Restored dignity

One time I was introducing myself to a group of advocates: “My name is Ankita. I work on WSCADV’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Project.” And then I cried.

In this role, I’ve learned from the lives and deaths of numerous women about the impact of domestic violence, and how we all can improve our response. Each story of victims reaching out for help and not getting what they needed contributed to my passion and energy to educate communities and professionals to be better prepared. I did this in hopes that the lesson of one woman’s death would be the success of another woman’s survival.

Recently, I began to work on WSCADV’s Domestic Violence Housing First Project. The goal of this project is to eliminate housing as a reason for survivors to stay in abusive relationships. It is supported by a funder that has given domestic violence programs the space to creatively meet the needs of survivors so they can obtain and remain in housing. For example, advocates can offer rental assistance, pay off an old debt that has been a barrier for a survivor to obtain housing, or pay for childcare. The help advocates can provide is not governed by contract requirements or organizational barriers. Instead, solutions are formed or offered based on what that survivor needs.

Now I get to hear stories about women moving beyond surviving and on to more fun and exciting things, like obtaining an education, helping other women, watching their kids grow in a violent-free home. When I first realized that when funders, domestic violence programs, and survivors are aligned―and words like justice, hope, and change no longer represent a concept, but an action―I cried again.

I am re-energized to hear survivors telling us that this project has restored their dignity, advocates being thrilled to eliminate barriers for safety, and funders seeing a real difference in people’s lives.

.com vs. the boy/girl next door

Remember the first social media site you heard about? Did you sign up? I didn’t. In fact, I assumed that only creepy people socialize through their computer. And now, I’m one of the millions on Facebook.

Remember when you first heard about online dating? Did you sign up? I didn’t. Again, I was filled with assumptions about who would resort to that. And now, some of my closest friends are in a relationship with someone they met online. Still, I think for many of us our internal dialogue goes something like this:

Online dating

 Getting set up through friends

Stalker. Period. Oh, they live just down the street, awesome!
Oh, a techie. Cyber stalker. They are so smart and funny…sigh.
They mentioned sex in their profile. Yikes, I better stay away. They want to get to know me!
They want to fall in love. Creepy. Oh, I’m in love. <3 xoxo

 

We talk a lot about how to be safe when dating online. But why do we assume that meeting someone this way is more risky than when a friend sets us up? Stalkers and abusers aren’t just lurking online―they live amongst our friends as well. That great guy your friend has known for years could be a great friend to her AND end up stalking you.

Poll your friends: have any of them been stalked or abused? Ask them how they met that person. Let me know what you find out.

Living in community

I am Gujarati. As a child, my sense of family and community was really different than what I see here. In my home, cousins were as close as siblings. Aunts and uncles shared decision-making with my parents. Day-to-day life included having lots of people around, cooking together, running the household together, and sharing everything. Many of my friends who are immigrants or were raised in immigrant families tell similar stories.

Even though I have lived in the United States for 11 years now, I am happiest when I am with others who were raised, understand, or have created this type of community—whether they are Gujarati or not. I felt a lot of warmth, love, and affection growing up with my extended family all around, and I miss that.

However, there is a flip side to all of this. If you are experiencing abuse, and those in your close community don’t see it, acknowledge it, or offer support, it can be incredibly isolating. You can be surrounded by all of these people and yet feel totally alone. As an advocate for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking, I’ve heard heart-breaking stories of how immigrant survivors have had to leave their community—and all that love and support—in order to escape the abuse, while others were not able or willing to leave their community and were killed by the abuser.

http://www.mijasrestaurant.org

Recently, I met a group of women that seem to have figured out how to find safety and community. The Mijas are Latina survivors of abuse who have banded together to start their own restaurant where they give each other job training and support. (And they make fabulous food while they’re at it!!) The Mijas have given me hope and inspiration that immigrant communities can and do use the strengths of their culture to respond to domestic violence. I’m sharing their story in support, and with the hope that others can see what is possible.

Unite – not for a party but to work

photo via http://www.sideofsneakers.com

I was taken aback by the celebratory reactions to Osama bin Laden’s death. I watched people chanting U-S-A in sportsman spirit and rejoicing outside the White House. Unfortunately, in some parts of the country, messages of hate were directed towards Muslims. While President Obama was clear in his message that bin Laden’s death was not an attack on Islam, post 9/11 government policies on immigration and “counter-terrorism” have had a huge undertone of racism.

