Blog, stories and articles on personal issues and challenges faced by South Asians and Non Resident Indians (NRIs)

Rani's story - Part I of a South Asian Divorce

Wednesday November 14 2007
By SUNIL RAO

The face of an abused South Asian woman is generally that of a simple village girl: needy, poorly educated, unexposed to international sophistry. Or at least, that is what most people think.

Think again, for abuse exists even in the so-called 'upper' classes.

This is the story of Rani, a young, educated Sikh Punjabi girl from a middle-class family who left her home in Hong Kong for an arranged marriage set up by her parents and in-laws, and came to Canada as a young bride with stars in her eyes. That was in 1998.

But ever since that day, Rani (name changed to protect identity) says she's had to wage a battle on many fronts: her husband, who fought her on every count, and who hasn't been above hitting below the belt; her parents, who washed their hands of her and eventually called her "our burden"; her lawyers, who when they realized Rani's ex is also a lawyer, instantly changed tack and not-so-subtly advised her to quietly give in; even the NGOs, who she says are self-serving institutions whose primary focus is to continue safeguarding their future funding-- even to the detriment of the clients they serve.

This, then, is one story of the severe social, emotional and psychological traumas South Asian women subjected to family abuse go through, and the desperate financial straits they are reduced to, leading to a sense of extreme personal self-degradation, and abject misery.

This happened not to an innocent village girl, but to an educated woman aware of the ways of the world. And if it happened-- and continues to happen-- to a Rani, it can pretty much happen to anyone.

This is the first part of Rani's story, in her own words:

I am about to narrate a story of my life and its struggles, and what I have endured as a South Asian woman in Canada. I hope that my coming forward in this way will give a ray of hope to other women who are in a similar position.

This account is also my way of showing to the wider South Asian population that we as a community need to recognize and accept certain realities that are attached to having one's daughter married overseas, rather than blithely hoping everything is going to be peaches and roses in a typical South Asian setting.

I was a young Sikh Punjabi girl in Hong Kong who, at age 17, was trying to finish school but was distracted by the struggles of a financially strained family. I took it upon myself to quit school and start working so I could contribute to the family kitty.

I was the dutiful little Indian girl and gave up 80 per cent of my earnings to my parents, perhaps trying to prove to them I was as good as any son, and not a liability or a burden for being female.

I was instantly hailed an awesome daughter, and all differences with my parents disappeared as they saw the money coming in.

I was always told they were going to find my prince in shining armour and marry me with all the pomp and ceremony, that my life was going be financially secure, with lots of kids. I trusted my parents and knew in my heart they would find the right match for me. And I trusted in my (Wahe Guru) to do right by me.

I'd just turned 23 when my mother, who frequented India, called and said a family friend had found a suitable match. The boy was from Canada, and an LLB (Legum Baccalaureus, or Bachelor of Law). My mother was convinced this was the right person for me, and that this mutual friend had done all the necessary background checks about the boy.

I doubted the intentions of this 'family friend'-turned-matchmaker, because this 'friend', aged 50-plus, had earlier tried to sexually assault me. I'd been able to stop him and gave him a piece of my mind, but didn't tell my mother at the time since this person was held in high regard by the family.

I went to India with butterflies in my stomach and was also told he was only here for a few weeks; if we all agreed I would be married at once. To cut a long story short, I was put under pressure to accept him as my future partner. I guess my 'Indianness' took over. I was married within a week, had my honeymoon in a part of India I'd never seen, and my husband of less than two weeks left for Canada, with me to follow after winding up in Hong Kong.

There I found myself at Toronto airport. I met up with my husband, was taken home in a stretch limo, and truly felt special.

The feeling lasted for about the duration of the ride.

When I got home I realized this partner of mine was living in a rented basement. Upon probing, I realized he was not a lawyer yet but was still studying-- hence the spartan digs.

I realized I was in the same boat as I'd been in Hong Kong, only now I was going start earning money as a supportive wife. Anyway I accepted the situation and started working full-time as he prepared for his studies.

But I still wondered why support from his immediate family was negligent. It was only after meeting some of his family members that I was able to put the puzzle together: to my disgust, I realized ours had not been the 'traditional arranged' marriage I'd been led to believe, but a 'hastily arranged' wedding to preserve an earlier ugly family secret.

