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Culture of fear's toll is silence Add to ...

Navreet Waraich emigrated with her husband from India two years ago, one of the flood of South Asians who make up Canada's fastest-growing demographic group. They settled in Surrey, a heavily Indo-Canadian community on British Columbia's Lower Mainland. Her husband drove a cab. They had a baby, now four months old. But not all was well. The beautiful 27-year-old would phone her family in India and complain her husband was beating her. "I am a very fine wife. Why is this happening?" she would ask, according to an account in The Vancouver Sun.

Last Sunday, the upstairs neighbours heard screams in the basement apartment where the family lived. They ran downstairs. Navreet was on the floor, bleeding. A man with a knife stood over her. The neighbours persuaded him to drop the knife, and called 911. But it was too late. Navreet, pregnant with her second child, died in the hospital. Her husband, Jatinder, has been charged with murder.

Domestic violence is the dark underside of the South Asian immigrant success story. For decades, community leaders have minimized the problem. But now, one man is speaking loud and clear. "This is a horrible social problem . . . that our community has done nothing about," says Wally Oppal, the Indo-Canadian Attorney-General of B.C. "We have simply closed our eyes . . . [to the]systemic demeaning of women."

Domestic violence exists in every nation, culture and class. But the cultural conditions created by highly patriarchal societies make it far tougher for women to resist. "In the traditional cultural setting of South Asia, a woman has to be controlled first by her father and later by her husband," says Sadeqa Siddiqui. "They don't have their own individuality." Ms. Siddiqui, who works in Montreal, counsels women from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. "It doesn't matter how educated you are or what profession you have. You have to be under the control of men."

Extended families exert heavy pressure on a woman to stay put, because a failed marriage is a grave blow to family honour. "The family will say cope with that, live with that, don't aggravate him, try to understand him -- and don't try to leave," Ms. Siddiqui says. "That will be a disgrace not just to you and the family but to the whole extended family." Seeking outside help -- from social agencies or the police -- is regarded as a form of cultural betrayal. "The message is that 'those people' won't understand you anyway," says Narinder Rihal, a B.C. social services counsellor. "The message is that whatever the way of life outside our culture, it doesn't work for us."

The death of Ms. Waraich was the latest in a string of incidents in B.C.'s Indo-Canadian community. Last week, the charred body of Manjit Panghali, a pregnant teacher, was discovered beside a Delta road. Two weeks ago, Gurjeet Kaur Ghuman of Port Coquitlam was shot in the face by her estranged husband, who then killed himself. She is in critical condition.

"Men know that, no matter how much they abuse a woman, nobody in the community will come out and condemn him," says Ms. Siddiqui. She and others who counsel abused South Asian women are regarded as home wreckers.

A woman's life after a separation or divorce can be tough, too. Chances are, she'll be ostracized by her community. Ms. Siddiqui recalls the case of one woman from an affluent family who, after years of abuse, finally sought temporary refuge in a shelter. "People called her a homeless person, and said let's see how she survives." (The woman went back to school, and survived quite nicely.)

Community workers say it's unwise to generalize about so many different subcultures. They don't want everyone tarred with the same brush, and they always stress that domestic abuse is universal. Indeed it is. But it is also directly linked to how much power imbalance exists between men and women. The bigger the imbalance, the more prevalent the abuse.

"The first thing we need to do is educate the women," says Ms. Rihal. The second thing is to educate the men. And that's why Mr. Oppal's voice is so important.

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