The darkness behind closed doors

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Domestic violence in the Indian community is unique. Image from Flickr by blacksapphire.


Indian culture is full of rich passion and vibrant people, characteristics mirrored by those who have immigrated ‘down under’. As the number of Indian citizens immigrating to Australia increases, so too does the rich multicultural landscape of our country. However, there is an underlying spectre that is evident within this tight knit community.

The cultural differences between India and Australia are many and varied. From religious beliefs and cultural norms, to social attitudes and most noticeably the business of marriage.

Indian weddings are unlike that of any other country. The countries exotic culture makes for an explosive celebration of life and love that encompasses the passion of its people. But like any culture, happy marriages can often turn sour and the Indian community within Australia is most certainly not immune to this.

Everyday we hear more and more about domestic violence within the Indian community. We are confronted with poignant stories about women being abused to the point of severe depression and sometimes death. However, it is not just the Indian community who are affected. Domestic violence in Australia is common and widespread with figures showing that one in three women are affected. So what is it that makes domestic violence within the Indian community different?

The number of Indians immigrating to Australia is on the rise. The 2011 census showed that the number of India-born people living in Australia had increased by over 100% from 2006. As of the start of this year, India is now the top source country for permanent migrants, making it the fourth largest foreign community in Australia, after the United Kingdom, New Zealand and China.

There is no shortage of Indian couples setting up lives for themselves in Australia and they each have a unique story. They have all moved to Australia for a variety of reasons and have had different marriage circumstances. Love marriages, where one elects who they wish to marry are becoming increasingly common nowadays as well as the traditional system of arranged marriages.

Manpreet Singh is the executive producer of the Punjabi Program at SBS. Manpreet produced the award-winning documentary The Enemy Within that looks at this domestic violence issue in the Indian community. She believes that the type of marriage makes no difference to whether a couple will experience domestic violence or not. “Arranged marriage is not necessarily a bad thing. The reason why we call it arranged is because the parents come around and get involved in setting it up, but they pretty much leave the final decision to the prospective bride and groom.”

So perhaps then the catalyst for this violence is the transition from an eastern culture and way of life to a western one. Migrating to a different country is a stressful task for anyone but such an extreme change in culture is likely to put pressure on a couple.

It is not unusual for young Indian men to study abroad in Australia, return home in search of a wife, and then migrate back to Australia permanently to settle down. Manpreet believes this can be extremely testing for a woman because she has no prior experience of the country. “Not only is marriage a new concept but migration is also very new.”

Case manager for InTouch Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence, Ruchita Kumar*, agrees and believes that the cultural change can cause anxiety for the women. “When a couple moves here the woman is expected to work, but the husband has expectations that even if she is working she has to look after the household.” There are endless expectations placed on these women in dealing with cultural change while having to adapt to a new way of life and maintaining traditional duties, creating a context for domestic violence.

The unfortunate issue that presents itself here is that there doesn’t seem to be a strong support network for these women, as they usually have to leave their families behind in India. They have nobody to talk to when things get tough and violent situations arise.

Dr. Manjula O’Connor is the founding director of The Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health and a consultant psychiatrist in Melbourne. She does not necessarily believe that Indian couples feel compelled to adapt to a western way of life but understands that there is a real absence of support and understanding for this issue within the community. “Anytime a couple want to migrate out of a country they are obviously going to lose their special networks and they’re going to lose their family support systems.”

Without this feeling of community and support a woman’s sense of vulnerability can be overwhelming, especially when one considers the attitude towards this issue in the community.

Manpreet says is it evident that there are extremely closed attitudes in dealing with family violence as the Indian community here is not aware of the definition of family violence as it stands in Australia. “The Indian community as such does not support victims. If a women dares to speak about it, unfortunately they do not get support from the wider community and they often feel very isolated.”

Through her work with InTouch, Ruchita has also noticed the lack of understanding towards this issue and often has to explain to the women that although these acts may be somewhat ‘acceptable’ back home, the laws are different in Australia and it is not acceptable.

Fear and shame can also make it hard for women to acknowledge what is happening to them and they are afraid to report the violence because they believe it will escalate the situation. From what Ruchita has seen these women often downplay the extent of the violence and brush it off as if it is nothing. “They always minimise the violence, they don’t acknowledge that their husband has physically hit them. They try to take the blame and say that maybe they did something wrong.”

