Domestic Violence in South Asian Communities
Although domestic violence is rarely talked about in South Asian communities, it is a rampant and preventable public health problem that deserves our immediate action.
Domestic Violence is more than just physical abuse. It is physical, mental, emotional, financial, and/or sexual abuse that occurs between people that live together, are dating, are married, or are related in some way. These forms of abuse can have serious and long-lasting impacts on the survivors, their children, and other family members.
Elements of South Asian (SA) Culture:
I. STIGMA OF DIVORCE
Divorce in most South Asian communities even those in more liberal America, is still considered taboo. Many South Asians, like other traditional ethnic groups, stay in toxic marriages for the sake of finances, duty, children, fear, or pride. Getting divorced seems impossible and often, couples stay together to avoid the label of a failed marriage.
“In our culture, I think we have been socialized to believe that we give up if we get divorced, and it’s our duty to stay in a relationship that is not good for us any longer. It’s a situation where the family is creating most of the conflict, and abuse seems to occur,either physical, mental, or verbal” – Sumit Ahuja
II. ARRANGED VS. FORCED MARRIAGES
An arranged marriage is a marriage in which families take a leading role, but the parties have the free will and choice to accept or decline the arrangement. A forced marriage is a marriage that takes place without the full and free consent of both parties. Forced can include physical force, in addition to emotional pressure or duress. Keep in mind that a marriage may begin as arranged, but end up as forced.
III. DATING AND LOVE MARRIAGES
Some South Asian families are open to love marriages where an individual dates and gets to know his/her future life partner. However, other South Asian families consider people who date and pursue love marriages to be promiscuous and rebellious. Abuse can still occur in a dating relationship or in a love marriage. In these instances, abuse is likely to continue due to fear that family, friends, and the larger community will place blame of abuse on the victim for choosing his/her own partner.
IV. DOWRY SYSTEM
Dowry refers to the property, money, ornaments, or any other form of wealth traditionally given for the well-being of a new couple, which a man or his family receives from his wife or her family at the tie of marriage. Recent studies suggest a link between DV and dowry demands; wife abuse has been found to be higher when a husband and/or his family believes dowry payments are inadequate. These crimes appear to be a product of socially structured expectations that reinforce the inferior status of women. This is evident in the low bargaining power of a woman and her parents in dowry-related practices.
V. COLLECTIVISM AND THE ROLE OF SOCIETY
Society defines needs, morality, and identity.
NEEDS: Greater emphasis is placed on the needs of the group/family/community over the individual. In some ways, this has had a positive effect since there is a sense of security from the unity and sacrifice of society. HOWEVER, in a DV situation a survivor going against societal norms that support abuse could face ostracism, slander, increased danger, loss of economic opportunity, and no potential for remarriage.
MORALITY: Morality is defined by society instead of the individual. In some ways, this too has a positive effect since consequences and accountability exist for violations o moral code. HOWEVER, the survivor may be considered ‘selfish’ for wanting to seek safety from an abusive situation. Reasons for this include public embarrassment in the community, making what is considered a private matter public, and potential separation of the family by taking sides or divorce.
IDENTITY: Identity is defined by society instead of the individual. This helps to eliminate confusion in identity and purpose. HOWEVER, if society doesn’t agree with or support the survivor, the survivor could develop low self-esteem, a severe loss in confidence, and no sense of self.
VI. PATRIARCHAL SOCIETY
Patriarchy is about the social relations of power between men and women, women and women, and men and men. It is a system for maintaining class, gender, racial, and heterosexual privilege and the status quo of power- relying both on crude forms of oppression, like violence; and subtle ones, like laws; to perpetuate inequality. Patriarchal beliefs of male, heterosexual dominance lie at the root of gender-based violence.
VII. JOINT FAMILY HOUSEHOLDS
The joint family is highly valued, ideally consisting of several generations residing, working, eating, and worshipping together. Such families include men related through the male line, along with their wives, children, and unmarried daughters. A wife usually lives with her husband’s relatives. Because the in-laws could be living with the victim and exert a lot of control over the marriage and decision-making, the victim’s abuse is multiplied. The victim could be treated more like a house servant and employee than a member of the family. In addition to housework, she might be forced to work outside of the home and to give all of her earnings to her spouse and in-laws. Research shows that a woman who is a daughter-in-law in a joint family has less agency than a woman who is a mother-in-law.
Karma is a religious and cultural concept that says that every good or bad thing that happens in one’s life is a result of his/her actions from a previous life. Therefore, a victim could assume that the abuse in this life is her fate and that she should accept it.
IX. HONOR/REPUTATION OR "IZZAT"
The concept of honor is a gendered notion; with men possessing intrinsic honor, but women possessing only shame. This gendered ideology produces inequality and hierarchy with men and women embodying honor differently, meaning that women are the repositories of honor while men regulate their conduct, since women pose the greatest danger to men’s honor. Concepts of honor and shame are closely linked. In some South Asian cultures, the opposite of honor (‘izzat’) is the state of being without honor (‘bey-izzat’). By this standard, since women possess shame on behalf of men, shameless women can throw an entire family into dishonor.
Families would much rather flout laws and norms of the host country than fall in disgrace with their own honor groups. Thus, SA immigrants might utilize law enforcement agencies in the country of residence in cases of accident or civil issues, but not for ‘private’ matter such as DV and sexual assault.
Issues that may be considered a breach of family honor include:
•Staying out beyond sunset
•Being sexually active
•Getting pregnant before marriage
•Marrying outside of caste/religion/race
•Coming out with non-traditional gender and sexual preferences
More conservative families may also consider the following as a severe breach of
•Interacting with foreigners
•Leaving a marriage even when the husband is violent
•Being perceived as having ‘bad character’
An added complication in this situation is the possibility of securing appropriate help. Even when South Asian victims of honor retributions are ready to seek outside help, they may face difficulties in establishing their credibility. Because they locate the source of danger in the intimate partner and/or HIS family, law enforcement agencies in the U.S. often do not take girls and women seriously when they express the fear that their lives are at risk from their own family members. This risk of annihilation is real, and may be carried out suddenly by an entire family which seems reconciled to a woman's transgressions.