Chai With Sahelis is an audio series on Domestic Violence supported by the USC Center for Health Journalism in partnership with Desi Collective, Narika and India Currents.
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DesiDost has been investigating domestic violence (DV) in the Indian American community for close to a year. We continue to hear from survivors who bravely share deeply personal stories that reveal the trauma DV inflicts on vulnerable women.
The tick tock clicks between segments in Leena’s audio story is the sound of her safe space. Leena recorded the DesiDost interview in her car while waiting for her children in the school parking lot.
Her hazard lights were on.
That warning seems like a fitting introduction to the perilous journey Leena embarked on as a young bride and the cycle of domestic violence that bled inexorably into her life.
Listen to her story
Leena has three daughters. Her oldest was kidnapped at 12 months and whisked away to India and then to Qatar by her ex-husband.
Her two younger children who are in grade school, were fathered by her ex-partner who was addicted to prescription drugs. Leena says he was calm when he was medicated and violent without them.
Both men were physically abusive towards her.
The Curse of Dowry
In 1996, Leena’s first marriage, as in so many South Asian families seeking a good match for their daughter, was arranged to a H1B visa holder who worked in the US. Leena was only 22.
The marriage had an inauspicious start. True to tradition, Leena’s in-laws demanded dowry. Her parents gave them 1 kilo of gold which her mother-in-law immediately confiscated.
“She said you don’t need to take that to America,” says Leena.
The gold wasn’t enough for her in-laws. Dowry was a big deal.
Her mother-in-law was disappointed says Leena.
“She was really unhappy that my parents did not give them a flat in Mumbai.”
Her mother-in-law later played a crafty role in kidnapping Leena’s newborn daughter and taking the baby to India.
The Unexpected Girlfriend
After the wedding the newlyweds flew back to the US via Hong Kong. Leena’s new husband asked her to pick out a gift for his girlfriend.
“I assumed it was a girl who was just a friend” remembers Leena “I was so stupid.”
Instead, the Vietnamese woman who picked up the couple from the airport and drove them home, turned out to be his live-in girlfriend. Leena found a stash of compromising pictures in their closet of her husband with his girlfriend.
Only then did Leena realize that she was sharing her husband with another woman.
It was an unimaginable introduction to married life – especially for a young Muslim girl who had grown up in ‘small town’ India.
Leena had no idea how to cope. Her remonstrations with her new husband took a violent turn when he physically assaulted her for questioning his relationship with the other woman.
“I asked him what was going on? That’s when he went crazy on me. And that’s the first time that he hit me.”
When Mothers-In-Law Get In The Way
Leena was pregnant within the first month. But the physical and emotional abuse continued through her high-risk pregnancy. She was on IV the first six months.
“He choked me a couple of times. I went through a lot of emotional trauma,” says Leena.
As life deteriorated, Leena even considered an abortion. She offered her husband a divorce. Her would not hear of it. None of his siblings had produced any offspring.
Her mother-in-law arrived for the baby’s delivery.
“When my mother-in-law came, things got worse,” says Leena. She told her son that Leena was making his life miserable. Her ex-husband excused his behavior saying that he had already asked Allah to forgive him.
When her daughter was six months old, the husband and grandmother took the baby to India, leaving Leena behind. It was 1997. Her mother-in-law wore a hijab that covered her face and pretended to be the baby’s mother.
Leena was unable to join them. By then, her husband had obtained his US citizenship, but revoked Leena’s green card, leaving her without legal status. She would not be able to re-enter the US if she left the country.
It’s Better To Be With The Devil You Know
When her husband returned after three months, Leena filed kidnapping charges. In court her ex-husband promised to change his ways. Despite her misgivings, her parents and extended family urged Leena to stay in the relationship.
“Life is going to be hard for you,” they warned. “It’s better to be with the devil you know.”
Leena knew her future was under threat and felt she needed to take charge of her life.
“I decided I’m going to manage on my own. Get a job.”
Leena applied for VAWA, got a green card, and found a job at Macys.
She filed for divorce. The court gave Leena and her husband joint custody of the baby.
The Anatomy of a Kidnapping
What came next was unexpected and devastating.
