Daughters of Durga by Manjula Datta O'Connor

Ovid, the Roman Poet had said, “Quarrels are the dowry which married folk bring one another.” Clearly, the times were a lot different. Now people quarrel and a lot – all about dowry. And if you go by the stories very eloquently told by the Melbourne clinical psychiatrist Dr Manjula Datta O’Conner in her book Daughters of Durga – Dowries, Gender violence and Families in Australia, most young couples of Indian origin only incessantly quarrel about dowry in their marriages. Their fights turn extremely ugly leading to abuse of all sorts including domestic violence, domestic servitude and in many cases sex slavery.

Manjula Datta O’Connor began supporting victim survivors of domestic family violence in Australia more than twelve years ago.

‘The most hard-hitting stories kept coming—transnational abuse, dowry exploitation, economic exploitation, domestic servitude, and sexual exploitation’ says Datta O’Connor.

It bothered her.

How could these things be stopped”, she wanted to know.

To answer this question for herself, she had to find answers to many others including –

  • what makes women travel to Australia?
  • What are the roles of
    • globalization,
    • culture,
    • migration,
    • acculturation stress, and
    • the pressures of moving into a new country?

Her passion to find answers was sustained by many parents of young girls, victim-survivors who, in their attempt to support their daughters travelled from India to Australia only to themselves suffer extreme distress, insomnia, clinical depression and anxiety triggered by the pain of what their daughter had been through.

Marriage is an essential, defining moment in many women’s lives, but it’s not always a happy or a good one, be it in India or elsewhere in the world—including Australia. In a bad marriage, friends (well-wishers of both the bride and the groom) are the invisible glue. If they have enough friends, they may go on for years, on the surface intending to leave, talking about leaving –instead of actually getting up and leaving.

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But that is true only of normal marriages, marriages sincerely and genuinely entered into by both partners. But as you find out in Daughters of Durga, in almost all abuse cases Datta O’Connor lists, it was hardly the case.

For the groom, as it seems, it was instead a ‘transaction’ – matter of money with divorce as the only item in their unwritten prenup.

All these protagonists prove American journalist Helen Rowland right who says “nowadays matrimony is a matter of money”.

Being an accomplished clinical psychiatrist, and a woman from India, Datta O’Connor also reflects on her own life journey.

“When I came to Australia in the early 1970s as a young wife, I had some idea that Australia would be very different to India. But I did not know how different. I loved this country from the day I arrived. Almost the first thing I noticed was the freedom from a persistent fear felt by every woman in India—that of being called ‘characterless’ or a ‘loose woman’ if she spoke to a member of the opposite sex”, writes Datta O’Connor.

“Harassment and assault, and even rape were ever-present dangers for a young girl growing up in India” Datta O’Connor adds.

But the real crux of the problem is captured in just one line when she writes:

“The societal pressure was not on men to change, but on young women to always prove and protect their ‘honour’ in the face of men’s behaviour.”

Citing Hindu mythology’s reference to man and a woman being one half of each other’s existence in the Goddess Parvati referred to as ardhangini of Lord Shiva, Datta O’Connor delves deep into the underbelly of recent settlements (from around 2009 onward) in our community seeking answer to the question: how can we enhance the living conditions of women such that both halves of a heterosexual relationship, woman and man, are recognised as equal and essential for each other’s survival?

Giving insights into her cross-cultural experiences, deep clinical observations and community-based work, Daughters of Durga unveils a very ugly side of that part of our community. Telling tales of Reena, Nutan, Maya, Mira, Ina, Ayesha and many more, the book chronicles women’s pain, suffering, disempowerment, domestic and sexual servitude, verbal, physical and financial abuse by their male partners.

“It gives expression to my inner thoughts and breaks the enforced silence of those women who are unable to exercise free will, who feel trapped, who are unable to see options and possibilities; it is for those who are traumatized, depressed, anxious, or suicidal; it is for those who are forced into domestic servitude or who have had their visa sponsorship withdrawn and been deported”, says Datta O’Connor.

“It is for those for whom change did not come quickly enough—the women who took their lives or were killed by those who were meant to love and protect them. Those seven women in one small area of Melbourne. The many, many others.”

 The book paints a very ugly picture of our community, particularly because of some men who, according to Datta O’Connor are brazenly abusing their female partners, in most cases wives.

