Domestic Violence, South Asian Silence, and Storytelling

By Jasleen Singh

“When I went to court to file a restraining order, the judge told me, the most common last name for domestic violence cases in this city is Singh.”

I was sitting in a Gurdwara on the East Coast in Fall 2013 with an Aunty who was brave enough to talk with me about her marriage. Divaan had just ended and we were in the main hall, out of earshot. I was on a cross-country project to interview Sikhs across America, write monologues based on the stories, and create stage production. I knew that many parts of the Sikh American narrative are tinged with violence and discrimination from outside sources. But I also knew that the community itself has demons it tries to invisibilize. Sexual assault and domestic abuse are among those demons I wanted to expose.

A scene during a performance of The Sikh Monologues. (Courtesy Jasleen Singh)

I interviewed almost 150 people for the project. Three women shared their stories of domestic abuse with me. I wrote my first monologue based on these women, and Sikh Monologues became a platform to share the nuance and pure struggle that it takes to survive an abusive relationship. Six times over, audiences across the U.S. have had to sit and listen to a woman on stage, talking about the journey through an abusive marriage — her fears, hesitation, helplessness, defiance, and ultimately her survival. Many men are part of the audiences. Many people have probably felt deeply uncomfortable. Those who feel triggered by the monologue are encouraged to step out. But most stay. And in so doing, they are, perhaps for the first time, hearing and seeing the violence of domestic abuse as narrated on stage. Storytelling is powerful.

The domestic violence piece in Sikh Monologues is but one platform among several South Asian organizations and projects that have been working on domestic violence issues. The Sikh Family Center (SFC) has a hotline number individuals can call to report or talk about abuse. SFC is also conducting the first ever survey of sexual assault and domestic violence in the Sikh community. The Jakara Movement published an Open Letter last April reminding our community that 1) sexual assault is a reality of the Sikh community and 2) apathy makes us complicit in perpetrating such violence. And let’s not forget that incredible organizations — including Narika and Sakhi for South Asian Women — have been doing advocacy and representation work around sexual assault and domestic violence in the South Asian community for years.

Resources have been present, albeit sparse, and more are popping up. But the existence of resources does not change mindsets. Open, outright conversation about sexual violence and domestic abuse has been harder to come by, meaning that there has undoubtedly been a lack of encouragement and community support for individuals to leave violent relationships or report sexual assault. Talking about sexual violence is not a political issue. It’s a cultural issue. Both American and especially South Asian cultures are drenched with patriarchal double standards. This is a human issue. We know this.

One beautiful thing to come of our present political climate, which is fueled by social ideology, is that the collective “we” are fighting back. In so doing, we are creating public spaces to tell stories and to demand that our men do better. October is domestic violence awareness month. Pay attention. Not only to the articles and facebook statuses, but to your own actions — the way you interact with peers, support friends, and open conversation about domestic violence in your own communities, friend circles, and families.

Jasleen Singh is the Director of Sikh Monologues and an Honors Attorney at the California Department of Justice. These comments are her personal views and do not reflect those of her employer. Learn more at facebook.com/sikhmonologues

This piece is presented as part of series of South Asian voices during Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Desis for Progress is proud to provide a space for community voices and members to write about various issues affecting the South Asian community. The opinions expressed in these original pieces belong to the author.