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The Rediff Special/M D Riti
March 08, 2003
Sita (not her real name) came to the US on a fiancée visa, after getting engaged to a man her parents, back home in India, thought suitable. Little did this conventional Indian girl, who could not even speak much English, expect that her fiancé would demand oral sex soon after she arrived. When she refused, he began beating her. His parents, who were also in the US and knew what was happening, looked the other way. Finally, her Indian Gods helped her: a friend she met at a temple introduced her to a voluntary organisation helping abused women in the US. They rescued her.
Asma, 30, is a doctor who has been educated in the US. A few years ago, she entered into an arranged marriage with Rajiv, a handsome, bright and charismatic doctor in India. The happy couple returned to the US. They even had two children. Gradually, Rajiv started getting sexually, physically and emotionally abusive. He would force her to watch pornography and perform sexual acts she was not comfortable with. He began getting angry at small things and behaved in frightening ways -- throwing things at her, breaking plates and glasses. Asma tried sharing her trauma with her colleagues, but they dismissed her concern. They had always seen Rajiv behave as the perfect gentleman. Asma realised that, even if she wanted to leave the marriage, she could not. Rajiv had full control of their bank accounts and her paychecks.
Asma and Sita may be representative of two kinds of women on opposite ends of the scale: the independent professional and the dependent wife or fiancée. But they are still victims of violence, abused by the very men who are supposed to be their protectors.
It is, however, the women who come to the US as dependents who see, by far, the worst end of the stick.
"Most of our cases are women who have come in on H4 visas," says Shaila Kelkar, services co-ordinator, Asian Women's Self-Help Association. "They are the dependent wives of H1B visa holders." In 2001, for example, over 50 per cent of the South Asian women survivors and clients ASHA saw were on H4 dependent spouse visas.
The typical H4 visa wife is usually young, between 23-30 years old and a recent migrant. Both husband and wife are educated, married for somewhere between three months to a few years, and either have infants or no children.
For these women, health, legal, financial and housing options are extremely limited. Many of them are highly qualified doctors or computer professionals, but are unable to work legally, unless they obtain sponsorship from an employer. Economic dependence prevents these women from breaking free. Besides, they are not able to access public benefits, and emergency shelter stays are limited.
There is now a new provision in the Violence Against Women Act, the U visa, which can help abused women. But many of them do not know about it or are too scared to call the police.
Citizens or green card holders do not face these particular problems but, many times, are still too traumatised to attempt escape the abuse.
"There are no statistics of domestic violence against Indian women in the US, because not much formal attention has been paid to the South Asian community in the broader academia here," says Soniya Munshi, programme director of Manavi, a South Asian women's organization located in New Jersey. "We can try to quantify this problem only by looking at individual case loads from individual agencies. At Manavi, for example, we get over 300 calls each year from women who are experiencing some form of violence."
Daya Inc, a voluntary organisation serving South Asian victims of violence and abuse in the greater Houston area of Texas, receives about 250 calls a year, half of which are from abused women.
"It is not too hard to find the reasons why such abuse occurs," says Lakshmy Parameswaran, founder and current president of Daya. "Look at the way boys are raised in any culture, especially eastern cultures. We teach them that they are superior and have a right to get what they want, even if it means using violence to get it. How many times have we heard these phrases uttered to boys and men: ‘Don't cry like a girl, be a man; Don't be afraid of a woman, just put her in her place.' Then we wonder why an educated, cultured boy would hit his wife or girlfriend! Once this kind of attitude towards women sets in, no amount of college education can erase it. Besides, the process of immigration and acculturation can put additional stress on a relationship. The pressures of ‘making it' in the US, coupled with easy access to alcohol and the absence of extended family support, may exacerbate a potentially violent relationship."
Counsellors notice definite patterns of violence amongst the Indian community in the US. "Keeping the women in extreme isolation [no calls home to parents, no letters or access to the mailbox] and threats of jail and deportation are some typical forms of wife abuse practised by Indian immigrant men here," says Anuradha Sharma, who used to be executive director of ASHA. "Some men have even resorted to not providing money or food, forcing abortions on their wives or abusing them during pregnancy to try to abort the female foetus.
"We also see cases of abandonment: Indian men from here go to India, get married, enjoy the royal treatment, take the dowry, sleep with their new wives and then simply never send for them, leaving them pregnant or dishonoured, with shattered hopes and dreams and devastated parents and families. Then, they usually send divorce or annulment papers. If they do manage to bring their wives here, they may abandon them after a short time or abuse them so badly, treat them like servants, that the women live in constant fear and pain."
The fear of isolation also prevents women from speaking out. Many women have lost the support of their communities because of the steps they have taken to end abusive home situations. Shakti, 35, for example, is a successful corporate lawyer who walked out of her 12-year-old love marriage. Her parents do not believe her when says she left her husband because she could not endure his beatings any longer. In the third year of a tough custody battle, she does not know whether she will be able to keep her two small children. She does not dare leave them with their father; she suspects her daughter was sexually molested by her ex-husband but is afraid to ask her and find out the truth.
Ironically, women's shelters report that it is when a woman begins to stand up for herself and perhaps tries to leave the relationship, or even call the police, that she is in the greatest danger. It is then that the abuser's power and control over his wife is threatened. That can make him more violent and he may threaten her with death if she leaves.
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