Domestic Abuse in the Desi Community

What you can do as a victim and a bystander

Sweta Vikram

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. As someone who writes about women’s issues, women’s empowerment tied into their wellness, and teaches yoga to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, I know how pervasive domestic violence is within the desi community. What boggles my mind is that a culture that gave the world Ayurveda and yoga is perpetuating violence towards its women. How do you justify one human being hurting the other? How do you explain society policing women, questioning survivors while forgetting how to raise boys and men?

How prevalent is domestic violence in the South Asian community? 

Aditi Darvay. Courtesy Exhale to Inhale

Aditi Davray, chief program officer at Exhale to Inhale, an organization that helps people deal with such abuse through yoga, quoted Sakhi, a nonprofit serving survivors of domestic violence: “About two out of five South Asian immigrant women in the U.S. are survivors of domestic violence. A more recent report, published in January 2020, by A Kamimura for Women’s Health Reports, indicated that 44% of South Asians know a woman who has been physically abused or injured by her partner. The prevalence of physical intimate partner violence (IPV) victimization among Asian women living in the United States is 19.6%, whereas the overall IPV prevalence (physical, sexual, and/or stalking) in the United States is 35.6%. 60.7% South Asian participants in the same study reported an overall prevalence of childhood abuse.”

Why do desi women not report abuse?

“For one thing, there’s the culture of ‘let’s make it work at all costs,’ and the onus to make it work is squarely on the shoulders of the woman in the relationship,” says Mona Mohan, a writer and IT professional who ended an abusive marriage. “Secondly, many more women than men come on dependent spousal visas, and that tips the scale heavily in favor of the men. Also, there is the usual insecurity around an unknown devil – what will it be like as a divorcee/single mother, etc. – versus a known devil. Then there are the social ostracization, the financial burdens. In short, the odds are really stacked against quitting on your marriage. From there you are on your own emotionally, financially, socially, physically, etc. And worse, the person who was once your partner, the father of your child, and you had a few good moments with (say a movie night, a dinner date, some intimate moments) will be the defender in a case where you are the petitioner. Your personal life and all your trials will play out as a courtroom drama.”

Unlike the majority of women who are asked to sort out their marital problems on their own, Mohan had support from her parents who were fed-up of the dowry demands that never stopped, even long after the marriage. They knew that the abuse was in part to put pressure on them to acquiesce to her ex-husband’s dowry demands.

“I took a leap of faith as my victimizer had made it a habit of physically assaulting me and then curling up beside me,” she said.

What can you do if you are stuck in an abusive relationship at home?

Shruti Kappor, Courtesy Sayfty

Shruti Kapoor, founder of Sayfty, an India-based NGO that educates and empowers women and girls against gender-based violence, stressed the importance of personal safety.

“You need to be discreet about reaching out for help. Think of creative ways. Find helpline numbers depending on where you are,” Kapoor said. She recommends victims and survivors reach out to South Asian organizations or a shelter when the abuser isn’t around or is asleep. During the pandemic, finding access to help can be harder.

“Use code words with your friends,” Kapoor suggested. “Give them a hint that you aren’t safe at home. Suggest doing a Facetime with a friend so kids can play with each other virtually, and you can share non-verbal codes to say you are in need of help during this call. Also, most apps have chat. It’s a good non-discreet way to message the person you are playing the game with. Signal you are not safe.”

Kapoor reminds us that even if you are in a non-violent but abusive relationship, you need to discuss a safe exit plan with your friend. Lastly, remember that you can reach out to your mailman or the garbage guy or the food delivery person and ask for help discreetly.

A GENTLE REMINDER

Your safety matters. Your life matters. Your dignity matters.

As Mohan told us, “It never ever starts as a physical abuse. Even the biggest bully starts small, testing the tolerance, the threshold, of his victim. Day by day, abuse by abuse, the victimizer looks for the soft spot, the weaknesses, the points where he can most hurt his victim. At some point though, when the abuser has run out of all the emotional arsenal, he will get physical. There is no stopping it, though, once he has tasted blood and gotten away with it.”

You aren’t alone in staying quiet.

“Women possibly do not report IPV because of cultural beliefs, shame, cultural norms of what constitutes childhood abuse (e.g., pushed, grabbed, slapped, or kicked), fear of further victimization, lack of systems of support, and/or societal stigma,” Davray said.

What can you do as a bystander?

“Your safety comes first,” Kapoor stressed. “If you witness/see/hear a domestic violence incident, assess the situation and only then take steps. If you are trying to help, notify the cops if you hear shouting or beating at your neighbors.”

One way would be delaying the process by ringing your neighbor’s bell and mentioning that you heard some disturbance. Check on the victim. As a bystander, delay the process.

“Wait for the noise to be over and ask if they are okay,” Kapoor said, also suggesting that one rely on distracting the abuser and breaking the chaos. She said one trick would be to stop by and ask for a cup of sugar or something else to distract the abuser.

Another option is to walk up to the perpetrator and ask them to calm down.

Last, but not the least, Kapoor recommends documenting the abuse. For instance, if you are in a bus or subway, and you witness abuse, take pictures and /or record the incident. Share the evidence with the victim and let them know you recorded them. Let them know, “If you decide to press charges, use this picture or video as evidence.”

GETTING HELP

“There are several organizations dedicated to serving survivors of domestic violence in the South Asian community in the U.S,” Davray said. The organizations doing important work in raising awareness of this societal issue include Maitri.org, Adhikaar.org, and Kiran.org. A more exhaustive list is here.

Davray also recommended preparing a personalized, practical plan to improve one’s safety while experiencing abuse. Checking your tech – browser history, email, social media and cell phone safety. Educate yourself and understanding your options. The Family Justice Centers has resources in multiple language formats.

“If we are to fight discrimination and injustice against women we must start from the home for if a woman cannot be safe in her own house then she cannot be expected to feel safe anywhere.” ~ Aysha Taryam