Why Women Don’t Walk Away From Abusive Marriages
The woman on the phone will talk only if I promise not to identify her—not her first or last names, not the town she lives in.
This woman, let’s call her Geeta, lives in the United States with her husband and two young daughters. Her husband controls the finances because, according to him, she is too stupid to manage money. He tells her constantly that the only thing she’s good for is cooking and cleaning. Not even sex; he’s had better. He doles out just enough money for gas, so she can get to work and back.
She is an engineer, the one with the job and the visa; he’s the one who cannot hold down a job. For years, they’ve been telling friends and family that he works from home. “It can be hard on a man, you know,” Geeta says with a touch of defensiveness. “Not to have a job.”
Geeta’s parents used to visit once every three years. On one such visit, when Geeta’s sister and her family were also present, she asked her husband to reach for the water jug from the top shelf. Convinced that she was “disrespecting” him in front of her family, he flew into a rage and punched her multiple times. Geeta’s parents fled to their bedroom, dinner forgotten. She has no idea what her sister’s family did. What she did was to grab coloring pencils and paper, loaded her kids in the minivan and drove herself to the hospital, broken jaw and all.
“You had the presence of mind to grab the coloring pencils?” I ask. “Will keep the kids occupied in the ER,” she says matter-of-factly.
The ER physician insisted that Geeta report the incident. Geeta had previously tried talking to a couple of people about the abuse, but they had laughed it off. She can’t be sure whether this was because they thought she was joking, or it was because they didn’t want the hassle of dealing with someone else’s problems. She hadn’t tried again. The fact that her parents were witness to the violence gave her the courage. She talked to the police.
Her husband was arrested, taken to the police station, and booked. Geeta’s sister and brother-in-law were distraught at the thought that the Indian community would find out. Her parents could not bear that their son-in-law would be publicly shamed. Her father berated her for her selfishness. Her mother threatened to kill herself with the kitchen knife. They pressured Geeta into withdrawing the case. Her parents went back to India, never to return. Her sister and she have not been in touch since.
Is that okay with her, I ask. That her sister will no longer talk to her. She sighs.
She tries to excuse her own husband’s behavior by saying, “Sometimes the pressure gets too much for him. He needs an outlet. It is only understandable that he loses control.”
“Surely you need an outlet for your own stress? Do you lose control?” “No,” she says. “I have the kids to think of.”
“Doesn’t he?” I ask. She has no answer.
“Does he abuse the kids?” I ask. “Oh no! He’s a great dad.”
“How about in front of other family or friends?” “Never,” she says. “He’s very dignified when they are around.”
“Which means control isn’t the problem, is it?” I say softly. “He has enough self-control not to cause damage to himself, not to get himself in any trouble with the law, with immigration.”
She has no answer to that, either.
She says that there is no hope for her. She tells me the only reason she’s talking to me is that she hopes that someone reading this—parent, brother, sister, friend—will be roused into stepping up and supporting their loved one.
She quietly ends the call.
What is Domestic Violence?
Rama Jalan, Executive Director of Maitri, a Bay Area-based organization that provides support to victims of domestic violence says that domestic violence is one partner’s (or family member’s) power and control over the other, sometimes manifesting in physical aggression. More often than not, it is much more than assaulting someone; it is about humiliation, about destroying their self-confidence, controlling access to finances, isolating them from friends and family, or breaking any support system they may have. Denying an immigrant the ability to contact family overseas, blocking social engagements, not allowing them to pursue studies or employment—these can be abuse too.
If a woman feels constantly devalued, undermined, or bad about herself after interactions with her husband, or partner, she needs to consider whether she is being abused.
Social stigma is the leading reason why Indian-American women won’t leave abusive marriages, says Rovina Nimbalkar, Executive Director of Narika, another Bay Area-based organization.
Because of this stigma, she says, and the resultant secrecy, people in the Indian community are able to pretend such things do not happen in their community of “strong family values.”
Most women, and sometimes men, don’t recognize domestic violence for what it is, according to social worker Shanthi Karamchetti. It is only as a relationship grows and intensifies that the pattern of abuse begins to emerge. Emotional abuse, reproductive coercion and male privilege are other forms of abuse that might not involve overt aggression. Karamchetti says she’s starting to hear more about stealthing as a form of abuse. This is when a man takes off condoms during sex in an effort to force pregnancy upon a woman.
Karamchetti cautions that abuse towards the mother can be extremely damaging to kids, even babies. She says that even as a baby’s brain is wiring, the baby is absorbing. The effects are profound. With the right support and treatment, the brain can rewrite itself, but it is important for the baby to be removed from the environment for it to thrive.
Watch this video by Maitri Bay Area about the real-life impact on a child growing up in a violent situation.
Jalan says that frequently abusers create self-doubt in the minds of their victims. It may begin with simple name-calling—fat, ugly, good for nothing. The more it affects the victim, the more the abuser uses this as a control mechanism. Creating doubt about her abilities and mental well-being is often the next step. This negative message, coming from someone they trust, can serve to confuse her. Isolation, and a lack of support from friends and family, often compounds this belief.
