*trigger warning: domestic abuse and emotional abuse
Emotional and domestic abuse can be difficult to identify in brown communities. No one speaks these words out loud, and we’re trained that this is what love looks like. What may feel right also hurts, and we carry guilt that we are the cause of that hurt.
My story is an example of how relationship standards can be transmitted from generation to generation — subconsciously. Growing up with conflicting messages of what a healthy relationship looks like can blur the lines around control, jealousy, negative criticism, manipulation and isolation making them seem like a typical side effect of love. These messages are instilled in us from an early age and can manifest in various forms in adulthood.
When my mom was divorced from my dad, I was six years old, so theoretically I had limited exposure to him and their relationship. It wasn’t until I was 19, and found myself in my third consecutive abusive relationship. It was then that my mom brought the red flags to my attention I had been blind to my entire life. She made direct parallels to my dad that led me to the jarring realization that abuse isn’t just physical, but emotional, and I unknowingly was seeking men who were like my dad.
I then found myself in four consecutive abusive relationships by the age of 22, one that continued on and off for over 10 years between the ages of 14-26. When I started working in the mental health field that I started recognizing how these relationships had impacted me. Having positive male role models in my family didn’t prevent me from falling into abusive cycles. Innately, I felt as though I didn’t have a voice watching my mom be silenced by society my whole life. She was never truly able to make decisions for herself, between being born and raised in America in the ’60s by strict parents to going into an emotionally abusive marriage, then returning to my grandparents home post-divorce.
Just because your environment and experiences involved abuse, doesn’t mean you can’t break free, heal and have healthy meaningful relationships. Be patient with the process and allow yourself the time to heal. I want to share what I’ve learned working with people who have experienced abuse and from my own experiences.
Listen to your loved ones, I was often told that people couldn’t read me, I wasn’t happy, and didn’t express my feelings. The walls I protected myself with were REAL, my body was protecting me from vulnerability and possible danger. I didn’t know how to react to niceness, and everything I knew I deserved. After five years of therapy, I learned to open up to my close friends, who didn’t know what I experienced until a recently and made it a habit to reach out when I needed support. I practiced mindfulness to catch myself in moments where I felt disconnected or was restricting myself from being vulnerable.
Abusive relationships can often result in a diminished sense of self and self-esteem. Allow yourself the time and space to reconnect with yourself and find your voice. I had become a submissive woman who couldn’t connect with her voice, or get gas for her car alone. I still catch myself saying “I don’t know” or “whatever you want” and learning how to handle certain tasks I was used to having done for me. I truly felt that I couldn’t make decisions, or handle life’s bumps without the support of my ex as he led me to believe. It took two years of soul searching and dating men who were the complete opposite of him to recognize that my perspective on dating was flawed and work through my trigger responses.
It is common to be extremely reactive to triggers such as people, places, words, things, smells, acts/actions related to abusive experiences or the abuser. Some of these triggers may result in automatic reactions such as physical startle responses, panic attacks, rage and shutting down. Once you become aware of your own triggers and responses, you can learn how to cope with and eventually extinguish them. Take your time to notice the themes in your reactions, find healthy coping skills you enjoy doing (mindfulness, relaxation, distractions) and communicate with those around you. I found it helpful to expose myself to my triggers intentionally with my close friends and allow myself to feel every emotion that surfaced, then create a new fun memory in that space. Communicate your triggers when dating a new person and allow space for conversation around how to make you feel safe.
Make lists and check them thrice! Make lists of the unhealthy aspects of your abusive relationship, characteristics in that partner you wish to avoid, and lists of what you would like in a healthy relationship and partnership. These help us stay accountable and set a new standard for ourselves. Everyone deserves a healthy, loving, respectful relationship. Create affirmations weekly or daily to help remind yourself that you are enough, you are safe, you are love.
Are you or someone you love living in an abusive relationship?
Abuse includes physical, sexual and emotional harm. Abusive relationships are cyclical in nature and have patterns; they can stem from dysfunction and unrealistic/irrational ideas about what it means to love. Physical abuse includes hitting, aggressive pushing, grabbing, or any unwanted or aggressive physical contact including sexual violence.
Emotional abuse can be more difficult to detect and heal from. Signs of emotional abuse include control, guilt, and manipulation. Creating dependence on the point of self-doubt. Isolation for extended periods of time causing the person to be without contact for days to weeks which often leads to guilt, anxiety, and depression. Other indicators include name calling, put downs, extreme and negative criticism that encourage self-hate. This behavior can stem from the abuser’s personal history of trauma, jealousy, and insecurity.
