“Quietly ominous” and “controlled” are some of the words media reports in the past few days have used to describe Silicon Valley chief executive officer Abhishek Gattani’s voice on an iPhone recording that his wife Neha Rastogi secretly made, documenting the domestic violence she suffered at his hands. The video clip was played in a California court, which awarded him 30-day jail sentence last week. On the video clip, her voice quivers with confusion.
Hers is one of countless stories of abuse involving Indians working in Silicon Valley – a strata of society known for high educational levels and financial wealth. Non-profits that support South Asian families facing domestic violence in the Bay Area, like Maitri and Narika, are quick to point out that education levels have virtually no bearing on the prevalence of domestic violence in a community. “Domestic violence is prevalent across all backgrounds, financial, social and educational,” said Maitri’s outreach coordinator in an email interview with Scroll.in. “It is not restricted to any particular segment of the community.” Maitri received 4,330 calls for help in 2016, nearly double the number it received in 2013. Around 65%-70% of calls that Narika receives each year involve technology experts in the Valley. In many cases, both spouses, the victim and the abuser, work in the technology industry.
Neha Rastogi’s tone of voice in the video clip is one that another South Asian woman, a 47-year-old financial analyst from the San Francisco Bay Area, recognises only too well. It reminds her of the confusion she felt while facing domestic abuse of an altogether different sort from her quietly ominous husband, who, like Gattani, was a Silicon Valley executive. When she confided in her friends about the problems she faced, she was often rebuked for being the loud, confident and boisterous one, while her husband, on the other hand, seemed soft-spoken and reasonable.
For a long time, she did not actually know she was a victim of domestic abuse. After all, when the couple moved to the United States, her husband, a high-ranker at one of the Indian Institutes of Technology, was the one who facilitated a career change on her part. Bang in the middle of a career switch, she did not want to have children, but relented when her husband said he was eager to start a family. “He promised he would be the primary care-giver,” she said.
She had trouble conceiving, opted for fertility treatment and had three miscarriages, which took a toll on her body and her career. She finally had two children in quick succession, but was horrified when her husband completely “backed off from them”. In other words, he refused to look after his daughters in any way. His behaviour perplexed her. After all, it was he who wanted children to begin with.
Her career faltered, she lost control of her own finances, and finally reached breaking point. When she threatened to walk out of her marriage, he told her the real reason he had wanted children. “He said I was too independent at the time of our marriage, and he thought making me have children would ensure that I never left him,” said the woman, her voice betraying the horror she had felt at the time. She does not wish to be identified, as she would like to spare her children the ugly details of her marriage.
Violence in the Valley
The shame and stigma associated with domestic abuse makes it particularly hard for many Indian women to talk about it. While researching the Indian community in Silicon Valley at the University of California, Berkeley, journalist Ashley D’Mello recalled interviewing a young woman who, in a burst of emotion, spoke of how suddenly there was a “dhak” on the side of her face – “dhak” being the sound of a slap. She didn’t mention, specifically, that it was her husband who had hit her, though this was implicit. Immediately after she had blurted this out, she calmed down, as if realising she had said too much.
D’Mello recalled meeting another victim of domestic violence whose husband was a topper at the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi. She herself was highly educated. The couple moved to Silicon Valley along with the man’s parents. The woman wanted to study further but was horrified when her father-in-law told her she could not do so without his permission, and should concentrate on raising her children. One woman told D’Mello she was routinely slapped by her husband. The journalist said slaps were a common feature of the abuse the women faced.
According to a woman who works for a California-based non-profit, there’s something almost cancerous about the gradual increase in domestic violence in a relationship. She does not wish to be identified for safety reasons. “One doesn’t get beaten black and blue the first time round,” she said. “Initially, it’s ‘just a slap’. Gradually, the frequency and intensity of the violence increases.”
But as the abuse grows, so does the relationship. “Happy memories are built over the same period as the abuse,” she added. “The same person who massages his wife’s feet when they ache beats her when he is angry. As the abuse increases over time, so does a fondness for the perpetrator. The stakes in a relationship increase. The couple may have children together, as well as a joint bank account. Their lives are so intertwined that it is hard to walk out of the relationship.”
In many of the cases she has dealt with, the perpetrators are not “monsters with horns”. Often, they come back to their victims after the abuse and say they are really sorry for what they have done, and will never do it again. They say they feel like killing themselves. A woman with a bruise on her eye is faced with a man who gives her valid reasons why she should not approach the police. After all, he will lose his job and his immigration status.
Organisations that support South Asian victims of domestic abuse in Silicon Valley insist that such violence is not a malaise specific to South Asian workers there, or South Asians, for that matter, but is prevalent across all communities, cultures and strata of society. However, South Asians face several cultural barriers to accessing services provided by the state, which is where non-profits step in to help them.
