”Wo larki Sikhi se pyaar karti thi. Itni samajhdar, dignified, tall, sundar thi wo. Mujhe mauka milta tha usse milne ka (That woman used to love Sikhi. She was wise, dignified, tall, and beautiful. I used to get the opportunity to meet her),” Davinder Singh Boparai remembers his interactions with Mandeep Kaur at the Sikh Cultural Society in Richmond Hills, New York. He is president of the gurudwara, the most popular in New York, which Mandeep Kaur used to pray at regularly.
Throughout this summer, her last, she dropped off her two daughters for the Sikhism summer camp. “Her daughters used to come to our Sikhi summer camp daily. You couldn't tell at all that there was something that she wanted to share. I saw her on the last day of camp, 29 July; other parents were there as well. Even her daughter's teacher did not gauge her mental state to be thus," says Boparai, referring to Kaur’s suicide a few days later.
As he attends vigils and solidarity sit-ins in the Richmond Hills neighbourhood of Queens, NY, where Mandeep Kaur lived, Boparai, along with thousands, seeks justice for Kaur and her daughters, who continue to live with their father – the husband who has been seen in now viral videos assaulting his wife brutally.
Kaur spoke about the eight years long unbearable torture and violence in her last video. Boparai is also concerned for the attention it brings to Sikhs, a community which has been at the receiving end of violence for decades, especially post-9/11.
"It makes other communities think that Sikhs do this. We want to say that Sikhism doesn't support violence," he says, adding that "I am pained to know she had reached such a state. She dealt with torture for eight long years... I would urge all who are suffering to share their pain with others in the community."
Like others in the community, Boparai is saddened by the loss, the helplessness of not being able to save Kaur, and for not having known her struggles.
The Model Minority Myth: Suffering Behind Closed Doors
Silently enduring trauma and not seeking help against domestic violence are traits seen among South Asian women as well, even in the West.
“We are seeing survivors not wanting to reach out. There is a deep sense of shame that shows in our community. The concept of duty – to children and family – stops survivors from coming forward in sharing their story and find help. That sense of duty and obligation they have should be only to themselves we believe,” says Kavita Mehra, the executive director of Sakhi for South Asian Women, a New York-based organisation supporting South Asians who face gender-based violence in the United States.
The 33-year-old non-profit is survivor-led and survivor-focused. It operates crisis helplines, provides counselling, legal assistance, economic empowerment, and help to overcome chronic trauma to survivors.
For Mehra, who has been in the gender justice movement for over two decades, herself a survivor, Mandeep Kaur becoming a victim who did not survive is outraging, “For many of us in the movement, this is striking us to the core. More than 50 percent of our survivors come from Queens! My family has been in New Jersey for 40 years, in a neighbourhood very similar to Richmond Hills.”
Sakhi has supported over 10,000 clients, overwhelmingly female. Moreover, there are at least 34 South Asian organisations across the US, plus religious bodies providing safety and support to desis facing domestic and intimate partner violence, along with mainstream national, state and city helplines – a reflection of the extent of prevalence of gender-based abuse in the community.
“We experience higher than average gender-based violence. The global average is one in three. In USA the average is one in four. For the South Asian diaspora in USA, it is two in every five.”Kavita Mehra, Executive Director, Sakhi for South Asian Women
Underreporting is very prevalent: For every reported survivor, there are numerous victims who continue to suffer behind closed doors in a community referred to as ‘model minority’ in the US – with its highest percentage of college degrees and lofty average annual incomes.
Fighting Domestic Violence as an Immigrant
“We are marked out as what a model minority should be, represented by a combination of work ethic and family harmony – working hard and keeping it all together. The immigrant experience intersecting with institutional and cultural factors makes it challenging to raise issues of domestic violence and sexual assault,” says Sociologist Margaret Abraham, the author of Speaking the Unspeakable – Marital Violence among South Asian Immigrants in the United States.
She has interviewed survivors and advocates as part of her research over many decades, including Sakhi. She says, “Patriarchy is oppressive in India and in South Asia. Marriage is not only between two persons but two families. In-laws play a huge role in South Asian families unlike in Western families. There is the assumption that a man is the head of the household in South Asian families.”
