Do I Need Permission to Breathe? – A Migrant Woman’s Story
NEW YORK - “I soiled my pants, I could feel the wetness seeping into my waistband, my eyes started to become blurry. Only the sound of the blaring television assured me that I was still alive. I tried to stop thinking and make my mind go completely blank. Over the years I have adapted and now I can make my mind go numb. But the only nagging question ringing on my mind during the last 45 seconds was: will this stain the carpet? Should I clean myself first or should I clean the carpet first? Which one is safer? Did he notice the stain?
I laid there without a word hoping and praying that he does not notice the wetness. I am pretty sure he will start to bash me noticing the stain. We just bought the carpet two years back and it is messed now for me. I laid down holding my breath.
His grip started to get loose. I saw him examining the wet spot on his jeans and his eyes change to a different color of red. A little later he moved his foot that was firmly digging on my chest. His mother scrunched her nose and tucked a portion of her garment to block the smell. She held my son by his arm and pulled him out of the closet. I saw my son being dragged to the kitchen. Although the blood on my eyes was making it hard to see, still I was relieved that my 6-year-old did not have to see his mother soiling her garments and her face red with blood. I laid there for roughly five minutes until my husband left the room.”
She takes a pause, touching the old cut on her lips and wipes the corner of her eyes marked with various shades of blue and purple. She speaks like this with vivid descriptions every time she comes to the shop. Then as expected, comes the routined realization of guilt, regret, and anger followed by her denial and helplessness. “It is not his fault. It is not. He is a good man, he buys me food, he gave money for laundry but sometimes he loses his patience. He is not a bad man.” She nods her head and forces a faint smile. He holds my hands and gestures me begging to stay calm.
This story is of a girl named Selina, who is a regular at the Asian store down the road.
Selina was only 16 years old when a family came to meet her as she came back home from school one day. All she knew was: the family lives in America and is affluent. She was married that evening. After a year, her husband brought her to the United States. For the last 7 years, she has never been permitted to meet anyone from her family or go back home. She does not have access to a telephone nor is she permitted to go out of the house alone. The only surrounding she knew was the house she lives in, the grocery store and the route to her son’s school. Coming from the same country as me, she speaks to me every chance she gets when her mother in law is not with her. I have seen her many times in the shop, hesitant, perplexed and with bruises. Today she came fully covering her face, limping and looking for a stain remover for her carpet.
I took another look at her face and at the fresh bandage covering her forehead and after 3 years of trying to gather some courage, I finally picked up my phone and dialed. (1)
Domestic abuse and violence are the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another. It includes physical violence, sexual violence, psychological violence, and emotional abuse. The frequency and severity of domestic violence can vary dramatically; however, the one constant component of domestic violence is one partner’s consistent efforts to maintain power and control over the other. (2) Sometimes in the early stages of a relationship, it cannot be determined if one person will become abusive and to what extent that might lead to. Domestic violence intensified overtime. Outwardly an abuser seems like a wonderful person, liked by his colleagues and friends but gradually may become aggressive and controlling. Also, an abuser may have episodes of being violent and being loving or caring moments later. The abused might stay in a constant state of denial hoping for the episode to pass and then get back to normality.
The question comes in relation as to why the abuser does not voice her concerns or reach out for help. Also why they do not break the cycle of abuse? In the majority of countries with available data, less than 40 percent of the women who experience violence actually speak up and seek help of any sort. Among women who do, most look to family and friends and very few look to formal institutions and mechanisms, such as police and health services. Less than 10 percent of those women seeking help for the experience of violence sought help by appealing to the police or other organizations. (3) Between 960,000 and 3,000,000 incidents of domestic violence are reported each year, while many other incidents go unreported. (4) It is estimated that more than ten million people experience domestic violence in the U.S. each year. (5) In many cases, it has been seen that there is a massive gap between the number of abused women reaching out for help than the actual number of women facing abuse.
The victim’s reasons for staying with their abusers are extremely complex and, in most cases, are based on the reality that their abuser will follow through with the threats they have used to keep them trapped: the abuser will hurt or kill them, they will hurt or kill the children, they will win custody of the children, they will harm or kill pets or others and will ruin their victim financially. The victim in violent relationships knows their abuser best and fully knows the extent to which they will go to make sure they have and can maintain control over the victim. (6)
There is a growing body of research data demonstrating that immigrant women are a particularly vulnerable group of victims of domestic violence., where a widely utilized technique to dominate the abused is isolation. It is an important factor in marital abuse among South Asian immigrant families. It lends itself to the invisibility immigrant women experience based on their gender status in the United States. Drawn from unstructured interviews with abused South Asian immigrant women, three different levels of isolation are explained. The first level involves the quality of a woman’s relationship with her spouse; the second is related to the frequency and quality of social interaction with friends, relatives, and coworkers; and the third is explained in terms of the level of access to and participation in the ethnic community and other formal institutions. (5). This group of women tends to have fewer resources, stay longer in the relationship, and sustain more severe physical and emotional abuse. It has been seen many times that abusers of immigrant domestic violence victims actively use their power to control their wife’s and children’s immigration status and threats of deportation as tools that play upon victim’s fears so as to keep their abused spouses and children from seeking help or from calling the police to report the abuse.
Due to the language barrier, the immigrant women who have limited speaking ability of the language spoken in the foreign country get sidelined by default. During their doctor’s visits, children’s school visits and other social interactions they remain highly dependent on their spouses or upon family for getting their point across. So, if they want to voice out their concerns they are barred and monitored. It is a well-known common practice of many first generations and second-generation families to keep the families’ personal identification documents like passports, birth certificates, health insurance cards, social security cards and financial documents under the control of the male of the house. The women are always under constant surveillance and monitoring. Another interesting factor adding to the muted voice of abused women is financial dependency. Following traditions and cultural norms, regardless of educational background or social standing, a major portion of the immigrant women are required to put their earnings or savings into a joint account that she and her partner share. And in most cases, she holds no access or decision-making ability of her own money even if she is earning.
An update to Selina’s story:
One phone call made by her neighbor 2 years back, changed her life for the better. It took her 2 months to heal physically in a hospital, took 23 sessions of physical therapy to walk properly and hours of counseling to get back her mental health and stability. She now works in a bakery and can speak basic English after a year of training offered by her local shelter. She is living in a one-bedroom apartment with her son and she recently sent $50 to her ailing mother back home from her paycheck. Every time her cell phone rings, she smiles and pauses before answering. She loves the fact that she can breathe without taking permission from anyone and can speak with anyone she wishes to.
Note:. Selina’s story: The actual name and location of the victim and reporter have been kept confidential.
Cover Photograph: Although women and girls account for a far smaller share of total homicides than men, they bear by far the greatest burden of intimate partner/family‐related homicide, and intimate partner homicide. Source: UNODC report
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