The Trap of Multiculturalism
Battered South Asian Women and Health Care
Despite increasing scholarly attention to the social underpinnings of domestic violence in the diasporic South Asian community, there is a paucity of research on how medical treatment of battered South Asian women is informed by both politically grounded misconceptions about South Asian immigrants and a problematic version of cultural sensitivity in medical practice. The philosophy of multiculturalism links historically grounded stereotypes about South Asians with the medical treatment they receive, thereby politicizing health care in dangerous ways that result in unequal treatment of battered South Asian women.
In the health care sector, multiculturalism translates into cultural sensitivity in medical practice, a philosophy that claims health care can be improved and patients made more comfortable with treatment when providers are sensitive to cultural traits that clash with Western healing practices. In short, the hope is that consideration of a patient's background will help a physician provide health care that the patient finds acceptable. What goes unquestioned, however, are the politics of who is given the power to define a community, identify and name its different needs, and guide physicians and other social service providers to an assumed right course of action.
In this essay, I hope to explore some of the conclusions that have emerged from my research on the relationship between medical cultural sensitivity and domestic violence in South Asian immigrant communities. I am especially interested in the ways that multiculturalism in this context actually replicates structures of oppression within South Asian communities, resulting in unequal treatment of South Asian women patients on the grounds of respecting their cultural difference, a difference that is defined predominantly by male religious leaders. The propagation of specific imaginings of South Asian communities, as well as their presumed needs and sensitivities, is partly rooted in specific historical relationships between these communities and the British and American states. Such perceptions affect health care delivery to South Asian women by defining domestic violence either as