It’s healthy to seek help, go to therapy, and allow yourself to heal and break the generational cycles of abuse. There is a life after living through abuse, everyone’s journey is unique. Be patient with your journey, you’re not alone.
If you suspect you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, the following South Asian organizations are available for assistance:
ARIZONA ASAFSF, Arizona South Asians for Safe Families PO Box 2748, Scottsdale, AZ 85252-2748 Hotline: 1-877-SAFE-711 (1-877-723-3711) Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org Website: asafsf.org ASAFSF is a registered, nonprofit, community-based organization providing support and services to victims of domestic violence in the South Asian community in Arizona.
CALIFORNIA Maitri PO Box 697 Santa Clara, CA 95052 Helpline (888) 8 MAITRI (800.862.4874) Mon- Fri 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM Office (408) 436 8398 Fax (408) 503 0887 Email: email@example.com Website: maitri.org Cultural Displacement, Conflict Resolution and Domestic Violence – Transitional House services available.
My Sahana P.O. Box 361301 Milpitas, CA 95036-1301 Office: (408) 657 9569 Website: mysahana.org Awareness about mental health, emotional health, and overall well-being in the South Asian community by providing culturally-sensitive information as well as helpful resources and tips.
ILLINOIS Apna Ghar 4753 N. Broadway, Suite 502 Chicago, IL 60640 Crisis line (800) 717 0757 Illinois only Out of State (773)334 4663 Office (773) 334 0173 Fax (773) 334 0963 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: apnaghar.org DV Organization – Shelter services available.
Hamdard Center 228 E. Lake Street, Suite 300 Addison, IL 60101 Office (630) 835 1430 (630) 860 9122 Email: email@example.com Website: hamdardcenter.org
Khuli Zaban Chicago/Illinois/ Ohio/Michigan/Indiana areas Phone (312) 409 2753 The South Asian/Middle Eastern Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Women’s Organization.
MARYLAND ASHA Asian (Women’s) Self- Help Association P.O. Box 34303 West Bethesda, MD 20827 Hotline (800) 799.7233 Office (202) 207 1248 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: ashaforwomen.org DV organization.
Saheli P O Box 1345 Burlington, MA 01803 Office (866) 4SAHELI Website: saheliboston.org
MICHIGAN Michigan Asian Indian Family Center (MAIFS) 28650 11 Mile Rd Suite 218 Farmington Hills, MI 48336 Hotline (888) 664 8624 Office (248) 477 4985 Email: email@example.com Website: maifs.org/ Helping DV victims, widowed/divorced spouses, mental depression, and medical illness patients, and elderly persons.
NEW JERSEY Manavi P.O. Box 3103 New Brunswick, NJ 08901 Office (732) 435 1414 Fax (732) 435 1411 Email: Manavi@manavi.org Website: manavi.org DV Organization, Transitional House services available.
NEW YORK Womankind 24-Hour Multilingual Helpline: 1.888.888.7702 9 Mott Street, Suite #200 New York, NY 10013 Monday, Wednesday-Friday: 9am-6pm Tuesday: 9am-7pm
Islamic Center of Long Island, Domestic Violence Committee 835 Brush Hollow Road Westbury, NY 11590 Office (516) 333-3495Fax (516) 333 7321 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Pragati 11-45 Union Turnpike, Lower Level Forest Hills, NY 11375 Office (516) 487 0929 Fax (718) 459 2971 Email: email@example.com
Saathi of Rochester P O Box 92 East Rochester, NY 14445 Office (585) 234 1050 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: saathiofrochester.org
Sakhi for South Asian women PO Box 20208 Greeley Square Station New York, NY, 10001 Helpline (212) 868 6741 Office (212) 714 9153 Fax (212) 5648745 Email: email@example.com Website: sakhi.org
NORTH CAROLINA KIRAN 1012 Oberlin Rd, Raleigh NC, 27605 Office phone: 919-831-4203 Office fax: 919-839-6203 24/7 Crisis Hotline: 1-877-NC-KIRAN Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.kiraninc.org DV organization – Promote the self-reliance and empowerment of South Asian women who are in crisis through outreach, peer support, and referrals in a confidential manner.
OREGON South Asian Women’s Empowerment and Resources Alliance (SAWERA) P.O. Box 91242 Portland, OR 97291 0242
Helpline (503) 778 7386 Office (503) 641 2425 Email: email@example.com Website: sawera.org DV – organization – Provides free referrals to South Asian women domestic violence (DV) victims seeking shelter, legal help, job placement, childcare and counseling.