Women’s Cultural Conditioning
Cultural conditioning plays a big role in how women accept injustice. Take, for example, the infamous Brock Turner case. When the star swimmer from Stanford was convicted of rape, his father argued in favor of probation, saying any jail time for his son was “a steep price to pay for twenty minutes of action.”
Turner was sentenced to six months of prison time, instead of the fourteen years of hard time he could have potentially served. In face of public outrage stemming from both the sentencing, as well as the father’s statement, the judge tried to excuse his leniency by claiming that he didn’t wish to “ruin” the future of someone with so much potential.
I bring up this specific instance because hard as it is for a woman to report stranger rape, it is worse when she has to work up the courage to report marital rape, or sexual violence within a relationship. Such an egregious miscarriage of justice does not help induce confidence in the criminal justice system.
Lundy Bancroft, in his book Why Does He Do That?: Inside The Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, says an abusive man’s disrespect of women, his sense of entitlement over her being, stems directly from how his own father treated the women in his life. With an attitude like his father’s, it isn’t surprising that Turner grew up with extreme disdain for women.
Then there is the Gattani-Rastogi case, which involves Indian immigrant, Abhishek Gattani, who managed to achieve that most elusive of American dreams: being a Silicon Valley CEO. He is also a man who admitted at the Santa Clara County Superior Court, of beating his wife Neha Rastogi, over a period of ten years.
The punishment for this heinous crime? Thirteen days in prison after his crime was brought down from a felonious assault through a plea bargain in order to spare him deportation to India. Rastogi, understandably, is furious. Next time you ask why a woman might not report domestic violence, think of these cases.
“I feel fooled not just by a convicted criminal, aggressor, wife beater, batterer, that I unfortunately married—the worst mistake of my life but by this court as well. With all due respect to the system…I stand fooled, disgraced and ridiculed as a victim,” Rastogi said. “I get heard to be ignored? To be told that the system understands the abuse and the impact it has had…but sorry it is what it is. I was told no jail, no classes, no penalties can change Mr. Gattani. Is this the faith the DA’s office and the court have in the justice being provided in this court? Is that the reason for leniency in such cases? Have we given up on justice?”
—Excerpt from Neha Rastogi’s victim impact statement after hearing of lenient sentence for her husband Abhishek Gattani
A very common refrain on social media after the Gattani-Rastogi case was why Rastogi, who is by all accounts an extremely accomplished woman, one who worked alongside the likes of Steve Jobs, did not walk away if the marriage was “really abusive.” The implication was that Rastogi was making things up, or that walking away was an easy thing to do.
There are many reasons why a woman might not walk away from an abusive marriage. She might view the breakdown of her marriage as personal failure. She could be financially dependent on her husband. Or, she might choose to stay for, “the good of the children.” Perhaps she has grown up in such an environment herself, where it was normal occurrence for her own mother to be abused. Maybe she loves her husband, and keeps wanting to give him yet another chance. Maybe she has grown up believing that such things happen only in “bad” families. Even when the woman gathers the courage to confide in someone, she may be advised to make an extra effort to hold the family together for the sake of the children, or for the “reputation” of the family.
If he’s abusive after a hard day at work, she might make excuses for him, not realizing there can never be any excuse for abuse. What can add to the confusion is that the abuser can also be thoughtful: if he makes her tea, or gets her car serviced, or helps the kids with homework, he can’t be all bad, can he?
Not In Our Community?
42,700+ helpline calls; 4,700+ crisis calls; 3866+ survivors empowered.
—Source: Maitri (Statistics since inception)
Insidious Forms Abuse Can Take
Abuse doesn’t have to be physical to be considered abuse. When the abuser gaslights her, when he manipulates her psychologically, when he denies her reality to the point she is no longer able to trust her own instincts, that is abuse, too. So the next time he tells her that she “made him do it,” or that she “asked for” the punching, the kicking, the shoving, she believes him.
She might interpret his control of her as love, or concern. If he’s abusive after a hard day at work, she might make excuses for him, not realizing there can never be any excuse for abuse. What can add to the confusion is that the abuser can also be thoughtful: if he makes her tea, or gets her car serviced, or helps the kids with homework, he can’t be all bad, can he?
Abusers are often charming and sociable in public. This can make it very difficult for women to get support when they do decide to confide to someone in their social, or familial, circle. There is often shock if there has been no overt display of aggression. Nimbalkar says that since talking about any kind of violence, especially sexual violence is such a taboo in our culture we, as a community, have gotten comfortable with the pretense that violence does not exist in our circles.
The Pressure to Stay
In the context of abuse within our community, there are additional reasons that are unique to the Indian situation—if there are siblings who are ready to be married, there is additional pressure to stay on in the marriage. There is the worry that if the marriage breaks up, the woman’s family will be considered “bad.” Social isolation is another. A third reason is the premium placed on the state of marriage-hood.
