Cultural context of intimate partner violence: more voices required

Head shot of Rajinder Dhasi

She’s a student and an educator. A researcher and a business owner. A daughter and a mother.

More than anything, Rajinder Dhasi is driven.

She’s compelled to learn and to lead, and she has the opportunity to do both with the research she’s conducting while pursuing a Doctor of Social Sciences at Royal Roads University.

Having already completed an RRU Master of Arts in Conflict Analysis and Management, the Burnaby, BC resident is examining “resilience in Canadian-born Punjabi women in the aftermath of intimate partner violence.”

In both her work and the subject matter, the child of Punjabi immigrants is amplifying the 2022 theme of Asian Heritage Month in Canada: Celebrating Innovation and Perseverance.

Innovation: amplifying Punjabi voices

The innovation is Dhasi’s focus on a subject largely ignored by academics. Aiming to amplify the voices of marginalized people, she says she has seen few Punjabi names when conducting her literature review.

“I can find a handful, but that’s it,” she says. “And in this work, literature reviews are what’s occurred before you, and what’s occurred before you is significantly based on white, colonized voices... We need more BIPOC voices in the research, so that we can begin to change the narrative coming through our literature reviews.”

In addition, Dhasi’s research focuses on how women in unique cultural contexts experience trauma and what they need to heal from that trauma. That requires those who are supporting women who’ve experienced intimate partner violence to be aware of their cultural contexts.

“There are clearer ways Punjabi women can be supported, and clearer ways all marginalized women can be supported,” says Dhasi, who is lead conflict and change management consultant for Turning Point Resolutions Inc. and a faculty member in the Justice Institute of BC’s Centre for Conflict Resolution.

In the case of Punjabi women, this is what she wrote in one research paper:

“The causes of intimate partner violence for Canadian-born Punjabi Sikh women include key systems of oppression: collectivism, filial piety, patriarchy and traditional gender roles. As part of a collectivist culture, Punjabi Sikhs make decisions with the best interests of the family and community network at heart, while sacrificing their individual needs and desires... Patriarchy puts women, and married women, in absolute servitude to the collective.”

Perseverance: speaking up, speaking out

Living within or battling against cultural roles and expectations while navigating western dominant worldviews dealing with intimate partner violence is where the perseverance comes in.

“We tend to be, as a Punjabi people, incredibly self-reliant,” Dhasi says. “We don’t take from resources. Typically, we would do everything we can before we have to rely on a system to help us. We count on our culture and the people within our culture to get us through difficulties.

“We tend to ask for help from one another — from our close family, our close friends, that’s who we’ll ask for help from. What our community of critical care tells us speaks loudest.”

That reliance on community can be a double-edged sword, she says, because many people do not know how to support a woman within a culture that resists divorce. At times, it can be as risky for a woman to speak as it is to stay.

“In this research, for a Punjabi woman to even speak up takes courage,” Dhasi says. “For her to even have left, defying cultural expectations. For her to even have stayed, defying western expectations, and said, ‘No, this will shift,’ through internal family supports — all of that, no matter what action she took, that takes courage, that takes perseverance because you’re up against an entire Punjabi system and an entire dominant westernized system.”

But she notes that the voices of both Punjabi women and men are essential in her research and in finding ways to support victims of intimate partner violence.

She adds that the voices and support of her family, particularly her father, were critical when she was leaving a relationship where she’d experienced violence. She says her perseverance comes from standing on the shoulders of her parents and other Punjabi immigrants to Canada.

“This is what they hoped for when they came here to start their lives, that their children would be safe, secure and could engage in rights and responsibilities that come with being in Canada,” Dhasi says. “And they could access that Canadian dream.”

The federal government officially declared May Asian Heritage Month in 2002, but AHM has been celebrated across Canada since the 1990s. In 2022, the AHM theme is Celebrating Innovation and Perseverance.

Visit the RRU Asian Heritage Month webpage for more stories about Asian people in our community, to learn about upcoming events and discussions, and to find cultural and educational resources put together by our Royal Roads community.