Hell in Your Own Home
“Model minority” or not, the Indian-American community has been far from immune to domestic violence. Scores of South Asian women in the U.S. have been abused and traumatized. What makes it worse for them is the stigma associated with survivors of such violence, which forces many of them to endure their abuse in silence.
At 5:40 a.m. on Oct. 16, 2012, police in Alpharetta, Georgia, received a 911 call about a domestic argument at an apartment on Jefferson Way. When they arrived on the scene, they found a female victim critically injured. The victim, Sanaa Merani, who had suffered a gunshot wound in the head, later died in the hospital.
Her fiancé, Alamin Nanji, 26, has been charged with felony murder and is being held without bond in the Fulton County jail.
Who was Sanaa Merani? Google the name and you see with sadness a life unfold, and then brutally cut short. School information, a wedding registry, and then this startling report of a gunshot and death.
She was only 25 when her life was allegedly extinguished by the very man who should have been her partner and protector.
Just five months earlier, in Irvine, California, 39-year-old Shalabh Rastogi confessed to fatally strangling his wife, Jalina George, 40. He called police to confess to the murder, stating that he and Jalina were arguing when he attacked her in their bedroom. The couple had been married for 13 years and had three young children.
And just last month, Lakhvir Singh, 28, of Indianapolis was sentenced to 25 years for the shocking abuse of his wife who was made to sleep on the floor, given very little to eat, referred to as “b----” by Singh and his relatives, forced to have sex and do household chores around the clock, according to media reports.
Shocking as these real-life stories are, they are not uncommon, even amongst Indian-Americans, the so-called “model minority.” The community has not been immune to the plague of domestic violence. Knifings, shootings, physical bruises, and mental abuse have sadly been part of the immigrant stories of many South Asians.
While Sanaa Merani and Jalina George are no longer with us to tell us of the hell they went through, Rajinder Kaur has lived and triumphed over her ordeal of domestic violence. She shared with us her nightmarish memories of her daily existence, her isolation, fear, and pain as she tried to cope with an uncaring world.
Kaur could be any Indian woman, bound in holy matrimony at an early age and sent abroad with a man she hardly knew. A Punjabi bride with little education, she nervously followed her construction-worker husband to New York, already aware that he was an alcoholic and had a foul temper. She had tried to dissolve the relationship in India but her in-laws and parents pushed her to give it a try, telling her he would change with marriage and children.
On arriving in New York, she found he did not even have a home or a regular job, and they moved from place to place, sharing space with other families. Every morning she would cook him a packed lunch. Often he would eat this and return home without going to work. Instead he would end up drinking again, beating her. There was drama every night, she recalls, and sometimes the cops had to be called in. She got no help from “society” and had no friends or family.
Finally, 15 years ago, she walked out of the house with two small children in tow. She did not know much English, but put herself in the hands of Manavi, then a young nonprofit organization. The advocates came to pick her up from home: her husband was fully drunk; the police had come in and the neighbors had gathered. Kaur had no idea where she was headed but bit by bit her life straightened. She was taken to psychologists, her children were found good schools, she was given ESL training. She worked in people’s homes, cleaning and cooking for them, and the divorce proceedings were started.
In 2002, her husband died in a drunken binge in which his house burnt down. Kaur had moved far from that place, mentally and physically. Today she works as a nurse, her boys have recovered from the trauma of constant beatings and abuse and are doing well in high school and college. Mainly she has the freedom to live her life in peace.
A story of courage, of an escape from the house of horrors. But not all women are so fortunate.
According to the Asian and Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence, from 1981 to 2000 there were 63 reports of murder and attempted murder of South Asian women in the U.S. Although the majority of victims were women, the women’s children and relatives were also affected in these incidents of domestic violence.
Of course, domestic violence is not solely an Indian-American problem—it is an Indian problem, an American problem, a global problem. According to statistics released by the World Health Organization, 35 percent of women around the world have been raped or physically abused and 80 percent of the time this violence occurs in the sanctity of home—at the hands of a spouse or partner.
It exists everywhere because it symbolizes a power struggle, a patriarchal way of life. It affects not just the poor or working class, but also the privileged. Social advocates have seen moneyed and degreed women professionals with purple bruises and black eyes. There was also the recent case of Bollywood actress and former Miss World Yukta Mookhey lodging a complaint against her husband, Prince Tuli, a U.S. businessman, for alleged domestic violence. Beauty, education, and wealth are no safeguard against domestic violence.
