One Brown Girl’s Fight to Help Countless South Asian-American Domestic Violence Victims a Year

by Saheli Kothari in collaboration with Pooja Shah

Syeda Sufian, a Bangladeshi woman residing in Jamaica, New York, was doused with gasoline and set on fire by her husband, Mohammed Mohsin. Hearing her screams, neighbors called an ambulance. Four days later, Syeda woke up in a hospital with severe burns covering her body. Having miraculously survived, she took the courageous step of fighting back against her batterer and his family, who had been abusing her since her marriage in 1992.” — Excerpt from “Speaking the Unspeakable: Marital Violence Among South Asian Immigrants in the United States,” by Margaret Abraham.

As South Asian Americans, many of us think of domestic violence as an old world issue. That kind of thing might take place in India, but it would never fly in the U.S. Unfortunately, the problem is more commonplace in our local communities than we would expect. A recent study found that of its 160 South Asian female participants, more than 40 percent had been physically or sexually abused by their male partners. That doesn’t even account for the unreported cases. Countless South Asian Americans fall victim to domestic violence each year, yet their stories are seldom heard.

For the past eight months, I have been interning at a domestic violence agency. My work has given me insight into the unique set of barriers faced by many South Asians when dealing with abuse.

I recently met with a client who was stuck in an abusive relationship. Her husband withheld food from her, emotionally abused her daily and was cheating on her. My client completely broke down in my office. She did not want to leave her husband because of the negative cultural stigma associated with divorce. If she left him, she would likely be shunned by her fellow desis.

Besides, she had nowhere else to go and no one else to turn to. The client only spoke Bengali, which limited the services she could receive. My co-workers and I scrambled to find her any and every resource we could. Much to our dismay, all of the local shelters were full, and we had to send the client back to her husband’s house for the time being. We continue to seek help for her, but her future remains uncertain. Will she continue to live in her abusive relationship? Will she leave her husband, potentially alienating herself from the Bangladeshi community?

This client’s story speaks to a number of roadblocks faced by South Asian domestic violence victims – language barriers, dependency on the abuser, uncertain immigration status and social isolation. These challenges can leave them feeling hopeless and prevent them from seeking help.

As we begin Domestic Violence Awareness Month this October, I ask that you remain aware and observant because it’s there. It’s everywhere. If you come across someone you think is a victim, let them know that they are not alone in this battle. Be there for them. Do not let their voices be silenced.

saheliSaheli Kothari grew up in New Jersey and now lives in New York City. She graduated from NYU in 2011 with a major in Applied Psychology and a minor in South Asian Studies. Saheli has interned and worked at a variety of non-profit organizations, most recently the Urban Justice Center’s Domestic Violence Program. Saheli has a passion for working with the South Asian American community and hopes to one day focus her energy on working with this underserved population.

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