WESNET INTERVIEW SERIES
Violence and abuse have the same detrimental impact on human beings, no matter the person or the community they are part of.
However, violence and abuse can take many forms and different communities experience unique forms of violence that other communities don’t. The migrant community, for example, experiences unique forms of violence such as transnational abuse, domestic servitude, economic exploitation and dowry abuse, among others.
As with many other cultural specific forms of coercive control, dowry abuse is still largely under-recognised in Australia as a form of family violence. While dowry is generally understood as a cultural practice among the Indian Community, it is important to acknowledge that dowry abuse is a form of family violence that often occurs where male privilege is normalised, manifesting itself as male violence against women. (1)
To understand more about the intersection of culture, migration and gender in domestic and family violence, we talked with Dr Manjula Datta O’Connor, who brought us unique insights into dowry abuse as a form of family violence, the impact patriarchy has in migrant communities and how toxic masculinity and colonial misconceptions of cultural practices can become tools of abuse.
Dr Datta O’Connor has recently published Daughters for Durga about dowries, gender violence and family in Australia. She draws from her clinical expertise as a psychiatrist and her close work with the Indian community – as a researcher and advocate – to provide new insights into measures to prevent family violence.
1. Thank you for accepting our invitation, Dr Datta O’Connor. Before going into clinical practice, did you realise the extent of family violence across the community, and also within the Indian migrant community in particular?
Thank you for inviting me.
I was invited to speak about suicide in the Indian community in 2006. It was then that I became aware of the plight of the women.
Why do Indian women have the highest suicide rate in the world? The answer was troubling. From the cradle to the grave, some women have the misfortune of being victims of domestic abuse, patriarchal oppression and dependence on men. That was when I resolved to learn about my heritage in depth and realised that I must work in the space of domestic violence.
2. You have been very successful in raising awareness around forms of dowry abuse in Australia, particularly in Victoria, for our readers that may not have heard about dowry abuse, could you briefly explain what it is?
Dowry is defined as oversized gifts given by the bride’s family to the groom’s family, including gold – sometimes paid in kilograms to the groom – household furnishings, white goods, cars and so on. Dowry in olden times consisted initially of some gold jewellery and clothes. Because the family property was inherited by sons, it was antemortem inheritance.
But colonisation helped to make dowry practice toxic. British colonisers increased the value of men by giving them parcels of land. They gave jobs to men. This was not afforded to women. Their aim was to extract taxes from the farmers.
But the system was highly patriarchal, and somewhere along the way, dowry became gifts for the groom and family instead of the bride’s inheritance.
Indian cultural is patrilocal. The bride moves into the groom’s family home. The distorted practice of patriarchal oppression, greed and abuse of power leads to demands for dowry, money, gifts and so on. Refusal to comply with demands gives rise to violence and, in some cases, death.
3. In one of your clinical practices, you found that 75 per cent of female patients suffering emotional abuse and physical violence were linked to the husband’s family’s dissatisfaction with the dowry provided by the bride’s family. All cases are different, of course, but what are some typical characteristics of dowry abuse? Are there ‘red flags’ that people working with migrant women should be watchful for?
Before dowry became known publicly in the media in around 2012 – 13, the number of patients with dowry abuse in my practice was very high, around 75%. As the media interest in the stories increased, the numbers fell to around 38% in about 2016. It has now stabilised to around 50% of my patients experiencing dowry abuse.
The remainder suffers economic abuse, misappropriation of their wages, and refused permission to use their hard-earned income. In a new marriage, this type of misappropriation, I believe, is linked with the abuse of power and expectation of dowry.
4. Although the practice of dowry has been banned in India for more than 50 years, and is not a recognised practice in Australia, this has not stopped it from still happening. Is dowry practice becoming more or less prevalent in Australian-Indian communities? Is it confined to new arrivals, or has it been sustained through multiple generations?
The power of the groom is higher than that of the bride, and this gender-based inequality is open to abuse. Most people do not abuse this power, but some do. The Australian residency of the groom (called a non-resident Indian groom or NRI) has a far higher value than the home-based groom. The power imbalance increases further.
Some abuse this power and use it to distort the cultural practice of dowry and start demanding gifts. And if unsatisfied with the gifts given, they exercise violence.
In Victoria, the murder of Deepshikha Godara in December 2015 occurred in the context of 6 – 7 years of excessive demands for cash. She finally left him, and that was the trigger for her murder by her abusive husband. The newly arrived brides are more at risk of dowry abuse and economic abuse. I have also seen dowry extortion and confiscation of dowry gifts, including gold and expensive items, in locally held marriages.
It is not possible to say if the dowry abuse is increasing, but certainly, the reporting and recognition by the survivors and the service providers in Sydney, Melbourne and to an extent in all the Australian states are much greater.
