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Abused women find help at Narika

By Priyanka Sharma-Sindhar Special to the Daily Pl
Thursday October 12, 2000

This is not a story you would want to read to your children at night. It is the story of a woman, who led a miserable existence with her husband. He would hit her in the face, in the back, and wherever else he could. He would kick her. And then, he began molesting her children. She had put up with his abuse for 20 years. She couldn’t take any more of it. But he controlled her finances. Besides, they lived far away from her home in South Asia, which she had left behind to immigrate to the United States.  

What could she do? Somewhere along the way, she found a friend to give her the support she needed, in the form of an organization named Narika, a help line, which assists abused South Asian women.  

What makes this case different from common examples of domestic violence in this country is that it centers on an immigrant woman. Abuse takes on a different form in immigrant communities, primarily because of the barriers that these women encounter when trying to reach for help. “The first problem is what all immigrant women will face – simply not knowing how the systems work – not knowing who you can go to, and not knowing how to get there,” said Raka Ray, associate professor of sociology at UC Berkeley. “The second is cultural. They’re embarrassed and afraid to make that initial contact with what they perceive as a foreign body. They have no expectation of them being able to understand the problem.”  

Many immigrant women may not know English, and if they do, they may not be comfortable expressing their deepest anguish and feelings in it. 

This is where associations like Narika (which literally means ‘of women’ in Hindi) play an important role.  

Founded in 1992, Narika is a nonprofit organization, based in Berkeley, for and of women who trace their origins to the South Asian countries of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. City Attorney Manuela Albuqerque is one of its founders. 

Narika helps abused women help themselves. “We provide information, referrals and advocacy. We help the women think through what their various options may be,” said Feroza Chic Dabby, executive director of Narika. “We want to reach out to abused women. Often women are not sure if they’re being abused badly enough to call for help.” In an attempt to tackle this problem, Narika’s Web site ( has a near-exhaustive list of situations that can be defined as abusive. It covers a wide range – from women being battered, to being forced into unwanted marriages, to being threatened.  

Victims hear about Narika through cultural newspapers, word of mouth, or through religious institutions. But it isn’t always very easy for the woman to take an active step to get out of her abusive situation. “For South Asian women, it may be harder to leave because of cultural restraints, and the importance given to the roles of wives and mothers,” said Meeta Malhi, 30, a Narika volunteer who has worked on their help-line, taking calls from victims, and with their Violence Prevention for Youth program.  

“The concept of family is very important in the South Asian culture. And the focus is on the woman-whether the family fails or succeeds. If there’s a sign that the family is breaking up, the cultural values override her feelings of safety and security in a home.”  

Chic Dabby said women are traditionally viewed as repositories of family honor in these cultures, and so, disclosure can bring dishonor with it.” 

Malhi said, “Many South Asian women have to deal with abuse from the in-laws, which is something most American women won’t have to deal with.” Chic Dabby, who’s worked with American mainstream domestic violence for 13 years said that the victims in South Asian families lived in a more severe climate of fear. “The (South Asian) woman’s abuser in this country can threaten her family- parents, etc. – even if the family is in a country in South Asia. If the abuser is the husband, there is always a threat that he will get his wife deported.”  

Abusers often use immigration issues to intimidate their victims. “He could threaten to get her deported. And if that didn’t work, he could use the children. He may tell her that she would be sent back, but her children would remain here,” said Leni Marin, associate director for rights and social justice at the Family Violence Prevention Fund. 

Ray narrated the story of an Indian doctoral student she knew some years ago. The woman tolerated physical battering from her American husband, because he kept threatening to deport her. She was terrified that she would lose access to her children. And there was no support group like Narika to refer her to an expert who could tell her otherwise.  

Under the Violence Against Women Act, passed in 1994, the battered spouses and children of United States citizens or lawful permanent residents do have an alternative.  

“If they can prove that there has been a trail of abuse, they can file a petition for adjustment of status,” said Sharon Rummery, director of Public Affairs with the Immigration and Naturalization Services in San Francisco. “They can do this without the knowledge of the abuser.” It is details like this that many abused South Asian women would be unaware of, without the appropriate guidance.  

“These South Asian women are some of the strongest women I have seen,” said Malhi. 

“They have overcome abusive situations, with cultural, financial and social barriers, and from nothing, have gone on to recreating financial and familial bases on their own. That illustrates a tremendous amount of strength and initiative.”  

And that is Narika’s endeavor - to help every woman who calls in, to tap into her reserves of strength and initiative, so that she can live her life independently, and abuse free.