The horrific murder, last week, of a young British Punjabi woman in the west London suburb of Greenford within months of her leaving her Indian-born husband because of family tensions has fuelled concerns over the rising curve of domestic violence among Britain’s south Asian community much of which remains hidden, according to women support groups.
Although hard statistics are not available activists say it is far more widespread than is assumed with at least one out of every four women suffering some degree of domestic violence whether in the form of physical abuse, forced marriage or simply the family pressure to get everything “right.”
While the close-knit Indian community of Southall and Greenford has been shocked by the unprovoked killing of 28-year-old Geeta Aulakh, a receptionist at the local Sunrise Radio and mother of two small children, those who know a thing or two about what goes on behind the laced curtains of suburban Britain say they are not surprised. If anything, it confirms their worst fears about the extent of domestic violence in British homes, including native white families.
Geeta was brutally attacked in what police believe was a “planned assault” by more than one person. They also suspect that the alleged assailants may have been known to her.
“We are not talking about a stranger attacker here who she does not know,” a police source was quoted as saying.
Geeta was on her way to collect her two sons, aged eight and nine, from a child-minder’s home when she was attacked. Passersby found her lying in a pool of blood on a pavement, barely yards from the babysitter’s frontdoor, with a severed hand and serious head injuries. She died in hospital. One Sikh teenager from Southall has been charged with the murder while her estranged husband, Harpreet — also known as Sunny — and 10 other men who were arrested have been given bail.
While investigations are still on, it is widely suspected that the killing may have been the fallout of her unhappy domestic life. Police have confirmed that on two occasions Geeta called the emergency helpline 999 but when officers arrived she did not lodge a formal complaint. Campaigners claim that her behaviour was consistent with the reluctance among Asian women to go to the police.
“One, they don’t trust the police; and two there is a cultural thing that Asian women don’t go public with their private difficulties,” one activist told The Hindu.
According to Geeta’s colleagues, her separated husband had been pestering her to return, and she felt “frightened” and “harassed.” Her elderly parents, it is stated, never approved of Harpreet and were unhappy about the marriage. In fact, after their wedding the couple moved to Belgium to “put some space between them and relatives,” as one report put it. Women’s groups are treating it as a case of domestic abuse.
“We’re looking into it. We believe there is an element of that in this case,” Hannanah Siddiqui of Southall Black Sisters (SBS), one of Britain’s oldest women groups, said.
Ms Siddiqui, who has been closely involved with SBS for over 20 years, views with “alarm” the rise in the number of reported cases of domestic violence in recent years. Given the efforts to address the problem, both at the government level and on the ground by voluntary organisations, one would have thought that the number would decline. But it has actually gone up. At SBS, it has risen from 2,000 cases a year to 2,500 a year in the past decade. Perhaps an equally large (or even higher) number goes unreported.
“It is hard to tell but this increase could also be down to the fact that there’s greater awareness now and more women are coming forward to talk about their problems than they did before,” she said.
Ms Siddiqui dismissed the perception that the problem was more common among certain religious or cultural groups such as Pakistanis or Bangladeshis. She said it was equally widespread across the board, including white families.
“Yes, there is a media stereotyping that only women from certain communities are vulnerable but it is not true. We have as many Indian women come to us as from any other background,” she said arguing that it would be wrong to put the issue into culture or country–specific boxes.
Indeed, the case of Geeta, a British-born and educated woman, disproves the notion that the problem is restricted to vulnerable new migrants from rural areas of Punjab or Sylhet.
A spokesperson of Imkaan, a national network of women’s support groups, accused the British media of “sensationalising” cases involving Asians.
“There is an attempt to create the impression that domestic violence is an issue to do with Asians’ cultural values. We don’t like terms like ‘honour killings’ while describing murders of Asian women. A killing is a killing and should be treated as such,” she said.
Meanwhile, there is dismay among women’s organisations that the government is cutting down on funding for domestic violence services for South Asian women in order to cater to other groups. Imkaan says it is in the process of losing more than 50 per cent of its services which include providing shelters for victims of domestic abuse.
Given the government’s professed commitment to protecting vulnerable women, groups like Imkaan and SBS have urged it to put its money where its mouth is. Or, they warn, the whole campaign against domestic abuse could unravel.