5. Through your work, you have explained how the practice of dowry is steeped in the unequal valuing of women in Indian society. Is dowry practice something that non-migrant Australians should be respectful of as cultural practice, or should it be strongly discouraged in Australia, if not prohibited?
It is natural that friends and family think of giving gifts to the bride or groom. That is where the line between acceptable and unacceptable becomes blurred. What may be a huge amount for one family may be tiny for another family.
But families require education that it is unfair and unreasonable to expect the bride’s family to bear the cost of dowry gifts and the ‘big fat Indian wedding’. If the parents believe they want to give a good start in life to the young couple, it should be equally borne by the groom and the bride.
6. Dowry abuse is still not consistently recognised across Australia as a form of family violence, largely due to its culturally specific nature. Are there other forms of abuse that migrant women may experience or experience differently from non-migrant women? Why would you say that it is important for Australia to have a nuanced understanding of family violence that considers culture, migration and gender?
Sponsored migrant women are more vulnerable than women born locally. The power imbalance between the one who sponsors and is an Australian resident and the sponsored person puts the latter at risk of abuse. Interaction of migration and cultural practices, such as forced marriage, bride values and female genital cutting, need to be kept front of mind. The families feel pressurised to balance the illegal activities with the threat of societal exclusion should they choose to shun the cultural practice, putting the lives of women at risk.
7. Aside from awareness about different forms of family violence specific to migrant women, what are other key issues that domestic and family violence workers should consider when providing support?
Migrant women may not have the language skills to convey the full extent of abuse and controls. Sexual abuse is commonly associated with dowry abuse. The sense of entitlement over women’s bodies and the man’s right to sex within marriage is not illegal in India. Traditional societies are often patriarchal but may not be harmful. It is about having the power to exercise choices. Highly educated women from Asian countries are often underemployed, adding to low self-image and low confidence.
It is important to note that men, too, need support and counselling. They themselves are often suffering – subject to racism, underemployment, financial stress and student loans. Men’s referral and counselling numbers should be strongly advertised in the media.
8. In the specialist sector, we talk a lot about the importance of trauma-informed care. As a clinical psychiatrist with lengthy experience in DFV, what are the benefits of trauma-informed care? Do trauma-informed responses look different for migrant women?
Trauma therapy needs to be culturally nuanced. Of course, each survivor of DFV needs to be treated as any other survivor. That is, they require better safety – housing and physical safety – then good sleep and emotional regulation, lowering anxiety and fear and promoting better food intake. Most trauma therapists help the patient to connect their symptoms with the trauma perpetrated by the perpetrator.
But I take it a step further. I help the survivor to see the gender inequality and gender oppression located at various levels of the socio-ecological diagram. Our second community participatory theatre (Natak Vihar) promotes this conversation. It shows how the distress and trauma felt by women is the result of gender inequality and oppression perpetrated at various levels of socio-ecological diagram. The exact nature of this type of analysis will vary according to cultural nuances contained within each cultural group.
9. You have said before that education is key to equality. Yet, as you have also mentioned, a significant number of educated Indian women have increasingly become victims of domestic violence. When you talk about education, do you mean specific forms of education and directed at whom? Is there a role here for women’s specialist services supporting victim-survivors of domestic and family violence?
The role of education plays out at various levels. Formal education is helpful. It gives women the power to earn and to relate with the world, it removes isolation and gives women dignity and self-respect. But it is not enough if women do not understand their rights and are not allowed to exercise them or have the confidence to exercise them.
So, the other type of education is to teach women about the laws that will protect them, human rights, about their place in society and what they would want.
Teaching empathy and respectful attitudes towards women to their children is also of utmost importance.
This is where the specialist services come in. All migrants – men and women entering the country 2 need to have education in the above-mentioned issues. At the Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health (ACHRH) we have devised interactive workshops just for that purpose.
10. And lastly, in your latest book, Daughters of Durga, you talk about how Indian women organised to resist British colonial rule. Can you explain briefly how they did this? Are there lessons more broadly for the Australian women’s movement today?
Gender relations are largely power-based in societies globally; they are largely patriarchal systems devised by men. But in India, women were educated and mixed with educated men, according to ancient Indian traditions dating back more than 3000 years. In the Rig-Veda period (1000–1500 BC), women in India enjoyed an unprecedented position of strength and respect, described beautifully in the eloquent poems of the time. The Vedas were written in Sanskrit by a number of unknown writers, including, many believe, more than twenty women.
The national character of modern Indian womanhood is strongly influenced by its educated women: religiously equal, politically savvy, fearless warriors and queens, poetesses and ones who were allowed to choose their own partners in a ceremony called swamvaar depicted in poems of Rig-Vedas, the dramatic stories in Puranas, the tales of Mahabharata.
