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July 6, 1999


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Do South Asian Women Need Separate Shelter Homes?

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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Chitra with her husband and son What does it mean to be an Indian woman in America today? Few writers speak of that kind of American experience more accurately and gracefully than Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of Sister Of My Heart, The Mistress of Spices and Arranged Marriage.

Her short stories continue to be published in major magazines and anthologies. Along with Jhumpa Lahiri she is featured in the Best American Short Stories (for 1999) to be published by Houghton Mifflin in a few months.

Last year, Divakaruni moved to Houston from San Francisco, her home for over a decade, with her husband and two sons, where she teaches at the University of Houston.

"I always want to connect with women and women's groups," says the writer while appreciating that over a dozen South Asian women's groups such as Sakhi and Manavi are active across America. Some of them offer shelter homes for battered South Asian women.

But Divakaruni, who founded in San Francisco the first South Asian support group for women on the West Coast, Maitri, about eight years ago does not like the idea of separate shelter homes for battered South Asian women. The proponents of such homes believe that many South Asian women are uncomfortable living with other battered women from other cultures.

"Many of these are women who have had very little intercourse with the outside world," says a volunteer. "They needed a sheltered home of their own before they have the courage to interact with the wide world."

But Divakaruni says unless these women learn right from the beginning to adjust to living with other women in a similar plight they will never do so.

It is not an easy thing, this kind of adjustment. But we should not further isolate our women. They will learn a few lessons in a hard way but by living among battered women of other cultures and backgrounds. South Asian women will deepen their understanding of the world.

I would like to say that I have always been interested in women's issues and conditions, and desirous of making changes -- but that isn't true. When I lived in India, I was totally immersed in the culture, and thus totally accepted it. I never thought of women's rights, or their problems. If things were hard for us, I reasoned that that was just the way of the world. Wasn't it the same everywhere?

This is not to say that there aren't feminists in India. There is a strong movement, with dedicated women working to improve laws and conditions for their sisters. But I had grown up in very traditional household, and had been kept carefully insulated from such events.

Coming to the US gave me the distance I needed to look back on my culture with objectivity, to pick out what I valued and realize what I didn't agree with. One of the latter was the double standards in effect in many areas for women, and I strove to remove these from my life.

This was also the time I studied carefully the lives of other Indian women around me. I noticed that many of them were still caught in the old value system that a man has precedence and power over them and excuses all their wrongs, and that, away from the traditional joint family that kept a watchful eye on things, such women were even more vulnerable.

In 1989 and 1990 I came across several women who were victims of abuse, doubly victimized by the fact that they were unfamiliar with the workings of American society and had no one to turn to. They were also uncomfortable with the idea of taking family problems to strangers -- to white people, especially. That was considered a great shame and a betrayal of the Indian community. Several didn't speak much English. They had no idea of American laws and rights.

They believed their husbands when they were threatened that they would be deported if they contacted any authorities. It was when one of these women, desperate and believing that there was no help available anywhere for her, attempted suicide, that I decided I had to do something.

Maitri, which I founded with the help of a small group of friends in 1991, is a helpline, the first South Asian service of its kind on the West coast. Women in situations of distress call in and talk to trained South Asian volunteers, all women, and discuss their problems.

Our volunteers speak many South Asian languages, and this, together with the understanding of the cultural context, helps to put the caller at ease. Depending on how acute the situation is, we refer the woman to sources that can help her, or advise her to contact shelters or the police, or provide other necessary information. All our services are free and confidential.

Chitra with her mother We have legal and medical help and family counseling available as well. Most of all, we provide a sympathetic ear, a sense that the woman is not alone, and a strong belief that no woman should have to put up with the abuse, ever.

The word Maitri means friendship -- and that is the attitude, ultimately, we hope to convey. Our aim is preventive: we try, through ads, to get women to call us before it is too late. We also provide educational workshops in the community to teach women legal and financial independence and survival skills, and also we offer awareness workshops open to all to alert the community to the problem of abuse.

Since 1991, we have been receiving an average of 15 to 20 calls per month and helping women with a variety of problems. We work closely with the local shelters, often providing free translation services. We are completely volunteer-run and funded mainly by private donations, a true grassroots organization.

Although at first sectors of the Indian society were hostile to us, accusing us of stirring up trouble and even issuing anonymous death threats, now we are receiving more support. Many of our women have gone on to lead successful and happy lives, either independently or, through counseling, together with their spouses.

My work with Maitri has been at once valuable and harrowing. I have seen things I would never have believed could happen. I have heard of acts of cruelty beyond imagining. The lives of many of the women I have met through this organization have touched me deeply.

It is their hidden story that I try to tell in many of the tales in my short story collection,Arranged Marriage and my subsequent books. It is their courage and humanity that I celebrate and honor.

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