Australia is renowned internationally for having a spirit of mate-ship, comradery and community support. Yet domestic violence still pervades our society; over 80 women die annually as a direct result of physical abuse at home.
Domestic violence is especially destructive to the lives of the newest Australians. Migrant families not only suffer the direct effects of domestic violence on personal well-being, but also lack understanding and awareness of Australian legal and public support services.
Jit, a first generation Australian from India, shares her harrowing story of survival through domestic violence. Battling both abuse at home and cultural dislocation from mainstream support, Jit’s account of her struggle and triumph truly illustrates the holes in Australian support networks for minority groups in domestic violence situations.
Before telling her story, it is first important to note that the interviewee requested her name to be changed for privacy reasons. She requested to be named Jit, a Sikh name representing triumph and victory. Mentioned later, her Sikh temple sister requested to be called Bal, meaning the brave one.
Jit was raised by her family in a small village in India, without access to modern technologies such as television. When she was 18 years old, Jit’s uncle arranged for her to be married to a family friend living in England. Told stories of her prospective husband’s wealth and good character, Jit travelled to England for the wedding.
In September 1980, after collecting her visa from the airport in England, Jit met her husband. She was married by November. Growing close to her new father in law, Jit was surprised to find that her husband’s parents were opposed to the communion. Her father in law told Jit that her husband wished to migrate to Australia, and in order to move he needed to be married. A union of good prospects, founded by the trust of family members – was simply a means to an end.
Jit recalls the first time her husband was aggressive. Two weeks after the marriage, the husband used offensive language toward her. Coming from a heavily religious family, Jit was shocked when her husband called her a “bitch”.
Then her husband became physical. Six weeks later, Jit was upset after an altercation with her aunt at a family gathering. When her husband asked her what was wrong, Jit was too upset to reply. Her husband grew angry, pulled her hair and slapped her.
In March 1981, Jit and her husband migrated to Brisbane to start a new life, but the violence continued. When Jit was seven months pregnant, she was taken to hospital with significant bruising and contraction pains. The husband told doctors she fell in the bath, but Jit had once again been the target of her husband’s anger and physical abuse.
Jit’s situation became progressively worse over the next decade; she became accustomed to beatings every weekend when her husband returned home from drinking with his friends. He eventually lost his job at the local post office as a result of his drinking, and lived on Jit’s wages.
One particular evening resulted in Jit reaching out to her Sikh temple sister, Bal, in order to file a restraining order against her husband. Returning to the family restaurant after drinking heavily, the husband began verbally abusing Jit and their seven year old son. He started throwing plates and crockery at Jit. He then grabbed a 40kg pot of hot curry brewing for the restaurant, and threw it at her, burning her so badly she was taken to hospital.
Despite the restraining order and the excessive violence, Jit did not separate from her husband. She was afraid of losing her property.
“You don’t want to lose your property, I didn’t want to go back to poverty,” she said.
“I thought that maybe he was getting better, I didn’t want to lose the restaurant.”
Jit said that after his violent outbursts, he would beg at her feet for forgiveness. She said that he was so convincing, “he could have made a fool of god.”
A social worker visited Jit during her marriage, and urged her to divorce her husband and remove the family from his reach. However Jit said she was reluctant to do so.
“I should have listened to her that time, instead of trying to keep the family together,” she said.
“[The social worker] was saying to me that once a man is violent, he will never change.”
Her struggle with domestic violence continued after this event, and eventually culminated after the husband attacked their son with a knife. After multiple reports of domestic violence and a restraining order, the husband lived separately from the two children, in the upstairs of their home. Despite their separation, Jit still cooked and cleaned for him on a daily basis. One day, when the husband was dissatisfied with the meal provided by Jit, he came downstairs bearing a knife. Their 15 year old son stood up to his father, holding up a chair to defend himself and his mother. The husband cut his son deeply on the arm, hospitalising him and leaving a scar that exists to this day.
The husband was then charged with a five year restraining order in order to protect Jit and her family.
After several financial and legal disputes with the husband, and with the help of her two children, Bal, and her employer, Jit was eventually separated entirely from her husband, paying $150 000 in order to remove his name from her house and property.
Jit now works in the mental health support industry, and her two children both have successful careers.
Looking back on her story, Jit stresses the need for women in her position to leave immediately when domestic violence occurs, despite cultural pressures to keep families together.
“When you have broken English and things like that, you just keep accepting it. With my knowledge now, as soon as something is wrong with the family, they shouldn’t consider anything, they just need to get out of the situation,” she said.
Jit also stressed the need for personnel to assist women in situations similar to hers, to help them file restraining orders and with legal consultation.
“I would like someone to help get restraining orders and things like that. When something like [domestic violence] happens, your mind freezes up, and you can’t do it yourself,” she said.
Long term advocate for the Muslim community and director of Eidfest Community Services, Yasmin Khan says that it is difficult for mainstream services to properly support women from cultures such as Jit’s.
“A lot of [mainstream services] will look at it as a black and white issue, and say ‘well that’s illegal and you have got to get out of that situation. We will charge the man with abuse,’” Ms Khan said.
“A lot of the women who come to these services don’t necessarily want to charge the man with abuse… don’t want to break up the family, don’t want a divorce, they just want the abuse to stop.”
Ms Khan suggests the need for a culturally sensitive service to provide specialised support for women in domestic violence situations.
“That might mean there’s an outside provider that understands that culture and tradition… and then can just be a circuit breaker,” Ms Khan said.
“[The outside provider] can just counsel them, talk to them and say ‘look this is not allowed in Australia, it’s not allowed in your culture, you might have grown up with it, but we don’t tolerate that here,’” Ms Khan said.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please contact DV Connect on 1800 811 811.