“Why don’t you stand up for yourself, mom?”
These words of my 8-year-old just a few short years ago still whisper to me, along with the cynical tone of adults who still ask “Why didn’t you leave?” Yes, I too share a story with too many women across continents and small American towns even in this amazing age of democracy and social innovation: a domestic abuse survivor who learned to navigate added stigma and humiliation from extended family, community and the very social systems around them that should be their support.
They are often suppressed between two worlds. One falsely pretends it doesn’t exist. The other behaves as if to be entertained by it all.
Thankfully, I continue to grow enough to face with candor the apparent stereotyping of South Asian women living out cultural patterns of distinctive domestic submissiveness. Unarguably, the clear outcomes of marginalization, misogyny, bullying, private and public harassment, and varied levels of physical harm continue entrenched in a people’s culture. Largely because many oppressed by these behaviors sustain them with their actions, their inaction, their fear-based ambivalence – even laughing them off until the effects feel unapplied and normal.
Like fear, fallacy and folly themselves, domestic oppression
is blind to race, creed, caste, gender, ethnicity, social class, religions or
belief systems, cultures and countries. It starts with the passive exercise of
power and control over one’s partner. It can be physical, emotional, verbal,
sexual, financial, social or digital with subtle threats, quiet humiliation,
coercion, intimidation, stalking or assault. In 2017, there were 26,327
protective and stalking orders issued in Georgia. The Criminal Justice
Coordinating Council in Georgia reported 45,715 crisis calls to domestic
Similar agencies widely report that women can and do leave abusive situations. There is no single effective strategy for doing so. But it always fundamentally depends on the victim’s decision to do something different. It also depends on other factors such as financial independence, and access to domestic abuse and prevention resources.
While couples disagree in situations, it is important to set rules of respect right from the beginning. Researching for counseling, support and protections are at every woman’s fingertips nowadays. What’s needed is more community responsibility amplifying that it is not right – it is not normal, and it is OK to defy it.
That’s a kind of education particularly needed for South Asian girls and women who have immigrated to the U.S. Tailored and sensitive education in navigating the legal system, financial literacy, violence prevention strategies and knowing their rights. Our casual narratives with respect to gender roles should always be open for discussion and intelligent debate. Never shrouded behind disingenuous postures of unnecessary and archaic sensitivities to male dominance or strength. Willingly or unwillingly, positively or negatively, we all play a coordinated community-response role in domestic oppression and family violence.
Raising children in toxic situations is not for the best. It sends wrong signals to young minds. The end game is not separation or divorce. It’s responsibility and progressive humanity.
For me, I accepted that something was not right. I made a decision to make it stop. I learned that all it took was for me to respect and love myself first. When I accepted this, I demanded respect from others including my significant other.
I didn’t talk to friends or family out of fear of being mocked. Instead, I collected information from the local police station. I learned my legal rights. I learned to open a bank account in my own name. I learned to sign a check, I learned to use the ATM. I restarted from ground zero – a mother in her 40s.
There was, of course, fear of the unknown and the future. But I knew and I still know that the universe wants me to respect and love myself first, as I learned how better to love and serve others. Despite the fears, I evolved. I bought my own first-ever home, my own car, I have my own bank account and I have co-founded two businesses.
I could not respond to my daughter’s question those years ago. I stood muted and motionless – tears rolling down my cheeks. I wish she could’ve understood then. It hasn’t been easy. Lots of tears and uncertainties. And society sometimes has a way of reminding you of your pain and past.
My daughters now exclaim that I’m the strongest woman they know. They are confident in setting boundaries, standing up for themselves and others.
They are coming of age in a different world. Happily, generational norms are shifting today. They see their mom as a warrior for others and they simply wanted to see her as a warrior for herself.
Nazeera Dawood has a Master's in Public Health from the University of North Carolina and a medical degree from Bangalore University, India. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.