Why Are South Asian Immigrant Women Vulnerable to Domestic Violence?

By Humza Husain
2019, Vol. 11 No. 12 | pg. 1/1


South Asian women in particular are not only vulnerable to domestic violence, but exceptionally vulnerable to underreporting of domestic violence. The problem compounds itself by making it difficult not only to quantify the issue, but also harder to understand its roots. This paper studies this phenomenon by analyzing the potential causes for both domestic violence as well as underreporting, through understanding what systemic, legislative, and cultural issues specifically plague South Asian women in the United States. Stark cultural differences between eastern and western values and culture, acclimation difficulties, and a powerfully hierarchical, patriarchal culture are ultimately the most impactful foundations enabling domestic violence in South Asian women. The safeguards against interpersonal violence in immigrants have conclusively failed, due to lack of knowledge about them and a high difficulty for immigrant women to even utilize them. The United States needs to increase funding and accessibility in its domestic violence survivor’s programs in order to better assist immigrant women.


South Asians in the United States

The term “South Asian immigrant” refers to people who have emigrated from the countries of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan,” (Ayyub, 238). While politically and geographically separate entities, the six countries are often grouped together due to a similar set of languages, religions, and cultures. India, the most populous country in South Asia, compromises 76.78% of South Asia’s population (The World Bank). Indian immigration to the United States doubled from 1990 to 2000 alone, and that number is rising every year (Natarajan, 301). Using this as an approximation for South Asian immigrants in general, it can be stated that the number of South Asians in the United States is rising. The problems and living situations of South Asian immigrants in the United States therefore become more important to study and understand with every passing day, as they become more relevant to the country as the population grows.

South Asian Culture

South Asian culture tends to be very traditional. Ideas of traditional gender roles, a patriarch, and strong family unit are extremely common (Natarajan, 304). This can be contrasted with United States culture, as the two are in many ways incompatible with each other without some sort of compromise. US culture and western culture generally value ideas such as “individualism and competitiveness and the value placed on sexual equality and fulfilling careers for women,” which are not always perceived as positive by South Asian immigrants (Natarajan, 311). The individualism in United States culture is especially foreign to South Asian culture, which places a strong value on collectivism and the importance of a strong and cohesive family unit. Individual preference is absolutely second to the importance of the group, especially in the family. This manifests itself in aspects of marriage, which can be seen in tropes like the preference of stay at home mothers rather than women who work to further their careers.

Furthermore, the liberation of women in the west is another difficult concept to grasp for South Asian immigrants, who are accustomed to a patriarchal structure. Men are generally ranked above women, but especially so in a marriage. This also goes on to impact the importance of the collective, as if a sacrifice is required to maintain the group’s solidarity, it is often the women who are expected to burden whatever is necessary in the interest of the group. Factors and values unique to South Asian culture are commonly theorized to be why they are especially conducive to promoting domestic violence in its immigrants, who battle with not only their culture, but also its incompatibility with western culture.

What is Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence is the single largest cause of injury to women in the United States (Loke, 589). While men are also victims of domestic violence, this paper will focus on women, as they account for roughly 95% of domestic violence cases- a number that is probably even higher in the South Asian demographic, due to the especially gendered hierarchy (Loke, 589). However, the term is not as specific as often believed, as it is not only restricted to physical abuse. Domestic violence, synonymous with interpersonal violence (IPV) “is a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship,” (The National Domestic Violence Hotline). While physical beatings can be a part of it, they are not the only form of domestic violence that exist. In many cases, IPV may not have a physical component at all!

While domestic violence is prevalent in United States citizens and immigrants, “Intimate partner violence and intimate partner violence–related homicide disproportionately affect immigrant women. South Asian women residing in the United States appear to be at particularly high risk for intimate partner violence, with 40% reporting intimate partner violence in their current relationship,” (Raj & Silverman, 435). While this number may seem exceptionally large, surprisingly it is more or less in line with the overall national domestic violence rate. However, this comparison is a red herring, as South Asians are at the utmost risk of underreporting compared to other demographics (Natarajan, 305). While this simple comparison of rates may make it seem as though they are at no greater risk, experts are unsure of the actual rate of IPV in South Asian immigrant women, and estimate it to be higher than the 40% figure. Underreporting seems to be incredibly prevalent and is the defining feature of domestic violence in this demographic.

What does domestic violence look like in South Asian communities?