Meet Ayesha Khan of Atlanta, another real-life woman who’s managed to make a new life for herself, after years of emotional abuse. Ayesha (not her real name) got married and came to the U.S. with her husband, a well-to-do computer specialist. Right from the start she was the victim in a family dominated by his parents and sisters. Even though they visited as guests, she was always belittled and found herself not being included in anything. She was merely the cook and the cleaner, with no freedom to make any decisions or ask for simple pleasures. If she asked, for instance, to buy some fruit, her family would tell her she should go out and work if she wanted such things; she had no credit cards or money of her own, and her husband would lock the bedroom when he left. She had one daughter who was totally influenced by her father and the in-laws.
Isolated and ignored, Khan found her jewelry had been taken away, her young daughter alienated, and the joint account had just $65 in it. Often there was no food to eat. When she took a job, they made sure she had no way to get there. It was a daily battle, with them trying to get her to leave or ask for a divorce.
Alone and friendless, Khan finally found the nonprofit group Raksha on the internet. Raksha helped her get a divorce, understand the mystery of credit cards and financial matters, get a job, and most important, get custody of her young daughter.
The daughter, who had clung to her till she was eight years old, is still alienated, though things are improving now that they are in therapy. “We are taking baby steps,” says Khan, and cannot thank Raksha enough for turning her life around. She recalls that when she was married, she would even cook biryani and cakes for her in-laws to take back to India with them so they would not have to cook immediately on arrival. She did everything she was supposed to do but somehow, in a patriarchal society, even such devotion and service was not enough. A larger pound of flesh was required.
A WOEFUL LACK OF STATISTICS
Domestic violence stories in the South Asian community are often unsupported by statistics and details, as many victims and survivors fail to report incidents. There is a mutual wall of silence about these misdeeds, erected both by the abuser and the abused. Survivors learn to play-act and hide the truth from the outside world.
SOUTH ASIAN WOMEN DON’T
OFTEN GO TO SHELTERS. THEY FEAR
IMMIGRATION LAWS AS WELL AS
SOCIETY. MANY DON’T REACH OUT
FOR MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT.
But the lack of registered complaints does not mean that these incidents don’t occur. The Asian Family Violence Report of 2000 did a study of South Asian women in the Boston area and found that 40.8 percent of the participants reported that they had been physically or sexually abused in some way by their current male partners. Almost 16 percent reported injury or the need of medical services as a result of a partner’s violence.
What was surprising was that only 3.1 percent of the abused South Asian women in the study had ever obtained a restraining order against an abusive partner. As the study points out, this rate is substantially lower than that reported in a study of women in Massachusetts, in which over 33 percent of women who reported intimate partner violence in the past five years had obtained a restraining order.
I first wrote about the problem of domestic violence in the Indian-American community back in the 1980s: ours was a newer immigrant community then and there were fewer South Asian advocacy organizations and fewer cases. Now 30 years later, the South Asian population has grown and so has the problem.
An image-conscious community isn’t eager to talk about the ugliness of domestic violence, but awareness and publicity are increasing, thanks to the tireless work of South Asian women’s advocacy organizations.
In the 1980s, there was only Manavi, the first South Asian organization to address domestic abuse in New Jersey. Soon after that, a group of young women started Sakhi in New York, and slowly organizations cropped up in many states, including Apna Ghar in Chicago, Narika in California, and Raksha in Atlanta.
Partly because of the South Asian cultural burden of shame, which puts the blame solidly on the victim and demands silence, few statistics or testimonies from South Asian women exist, as Aparna Bhattacharyya, Executive Director of Raksha in Atlanta, notes.
“Women do not talk about this and so it is really hard to track the community,” she says. “In police reports they don’t even have a category for Asian Americans! Even if they don’t categorize us as Asians, we are not counted at the end of the day. Census figures and police reports are on parallel tracks; demographics and ethnicity are separate, and you have a lot of judges who don’t know about local Muslim laws.”
It’s all about changing attitudes, says Bhattacharyya. How we talk about people, how we don’t support people. It’s a lot about us as a community—the shame is created by our community in how we treat people when they get a divorce, how we alienate people when things don’t work out for them.
South Asian women don’t often go to shelters. They fear immigration laws as well as society. Many don’t reach out for mental health support.
But it is worth noting that more women are certainly seeking help. When Raksha started, there were just 10 clients; now there are over 200. “All socioeconomic groups, from the strugglers to the higher echelons—all have approached us,” Bhattacharya says. “It’s about power and control—just like rape is not about sex but about one person wanting to have power over another without having permission.”
Shamita Das Dasgupta, founder of Manavi, has studied domestic violence in depth and written several books on it. Manavi was the first group to start Ashiana, a live-in shelter in an undisclosed location for victims of domestic abuse, recognizing that South Asian women would not feel comfortable in mainstream shelters. According to Dasgupta, communication in native languages, culturally sensitive material, and pro bono services are vital to making a difference.
