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Spill the Chai: On why domestic violence is everyone’s problem

By Aymen Sherwani, November 15, 2020—

October marked Domestic Violence Awareness Month and while quarantining at home is supposed to keep the COVID-19 pandemic at bay, a new pandemic of domestic violence has been sweeping across the globe as a result of these mandatory measures put in place.

All across the world, people have been suffering job loss and financial hardship, and more often than not, it takes an insurmountable toll on individuals already trapped in physically- and emotionally-abusive relationships. Aside from escalating financial tensions within the household contributing to abuse, a lot of victims enduring abuse really relied on the fact that their partners would be away at work all day. But quarantine-related job losses have caused reports of domestic violence to skyrocket. Domestic violence shelters are already experiencing a shortage of beds due to restrictions to begin with, leading many victims to be stuck in between a rock and a hard place when choosing between staying in isolation with their abuser or homelessness. 

If anything, the two things that the South Asian diaspora is well versed in would be economic hardship and domestic violence. Within a culture that systemically views women as second-class citizens, the harsh reality of the matter is that these two plagues upon our society are a package deal.

“A telltale sign of abuse is isolation and a heavy dependency on your abuser. Having a heavy dependence on another individual often makes them feel like they have a sense of power over you, and can do whatever they want with you as a result of that.” 

These powerful words were spoken by Maryam Ejaz, who is a Pakistani-Canadian poet, and film-maker behind the up and coming short film, Purple Kisses, which tells the all-too-familiar tale of domestic violence in the South Asian community. Purple Kisses, the title being a metaphor for physical abuse-related bruises, explores the toxic interplay between the patriarchal power structure ingrained into the South Asian diaspora and the obsession with the “model-minority status” that overwhelmingly contributes to how often abuse is swept under the rug. Aliyah, the main character of Purple Kisses played by Maneet Khera, is pregnant throughout the course of the film, which further brings out the vulnerability and desperation of victims of abuse.

Still taken from Purple Kisses. / Photo courtesy of Maryam Ejaz.

There’s an unrealistic expectation that the South Asian diaspora has carried back from the homeland that insinuates woman should be fully reliant on their husbands for things like finances, and mobility — because God knows why a woman would ever feel the need to drive let alone do something crazy like open up a chequing account. It’s this heavy reliance on men, who have been taught since day one that the job of a woman is to serve you, that creates the breeding ground for exploitation.

Ejaz adds, “some of the largest problems associated with domestic violence within South Asian communities are the fact that women are expected to be financially dependent on their husbands, and also lack support from their community or family members because of how taboo speaking out about it is.” 

Seeking divorce in South Asian society is one of the hardest things you can do because of how taboo it is. When two people get married, it’s not just a union of two people, but it’s a union of two families, and the respect of a family is based on that. So when a victim seeks out divorce, one of the many reactions from in-laws is to discredit the abuse occurring, and when it’s acknowledged, it’s encouraged to “simply compromise and let it happen” in order to save face in front of the rest of society.

Ejaz adds that “we’ve created an environment where everyone wants to fit in so badly, that the classism and elitism and the judgement that follows, really dominate over the bonds we should have as a community. It’s not that people want to be the best, it’s that if their flaws show, everyone else will jump onto them for being vulnerable.”

The model minority myth perpetuates the idea that South Asians are some of the most economically successful people in North America because of their “strong family values” and “unmatched work ethic,” but it’s this same myth that prevents victims from even coming forward in the first place. This is the same myth behind why victims feel the need to present themselves as having the perfect marriage while struggling in silence because they’re afraid to be ostracized as “homewreckers”. 

This obsession with elitism has gotten so bad it’s become a sort of hereditary curse across generations within the diaspora. Ejaz says, “when the older generation represses their experiences of abuse, they become numb to the pain of having to live with their abuser. They’re not truly happy, but feel like they need to put up with it due to how much they prioritize their honour and the honour of their family. They think “well if we can put up with it, then you can put up with it too,” and just encourage them to believe that abuse is a part of every marriage. That is why the most common response to a victim speaking up about their abuse is the word “compromise”. 

We need to get rid of the idea that women who come forward as victims are homewreckers because a lot of the times these women are desperate, and are too embarrassed to even talk about what happened to them at the hands of their husbands. So when actually garner the courage to come forward and talk about how their partner, who is supposed to love and care for them, is hurting them, and belittling them, and making them feel like they have nowhere else to turn — the first steps to be a part of the solution involve simply “being there for them.” Some women just need someone to be there to listen to them and validate their experience, rather than gaslighting them into undermining the severity of their pain. Ejaz adds that “not every woman is prepared or even capable of getting a divorce because of how much she heavily depends on her husband financially. Don’t shame them for wanting to stay with their abuser.”

In 2019 Maryam Ejaz was selected as a writer and director in the HERLAND Mentorship Program, which is supported by the Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers (CSIF), and TELUS Storyhive — she credits her success to her mentors.

“Purple Kisses wouldn’t have been possible without the support of this program. Sandi Somers was my mentor and she helped me find my voice as a director. Everyone in the film worked very hard and I hope our efforts came through.” 

Ejaz will bring her poetry to life on the big screen this Fall 2020, and tell the story of a South Asian family that could be anyone’s family. It’s not just something that happens back home in some developing country, where honour killings run rampant. It could be your aunt, a stay at home mom who’s financially reliant on her husband with anger issues. It could be your best friend who’s husband comes from a family where abuse was normalized, because he’s seen the way his father treats his mother. It could be you. 

Spill the Chai is a weekly column that seeks to showcase the talents and achievements of the South Asian and Middle Eastern communities at the University of Calgary campus, but also “spills the chai” on the issues they face on a daily basis, by speaking power into the narratives of the many students of colour on campus. This column is a part of our Voices section.

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