Immigrant Bengalis

In February 1985, six South Asian women from various backgrounds came together in New Jersey to establish Manavi (meaning "primal woman" in Sanskrit). The mission of the organization was to end violence against women within the South Asian community. Over the past thirty years, Manavi has grown considerably in size, scope and strength but so has the number of South Asians in the NJ-NY area, and an increasing number of women victims of violence and abuse have needed help. Dr. Shamita Das Dasgupta is one of the co-founders of Manavi and still remains the main driving force behind the organization. In this interview I asked her about the early days of Manavi, its evolution over the years, and the challenges it faces even now.

Debajyoti: What prompted you and your five friends to take up the cause of ending violence against women? Were you driven to take action because of one or two specific violent incidents that took place within the South Asian community in NJ or were there other reasons?

Shamita: In 1981, a young woman of South Asian descent murdered her husband in New Jersey. She was acquitted based on the horrific abuse and torture she and her children experienced at the hands of her husband. This incident prompted us, six women of South Asian heritage, to inquire into what was happening in the women’s community. Although there were a number of cultural and regiono-linguistic organizations in the South Asian American community at the time, none focused on women’s wellbeing in particular. Manavi, founded in 1985, was the first organization in the U.S. to concentrate on the problem of violence against South Asian women.

Although the violence experienced by women all over the world is similar, the ways individuals experience, react to, and ameliorate violence differ according to one’s culture, residency, and socioeconomic status. Even though South Asian and other American women experience similar kinds of violence in terms of physical, economic, emotional, and sexual abuse, the nuances of these are complicated by South Asian cultural and political factors as well as the women’s immigration status. For example, compared to American women in general, South Asian women may experience a more stringent forbiddance of divorce, greater familial responsibilities that force them to remain in violent relationships, and problems with immigration that are exploited by perpetrators to intimidate them. 

Debajyoti: Who were the six women and what were their backgrounds?

Shamita:  The founders were Kaveri Dutta (Kaul), Radha Sarma (Hegde), Shashi Jain, Rashmi Jaipaul, Vibha Mishra and myself. Their backgrounds are elaborated on the Manavi website:

Debajyoti: What were some of Manavi's early activities?

Shamita: We began with a campaign on behalf of a young mother in Chicago, who was being deported as her husband had thrown her out of their home and withdrawn immigration support. Because she lost her residency status, the university terminated her employment. Her husband claimed full custody of their infant U.S. born son by claiming that as an American citizen, he would not get equal opportunities if brought up in India. The young woman approached us to intervene, so that she was not separated from her child. We raised funds for her to retain an attorney and gathered signatures to pressure the university to reinstate her. She was successful in gaining shared custody of her son, obtain permanent residency status, and also regain her employment. This  was thecase that encouraged us to become a pragmatic organization to work on the ground for women.

Debajyoti: When did you decide to start operating a safe house for women victims of domestic violence?

Shamita: From the inception, we felt that Manavi needed to have a safe home for displaced South Asian women. Even though there were mainstream shelters around, South Asian women were not ready to stay in these facilities. South Asian women seem to be most comfortable in a culturally familiar environment where they can speak in their mother tongue, eat South Asian food, be with other women who understand their barriers and situations. To respond to this need, in 1997, we opened the doors of Ashiana, Manavi’s safe home, with the support of NJ State Division of Women and of Women Aware (the agency of Middlesex County dealing with domestic violence). 

Debajyoti: How did the Indian community in general, and the Bengali community in particular, react to your activism? Did you receive a lot of moral support, if not financial? 

Shamita: When Manavi was established, the community was not quite ready to face issues of woman abuse in the family. It (the community) expressed a lot of skepticism that violence could happen in educated and affluent families and was quite hostile toward us. At that time, the community was euphoric about its academic and financial success and was reluctant to air its so-called dirty laundry in public. Most of the people who migrated to the U.S. during the early years were highly educated and became successful quickly; and thus were dubbed a "model minority". Open discussions about domestic violence/sexual assault would challenge that image. Much of the time, the Manavi advocates were thought to be Western style feminists who had no ties to the community, and people were often overtly hostile towards us. We faced a lot of distancing and dismissive behavior.

