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A Culture of Silence

Reema Kalra

It was a cold November night. Meera wasnít feeling too well. She was home alone with the kids while her husband was drinking the night away with his friends. He came home really late that night. She was woken up by his firm voice screaming at her to cook his dinner. In the past, Meera had always done as told. But she refused that night. Soon, she was being dragged out of her bed, across the floor and into the kitchen. He beat her ruthlessly with his belt as the children watched. The next day, life went on as before. Her husband to work, the kids to school and Meera confined to the walls of her so called home.

The Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence was founded in 1987 to address the needs of women like Meera: women from various cultures and backgrounds who somehow find themselves in abusive relationships within their families. In 1994, the Asian Task Force established New Englandís first and only battered womenís shelter catered to serve Asian women and their children. Although the Task Force started off by serving primarily the Chinese and Cambodian communities, our service has expanded to fit the linguistic needs of various others such as the South Asian community.

The South Asian population in New England has seen tremendous growth in past years. Since the inception of the South Asian project at the Asian Task Force, we have also seen an increase in the number of South Asian women reporting abuse within their families. According to the Asian Family Violence Report, a study conducted by Dr. Marianne Yoshioka in collaboration with the Asian Task Force, 44% of the South Asian survey respondents said they know a woman who has been shoved, pushed, slapped, hit, kicked, or suffered other injuries from her partner. The report also revealed that 5% of the respondents from the South Asian community also knew a man who is being beaten by his partner. These statistics show that domestic violence is extremely prevalent in our immediate community.

Domestic violence in the western family unit is defined in terms of the power and control exerted by one member over another. The abuse can take various forms, from physical to emotional to economic to sexual. The perpetration of domestic violence in the United States is against the law. In our culture however, domestic violence isnít considered a crime. In many Asian languages, there isnít even a specific word for domestic violence. Due to gender roles and expectations, the plight of the victim is often unheard. As a result, many Asian immigrants in the United States hesitate to recognize domestic violence as a punishable crime.

The idea of male superiority is strongly enforced in our society. Upon marriage, the husband traditionally gains all power and control over the womanís life. This power includes the right to physically abuse her if the need be. The wife is expected to fulfill her duties by being submissive and obedient. Her primary role is to keep the family together at all costs. Divorce is never a good option for a woman from our community. She may be experiencing severe physical, emotional, verbal, sexual and economic abuse but in many cases wouldnít admit it to anyone, even herself. Leaving the relationship would mean inflicting shame upon herself as well as the whole family. Her fear of being ostracized by the community adds to her silent suffering.

Due to these internal cultural barriers, victims are often deterred from speaking up about the abuse they are experiencing in their homes. Itís a difficult decision to make: that between being victimized by the husband at home if she stays or by her community outside if she leaves. Many times, the victim doesnít realize the need to seek help until the abuse becomes unbearable. Sometimes, the victim may not know that there is help available: that there are organizations and individuals willing to offer their services.

Asian society is extremely influenced by history and traditions. Gender roles are distinctly defined and a move away from these roles is looked down upon. Many Asian immigrant wives arenít aware of their rights as a battered spouse in the United States. They choose to stay in the relationships for financial as well as immigration related reasons. Their husband is usually the only person they have contact with because of the isolation they face from their immediate communities.

The South Asian sub-continent is extremely diverse. In our South Asian project we are trying to reach out to a wide array of cultures and languages. Currently, we have the linguistic capacity to serve Hindi, Nepali and Punjabi speaking women. In the future, we hope to expand our services to cater to various other populations. The Asian Task Force alone canít bring about the change we would like to see. We, therefore, seek the collaboration of other agencies and individuals who are working towards similar goals. The South Asian Advisory Committee meets once a month to determine successful outreach strategies and identify future social and cultural events in the South Asian community. For more information on how you can get involved, please contact the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence at (617) 338-2350.

If someone you know:
Hits you or threatens to hurt you;
Prevents you from having your own life;
Threatens to report you to the INS or refuses to file your immigration papers;
Controls all the money in your relationship;
Humiliates you in front of others;
Makes you feel worthless and afraid;
You are being abusedÖ.
For help, call: Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence (617) 338-2355

((Reema Kalra is the Outreach Coordinator, Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence.) Click here to read disclaimer )

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