Shamita Das Dasgupta is a cofounder of Manavi, Inc, one of the first domestic violence organizations in North America which focuses on gender abuse in the South Asian community. She has published numerous articles in the women’s empowerment field and written many books regarding domestic violence issues, including The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folktales (1995, Interlink Books), A Patchwork Shawl: Chronicles of South Asian Women in America (1998, Rutgers University Press), and Body Evidence: Intimate Violence against South Asian Women in America (2007, Rutgers University Press). She is currently an adjunct assistant professor of clinical law at the NYU Law School.
OAA: You co-founded Manavi, the first and currently only South Asian domestic violence agency in New Jersey in 1985, when the issue was strictly taboo. What kind of opposition did you face from the community at this time?
SDD: Manavi is the first organization in the South Asian community that deliberately focused on violence against women. [However], the community was just not ready to face those types of issues. [The community expressed] a lot of hostility and a lot of disbelief that violence could happen in an educated and affluent community. At that time the community was very euphoric in its economic success. Most of the people who had immigrated were highly educated, became financially successful very quickly, and were dubbed model minority. For our community, the identity of model minority became very important.
Most of the time we were considered western style feminists who had no ties to the community and people were overtly hostile towards us. There was a lot of distancing behavior that we faced, and a lot of dismissal of our intentions.
OAA: What are some of the innovations Manavi has made in the domestic violence agency arena, and what are some future plans/ideas you hope to introduce?
SDD: Existence of Manavi made it clear to the larger community and to our own community that violence against women is a reality in our community and also that our community was unique in so many ways in terms of language and cultural issues. Women became more comfortable coming to our organization rather than mainstream shelters.
What we did which was very unique and new was to combine the traditional methods of activism, support, and counseling with the western type counseling and activist methods. It was an interesting mingling of the two. We were claiming feminism as our own and doing feminist work, but also looking at violence against women not just as an individual issue but also as a larger collective issue.
For example, when we established our shelter, it was very different from the other larger domestic violence shelters. Women can stay in Ashiana, Manavi’s shelter, for 18 months, they can eat their own food, we don’t have someone monitoring them for 24 hours… We put together the idea of long term stay and emergency shelter together. In our advocacy work, we brought in language issues and connected women to same language advocates. We brought in transnational issues because we recognized that women’s lives are spread not only here but back in South Asia also.
For example, when an Indian woman came sought help from us, she had issues that followed her here from India. She had to deal with what her parents would say, property issues, whether the abuser’s family was becoming abusive to her family there. Those kinds of issues were hardly in focus of mainstream domestic violence organizations before Manavi came along.
Women’s lives will always make us work towards innovations. Our work is always based on women’s needs. One of the things we’re working on now is to create an international coalition. South Asian groups all over the world must come together in a coalition to work against violence against women in our communities. Our next phase will see more of an international coalition development and work that spans across continents and nations.
OAA: In your book Body Evidence, you present articles and opinions from more than twenty scholars and public health professionals to uncover the unique challenges faced by victims of violence in intimate spaces…within families, communities, and trusted relationships in South Asian American communities. The book covers a great variety of topics from the cultural obsession with women’s chastity to ways in which U.S. courts often exacerbate plights of these women. What do you personally feel is the most important issue to address in adequately ending the problem of gender abuse?
SDD: I do not think that there is one answer to this. Of course one of the basic issues we have to think about is equality of genders. And that includes every issue. It’s difficult to choose one issue over the other, but definitely equality and justice between genders [is very important to address].
OAA: In another one of your articles titled Who Goes There, Friend or Foe: FindingComrades in Domestic Violence Work you say “as work on domestic violence progresses, all South Asian DVOs are faced with the task of forging alliances with other agencies within their communities as well as the larger mainstream society.” However there seems to be a disconnect amongst a lot of these South Asian organizations. What do you feel is the reason for this and what can be done to help different organizations foster alliances and work and learn from each other?
SDD: I think the disconnect mainly comes because we don’t have the resources to come together more often. Although when we do make the effort, I don’t think the disconnect exist. Most of the organizations are strapped for time and money and most of the organizations are working with very few people who keep these going. So it’s very hard to go beyond day to day work and connect with other organizations. I think that’s a serious problem because this kind of lack resources doesn’t allow us to do more creative work.
The way we can foster alliance is to see each other more often and develop coalitions and collaborative work. Perhaps in terms of the website you’re building. That may be a way of connecting through cyberspace.
The more we link ourselves, the more we share our resources and information and can form a consolidated front.
OAA: From founding Manavi in 1985 up to your research and work now, what significant changes have you seen in the women’s empowerment/domestic violence aid movement and what actions/issues still need to be addressed?
SDD: The biggest change I see is in the number of organizations that have been established. And not just against domestic violence. There are so many progressive organizations working to bring social change in our communities and that’s very inspiring to me.
We also see more women who are aware of resources available in the community. We see women who say that we are not going to tolerate this kind of abuse for years and years, and as a woman I do have the right to live in dignity and can claim justice.
I see the community has also changed over time so much. In the beginning the community just disbelieved us but now we see that it recognizes violence against women. The newspapers discuss it, community conferences have panels on it, and community organizations talk about it. At time you find there are some people who still do not believe, the detractors, but most of the people do understand women’s subjugation and the violence against women in the community and do say that this cannot be tolerated.
OAA: Sadly, we see the problems of domestic violence affecting the second generation as well, and often times these women do not know where to turn to, as many feel that domestic violence agencies may be catered more towards immigrants. How do you think the domestic violence movement can work to provide help to this population of victims?
SDD: Most of the organizations that I know are changing and they change in response to the needs of people who are coming in to work. For example, in our organization, there are 4 out of 7 [staff members who] are second generation. So these women bring changes to the organization and then it’s no long their mother’s organization, it’s their organization. So there’s no reason why the second generation women should not be there or should not come to the organizations. Maybe not in as large a numbers as the immigrant group, but the second generation come in also. In one way you have to be the change you want to see in this world, so the second generation does need to come in and weigh in this work and change the organizations as they see fit.
OAA: What are some of the suggestions you have for engaging the community more towards this cause and encouraging them to become more actively involved?
SDD: The more that you can show them that intimate violence happens, the more you can talk to them, the more you can bring them in. The second generation brings in a lot different kinds of talents and our organizations need to explore how to best use those talents. The more we can use their talents the more we can engage the second generation. And it’s the whole collective community that needs to take responsibility for the well being of battered woman and the people who are seeking justice in their lives. I think we need to inspire the people who are sitting on the sidelines and say that you cannot just sit there, be engaged. Unless you engage in the liberation of other people, you own liberation is at risk.