Married women have exalted status in society; unmarried women—not so much. Lines are often drawn in social or religious events; invisible, but very much there. Married women, the fortunate ones, are at the top of the social pecking order. Unmarried girls come next, because they can still find husbands, and become part of that elite first group. The widows are the unfortunate lot, the has beens who, while invited, aren’t offered kumkum and turmeric—the auspicious prerogative of every married woman.
Divorced or abandoned women are essentially in societal limbo. No one knows quite what to do with them: they are either not invited to religious functions or, if they are, they choose not to go to spare their host embarrassment. This explains why, to the Indian parent, an unhappy marriage is better than no marriage at all.
Divorced or abandoned women are essentially in societal limbo. No one knows quite what to do with them: they are either not invited to religious functions or, if they are, they choose not to go to spare their host embarrassment. This explains why, to the Indian parent, an unhappy marriage is better than no marriage at all. Men, on the other hand, have no such issues to do with social status. They can remarry, and suffer no such consequence.
Visa issues are another worry for Indian women in America. If they’re not working, which is often the case if their husbands are on H1-B visas the husbands threaten them with deportation. Until recently spouses of H1-B visa holders were not permitted to work. The previous administration lifted this restriction, but this might soon change. This is particularly worrying to women if there are American-born children involved.
Because of the intense secrecy relating to uncomfortable issues, there is misinformation on the kind of families such things happen in. Fact of the matter is, domestic violence, like sexual abuse, cuts across lines of class, caste and race.
Can Counseling Help?
Lundy Bancroft, who has counseled over a thousand abusive men (he will not counsel couples), says that couples counseling works only when the couple has shared issues that both need to work on. He is emphatic that control and abuse are not a shared problem; they remain the sole responsibility of the abuser.
He warns that a poorly run domestic violence program can actively endanger abused women by sheltering their abusers from accountability. He cites instances where savvy abusers learnt tools and techniques from their counseling sessions and, in turn, used them to further manipulate the victim.
How You Can Help
Violence against women is about entitlement. It is a belief that the life, the needs, the wants of the abuser or perpetrator must take priority over everything else. There can never be any justification for domestic violence. Start with this premise.
If you want to help, don’t blame the victim. Express no judgment. Provide her the resources that enable her to make her own choices. This last bit is especially important, because being in an abusive situation is disempowering enough. Don’t deny her control over her decisions by making them for her.
SAVE (another organization that works with DV victims) advocate, Shailaja Dixit, strongly urges that women check in with an agency such as SAVE if they’re in an abusive situation, and are planning a trip to India. To help with safety planning, she also recommends that the victim call a domestic violence agency before she is in crisis.
How You Can Help
Organizations that provide support to victims of DV provide access to emergency shelters, free or low cost legal and medical services, and peer support groups. In addition, they also offer services in multiple Indian languages.
According to Kate Hart, Director of Programs, SAVE works within the context of the South Asian community—they will, depending on the situation, take in family units as a whole— including boys over the age of eighteen, special needs adults, and in-laws, if needed.
Maitri.org (888) 862-4874
Narika.org (800) 215-7308
SAVE (510) 794-6055
National Abuse Hotline (800) 799-7233
Rasana Atreya is a novelist, content writer, marketer and one of India’s self-publishing pioneers. Her debut novel, Tell A Thousand Lies, was shortlisted for the UK-based Tibor Jones South Asia Prize. Her other works are The Temple Is Not My Father, and 28 Years A Bachelor. Also a former rape crisis counselor with BAWAR, she is passionate about human rights issues.
First published in June of 2017.
Legal Advice for Victims
By Indu-Liladhar Hathi
I am an Indian citizen and entered America on a student visa (F-1). About 9 months ago, I married a green card holder. My husband is physically and mentally abusive. I am afraid to leave as I am no longer pursuing my studies and need him to apply for a green card.
It appears that you are a victim of domestic violence. All people in the United States, regardless of immigration or citizenship status are guaranteed basic protections under both civil and criminal law. You can file under: The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994 which allows immigrant victims of domestic violence to file a self-petition to become lawful permanent residents (LPR) without having to rely on their abusers. In 2000, through the Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act, two other visas were created for immigrant victims of violent crime (U visas) and victims of sexual assault or trafficking (T visas). In 2005, the protections expanded to include victims of elder abuse.
I am currently on a H-4 visa and stuck in an abusive relationship. Can I legally work here?
If you were admitted to the United States as the spouse of an H nonimmigrant who has abused you, you may be eligible for employment authorization. Employment authorization enables victims to seek safety and independence from their abuser, who is not notified about the filing.
Please check our “Ask a Lawyer” column for more information regarding legal steps to help victims of domestic violence. Attorney Indu Liladhar-Hathi has an office in San Jose. (408) 453-5335.