Tag Archives: Draupadi

Don’t Call The Police! What Will People Say?

In traditional South Asian families, women trapped in abusive situations don’t leave for fear of  societal scorn.

“What will people say?”

Our social structure, based on arranged marriages and multi-generational households, regard family as sacrosanct – staying intact is prioritized over individual wellbeing.

“Culturally in the AAPI community, …victims may be encouraged to stay in their situations for their families, for their communities, for the larger family,” said Monica Khant, at an April 23  EMS briefing on domestic violence (DV).

Khant worked for years with DV clients as an immigration lawyer before joining Asian Pacific Institute of Gender-based Violence (API-GBV) as its Executive Director.

“That was something I had seen first-hand, that leaving their situation might being shame or embarrassment to the family.”

So, victims stay to avoid disrupting family dynamics, losing status, financial security, or children, but mainly because they have very few alternatives.

But during the pandemic, quarantining at home with an abusive partner because of stay-at-home orders, has made a difficult situation even worse for DV survivors. In fact, studies by the NIH reported increasing risk of family violence during the Covid-19 pandemic, stating thatdomestic abuse is acting like an opportunistic infection, flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic.”

According to the CDC, approximately 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men report experiencing some form of IPV each year. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, law enforcement agencies across the country are reporting an alarming upward trend in domestic violence.

By March 2020, compared to March 2019,  calls reporting DV increased by 18 % (San Antonio Police Department),  27% (Jefferson County Alabama) and 10% (New York City Police Department).

DV rates have spiked among women of color and immigrants who face additional structural and cultural challenges trying to access support from the government and community, even before the pandemic.

Narika, a 30-year-old, Fremont-based, domestic violence advocacy group with 90 % of South Asian clients connected to the Bay Area, reported a 3x  increase in DV calls since the pandemic began, while the API-GBV has found that 64% of Indian and Pakistani  women had reported intimate partner violence IPV.

Yet fewer survivors are calling for help despite being trapped at home in abusive situations. At API-GBV which recorded a 76% drop in calls and in people seeking shelters, Khant explained that survivors are unable to access phones or information on computers, so less calls are coming in for assistance.

You Can’t Tell the Police!

In South Asian communities, inaction and compliance by DV survivors has its roots in a patriarchal society which views DV as a taboo subject. Though we worship goddesses and powerful  female icons (Mother India, Kali), female stereotypes in secondary roles to men are equally revered (dutiful, submissive, wives like Parvati, Draupadi), and DV remains a systemic, pervasive  issue. Families are expected to stay intact. In fact, by raising awareness, Narika has been accused  of breaking up families and planting ideas in survivors to move out.

Bindu Fernandes, the Executive Director of Narika explained that survivors don’t want to ‘out’ their family.

Survivors who reach out will say,

 “I don’t want to cause any trouble, but if I die, I just want someone to know what’s happened,” and,  “I’m probably going to be pushed down some stairs so I want somebody to know that could happen,”, and unequivocally add,

BUT YOU CAN’T TELL THE POLICE.’

In many cases in South Asian community says Fernandes, this is the story.

Findings from an ATASK (Asian Family Violence Report: South Asian) survey in Boston supports her claim. In the survey, 44% percent of South Asians said they knew a woman who has been physically abused or injured by her partner. Yet 5% of male and female respondents said that a woman who is being abused should not tell anyone about the abuse. Even though they overwhelmingly endorsed battered women seeking help – from a friend 82%, the police (74%), a family member (66%), a shelter (50%) or a therapist (48%); in reality, very few women from their communities actually do.

Their dependency and  passivity, steeped in inflexible tradition, propels a vicious cycle of IPV and in-law violence.

Cultural norms and traditional roles force women to stay silent. Attitudes expressed in the ATASK focus group convey the insular mindset within South Asian families which prohibit survivors from coming forward and seeking help. Focus group members felt that the woman in a marriage becomes the property of her husband and no longer belongs to her parents. The group  felt that in-laws play a critical role in ‘family violence’ within South Asian families especially in cases of dowry disputes. A woman cannot turn to her own family for help once she is married and parents are not supposed to intervene in the daughter’s marriage. Sometimes parents don’t take divorced daughters back.

