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Christiane Schlote (Humboldt-Universität Berlin)

Agency in the Aftermath of Domestic Violence and Abuse

in South Asian Diasporic Film, Fiction and Drama


On different levels South Asian and South Asian diasporic women have been mainly portrayed as passive victims. Neither in the majority of social science literature nor, to name a prominent example of literary representation, in Salman Rushdie´s earlier works have South Asian women been represented as active agents. This kind of representation is particularly problematic when examined in the context of domestic violence and intra-familial abuse. Proceeding from Rajeswari Sunder Rajan´s notion of ´alternative´ female subjectivities, this paper examines narratives of domestic violence in Indian and Pakistani diasporic literature, drama and film which focus on the aftermath of incidents of violence against women and thus foreground acts of survival and resistance instead of the actual portrayal of violent acts. According to Benita Parry´s warning that „discourses of representation should not be confused with material realities”, the representations of domestic violence and abuse will be read in the context of the emergence of South Asian diasporic women´s organizations in the 1980s. They specifically started to address the hitherto taboo subjects of domestic violence and abuse within South Asian communities and thereby deconstructed the myth of South Asian immigrants as part of ´model minority Asians´. Moreover, they provided a starting point for investigating the structural factors of domestic violence beyond the gender category and for developing a more inclusive critical feminist inquiry in terms of culture, class and religion.


Issues of Domestic Violence in South Asian Immigrant Communities

For hundreds of years domestic violence was believed to be a private matter. It was only in the 1980s that it gradually began to emerge as an issue in public and academic discourses, when statistics such as the following started to alarm social workers, policymakers and social scientist alike: in the United States four women are murdered daily by their male partner; more women are killed through domestic violence in any five-year period than all the American casualties of the Vietnam War; half of the American and Canadian women have been assaulted physically or sexually after age sixteen and over sixty percent of American men (aged between fifteen and twenty) who were charged with homicide had killed their mother´s batterer (Haley/Braun-Haley 2000, Summers/Hoffman 2002). According to a document on domestic violence against women in Latin America and the Caribbean issued by the United Nations in 1992, violence against women includes rape, sexual tourism, pornography, sexual harassment at work, prostitution, depreciated media representations of women and “physical, sexual and psychological aggression against and abuse of women in the home”. Domestic violence is furthermore defined as “any act committed within the family by one of its members which seriously impairs the life, body, psychological well-being or liberty of another family member.” (Rico 1992) The South Asian American women organisation Sakhi offers the following definition on its website: “Domestic violence is a pattern of assault and coercion that includes physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, and economic abuse perpetrated by an adult against their intimate partner. Domestic violence is behavior that attempts to control the victim in one or more ways. It can result in both physical and psychological harm to the victim and their children. It can also be life-threatening.” While victims can be children, women and the elderly, women have been found to be the main targets of intra-familial violence (according to Sakhi 95% of all victims are women and the small number of abused men include men in gay relationships).

While these facts and figures have led to increased research and the establishment of support organisations and shelters in North America and Europe and while domestic violence as a general phenomenon occurs worldwide, for a long time issues of domestic violence and abusive relationships remained taboo subjects within immigrant communities. In the context of South Asian diasporic groups the degree of violence has been similar compared to that in other communities. Due to different cultural factors (joint family, dowry, son preference, etc.), however, the forms of abuse vary. Nevertheless, domestic violence occurs in South Asia and the diaspora across religions (Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, etc.) and classes (in fact, according to a recent study in India, a woman´s risk increases with a higher level of education, indicating the need for very careful analyses of these data). First generation South Asian immigrant women and women who have moved abroad as dependent wives are at particular risk, as, even though the United States, for instance, has introduced measures to legally protect undocumented battered women, the victims still often believe their abusive spouses who threaten them with deportation. Furthermore, the fear of losing one´s children and being isolated from the South Asian community (mainly determined by the general notions of izzat [honour] and sharam [shame]) contributes to the South Asian women´s reluctance to seek help even under life-threatening circumstances. The titles of three recent pioneering publications on the occurrence of domestic violence within South Asian American communities – Margaret Abraham´s Speaking the Unspeakable: Marital Violence among South Asian Immigrants in the United States (2000), “Lifting the Veil of Secrecy” by Satya P. Krishnan et al. (1998) and Sandhya Nankani´s Breaking the Silence: Domestic Violence in the South Asian-American Community (2000) – are indicative of the fact that until recently domestic violence has neither been acknowledged, documented or analysed in the context of South Asian immigrant groups.


Literary and Cinematic Representations of Domestic Violence

Notwithstanding the ambiguity and limitations of a label such as ´South Asian´, as in the case of other terms (Black British, Asian American, etc.), it has served as a means of political empowerment and coalition building in the case of South Asian British and American women organisations, who specifically work with battered and abused women. These ´hubs of hope´, as they have been called, can be found throughout Britain (e.g., Ashiana, Kiran) and North America (e.g., Aiwa, Maitri, Manavi, Sahkhi, Saw) and they promote a culturally-sensitive approach to supporting South Asian women. Their work has contributed fundamentally to ´lifting the veil´ and ´breaking the silence´ of domestic violence victims. Although it has been known that abused women are in greatest danger, when they begin to stand up for themselves and contact women organisations, these same organisations have provided substantial support for women to do so. As Huma Dar expresses it in her poem ´The Battle Cry of an Ex-Battered Ex-Wife: “Not a million beatings, no searing pain / can flog my spirit or smother my voice. / … / The day I told the world of your misdeeds / was the day I found my voice again. / The day I stood up for my rights in the courts / was the day I discovered my feet again.” It is these acts of courage, the pioneering and invaluable work of women´s organisations and the coalition building which are also reflected in the literary and cinematic representations of South Asian women affected by domestic violence and abuse. British and American women writers and filmmakers of South Asian descent redirect the focus from ´victim case studies´ to stories of activism and agency. They portray the complex nature of relationships marked by domestic violence (e.g., women returning to their abusive spouses after having taken agency), intra-familial abuse and the continuing danger of a fatal ending and they address specific cultural and ideological markers, since the issue of domestic violence in an immigrant (as well as in a postcolonial) context is further complicated by racial and ethnic dynamics which affect both, women and men, and thus leads back to questions regarding the relational positions of nationalism and women´s rights. They also thematise the question of how to represent violence without reproducing images which might be the source of voyeurism. The analysis of textual and visual examples will include work by Rukhsana Ahmad, Meena Alexander, Gurinder Chadha, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Mira Nair and will be complemented by non-fictive survivors stories as collected by social scientists and women´s organisations.