South Asians in the United States are often believed to be a “model minority,” as they are commonly thought of as a “successful, hard-working, family-oriented community in an attempt at upward group mobility,” (Abraham, 429). They are viewed- both by themselves and by outsiders- as being committed to values of economic success while also “retaining strong cultural values such as family harmony and solidarity,” (Abraham 429). They are often stereotyped as being professionally successful in the field of technology or in engineering and medicine (Goel, 645). The model minority image is problematic as it not only deters public attention from internal issues like domestic violence, but also encourages members to conform to their expected gender roles and to maintain their public image. This includes internally motivating domestic violence victims to keep their violence hidden- a common trend in South Asian culture. However, domestic violence affects the South Asian community just like it does any other community, and rates are just as high, if not higher, in South Asian communities when compared to others.

Domestic violence in South Asian communities can appear in psychological, social, physical, sexual, and even financial forms. Psychological marital interpersonal violence can range from gaslighting to emotional manipulation, but always takes on a tone of guilting the other spouse in an effort to control her/him. It is often linked to social domestic violence, which consists of dominating the other spouse’s social relationships and maintaining her/his isolation from the outside world. It may be unintentionally harmful, learned behavior in some cases; that does not change its status as abuse. Physical domestic abuse is the most commonly thought of form, in that is the assault and/or battery of a spouse. Sexual domestic violence is another more extreme form that consists of nonconsensual sexual contact of a spouse. Financial domestic violence refers to a spouse’s unmerited control or theft of the other’s wages or property.

All of the different forms are inextricably linked and often appear in combinations, as they are all forms of an unhealthy control of one’s spouse. South Asian domestic abuse victims are vulnerable to all of these types of domestic violence, especially due to their tendency to underreport.

Why Do South Asians Under Report Domestic Violence?

The South Asian community is vulnerable to the “standard” deterrents regarding IPV reporting. These include, but are not limited to, “fear of reprisals, concerns for privacy, protecting the offender, and a perception of the incident as minor” (Natarajan, 302). These factors exist in domestic violence victims of all cultures. Alongside these factors, however, South Asians also face additional challenges due to their culture. While some of the following factors are shared with other cultures, the combination of the following factors results in an underreporting problem unique to South Asian immigrants as a result of their cultural attitudes and values.

Cultural attitudes regarding family perception

South Asian culture is starkly different when compared to that of western society, which is in no small part due to the importance of collectivism rather than individualism. The importance of the group- in many cases, the family- takes priority over individual happiness. There is a high value on both family and public perception (Abraham 433-434). Therefore, the importance of keeping family consistency and avoiding disputes is extremely relevant to victims of domestic violence. However, it is also extremely important to preserve the image of the happy, healthy, successful family. The appearance of domestic violence would be in complete contradiction to these factors, and so reporting it is heavily disincentivized. These factors unfortunately combine to discourage reporting domestic violence, as it not only upturns the delicate family dynamic, but can also damage community perceptions of the family. Families of other cultures, which often prioritize individual happiness, are comparatively less vulnerable to this factor. The model minority factor, as discussed previously, is another unique aspect of the issue of perception. With an additional pressure to act as expected, there is even more reason not to report an unsightly issue like interpersonal marital violence. The combination of these factors is unique to South Asian immigrants in the United States and can help account for why they are so disproportionately vulnerable to underreporting.

Cultural attitudes regarding the role of the wife

Furthermore, gender roles are a very prevalent element in South Asian culture. Subservience to the patriarchal hierarchy is also heavily ingrained in South Asian immigrants, which makes sense because a majority of domestic violence victims are female (Abraham, 434). It is the job of the wife to keep the home clean and take care of the children, whereas the husband deals with the external world. The husband, in his treatment of his wife, is inherently correct as it is assumedly his right to act as he deems necessary. As a result, reporting IPV to the police or relief organizations is also internally discouraged as many victims may believe what they experience to be normal or deserved in their subservience to their spouse. The South Asian culture promotes a rigid hierarchy, with women clearly at the bottom- it encourages women to not only accept, but to also reinforce this hierarchy at the expense of individual needs (Ayyub, 243). Wives may, in accepting their abuse, feel that they are acting as they should and are expected to as a wife. Therefore, the gender roles have two complementary aspects that contribute towards underreporting; husbands are the undisputed leaders and therefore unchecked in their actions, whereas wives are meant to accept their husbands’ actions and continue to do what is necessary to preserve the household.

