by Lakshmy Parameswaran
Four months ago, Nirmala Katta of Stafford was driven to destroy her family by shooting her husband and three children to death, then shooting and killing herself as well.
This 29-year-old Indian-American women may appear to be a ruthless murderer on the surface. However, this is not the whole picture. She was a victim of severe physical and emotional violence during a 10-year marriage.
Having no close friends or family nearby, a desperate Katta reached out to her family in India who failed to recognize the destructive pattern of her husband’s abusive behavior that threatened the sanity, safety and lives of his wife and children.
Under the circumstances, is Katta solely responsible for her final act? Or should the blame be shared equally by her husband, unresponsive relatives and rigid Indian society where she was raised and aloof American society where she spent most of her adult life? In reality, Katta paid the ultimate price for one man’s abusive, controlling and irresponsible behavior shaped and cultivated by the same two societies to which he she belonged.
Historically, both the Eastern and Western societies have failed to protect women from suffering at the hands of their loved ones. They have, for centuries, consented to men's violence against women at home. While the West has at least begun to view this phenomenon as a crime and recognize the cultural implications of domestic violence on the victims, the East has not yet advanced to this level. A majority of Easterners, even those who have migrated to the United States, still believe that family violence is an acceptable and normal part of life.
Culturally, most Asian women have been brought up to respect and defer to authority and accommodate themselves to the good of the family, for it is the family that provides its members with a group identity.
No matter how Westernized they appear, Asian women find it difficult to accept Western alternatives to family problems that do not make sense within their own cultural framework. For example, the idea of filling a complaint against the perpetrator or contacting Child Protective Services for suspicion of child abuse sounds too scary to even consider as alternatives.
Coming from a culture where intervention is provided by people from within, involvement of such third-party professionals seems very intrusive and uncalled for. Unfortunately, due to the absence of people from within and failure of the ethnic communities to fill this need, they are often left alone to deal with situations that could be morally wrong as well as illegal.
Although experts agree that domestic violence crosses all barriers of race, religion and economic and education status, they also agree that there is a strong link between culture and the way one responds to domestic violence. Culture has a tremendous effect on the way battered women define and understand violence and deal with their own unique experiences of being battered women.
Effective intervention programs have to address women’s cultural and social background to make the process meaningful and sensible to them. This is crucial for a country like the United States where many cultures come together to form a society.
First printed in the Houston Chronicle
August 3, 1996