“WE KNOW THAT LIMITING
AND CONTROLLING A WOMAN’S
ACCESS TO MONETARY AND
FINANCIAL RESOURCES IS A
TACTIC ABUSERS USE.”
South Asian women are particularly vulnerable as they come into a new country, leaving their support systems behind. In a new country, often facing language barriers, and with not much money or access, they are often at the mercy of the husband, and in some cases in-laws whom they don’t know.
Next year, Sakhi will complete 20 years of helping victims of domestic violence. The organization serves about 500 to 600 women every year. “This past year, there has been a slight increase in the numbers served,” says Sethu Nair, Sakhi’s Manager of Marketing. “We don’t think it is a result of any increase in violence in the community, rather a result of Sakhi’s efforts to reach more South Asians.”
AN ECONOMIC ISSUE
More and more, says Nair, Sakhi is discovering that it’s an economic issue. Often when people think of domestic violence, they think about women being physically abused and mentally tortured. There are, however, many other ways that abusers exert their power and control. Sexual abuse, isolation, threats, and other tactics of financial control are aspects of abuse that are often overlooked.
“We noticed that many of the women who come to our office found that even though they had never taken out a credit card in their own names, they had bad credit,” Nair says. “Unable to access credit, many women we saw were unable to take the first step they need to take to establish a life of self-sufficiency and freedom. We know that limiting and controlling a woman’s access to monetary and financial resources is a tactic abusers use.”
Last year, Sakhi worked with the Manhattan Borough President’s Office to investigate whether this is an issue across communities, and found that financial abuse and control is an extremely prevalent tactic of power and control that abusers exert. Says Nair: “Using our report, ‘The Untold Cost of Abuse,’ we have been working to advocate for financial abuse to be included in the official definition of domestic violence, so that this abuse is acknowledged in legal proceedings as a debilitating form of abuse.”
NRI marriages bring yet another factor in domestic violence, as women are often shorn of all social connections when they join their green-card-holding or citizen spouse in the U.S. “Like in any other marriage that runs into difficulties, NRI couples may experience various problems such as incompatibility, stress-related troubles, violence and abuse, one partner falling out of love, and economic crisis,” says Dasgupta.
“Having said that, I do believe that couples in NRI marriages experience some particular problems that ensue from their status as immigrants. As an organization that deals with violence against women, we are receiving more and more calls from women married to émigrés and abandoned. This is becoming a serious problem in our community.”
She points out that most of the South Asian women’s organizations in the U.S. now have between 5 to 20 percent of their workload devoted to assisting women who have been deserted by their immigrant husbands. A few women whose husbands have intentionally locked them out of their homes, vanished without notice, or served divorce papers without warning, have lived temporarily in Manavi’s safe-home, Ashiana.
“It’s a horrible thing, but it happens within our community,” says Dasgupta. “I think there are still problems with dominance and lack of equality but at least there’s some quicker resolution.” She says that most women were able to find their own footing through legal, economic, and emotional assistance available here. This is because of the social safety net already in place in this country. “However, we are discovering that many women who are living with their husbands in the U.S. are coercively or deceptively taken back to India and left there with no way of returning,” she says. “Their spouses destroy their travel papers, withdraw visa support, and/or leave them without financial resources to ensure that they cannot come back to the U.S.” Often they are granted a divorce by default, if the wife happens to be abandoned in India.
Within the family, there are uglier aspects of abuse, such as molestation and rape, and that is why Dasgupta says at Manavi, they take a broader look at the various kinds of violence within the home, from physical and financial violence to sexual violence, and including stalking and abandonment.
INDEED, IT MIGHT BE A STEP
IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION FOR
TEMPLE, GURUDWARA AND
MOSQUE COMMITTEES TO GIVE
MORE VOICE TO THE WOMEN IN
THEIR CONGREGATION AND
APPOINT A WOMAN
REPRESENTATIVE TO OVERSEE
THE PROBLEMS WOMEN FACE.
Then there are special needs of the women whose husbands are here on H-1B visas, and hence the wives aren’t allowed to work. Alimony and financial support, and getting the divorce all become stumbling blocks.
The good news is that there are several South Asian organizations in the U.S. that offer help and vocational support to abused women. There are many laws to support women and, unlike in India, justice moves swiftly. The climate of openness in the U.S. fostered by talk shows and the media also makes it easier to discuss one’s problems and get support.
The second generation of Indian-Americans, having grown up here, also tend to be braver about facing social stigmas and more open and emphatic—and into advocacy and helping out. Many are finding careers in the nonprofit sector, ready to take on causes that may not reward them monetarily. This idealism makes many young lawyers take on advocacy or work on a pro bono basis with women’s organizations.