However, we had a lot of supporters also. Many individuals came forward to assist in Manavi’s work and helped us with funds and volunteer support. 

I don’t think it would be productive to identify any individual community’s conduct toward Manavi.

Debajyoti: Over the years Manavi has grown significantly in terms of organizational size, scope and programs. Could you briefly describe the main activities of Manavi today?

Shamita: Manavi’s culture-specific services were designed by centralizing women’s needs and decisions. In the thirty years of its existence and service provision, Manavi has accumulated a diverse set of experiences  and has developed a substantial record of achievements. Manavi has a proven track record of offering critical as well as culturally and linguistically appropriate services to battered and sexually assaulted women. The services offered by Manavi emerged organically, as the organization endeavored to meet the needs of the women who sought assistance during crises. Manavi believes that such specialized services would break the isolation the majority of victims of intimate abuse experience, and empower them to move toward living a violence-free and productive life. Each year, nearly 400 women seek Manavi’s services. In 2014, Manavi provided services to  415 women and 4 men.

Manavi advocates continue to be discerning of the needs of South Asian women, and thus, periodically design new services in response to women’s requirements. A list of Manavi’s current services is presented below: 

•           Crisis intervention and advocacy (Project Raahat)

•           Culture-specific counseling (Project Sabala)

•           Women’s support group

•           Legal clinic and referrals (Project Insaaf)

•           Immigration relief and gender asylum (Project Zamin)

•           Interpreter services

•           Transportation

•           Court and medical accompaniment

•           Safe home (Project Ashiana)

•           Outreach and education (Project Rokeya)

In addition, Manavi conducts training and provides technical assistance to New Jersey-based corporations, as well as to national anti-violence against women agencies and practitioners.

Debajyoti: Tell us more about Ashiana, the safe house for women that Manavi operates. When and how do you decide that a woman must be given shelter there? When do you decide that it is safe for a woman to leave Ashiana and be on her own?

Shamita: In 1997, Manavi opened the doors of its safe home, Ashiana (meaning “nest” in Urdu), in Middlesex County. Ashiana is a rent-free, temporary residential facility for South Asian women and their children who are displaced by violence in the family. Although the residence is located in New Jersey, women from all around the country, who are in crises, request space in Ashiana. Ashiana can accommodate up to nine residents and there is one more bed for emergency situations. Ashiana is the only culture-specific housing available on the East Coast to South Asian women and only the third such home in the country. In the first five years, Manavi received a total of 329 requests for space in Ashiana from around the country, and a total of 139 women and children were housed in that period. Ashiana fulfills a critical need in the South Asian community.

Ashiana is designed specifically to provide culturally familiar residence to women. It provides informational, linguistic, legal, and counseling support as well as other relevant resources to women on their journey to self-reliance. This residence has become a lifeline for displaced women in the South Asian community. Residents are able to observe cultural/religious dietary restrictions, communicate comfortably in a linguistically familiar environment, and create culturally familiar support networks. Residents also have access to all of Manavi’s services such as culture-specific supportive counseling, court accompaniment, legal advocacy and referral, support group, and language interpretation.

Manavi provides resident women and their children with groceries, toiletries, and clothing; medical and travel assistance; needed furnishing; and other healthcare needs. This allows the women to focus on the steps they need to take to become self-reliant and independent. During their time at Ashiana, residents have the opportunity to achieve a variety of goals including resolving their legal and immigration problems; learning English; developing employment skills; finding jobs; starting a business; obtaining driving license; attending college; and generally building a socially and financially viable life.