Language barriers

It is difficult and intimidating for a South Asian immigrant to communicate with police when she is not able to speak English fluently (Goel, 645). The complex jargon and wordage of the legal process does not make this easier, and most police units do not have a Hindi translator available. As a result, South Asian immigrants are dissuaded from going to legal officials for help because of a fear of mistranslation and confusion. Many times, they are unaware that they even have the option of going to the police for domestic violence as immigrants (Tien-Li, 592). This factor is often compounded because South Asian women are traditionally expected not to work as much as the husband, so often their husband is able to develop better English through acculturation. This dichotomy allows the husband to communicate better with the external world (i.e. the police or neighbors) than the wife is able to, if she is able to communicate effectively at all. Therefore, language barriers are another factor that disproportionately affect South Asian immigrants. These factors, when combined, contribute to the excessive underreporting in the South Asian community.

Why are South Asians at Risk for Domestic Violence?

South Asian culture is thus based upon values that can explain why underreporting is so prevalent. However, the larger question that this paper aims to answer is not only about underreporting, but to explain why domestic violence itself occurs, specifically in South Asians. The risk factors behind the phenomenon of interpersonal marital violence can be categorized into two different types. The first type attempt to explain the many aspects in the power dynamics that enable the abuse. Many of these factors are the same ones that lead to underreporting, as the power dynamic issues are directly responsible for both phenomena. The second type more explicitly explain if there are any cultural motivators that directly call for or rationalize violence itself.

Factors that are Conducive to Enabling Interpersonal Marital Violence

The patriarch is often in a much higher position of power than the female in South Asian marriages. This discrepancy is what enables much of the domestic violence observed. The following factors are especially prevalent in South Asian culture and allow domestic violence to occur, regardless if they do not necessarily directly call for it.

Social Isolation

Immigrant women often arrive in the United States with no social network besides their family (Erez, 36). This is problematic, as there are no immediately available sources of support outside of the family unit itself. Therefore, the family has an inherent sense of control on the wife. This control is part of why domestic violence (not just from the husband, but also in-laws) is prevalent for South Asian immigrants- an external social network of support would certainly be a check against such a practice. Since the family unit is the often only sense of community a wife has, it also encourages accepting the interpersonal violence in an effort to “fit-in” to one’s community. Additionally, South Asian culture is often dissimilar to western and American culture, which makes new connections increasingly difficult (Abraham, 440). Not only do immigrant women arrive in the United States lacking external support networks, but it is prohibitively difficult to create them after immigrating. This only adds on to the issues presented earlier. United States citizens, on the other hand, are inherently better socially connected and able to cultivate stronger relationships outside of the family. Additionally, South Asian immigrant women do not work in many cases- which will be discussed in depth in the following section- and this also makes creating new connections difficult as they seldom leave the house unaccompanied. Without a support network for the wife, the husband is often in an extremely emboldened position of power that makes violence towards his wife much easier.

Legal and Financial Dependency

For all immigrant women, the fear of deportation is the “single largest concern for battered immigrant women seeking to leave an abusive relationship,” (Tien-Li, 591). Clearly, this is a huge reason domestic violence not only occurs, but why it continues in victims. The threat of being forced to leave the country due to separation- regardless of how common that actually is- forces many to accept their abuse. This acceptance, and even the anticipation of this acceptance, allows South Asians to feel more emboldened in abusing their spouses. The lack of accompanying legal trouble is incredibly freeing for abusers, as they lose any fear of retribution. It also relates to the familial hierarchy, as the power of legal status is relegated to the husband. Immigrant women often do not work and thus relinquish all of their legal status rights to their sponsoring husbands (Erez, 36). Therefore, their husbands have systemic power over them, enabling abuse. For example, immigrants who are on an H-4 visa are reliant on their spouses to maintain residency in the United States (Abraham, 439). The increased living conditions of the United States forces spouses to accept whatever treatment their husband acts with due to the legal consequences of divorce or separation. Being a “conditional resident” increases the risk of domestic violence if the women are “immigrants who marry citizens or legal permanent resident,” (Anderson, 1402). This type of marriage affords the husband increased social and political power. This systematic power differential is clearly linked to domestic violence, and it is clear that the legal power differential is common in South Asian immigrants.

Even more damaging, however, is the lack of work and resultant economic isolation that many South Asian women face (Abraham, 439). In fact, “the possibility of a woman working is under the control and approval of the man of the house,” (Ayyub, 241). Financial dependency creates a situation in which, if the women leaves her abuser, she often has little to no work experience or marketable skills. This stacks onto her disadvantage with potential language or cultural difficulties, which makes finding a job afterwards difficult. It is important to note that immigrant women also arrive in the United States at an inherent disadvantage in regard to their social status and personal capital (Erez, 36). Thus, immigrant women are not only initially without personal funds or financial worth, but their prospects for future earnings are incredibly limited as well. This financial dependency is ingrained in South Asian culture, as it is very well known that the patriarchal society prefers men as the breadwinners and women as the domicile and children's caretakers. South Asian woman are therefore at higher risk for domestic violence due to the increased reliance on their families and diminished ability to grasp external resources and protection. This dual threat of legal and financial dependency makes it nearly impossible for an immigrant woman to seek out any sort of assistance, as she would have no way to provide for herself without her husband.

