If you're facing domestic abuse, please just leave

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It is fallacious to assume that domestic abuse is a product of economic poverty and its corollary vices. While the Gattani-Rastogi story may seem like an aberration, it may turn out to be a surprisingly normal phenomenon among Indians, even abroad.

Abusers aren't all unemployed alcoholics. Sometimes, they write newspaper lead editorials, sometimes they run magazines, sometimes they work as country directors for hedge funds, sometimes they build powerful companies.

Recently, I read a news report about Cuberon founder Abhishek Gattani’s abuse towards his wife and was reminded of another incident that occurred in the San Fransisco Bay Area.

It was a chilly summer night in Berkeley, when I caught a late Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train back to Glen Park station in San Fransisco. Two stops later at Macarthur station, four Indians got on board. They were two couples chatting animatedly in Hindi. The women sat across the aisle from me and the men sat right behind them. The train pulled out of Macarthur station and raced to the underwater tunnel that would lead it to Oakland. At about this time, amidst the deafening noise the BART makes on its five-minute underwater tunnel ride, one of the women turned back to her partner (I don’t know if they were married or not) and said that she had forgotten her phone. It was here that the matter began to take a turn for the worse. The man, his voice rising, asked her why she had done so. She said she had forgotten it at the restaurant they had dinner at.

What was an innocuous act of forgetfulness was turned by this man into something entirely dreadful. In a scene I have seen replayed in India on many occasions, the man began berating his wife. He called her a “stupid bitch”, said she was incapable of anything. The woman, who minutes before, had been talking animatedly to her female friend, put her head on her friend’s shoulder and dissolved into convulsing sobs. The man didn't stop. He went on berating her, half out of his seat now, while his friend tried to get him to sit down. He turned to his friend and said, “She does this all the time. She is so stupid.” People stared at them; two elderly white women behind me in particular seemed too afraid to say anything. He loomed over her from his perch and said, “Check your purse, bitch. CHECK YOUR PURSE”.

When I knew the train would pull into 19th street Oakland station, I finally intervened, after giving the man enough chances to cease his behaviour. I told him he needed to stop what he was doing. I told him he had no business abusing his partner, let alone intimidating her in public, and as he appeared violent and dangerous I would call the cops on him.

I did this not because I felt it would change his behaviour, but for five reasons.

 

First, I needed the woman to know that she wasn't helpless and that calling the cops was an option because this man’s behaviour was verbal assault and intimidation. I could only muse that she was similarly treated on a regular basis at home, given the fact that such behaviour by intimate partners and significant others forms a part of the male-female script in Indian society.

Second, I wanted her friends to know that they needed to shut this man down. Third, I wanted the young woman to know that she needed to stop crying and that she needed to fight back. Finally, I knew that by intervening I would take the fire away from her and draw it onto myself. The man began cursing at me in Hindi and I kept shooting back in English, invoking the language of rights so that the other commuters would know what was being said. I told him that I was sick and tired of people like him, who think they can browbeat their partners, and that they needed to face consequences. Soon, another commuter joined in the quarrel, then a second, then a third and a fourth, the two women sitting behind me. Very importantly, I wanted this woman to know that she COULD stand up to this man.

The man’s male friend intervened, after requesting me and the other commuters to not call the cops. The two women also jumped to his defence and said it was okay. At 12th Street Oakland Station, they got off the train. The woman, who had stopped sobbing, turned to me red-eyed, said thank you, and raced off after her beloved patriarch. There was nervous laughter in the BART carriage and someone said “good job”. One of the two women tapped me on the shoulder and said she was very glad I had intervened because she had been confused about the situation.

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In my humble experience, abusers never stop abusing. They only get bolder the longer they are allowed to get away with it. A social norm such as misogyny is transplanted through immigration and is reinforced by similarly extant mindsets in the new host country.

