India & India Diaspora in Canada


Trapped By Abuse, The Long Struggle For Women's Rights

Aug. 16, 2007

by Georgie Binks

Associated PressWomen in New Delhi march on International Women's Day to call attention to the abuse of women worldwide, March 8, 2001. (Saurabh Das/Associated Press)

Last Saturday, in the heart of India's south New Delhi, two men poured acid and gasoline on Tarveen Suri, 36, then set her on fire. They burned 80 per cent of her body. Police are investigating what they call a "strained" relationship with her husband.

Suri is just one of thousands of Indian women attacked yearly as a result of domestic violence. A UNICEF report in 2000 stated 45 per cent of married men in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh acknowledged physically abusing their wives during marriage.

That same report states that 5,000 women are killed by their husbands and in-laws each year in "accidental" kitchen fires. Other killings take the form of acid attacks and honour killings. Yet other atrocious behaviour plaguing some Indian women includes bride burning, female infanticide, eviction of widows and murders over dowry issues.

Prominent Indian lawyer and activist Indira Jaising said earlier this year in an interview that domestic violence is so pervasive in Indian society that it's difficult to talk about other issues, such as education or employment for women, when many are so trapped by abuse.

Jaising and women's groups in India have been instrumental in forcing the government to pass the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, which became law two years ago. While it protects women from violence, the country still has no law against marital rape.

Old traditions die hard

Abuse of south Asian women isn't just confined to India and Pakistan. When immigrants seek a new life in Canada, sometimes the old traditions die hard. In the past year, several B.C. women of Indo-Canadian descent have died as a result of domestic violence. They include Manjit Panghali, a young mother whose body was found burned in October by a roadside in Delta. Her husband, Mukhtiar Panghali, was charged in connection with her death. That same month, Navreet Kaur Waraich, the mother of a four-month-old boy, was stabbed to death in Surrey. Her husband, Jatinder, has been charged. Gurjeet Kaur Ghuman was blinded after being shot in the face by her husband, who then killed himself. Sadeqa Siddiqui, co-ordinator of Montreal's South Asian Community Women's Centre, says, "The problem is that women are considered second-class citizens. This is a male society men are ruling."

Although this type of violence doesn't apply to the vast majority of Indo-Canadian families, the problem is worrisome enough that there have been large public forums to address the issue in British Columbia.

Abused at conception

Baljinder Narang, a spokesperson for the We Can End All Violence Against Women, British.Columbia Canada Campaign, formed in June, agrees. "It's deep-rooted. Women are abused at the point of conception. Their fetuses are aborted if it's discovered they're female.

"When they're born, the father of the bride is already worrying about the dowry. He thinks if he kills her before she's born, he won't have to provide a dowry for her."

Narang says many young boys grow up with violence in the home and end up repeating it with their own wives. Educating them to change their behaviour is important. Men must be told that their attitudes need to shift and that it's a human rights issue, she says. As well, Narang says women need to be taught they're not objects of abuse just because they've seen their mothers and grandmothers in that situation.

Earlier this year, B.C.'s attorney general, Wally Oppal , angered some members of the Indian community when he spoke out about the violence. He called it a "cancer" in the province's Indo-Canadian community.

Some of his fellow Indo Canadians implied he was a traitor to his ethnicity and culture. His reply was, "Saving face is too important in our community to admit there's a problem, but it's obvious."

Siddiqui says many women are afraid to complain. "Once you come out in society and complain about sexual harassment or abuse, police and the neighbours see you differently. You're not a victim, but they will victimize you more."

However, she says South Asian women must speak out if they're experiencing violence.

"Women are suffering in isolation. It's not because the police aren't doing anything, but because their society is isolating them. We always try to show how happy we are at home. I think all women are suffering the same degree of abuse.

"Society needs to know that it was happening 100 years ago, but in the 21st century we are not going to take it. Abuse is abuse."

Right now, both women are working to educate those in the Indian community, but they are taking it slowly and carefully. For instance, Siddiqui is teaching small groups of women about violence using a theatre setting. Narang is teaching people to try to change attitudes about violence with five other people they know.

She explains, "We know things won't change overnight, and we might lose other women in the process, but the target audience is people bringing up young kids. They need to create an environment where there is no violence."

To leave the list, send your request by email to: wunrn_listserve-request@lists.wunrn.com. Thank you.