Using interviews from three of my family members: my mother, my aunt, and my cousin, I will explore the complicated relationship between an abused woman, her abuser, and their five children, as well as theorize the silence regarding the abuse. I will examine how much South Asian and Islamic culture justifies gender-based violence, the damaging effect silence has on the children of the abuser and victim, and the shame of not being able to help the people one loves most. For my family’s privacy, all names have been changed. Kalpana and Kabir Rahman have five children, from oldest to youngest: Narmeen, Harin, Ameena, Imran, and Zaynah. Kalpana is my maternal grandmother and Ameena is my mother.
Among the rapid waves of change in the 1970s, America welcomed the immigrant, Bangladeshi-Muslim Rahman family. The patriarch, Kabir Rahman, was a chemist. He lived in America for several years before bringing his wife, Kalpana Rahman, and five children from Bangladesh to live with him permanently in Hammond, Indiana. The domestic violence between Kabir and Kalpana, which only occurred in the years before they arrived in America, and as a young couple, was kept silent.
None of the children witnessed the abuse. However, everyone in the family knew it happened, and it was never acknowledged.
For South Asians, the definitions of domestic violence are different from American or Chinese cultures. Kabir slapped Kalpana, pulled her hair, hit her in the head with a metal cooking spoon, and emotionally abused her. Even well into their 60s and 70s, Kabir calls her “stupid,” “uneducated,” and “ghada,” loosely translated to “idiot donkey.” The physical assault, beating, and kicking, as well the psychological minimization and emotional abuse fall under South Asian definitions of domestic violence (Midlarsky).
However, financial abuse and sexual abuse do not. Although Kalpana has her late father’s property and she controls her social security and disability money, she is powerless in all that is jointly owned with Kabir. He does not give her money or pay for her medical needs or medication. She does not have a car yet he does not take her to medical appointments. Lastly, sexual abuse is not viewed as abusive, and “all sex in marriage is usually the right of the husband” and an assertion of male privilege and male control (Midlarsky). Kalpana has never discussed sexual violence because it may not be in her framework to understand marital rape.
Domestic violence transcends ethnicity or class; it can happen to anyone, anywhere, at anytime. However, “several characteristics of the Asian community increase the occurrence and tolerance of violence” (Midlarsky). These characteristics are linked to South Asian gender roles and expectations. According to Columbia University Professor Elizabeth Midlarsky, South Asian ideals of femininity and the “ideal housewife” are submissiveness, devotion, and self-sacrifice; the woman’s social status is reliant on her husband, who opposedly is defined by “virility, power, and the ability to control women.”
Kalpana has an 8th grade education and was married off when she was 19-years-old. Kabir was a child prodigy, the only man to leave his impoverished village and become a professional. He was a prized possession among his family and community. His money and intelligence heightened his masculinity and his “right” to control Kalpana and abuse her. The inequality of education and class within the marriage emphasized “male dominance and female subordination” (Yllö).
In the beginning years of Kalpana’s marriage, Bangladeshi society viewed sons as a resource, and girls as a liability. Thus, victim blaming and valuing boys over girls made it difficult for Kalpana to seek help from neighbors, friends, and family. Kalpana made it clear she wanted to leave her husband after she had her first baby, but the community’s value-system prevented her from doing so. Male relatives, including her father, highly encouraged Kalpana to stay with Kabir when she wanted to leave him; after all, what would people think? South Asian parents believe that failed marriages and being a “bad wife” bring shame to the family (Midlarsky). A divorced woman is damaged goods, “having failed in the role of wife and mother, regardless of the conduct of her partner” (Midlarsky).
Kalpana told her middle daughter, Ameena, about the abuse once Ameena was married in 1994. Kalpana spoke of her past indirectly, specifically only through stories. Ameena remembers her confusement as a little girl in Bangladesh.
“I remember your Nanu (Grandma) crying. I didn’t know what happened at that time. People were coming to our house… The kids weren’t involved, it was adult stuff. Nanu wanted to leave [Kabir] and the adults told her not to… There were no women, and my grandfather was there. Her guardians felt that she needed to stay. I don’t think they wanted to talk about it, they just solved it for that time and it was done with…For your Nanu, it was just the way life was. And she knew nothing would change.”
Most South Asian marriages are androcentric, including Kalpana’s union to Kabir. Because they are male-centered, a woman is more likely to “accept domination as her destiny” instead of leaving her spouse (Midlarsky). A woman whose husband abuses her is told to “accept things as her fate and misfortune” (Midlarsky). Bengali women, especially those like Kalpana who are less educated than their husband, are so linked to marriage and motherhood, that leaving their husband would mean losing their identity.
