Forty-five-year-old Mamta Shah met her second husband at a student union in 2012, and they soon shared a cramped Houston apartment to begin their new life together. Shah had recently fled Nepal and an abusive marriage, gaining asylum status in the United States for her condition. She had endured the violent, volatile tendencies of her first husband for more than ten years.
A local politician, her first husband had an unhealthy control over her life even after divorce, prompting Shah to “go undercover” for fear of being killed. She says she trusted her new partner, believing that she knew and understood domestic abuse.
She was wrong.
“He was so nice to speak to in the beginning,” Shah says in a phone interview. “But as I came closer to him, his real habits were revealed. He began swearing at me, pushing me everywhere…there was lots of verbal abuse.”
These incidents only escalated. Shah says her husband isolated her from friends and family, threatening to ruin her reputation if she retaliated. When she finally divorced him in 2017, he spent days waiting outside her apartment, screaming. He constantly harassed her online, on “everything from phone calls to text messages to Viber.” Their marriage ended in a restraining order and jail time.
“I was so scared,” Shah says. “I blamed myself, kept telling myself that I was a bad wife, bad daughter, a failure.”
Shah’s situation echoes the stories told by thousands of South Asian American women suffering from domestic abuse. Violence, insults, intimidation — these are only a few of the atrocities immigrant women experience and are slowly taught to accept.
At the intersection of the coronavirus pandemic and precarious immigration status, Indian American women are more vulnerable to abuse than ever.
According to a 2003 study published by the US National Library of Medicine, roughly 40 percent of the 160 South Asian women sampled from Greater Boston, Massachusetts reported ‘experiencing intimate partner violence,’ including physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Most of these women had freshly immigrated from South Asia within the past two years and had no family or social support system in the United States. The study also indicated that a majority of the non-US born participants initially had no knowledge of support services for domestic violence victims or did not have the bandwidth to reach out.
And the numbers are on a troubling rise. A 2010 study published by the National Institute of Justice indicated that younger generations of Indians and Pakistanis immigrating to the United States today are much more likely to endure all kinds of partner violence than their older counterparts.
Meanwhile, the pandemic intensifies this upward trend. Lockdown restrictions have forced victims into a vulnerable space with their aggressors. The usual support systems, such as neighbors and family friends, are no longer available. Boston-based organization Saheli reported an increase in 911 emergency calls where their advocates had to assist non-English speaking South Asian Americans.
Although domestic violence is present in every demographic, gender equity activist Bindu Oomen-Fernandes says immigration is intertwined with the abuse. Fernandes is the Executive Director at Narika, a Bay Area nonprofit dedicated to assisting South Asian survivors.
“It is heightened when you are away from your home country,” Fernandes says in a Zoom interview. “Imagine… You don’t know anybody but your husband, you don’t know things like 911, you don’t have access to local resources, and you’re afraid of deportation.”
Aggressive partners assert financial and legal superiority over their spouses, often by holding their immigration status hostage. Fernandes discusses how many husbands on an H1-B visa withhold their wives’ papers — what Fernandes calls ‘immigration abuse.’
“There have been cases where we question a survivor and she says she doesn’t even know her visa status,” Fernandes says. “And in circumstances where the abuser files for divorce, she realizes she doesn’t have her documents, doesn’t know where the passports of her children are. She can’t even make plans to leave because her status changes rules around deportation.”
Even if a survivor can make plans to leave, where can she go? Restrictive visas and income inequality leave few options for South Asian American women.
“Financial dependence is huge,” says Maria Arshaad, one of Narika’s program managers. “When these women come into the country, they’re not able to work. Even if they have a degree back home, [often] the credentials don’t transfer or their visa doesn’t [allow] them to get a job.”
Without economic autonomy, domestic violence survivors cannot care for themselves or their children. Nor can they afford appropriate legal services and counseling. Shah, for example, spent several months living with her second husband even after divorcing him.
“I was working at a salon for $3 an hour,” says Shah. “He was working at a local gas station. I did not want to live with him, but he convinced me to stay together to save money.”
Cultural Norms Become A Generational Curse
Beyond financial constraints, domestic violence reveals the uglier inequalities built into South Asian culture. Immigrant women often don’t walk away from abusive marriages because they fail to recognize the abuse. Rather, toxic and aggressive behavior is miscoded as spousal affection. Shah recalls forgiving her second husband “many times” despite his threats and derogatory language.
“I convinced myself that he wasn’t so bad,” Shah says. “My first husband used to hit me, this one only swears.”
According to Neelofer Chaudry, Executive Director of Boston nonprofit Domestic Harmony Foundation, South Asian American victims are taught to internalize their abusers’ attacks from a young age. Cultural taboos create troublesome expectations for immigrant families.
