Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sexual abuse: Conclusion

We’ve spent the last few weeks discussing the different forms of sexual abuse that SA immigrant women experience in their marriages – these include marital rape, control of reproductive rights, and using a sexual ‘other.’ But husbands may not be the only perpetrators; Abraham found that some women were doubly abused by their husbands and by other men. One woman was molested by her brother-in-law, and two other women were sexually harassed by friends that they were staying with upon leaving their abusive marriages. In the latter cases, while the men played the role of ‘protector and confidant,’ they also took advantage of the woman’s vulnerability and lack of outside support.

Many women experience sexual abuse in their marriages and their relationships, of course, but immigrant women are especially vulnerable. As Abraham notes, SA immigrant women look within their own community for assistance when they find themselves in an abusive relationship. This is both for reasons of cultural comfort (although the community has not, until recently, proven willing to face up to the issue of domestic violence) and due to their real or perceived experiences of ethnic and gender discrimination in US society. Abraham suggests that one way to help SA immigrant women who find themselves in sexually abusive relationships is to collect their stories to better understand and address the problem.

[For more information, see: Abraham, M. (2000). Sexual Abuse in South Asian Immigrant Marriages. Violence Against Women, 5(6), 612-618.]

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The sexual ‘other’

At the end of the last entry, we briefly mentioned that abusive husbands often have sexual affairs outside of their marriage with the sexual ‘other’ – this is the third kind of sexual abuse (the first two being marital rape and control of reproductive rights). This ‘other’ usually refers to ‘western’ women, who are portrayed as more sexually permissive and accessible than the SA wife. The ‘other’ woman can be a reality, or she can be a threat, which suggests to the wife that if she doesn’t fulfill the husband’s sexual expectations, he will seek his sexual pleasures elsewhere.

Abraham found that in cheating, or threatening to cheat, on their wives, abusive husbands drew on notions of SA sexuality (wherein tradition requires that wives meet their husband’s sexual needs) and Western sexuality (which connoted sexual adventurousness). Several women reported that their husbands made clear their intentions to cheat early in the marriage. One husband flew into a physical rage when his wife accidentally told his mistress that he was married. Another ignored his wife in favor of another woman, leaving her alone and isolated.

One wife described how her husband forced her to watch pornography and then demanded that she perform the same acts that she had seen. This is problematic in two ways – first, of course, there is the rape aspect of this demand; second, generally, pornography objectifies and is demeaning to women. Abraham reviews several studies which suggest that pornography normalizes perceptions of sexual behavior, which makes it harder for women to resist unwanted sexual acts.

There are many consequences to this kind of sexual abuse. Women who were the victim of this kind of abuse felt isolated, abandoned, and a loss of self-esteem Many felt sexually inadequate, and some felt as though they had failed in their role as a wife. Abraham points out that this pits women against the other – the rage that a woman might feel for her philandering husband is now directed against the ‘other woman.’ This kind of sexual competition further degrades women’s self-respect and allows men to remain in sexual control.

[For more information, see: Abraham, M. (2000). Sexual Abuse in South Asian Immigrant Marriages. Violence Against Women, 5(6), 607-612.]

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Control of reproductive rights

Closely related to marital rape, which we discussed last week, is another kind of sexual abuse – the control of a woman’s reproductive rights. In the introduction to the topic of sexual abuse, we had discussed how masculinity in SA cultures is defined largely by male virility and by control of women’s sexuality; this particular kind of sexual abuse involves both aspects of SA masculinity. Several of the women that Abraham interviewed had been forcibly impregnated (which indicates male virility) or forced to have an abortion (which indicates male control of women’s reproductivity).

One woman’s husband refused to use condoms when he raped her, forcing her to have 4 children in 5 years. In doing so, he characterized her as a maternal figure rather than a sexual one. The husband of another woman forced her to have abortions against her desire and religious convictions. In order to ensure that she would not have a baby, he violently battered her when she was pregnant – including punching her with thumbtacks. When, after 3 abortions, she chose to have a baby, he refused to participate in raising the child.

Many women reported that they had been physically battered when pregnant. This is not an uncommon finding – plenty of research suggests that the incidence of domestic violence increases during pregnancy. Several women also reported that their husbands had sexual affairs outside of the marriage (especially during their pregnancies) – a topic we’ll cover more next week.