The audio of Abhishek Gattani abusing his wife, Neha Rastogi, and beating her — the muffled thuds on the file are deeply disturbing — is a stark reminder of what he really thought of her, of the decades-long abuse she suffered and how, in spite of such criminal behaviour, she was expected to be a good wife to him. That he did this in front of their four-year-old child, is even more shocking. That he got away with a rap on his knuckles makes most women angry. We are still waiting to see if this behaviour will result in some professional consequences for Gattani.

Gattani represents that tribe of men that we have come to respect and revere. He grins at cameras and is an export that a developing country like India is proud of because he can dazzle in a suit. We see such men as accomplished — they can clack away at computers, and lo and behold, they can produce a search engine or tell us about customer behaviour. We think they are clever and we are seduced by their dollar-amount payslips. Indian parents want their daughters to marry such men. And women marry them, as parents gift them SUVs in dowry or help them buy a house overseas.

In my time in the Bay Area, I have met many such men and have encountered many cases of domestic abuse at home. One woman was physically dragged out of her house in broad daylight because her IIT-ian husband suspected her of having an affair, another woman and her husband once came to my apartment with the woman weeping because she had dinged the car on a curb. She was learning to drive and her husband from IIT-Kanpur told her to “shut-up, bitch”, as I made them tea.

Another woman I know tried to call her friends and leave her home after a particularly nasty fight and was told that she could not return if she left. She didn't leave. She told her friends, who were on their way to pick her up, to go back home without her.

In yet another case, a friend called me to help with the case of a third person, whose husband was having an affair and had told her to get out of the home. He offered her a meagre settlement for over ten years of marriage, having married her at 18. She had not studied, had never finished college even and did not have the right to work in the U.S. She had been cut off from her family at home for marrying this person. Before he gave her the marching orders, he had transferred most of his assets into the names of his sister and mother, so that in case of a divorce she would get literally nothing as California law gives both spouses an equal split in community property.

Neha Rastogi is not alone in her status as an abused wife in Silicon Valley from South Asia. There are other women from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India too. Organisations to support them are few and, in many cases, friends side with the partner that has the money. Networks matter in Silicon Valley and a wife that doesn't have a fancy business card usually does not get much support. A spouse goes on an H-4 visa and cannot work until she gets a green card or finds a company that can sponsor her visa. So, in many cases, unless a woman is already working, like Ms. Rastogi, leaving your husband in America is not an option because there is simply nowhere for them to go.

 

Why are women like Neha Rastogi abused and what does it take for them to fight back? To answer these questions, one has to look at a deep history of how men are raised to inflict violence and women are raised in our society to accept it, internalise it, live through it. This is not simply a one-off instance, as the interactive graph above reveals. Domestic violence is alive and kicking (literally) in India. It is for this reason that there exists an provision to file a case under cruelty by husbands and family.

After the passing of the far-reaching Domestic Violence Act, 2005, even live-in female partners could ask for legal protections. Since 2003, according to a 2014 BBC report,reported cases of domestic violence rose from 50,703 in 2003 to 118,866 in 2013 and says this is “an increase of 134% over 10 years, far out-stripping the rise in population over the same period”. Claire Snell-Rood estimates that between 75 to 86 per cent of women don't reveal that they are being abused or have been abused in a family setting. The Hindu has reported that 10 per cent of women in India have faced some form of sexual assault by their husbands.

While most such laws only consider male aggressors and female victims, in my work on societal violence in India, I have also encountered men who sometimes have abusive female spouses. This needs to be corrected. While male intimate partner violence is still the norm, this does not necessarily mean that female violence in relationships does not occur.

In India, girls pay heavily for being vocal. Anything that deviates from how men want them to behave, dress and act is seen as punishable. Sometimes, women are punished through rape. Most times, they are belittled and ridiculed, beaten and kicked. Neha Rastogi needs a standing ovation for blowing the whistle on this pernicious mentality that travels overseas, carried by men who, cocksure of their standing in society, abuse with impunity. She isn't alone, as I said before. It is just that many others like her have yet to step forward because they perhaps can’t.

