Many immigrant Australian women do not seek to leave violent domestic situations because of a culturally ingrained reluctance to share traumatic events with strangers and a belief that spousal abuse is normal, a women’s support service provider says.

Shakti NSW chairperson Dr Sabrin Farooqui said too many migrant and refugee women allowed themselves and their children to be abused and assaulted because it went against their nature and culture to share personal concerns outside families or friends.

Those of Middle Eastern, African and Asian backgrounds in particular, did not want to talk about domestic violence because they were worried about society’s reaction, and feared the reactions of families and friends back home when their trauma became known.

Most importantly, not knowing their rights under Australian law or truly understanding that spousal abuse was illegal and intolerable in Australia increasingly pushed family and domestic violence against migrant women hidden from public view.

Workshop on Knowing the Rights organised by Shakti NSW.

Dr Farooqui said women’s migrant and refugee support services like Shakti NSW had to battle long-held cultural beliefs and traditions in their efforts to help those in need and get them to safety. Many women, especially first generation migrants and refugees, clung to male-dominance traditions because of their connections to home. They thought holding on to them was a way to maintain their identities.

“There are many culturally accepted behaviors in migrant women’s homelands that Australian society frowns on” she said. “Sadly, that includes violence and abuse at the hands of their spouses. Many migrant women think it is acceptable and normal, but it is not.”

Dr Farooqui said those who do try to break from tradition and leave abusive relationships often find themselves without financial support or are forced to return to their homelands, where they could find themselves rejected because of those same cultural traditions.

“Some of these societies are patriarchal in origin and can be extremely judgmental,” she said. “Such societies are highly gendered and specify male dominance and subservience for women, even if women tend be the breadwinners.”

Shakti NSW supports migrant and refugee women (of Asian, African and Middle Eastern backgrounds) who find themselves in violent and abusive homes and helps them overcome such situations through an empowerment- based process. One of the objectives is to help them challenge oppression and break free from culturally abusive practices.

Workshop organised by Shakti NSW.

Shakti’s work helps them deal with their legal rights; find refuge and temporary accommodation; secure appropriate counselling, and initiate wider social change within families and communities. Many Shakti staff are themselves migrant family and domestic violence survivors, and understand the difficulty some women have seeking help because of long-held cultural beliefs.

“ We want immigrant women to understand they do not have to put up with abuse and violence in their own homes; that they can be independent and productive members of society without having to be afraid of the ones who are supposed to love them,” Dr Farooqui said.

“We want them to know they do not have to live in fear; that there is help available and they have the right to avail of such help to lead lives free of violence.”