The book reveals an extremely uncomfortable and worrying truth among the recently arrived members of our community, particularly from around 2009 onward when there was opening up of international education allowing hundreds and thousands of international students from India.

The problem “only started when numbers of students increased dramatically”, Dr Manjula Datta O’Connor told Bharat Times.

Having arrived in Australian in the 1970s, psychiatrist Manjula Datta O’Connor has been running her private practice in Melbourne for more than 30 years but did not see anything like this until the influx of international students from India started settling down under.

The gory details of inhuman treatment of girls – abusing young brides by bringing them on tourist visa and using them as sex slaves – is shocking, beyond belief.

When asked about the worst story she had come across, Dr Datta O’Connor narrated the following ordeal of a girl from Punjab:

“A young woman was living happily, working hard in in a city in Punjab. And this particular man who was an Australian Indian resident citizen, he chased her and wanted to marry her. She kept refusing, saying no to him. He chased her for something like 12 months, sending her lots of messages of love.

“And one time he sent her a message saying, I’m walking into the ocean into the sea here in Melbourne, he showed a video, if you don’t marry me, I will kill myself.

“She believed him. She believed that he was so madly in love with her, that he will die if she doesn’t marry him… she agreed to marry him, after much hesitation. Her poor mother and her brothers, they all warned her. They said, Don’t get married to this guy.”

But she went ahead.

“He came back to Melbourne, and she was in India, waiting for the visa. He then told her, he wants to start a business and doesn’t have money. Can she lend him $30,000?

She told him she did not have any money, like that sort of money to give him. He asked her if she could borrow and send. She borrowed and gave him the money.

She then arrives in Australia.

“He brought her here on tourist visa, on tourist visa, and put her in a share house with four other people. And he told her you have one room here. You are not allowed to go outside this room to talk to other people. You will only talk to me. And he did not live with her. He would come and stay with her when he wanted sex and he would then disappear.

“She wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone. She wasn’t allowed to leave the house. Then he became more and more aggressive. He became physically violent towards her if she wanted to go out or talk to anyone. And if she refused sex because he would come do sex and disappear.

The man left her in that share house and went to India. Finally advised by someone, she contacted police, got an intervention order and is now staying in Australia on a refugee visa application after her tourist visa expired.

This is not a story dissimilar to many more Datta O’Connor tells in the book. Sadly, Daughters of Durga introduces our community leaders to many more girls like her. All, a very painful read but an urgent one for our community leaders. They need to rise to the challenge and take the problem head on. Our leaders may not know many of these girls, but they are nevertheless, our own.

Throughout the book, the common thread in the pain and suffering of these young women is their migration to – right to settle to settle in Australia and dowry is the tool of abuse although none of the dowry items ever get transported to Australia.

Datta O’Connor explains how the Australian PR holding groom irrespective of his educational or professional accomplishments, can command a posh five-star wedding (all expenses paid by the girl’s side) and handsome amount of dowry in marriage in India. And once back in Australia, he invariably asks for financial contribution.

Some of these practices – of pomp and show and public display of wealth are observed as normal in modern day India. Marriages in India are very lavish these days and are put up as a “show”.

But there the bride does not have to dance to the whims and fancies of the groom because there is no migration visa involved.

Datta O’Connor, through this book, very elegantly and effortlessly sifts abuse from some of the (un)accepted ways of modern living, and paints it as it is.

With crafty story-telling, she exhorts our community leaders to take action – to do something.

Datta O’Connor’s final message to those suffering in silence is:

“If you are worried that you will not get permanent residency of Australia, because he might remove the (his) sponsorship for the partner visa, then don’t worry, because the government is here to support you. There are numerous support services available for women, even those on temporary visa now. Don’t stay in an abusive marriage, if you simply want to keep the marriage together, because in the long run, it will damage you, it will damage your mental health, it will damage your physical health. And one day you will wake up you are 55, 60 year old and you will think all my best years of my life, I wasted being depressed and oppressed and powerless…

“You know, that you have to make your own life. You have to follow whatever will give you self- respect, dignity and a sense of empowerment over your own life. Think about it. Do not be a slave to anyone. Because in the end, it will come to bite you.”

Daughters of Durga is a must-read book for everyone in our community – community leaders, health workers, mental health workers and other stakeholders like the law enforcement agencies and the government alike.

Daughters of Durga is available both in print and online. To read the eBook version of Daughters of Durga, click here.

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