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” him—spent 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 shouldn’t 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 husband’s million-dollar home. “It wasn’t 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 Area’s 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.” Maitri’s 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.
Immigration and Battery
South Asian Domestic Violence Organizations
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 stigma—the 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 space—a high level of education and perhaps a high-paying job—the 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 woman’s 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 driver’s 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 don’t 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 doesn’t 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 shame—cultural 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,” concludes Sharangpani.
(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 battery.
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 abuser’s 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 Women’s 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.
South Asian Domestic Violence Organizations
San Francisco Bay Area–South Bay
(888) 862 4874
San Francisco Bay Area–East Bay
(800) 215 7308
Los Angeles, CA
(888) 724 2722
(877) 922 4292
(503) 778 7386
New York, NY
(212) 868 6741
(732) 435 1414
Washington DC/ Baltimore/ Virginia
(888) 417 2742
(215) 62 SEWAA
(800) 717 0757
Michigan Asian Indian Family Service
(888) 664 8624
Houston/ Dallas/ San Antonio, TX
(713) 914 1333
(512) 703 8745
(404) 842 0725