Manavi’s approach is survivor-centered. Ashiana operates on minimum rules and regulations. The primary rules entail: (a) Showing respect for each other (e.g., not allowed" are verbal abuse; damages to others’ property; religious and caste intolerance; mixing of vegetarian and non-vegetarian utensils; undermining halal food rules; etc.); (b) Maintaining hygienic surroundings (e.g., nonsmoking environment, sharing kitchen and bathroom use; etc.); and (c) Following communal ways of living (e.g., share chores, space, food, computer time, and negotiate differences, etc.). Repeated violations of communal living principles, disregard for other residents’ well-being, and jeopardizing their safety can be reasons for asking a woman to leave.

Residents’ safety is of paramount importance to Manavi. The location of Ashiana is strictly confidential. Residents are instructed to maintain this confidentiality at all times by not disclosing the address to friends, relatives, employers, and others. Women may use Manavi’s office address for their communication needs. Residents may maintain their own cell phones; however, we insist that the GPS tracker be disabled. Women may make emergency calls on the in-house telephone and may also reach the Ashiana and Manavi hotlines after office hours. In addition, residents are given cell phones with prepaid minutes to make emergency calls.

Debajyoti: Does Manavi receive financial support from the Federal, State or local governments? Are they sufficient to meet all the needs?

Shamita: We apply for competitive Federal and State funds. We have not received County based grants because Manavi is a state based organization. This governmental support is essential but not sufficient for Manavi. For example, Ashiana can accommodate only 9 persons at a time but in 2014, the waiting list had 92 women and children. Ashiana is a three-bedroom townhouse, and women share rooms and sleep in bunk beds. We need a larger home for women and children which can provide them with a modicum of comfort.

Debajyoti: Has the need for organizations like Manavi increased (or decreased) as the South Asian community in the US has grown in size? Are there other organizations like Manavi now?

Shamita: As the South Asian community grows, the need for Manavi seems to increase also. In NJ, Manavi is the only South Asian community based organization of its kind. Ashiana is the only safe home for displaced South Asian women and their children in the East Coast and the third such home in the country.

Debajyoti: You began your journey with Manavi right after finishing your PhD at Ohio State. I see that like you, several young South Asian women are now spearheading various Manavi programs. Are you hopeful about the future of the fight against violence towards women in our communities?

Shamita: I have to be hopeful that the struggle will continue until organizations like Manavi are put out of business. I wish the community gave greater recognition to the young women who are engaged in efforts to end violence against women.  That would encourage more such activists to emerge and take pride in this work. Organizations like Manavi are constantly working at the subsistence level, which makes the work tension filled and difficult. Working under such strain constantly burns out workers quickly.

Debajyoti: Could you please discuss the joys and frustrations of pursuing the cause of "stop violence against women" within the South Asian community?

Shamita: I feel each South Asian woman who has struggled to free her life of violence and live with dignity has inspired me deeply. I continue to be humbled by women who demand and fight for justice. I remember a woman who with her two young children had left her horribly abusive spouse. She did not speak English and had little marketable skills. She had no money and no resources and yet, she resisted her spouse’s violence and was determined to give her children a chance to live peacefully. She worked in hotels cleaning rooms and simultaneously learned English. There were so many obstacles in her path: lack of money, no family support, limited English, a temporary immigration visa, an unfamiliar society, and two young children who had been abused. Yet, her story was a success story only due to her enormous resilience and tenacity. Now she has a good job, an apartment, a car, a serene life, and two happy children who are completing college.

I remember another woman who, after twenty-nine years of abusive marriage gathered courage and left her partner. She not only found a good job, fought and won a vicious legal battle, and established a productive life, but also began to speak out to other women in abusive situations to encourage them to end violence in their lives.

It is for the efforts of women like these, I see the community has also changed over time. In the beginning, the community just disbelieved us, but now we see that the community is recognizing woman-abuse as areal problem. The newspapers discuss it, community conferences have panels on it, and community organizations talk about it. This is a great and inspiring change and I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. 

(Posted June 1, 2015)

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Working to End Violence Against South Asian Women:
An Interview with Shamita Das Dasgupta

By Debajyoti Chatterji