A clinical psychiatrist reveals how Indian women in Australia experience domestic violence – and how to combat it
Manjula Datta O’Connor is a clinical psychiatrist and President of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists Family Violence Psychiatry Network. She is particularly interested in the mental health experiences of migrant women affected by domestic violence. She has supported women in her clinical practice for three decades. Her new book, Daughters of Durga, is based on her research and clinical experience. It introduces readers to the complexities of domestic violence experienced by South Asian migrant women in Australia, with a focus on Indian women.
Daughters of Durga unpacks the historical context of gender roles in Indian society under the Manusmriti laws. The Manusmriti, the ancient legal text of India, lays down laws, rights, duties, virtues and conduct. Written in the first century AD, it redefined Indian women. Once strong and fearless, they have been rebranded as dependent and submissive creatures. This ideal of submissive women has persisted throughout Indian history, although to varying degrees.
Manusmriti was written by the highest caste for the highest caste. British colonization introduced several legal reforms, including the universal application of Mansumriti to all castes. Originally intended to preserve the purity of the highest caste, Manusmriti became a rigid law that undermined gender equality for all Indian women.
Indian migrants in Australia
Daughters of Durga critically examines the influence of social change over time on the lower status of women. It describes how Indian women organized themselves to resist the effects of British colonial rule. Datta O’Connor is particularly inspired by the experiences of educated women who have sought equality in their relationships and better opportunities for their families in Australia.
The book sets the scene by describing the lives of women in India and those migrating to Australia. After the United Kingdom, Australia is the country with the largest population of Indian migrants, who currently make up 2.8% of Australia’s total population. Indians also make up about 15% of the international student population at Australian universities and about 20% of Australia’s skilled migrant visa program.
Indian women, men and families therefore form a significant part of Australia’s multicultural population. It is essential for Australia to better understand the experiences of Indian women who migrate to Australia.
Abuse of dowry and devalued girls
Datta O’Connor unpacks the cultural context of dowry – the amount of money or assets supposed to be brought into a marriage by an Indian wife. It also examines the underlying assumptions that make dowry a potential tool for continued abuse.
In Indian culture, daughters are valued less than sons. Parents are likely to derive significant financial gain from a son’s marriage, while a daughter’s parents start saving during childhood to pay for her marriage and marriage. Daughters of Durga describes how women’s families are often solely responsible for wedding expenses, including gifts, clothing, jewelry, and the various phases of the wedding ceremony and celebration.
Datta O’Connor notes that the families of many women she sees in her clinical practice have incurred significant debt during this process. She helps the reader understand the complex nature of Indian marriages and the financial expectations placed on the bride and the bride’s family during (and often well beyond) the marriage proceedings. Contributing factors include India’s patriarchal society and the reinforcement of gender stereotypes.
Dowries remain a common practice in Indian marriages, but the coercion of women and their families to pay repeated dowries to the groom or his family after marriage has been recognized as a form of domestic violence in Australia.
While domestic violence affects large numbers of Indian women, Datta O’Connor reminds the reader that many married couples and their families do not engage in dowry-related abuse. Daughters of Durga criticizes the patriarchal system that permits male violence against women, but it also describes men who are “benevolent patriarchs” – in other words, men who may be the final decision makers in family matters, but do so without violence or coercion. .
Increased education means increased risk of family violence
Many of the experiences described by Datta O’Connor are universal for people affected by family violence. As I have observed in my own research for over a decade, coercive control, financial exploitation, and the negative impact of status incompatibility are common issues.
Throughout the book, Datta O’Connor investigates the status of women about to be married to an arranged partner. Modernization has generated better access to education for women in India. Indian women today are better educated and wealthier than their mothers and grandmothers. Families are increasingly investing in their daughter’s education to increase her attractiveness as a potential wife.
Many Indian women thus obtain university degrees which provide them with future career and income opportunities. Yet once a woman is married, her potential career is traded for her role as a “good” wife and mother. For many Indian women, this means being subordinate to their husbands and in-laws and giving birth to at least one son – because sons promise prosperity, while daughters are a financial burden.
Daughters of Durga illustrates how improving a woman’s status through education also increases her risk of domestic violence. Many men – Indian and otherwise – continue to feel threatened by highly educated women with career prospects, especially when these may exceed their own.
Educated women in India have a chance of achieving gender equality in theory. But in practice, a woman can still find herself trapped in a patriarchal relationship that reinforces her inferiority.
Devaluing women harms everyone
Reinforcement of societal values that consider daughters to be less than sons is detrimental to the mental well-being of the whole family. Again, this is not limited to the Indian community: Datta O’Connor’s findings take into account the mental health costs associated with family violence more broadly.
Australia’s hyper-masculine culture has contributed to men’s mental health issues, including incredibly high suicide rates among Australian men. Daughters of Durga empathically explores how expectations of what it means to be a “real man” in Indian society similarly affect men’s mental well-being and how their relationships work.
Social pressure to be the dominant head of the family has contributed to the deteriorating mental health of modern Indian men who seek equal relationships with a female partner. As long as the culture promotes gender inequality, Indian men who try to break out of the “man box” (which prescribes male dominance, strength and power in intimate relationships) will be reminded that they failed as men.
This comes on top of the obvious cost of gender inequality for women. Domestic violence has both short- and long-term negative effects on women’s mental health. Datta O’Connor’s clinical practice and research highlights the devastating consequences of domestic violence for Indian women living in Australia.
Like many other advocates, Datta O’Connor argues that tackling the root of men’s violence against women – by improving social attitudes towards gender equality – would reduce the associated costs. recovery needs of women and children and mental health support for men. This would not only improve individual well-being, but promote healthy, respectful and safe relationships.
Preventing Violence Against Indian Women
Daughters of Durga makes a significant contribution to our understanding of domestic and family violence in multicultural Australia. It also adds to ongoing conversations about educating the community and service providers about women’s experiences with non-physical forms of violence, such as coercive control.
Datta O’Connor clearly situates the culturally specific experiences of South Asian women experiencing domestic violence within a larger context of universal and cross-cultural experiences. She emphasizes the importance of a nuanced understanding of family violence that considers culture, migration and gender.
She concludes by reimagining the Manusmriti in a way that reflects gender equality and the absence of individual and structural violence for women.
Indian women have made significant strides towards empowerment and equality over the past decades. Until men join them on this journey, women’s rising status through education will remain a risk factor for family violence.
The expectations of Indian society must move away from women being ‘good’ and obedient wives and mothers in order to prevent male violence against them. Men should be expected to support gender equality by contributing to household chores and childcare, and supporting women’s career opportunities and financial independence.
To achieve this, concludes Datta O’Connor, we must educate boys and engage men as allies in the fight against domestic violence – and violence against women more generally.
First appeared on The conversationwritten by
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