Amid the coronavirus pandemic, South Asian American victims of domestic violence have fewer options than ever. 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.
*Certain names have been altered to protect the privacy of the interviewees.
45-year old Mala Sharma met her second husband at a student union in 2012, and they soon shared a cramped Houston apartment to begin their new life together. Sharma had recently fled Nepal and an abusive marriage, gaining asylum status in the United States for her condition. She had endured the violent, volatile tendencies of her first husband for more than ten years.
A local politician, her first husband had an unhealthy control over her life even after divorce, prompting Sharma to “go undercover” for fear of being killed. She says she trusted her new partner, believing that she knew and understood domestic abuse.
She was wrong.
“He was so nice to speak to in the beginning,” Sharma says in a phone interview. “But as I came closer to him, his real habits were revealed. He began swearing at me, pushing me everywhere…there was lots of verbal abuse.”
These incidents only escalated. Sharma says her husband isolated her from friends and family, threatening to ruin her reputation if she retaliated. When she finally divorced him in 2017, he spent days waiting outside her apartment, screaming. He constantly harassed her online, on “everything from phone calls to text messages to Viber.” Their marriage ended in a restraining order and jail time.
“I was so scared,” Sharma says. “I blamed myself, kept telling myself that I was a bad wife, bad daughter, a failure.”
Kasturi Basu came to the country when she was 25 years old to live with her once-divorced husband. Soon after she landed, she got pregnant. A little while after that she found that she had married a dangerously violent man. With two daughters, she was stuck in a physically abusive marriage. Over the years, the police came out to her house a dozen times but it wasn’t until police found her bleeding and insisted on documenting the episode that her husband finally went to jail.
After several years, Basu managed to secure a restraining order, but her husband took her to court contesting it. When she tried to extend the order, he contested it again. Basu was emotionally and financially destitute after years of her husband’s manipulation — and so she finally gave up. Basu has been subjected to multiple divorce trials by her husband and currently is fighting the divorce in appeals court. Still, with some distance from her abusive husband, she was able to begin the slow, painful process of healing and recovery.
Sharma’s and Basu’s stories echo one told by thousands of South Asian American women suffering from domestic abuse. Violence, insults, intimidation — these are only a few of the atrocities immigrant women experience and are slowly taught to accept.
At the intersection of the coronavirus pandemic and precarious immigration status, Indian American women are more vulnerable to abuse than ever.
According to a 2003 study published by the US National Library of Medicine, roughly 40% of the 160 South Asian women sampled from Greater Boston, Massachusetts reported ‘experiencing intimate partner violence,’ including physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. Most of these women had freshly immigrated from South Asia within the past two years and had no family or social support system in the United States. The study also indicated that a majority of the non-US born participants initially had no knowledge of support services for domestic violence victims or did not have the bandwidth to reach out.
And the numbers are on a troubling rise. A 2010 study published by the National Institute of Justice indicated that younger generations of Indians and Pakistanis immigrating to the United States today are much more likely to endure all kinds of partner violence than their older counterparts.
“Immigrant populations are more vulnerable than other populations”, says Zakia Afrin, Manager of the Client Advocacy Program for Maitri. Maitri, an SF/Bay Area-based organization, provides legal help, housing, counseling, resources, and a live helpline to South Asians in situations of Domestic Abuse.
“It is heightened when you are away from your home country,” affirms Bindu Oomen-Fernandes, Executive Director at Narika, a Bay Area nonprofit dedicated to assisting South Asian survivors. “Imagine…you don’t know anybody but your husband, you don’t know things like 911, you don’t have access to local resources, and you’re afraid of deportation.”
Aggressive partners assert financial and legal superiority over their spouses, often by holding their immigration status hostage. Fernandes discusses how many husbands on an H1-B visa withhold their wives’ papers — what Fernandes calls ‘immigration abuse.’
“There have been cases where we question a survivor and she says she doesn’t even know her visa status,” Fernandes says. “And in circumstances where the abuser files for divorce, she realizes she doesn’t have her documents, doesn’t know where the passports of her children are. She can’t even make plans to leave because her status changes rules around deportation.”
“Financial dependence is huge,” says Maria Arshaad, one of Narika’s program managers. “When these women come into the country, they’re not able to work. Even if they have a degree back home, [often] the credentials don’t transfer or their visa doesn’t [allow] them to get a job.”
Without economic autonomy, domestic violence survivors cannot care for themselves or their children. Nor can they afford appropriate legal services and counseling. Sharma, for example, spent several months living with her second husband even after divorcing him.
“I was working at a salon for $3 an hour,” says Sharma. “He was working at a local gas station. I did not want to live with him, but he convinced me to stay together to save money.”
Even if a survivor can make plans to leave, where can she go? Restrictive visas and income inequality leave few options for South Asian American women.
“This is not the end of the road. There are services available and the systems and communities have come a long way in recognizing that. Just talk with a DV advocate. Please explore your options before you give up,” urges Afrin.
Check-in in two weeks to read the next article in our DV series.
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.