Having lived in the UK for 18 months, and having gone to the ‘Indian’ part of town once too often, there’s one question that kept nagging me: How different are lives of British-Indian women from those of Indian women?
What are their ‘options’ in terms of sovereignty in life choices, whether it is pursuing a career or not, getting married or staying single, getting a divorce, having a same-sex partner, becoming an entrepreneur? Is the way women are viewed and treated by their families in the UK any different from India? And if there is a difference, how does it fit in with the construct of social life in the UK?
Going back to the beginning, the UK city that I lived in, had a whole different ‘Indian’ area, where most first, second and third generation Indians (the older ones still decidedly-Indian in attire) bought Indian clothes and Indian groceries from Indian-owned business establishments. In fact, when I first went there, it took me a while to orient myself; it was almost as if the chaos of Delhi’s Karol Bagh or Mumbai’s D.N. Road had been replicated in this green and perennially-misty land ! So complete was the mind-boggling ‘operation’ of moving Indians and Indian quirks to the UK, lock, stock and two spicy biryani barrels, that it took me one full day to recover from ‘British-Indian’ accents and heavily made-up Indian women, who all looked the same.
The critical question is what lies behind the dainty white lace curtains of insulated windows in neatly laid-out British-Indian homes? Is the reality of life for Indian-origin families here revealed by and limited to the cultural spectrum offered by movies such as Bend it Like Beckham and Provoked: A True Story? Is honour killing and honour-based abuse as rampant today as it was in the 80s and 90s? Are Indian-origin men here just as intrusive, abusive and sexually-deviant, both in public spaces and within four walls, as they are notorious for being in India? Is there more to the story than violence, abuse and coercion in the name of family values, religious traditions and cultural affinity?
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE….
I met Raheema (not her real name) at a University event. During lunch break, we got talking about the Tamil Nadu village her family belonged to and how she loved visiting India, especially the Marina Beach in Chennai. “My husband used to give me £50 per week for household expenses. The rest of his salary went to his family in India. Then one day, during an argument, he hit me with a broom and then slapped me. I had to divorce him after that,” she told me. Despite her best efforts, tears welled up in her eyes. Raheema is a second generation British-Indian, and is Indian only in attire. An intelligent middle-aged woman, with a successful career, she was fortunate enough to be able to divorce an abusive husband who arrived in the UK on a spouse visa and then brought along several of his family members, paying for their living expenses on priority while sidelining and being abusive toward his wife.
Mindy Chawla (not her real name) was born in the UK to a second generation British-Indian father; her mother arrived here from India post-marriage. Mindy is quite the party animal, clubbing and dining out atleast twice a week. Her active sex life and scores of like-minded friends keep her social calendar full, and she is as independent in life choices as any British-Indian woman would want to be. She faces other problems, though. “My family reported my ‘social drinking’ to my GP, who then put me on this programme of mental health counselling. I told the GP I was not an alcoholic but only drank on and off, on social occasions. He just did not get it and it left me so frustrated !” she says.
APATHY AND IMPUNITY
When this writer went to meet a representative of Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid (BSWA), she was asked to email questions to Sally Dennis of BSWA. Sally could not reply but Nasheima Shaikh, Assistant Chief Executive at BSWA wrote back saying, “I am afraid we do not have the capacity to do this (answer questions) presently.”
With regard to official statistics on Domestic Violence in the UK, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) gave this reply on its website to a question on the ethnicity of victims of domestic violence in the UK: “The exact information on the number of victims of domestic violence by UK area that you require is not available…”
In their study on Indian-origin victims of domestic violence across the world, researchers Sundari Anitha, Anupama Roy, Harshita Yalamarty, Nalini Trivedi and Anjali Chahal spoke to 57 women who had faced abuse. Twenty-eight of the 57 women interviewed for this research had been married to men resident in the UK, eight of the husbands were from Italy, four each from Australia and USA, with smaller numbers from other countries.
Titled “Disposable Women: Abuse, Violence and Abandonment in Transnational Marriages (Issues for Policy and Practice in the UK and India)”, this study was conducted between December 2013 and May 2015 in the Indian states of Delhi, Punjab and Gujarat, which have a long history of out-migration to the UK and other countries in the West.
“The majority of the women reported that they had experienced physical violence perpetrated by their husband, in-laws or both. All the women were subjected to coercive control, isolation and financial abuse. A third of the research participants disclosed sexual abuse perpetrated by their husband, while just under a quarter disclosed sexual abuse by male in-laws. A fifth of the research participants had been coerced into undergoing abortion(s). A majority of the women who experienced sexual abuse indicated that our interview was the first time they had disclosed this abuse,” the study states.
It goes on to say, “Socio-cultural norms against divorce compelled women to remain in abusive relationships. Insecure immigration status prevented marriage migrants from seeking help. The findings suggest that cultural practices like dowry, son preference, and dominant social norms which make for patriarchal control and devaluation of women played an important role in the violence and abandonment that ensued in all marriages,” which makes one wonder if there really is ANY difference at all between the status of Indian women in the UK and those in India.
The demographic characteristics of the women and statistics relating to the nature of domestic abuse they experienced are as follows:
Age Number of women Percentage
18-24 6 11%
25-34 30 53%
35-44 18 32%
45-54 3 5%
Hindu 36 63%
Sikh 19 33%
Muslim 1 2%
Christian 1 2%
Type of marriage
Arranged by family 53 92%
Love/self choice 4 8%
Number of children
None 38 67%
One 16 28%
Two 3 6%
Walked out of the marriage 13 23%
Forced out of in-laws’/husband’s home 44 77%
Dowry demanded/given to in-laws 57 100%
Dowry related violence/harassment 39 68%
Appropriation of wages 7 14%
Abuse related to domestic labour 56 98%
Violence from husband only 15 26%
Violence from in-laws only 11 19%
Violence from both 16 28%
Denial of food and medicine 27 47%
Verbal abuse 53 93%
Coercive control/intimidation 57 100%
Isolation 56 98%
Sexual abuse and denial of reproductive rights
Sexual abuse from husband only 18 32%
Sexual abuse from in-laws only 13 23%
Forced abortion 11 19%
Reported to police 53 93%
Recovered dowry 3 5%
Obtained financial compensation 4 7%
Percentages are rounded off
SOURCE: Disposable Women: Abuse, Violence and Abandonment in Transnational Marriages (Issues for Policy and Practice in the UK and India)