So were the celebratory chants of vengeance appropriate? Some certainly don’t think so.

In trying to sort out what bin Laden’s death means, I found myself saddened by the “us vs. them” reactions. “Us vs. them” doesn’t get us where we want to go. As Nelson Mandela said upon his release from prison:

We enter into a covenant that

we shall build a society in which all South Africans,

both black and white,

will be able to walk tall,

without…fear in their hearts,

assured of their inalienable right to human dignity

– a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.

Nelson Mandela’s release could have caused a backlash for white South Africans. But instead, he urged all South Africans to work together to build a diverse and stronger nation.

In Mandela’s words, I found some clarity. Bin Laden’s death does not mean that we return to a pre-9/11 world. What it means is that we need to move past “us vs. them” and work together.

We have to unite with citizens and immigrants alike in the fight for immigrant rights; and

We have to unite with Muslims and non-Muslims alike in the fight for religious freedom; and

We have to unite with LGBTQ people and straight allies alike in the fight for equality; and

We have to unite with men and women alike in the fight for gender equality and relationships without violence.

Because uniting to protect each others’ rights does not threaten or diminish our own.

Gamers’ paradise: “Prepare for unseen consequences!” *

I am clearly not a gaming expert. But my strong reaction to Halo made me wonder about my friend’s son and what he is being exposed to. How are these video games impacting young men? How are they undermining the conversations I am having about violence against women?

“But mom, don’t you want your son to protect you?” said my friend’s seven-year-old when she told him no more video games for the night. “With your controller?!” was my friend’s response.

Compared to this boy, I have a much simpler life – one with no TV and no gaming system. So naturally, when I recently saw a male friend playing Halo 3, I was not only appalled at the intense graphics and use of violence, but I actually wanted to flee the room.

I am clearly not a gaming expert. But my strong reaction to Halo made me wonder about my friend’s son and what he is being exposed to. How are these video games impacting young men? How are they undermining the conversations I am having about violence against women?

Look, I don’t think video games are simply good or bad. I have male friends who are brilliant, kind, and sensitive, and play video games that are violent, just as I know people who never play video games, but are real pieces of work.

I will never be a fan of these games. When I spend my days studying domestic violence homicides, it’s hard to imagine playing a game about killing others for entertainment. But what I really want to know is what your take is on violent video games, like Halo, and how (or if) you think it impacts violence against women?

*“Prepare for unseen consequences!”

Matchmaking for Dummies

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day. Have you noticed how much social pressure there is to be in a relationship and, if you are, the expectation to be romantic? For me, the pressure comes from various self-proclaimed matchmakers who regularly ask the question, “Ankita, why don’t you just get married?”

My mother wants me to get married because it’s time for me to ‘settle down.’ Friends of my family want me to get married because they know a successful Indian man who is looking for a ‘family-oriented girl.’ My attorney informs me that marriage is the best and easiest way to obtain citizenship in the United States.

None of these pass the laugh test, let alone provide a good reason for me to get married.

But I do wonder why no one is:

  • asking me what I want, or what I am looking for in a relationship;
  • coaching me on the skills I need for a great relationship – voicing my needs, negotiating compromises, respecting one another’s autonomy;
  • assuring me that it is all right for me to set my own expectations?

In communities where parents and extended family have a lot of input into marriage decisions, young women like me are often advised more than they are listened to. And that can lead to unhappy – even violent – relationships.

To my self-proclaimed matchmakers: I challenge you to ask, coach, and assure me. This will help me lead a healthy, full life, whether I am in a relationship or not.

Aliens are taking over the planet

A Woman who is being Abused who is an Immigrant is a Human Being. Not an alien. We call immigrants aliens so that we can conveniently forget that they have human rights. For instance, take immigrant survivors of abuse. Their immigration status has a huge impact on their options for safety. Fear of deportation keeps people from turning to the police for help. And abusers use threats of deportation to control their partners. If you are an “illegal” immigrant, you know that many people aren’t too pleased you’re here, which makes it hard to reach out for help.

