Our cultural values train women to be submissive and withstand domestic abuse: Indian American researcher Abha Rai

Abha Rai
Abha Rai

There is a need to create a more encouraging habitat for South Asian Americans to discuss the domestic violence issue, says University of Georgia researcher and activist Abha Rai.

A lot of South Asian cultural values “inherently train women to be submissive and condone male dominance” and, many times, “women may be experiencing domestic violence without even realizing it,” said Abha Rai, a Georgia-based researcher and activist on domestic violence. For the same reason, “it is important to start discussing the subject,” she told the American Bazaar in an interview.

“Not all men are violent and not all women are victims, but why not get this conversation started so we are all aware?” said Rai, a doctoral candidate at School of Social Work, University of Georgia in Athens, GA. “It is important to study domestic violence among the SA community because of our cultural values.”

Barely two months into the new year, the Indian American community has already seen two widely reported cases of homicides apparently related to domestic violence.

ALSO READ: Sugar Land murder-suicide once again highlights domestic violence among Indian Americans (February 19, 2019)

On February 18, in Sugar Land Texas, Indian American Sreenivas Nakirekanti shot his wife, Shanti Nakirekanti, before turning the gun on himself, in what is believed to be a murder suicide incident. Last month, in Baltimore, Indian American Amit Kumar (39) allegedly killed his wife, Ankita Verma, by stabbing.

These tragic incidents, Rai pointed out, are the result of marital abuses that have largely remained a hushed topic in the community showing. She and other activists have been rallying for the need to create a more encouraging habitat for South Asian women to talk about their harassment and abuse.

Rai, whose area of research pertains to issues of domestic violence within the South Asian community, has been working with community-based organizations in both India and the United States for more than 12 years. “I am interested in exploring how culture, acculturation and the norms of the South Asian community define individuals’ experience and understanding of violence,” she said.

She was awarded the “Giving Voice to the Voiceless Fund” from Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Ron Gault earlier this month. Rai won the grant for her proposal, “Giving Voice to South Asian Immigrant,” which talked about domestic violence in South Asian communities. The grant gives an opportunity to selected University of Georgia students to promote the welfare of voiceless communities.

ALSO READ: Sugar Land murder-suicide: Sreenivas Nakirekanti himself called 911 before committing suicide (February 19, 2019)

Rai said the grant will allow her to understand the meaning of violence amongst South Asian Americans and “ultimately create an awareness intervention for the community.”

She said that there is a need to create more awareness about the meaning and manifestations of domestic violence within South Asian immigrant communities in the United States.

Interestingly, while there has been a lot of noise lately about domestic violence amongst South Asians, when it comes to reported statistics, the numbers often belie the anecdotal evidence. So, in a community, where on paper, divorce rate is much less when compared to the national average, how does one establish that there is a greater problem which may not be on the surface?

“I believe divorce may not be as common in the South Asian community because of the stigma attached to it,” said Rai. “Also within the South Asian American community, our cultural values inherently train us to be submissive and withstand abuse without complaining. I have heard of several instances where women will wait to take any action unless the abuse is physical. What also stops South Asians from seeking a divorce could be the desire to safeguard family honor.”

There are other issues with studies on domestic violence within the South Asian Americans, Rai said. “Research says that the prevalence rates of domestic violence are anywhere between 18 percent and 60 percent within South Asian American communities,” she said. “However, studies conducted in the past have suffered from issues such as small and non-representative sample sizes. Additionally, some scholars have relied on using culturally unresponsive instruments to understand domestic violence within South Asian American communities leading to inconclusive prevalence rates.”

The researcher said the increasing cases of domestic violence within the community in recent months “makes it all the more important to discuss the issue and bring about more awareness and make available information about relevant resources.”

Rai said that for many women who come from India to America post-marriage, the overwhelming immigrant experience compounds the problem. “From my experience, the struggle for women moving from their country of origin to the United States is significant,” she said. “Right from learning the language, seeking a work visa, learning how to drive, adjusting to the new norms of a country can be hard. I have come across many women who did not have their own phone, did not speak English and had very few friends. The isolation in such cases can be tremendous. Where do the women go for help in case they need it? I think initiating conversations like this can be a good start to get started on the subject of domestic violence because it won’t go away by not talking about it, it will only get worse.”


Empowering women is more than giving opportunities: Manavi’s Navneet Bhalla (April 8, 2018)

‘Invisible Citizens,’ a docudrama on domestic violence, slated to release in October (September 28, 2018)

Son brings parents from India to ‘discipline’ wife; all three beat her mercilessly (September 5, 2017)

More protection for H-1B visa workers, work permits for women who face domestic violence (July 16, 2015)

Educating men is also important: Priya Kulkarni (September 15, 2013)

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