

"I kept going to my mum and saying 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry' and she wouldn't even open my cards, not even on Mother's Day. Plus my step-dad was playing mind games and telling my sister and brother that I was stealing things from the shop, which wasn't true. It was my fault in a way what happened, I shouldn't have gone (clubbing) like that. Once one of the family members disown you, they all disown you.

After almost two years, her family agreed to accept Harpinder back into the fold if she agreed to marry her cousin. Once he was in Britain, they reasoned, she could divorce him.

"I knew what they were playing at," she says. "My step-dad just wanted one of his family members to be in this country. But I thought, fair enough, I'll do it. Then they sent me to India."

Harpinder spent six months in Punjab, India, staying with the family of her husband-to-be. The wedding, she says, hardly seemed real. She simply signed a few pieces of paper.

"He started really to like me, but I saw him more as a brother," she says. "My family kept sending money over so we just went off and spent it all."

But before he could gain entry into Britain, Harpinder and her husband needed to be interviewed by immigration officials. On the day of the interview, Harpinder feigned sickness and deliberately left her new husband to attend the meeting alone. His application for a visa was refused. Harpinder's family set about appealing against the decision but two weeks before the hearing, Harpinder cancelled and filed for a divorce.

"Actually my mum and step-dad were okay about it," she says. "But then I said to them that I wanted to get married, and asked them to find someone for me."

A young man from Swansea who came from a family with money was duly found. Harpinder says she even liked him when she met him. "He was good looking and we did click," she says. "I wasn't really attracted to him, but I said yes because of the family." The couple were due to marry in March 2004, but two months before the wedding tragedy struck - her mum was killed in a road accident, and her brother was seriously injured.

"It all went pear-shaped," she says. "My brother was really bad, he was on a life support machine and we didn't know if he was going to survive. Then we were told he would never walk again. Because my mum had passed away, my step-dad said he didn't want me in the house, and I went to live with my sister. I felt so lonely, I went out and I met a boy in a club, but he wasn't Indian, he was Pakistani."

And their secret was safe, until her brother-in-law saw them kissing in his car. After he had beaten her up, he warned her that she would be locked up and her mobile phone taken away unless she agreed to end their relationship and continue with her arranged marriage. Harpinder agreed to stop seeing her boyfriend, but instead arranged to meet him in secret. Then her brother-in-law found out, at the same time as he discovered she intended to pull out of her arranged marriage.

"He beat me up for two days in a row," says Harpinder. "He used to get me on the floor and try and hit my face and I knew that if he hit me on the face it would hurt the most so I used to hide it with my hands. Then he used to kick me in the stomach.

"Once he got my niece's scooter and whacked it on my head. He used to go mad, and my sister would say 'leave her alone' but there wasn't much she could do.

"You can't fight back when they've got you on the floor. I never went to hospital. They don't take you to hospital".

Could she have gone to the police? Her heavily made-up eyes widen. "No," she says. "It's just something you don't do - and they know you won't do it. If you get the police involved then they really will disown you and I didn't want them to take it out on my sister."

Eventually, Harpinder managed to find her mobile phone and contacted a friend who found her a place at a woman's refuge, but just before she escaped, she bumped into her brother-in-law.

"He asked me where I was going to live but I refused to tell him, because I knew he would come and find me and beat me up," she says.

Now 21, it is almost a year since she left and she is looking forward to doing a course at college in nursery nursing. The refuge in Middlesbrough has helped her find a house and secure benefits. Her sister has managed to contact her a couple of times, but she has not seen any of her family since the night she left. She is, however, still seeing her boyfriend, and now faces another hurdle - his family.

"His family is more strict than mine. The same thing which happened to me is going to happen to him - but they may come round as he's a boy," she says, somewhat hopefully.

She is even going to change her religion for him, to become a Muslim in the hope that his family will accept her. If not, the pair of them will get married anyway, with a couple of witnesses, she says.

"There are a lot of Asian women who wouldn't have had the guts to do what I've done. Even my generation just do what they're told," she says.

"Deep down I'm proud to be Indian but I love him and I will do anything for him. Maybe when I get married to him, even my own family will come round, maybe, in a couple of years."

l Middlesbrough refuge offers confidential support and refuge accommodation for women and children experiencing domestic violence. Referrals can be taken 24 hours a day and staff can access a network of refuges across the country if a woman does not feel safe in this area. For help and advice contact (01642) 225969.