More Than a Woman

The fight for women’s justice continues…

A hard-hitting book on transnational abuse and exploitation of women by Dr Manjula O’ Connor, twelve years in the making – ‘Daughters of Durga’

How can we go back to the golden Vedic period where women were equally influential as Goddess Durga is to men and women today?

The answer is in the debut book of Dr Manjula O’Connor’s ‘Daughters of Durga’.
We at G’day India and The Indian Weekly couldn’t be more excited to speak with the author herself. She wears many hats- a clinical psychiatrist, activist, and now an author. What ticks her? To be a woman and her journey writing this book, she then understood the persecution in her identity conceding in her past.

How has Melbourne changed from 1975 to 2022? Can you share with us one such change you have noticed?

I arrived in Australia before 1975 just after the white Australia policy finished in March 1966, but the air was laden with racism. You felt different. No one looked like you. My name was ‘foreign’. People did not take the time to learn how to pronounce it.

However, the migrants coming in were still predominantly white- they were from the Baltic region or Mediterranean, displaced people from World War II.

The first Indian Tandoori restaurant opened in Carlton in 1978. It became trendy. It is so different today. Now there is an Indian restaurant in every suburb, and it is a sporadic person who does not like Indian food.

The following significant change occurred with Indian students’ entry into Victoria in 2005-6. There were forty thousand students in 2006, and the racism against them became visible. One male journalist asked me why all the petrol pump attendants and taxi drivers are Indian.

Community March against dowry abuse 2014

Today Indian students have become an integral part of Victorian and Australian society. Their enormous financial contribution to the Australian economy became clear during COVID lockdowns and is now appreciated by the Australian public.

You are a clinical psychiatrist by profession as you always focused on women’s mental health and family violence, but then NGO you co-founded, the Austral-Asian Centre for Human Rights and Health, what was the shift?

As a clinical psychiatrist, I have been in private practice for thirty-five years. My clinic is located in the city, which exposed me to corporate clients. Although I had male patients, the majority were women.

During the 90’s I saw Caucasian, Jewish, and migrant women from the Mediterranean and Baltic states.They often spoke about the mental trauma caused by being bullied at school for eating smelly foods like salami and olives. Today the same foods are classed as delicacies.

Their parents were not as educated as their children, and they internalised racist attitudes against their parents and embarrassment. They suffered from ‘Anxiety Disorders’, ‘Depression’, ‘Premenstrual Syndrome’ and ‘Panic Disorder’ caused by the pressures of conforming to their culture versus assimilating with white Australia, the forces of marrying within their culture were strong.

Family violence was very much an issue, but it was not a prominent public health issue as it is today. There were no government campaigns, and its role in women’s mental health problems was not given as much importance as today.

In 2008 the number of Indian international students increased, and I started seeing them in my practice. They presented with various mental health problems. One day, a woman in a highly distressed state started talking about domestic violence perpetrated against her by her husband and his sister-in-law.

She told me, “You would be surprised the dowry problem is rampant in our community” Sure enough, I saw a run of female Indian students and Indian women presenting with the trauma of dowry-related abuse and domestic violence.

From 2012-to 2016, with a run of murders and suicides, it became clear that domestic violence was a problem in our community. But the silence around it was profound. Society did not allow discussion and women were afraid to talk about it.

I gathered information and data from several sources- from the community, clinical data from my practice, research, and talking with service providers and activists. I started understanding the drivers of domestic violence in India and the broader South Asian migrant community.

I found dowry and economic abuse were crucial in most domestic abuse.I published several papers in peer-reviewed academic journals (documents can be seen at www.manjulaoconnor.com).

Awardees at the National IABCA awards in Sydney 2022

I co-founded Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health in 2012 to begin a campaign against dowry abuse and domestic violence in India and the broader South Asian community. We successfully campaigned to change the laws, and dowry abuse got incorporated into the Victorian Family Violence Protection Act in 2019.

Why 2005 was a signal moment when you began commuting to India to re-embrace your heritage and become immersed in the cultural ecology of family violence?

In 2005, I was invited to speak at a global Indian psychiatrist conference in Melbourne 2006. The topic was ‘Suicide in Indian women’. I started doing research and found to my horror, that the suicide rate of Indian women in India was the highest in the world. I began researching it and came across Professor Amartya Sen’s book ‘The Argumentative Indian’ and learnt about the “missing women” – It was a new concept then. It means the women who have been killed-murdered.

Women in India are being killed before birth- female feticide. It spurred me to connect with my heritage and learn about domestic violence, female foeticide, and dowry abuse.
I started to make regular trips to India and in 2005 to communicate with Dr Ranjana Kumari, a famous activist, and her NGO Centre for Social Research in Delhi. They would hold traditional public campaigns against female feticide and domestic violence, and I joined them.

I started teaching at Dev Sanskrit Vishwa Vidyalaya University in Hardwar. I learnt Hindi, the Indian culture and how people conceptualise gender norms while preparing the PhD and Master’s Psychology students about mental illness.

Tell us about your book ‘Daughters of Durga’? It is about the women you met through practice, and how long did that take you to formulate it?

More than twelve years ago, I began my work supporting victim-survivors of domestic family violence in Australia. The most hard-hitting stories were transnational abuse, dowry exploitation, economic exploitation, domestic servitude, and sexual exploitation.

I pondered with many questions such as, how could these things be stopped? What makes women travel to Australia? What are the roles of globalisation, culture, migration, acculturation stress and What are the pressures of moving into a new country?

The question this book seeks to answer is how can we enhance the living conditions of women such that both halves of a heterosexual relationship, woman and man, are both recognised as equal and essential for each other’s survival?

Domestic family violence is an enormous and complex issue to explore. The women I have seen over the last decade reveal to me that while victims of abuse suffer, they are not passive; they have strengths, and they use them to survive the unspeakable abuses caused by this crime called family domestic violence.

Gender relations are largely power-based in societies globally—largely patriarchal systems devised by men.

But in India, women were educated and mixed with educated men, according to ancient Indian traditions dating back more than five thousand years.

The national character of modern Indian womanhood is strongly influenced by its educated women: religiously equal, politically savvy, fearless warriors and queens, poetesses and ones who were allowed to choose their partners in a ceremony called swyamvar depicted in poems of Rig-Vedas, the dramatic stories in Puranas, the tales of Mahabharata.

Today’s customs of son preference have not changed in more than a thousand years.The male to female ratio at birth in Australia for Indian mothers is one hundred and twenty-two boys for hundred girls. Chinese mothers, it is one hundred and thirty-four to hundred. Why the obsession with having sons?

I have written the book, so we as a society recognise the need to speak openly and examine the issue of the position of Indian women in society. It must be stated that most Indian homes respect women, and families are harmonious. Though many don’t have a voice, migration makes them more vulnerable.

What does women empowerment mean to you?
Women empowerment means the freedom to make decisions, to make choices and be respected for that.

Women empowerment means that women and girls are not seen as a burden by their parents and their in-laws because, if allowed, they are capable of making more than the equal contribution

By Nandita Chakraborty