This was a very low blow to my self-esteem. Upon confronting him on various occasions all I got were denials, and that any rumours about his past were baseless. My parents were not supportive either: they indicated past indiscretions were history and have a way of sorting themselves out. I was also told I was married, this was my home, and I have to find a way to forgive and move on. And that, when he became a lawyer, we would have a great future together and I would forget this period.

I continued to support him and made the financial and other sacrifices necessary so he could get through and become a lawyer. He passed his bar exam, and I was now a prominent wife of a lawyer and our social standing changed-- but in our personal lives, we were still struggling.

Anyway, we moved towards the Canadian dream of owning a home, and bought one-- using, for the down payment, the money from my own earnings. I became pregnant with my first-born; he was a boy, and brought happiness to me and our home. But this happiness also proved shortlived as my husband's expediency took precedence over the harmony and love in the house.

I approached my husband on many occasions to see if we could strive towards a harmonious balance. But there came a point in our fourth year when I saw turmoil and disaster on its way. We separated for a period and I took my son and left for Hong Kong; but I was urged to return as there was a chance to mediate a peaceful settlement, and that he was willing to make this marriage work.

This was good news, especially as my stay at my own house in Hong Kong was now so different: my brother and parents treated me like a stranger. I was left with the feeling that my own brother viewed me as a liability in their lives.

I flew back to Canada and in the plane prayed to my faith (Wahe Guru) and held my son close and dreamt of a better future. Why was I not surprised that more disasters were in store for us?

On my return my husband started abusing me verbally on a daily basis. I was constantly reminded he was in a position to make my life miserable, and that I should feel lucky I was in a family of 'class'. Things went from bad to worse-- and amidst all that was happening, (Wahe Guru) decided I needed another child, and I became pregnant with my second child.

I was in a more vulnerable position than ever... and my nightmare reached its peak. I was put under pressure and was talked into aborting my child, and was reminded not to forget where and who I was with.

I had confided in my family doctor, and of course the doctor was known to my husband (the wonderful Old Boys' network)-- and this doctor sent me to a psychiatrist to have me evaluated. I was cleared of any mental imbalance-- which was perhaps not what others wanted to hear. Anyway, my doctor next went ahead and called Peel Children's Aid Society anyway, accusing me of neglecting my son and not feeding him, while alleging I had poor coping skills as a mother.

Children's Aid realized I was a victim of powerful forces churning against me. I was cleared and a report sent to the doctor that the agency did not find any child safety issues, and that I was a good and nurturing mom.

I was still hoping to have my circumstances resolved, but was realizing there was no one I could turn to who could offer independent, unbiased help. I tried for family counselling and was referred to a South Asian male family counsellor. He asked me for $500 for five sessions, all held at his private residence. I went for a few sessions; the only message that came through loud and clear was that I should get ready to move to a basement apartment-- and that I should make sure I should have my first and last month's rent covered.

I requested that I bring my husband along for the counselling-- and lo and behold! realized this counsellor and my husband were the best of friends.

I now realize this is a business, and understand all these businesses operate on the basis of referrals. And I also now understood the way the system works-- essentially built for South Asian Peel workers around people's misery, to guarantee both their own jobs as well as future funding for their programs, so that they stay employed.

Continue to Part II

Story published in Canada's South Asian Focus

-- We sincerely wish 'Rani' were a fictional character. Unfortunately she isn't. Mail us your comments at haveyoursay@southasianfocus.com

'I continued to support him and made the financial and other sacrifices necessary so he could get through and become a lawyer. He passed his bar exam, and I was now a prominent wife of a lawyer and our social standing changed-- but in our personal lives, we were still struggling'

'On my return my husband started abusing me verbally on a daily basis. I was constantly reminded he was in a position to make my life miserable, and that I should feel lucky I was in a family of 'class'. Things went from bad to worse-- and amidst all that was happening, (Wahe Guru) decided I needed another child, and I became pregnant with my second child. I was in a more vulnerable position than ever...

NRI DivorceŽ 2006-2010