Survivors face challenges accessing assistance because of a complex mix of family dynamics, immigration status, cultural mores, lack of English proficiency and technology access, and financial dependence.

In the AAPI community, when survivors with limited English proficiency call law enforcement, said Khant, the officer may speak to the abusive partner who has the dominant English proficiency which enables them to control the narrative. The same language access issue applies when survivors who seek help from medical or hospital facilities need interpreters; having to rely on translation services adds time to getting the attention they need, so sometimes they just may not go. In Brooklyn for example, a nurse said it took over an hour to get a translator for a survivor who used a less mainstream Asian language.

Women who do not have valid immigration status or are on temporary status are not eligible for assistance, for example, even  Covid19 testing.

In the Bay Area, many immigrant women are dependents of H1B visa holders employed by  Silicon Valley’s tech sector. When the Trump administration revoked their EAD 4 work permits, they lost their right to work and experienced increasing abuse, domestic servitude, and  financial dependency.

Khant said that for AAPI community members who work in the service industry, the loss of jobs and lack of work increased financial dependency on abusive partner who is earning income, a key factor in DV survivors not being able to leave. Some of the immigrant DV survivors are ineligible for unemployment benefits because they don’t have valid work authorization permits and may not be allowed to apply for other benefits

Survivors who have lost jobs face eviction. According to the Census Bureau’s housing survey added Khant, 1 in 5 Asian renters reported that they were behind in rent payment as of September 2020. This forces DV survivors to stay with partners in violent and unsafe situations because they cannot afford to pay back rent. Narika said they issued $50,000 in cash assistance requests to survivors in the past year.

Transnational abandonment is the new manifestation of DV inflicted on immigrant women  already besieged by the pandemic and loss of EAD-4 work permits. Narika reports 2 to 3 cases of transnational abandonment a  week, where vulnerable immigrant women  are abandoned in their country of origin by their husbands. This phenomenon is particularly  prevalent within the SA community, in marriages where victims face domestic violence, emotional abuse, cultural alienation, or financial exploitation. Once they are deliberately  removed from the US, these disposable women lose legal protections, rights to their homes, finances and even children. Narika reports an instance where a woman was dropped off at a  grocery store and never saw her husband again.

There is no accountability as courts do not prosecute perpetrators or accept cases  when victims are absent. Narika reports that abusers take advantage of differences in laws  governing marriage and assets between the US and the victim’s country of origin. Nor is help available through  VAWA which has few protections for abandoned victims who don’t reside in the US.

Where do we go next?

While there is a compelling need for broader language service access and more food pantry and housing relief, there’s a growing demand from South Asian families about addressing DV outside the traditional systems in place.

Khant’s work has involved observing existing laws (or a lack of laws and assistance in place during certain administrations), and recognizing the nuances in immigrant cases related to the legal system of DV. But first, she said, we need to acknowledge biases in responses to communities of color. In the land of opportunity with its many resources for DV survivors,  Khant suggested a new approach is necessary to address DV in the South Asian community.

Traditionally DV survivors have been encouraged to follow the traditional systems in place – law enforcement, justice system, filing a complaint and following through with the courts.

But the pandemic has made it difficult for families to seek help from law enforcement or the justice system, so many families would rather go a new route to find resolution. At Narika, Bindu Fernandes shares that restorative justice is one approach that could form a pathway to helping families heal.

“DV is a delicate subject because it involves intimate relationships, family secrets, and it’s a subject many of us are reluctant to raise either publicly or in private. It’s embarrassing, sometimes even shameful to talk about. But we also know that staying silent (about the topic),  won’t make it go away. Suffering in silence makes people give up….lose hope,” remarked Sandy Close, EMS Director, at the briefing.

Khant said her experience as  an immigration attorney shows that, “If divorce or leaving the abusive situation is not the first choice, it’s the choice survivors only take after many attempts at reconciliation.”

Using social services or less criminally endorsed systems, “may get better traction in AAPI community,” said Khant, and help families find a path to reconciliation.


Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents.