Leena was at work when her ex-husband and mother abducted Laila and fled with the child to Qatar. They emptied the whole house, leaving only Leena’s clothes behind.
“When I got home I thought I’d been robbed,” says Leena.
Her daughter was 12 months old. Leena never saw her baby again for the next 22 years. Her husband fled the US to avoid paying alimony and child support. He was safer in a Muslim country.
Leena reached out to lawyers and lawmakers. But there was no way to bring her baby back through legal channels.
A desolate Leena could not comprehend her loss. She went through a phase of severe depression.
“I used to pray to God I wish I could have a memory loss and never remember anything.”
A Cycle of Violence Repeats
In the years that followed, Leena met a new partner with whom she had two more daughters. But her partner’s addiction to prescription drugs made him prone to fits of rage.
On one occasion he broke her arm; another time he fractured her shoulder. He stole the high-risk narcotics she was prescribed for pain relief after her surgeries.
“I had Percoset, Oxycodone, and Vicodin,” says Leena.
When Families Turn Their Back On You
When she reached out for help after getting pregnant, her family disowned Leena. Her father condemned her new relationship, saying,
“The first one was our mistake but the second one is on you.”
Her brothers admonished her. “It’s wrong for a Muslim girl to be with a guy and not be married.” So, they too refused to help.
Her family did not make Leena’s divorce public for 15 years. The trauma of public disdain took a toll on her mother, who suffered several heart attacks. Her family blamed Leena.
Leena feels betrayed by her both her family and the community.
Once, in desperation, she gave $50,000 worth of jewelry to a Bay Area family who were originally from her hometown in India. They promised to sell her jewelry in India and give her funds from the sale. They never did.
“I was just such an idiot,” says Leena. “You cannot trust anyone with your story because they will take advantage of you.”
A Life Of Hard Knocks
Leena says she regrets the choices she made. She is anguished about the impact those decisions have had on her children and on her own life.
She did not file complaints against her abusive partner with the police, because she was afraid of losing her children to social services.
“I already lost one kid.” She did not want to risk losing her two young daughters. “So, I took so much abuse from this guy”
During the pandemic she lost her job. But the disability allowance she received made her ineligible for the pandemic’s unemployment benefits.
Money was tight and her savings depleted.
Leena had parted ways with her partner and was living in low-income housing. She rents an apartment for $1800 a month.
“In the last two years, not having a job, there was no way I could pay the full rent.”
Then she made a decision that haunts her. Desperate to keep her apartment, she asked her ex-partner back as a roommate so they could share the burden of rental payments.
My Daughters Lives
Her younger daughters have been deeply affected by the violence they’ve witnessed towards their mother.
Her older daughter is scared of her father.
“My older one has seen a lot. She’s very submissive and slow. She’s in the third grade but she’s at first grade level.”
Her younger daughter “is very understanding and mature for her age,” says Leena. She wants to be a doctor when she grows up and take care of her mom. She always tells her mother not to worry.
“She feels sorry for me. She says she will never marry or have a boyfriend.”
Leena says she is constantly worrying about food, paying her rent and becoming homeless. It humiliates her to ask for secondhand clothes to dress her young daughters.
“I blame myself for all the mistakes I’ve made. I wish my kids could have a better life. I feel so sad when I see them suffering.”
The Reunion That Went Sour
In a cruel twist, Leena met her firstborn daughter after 22 years when the girl arrived as a student at a US university. Her lookalike daughter was curious to meet Leena. Oddly, she did not tell her dad she was meeting her own mother.
But this was not the reunion Leena envisioned. Her daughter blamed Leena for leaving her as a baby.
“She said how could you do that to me? When I was a teenager I had such a hard time.”
I could not convince her that my ex-husband had lied to her.
“She was brainwashed,” says Leena. They told her, “your mom left you.”
When her daughter got married later that year, Leena was not invited.
Don’t Ask People For Anything
“I have taken so many depression pills all these years,” says Leena. “I think my brain has become fogged.”
“When I look at my life…all my mistakes. I’m always angry at myself more than anybody else.”
“I tell my little one, I want you to have a good life, a good education, and just survive. So, you don’t have to ask people for anything.”
This article was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2021 Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund.
If you or anyone you know needs help, please contact:
Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)