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As Domestic Violence Awareness Month comes to a close, India Currents presents a 2-part series discussing abuse and its impact within the South Asian American community. This is the second and final installment, which discusses the cultural implications of domestic violence, and how these expectations have changed amid the pandemic. Find the first article here.
“I know of people who are being subjected to a lot of violence and they are people you wouldn’t even suspect”, emphasizes Kasturi Basu.
Immigrant women often don’t walk away from abusive marriages because they fail to recognize the abuse. Rather, toxic and aggressive behavior is miscoded as spousal affection. In a phone interview, domestic violence survivor Mala Sharma recalls forgiving her second husband “many times” despite his threats and derogatory language.
“I convinced myself that he wasn’t so bad,” Sharma says. “My first husband used to hit me, this one only swears.”
According to Neelofer Chaudry, Executive Director of New York-based nonprofit Domestic Harmony Foundation, South Asian American victims are taught to internalize their abusers’ attacks from a young age. Cultural taboos create troublesome expectations for immigrant families.
“These women grow up in a South Asian household and are [told] not to say anything about what happens in the house. Do not talk to anyone about it, even relatives,” Chaudry says, echoing the stifling attitudes within these households. “Because it [domestic violence] is so taboo and shameful, there’s this internalization — ‘what’s wrong with me, is it my fault that I’m being abused?’”
Kasturi Basu echoed Chaudry’s thoughts in her own narrative, discussing the prevalence of domestic violence in her own social circles. “My friends knew, but in the South Asian community, people don’t want to talk about it. I would put makeup on my bruises and go to parties” says Basu. Guilt and community expectations also work against abuse victims. “If the children didn’t perform to his expectations, he would make our lives miserable with verbal, physical, and emotional abuse.”
America’s Model Minority Myth, the expectation that Asian Americans represent financial and familial success, further restricts victims from speaking out. In a 2017 op-ed published by the New York magazine, political commentator Andrew Sullivan attributed Asian American “prosperity” to the maintenance of the ‘solid two-parent family structure.’ The assumption that all South Asian American households are ‘solid’ and monolithic, Chaudry suggests, is problematic.
“It’s been hard,” Chaudry says. “There’s this pressure on our community to be perfect. When we first started talking, we were heavily criticized by [fellow] South Asians. We were called home wreckers, asked ‘why are you airing out our dirty laundry?’ We’re scared to discuss what’s considered a ‘private issue’ between husband and wife. Abuse is never private. It’s the responsibility of the community to speak up.”
Organizations like the Domestic Harmony Foundation offer emotional support services for their clients, where trained professionals can address survivors’ conflicted emotions about their relationships. They also host annual youth leadership programs to empower the next generation and dismantle toxic social norms.
“When it comes to abuse, there’s a tendency to repeat behavior,” Chaudry adds. “If a son sees his mother being abused, he is more likely to repeat that. It’s a social moray, which is [why] we want an opportunity to break the cycle. When you bring survivors together and have them share experiences with one another, they see that they’re not that different.”
Reaching out, moving on
In 2017, Sharma ‘nervously’ reached out to Houston nonprofit Daya after divorcing her second husband. She had no source of income. Her phone was flooded with desperate messages from her ex-husband, many of them threatening or pornographic. She removed his name from their apartment’s lease and changed the locks, prompting further harassment.
“Daya really helped me,” Sharma said. “They first helped me secure a restraining order against my husband, who later went to jail after I filed a complaint with the police. Daya worked hard, offered me counseling services where [I learned] that I am not wrong, that this is not my mistake.”
Sharma is an exception. According to the US National Library of Medicine, only 11 percent of South Asian women who report domestic violence actually receive counseling services. 3 percent are successful in obtaining a restraining order against their partner. The numbers are low, says Daya Executive Director Rachna Khare, because mistrust and disillusionment run high in the South Asian American community.
