Hello, SAALT Spot readers! My name is Viraj, and it’s more likely you know me as the “Blog Intern”. I am a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and I earned my degree in English with a minor in Asian American Studies. This past semester, I completed a thesis regarding “honor” killings. While I will save that discussion for (hopefully) another time, this research really opened my eyes to domestic violence among women of color.
In April, I was lucky enough to meet Shamita Das Dasgupta, who spoke at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for the annual Balgopal Lecture on Human Rights and Asian Americans . Dr. Dasgupta is the cofounder of Manavi (New Jersey), the first organization in the U.S. to focus on violence against South Asian immigrant women. She is currently teaching as an adjunct professor at NYU Law School.
Dr. Dasgupta told me that, out of 160 South Asian women surveyed in the United States:
-35% claim current male partner physically abused them at least once
-32.5% claim such abuse has happened within the last year
-19% claim their current male partner has sexually abused them at least once during their time together
-15% claim at this abuse happened within the past year
While I wasn’t able to attend her actual lecture (interviewing for graduate schools demands sacrifices), Dr. Dasgupta was gracious enough to speak with me the following morning. We spoke about a range of topics, from sexual violence among different socioeconomic classes as well as connections with religion and the issues different generations of South Asian American women face:
“In the upper class, when a woman is raped outside of the home, it is assumed that it is because she is exposing herself. Women still feel as if the home is a safe place, and that sexual violence can only occur outside of the home. On the other hand, the poorer classes know that women must travel outside of the home. Also, oftentimes, their “homes” are shantytowns and are very exposed spaces. The poorer classes understand that sexual and domestic violence can occur anywhere. The whole issue is of a woman being isolated- upper classes feel that if a woman is isolated, she cannot be harmed.”
Returning to her work in the United States, Dr. Dasgupta spoke to me about some of the narratives she has heard from the women she has worked with regarding religion and domestic abuse:
“There is this concept called sarwan saha which many people abide by. The concept is often interpreted as “You’re the one who can change bad men into good men. Your responsibility, as a woman, is to endure”, is how it is read. Women think that religious culture is to endure- “My husband is beating me because I am failing and he is teaching me what I need to know.”
After hearing these narratives from many women, Dr. Dasgupta said that:
“I have actually found passages in Muslim and Hindu texts that really celebrate the strength of women. One particular Hindu text says “God is not in the home where the woman is not celebrated”. When I find these empowering texts and show them to women, it is like they are awakening. I ask them- “Why is this passage invisible? Is it not also a part of your faith background? I really ask the women to challenge how and why tradition is created. “
As a second generation Indian American woman, I was curious to see what sort of advice she has for me and other second generation South Asian American women:
“For a lot of second generation women, I see that their parents are pushing them into marriages they don’t want-often with men from South Asia, and often with men who are South Asian American. If they choose to rebel, divorce, etc., their parents tell them that “you are not our daughter anymore.”. These women are told that they are betraying our community, [and that they are a] traitor to our culture. It often drives women away from identifying as Indian American or engaging with the community”
I wish they would not reject the culture but rather claim a space within the community. We are incumbent on the second generation to change us, and I would advise them to not let other people define what your generation consists of.”
And, finally, as a bookworm, I asked her for a book recommendation- specifically, a book that has changed her life:
“It is a Bengali book. Unfortunately, I do not think that they have translated it into English. It is called The First Promise by Ashapurna Devi. It is a wonderful story that discusses many issues women face- I read it when I was a young girl and still hold it very close to my heart. “
Dr. Dasgupta’s words really opened my eyes to the complicated, and often conflicting, challenges South Asian American women face, and her words about “betraying the community” is something I have seen come up in my research about “honor” killings as well. All in all, Dr. Dasgupta’s passion for her community is something I found inspiring and her passion as an educator is something I am very grateful for.