Many would argue that although there is a real lack of community support, the Indian tradition of the joint family is a positive aspect of the culture. This concept can help these women, or any family member, deal with issues they may be facing. Both Dr. O’Connor and Manpreet argue that this tradition is the norm in India, and that it is the backbone of the Indian culture.

Through her research for The Enemy Within, Manpreet claims that most people say you simply cannot put blame on this joint family system and that “in the majority of cases it works beautifully.”

In the documentary, Manpreet interviews La Trobe University law lecturer and family mediator Reeta Verma, who feels very strongly about the positive effects of joint families. She argues that this tradition is responsible for the majority of Indian families who live in happy households, and that in no way does it contribute to domestic violence. “Joint families are our strength and we should not weaken this strong point of our culture. It’s so wrong to blame the joint family system for violence and disputes between families.” Ms. Verma said.

Ruchita on the other hand places a lot more blame on the tradition. She acknowledges the long history of the joint family system and understands how in a loving home it can definitely work as a supportive frame. Although in the cases she deals with, it would appear that it has only worsened the situation for these women. It is a very patriarchal society and the woman must do as her husband commands. “She is treated more like a servant as she has to serve the whole family”.

When violent disputes arise between the couple, the in laws will take their sons side leaving the wife feeling distressed and utterly alone with no one to turn to. In these cases the woman can also be considered a burden to the husbands family.

All these potential reasons that can contribute to and fuel domestic violence aside, there is one underlying factor that is unarguably at the centre of most cases. It is a tradition that has been woven into the Indian marriage system for centuries, and has been distorted and inappropriately altered over the years.

The issue of dowry puts the Indian community in a unique position compared to the rest of Australia, as it creates a situation that requires special attention.

It is unknown exactly how long the dowry system has been in existence, but it is understood that its roots are in medieval times. The concept of dowry has dramatically changed over the years.

Traditionally the parents of the bride presented her with gifts and money to be used as a form of financial security and independence within the marriage. It gave her status. It was also considered to be her inheritance of the family fortune as, once married, she would leave her own family behind to join that of her husband. The money belonged to the bride only; dowry was an institution managed by women, for women. But when the British Raj came to India in 1858 they changed the system and undermined the very reason for its existence.

The British imposed a rule that denied women the right to own any property, so anything that a woman inherited then became the property of husband. This was the catalyst for dowry turning into the institution of greed that it is today.

In 1956 the Hindu Personal laws were amended so that women once again had the right to inherit ancestral property. In 2005 the laws were amended again, this time granting women equal rights to men in terms of ancestral property. In 1961 the practice of dowry was made illegal in India, but that has not changed anything, in fact it seems to be getting worse.

Despite the law put in place by the British being revoked, dowry still remains a system that is permeated by greed. It gives husbands the ability to oppress their wives and claim money that is not rightfully theirs, causing emotional and financial stress for the bride and her parents.

Dr. O’Connor explains that nowadays everyone in the husband’s family is expected to receive a gift from the wife’s family, and on top of that the husband must be given cash and household goods. Husbands believe they have a right to ask their wives for money and that comes from the expectation of dowry. “This way of thinking needs to be completely stamped out because there is no role for men to imagine they are going to be gifted this huge amount of gold and cash by the woman’s parents.”

Parents start saving for a dowry from the minute their daughter is born, and are expected to give cash amounting to multiple times their annual income; expectations that are completely unreasonable. Quite often the husband will then blame his wife for not obtaining enough money and this is where the violence can escalate.

Dr. O’Connor also notes that a woman cannot have too much contact with her family because “this will start to annoy the husband and the mother-in-law because they want to control her. So then this becomes another excuse for domestic violence.” She claims that three quarters of Indian domestic violence cases are dowry related.

Ruchita agrees with these statements and believes that the expectations from in-laws have gone too high. “Dowry has taken very bad shape and there is a lot of pressure on the bride’s family. The dowry belongs to the girl, but this is not the case. The husband and mother-in-law they take control of all that stuff and the woman doesn’t have access to that”.

So where to from here? Evidently there are unavoidable factors that contribute to domestic violence, but the joint family tradition and dowry system are ingrained within the Indian culture and are virtually inescapable. The Australian community must now work towards developing a deeper understanding of the issues at hand, and create a solid support network that will be there to protect these women against their violent partners.

*Last name has been changed.


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