“Virginity Is Everything”
Sexuality in the Context of Intimate Partner Violence
in the South Asian Community
SANDEEP HUNJAN AND SHELAGH TOWSON
Although violence against women by their intimate partners and family members is a global phenomenon (Levinson 1989), there is a great deal of cultural variation in the patterns and manifestations of domestic violence (e.g., Ellsberg et al. 1999; Heise et al. 1994; Sorenson 1996; Walker 1999). Triggers for, responses to, and consequences of intimate partner violence may differ across cultural groups. As Vandello and Cohen (2003) put it, some of the reasons for domestic abuse may reside within the abusive male, but culture also plays a causal role by providing the scripts for the ways in which males and females are to behave.
South Asian culture is characterized by various norms that serve not only to maintain violence against women but also to silence those who experience it (e.g., Abraham 1999; Almeida and Dolan-Delvecchio 1999; Dasgupta and Warrier 1996). From the time they are born, if they survive the abortion, infanticide, malnutrition, and femicide that result in a low ratio of girls to boys in most parts of South Asia, girls learn that they are valued less than boys but are duty bound to provide service, sacrifice, and devotion (Kumar 1991; Sen and Seth 1995). This emphasis on duty and service (Sethi and Allen 1984) is central to the South Asian family system, “an elaborate network of male-centered relationships” (Almeida and DolanDelvecchio 1999, 662). When they marry, women are expected to leave their natal, “temporary” family (Kumar 1991) and move in with their “real” family, their husband's family, where power is determined by age and gender hierarchies and new brides enter near the bottom (Almeida and Dolan-Delvecchio 1999; Kumar 1991; Moghadam 1992). This transfer of a woman as property from father to husband, combined with beliefs regarding a woman's destiny and duty to her husband, may normalize the occurrence of rape and other violence in marriage and make it more difficult for women to reveal their abuse (Abraham 1999; Coomaraswamy 1995).
The lack of information on South Asian women's experience of domestic violence in North America is especially apparent in the area of sexual abuse of women