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PROFILE / Niswa's Shamim Ibrahim

Sanctuary, at Last

Isolated in an immigrant community that values family above all, more South Asian Muslim women are coming forward to tell of abuse. Now a lifeline has come from within their culture.

April 12, 1999|MARGARET RAMIREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Her hands still tremble as she tells her tale.

Shahnaz, a 29-year-old with moon-like eyes, remembers meeting the man from America she had promised to marry. He had returned to his native Pakistan for a bride.

Despite the age-old tradition of arranged marriages in her culture, the thought of spending her life with an older man she barely knew frightened her.

Still, they wed, then settled into a traditional South Asian family arrangement in Encino with her husband, his parents and his three brothers.

But, soon, he turned on her. First came spits and taunts, she said, then slaps and full-force punches in the stomach when she was pregnant with their son.

His family provided no escape. Father-in-law ordered her husband to beat her, she said. Brother-in-law often helped. Mother-in-law smiled approvingly and neighbors simply looked the other way. The abuse continued for almost a year, she said, until Los Angeles police burst in and released Shahnaz from virtual captivity.

Experts say abusive marriages like Shahnaz's, while certainly not the norm in the South Asian immigrant community, are occurring with increasing frequency as the number of immigrants grows. South Asian immigrants number about 2.5 million nationwide, and more than 200,000 live in Southern California.

Now, however, women like Shahnaz (a pseudonym) are finding refuge in Los Angeles at Niswa, a community organization that two years ago opened the first shelter in California serving primarily South Asian Muslims.

Founded by Shamim Ibrahim, a Los Angeles Unified School District psychologist, Niswa provides counseling, financial aid and social services to immigrants. Niswa joins a network of about 20 similar groups across the nation formed in recent years to combat domestic abuse in the South Asian community.

"It seems there were no checks and balances on our people here," she said. "Our goal is to keep the family together and the culture intact."

Experts say South Asian women who are abused frequently refuse help because of deeply rooted cultural and religious beliefs. The silent scourge has become so critical that advocates recently organized the area's first South Asian and Middle Eastern Domestic Violence Awareness Conference.

In many cases, advocates say, men have taken advantage of immigrant women's ignorance of American legal protections, threatening them with divorce, deportation or even death.

South Asian immigrant women who are victims of abuse are often deterred from seeking help because of cultural beliefs that involve strict observation of hierarchies and the woman's identity as wife and mother. Family honor is held so sacred that divorce means a woman has disgraced herself and her family. Codes of privacy are so absolute that women reporting abuse are shunned by the community and branded as traitors to their culture. And nowhere in the South Asian community is the violence concealed under such careful wraps as among women of the Muslim faith, religious and community leaders said.

"We walk on a tightrope in these cases," said Donna Edmiston, formerly assistant supervisor of the Los Angeles city attorney's Domestic Violence Unit. "We want to prosecute offenders, but we don't want to punish the victim. And we find there is more pressure on these victims than any other immigrant group we've dealt with."

Precise numbers do not exist, but of the approximately 8,000 domestic violence cases, the Los Angeles city attorney's office prosecutes every year, about 300 involve South Asian and Middle Eastern families--a figure that may understate the problem because abuse in these homes often goes unreported.

Settling in California, a Preferred Destination

South Asians first arrived in the United States in large numbers after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Steeped in tradition, newcomers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka brought with them more than 15 official languages and hundreds of dialects, as well as many religions, most notably Islam and Hinduism.

California became the preferred destination, according to the 1990 census, followed closely by New York, New Jersey and Illinois.

In the 1970s, South Asian immigrant communities formed in Artesia, close to engineering jobs, and eventually gave rise to the vibrant shopping district along Pioneer Boulevard now known as Little India. Other immigrants settled near aerospace employment in Anaheim Hills and Irvine in Orange County, and in the San Fernando Valley neighborhoods of Northridge, Chatsworth and Canoga Park, as well as Santa Clarita to the north.

The tightknit, private community adapted outwardly to American society, excelling academically and professionally. But as the community flourished, so did social ills such as unemployment, homelessness and domestic violence, and South Asians found that virtually no social services existed for them.

Then came Ibrahim.

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