Zaynah, Kalpana’s youngest daughter, remembers her Amma (Mom) being told to forget and move on, but also fighting for herself.
“She was told to get over it… that was just what it was. When I was 11-years-old, visiting Bangladesh, I’ll never forget, [my aunt] was talking amongst the other women and I wasn’t supposed to hear… and she said ‘I know that if Kalpana behaved disrespectfully then she deserved to get slapped.’ I was shocked that she said that. Amma told me that she told Abba (Dad) that if he was going to bring her to America, that if he does anything crazy, she’s not going to have it. Abba realized here in this country that kind of stuff doesn’t fly. It happened in Bangladesh, but it never happened here. They would fight and scream, but growing up I never knew it was violent until she told me that it was, years later.”
Domestic violence “in the South Asian communities in America has gone unnoticed largely because the social stigma of admitting such information, even to close friends, is profound” (Preisser). For the Rahman family, it was almost as if moving to the United States allowed them to start over and forget about the abusive past. And as an immigrant, uneducated woman who spoke a few words of English, there was less of a chance Kalpana would seek out services or help (Preisser). By not talking about it in America, it did not happen. After all, the five Rahman kids grew up in Indiana and Illinois in the 70s and 80s where Kabir never physically abused Kalpana. However, Kabir continues to emotionally and verbally abuse her, and combined with the silences in her life, it is possible these are the reasons Kalpana is depressed and emotionally unstable.
There is already immense shame regarding violence. What happens when the children of the victim have to love the abuser? Dorothy Allison knows for sure: “you can both hate and love something you are not sure you understand” (Allison 7).
“For the three girls, we have no respect for our dad. But no one talks about what that has done to us. It’s the white elephant. You just know it’s there. We all know it, we know it’s happened… but we just go on with our lives. We know [Kalpana is] miserable, and I understand what she’s feeling now that she’s older. I didn’t when I was younger, and she didn’t have anyone to talk to. Now that we’re older, I know more, I hear more… It affects me now, I am more upset about it, especially because [the physical abuse] happened again last December… Now that we’re all older, your Nanu did talk, she wanted help, and she still couldn’t get the help…it makes me more mad. We still can’t do anything about it… because he’s still our dad. Our culture says we have to respect our parents, so what do we do when one parent [abuses] the other?”
Gender-violence is not completely rooted from culture, but rather the “the imbalance of power” between genders, “resulting in gender inequality and discriminatory patriarchal practices against women.” (Hamin). My 24-year-old cousin, Raani, was told of the abuse by our grandmother when she was in middle school. Raani points out that it is easy to put the blame directly on South Asian culture as being “so patriarchal and so family based that it encourages this kind of secret-keeping, but that ignores how ingrained misogyny is in every culture.” Similarly, it is easy to blame Islam for domestic violence since many view it as an inherently oppressive and violent religion. Some even interpret the Quran to say that hitting women is permitted, or use Islam to justify treating one’s wife as “property.”
However, in this family, religion is not the reason, but rather the effect of domestic violence. Kalpana and Kabir became more conservative, God-fearing, and devoted once they came to America. They urge their children and grandchildren to pray five times a day, fast during the holy month of Ramadan, travel to Mecca, and guarantee themselves a spot in heaven with Allah. Kalpana lives her daily life reading the Quran, reciting suras (prayers) with her prayer beads, and listening to Imams (Islamic leaders) on YouTube. The only thing she asks of her children is to pray to God. Some of her kids grasped onto the strict Islamic binary system of what is right and wrong, and others rejected the value system completely.
Kalpana’s oldest grandchild, Raani, comments on the Rahman family structure, marriage, and religion:
“It is shameful to know someone you love, grow up respecting, is an abusive and controlling man. Examining each child and their marriages, though, it is obvious the violence between Kalpana and Kabir is always remembered by their kids, and affects how they are with their spouses. As far as I know, his two sons aren’t currently abusive, so they didn’t continue the cycle, which I think was a conscious decision they made. His daughters, I think, have a “low-bar” for how they see men–even if a guy isn’t that great, they compare him to Nana (Grandpa) and he seems okay by comparison. I think it certainly strengthened some of his kids’ faith – My mom and [Imran], for example – and turned others away – [Harin] especially has said that he doesn’t believe in God because Nana did, and [Nana is] a bad person. I also think the violence led to a lot of suppressed anger in his kids, and that none of them ever learned how to deal with anger in a healthy way.”