When I felt the anti-immigrant sentiment in the reader’s comments on the Seattle Times article about the DREAM Act, I was disappointed and sad. In honor of International Migrants Day (December 18), I want to address a couple myths that seem to be at the heart of most of these comments:

“Illegal immigrants are breaking the law.”

Have you ever jay walked? Seriously, have you? I have. This means we’ve broken the law. So what should happen to us? After all, breaking the law has a consequence, right? Paying a fine seems reasonable. Revoking your basic rights and protections doesn’t. If you are an “alien” we can revoke your rights and deny access to the justice system, even if you are the victim of a crime. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Breaking the law is not a reason to strip away another human being’s rights and dignity.

“Why don’t you just go back where you come from?”

Do we belong to just one country? I am East-Indian, I grew up in Zambia and I have lived in the U.S. for over 11 years. I am part of the more than 215 million people who live outside their country of birth. U.S. history shows a constant stream of immigrants, despite racist anti-immigrant policies. And I believe migration has been a good thing for our country. Beyond that, sending an abused woman “home” can mean forcing her to leave her children behind with an abusive man.

When we stop pretending that people are “aliens” it benefits immigrants in abusive relationships as well as our national debate. So let’s all stop with the “illegal” and “alien” language. It simply does not make sense to us humans.

Seattle activist Pramila Jayapal shares her vision of immigration from a global perspective.

Yikes, you did what?!

I live in a really social neighborhood where I chat with lots of people who live around me. Recently, I was talking to one of my neighbors about relationships. It was a normal conversation about the challenges of dating, and sorting through the choices that we make. Then he told me that he was once convicted of domestic violence assault.

To be honest, I had a moment of panic. What was I going to say? As he talked about going through batterer’s intervention, how much he learned, and how different he is in his current relationship, I was thinking: Has this man really changed? Is his current girlfriend safe? Is he manipulating the story to glorify himself?

According to the etiquette of conversation, I had to say something after he stopped talking even though I had doubts, questions, and yes, even a bit of fear. I thanked him for the disclosure, acknowledged his journey, and continued to openly talk to him about relationships.

By virtue of my work, I know how to respond to people who disclose that they have been abused. But what I learned from this conversation is that I am uncomfortable with someone telling me they’ve been abusive. My first instinct was to question this man’s intentions and his behavior, but then I realized that I want to be able to talk with anyone about how to be in a good, loving, happy relationship.

I have decided to believe that my neighbor understands what he did and is making an effort to be a better person. After all, won’t he need a community of people who can support him in his present while knowing his past?

Gaga about activism?

My job involves studying domestic violence homicides. So it’s no surprise that I’m against violent images in music videos. And when stars wear outrageous clothing to get more attention, I am even less interested in the politics of their fame.

Lady Gaga does both these things. But I’m inspired by how she uses her popularity for social and political activism, like taking a stand against SB1070 and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

So how do I reconcile all this? Or should I even try? A coworker told me that to her, Lady Gaga “embodies the complexity of the human experience. She makes me realize that we can’t look at what she is doing in a binary way.”

Maybe we should take this as an opportunity to re-think our views on feminism? And maybe the outrageousness of Lady Gaga’s videos is a brilliant way of challenging our societal norms around sexuality, power and violence?

While I think about Lady Gaga’s choices and messages, I think I’ll listen to (not watch) “Just Dance.”

“Checking in” to stalkers’ paradise

Sometimes I wonder, what makes a person really cool as a facebook user? Is it the fact that they have 1,236 friends? Or their witty banter about an inside joke? Or maybe it’s the fact that they are “checking in” to cool spots using Places or Foursquare?

Amongst my friends, I have noticed that the bar of adding someone as a friend is getting lower, and I have seen an increase in the use of external applications (with the default set to public rather than private).  This sets us up to share private information more liberally than we might intend.

Using Foursquare to stalk someone is just as creepy and illegal as following them around in a car. Yet, with the default public settings, we are set up to think that becoming a “mayor” of our favorite restaurant is worth taking the risk of being stalked at that same restaurant.

With social media becoming an extension of our lives, it’s important to establish thoughtful and intentional facebook etiquette, tell our friends what information we (do not) want shared through them, and learn how to regain our “dot rights.”