It was a cold afternoon in the middle of December. I entered the subway cart to head back to my apartment after an excruciating week of final examinations. I sat across a couple- a woman, probably a year or two older than me dressed in a black hijab, an ill-fitted jacket, swollen eyes, and visible bruising on her sunken cheeks. Perched besides her was a man, probably ten years her senior, with a salt and pepper beard, calloused hands, and a glaring expression fixated on her. “Ghar chalo, phir baat hain,” he muttered between clenched teeth, alluding to her “punishment” once they get home. His audible remarks continued for the duration of their train ride, while she silently stared at her folded hands enduring the verbal abuse. His voice grew hoarse with each insult. Silent tear drops fell on her hands, causing his discernable anger to increase. The train pulled up to the next stop. “Stupid ladki, you’re a piece of shit!” he shouted again in a mixture of Hindi and English and forcefully grabbed her by the forearm before shuffling past gawking New Yorkers.
When my mother and I emigrated to the States from India twenty years ago, I vividly recall a young Pakistani woman who lived on our floor in a subpar apartment in Queens, New York. Rumor had it that her husband and father-in-law abused her on both mental and physical levels. They served as agents of isolation, controlling the family’s wealth, and threatening to separate her from her infant children. Neither her family nor the police came to her rescue. She was alone in her plight and singlehandedly suffered unthinkable anguish.
Domestic violence is not unheard of, but the cry for help often is. In the South Asian community, particularly, the topic of gender-based violence is often viewed as a reflection of female error. She probably deserved it, is often the justification. Abusive marriages, spousal rape, human trafficking, and sexual assaults are not seen as violent acts targeted towards female victims, but commonplace behavior in South Asian households. Consequently, rarely are there any reports made and rarely is the behavior stopped.
I am a South Asian woman. I feel emboldened to act on behalf of my sisterhood and my immediate community whose struggles, mentality, and culture I identify with. I confidently share the belief with other anti-violence advocates that we are each entitled to live a life free of gender-inequity. Through my experience as a summer legal intern at Urban Justice Center, and the independent volunteering work I have done at various domestic violence shelters throughout Boston and New York City, I have come to see that South Asian victims and survivors who want to leave their abusive relationships, or seek mental support or legal assistance for themselves or their children, are often hindered by bureaucratic red tape. Language barriers, inattentiveness to cultural sensitivities, immigration status, and stigma are few of the overwhelming number of obstacles that stand in the way between freedom and continual hell.
As an aspiring member of the legal profeesion, I am aware of the services that the law currently provides victims of gender-based violence: criminal penalties for perpetrators, restraining orders issued to complainants, state protection order remedies pending criminal and civil investigation, and other remedies pursuant to state or local law. This, sadly, is still not enough when combatting domestic violence in South Asian communities.
What the South Asian community needs is a compassionate, yet progressive approach to tackle gender-based violence. Primarily, it is vital that the silence surrounding these issues is shattered. It is imperative that the South Asian community is educated on what constitutes gender-based violence and what is clearly illegal behavior. Educating the community can be accomplished via involvement of priests and other religious icons who are instrumental figures in mosques, mandirs (temples) and churches. The South Asian community tend to be active in their religious communities, and therefore, their respective leaders can reinforce why and how often abuse occurs and more importantly preventive behavior and where to seek confidential assistance. Knowledge is unquestionably power.
Currently there exists a 24/7 national hotline as well as statewide hotlines where victims and/or survivors can call to voice their concerns and to receive help. However, South Asian victims are unable to use this resource because oftentimes immigrants are faced with language barriers that avert clear communication. It is vital to employ a staff that at the very least speaks Hindi and Bengali, two languages that are frequently understood by most South Asians. By bridging the language gap, victims can reach out to lending ears at their own convenience, and perhaps even have the option of police involvement if they so choose. This initiative can serve to destroy the silence and empower individuals to speak out about the injustices they are suffering.
The next proposal is two-fold, but aims to meet the demands of providing services to South Asian gender-violence victims via legal means. The Violence against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994 is a federal law that recognizes the severity of violence against women and aims to prosecute, redress, and restitute victims. Programs and services under VAWA have indubitably protected and assisted many. However, further work remains to be done. Current immigration laws should be amended so that victims and/or survivors who are undocumented or holders of dependent visas can be eligible for permanent legal status through the self-petitioning process of VAWA. The fear of deportation or forced eviction should not be yet another hindrance that prevents individuals from exercising their human rights and living an equitable life. Additionally, those programs and services that are provided under VAWA should be administered annual funds so that organizations can also assist women with legal issues related to separation from their perpetrators, custodial issues over children, divorce, and any other trafficking or immigration issues that arise.
Lastly, services are crucial for those brave individuals who have reported the injustices they faced and have undergone the legal process. Social work and support programs are necessary for victims and their families to help them rehabilitate into mainstream society, including resources related to job opportunities, welfare/public funding assistance, mental and medical support, and anything else to assure that the victim can integrate back into society in a seamless manner.
As an aspiring lawyer, I am aware that I cannot help everyone who is suffering from gender-based violence. But I do know that I cannot stop trying. My brown skin, cultural roots, and connection to my South Asian background instills in me a passion to help an otherwise resilient community destroy the oppression they are faced with.