“Many immigrants may not speak English,” said Rovina Nimbalkar, executive director of Narika, which has been supporting South Asians facing domestic abuse for 25 years now. Narika receives 1,200 calls for help each year.
“South Asians are not used to the idea of dialing 911 [the emergency helpline in the US] when faced with domestic violence and having the police show up at their doorstep and arrest the perpetrator,” she added. “Often a woman dials 911 and then hangs up the phone for fear of the consequences of calling the police.”
There is a great deal of shame associated with talking of domestic violence in a culture that largely blames the woman for the abuse she suffers. Sometimes, when the police turn up in response to a 911 call, the woman says she dialed the number by mistake. She may have called the police in a moment of anguish while being abused, out of fear for her life, but may not want to carry through with the complaint later on. After all, a lot of women still love their partners, despite the abuse.
“Some of the situations faced by an immigrant woman may be particularly challenging,” said Nimbalkar. “While a woman may be on a dependent visa, her child may be born in the US and hence may be a US citizen. This means that if she walks out of her marriage and returns to India, she may not be able to take her child back home with her. Perpetrators of domestic violence often use children to control a woman in every way.”
Nimbalkar sees a pattern in the stories of domestic violence involving the South Asian community. She said:
“First a woman moves to the US on a dependent visa. Then her husband begins to control every aspect of her life, from where she goes to whom she talks to. When one of our clients met our advocates, she said this was the second time she had stepped out of her house independently in the last 10 years. She would only step out of the house when her husband wanted to take her out somewhere. She couldn’t make phone calls independently. Her husband would constantly check her phone, scan the numbers she had dialed and even go through her browsing history on the internet. She had no support system in the US and was completely isolated. She finally managed to reach out to Narika.”
A number of immigrant women who come to the United States cannot drive and nobody helps them get a licence. This makes them virtually immobile. Also, many women facing abuse are on an H4 visa for dependents of those on an H-1B visa, and are not allowed to work. They might be engineers in India, but in the United States, they are forced to become housewives. This increases the financial control a man has over his wife, according to Nimbalkar. There are also instances where women do find jobs, but their husbands take away the money they earn.
Nimbalkar’s experience in the field shows her that partners aren’t the only ones responsible for a woman facing domestic violence. A woman’s extended family, some of whom may not even live in the United States, may be responsible for the perpetuation of the abuse she suffers. Often a woman’s in-laws complain to her parents about how she is not making their son happy. The threat is particularly sinister in a patriarchal society where divorce is taboo. “Americans don’t have the sort of cultural and social stigma around divorce that we see in our culture,” said Nimbalkar.
A minuscule percentage of calls received by agencies working in the area of domestic violence are from men. Nimbalkar pegs the figure at around 2% to 3% of all calls received. These may not necessarily involve physical violence but may, instead, be about verbal and financial control and intimidation.
It’s her fault
Non-profits like Maitri and Narika are involved in outreach programmes that include posting flyers in beauty salons and grocery stores frequented by the South Asian community, setting up booths at social and religious events, creating social media pages and training the police on cultural sensitivity while handling domestic abuse cases.
While such agencies cannot directly approach a victim and offer their services, people like Rricha Kale, a software engineer in the Bay Area, use their large social networks to encourage victims to reach out to organisations that can help them.
Kale recalls the time a friend put her in touch with a woman from an affluent family in North India who worked as an assistant teacher at a Silicon Valley school. Her husband worked in the technology industry and the couple had two children. The woman was terrified of being at home. Her husband would insist on looking after his daughters on his own and refused to allow her to do anything for them. She was not even allowed to cook for her children. He would use abusive language towards her. The way he treated her influenced their daughters to do the same. They wanted her out of the house or dead. Her husband had taken away her phone and did not allow her to use a laptop. She had no access to the outside world. On a visit to India, he once attempted to leave her behind and only return with his daughters.
Kale first met her in a public park. The woman was scared to talk about what was happening to her. Kale held her hand to comfort her and convinced her that she would help her to the best of her capacity. It took five separate meetings for Kale to convince the woman to reach out to an agency that would support her.
This is one of several instances of domestic violence that Kale has encountered involving the Indian community in the Valley. A friend of hers suffered domestic violence for 20 years and was convinced it was normal.
An Indian professional in the Bay Area spoke of a business analyst she had worked with, who suffered severe domestic abuse at the hands of her husband, who worked with an American multinational. The woman would come to office heavily medicated on psychiatric drugs. Her husband had convinced her she was mad. She thought psychiatric medication was the only solution to her problems. Like so many other women who face abuse at home, she thought it was her own fault.