“It’s discouraging because there are some immigration protections for survivors of crime,” Khare says in a Zoom interview. “But they’re difficult to access. For example, if you’re married to an H1-B visa-holder and you’re a dependent..it could take years to get a U-Visa, if ever. Is it safe to wait?”
Khare is referring to the U Nonimmigrant visa, which permits victims of crimes such as sexual assault, domestic violence, and human trafficking to remain in the United States. Although U-visas are designed to protect the immigration status of all abuse victims, only 10,000 of them are accepted a year. Those denied are “given priority” for the next year, which is why so many South Asian women who apply are expected to remain undocumented for years.
Law enforcement across the country also has a history of undermining U-Visa petitions, as indicated by an assessment from The Center of Investigative Reporting. According to their analysis, U-Visa petitions have dropped since 2018 because “nearly 1 of every 4 [agencies] create barriers never envisioned under the…program.” The effects, Khare says, are devastating — and not just for the victims.
“It’s interesting that people look at domestic violence work as just charity. In reality, our work is about keeping our community safe,” Khare says. “Abusers are likely to continue their violent behavior if we ignore this crisis… Their children will need extra interventions and support at school and their families are more likely to experience negative health effects… Domestic violence prevention and services are investments in public safety and healing that hold abusers accountable and allow survivors to stay in their homes safely and flourish.”
COVID-19: Locked in with an abusive spouse
The COVID-19 pandemic has considerably aggravated the situation. Lockdown restrictions have forced victims into a vulnerable space with their aggressors. The usual support systems, such as neighbors and family friends, are no longer available.
Meanwhile, the advocacy organization Domestic Violence Women United says that the coronavirus pandemic has added “multiple layers” to the atrocities of violence that are permissible within South Asian American households. DV Women United was formed by three women — Kasturi Basu, Sushmita Dutta, and Ms. Ghosh. Some being domestic violence survivors themselves founded the organization eight years ago as an anonymous support system for other victims.
“When you have children in a violent relationship, they are not going to school or having any other outside interaction during COVID,” said Kasturi, a principal at Alum Rock Elementary School. “When they’re at home more often, they witness more abuse and may also be subjected to more violence themselves. It’s a completely different environment.”
Kasturi also said the virus itself can be weaponized against victims of domestic violence. Many abusers prevent their spouses from seeking any outside support, using the pandemic as their rationale. In some relationships, Kasturi mentioned that aggressors even threaten to spread the coronavirus to partners, thus adding to an unhealthy power dynamic.
After the fact
Three years ago, Sharma was alone and unemployed in a country she says she did not trust. Today, Sharma is a qualified beautician and proud business owner. With Daya’s help, she established her own salon in Houston where she pursues her passion within the beauty industry.
“Daya really worked for me, to show me how to do business. They helped me to get a business loan, taught me how to run a business, find clients, meet with people…they taught me [the way] you teach a schoolchild,” Sharma says.
Although financially independent, Sharma’s fight continues. She is the mother of two children who are still living in Nepal and is struggling to obtain green card status in the United States. Sharma lived with domestic violence for more than 13 years, an experience that has colored her vision of South Asian marriage and cultural expectations.
“Asian men need to compromise,” Sharma says. “Even my own father and brothers never gave my mother any respect. And [Asian] women need to speak up. They need to connect with other people. I want them to know how much power they really have.”
She ends the call on a hopeful note.
“I’m not afraid of anyone anymore,” Sharma says and laughs. “I feel like I’m flying in the air.”
If you or someone else is struggling with domestic violence, please refer to the resources below.
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
Maitri Helpline: 1-888-862-4874 (https://maitri.org/)
Narika Helpline: 1-510-444-6048 (https://www.narika.org/)
Domestic Harmony Foundation: 1-516-385-8292 (http://dhfny.org/)
My Sister’s House: 1-916-428-3271 (http://www.my-sisters-house.org/)
Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the Youth Editor of India Currents, the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar, and the Global Student Square editor for Newsroom By the Bay. Follow Kanchan on Instagram at @kanchan_naik_
Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low-income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.