NARIKA 1-800-215-7308 or 1-510-444-6048

MAITRI Toll Free Helpline: 1-888-862-4874

SAVE’s 24-hour crisis line at 510-794-6055

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available to assist victims of intimate partner violence 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by calling or texting (800) 799-SAFE (7233).

https://www.thehotline.org/wp-content/uploads/media/2020/09/The-Hotline-COVID-19-60-Day-Report.pdf

Links to SCC District Attorney’s Office Victim Service Unit brochures in multiple languages: https://www.sccgov.org/sites/da/publications/DistrictAttorneyBrochures/Pages/default.aspx

Family Justice Center Location in San Jose, SCC: https://www.sccgov.org/sites/da/VictimServices/FamilyJusticeCenter/Pages/FJC-SJ.aspx

Family Justice Center Location in Morgan Hill, SCC: https://www.sccgov.org/sites/da/VictimServices/FamilyJusticeCenter/Pages/FJC-MH.aspx

https://eastwindezine.com/mosf-vol-15-5-queer-and-black-asian-and-young-drama-del-rosario-tchoupitoulas-and-ocean-vuong/

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Draupadi’s Rage and Sita’s Sorrow

“It is an angry film. The film is a warning:” Sriram Dalton, on Spring Thunder (2018), a film that had a world premier at the Bay Area South Asian Film Festival. Spring Thunder, about the blood-drenched politics of uranium mining in Jharkhand, is like a punch, like a gunshot, like a blow by a hammer and a slash by a sickle. It might remind you of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). Or Bandit Queen (1994), the film Dalton says inspired him to become a film-maker. There is rage in Spring Thunder, a film about how tribal land is being pillaged by greedy and murderous uranium contractors, while government officials are ineffectual, or corrupt. The film is an angry howl, reverberating with the rage of the dispossessed, the marginalized, the have-nots.

Sriram Dalton, Writer/Director of Spring Thunder

I heard the same rage in the voice of two women, Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher, who screamed at Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) in an elevator moments before the Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh: “I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me.”

Nobody believed me.

By contrast, Dr. Kristine Blasey Ford, the professor “doing her civic duty” to speak out, was sorrowful, tearful, tremulous. But not silent. On the television screen, struggling to continue, the psychology professor narrated her story about how Kavanaugh tried to disrobe her, while his friend looked on and the young men laughed.

An image of the vastraharan scene in Naatak’s Mahabharata play came to me, with Dushasan dragging Draupadi to court and attempting to publicly disrobe her. The rage of Draupadi, according to Purnima Mankekar’s article “Television Tales and a Woman’s Rage: A Nationalist Recasting of Draupadi’s ‘Disrobing” was expressed by her vow to wash her hair in the blood of Dushasan’s thighs, upon which he had insolently invited her to sit. Draupadi’s rage was in contrast to the sorrow of Sita in the Ramayana, who would rather that the earth swallow her to hide her shame when a washer-man didn’t #believe her.

Yes, it’s all happened before. An attempt to disrobe a woman in the Mahabharat. Blaming the abduction victim In the Ramayana. 

At the Naatak play, the vastraharan was executed with the technical excellence one associates with Naatak, Yet I found myself troubled by the Sita-fication of Draupadi. I had seen Draupadi’s tears onstage, but these were not tears of rage as I expected, but of sorrow. “Draupadi is not to be portrayed as sorrowful, Draupadi is to be portrayed as enraged,” I remember thinking.

At the Dr. Christine Blasey Ford/Brett Kavanaugh hearings, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is sorrowful and well-behaved. She keeps her rage from showing, because an enraged woman can be threatening, off-putting, too shrewish, too strident. Dr. Ford is like Sita, with her tears of sorrow, and her resolve to do her civic duty.

The women in the elevator are like Draupadi. They are enraged, and a little bit out of control. “I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me.” The statement is like a punch, like a gunshot, like a blow by a hammer and a slash by a sickle. The statement is an angry howl, reverberating with the rage of the dispossessed, the marginalized, the have-nots.

The words are her unwashed hair covered in the blood of her sexual predator.

Geetika Pathania Jain is Culture and Media Editor at India Currents. She is usually quite well-behaved.

Cover Photo Credit: Naatak Facebook Page.