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Domestic Violence in Desi Communities

December 1, 2017

By: Morgan Dewey, National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) & Prama Verma, Desis for Progress (DFP)

In October 2017, the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) was honored to partner with Desis for Progress (DFP) for a panel on Domestic Violence in Desi Communities to recognize Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The term Desi refers to the people, cultures, and communities of South Asia.

Domestic violence is pervasive, but manifests itself in distinct ways within different communities. While all survivors face obstacles accessing safety, there are often unique barriers faced by survivors from Desi communities. “Domestic violence is rooted in power and control, and shows up no matter the community,” shared NNEDV’s Public Policy Attorney, Marium Durrani when addressing the root cause of domestic violence. One study on domestic and sexual violence and help-seeking in South Asian communities found that:

  • 96.4% of Indian and Pakistani respondents reported having experienced having
    experienced physical violence by a partner.
  • 50.0% of Indian and Pakistani respondents reported having experienced stalking by a partner.
  • 64.3% of Indian and Pakistani respondents reported having experienced sexual violence by a partner.[1]

The Domestic Violence in Desi Communities panel addressed barriers to safety, how to mitigate these, and what can be done to reduce high rates of violence.

Aisha Rahman, Executive Director of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, explained that the pervasive patriarchal interpretations of Islam, not Islam itself, have created a false narrative that Islam condones gender-based violence. Rahman advocated the importance of uplifting the narratives of women who have influenced the faith and in the Qur’an. Chai Shenoy, longtime domestic violence advocate and activist, echoed the need to unpack and change the patriarchal interpretations of Hindu mythology and folklore that can lead to the false view that domestic violence is sanctioned.

NNEDV Public Policy Attorney, Marium Durrani, participates in panel discussion

Stigma, societal pressures, and shame associated with discussing sex and sexual violence present challenges for some Desi survivors accessing services.[2] Initiating conversations about domestic violence and sexual assault takes tremendous courage. South Asian survivors may also face structural and institutional barriers, such as a lack of access to resources and services that address the needs of their community. These needs include language services; information on rights, laws, and policies; and understanding of South Asian cultural and familial dynamics on the part of service providers.

Some members of South Asian communities in the United States face additional barriers to safety based on their immigration status. For victims who do not have legal documentation, abusive partners may use threats surrounding the victim’s immigration status as a fear tactic.[3] For victims whose immigration statuses are tied to marriage, visa stipulations may restrict them from working or driving, which further isolates them. In May 2017, NNEDV, in partnership with six other national organizations, released the 2017 Advocate and Legal Service Survey Regarding Immigrant Survivors. The key findings suggest that recent crackdowns on immigration restrictions have had a chilling effect on domestic violence reporting. Seventy-eight percent of advocate respondents noted that immigrant survivors have concerns about contacting the police.[4] “Escaping domestic violence is already difficult for immigrant survivors,” said Kim Gandy, President and CEO of NNEDV, in a recent statement. “The current environment makes it even more frightening for victims to come forward and seek help.” Despite this concern, immigration options for survivors of violence and crime seeking safety may be available. Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) petitions and U visas may be available to victims of domestic violence, stalking, or sexual assault, amongst other crimes (more information can be found at WomensLaw.org, a project of NNEDV).[5]

In addition to culturally specific barriers, Desi survivors also face broader barriers rooted in systemic racism and Islamophobia. Prevalent anti-Muslim sentiment affects the disproportionate criminalization of Muslim individuals. Rahman provided important nuance on how the threat of terrorism can make it easier for law enforcement to target members of Desi communities by putting them under heightened surveillance. This disproportionate targeting of Desi communities can lead to further isolation and unjust criminalization.

Shenoy also expressed that she finds hope in the power of storytelling. While sharing stories requires safety and privilege, Shenoy said, “…where I find hope is that [victim-blaming] questions that survivors usually get seem to be getting slightly quieter.” Sharing experiences and stories combats stigma and communicates the continued need to foster safe spaces for survivors. DFP Vice Chair Nisha Ramachandran reinforced how DFP’s mission helps facilitate this need. “Desis for Progress strives to break down the walls around some of these historically taboo topics by creating a space for discussion among members of our community.” This is a singular, but crucial step in the fight to overcome barriers survivors face.

You can make a difference:


[1] https://www.api-gbv.org/resources/dvfactsheet-southasian/

[2] Wendy Aujla, https://kaurlife.org/2014/09/08/domestic-violence-sikh-families/; see also https://studysites.sagepub.com/counselingstudy/Journal%20Articles/Preisser.pdf (page 684)

[3] https://studysites.sagepub.com/counselingstudy/Journal%20Articles/Preisser.pdf (page 697)

[4] http://www.tahirih.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/2017-Advocate-and-Legal-Service-Survey-Key-Findings.pdf

[5] https://www.womenslaw.org/laws/federal/immigration/u-visa-laws-crime-victims#content-10372