[For more information, see: Abraham, M. (2000). Sexual Abuse in South Asian Immigrant Marriages. Violence Against Women, 5(6), 605-607.]

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Marital rape

In last week’s blog entry, we discussed the three kinds of sexual abuse that immigrant SA women experience. Let’s focus on the first kind today – marital rape. What are the cultural conditions that lead to this kind of sexual abuse?

Abraham points out that the concept of marital rape in generally absent in SA cultures*. Rinita Mazumdar, a professor who has written about marital rape issues, argues that there are 3 reasons why this is the case – (a) marriage obligates women to fulfill her husband’s needs, irrespective of her own wishes; (b) marriage obligates women to produce children, so she is expected to accept any steps that the husband takes to ensure this outcome; and (c) as a result of marriage, the woman has become her husband’s property, so he is free to treat her as he sees fit. All of these reasons can be, and are, used to justify marital rape.

In SA culture, men are taught to take charge of the sexual interaction. They are socialized to believe that their sexual needs will be met within a marriage, and there is no expectation that women’s needs will be considered or fulfilled. Women, on the other hand, are socialized to fulfill their husband’s desires, even to the detriment of their preferences or desires. They are taught that it is their uncomplaining and undemanding acquiescence that keeps marriages and families together. They are silenced, therefore, by their husbands and by the larger social culture.

Most women have had little experience of sex at the time of marriage; they may only have vague expectations of intimacy based on gauzy ‘suhaag raat’ or honeymoon scenes from the movies. Of the women that Abraham interviewed, 60% reported experiences of marital rape. Often, the sexual abuse began the night of the wedding itself. Men perceived the woman’s quietness or lack of desire for ‘shyness,’ and when the wife said ‘no,’ she was ignored and instead encouraged to ‘open up.’ Furthermore, she was afraid to turn down his advances, in case this aroused the anger of her husband. The women reported little intimacy or closeness with their partner.

Another woman’s experiences suggested that marital rape can also be a punitive mechanism – she reported that she was often raped in retaliation for the fact that she was employed while her husband was not. He appeared to be particularly enraged by her potential access to other suitors, and raped her in order to re-assert sexual control.

In addition to the fear of constant sexual abuse within their marriages, the women were further afraid of enraging their husbands by refusing sex, since they were fearful of calling the police (due to concerns about discrimination) and worried about putting their immigrant status into jeopardy. Essentially, immigrant women who experience sexual abuse within their marriages are doubly entrapped by their traditional culture and by experiences of discrimination in the US.

*Since this article was written, marital rape laws have been passed in Nepal and India.

[For more information, see: Abraham, M. (2000). Sexual Abuse in South Asian Immigrant Marriages. Violence Against Women, 5(6), 598-605.]

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sexual abuse: Social norms

One aspect of DV that we know little about in SA culture is sexual abuse. The women who call Maitri seeking help rarely identify, and sometimes do not even recognize, sexual forms of violence as part of their DV experience. (Most of them call primarily when they experience physical or emotional abuse). In order to understand why this is the case, Margaret Abraham argues that it is necessary to explore the nature of femininity, masculinity, and sexuality in South Asian cultures, since these norms are transferred to and retained upon immigration to a new country.

In general, anthropologists have observed that SA culture and mythology view women as sexually alluring and powerful beings. This is illustrated in the concept of Shakti, or feminine life force, and in the existence of goddesses such as Kali, who represent female power. In reality, however, women in SA are expected to be submissive, docile, and dependent. Their virginity and chastity are monitored and protected until and during marriage to ensure family honor and the purity of the family lineage. Any sexual transgressions jeopardize the woman’s own standing in society.

Masculinity is constructed largely in terms of virility. Men are socialized to believe that men are sexually aggressive and that women are sexually fulfilling, and that their sexual needs can and will be met within a marriage. This leads them to assume that they have sexual access at all times. (This expectation is supported by many legal, religious and social norms). Another aspect of masculinity is the control of women’s sexuality, since men – fathers, husbands – are held responsible for the sexual purity of their women.

These notions of masculinity and femininity are widely portrayed in the mass media (movies and TV soap operas, for instance), and there is little access to information to counter these gender expectations. There is also limited discussion about sex, and few places to get information about it.