Abraham adds that domestic violence occurs in all communities, but manifestations and avenues available for escape differ for desi immigrants:
“When you come as an immigrant to a new country, you face social isolation on top of the physical abuse. Sometimes you face racism, ethnic biases, language barriers, not the same job opportunities, etc. There are legal barriers as you are dependent on your spouse for a visa or green card, especially women. Families and communities can be supportive and oppressive. They can become a partner in crime through silence. There is even less accountability for the abuser. You just have to face it.”
Domestic Violence Cuts Across Economic Strata
In her work with Sakhi, Mehra finds that violence "exists across communities, irrespective of gender, sexuality, regional identity, religion or any social markers of education or socio-economic status."
Sakhi has dealt with survivors who have "never taken a subway in New York (city), never got away from their apartments, and those with financial means who are often less reluctant to share as shame comes up."
“Shame is not tied to economic status,” she says. There are numerous culturally responsive groups and helplines serving the desi community all across USA – in working class areas like Richmond Hills in New York, prominent cities and suburbs like Chicago, Connecticut, Boston, Los Angeles, etc, and the very affluent San Francisco Bay Area.
The resident desis of Bay Area’s Silicon Valley are among the most educated and talented. Here, an organisation serving South Asians – Narika – helped 470 domestic violence survivors last year. So far this year, they have connected with 300 already.
Its executive president, Shailaja Dixit, tells The Quint, “Cuts and bruises is what we are seeing in our community every day. We have survivors who are very skilled, in high corporate positions. Domestic violence affects everybody – power and control doesn’t work like that. There is someone telling you that you are not good enough. Financial abuse impacts most cases of domestic violence. They don’t have access to their accounts or money, they don’t have online banking passwords.”
Here the pressures from the ‘professionally successful, highly educated, and wealthy desis residing in multi-million-dollar homes’ is even higher.
“When you are part of model minority it is difficult to ask for help. You don’t want to be this one dissident chord in the community not fitting into the perfect picture of the community,” says Dixit.
The pandemic further exacerbated victims’ isolation says Dixit, “We reported highest number of survivors served during the pandemic. Isolation is the tool through which an abuser keeps control over a victim or survivor. The pandemic brought that out and made the trauma worse.”
As South Asian Political Involvement Increases, a Hope for a Better Future
Shame, stigma, family pressures, the uphill battle of uprooting children, legal immigration barriers, economic opportunities, etc, prevent South Asian American domestic violence victims from coming out to seek help.
But in spite of these factors, as their population in the US grows rapidly, more and more support groups are coming up, and however challenging it is, more survivors are finding help than before.
Over the last two decades Margaret Abraham has seen a shift: “In the 1990s it was unspeakable – to talk about issues of gender intersectional violence. There were very few South Asian led organisations helping victims of abuse. Technology and a shift in policy coupled with emergence of South Asian women organisations have made it accessible to get help.”
The Violence Against Women Act was introduced in the US in 1994, which allows women to seek prosecution against perpetrators. Even though the legal paperwork involved is enormous and intimidating, the law allows immigrant women to self-petition to stay in the country and not depend on the abuser for their immigration status – removing the fear that they will be stripped of their legal status and sent back to their home countries, many times separated from their children.
Dixit finds that recent civic and political environment in the US has also made a difference, “Now more women and men are coming out, because the Pride and Black Lives Matter movements have encouraged people from the margins to come up.”
New York elected two South Asians in its city council for the first time, last year. Jaslin Kaur had also contested the city council elections. As a daughter of Punjabi immigrants who was born in Queens, she attended a women organisations’ led vigil, sponsored by Sakhi, to stand in solidarity with Mandeep Kaur.
“This very unfortunate event in the Richmond working class Punjabi community in Queens, and it comes after a sequence of hate crimes against our elderly. There is something different about a vigil called by women-led organisations. They are a confidential and culturally aware resource. Our gurudwaras also need to have more women-specific services,” says Kaur.
Now, an increasing number of South Asians Americans are participating in city, state and national politics. Kaur says she hopes that this will bring more representation and resources to the community.
In spite of access to technology, more involvement in the political process, more avenues for help in the desi community, Mandeep Kaur reached a point of sheer desperation and killed herself to end abuse. It shook up the entire community of South Asian Women groups.
Narika’s Shailaja Dixit’s question hence is, “Are we working enough, are we working fast enough, are we working hard enough?”
(Savita Patel is a San Francisco Bay Area-based journalist and producer. She reports on Indian diaspora, India-US ties, geopolitics, technology, public health, and environment. She tweets at @SsavitaPatel.)