PENNSYLVANIA Service and Education for Women Against Abuse (SEWAA) P.O. Box 1591 Havertown, PA 19083 Office (215) 62 – SEWAA Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: sewaa.net
TEXAS Asians Against Domestic Abuse (AADA) PO Box. 420776 Houston TX 77242Office (713) 339 8300 Email: email@example.com Website: aadainc.org DV help to all Asian women
An-Nisa’ Hope Center P. O. Box 1086,Spring, TX 77383-1086 Tel: (713) 339-0803 Fax: (281) 719-0355 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: annisahopecenter.org/ Services include Education and Career Training, Shelter, Medical and Legal Assistance, and Outreach. Promoting a new beginning through: Outreach, Education, Counseling. Bridging the gap with: Training, Job placement, Medical, and legal aid. Other Goals: Providing a safe and healthy, Islamic Environment
Chetna P O Box 832802 Richardson, TX 75083 Email: email@example.com P.O. Box 571774 Houston, TX 77257 Office (713) 981 7645 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: dayahouston.org DV organization
Saheli P. O. Box 3665 South 5th Street Austin, TX 78764 Office (512) 703 8745 Email: email@example.com Website: saheli-austin.org DV Organization – to work toward preventing abuse in family relationships, to break the cycle of violence and pursue a cycle of peace.
O. Box 22291 Seattle, WA 98122-0291 Toll-free (877) 922 4292 Hotline (206) 325 0325 Office (206) 568 7576 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: apichaya.org/ DV organization – Provides translation and interpretation services, referrals to shelters, counseling, medical services, legal and immigration services, community outreach, and training.
WASHINGTON, D.C. KhushDC Website: khushdc.org DV organization – Provides a safe and supportive environment, promotes awareness and acceptance, and fosters positive cultural and sexual identity for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning(LGBTQ) and additional gender or sexual minority South Asians in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area.
Ten to 28% of the world’s population of women experience painful sex. Keep in mind, that this is just what is reported. As embarrassing and as vulnerable as you may feel, you are absolutely not alone. The good news is that in addition to your traditional medical care to treat painful sex (also known as dyspareunia) such as medication, injections and surgery — a conservative approach is effective and long-lasting. Conservative care ranges from pelvic floor physical therapy, chiropractic care and acupuncture which are beneficial in treating the root cause of painful sex, as well as symptoms, for long-term healing.
Some of the signs to look out for if you experience pain are:
Treatment options for painful sex such as pelvic floor physical therapy, chiropractic care and acupuncture provide a long-lasting and profound effect on the pelvic floor and address your entire physical well-being.
The pelvic floor is a layer of muscles that range from the pubic bone to the tailbone. The purpose of these muscles is to assist in bowel and bladder control, support a baby during pregnancy and contribute to sexual sensations. Just like any other muscle in your body, these pelvic floor muscles can become tight or weak which can be a contributing factor to pain.
Pelvic Floor Physical Therapy
Pelvic floor therapy can assist by strengthening and relaxing the muscles which is necessary to relieve pain during sex.
Chiropractors can be extremely beneficial with assisting in helping relieve pain. Associated pain and discomfort can originate from the lower back and buttock muscles. Chiropractors are trained in taking a history and performing a neurological, orthopedic and soft tissue examination to identify treatment options. Deep tissue massage, skin rolling, Active Release Technique, muscle energy technique, ice, heat and electrical stimulation are just to name a few.
Acupuncture can activate the human dopamine system which helps regulate hormone levels and can assist in psychological factors. Acupuncture can improve mood, decrease pain and can be vastly beneficial in managing pain and mental health symptoms.
Ask for help
“Everyone is having pelvic pain and no one is talking about it”
Start with seeing your gynecologist who you trust for a history and examination of current symptoms to rule out any other medical conditions that could be a contributing factor to symptoms.
How to talk to your partner about this in a safe/healthy way
Being open with your partner about your symptoms and painful sex may seem like a difficult conversation. Intercourse should never be painful and learning when to stay ‘stop’ is important in communication. Talking about pain before, during and after sex is important also in your own health diagnosis to see if pain symptoms are improving or becoming worse. Having open communication does not only benefit your relationship but most importantly, your own health.
To experience these symptoms may seem taboo or unheard of but quite frankly, they are common in many women. Women deserve to be directed to proper healthcare.
Disclaimer: These are based on recommendations from a board-certified chiropractic physician and licensed acupuncturist. If symptoms become new or worse, consult with a primary care physician and or OBGYN to co-manage symptoms.