“These women grow up in a South Asian household and are [told] not to say anything about what happens in the house. Do not talk to anyone about it, even relatives,” Chaudry says, echoing the stifling attitudes within these households. “Because it [domestic violence] is so taboo and shameful, there’s this internalization — ‘what’s wrong with me, is it my fault that I’m being abused?’”
America’s Model Minority Myth, the expectation that Asian Americans represent financial and familial success, further restricts victims from speaking out. In a 2017 op-ed published by New York Magazine, political commentator Andrew Sullivan attributed Asian American “prosperity” to the maintenance of the ‘solid two-parent family structure.’ The assumption that all South Asian American households are ‘solid’ and monolithic, Chaudry suggests, is problematic.
“It’s been hard,” Chaudry says. “There’s this pressure on our community to be perfect. When we first started talking, we were heavily criticized by [fellow] South Asians. We were called home wreckers, asked ‘why are you airing out our dirty laundry?’ We’re scared to discuss what’s considered a ‘private issue’ between husband and wife. Abuse is never private. It’s the responsibility of the community to speak up.”
Organizations like the Domestic Harmony Foundation offer emotional support services for their clients, where trained professionals can address survivors’ conflicted emotions about their relationships. They also host annual youth leadership programs to empower the next generation and dismantle toxic social norms.
“When it comes to abuse, there’s a tendency to repeat behavior,” Chaudry adds. “If a son sees his mother being abused, he is more likely to repeat that. It’s a social moray, which is [why] we want an opportunity to break the cycle. When you bring survivors together and have them share experiences with one another, they see that they’re not that different.”
Reaching Out, Moving On
In 2017, Shah ‘nervously’ reached out to Houston nonprofit Daya after divorcing her second husband. She had no source of income. Her phone was flooded with desperate messages from her ex-husband, many of them threatening or pornographic. She removed his name from their apartment’s lease and changed the locks, prompting further harassment.
*Content note: mentions of domestic violence.
“Daya really helped me,” Shah said. “They first helped me secure a restraining order against my husband, who later went to jail after I filed a complaint with the police. Daya worked hard, offered me counseling services where [I learned] that I am not wrong, that this is not my mistake.”
Shah is an exception. According to the US National Library of Medicine, only 11 percent of South Asian women who report domestic violence actually receive counseling services. Three percent are successful in obtaining a restraining order against their partner. The numbers are low, says Daya CEO Rachna Khare, because mistrust and disillusionment run high in the South Asian American community.
“It’s crazy because there are some immigration protections for women out there,” Khare says in a Zoom interview. “But they’re actually really hard to get. If you’re married to an H1-B visa-holder and you’re a dependent..it takes about six or seven years to get a U-Visa. Can you really wait that long?”
Khare is referring to the U Nonimmigrant visa, which permits victims of crimes such as sexual assault, domestic violence and human trafficking to remain in the United States. Although U-visas are designed to protect the immigration status of all abuse victims, only 10,000 of them are accepted a year. Those denied are “given priority” for the next year, which is why so many South Asian women who apply are expected to remain undocumented for years.
Law enforcement across the country also has a history of undermining U-Visa petitions, as indicated by an assessment from The Center of Investigative Reporting. According to their analysis, U-Visa petitions have dropped since 2018 because “nearly 1 of every 4 [agencies] create barriers never envisioned under the…program.” The effects, Khare says, are devastating — and not just for the victims.
“It’s interesting that people look at this like it’s charity, when in reality it’s actually keeping your community safe,” Khare says. “Abusers are likely to [commit] other crimes. Their children are more likely to receive intervention at school, and that’s attention being taken away from other students. This is an investment in public safety to hold abusers accountable [so that] survivors can stay in our country and flourish.”
After the Fact
Three years ago, Shah was alone and unemployed in a country she says she did not trust. Today, Shah is a qualified beautician and proud business owner. With Daya’s help, she established her own salon in Houston where she pursues her passion within the beauty industry.
“Daya really worked for me, to show me how to do business. They helped me to get a business loan, taught me how to run a business, find clients, meet with people…they taught me [the way] you teach a schoolchild,” Shah says.
Although financially independent, Shah’s fight continues. She is the mother of two children who is still living in Nepal and is struggling to obtain green card status in the United States. Shah lived with domestic violence for more than 13 years, an experience that has colored her vision of South Asian marriage and cultural expectations.
“Asian men need to compromise,” Shah says. “Even my own father and brothers never gave my mother any respect. And [Asian] women need to speak up. They need to connect with other people. I want them to know how much power they really have.”
She ends the call on a hopeful note.
“I’m not afraid of anyone anymore,” Shah says, and laughs. “I feel like I’m flying in the air.”