Take Mallika Dutt, President of Breakthrough, who has devoted her energies to getting the word out about all the injustices women face, from domestic violence to trafficking and human rights abuses. Breakthrough is a powerful communications tool for exposing the problems that beset women at home.
For real change to happen, though, our community has to take ownership of the problem. Be it any religion, the guardians of the faith have to realize that they are responsible for all their parishioners, not just the male members.
Rajinder Kaur recalls how the gurudwara she attended turned its back on her when she needed help with translation services. It took complete strangers from the nonprofit world to lend her a hand, and to help her to learn driving and acquire English skills. It was Manavi which created Ashiana, the first shelter in New Jersey for South Asian women, and it was here that Kaur found a safe home for herself and her children, with no questions asked. She was able to stay there for 15 months, till she felt able to take on the larger outside world.
Ayesha Khan recalls how she had tried to get help from the imams of her mosque in saving her marriage but in spite of telling them about the lack of food, the locked bedroom and car, she was just lectured on listening to her husband and in-laws. She had no cell phone at that time and would walk all the way to a Walmart which had a public phone to make these calls. Each time she put down the phone, she realized that for the imams it was her husband who was important, the one who was contributing to fundraisers at the mosque. What he did would always be right with them; she wonders aloud, did they not have daughters?
Indeed, it might be a step in the right direction for temple, gurudwara, and mosque committees to give more voice to the women in their congregation and appoint a woman representative to oversee the problems women face.
And age is no barrier. Rajender Kaur tells of elderly women who have sought help in the homeless shelter because their sons and daughters-in-law don’t want them at home. “They don’t beat them but when they throw them out, that’s domestic abuse, too,” says Kaur. “I wonder why women give so much pain to women?”
HERE YOU HAVE EVERY KIND OF
HELP. THE COPS WILL GET YOU
TO A SHELTER BUT YOU HAVE TO
HAVE THE WILL POWER AND YOU
HAVE TO BE STRONG.
REMEMBER, IF ONE DOOR
CLOSES, A HUNDRED OPEN.
Domestic violence is a problem that can be solved by a proactive society. At the heart of it all, it is about respect and treating everyone—male, female, adult, and child—as a unique human being with a right to his or her own body and life. Since each of us wants this simple and intrinsic right for ourselves, we just have to learn to give it to others, too.
Then, perhaps, we will see fewer victims like Sanaa Merani, whom a friend remembered online with these words: “Sanaa, such a kind, caring soul. So full of life and laughter. Taken away from us too soon. Untimely and tragic. We went to boarding school together and she was the baby of the group—a little sister to all of us. The thought that she is no more is so hard to accept.”
And for those hesitating to take that first step, to remake their lives, this is what Rajinder Kaur has to say about leaving the men who have abused and traumatized them: “Don’t waste your life, don’t waste your time with those kinds of people who will not change. Not only will your life be ruined but so will the life of your children. Here you have every kind of help. The cops will get you to a shelter but you have to have the will power and you have to be strong. Remember, if one door closes, a hundred open. The world is out there for you and you can make your life whatever you want it to be.”
Lavina Melwani is a New York-based writer for several international publications who blogs at Lassi with Lavina: www.lassiwithlavina.com.
Angry eyes my very being resents
Just yesterday he got me expensive presents
Children cowering, crying, lips quivering
I long for a life that is worth living
Will tell the judge of all my pain
Broken bones tell tale of protest in vain
You have no evidence the courts will say
Can’t you see I carry it on me every day?
Do you want to file for a divorce with restraining order?
No, no, never. He will change we will get back together
I want my marriage to stay – just stop the abuse
He served me with divorce papers my wish was of no use
Then started the litigations – his new-found weapons
I struggled to make ends meet living on coupons
Pay the lawyers, pay the courts, but children you must wait
I have no money for your stuffed toys and hand paint.
Pleadings, discovery, court-ordered evaluations
Opening, closing arguments and visitations
Emergency motions and jury trial waiver
Reels of tapes and reams of paper
Guardian ad litem and depositions
Rule nisi hearings and continuances
Terms I’d never heard before in my whole life
But all I’d prayed for was to end my pain and strife
He can’t reach me now to slap and punch
I’m grateful for that to the courts as such
Financial and emotional abuse goes unbridled
Why courts allow and facilitate I’m bewildered
Justice was denied courts reaffirmed my fears
At a high price tag in dollars and my tears
Beaten down by the abuser and now the court
Hope I’d held on to had been cut short
No help from the courts they don’t care
Without consequences abusers continue to dare
They’re winning small battles but don’t try to scare
My baby will be 18 soon, I’ll win the warfare!
[Excerpts from a poem by “Aakansha”]
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