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Professor Margaret Abraham Speaks About Her Research in Gender Abuse and Teen Dating Violence in the South Asian community

by Sabrin

Margaret Abraham is a Professor of Sociology at Hofstra University and renowned author of Speaking the Unspeakable (Rutgers University Press), the first book to focus on South Asian women’s experiences of domestic violence. In this book, Dr. Abraham explains how cultural assumptions and structural barriers such as unfamiliarity with the American legal and economic systems make immigrant women especially vulnerable to abuse. Professor Abraham has served on the Board of Sakhi for South Asian Women and has worked with numerous other South Asian and national anti-violence agencies. Out Against Abuse was honored to interview her and talk about domestic violence and teen dating violence.

Out Against Abuse [OAA]: Professor Abraham, could you please briefly describe how your work started in the area of gender abuse and how it has progressed with experience?

Prof Abraham [PA]: I have always been interested in issues of power relations and the concepts of identity and marginality. I came to the U.S. in 1984 when I was 23 to do my PhD in sociology. Aspects of power relations, dual identity and dual marginality were key aspects of my research. At the time, my focus was on the Jews of India and their migration to Israel.

In 1989 I had completed my thesis from Syracuse University and was teaching a course marriage and family. What I found was that although there was a vast amount of literature on domestic violence, most of the work addressing it was about mainstream communities. There was very little literature on domestic violence among ethnic minorities in The US and almost nothing on South Asians and domestic violence. At the same time, organizations such as Manavi in 1985 and Sakhi in 1989 were established and there was a little bit of information and advocacy that had begun. In terms of specifically studying gender — while I was doing graduate coursework I had taken a few courses on gender as well as in women studies. I also had a good group of feminist friends and with them I discussed work, activism and various aspects of gender relations. However, my serious commitment to understanding gender abuse really started in the 1990s as part of my sociological research project. I wanted to continue working on power relations, identity and include gender in my framework. I also wanted to do research work related to my community and connect in ways that connect to macro issues.

OAA: What is your opinion on domestic violence amongst second generation South Asians?

PA: There is considerable data that shows that domestic violence occurs across all communities. It cuts across, race, class, ethnicity and age. In terms of second generation South Asian, currently as far as I know we do not have comprehensive published data for the extent of group domestic violence among second generation South Asians. That does not mean that it does not occur. South Asian Women’s organizations that address domestic violence do have second generation South approach them. I have been at talks and public event where second generation South Asians have approached me and noted that they have experienced domestic violence. Also many of these South Asian women may be tapping resources and service outside of the South Asian community to. It would be good to have a study that focuses on domestic violence and dating violence among second generation South Asians. Also while statistics is important – I don’t think it really provides the whole picture of the complexity of domestic violence.

I also want to mention here that it is not just about South Asian youth. As a college professor, I am acutely aware of how there is a larger/ boarder culture that indirectly promotes specific forms of gendered relations as well a certain degree of acceptance of abuse within relationships.

For instance, in the U.S., there is a lot of emphasis on dating and having a partner, or a spouse, so there is a lot of pressure on being in a relationship as part of a marker of success. So in a very indirect way that there is a lot of emphasis on dating and this kind of pressure does also can play a role in violence amongst the younger generation. Needless to say, the media also plays a role in this.

Some of the important factors to think of are:

  1. What kind of message are we currently giving to men and women about what success means and what we understand by power?
  2. How do we support violence either through symbols or the kind of money we spend on specific product?
  3. How do we raise young girls and boys to understand notions of respect and equality and that violence of any form including against the elderly and partners is unacceptable?
  4. We need to have strong institutions that support this idea that violence is not acceptable.
  5. While we must understand the prevalence of domestic violence in our communities, we must also understand it in the broader contexts of violence against women and global violence in general.

OAA: Why do you think that many younger and second generation South Asian perceive that only immigrants face domestic violence?

PA: The reality is educating people. It can happen to any of us. And the assumption that it only happens to immigrants is incorrect. If so, then why do we have extremely high rates of domestic violence and dating violence?

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence fact sheet:

· “One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.

· An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year.

· 85% of domestic violence victims are women.

· Historically, females have been most often victimized by someone they knew.

· Females who are 20-24 years of age are at the greatest risk of nonfatal intimate partner violence. “

· Most cases of domestic violence are never reported to the police.


So this in itself shows that it is not limited to one specific population or that it only occurs among immigrants. I think that sometimes it’s hard to acknowledge that it can happen to you. Some people are blasé or prefer to think it does not happen until it unfortunately happens to someone they know or perhaps even to themselves. This is where education, consciousness raising and outreach can be helpful.

We still have to educate and give the message that domestic violence, dating violence is not acceptable. Any time when you’re working in this area there will be people who say that it won’t happen to them, but that should not prevent us from raising consciousness. Dating violence is quite prevalent in the United States and it has been noted as a possible precursor for longer term intimate partner violence. We need to really educate people on the high rates of dating violence and why this occurs.

I also think among some people there is this sort of thinking that it’s someone else’s problem or if it has happened to me, let me put up a front. Some young people who may not have experienced or come across the issue of domestic violence, may not view this as a social problem. This should not stop us from educating them about the problem.

