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Journal of Asian American Studies 4.3 (2001) 285-288

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Book Review

Speaking the Unspeakable: Marital Violence among South Asian Immigrants in the United States

Speaking the Unspeakable: Marital Violence among South Asian Immigrants in the United States.By Margaret Abraham. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

Margaret Abraham begins her book with the story of Syeda Sufian, a young Bangladeshi women living in Jamaica, New York, who was doused with gasoline and set on fire by her husband, Mohammed Mohsin, in 1995. Sufian survived her ordeal, and with the help of Sakhi for South Asian Women, brought public attention to the violence in an immigrant community.

In her book, Abraham breaks silences by challenging the model minority myth of Asian Americans, in this case of South Asian immigrants, by focusing on how marital violence can be supported by families and communities that choose to ignore its existence or, even worse, contribute to the continued abuse of the women. Her work captures micro-level analysis of the lives and voices of the women who are abused as well as their relationship with their abusers, their relatives in the United States and abroad, and the larger ethnic community. She shows how macro-level social, political, economic, and cultural factors contribute and exacerbate the conditions of marital violence. Her study is a revealing examination of how citizenship, language, ethnicity, religion, and class factor into the oppression of a group of women.

One of the strengths of Abraham's book is her weaving together the narratives of these women's experiences before their marriages, how their relationships became abusive, how the women responded to the abuse, and what resources they had to escape these unions. Her original research was conducted in 1991-94 and includes in-depth interviews of twenty-five South Asian (Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi) women who experienced marital abuse from their co-ethnic husbands and who are from various religious backgrounds (Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Sikh) in the New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago areas. They are [End Page 285] from different class backgrounds with diverse levels of education and work experiences. The interviews were conducted in English, Hindi, Malayalam, and Bengali -- showing the complexity of research with this socially constructed ethnic group.

Many of the women in Abraham's study participated in transnational arranged marriages, with some women in their homelands marrying men in the United States and other women already in the United States marrying men from abroad. In some cases, women chose their own partners in "love marriages." Abraham traces how the traditional South Asian concepts of gender roles, the institution of marriage, and family preservation is transplanted to the United States. Mainstream research on domestic violence often has ignored Asian American women, particularly immigrant women who constitute the majority of these victims in the contemporary period. Abraham's perspective focuses on the conditions faced by a racialized group of women who are immigrants, which makes her study timely and useful because it argues for a more complex understanding of, and theorizing on, domestic violence.

Abraham analyzes the ways in social, psychological, and economic isolation at the interpersonal, community, and institutional level contributes to marital violence. Their isolation in a new environment and their separation from family and friends, along with their cultural and linguistic adjustments, contribute to their disempowerment while increasing the control their husbands have over them. Chapter five examines the physical and sexual abuse that is used to oppress and control these women by their husbands. These deeply moving narratives describe how sexuality is constructed for South Asian immigrant women and the kinds of violence the women experience by their abusers. The author argues that parents, in-laws, extended kin, friends, and South Asian community institutions deliberately or inadvertently contribute further to the sexual harassment of the women. These individuals and groups do not want to threaten the image of their family or community, undermine traditional male authority, or rupture the sense of ethnic communality, and, in effect, respond by silencing or suppressing marital violence...


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pp. 285-288
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