Legislative and systematic disadvantages

Language barriers and even racism are additional barriers to feeling at home in the United States (Goel, 645). These barriers also contribute to difficulty in understanding one’s legal rights and resources. Without the ability to properly understand the legal ramifications for divorce or police intervention, South Asian women are highly apprehensive and even fearful of contacting the authorities for help. Another factor is that the 1990 Immigration Act, meant to benefit immigrant victims of domestic violence, is burdensome for immigrant women. They are required to prove instances of either physical or extreme mental abuse, but obtaining the documentation is not only difficult, but time consuming as well as even scary and embarrassing (Loke, 589). Personal affidavits are not considered credible evidence by themselves, and so there is a very high standard of proof required for immigrant women to take advantage of the legislation that is supposed to protect them from IPV (Anderson, 1418). Therefore, to take advantage of the 1990 Immigration Act, victims need to obtain proof from an official source, such as a police report or medical professional. By implicitly requiring reports of incidents from officials, the factors that contribute to underreporting are not at all countered by this legislation. Immigrant women are unlikely to bring their issues to professionals (Tien-Li, 592). Being that “many [South Asian women] come into the United States as spouses of US citizens or Lawful Permanent Residents,,” the issues that the 1990 Immigration Act brings are all extremely relevant to South Asian immigrants (Abraham, 439). The difficulty behind not only going to the authorities, but even using the legal tools supposedly created for them, makes it very hard for South Asian domestic violence survivors to make legal progress. Unlike citizens or immigrants who are able to better communicate with the authorities, the cultural barriers present make it even harder for South Asians.

Factors that Directly or Implicitly Call for Interpersonal Marital Violence

Since the husband is often empowered, domestic violence becomes easier to perform without repercussion. The above mentioned factors all critically serve the role of enabling domestic violence by affording the husband a disproportionate amount of power in the United States or by making it exceptionally difficult for the immigrant wife to obtain assistance. However, there are also potential motivations hidden in South Asian culture that call for, or at least imply, domestic violence directly.

The South Asian patriarchal culture creates such a large disparity in power between husband and wife, that some theorize it directly promotes husbands acting violently against their wives (Natarajan, 304). Some scholars of South Asian and especially Indian culture believe that the hierarchy promotes bride burning, violence against the wife, and general spousal mistreatment (Natarajan, 304). The concepts of dowry payments, arranged marriages, and the importance of extended families are all thought to be linked to and markers of the gendered culture that supports a man’s violence on “his” woman (Natarajan, 304). These factors display the objectification of women as property of men; women often have little say in their marriages (arranged marriages) and are paid for by the family of the husband (dowries). As a result, the dehumanization results in a rationalization of violence. When one forgets that his spouse is a fellow human being and thinks of her as an object, violence becomes easier to justify and requires less and less of a reason.

Additionally, values such as the Caste system and religious differences also tend to promote disagreements and potentially even violence (Natarajan, 304). Arranged marriages are problematic, not only because they display the status of women, but because they are also very prone to creating marriages between incompatible people. Differences in ethnic identity and religious sects that are not apparent before marriage can very easily spiral into serious conflicts afterwards. The potential lack of compatibility, coupled with the many stresses of moving to a new country with an entirely different culture, can very easily lead to a large amount of stress in the immigrant household. This, combined with the values regarding women in South Asian culture, can lead to spousal abuse as a form of subjugation to allow the husband’s culture and religion to stay dominant within the household (Natarajan, 307).

Furthermore, the social hierarchy of South Asian culture promotes violence not only from the husband, but also in-laws and even the community, which can reinforce itself due to the multitude of abusers (Preisser, 692). The role of the wife is below not only that of the husband, but also of her in-laws due to an implicit “respect one’s elders” clause. Therefore, she is dominated by her extended family as well, while also being uniquely responsible for the household’s physical and emotional consistency and appearance. As a result, the violence perpetrated on her by her husband and in-laws is internally reinforced and she is expected to quietly deal with it. The family dynamic in South Asian culture is an implicit endorsement of domestic violence, which is visibly abnormal when viewed through a western lens.