Part of that education process is making people aware that it domestic violence is problem and a criminal offense. One doesn’t have to be in an abusive relationship. Also letting people know that if it DOES happen that there are steps that you can take and resources that you can access.

I want to say that women should go to the organizations or individuals that they’re comfortable approaching. It is not necessary only to go to South Asian organizations. However, South Asians women’s organizations have done very important work in the last two decades in addressing domestic violence both in terms of consciousness raising and service provision. Looks at organizations such as Sakhi for South Asian Women in New York, Manavi in New Jersey, Apna Ghar in Chicago, Domestic Harmony Foundation in long Island, Narika in California, Raksha in Atlanta, ASAFSF in Arizona and many more. APIDV in California is an excellent resource too and has organizations and important information listed on their website.

The important part is education, whether you’re South Asian, or from another place or born in the U.S., etc… general education is key. Also knowing what the manifestations of domestic violence are and how it can be prevented is crucial. We also have to bring about important structural changes through legislation and examine the ways domestic violence intersects with other issues.

OAA: What was your motivation behind writing Speaking the Unspeakable: Marital Violence Among South Asian Immigrants in the U.S. and what is the key conclusion that you were trying to pass on to your readers?

PA: Organizations and activists had been talking about it. The motivation for me to write the book really stemmed from wanting to have South Asian immigrant women’s voices and experiences as part of our understanding of domestic violence. While statistics is important, getting an in depth understanding of the problem through qualitative research also is important. Also for some of the reasons I mentioned earlier. I wanted to look at marital relationships in the context of power relations and also address

(1). How do you mobilize and bring the issue from a private problem to a public issue through action research.

(2) How do you put women’s voices in the center and have a multiplicity of voices speaking about the issue?

In those days, marital relationship violence was not spoken about very publicly by families; it was often for many seen as something that wasn’t a part of the immigrant experience. People wanted to show the South Asian community as a model immigrant minority community. For South Asians too it seemed that it was important to be invested in that South Asian identity, that is, that you were hard working and combined a strong work ethic and family harmony. This model minority image prevented us from going out and speaking about domestic violence because in doing so, it would challenge or breakdown the image of South Asians being able to be economically successful and at the same time maintaining strong family values.

My motivation was to really understand the problem marital violence as a social problem and to really draw attention to South Asian women’s voices that had not been included in this discourse. I hoped to use South Asian women’s experiences and their voices to show that you can’t explain women’s experiences of domestic violence without understanding how gender intersects with race, class, ethnicity, legal status ad the need to understand the complexity of both structural and cultural factors. Race, ethnicity, access to resources, combined with cultural factors and lack of awareness of the legal system, responses of court, police, immigration all can exacerbate the vulnerabilities that immigrant women experienced as victims/survivors of domestic violence. Not that it was unique in our communities, but rather it was something that also occurred in our communities and as such needed to acknowledges and addressed as a public social issue.

You know, writing a book can be a challenging. Particularly writing something you could use in academe but also how to make it an important tool of study that can be shared with a larger public. Early in the process of my research I understood from the women I interviewed and from the South Asian Women’s organizations the importance of writing in ways that fit the notion of action research, where you can give back to the community.

My goal was to do both: to put women’s voices in the center but make sure the research is descriptive as well as analytical. I wanted to show a few important things, such as the linkage between macro and micro factors of domestic violence, looking at domestic violence in terms of existing organizations, their roles, and how much institutions play in shaping domestic violence. I also wanted to show the different facets and aspects of how women experience domestic violence; what the causal factors were as well as how they experience it.

I must say that I owe much to the women who spoke to me in the early 90’s and were courageous to speaking about the unspeakable. They spoke about the many factors that contributed to abuse: extended family, financial factors, etc… The language barriers are important as well. For many of them accessing resources was difficult due to a lack of available resources, concern with what the community would think and of lack familiarity with the U.S. system of service provision. Many of the barriers that they noted about immigration processes have begun to be slowly addressed though VAWA legislation but there is still a long way to go.

OAA: Any additional comments for our readers/bloggers?

PA: I think it’s very important that we have people who are committed to the publicly address the issue not only of domestic violence but the larger issue of violence and human rights. We have to thinks both local and global. We have to think and act about ending violence within our communities and also beyond our communities. It is very important to speak out and support the work that individuals and organization are doing to end violence. In these tough economic times, it is particularly important for us to see what ways we can help non-profit organizations in the work that they do.

Don’t be a strategic partner through your silence. If you are aware of cases of domestic violence, show your support to the person who is being abused and help them in getting the information and resources to stop the abuse. There’s no harm in checking out and making sure that the person is okay.

I think it is great for people, especially young people to volunteer with some organization or group. Service through volunteerism is not charity but the idea of strengthening communities, giving back and empowering ourselves by being agents of positive change. It is about true partnership where you as a volunteer can make an individual and collective difference.

We should use forums, resources and use our voices to be proactive in influencing the world we live in. Our commitment should not only be to ending domestic violence but taking important steps to end all forms of violence. Then only can future generations truly say that we actually worked at ensuring a legacy of greater peace and safety for all.


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