Mental health in the South Asian community has long been stigmatized, and South Asian individuals who experience psychological issues might feel hesitant to express their concerns due to the shame they may encounter. Nevertheless, while there has been progress made in studying and openly discussing South Asian mental health, several topics remain in need of further examination; these include studying the relationship between mental health and gender, specifically the role of masculinity on mental health outcomes.
What is South Asian masculinity?
Masculinity and mental health have come under greater scrutiny by researchers, particularly as traditional masculinity is often cited as the reason why men are less willing to reach out for support regarding psychological issues. However, the influence of masculine norms on well-being has been insufficiently viewed through an intersectional lens and is understudied within South Asian mental health. From a South Asian context, traditional masculinity can include focusing on material success while displaying suppressed emotionality, which can be manifested through anger or practicing other harmful behaviors.
In order to understand its influence, it is critical to examine the impact of traditional paradigms of masculinity across the diaspora. For instance, some traits associated with traditional masculinity among South Asian men include displaying control over others. A Sri-Lanka-based study found that most male participants “associated manhood with dominance…” A Forbes India article asserted how boys in India are “taught to … apply themselves to the task of growing up to be a strong, unwavering support system for their families,” which in turn forces them to be silent about topics that may make them seem weak. This pattern of behavior becomes manifested in a particularly harmful way because boys grow up with the inability to handle their emotions or formulate healthy coping strategies during challenging circumstances.
These norms can have drastic implications and harm other community members. For instance, a focus group conducted among Nepali men found that failure to deliver for their household economically as breadwinners eventually resulted in heated disputes, which escalated and led them to engage in domestic violence. The presence of domestic violence can also be observed through media stories on the pervasiveness of gender-based harm within South Asian communities, as seen in the murder of Sania Khan.
Traditional masculinity also hides the wounds that South Asian men may be battling within themselves. One paper asserts that for a sizable number of Indian men, “…sadness and despair find a distorted manifestation in destructive behaviors that deny their emotional pain to themselves and to others.” Thus, performing conventionally masculine behaviors can mask deeper mental health issues.
Repercussions of South Asian masculinity on mental health
Because of the pressure to adhere to such strict standards of conduct, traditional masculinity has significant, greater repercussions for mental health and well-being. For instance, because of the narrow ability of men to compartmentalize their feelings, this restrictive emotionality can result in an inability for others to recognize their mental health issues, thus failing to target the deeper causes of men’s behavior. Furthermore, men themselves might engage in fewer help-seeking behaviors. This is also further complicated due to gaps in culturally competent services that can serve South Asian men when they do utilize support systems.
Additional social forces experienced by South Asian men might explain mental health outcomes, particularly when considering the role of immigration. Among South Asian American men in the United States, one study noted that “a lower social position” within their community was linked to higher distress, indicating how critical it was for first-generation men to be leaders and actively participate in their ethnic community’s organizations. Thus, social expectations of men within South Asian communities influenced their well-being, as did their social status and relative power.
What we can do to change the status quo on South Asian masculinity and mental health
In order to ensure that men in South Asian cultures can embrace their mental health, it is important to formulate a prudent, welcoming paradigm that encourages greater help-seeking behaviors. Greater attention to this topic can also contribute to theories on feminist and sociocultural therapeutic frameworks, which both offer the following includes suggested remedies:
Challenging gender stereotypes and encouraging mental health care as a means to discuss issues about well-being
It is imperative to encourage South Asian men to show more emotion, thus changing the existing narrative and social pressure they face to limit the expression of their feelings. Fortunately, there is a platform, known as @BrownManTherapy, that posts content about the struggles South Asian men experience. Furthermore, therapy ought to be recommended as a means to deal with mental health concerns, which should be combined with support from the community.
More South Asian male clinicians
In addition to instituting changes in community norms, there needs to be more diverse representation in the mental health field. In doing so, there will be greater platforms to have conversations about the negative repercussions of traditional masculinity that are unique to South Asian men. Furthermore, it is critical to challenge the social stigma that mental health is a female-dominated profession or that seeking therapy is emasculating.
More research studies examining cross-cultural differences in masculinity across South Asian cultures
The connection between masculinity and mental health ought to be investigated much further. Studies should particularly assess masculinity within non-white contexts in order to examine the standards of manhood across several communities and truly understand the unique stressors men face across different cultural backgrounds.
While the connection between South Asian masculinity and mental health is not discussed among psychology professionals, it is critical to study the association since it plays a role in South Asian gender inequities and in mental health behaviors among South Asian men. More broadly, given the prevalence of intimate partner violence within the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and the role of patriarchal norms in inflicting this harm, it is now more important than ever to reimagine expectations surrounding men’s behavior.