It is hard to conclusively understand the issue of domestic violence in South Asian women. Immigrants often do not believe themselves as being victims of domestic violence and underreporting is common as shown. Therefore, collecting sufficient data is a difficult task itself. Additionally, there is only one study widely available that directly studies domestic violence rates in South Asians, and it was only focused on women in the Boston area. This is particularly troublesome, as the demographic is definitely vulnerable to underreporting, so studies need to be done with this in mind and keep this in mind when determining a methodology so as to arrive at more accurate data. Studies that simply survey a wide variety of groups can easily overlook the nuances of South Asian culture and domestic violence vulnerability. While the theories and reasoning explaining domestic violence and underreporting are substantiated by the limited data available, they cannot be conclusively proven and accepted without further direct study and data.

Implications and Future Action

Since South Asian immigration is increasing and they are becoming a larger and larger fraction of citizens, it is incredibly important to understand the issues they are facing. The dearth of relevant data and abundance of theories regarding the issue calls for future studies and surveys about the actual incidence of IPV in South Asians, so that theories can be validated/invalidated conclusively and the correct actions can be taken to help victims. To understand the actual incidence of domestic violence in the population, surveys specific to South Asians should be taken with a methodology that accounts for the tendency to underreport, such as first defining what domestic violence actually is and perhaps using the native language to prevent misunderstanding. Other studies focused on the cultural causes should specifically survey South Asian domestic violence survivors in order to conclusively understand what theories and hypotheses are actually correct in explaining the causes behind IPV in South Asians.

However, it is already very clear that the current public services meant to assist domestic violence victims are ineffective, and so legislative action should be taken to increase their reach. The US Government, by creating legislation for immigrant women subject to domestic violence, has accepted that the problem exists. However, their solution has been ineffective at creating change for survivors. Creating more robust legislation that protects survivors with spousal dependent legal status, lowering the standard of evidence called for in the 1990 Immigration Act, and providing more translators are all possible solutions to the issue.


I’d like to thank my team at Saheli, Inc., a Boston-based domestic violence nonprofit that allowed me to see personally how difficult and yet commonplace the issue is. I’d also like to thank Professor Colin Brown, Professor Silvia Dominguez, and Professor Candice Delmas in keeping me motivated and knowledgeable enough to write this paper. Finally, I’d like to thank my mother, a South Asian immigrant woman herself who has always championed women’s rights. South Asian women are an often-overlooked demographic that are in dire need of legislative attention, and the more research that is done regarding their situation, the more attention they will receive.


Abraham, Margaret. “Domestic Violence and the Indian Diaspora in the United States.” Indian Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 12, no. 2–3, Oct. 2005, pp. 427–451, doi:10.1177/097152150501200212. 

“Abuse Defined.” The National Domestic Violence Hotline, www.thehotline.org/is-this-abuse/abuse-defined/.

Anderson, Michelle J. “A License to Abuse: The Impact of Conditional Status on Female Immigrants.” The Yale Law Journal, vol. 102, no. 6, 1993, pp. 1401–1430. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/796973.

Erez, Edna, et al. “Intersections of Immigration and Domestic Violence: Voices of Battered Immigrant Women.” Feminist Criminology, vol. 4, no. 1, Jan. 2009, pp. 32–56, doi:10.1177/1557085108325413.

Goel, Rashmi. “Sita’s Trousseau: Restorative Justice, Domestic Violence, and South Asian Culture.” Violence Against Women, vol. 11, no. 5, May 2005, pp. 639–665, doi:10.1177/1077801205274522.

Mangai Natarajan. "Domestic violence among immigrants from India: What we need to know — and what we should do.” International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, vol. 26, no. 2, 2002, pp. 301–321, DOI: 10.1080/01924036.2002.9678693

Preisser, Amita Bhandari. “Domestic Violence in South Asian Communities in America: Advocacy and Intervention.” Violence Against Women, vol. 5, no. 6, June 1999, pp. 684–699, doi:10.1177/10778019922181437.

“South Asia.” The World Bank, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the International Development Association, data.worldbank.org/region/south-asia?view=chart.

Raj, Anita, and Jay G Silverman. “Immigrant South Asian women at greater risk for injury from intimate partner violence.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 93, no. 3, 2003, pp. 435-7.

Ruksana Ayyub, “Domestic Violence in the South Asian Muslim Immigrant Population in the United States.” Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless, vol. 9, no. 3, 2000, pp. 237-248, DOI: 10.1023/A:1009412119016

Tien-Li Loke, “Trapped in Domestic Violence: The Impact of United States Immigration Laws on Battered Immigrant Women,” 6 B.U. Pub. Int. L.J. 589 (1997)

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