On a warm November evening in 1968, as she sat on a train bound for Chennai to begin her new life as a married woman, Lakshmy Parameswaran’s father leaned through the train window and told her something.
“He put money in my hand and said, ‘If you feel uncomfortable in any way, you take that money and you buy a train ticket and you come right back,’” Parameswaran tells us in her Pearland home. “I didn’t understand. I asked him what could happen and he said, ‘I cannot tell you, but if you feel it you will know.’”
In a culture where married women don’t typically assert their independence—in which they are expected to move into the homes of their in-laws and adopt the rules and customs of their husbands’ families—it was a radical message for a father to impart to his oldest daughter, then 19.
In many ways the message remains a controversial one, even when delivered by Parameswaran to victims of domestic abuse here and now—9,000 miles and 46 years from that November night.
“South Asian Americans come from a very traditional culture, one where most of the power and control in marriages still tends to rest with the male head of the family,” says Parameswaran, founding member of Daya, a nonprofit that provides counseling, financial support, and legal services to victims of domestic violence, most of whom come from southwest Houston’s large Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi community. “Women are supposed to hold it together, and if there’s a failure in the marriage it’s usually attributed to the inability of the female to keep the family together.”
Parameswaran founded Daya (“compassion” in Sanskrit) in 1996 after noticing that South Asian names were underrepresented on the intake lists at the Fort Bend County Women’s Center. Flash forward to 2013, in which Daya staffers responded to more than 5,800 phone calls and 300 clients in a single year. The vast majority of clients seen in Daya’s four-person office are upwardly mobile, with advanced degrees and professional jobs in law, medicine, and information technology—in other words, women who might be reluctant to seek out traditional women’s shelters.
“We speak their language,” Parameswaran explains. “If she says, ‘I cannot leave him because my sister won’t get married,’ we won’t be like, what? We know exactly what she means. The culture of familiarity is there.”
South Asians do not suffer more domestic violence than members of other groups, Daya staffers stress, but they do face their own unique cultural challenges. Chief among these are the restrictions imposed by arranged marriage, which mandate that divorce is a failure, and not just of the couple involved, but the entire two-family clan that aided the union. An older sister who divorces jeopardizes the marriage prospects of her younger siblings, Parameswaran says. Add to the mix immigration and visa issues, which spouses sometimes wield as a controlling tactic, and it becomes easy to see why victims are reluctant to seek help.
Around three-quarters of Daya’s clients these days are victims of multiple abusers: their spouses, their parents, and their in-laws. This is a relatively recent phenomenon, says Daya’s Nusrat Ameen, who traces such abuse to the rise of social media.
“The mother in-law might be Skyping from home in India with her son and she might see dishes in the kitchen and say, ‘Why aren’t the dishes washed?’” she explains, noting that parents often exert enormous pressure on their sons, who are expected to lead their households with a firm hand. His mother might “say something like ‘better make her wash the dishes,’” says Ameen. “That is her way of exerting control. Simple matters like this can give rise to abuse.”
As Daya has expanded and hired more case managers, Parameswaran has seen awareness about domestic violence grow among Daya’s constituency, although not in all cases.
“We still find that there is the feeling that this could not be happening in our community,” says Parameswaran, “because we come from a wonderful cultural background, one that is family-oriented, educated, upwardly mobile, with hard workers and children who go to good schools and make good grades. If we are so good, then how can we have this?”