As temperatures climb across New York City, domestic violence survivor groups are raising awareness about a surge in incidents that they witness among South Asian communities during the summertime.
Sakhi for South Asian Women, a Queens-based nonprofit, runs NYC’s only domestic violence helpline fully staffed by South Asian-language speakers. Zainab Muzaffar, the organization’s development and communications senior associate director, says the hotline is preparing for a rise in calls after expanding its hours last year. She disclosed that calls to their hotlines in 2021 and 2022 doubled during the summer compared to winter.
Muzaffar says Sakhi has been fighting for culturally sensitive resources for South Asian women who experience domestic violence ever since the organization was founded in 1989. She is among many advocates who are trying to shine a light on the unique ways domestic violence can occur within South Asian communities — not only in New York City but nationwide.
“The diaspora is so diverse. So are our survivors,” said Muzaffar. Last year, her organization fielded 1,850 helpline calls and worked with 600 survivors. This marks a 24% increase in calls from 2021.
Muzaffar recalled a story of Serena — a woman whose last name she omitted to protect her identity — who was well into her 50s when she first contacted the organization after facing over 30 years of abuse from her husband. Serena’s husband restricted her from learning English and left her hospitalized with multiple injuries, according to Muzaffar. Serena worked with one of Sakhi’s empowerment advocates to safely leave the situation, attend vocational training and ultimately secure a job.
An October 2022 report by South Asian SOAR, a survivor-led organization, highlighted U.S.-based studies showing that 48% of South Asians experienced physical gender-based violence. And 41% of South Asian adults witnessed domestic violence within their households as children.
“As a South Asian young person, you just grow up seeing it around you, whether it’s a grandparent or whatnot,” said Amrita Doshi, co-founder and executive director of South Asian SOAR. Founded in 2021, SOAR was founded from an urgent need to build survivor leadership and expertise across the U.S.
Generally speaking, rape, sexual assault and aggravated assault rates are higher in the summer than in most other seasons, according to FBI studies. But Doshi flags that most efforts to address gender-based violence don’t consider the wide range of experiences various South Asian communities face. She says survivors she’s worked with have had to navigate issues that are tied to traditions, including outdated practices such as forced marriages or child marriages.
“The amount of diversity across class, caste, gender, sexuality, income, [and] immigration status is really important to contextualizing the violence and services needed,” urged Doshi.
Yet Muzaffar urges a reminder that gender-based violence doesn’t just happen to South Asians. The FBI reported 910,880 incidents of domestic violence in 2021, the latest year with available data — and 52% involved intimate partner violence.
“I think that’s another stereotype that people often think is that, oh, these are immigrants. It only happens to immigrants,” said Muzaffar. “No, it happens to educated people. It happens to very ‘powerful’ people from all different races and religious backgrounds.”
Silence steeped into tradition
On a warm Sunday afternoon this spring in Woodside, Queens, Stevie Kaur stationed her bright turquoise-dressed table outside of a gurdwara, or Sikh temple. She is one of several resource organizers present for Vaisakhi, an important Sikh celebration, and she remains hopeful that direct outreach at places of worship is the most successful route to reaching people most at risk of gender-based violence.
“[Gurdwaras] are where we’re supposed to feel the safest, and yet several times as people have reached out to me, this is where an assault takes place,” said Kaur. Her national organization, SikhSAACH, aims to combat sexual assault in the Sikh community.
Kaur worries that gurdwaras can become breeding grounds for harm – like keeping abusers on staff even after survivors confide – and that abuse could trickle into the home. In April, a Sikh priest was arrested near Philadelphia for sexual assault at a gurdwara, and Kaur recalled an incident in Maryland where a gurdwara’s management committee knowingly kept an abuser on staff for 23 years after an abuse took place.
“It broke the community,” said Kaur. “I know many of those community members didn’t feel safe going back to that particular gurdwara.”
Sikhs’ longing for religious and cultural preservation can also backfire. For those considering leaving an unsafe home situation, some Sikhs have told her they fear they might ruin the family reputation or hurt a woman’s chances of marriage.
“Some have chosen suicide over that option,” said Kaur. Last August, a 30-year old Sikh woman in Queens named Mandeep Kaur died by suicide after her husband violently abused her for years. Her husband was never charged for her death.
She said finding advocates outside of the Sikh community, such as police authorities, counselors, and hospitals, who can support in culturally responsive ways is one of the biggest hurdles to overcoming gender-based violence.
“They don’t understand the Sikh culture. Every culture, every religion, they just have their own ways of living and believing and acting.”
Solutions that span across the diaspora
Priya Dadlani, an Indo-Caribbean artist, walked Gothamist through the altar in her Brooklyn apartment on a visit this past April. It’s where she keeps photos of her loved ones, a birthday card her grandma wrote for her, and a song hymn that she and her family sing when they go to the cemetery.
“This is my grandma. This is us at my mom’s wedding,” said Dadlani, while recounting the many things that she loves about being Indo-Guyanese. But she also remembers growing up how the stigma around gender-based violence was strong.
That’s why Dadlani has spent the last four years organizing with Jahajee Sisters, a nonprofit that aims to end intimate partner, family, and sexual violence within the Indo-Caribbean community in New York City. She is hopeful that bringing people together will build more understanding and visibility around the issue.
During their free community circles, women, girls, and gender nonconforming people of all ages come together once a month to share stories and ideas. It’s an intimate setting, often held at a member’s home with food passed around.
“Sometimes [organizing is] dominated by young people, which is great and necessary… but I do think it’s less impactful than organizing intergenerationally,” Dadlani said of the organizing being done. “You’ll see aunties trying to get pronouns right. That’s what’s happening at Jahajee Sisters, and I love that.”
Doshi from South Asian SOAR agrees. She urged in a report that support for survivors must reach the most historically oppressed groups, such as caste-oppressed Dalits, Muslims and the LGBTQ+ community.
Dadlani said that the solutions toward ending gender-based violence will come from those most affected by harm.
Jahajee Sisters started a microgrant program during COVID, for instance, in response to survivors needing temporary housing and attorney fees.
“There’s no point to trauma and harm at all, but there is a point to being together to find the solutions out of it,” Dadlani said.