‘My husband would gaslight me every day,’ 48-year-old Fatima tells Metro.co.uk. ‘He denied that I had put sugar in his tea – he would do it each time I made it. ‘He taunted that I was losing my memory as I was getting old. ‘He also hid my keys. I would look for them and he’d say that I am definitely losing my memory.’ Fatima, who hails from a South Asian background, left her partner after 28 years of marriage in 2019.
She knew the stigma of divorce within her community, but still made the courageous decision to leave the man she married at 18, after identifying the signs of coercive control. Referring to acts or patterns of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse, coercive control is used to harm, punish, or frighten victims. It’s also a crime – which many people don’t realise – and those guilty of it can face prison sentences and community service. In the year ending March 2020, 1.6 million women and 757,000 men were subject to domestic abuse in the UK. According to the Crown Prosecution Service, there were 960 reported cases of coercive control between April 2017 and March 2018, with 15% involving people of south Asian origin in the north west of England. And cases are on the rise, with 24,856 occurring by the end of 2020, according to the ONS. In 2019, Salamat Khan, 64, became the first to be convicted of the offence, alongside his son, for controlling behaviour that made the daughters’ lives ‘a living hell’. The move heralded an important moment for coercive control to be taken more seriously in the Asian community and beyond. Though domestic abuse affects many communities, there are several factors that exacerbate how the problem is handled within South Asian groups. Professor Anita Raj, who found that immigrant South Asian women are at greater risk for injury from intimate partner violence in her research, tells us: ‘South Asian migrants may be less aware of domestic violence services, as these may not be available or very accessible in countries of origin. ‘There may be no linguistically or culturally tailored services (such as shelters – is the food halal, are there prayer spaces?) that offer these, or existing services may not be effectively outreaching to these communities. ‘Worries about immigration status can also be a concern. Migrant women may not have an independent bank account, and might find it more difficult to get one if they are not documented.’
As well as migrants, South Asians who are British citizens may also be reluctant to speak out due to fears of societal ostracising. A University of Huddersfield research project looking at domestic abuse and Islam in the British South Asian community points out that the family set-up may be a deterrent factor. As per tradition, Asian women often move into their partner’s family home after marriage, meaning that even if he is legally removed from the situation, she may still face ridicule and harassment from his family. However, it’s not just that victims are unwilling to speak out. The way they are received by police is another factor that may affect domestic reports. Lead author of the Huddersfield project, Sohail Taj found that: ‘Women may perceive the police and organs of authority as not a source of help but a potential threat’. A separate University of London study by lecturer Jyoti Belur, reported concerns that ‘white officers did not have much patience when attempting to converse with a woman who cannot speak English and requires an interpreter. ‘Furthermore, when interpreters are found they are usually middle-aged men who are often not appropriate as it brings in a range of gender dynamics into an already complicated situation.’
Some cases have been fatal. Just this year Gurpreet Singh was handed a 19-year prison sentence at Birmingham Crown Court for strangling second wife Sarbjit Kaur. Following the case, one of the couples neighbours referred to him as a ‘control freak’. In other situations, a lifetime of abuse has triggered wives to action where they’ve killed their abuser. Fatima was only able to realise how bad her situation had become after spotting the signs in a televsion storyline depicting coercive control. ‘I saw it on TV and read up on gaslighting. I knew that he was using these tactics so that it would have an impact on my mental health,’ she says. ‘He would give me silent treatment, gaslight and undermine whatever I would do. I felt that I could never do anything right and he made me feel that I was a failure. ‘There was always a fear that what would be said in a normal way would get distorted. ‘My family members would be given false information and my husband acted like he was the victim. He blamed me for the failure of the marriage which has caused me and my children to be isolated.’ When her husband boasted that ‘at least’ he hadn’t hit her, Fatima realised that he would continue mentally torturing her, which is when she decided to get help. Fatima reached out to a local charity, and contacted the police who helped to safeguard her and her children.
Coercive control issues can be hard to identify especially where it doesn’t involve physical violence, as in other domestic abuse cases. But both kinds of abuse are equally toxic, says Dr Roxanne Khan, director of the Honour Abuse Research Matrix Network (HARM) and a senior lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire. She tells Metro.co.uk: ‘While coercive and controlling behaviours can sometimes be subtle, they are extremely destructive and can chip away at a person; destroying their sense of self, their wellbeing, their safety, and ultimately, it can destroy their lives. ‘It is important to recognise a large volume of research links coercive and controlling behaviour with other serious crimes such as stalking and domestic homicide. ‘Hopefully the Asian community will start a much-needed conversation about coercive control and will encourage victims to seek help.’ Dr Khan points out that there are textbook patterns of coercive control. ‘Examples include an abuser isolating their victim from friends and family (or limiting contact with them or monitoring) so they don’t receive the support they need,’ she explains. ‘This makes it difficult for the victim to reach out and for friend/family to reach in. This may even lead to resentment, leaving the victims totally isolated with their abuser. ‘Another example is that someone who is exerting coercive control might try to control their victims’ freedom of movement and independence (not allowing them to go to work or school; taking their phone/changing passwords). Ultimately, this denies their victim freedom and autonomy, and they may lose a sense of self, which in turns makes them more vulnerable. ‘A few more examples are name-calling, limiting access to money, and controlling aspects of your health and body – all of which have a significant short term and long term detrimental impact and are very destructive.’
However, there are charities and shelters that cater to migrant and diaspora victims of domestic abuse. The Halo Project is one of these. They provide free and confidential specialist services that are culturally appropriate to ensure that victims’ needs are recognised when carrying out a risk assessment and putting a support plan in place. A spokesperson tells us: ‘There is a lack of knowledge and education around this particular type of abuse as domestic abuse is often seen to be physical. ‘Expectations for individuals to behave or conduct themselves in a certain manner in the community makes this subject a taboo as the person may feel that it is difficult for them to explain this or be believed.’ Despite the difficulties, Halo encourages victims to reach out and promises to offer emotional, practical support, referring them to to emergency refuge accommodation and housing. Victims also receive support to access DWP benefit entitlement, counselling services, immigration advice service, education and training providers. Halo adds: ‘It is really important to raise awareness of this type of abuse, the legislation around this and how this has an impact on the emotional health of a victim. ‘Services should be provided to the hard to reach groups who have additional barriers to access mainstream services.’ While coercive control is an issue that can affect anyone, when it comes to South Asian women seeking help, there are still many deterrents, stigmas and social and cultural factors that need to be addressed.
Metro piece by Faima Bakar