By Kamalika Banerjee
01 May, 2003
The first time
her husband hit her, Rohini Nambiar thought it was a one-time transgression
on his part. But very soon, yelling and hitting became regular affairs
in their home. Every time it was because Rohini had done something to
provoke himspent a little too much on their credit
card, spoke too long with her mother in India, or had gone out with
her girl friends when she shouldnt have. And every time it ended
the same way, with him apologizing to her and blaming it all on the
stress at work. Outwardly, of course, the Nambiars were
a dream couple. He was rising up the corporate ladder; she had a pretty
good job of her own; they had just moved into a bigger house in an upscale
neighborhood of Los Angeles; their son was attending a private school.
It took me six years to muster up enough courage to say to myself
that I was no longer going to put up with this, says Nambiar.
So one day she packed her bags and left her husbands million-dollar
home. It wasnt easy especially since we had a son, but the
biggest hurdle I faced was convincing my friends and family that this
was happening at all. Her friends like many others thought that
domestic violence did not exist among South Asians, and certainly not
among educated and prosperous South Asians like the Nambiars.
Nalini Shekar, Program Director
of Maitri, San Francisco Bay Areas leading organization fighting
domestic violence among South Asians in the area is not so surprised.
A common misconception is that domestic violence takes place only
in poor homes, when the fact of the matter is that it cuts across all
socio-economic groups, she says. The poor have less private
space, so if there is any violence in the house, it becomes public knowledge
very quickly. The really difficult cases are those which involve the
very rich living in gated communities and leading respectable
lives. Maitris clients accordingly range from 17 to 70;
from women who have experienced abuse for the first time to women who
have lived with violent partners for decades; new immigrants as well
as second generation Indian-Americans; uneducated women as well as highly
educated professional women; non-English speakers to savvy, articulate
and very cosmopolitan women, adds general secretary Mukta Sharangpani.
This completely dispels the
myth that the more educated and financially independent a woman is,
the easier it is for her to stand up for her rights. For one thing,
there is the social stigmathe higher you are on the social ladder,
the greater is the fall. Second, the more a woman is in control of her
life in public spacea high level of education and perhaps a high-paying
jobthe more in denial she is likely to be about her lack of control
in private space. The result? Years of torture, misery and shame before
she comes to terms with the fact that what is happening in her home
is not her fault, and that no matter how hard she tries, she cannot
set things straight by herself.
Neerja Patel speaks from
experience when she concurs with Shekar. Patel, a second generation
Indian-American and an executive in a public relations firm in New York
City was in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend for three years.
In the beginning, everything was perfect. My friends adored him,
and even my parents who were initially upset that I was not going in
for an arranged marriage, took to him, she says. But pretty soon,
Patel found that the charmer had a darker side to him. He was
a control freak, and every time he thought he was losing control over
me, he would get upset, and more often than not, our fight would end
in him hitting me. Although a voice at the back of her head kept
telling her to get out, Patel was scared that if the truth got out,
she would not be able to face the world.
But is physical violence
the only kind of abuse inflicted on the woman? Domestic violence,
according to U.S. law is defined as all kinds of physical, emotional,
and financial abuse in an intimate partner relationship, says
Shekar. Emotional abuse, unlike physical, can be very difficult to define
because its concept differs from woman to woman. What is common, however,
is the increased isolation the batterer subjects the victim to, as also
the repeated accusations of provocation, and the assaults on the battered
womans self esteem by loading on the blame. So it can be anything
from isolating her from friends and family to restricting her movements,
taking away her credit cards and drivers license, and even not
letting her use the telephone.
And what about sexual violence?
It remains the least articulated part of the equation, according to
Shekar. For instance, marital rape is often an accepted form of
behavior in the South Asian community, she says. It is simply
seen as the man exercising his marital rights, but what most dont
know is that in the U.S., it is construed as sexual abuse and thereby
punishable by law. In most cases, however, sexual violence is
part of an overall atmosphere of abuse, says Sharangpani. We have
had cases of sexual violence, which were always accompanied by other
forms of violence, and so it was easier for our clients to address those
relatively less intimate areas of conflict and figure out
how they wanted to deal with the relationship.
We have seen cases
of sexual abuse, forced prostitution, forcibly attempting to marry off
minor daughters etc., she admits. The highly publicized Lakireddy
case in Berkeley, CA had brought a lot of these issues to the forefront,
but as Shekar points out, it is almost always impossible to unravel
them for the simple reason that they are so well hidden. A woman
may be brought from India as cheap labor and then sexually exploited
on the side, she says. But she doesnt go to the authorities
because for one thing she is not aware of the laws in this country,
and secondly, she is scared of losing her visa. A case like this,
however, would not fall under domestic violence, Shekar points out,
but under sexual abuse, which is again governed by very strict laws.
And finally the burning question:
How common is domestic violence among South Asians in North America?
Very common, according to both Shekar and Sharangpani. They feel that
a lot of cases still go unreported because of issues of guilt and shamecultural
issues that riddle the community, that still stigmatize the woman and
hold her responsible for the breaking of a family as well as other logistics
such as immigration. But the fact that Maitri alone logged over
a 1,000 calls last year, and works with an average of 65 clients in
a month must mean that the model minority is not so perfect after all,
(Some names have been changed
on request to maintain privacy.)
Immigration and Battery
Many domestic violence cases
go unreported because of immigration issues. Here are a couple of INS
provisions that might help dispel the fear surrounding immigration and
Under the Violence Against
Women Act (VAWA) passed by Congress in 1994, the spouses and children
of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents (LPR) may self-petition
to obtain lawful permanent residency. The immigration provisions of
VAWA allow certain battered immigrants to file for immigration relief
without the abusers assistance or knowledge, in order to seek
safety and independence from the abuser. Victims of domestic violence
can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline on (800) 799-7233 or
(800) 787-3224 [TDD] for information about shelters, mental health care,
legal advice and other types of assistance, including information about
self-petitioning for immigration status.
For women who do not fall
in the above category, i.e., their spouses are not citizens or green
card holders, the U visa may be the answer. The U visa is a three-year
non-immigrant visa that enables victims of crimes to remain in the U.S.
if they are willing to assist in an investigation or prosecution of
the perpetrator of the crime. After three years, the applicant can apply
for a green-card provided she meets certain eligibility requirements.
An applicant for the U visa must prove that she has suffered substantial
physical or emotional abuse as the result of criminal activity such
as rape, kidnapping, domestic violence, slavery, assault, and sex slavery.
The U visa was created by
President Clinton in October 2000 as part of the Trafficking and Crime
Victims Protection Act. However, there are still no implementing
regulations for the visa, which means that advocates are unable to fully
utilize its protections. As soon as the current administration issues
these regulations, lawyers will be able to follow the newly established
procedures for victims of crime.
In a study entitled Intimate
Partner Violence Against South Asian Women in Greater Boston,
published in the April 2002 edition of the Journal of the American Medical
Womens Association, Anita Raj of Boston University and Jay Silverman
of Harvard University claim that 40 percent of the 160 South Asian women
they surveyed in communities throughout the Boston area in 1998 were
victims of male-perpetrated intimate partner violence. Of
those women, 90 percent had been abused within the past year. Nearly
75 percent of the women reporting abuse were married, more than half
(51.6 percent) had children, and two-thirds of those who reported physical
abuse also reported sexual abuse.