To explore how these norms transferred to the US, and to understand their role in DV, Abraham interviewed 25 immigrant women from South Asia (mainly from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) about their experiences of marital abuse. She focuses on three kinds of sexual abuse and control – (a) marital rape and sexual assault, (b) manipulation of reproductive rights, and (c) construction of a sexual ‘other.’

Over the next few weeks, we’ll talk more about these forms of sexual abuse.

[For more information, see: Abraham, M. (2000). Sexual Abuse in South Asian Immigrant Marriages. Violence Against Women, 5(6), 591-598.]

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The ‘model’ minority

The work of Shamita Das Dasgupta, an iconic figure within the anti-DV world, has been described previously on this blog. In this article, she introduces a special issue of the journal Violence Against Women, which focuses violence against SA women.

She begins by describing the first major wave of South Asian immigrants who came to the US in 1965 as a result of eased immigration regulations. These immigrants were a largely homogeneous group of educated and technically trained individuals. Soon after arriving, they established themselves as an economically and socially successful community, and earned the ‘model minority’ moniker. Preoccupied with living up to this title, these immigrants suppressed all problems within the community, such as substance abuse, violence, and unemployment.

This picture changed over the next two decades. The nature of the SA immigrant community grew more heterogeneous due to the arrival of family members, small business owners, and refugees. Dasgupta reports that the first wave of immigrants was disdainful of the less financially established newcomers. When problems did arise, they quickly blamed any problems within the SA community on the later, ‘other’ immigrants, or they held pathological individuals responsible.

The first major DV related incident in the community occurred in 1981, when a young mother murdered her husband after years of intolerable abuse. The SA community was quick to dissociate themselves from her, and the woman found herself without any support or assistance from her community. It was in response to this shameful episode that the first anti-DV voices within the SA community spoke up.

In the following weeks, we shall discuss several articles about issues pertinent to DV in our community. Since, as Dasgupta says, “Neither the vociferous denial of the community nor the indifferent marginalization of the larger society can invalidate the distinct voices of SA women…”, all of these articles share two features – first, a recognition of the unique and distinct identity of SA women, and second, a recognition of the reality of their experiences.

[For more information, see: Dasgupta, S. D. (2000). Guest Editor’s Introduction. Violence Against Women, 5(6), 587-590.]

Sunday, May 16, 2010

International response to DV

Here are the stories of two women – one, a young immigrant Indian woman in the US, and the other, a woman in Bangladesh; both are in abusive relationships that they would like to leave, but both are let down, variously, by the laws of the country they live in. In Bangladesh, there is a lack of legislation and legal structure that even addresses the issue of DV. The US does have anti-DV legislation, but it is not comprehensive enough to protect victims of DV adequately.

Since individual countries cannot or do not live up to the responsibility of protecting its citizens, Zakia Afrin, a professor of law (and legal consultant for Maitri!), argues that we need to have a globally binding framework that will protect the rights of women who are victims of DV.

Until recently, women’s rights were considered to be covered by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” It was only in 1993 that the UN General Assembly specifically addressed the issue of women’s rights in the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. Adoption of this resolution obliges states to combat violence against women, and prohibits states from invoking any custom, tradition, or religious consideration in order to avoid that obligation.

In 1999, the UN General Assembly further adopted the Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which requires signatories to undertake a series of measures to end discrimination against women, such as incorporating gender equality into existing legal systems. (The US has not signed this treaty).

It was only in 2006 that the UN Secretary General’s office recognized that “the most common form of violence experienced by women globally is intimate partner violence, sometimes leading to death” and recommended that the “United Nations should take a stronger, better coordinated and more visible leadership role to address violence against women.”

In spite of these increasingly strongly worded statements from the UN, however, Afrin points out there has been no law that explicitly prohibits domestic violence, and only 44 countries have adopted legislation condemning DV. Some observers view this as a failure of the global approach. They argue that international treaties cannot overcome local attitudes towards women, and suggest that DV has to be tackled at the local level. Afrin counters this argument by proposing that international treaties, in fact, have not gone far enough. She shows that such treaties and resolutions can be and have been used to mobilize support for women’s rights at the local level; she suggests that formally recognizing DV as a human rights violation provides a much needed moral force to these movements.

[For more information, see: Afrin, Z. (2010). Domestic Violence and the Need for an International Legal Response. In M. K. Sinha (Ed.), International Criminal Law and Human Rights (359-373). New Delhi, India: Manak Publications.]