The Upanishads—part of the Vedas—contain accounts of learned women, including that of Gargi, an eminent philosopher who debated her male peers in the King’s court. Early evidence of literature by women can be seen in Therigatha – Buddhist verses written in India over a 300-year period from sixth-century BC to third-century BC. Its 73 poems and 525 verses were written by early women practitioners of Buddhism from all walks of life—they were royalty, sex workers, wives, courtesans, mothers, widows, and so on.
From the beginning of the 1900s, women of India began organising themselves into an anti-British force to be reckoned with. This could not have happened had they been an entirely enslaved or oppressed lot in pre-British India. Or perhaps they drew on their cultural history. After all, India is the land of powerful goddesses—Laxmi, the goddess of wealth; Sarasvati, the goddess of education; Durga, the goddess of power; and Parvati, the goddess who stood next to her powerful husband Lord Shiva and was ardhangini – meaning ‘half his body’. These women have been part of the psyche of Indian women since time immemorial.
In 1943, in Singapore, the nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose created the Rani Jhansi Regiment (RJR), an all-women corps of soldiers. They were approximately 5000 in number, drawn from the Indian diaspora in Burma, Malaya and Singapore, where racism and patriarchal and imperial attitudes were rife. The women were seen to be lower in social status than men, and many who joined from the rubber estates in Malaya ‘lived and worked under conditions that approached slavery. Sexual abuse by the mainly white estate managers was a common occurrence. The Rani of Jhansi Regiment offered an environment where the young women found themselves respected and free of the social stigma of ‘coolie’ status. Now with their heads held high, they experienced a level of egalitarianism in the company of their Rani comrades that they had not known before .’
The women, recognising that it was patriarchy re-enforced by colonialism that oppressed them, joined the men to oust the British Empire, fighting under the Indian National Army in the Second World War and allied with Japan.
As Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru wrote: ‘Most of us menfolk were in prison. And then a remarkable thing happened. Our women came to the front and took charge of the struggle. Women had always been there, of course, but now there was an avalanche of them, which took not only the British government but their own menfolk by surprise.’
Indian women played a decisive role in the 1947 downfall of the British Raj. Their actions challenged the stereotypes of Indian women—they showed themselves to be complex and resilient, not simply the subjugated creatures the British had supposed. They came out in dozens, women of every class, and caste, educational status, to participate in Satyagraha.
The women also recognised that the patriarchal family structure itself was oppressive and made demands to improve family life for women through ‘the Hindu Code’. A thinker and a freedom fighter, Dalit leader Dr B.R Ambedkar, wrote India’s constitution and incorporated women’s ideals into legislation. The Hindu Code, as it was called, advocated monogamy, inter-caste and inter-religion marriage, divorce, widow remarriage, and equal inheritance. The Hindu Code laid a framework for gender equality in India. It would usher in the modern era.
The British were not pleased with women’s participation in the struggle. The 1932 Annual Report of the Police Administration characterised the presence of women as ‘calculated to prove an embarrassment to the police’ [quoted in Kaur, 1968:182]. A large presence of women in the campaigns upset British stereotypes of Indian women and exposed police brutality. More significantly, it laid bare British hypocrisy over Indian men’s maltreatment of women since British police and army officers and government officials were quite prepared to intimidate, beat and shoot women demonstrators.
The analysis of the early Indian women’s movement has a number of implications for people in the West who are concerned with the same issues today. First is the analytical point that imperialism and gender divisions are linked.
The impact of foreign domination is an important factor in women’s subordination, historically and in the present.
Recognition of this link gives people in the West a framework for understanding women’s struggles in ex-colonial and neo-colonial countries, for it helps to explain why Third-World feminists have a different analysis of women’s oppression than those that have arisen in the West. This analysis, focusing on both male domination and Western domination, needs to be incorporated into Western feminist analysis (Joshi and Liddell 1988).
First, we must examine the parallel abuses of women in our own culture, distinguishing the different cultural forms which these take, and demonstrating that male privilege is not confined to any particular culture. The second lesson is the importance of de-linking the two – colonisation itself, patriarchal dominance, and culture to better understand their contribution to women’s oppression. Next, analysing the complexity of male domination in various ways allows us to recognise the different forms of male oppression at home and abroad without the danger of our attacks being used as weapons.
 Australian Women Against Violence Alliance, (2018). Submission in Response to the Senate Inquiry: The Practice of Dowry and the Incidence of Dowry Abuse in Australia.
About the series: The WESNET Interview Series brings an array of diverse opinions, perspectives and insights from different professionals, practitioners, experts, and advocates on violence against women and girls and other forms of gender-based violence. We aim to share the full diversity of voices to help inform and expand the narratives around ending violence in all its forms. Not all the voices will agree on every aspect of what to do and how to do it, but all the voices are from those committed to ending gender-based violence. You can read the rest of our interviews here.