Many protect their husbands because they worry that their visa statuses will be revoked and the men deported. So they protect their abuser. Others hang on because the quality of life and opportunity for their children is far superior than it is in India, and they hope that the abuse will stop.

 

In my humble experience, abusers never stop abusing. They only get bolder the longer they are allowed to get away with it. A social norm such as misogyny is transplanted through immigration and is reinforced by similarly extant mindsets in the new host country. Sunita Puri, for instance, in her work as a medical researcher has found sex selection to be an active force in Bay Area South Asian immigrant families. It seems you can take the South Asian out of South Asia, but can’t take South Asia out of the South Asian.

The immigrant experience is complex and difficult. Many men and women from South Asia have difficulty mingling with a dominant white population. Some study baseball and basketball so they have something to talk about in office meetings. South Asians, first-generation immigrants, are also squarely racist. They seldom have any African-American friends and refer to them as “bamroos” or Black Americans. Many lie to their puritanical families back home about their newfound taste for meat and wine. For an Indian man, this is rendered even more difficult because now upper-caste doesn't matter — what matters is skin colour. So, such a man experiences a loss of power in the public sphere; he is not dominant.

Many such men, therefore, channel their racial insecurities inward to their own families. So, they tend to domineer over a wife who may wear a short dress or associate with white friends — one thing many women that I know have in common is that they were seldom allowed to partake in socialising with Americans. This may have come from a fear that newfangled ideas about feminism might come free with that glass of wine and that would mean that a wife might pack her suitcase, grab the next BART train and take refuge in someone’s house for a while.

Walking out of a marriage in India takes a lot of courage. It isn't easy. Especially when a woman has done nothing much with her life except play housemaid to a man who sits in front of a computer all day long. On the positive side, many such men have also come to embrace the norm of respect for their wives and are perhaps better people for it.

 

Gattani is seen as an aberration, as that rare bad guy — when, in fact, he is the norm. It is easier to make a scapegoat out of an unlikely abuser than to come to terms with the fact that someone like him is exactly what an abuser looks like.

However, the Gattani case represents many things. Most importantly, it shows how structures of patriarchy intersect to get an abuser off with a lighter sentence — an American system exhausted with cases of immigrant angst trying to come to terms with its own patriarchy and appear not racist at the same time. In doing so, as was also evinced in the light sentence handed out to Brock Turner for rape, all it sends out as a message is that violence against women is okay and that one will only get a slight rap on the knuckles for criminal behaviour.

It also sets the stage for a broader discussion within Indian society about whom we valourise as economic heroes. Part of the reason this case has drawn such condemnation is because this is an unlikely story for someone as qualified and successful in the eyes of Indians. Gattani is seen as an aberration, as that rare bad guy — when, in fact, he is the norm. It is easier to make a scapegoat out of an unlikely abuser than to come to terms with the fact that someone like him is exactly what an abuser looks like.

Abusers aren't all unemployed alcoholics. Sometimes, they write newspaper lead editorials, sometimes they run magazines, sometimes they work as country directors for hedge funds, sometimes they build powerful companies. Abusers come in all shapes and sizes and colours.

This struggle against misogyny — or even simply a general pernicious apathy towards women and their issues — is being fought in the legal sphere. But lighter sentences make it hard for there to be credible deterrents to such behaviour. Sentences need to be nasty, brutish and long (to misquote Hobbes) for men to stop acting with violence against the women in their lives.

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Postscript:
 

If you are in an abusive relationship, the first step is to speak out and get help. The next step is to secure yourself financially by getting a job and/or taking stock of your assets. The third step is to make yourself aware of the laws that protect you and work in your favour. The fourth step is to document all the abuse; write it all down, record it, film it, photograph it, report it to the authorities. The fifth step is to leave. No one can stop you from leaving. If they do so, they are unlawfully detaining you. These steps can be followed in no apparent order and are an exit strategy. Knowledge is power. Good luck on your journey to individual freedom.

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