The Sita Syndrome: Examining the Communicative Aspects of Domestic Violence from a South Asian Perspective

By Bhatt, Archana Pathak | Journal of International Women's Studies, May 2008 | Go to article overview

The Sita Syndrome: Examining the Communicative Aspects of Domestic Violence from a South Asian Perspective


Bhatt, Archana Pathak, Journal of International Women's Studies


Abstract

This essay explores the communicative aspects of domestic violence by articulating the Eurocentric components of domestic violence research. Utilizing a postcolonial ethnography, this essay reconceptualizes domestic violence from a South Asian perspective, articulating the ways in which relational violence, its acceptance and its social function are gendered.

Keywords: domestic violence, cultural narratives, gender, family, South Asian, postcolonial ethnography

Introduction

In the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, the heroine queen, Sita gives everything up to follow her husband into exile. Despite her deep seated loyalty and commitment, Sita is continuously tested, questioned and doubted. Even when she passes the most rigorous of tests for fidelity, the agnipariksha, (the fire test), doubt remains and ultimately she is punished with banishment. (1) In the fire test, Sita steps into a bonfire asking the fire god Agni to burn her if she is impure. However, even as she stands amidst the flames, Sita is left unscathed, proving that like gold, she is pure and untouched by the fire. Agni lifts Sita out of the fire and places her next to King Rama, claiming that she has passed the strictest of purity tests and she has proven her purity without a doubt. However, despite passing such a difficult standard of purity, Sita was ultimately banished from her husband's palace and sent to live in the forest. Sita is the ultimate standard of selflessness and loyalty. Despite the cost to her and her status, throughout the epic, she acts with a focus on what is best for her husband. Sita's story is well known throughout the South Asian communities both in South Asia and in the U.S. diaspora. The story is passed down through long standing oral traditions as well more contemporary political and media outlets (Zacharias, 2001) This story exemplifies the way in which narratives shape, discipline and control identity performances as Sita becomes the marker of ideal womanhood. Social constructionist perspectives articulate the idea that one's social identity exists in the ways in which it is performed (Goffman, 1959). This notion is further articulated by feminist and race scholars who focus on the ways in which our identities exist both in our performance and in the ways that those performances are informed by larger social structures (Butler, 1999, Diamond, 1996). This body of literature illuminates the ways in which social identities are made meaningful in the context of how they are engaged and performed for others and through the systems of power that inform our day to day interactions. In the telling and retelling of Sita's story, women and men learn to read gendered behavior through this frame. The crux of relational violence resides amongst these stories so that extreme acts of violence, such as but not limited to physical abuse, categorical isolation, and migration violence (2) become end results rather than mere indicators of domestic abuse. The abuse exists in the communicative nature of the culture rather than in these symptomatic acts of abuse.

High rates of domestic violence, minimal support and limited understanding of domestic violence intervention and prevention continue to plague the United States, even now in the 21st century (Dietz, 1996). This disjuncture is even greater for communities of color where cultural systems are starkly different than Euro/White U.S. cultural norms. This is particularly true amongst the U.S. South Asian diaspora. Despite living in the U.S., South Asian women, and particularly Indian Hindu women strive to emulate Sita and fulfill the duties of the ideal Indian woman. The lack of understanding and articulation about the nature of domestic violence is exacerbated by the dearth of information about various ethnic groups in the U.S. and the unique ways in which domestic violence impacts these communities. This essay serves to reconceptualize domestic violence in terms of the South Asian diaspora in the United States by specifically focusing on the communicative nature of abuse in these communities.

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