Kabir had not physically abused Kalpana since they had left Bangladesh in the late 70s. However, in December 2014 the past resurfaced. Kabir was 76, Kalpana was 71. They were visiting their old home in Rajshahi, Bangladesh. After fighting about Kalpana’s donations to village-people, Kalpana said something offensive about Kabir’s mother and he elbowed her in the eye. The Rahman’s eldest daughter, Narmeen, was in Bangladesh with them at them time, on a visit with her family. Narmeen was with her eldest daughter as well, Raani, who was 23 and also witnessed the repercussions of the violent incident. Raani says the five Rahman children had spent the decades “before this incident burying the domestic violence as an unfortunate part of their past.” But it resurfaced dramatically, and the five of them had an opportunity to confront the issue as adults, not children. Nevertheless, nothing was said. Nothing changed, except for the pain and shame of not being able to help their mother, which severely deepened.
Zaynah looks back on that time in 2014 and remarks,
“I told Amma, I really don’t know what to do. None of us know what to do…Because we’re like, it was wrong. How do we make Abba apologize? And then we just kind’ve swept it under the rug, because we don’t know what to do. So it’s best not to talk about it.”
Although the interviews were conducted separately, Ameena echoes Zaynah’s sentiments, even uttering the same phrase, sweeping it “under the rug.” Both daughters are clearly bothered by the silence encompassing their mother’s situation.
“The only reason we know what happened [in December] is because Narmeen was there to tell us. And Raani saw it too. She was not happy about it. She went and talked to your Nana. Nothing was solved by it, but they did try. Things did change a little, but your Nanu feels like there’s nothing you can do. We’re so intertwined with our family… I don’t even know what she wants. It’s been so long…We’re a family that slips everything under the rug. That’s what our family does, and that’s what it does all the time…We don’t know how to communicate. We all have anger and we don’t know how to express it because we keep it in.”
This violent incident was not handled by the family, and it was never spoken about. Though the family does not discuss the violence in Kalpana and Kabir’s lives, they were incredibly proactive in their sister’s experience with domestic violence. In 2007, after 6 years of marriage, Zaynah revealed to the family her now ex-husband was abusing her.
Zaynah says, “I think we did learn from our mistakes with Amma because Ameena and Narmeen and everyone was like ‘Zaynah has to go to counseling’ and they did talk about it, initially, and they wanted to figure out how to help me.” Ameena resounds,
“We were more open, more supportive, we fought it, and nobody told her to go back. That’s for sure very different from what your Nanu went though. Your Nanu had nobody to support her to leave, or say ‘We’ll help you.’ Zaynah endured through those 6 years, but when she did open up, everybody supported her. We tried to fight for her divorce, and we tried to let the community know…we weren’t ashamed of it, and we didn’t make it seem that it was her fault. But that’s what your Nanu had to go through.”
It is clear that silence is created by circumstances. The Rahman children fought to make sure their sister’s experience was different from their mother’s life. But what forces prevented them from helping Kalpana in a similar way? The kids pretend like the domestic violence between their parents never happened, and willfully ignore and individualize systemic issues, putting a lot of pressure on my grandmother to be “okay.”
Zaynah says, “I don’t have many issues with Abba now… I’m really neutral, in the middle. We’re kind’ve like… it’s both of their faults. Back in the day, there’s no excuse for domestic violence. But after all of these years, now, well they’re so old, how do they have energy to fight?”
Raani further observes the attitudes of the siblings:
“There is a fair amount of victim-blaming (Nanu is annoying about things, she provokes him), and a kind of hopelessness: what can happen at this point? Divorce? Where will she go? Who’s going to take on her responsibility? What use will separation be for a couple in their 70s?.”
The Rahman children’s hopelessness could be explained by Kalpana’s age and Kabir’s power in the family. Kalpana is an elderly woman, she can barely hear, she battles depression, and her physical and mental capacity is diminishing. Perhaps helping her change her life, whether that be a separation from Kabir, or having her go to therapy, is viewed as a “lost cause.” There is also pressure to preserve my grandfather’s position in the family; would shaking up the family structure be worth it?
And most importantly, how can they say anything to an abuser who is also their father? By remaining silent, the family relinquishes the power to Kabir. According to Peggy McIntosh and the myth of meritocracy, this relinquishment of power is consistent with the privilege that “keeps power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.”
It has always been difficult understanding the dynamic of the Rahman family. To me, it seemed that my uncles and aunts had genetic anger problems, my grandparents were senile and nonsensically fought all the time, and absolutely no one was taught how to communicate. I knew my grandmother was hit as a young woman, but I never knew enough to label it as domestic violence. After exploring the dynamics of my family, it is clear that imbalanced gender roles, shame, guilt, South Asian ideals, the power of the patriarchy, faith, class, and old age are all ingredients which cultivate the Rahman’s silence. I have theorized some of the deep-rooted problems within my family, although many questions remain.