By further examining the problems caused by adherence to traditionally masculine norms and implementing certain solutions, these ideas can be challenged and dismantled to create a progressive and more inclusive model of manhood. Above all, identifying and eradicating toxic ideas rooted in traditional South Asian masculinity will lead to liberation for all people.
In July 2022, Sania Khan’s life was ruthlessly taken from her by her ex-husband. Sania was a young, vibrant South Asian woman – a creator and photographer who had the courage to step out of an abusive marriage, even in the face of community norms that discourage women from speaking out. While this tragedy seemed to stir a consciousness in the South Asian diaspora that we can no longer justify the status quo, it is far from the only such incident. Just months later in December of 2022, Harpreet Kaur Gill was stabbed to death by her husband in Vancouver. While the most extreme cases like those of Sania Khan and Harpreet Kaur Gill are highlighted by mainstream media, a small body of research provides evidence that intimate partner violence experiences are equally, if not more, prevalent in South Asian communities than the general population in the US or Canada. That’s why we need to do more as a community and throw light South Asians and intimate partner violence.
Despite the identification and investigation of these norms in South Asia, there’s so much we still don’t know about diaspora communities, especially in relation to South Asians and intimate partner violence. In the US, South Asians have become one of the fastest-growing populations, but we remain unaware of how the stresses of raising a family in a different culture, and the weight of growing up between two worlds, affect these norms, expectations, and experiences among South Asian immigrants, the second generation and beyond.
In this article, we’ll take a deeper look at how these norms are enacted to influence intimate relationship dynamics, discuss the recent rise in intimate partner violence, and explore the work that researchers, policymakers, and program implementers can do to address violence in South Asian diaspora communities.
Social Norms and Violence in South Asian Diaspora Communities
Why does it take catastrophic events to serve as a call to action? For one, the “model minority myth” continues to portray South Asians in America (who originate from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) as a healthy and wealthy group. As a child of Indian immigrants, I always thought this was just a frustrating trope that lived rent-free in my head next to the eternal question, “Log kya kahenge?” (What will people say?) However, I have realized that this constant worry is not just an innocent preoccupation. It’s the result of a dangerous spiral beginning with the portrayal of South Asians as a model minority and the need to maintain that well-to-do image. This only reinforces the traditional gender norms that overlook men’s perpetration of violence and encourage women’s silence, crippling any efforts to understand the scope of the problem and draw attention and resources to address it.
The Impacts of COVID-19 on Intimate Partner Violence
Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the frequently-uttered phrase among researchers, practitioners, and advocates alike was “one in three” — one in three women ages 15-49 experiences physical and/or sexual violence inflicted by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic however, rates of violence against women rose dramatically, prompting UN Women to call for recognition of this “Shadow Pandemic.” During the height of the pandemic, the social isolation that came with lockdowns and quarantine procedures to curb the spread of disease made home a more dangerous place for an increasing number of women. As communities seek to rebuild, the inequities in access to and use of potentially lifesaving services have deepened. Now more than ever, it is critical that we shine a light on the many intersections of our society to prevent South Asian women’s experiences of intimate partner violence from being pushed even further into the shadows.
First and foremost, to better understand South Asians and intimate partner violence, we need better data disaggregated by racial/ethnic group. Since the 1980 Census, only those of Indian origin have had a fill-in bubble.All other South Asian groups have to write something in, decreasing their participation. South Asian communities in the US are not a monolith and they are certainly not all of Indian origin. This perception, fed by our lack of data, likely privileges the Indian community in America and limits the visibility of other South Asian communities.
More accurate information will help us better understand where the need is greatest. We can make a stronger case for more equitable resource allocation, improve South Asian language materials for survivors, and enhance provider training programs, accounting for the specific cultural implications of disclosing and seeking treatment for violence in South Asian communities. Public health researchers should increase efforts to understand the prevalence of experiences of violence, the environmental factors that make South Asian women in America vulnerable to experiences of intimate partner violence, and how it impacts their health.
While outstanding organizations such as Narika in California and Sakhi in New York are leading the charge in raising awareness, running active helplines, and providing support, they cannot be the sole safe space for survivors. While the system’s failure to protect Sania is not an isolated incident, it has served as a wake-up call.
All South Asian women in America should be able to be healthy and safe and lead lives free from violence, coercion, or abandonment. To achieve this, we need better data, more research, culturally-tailored resources, and appropriate legislative action that will allow for prevention, screening, and treatment efforts to finally take root.