from the editor's desk

Review of ‘Daughters of Durga: dowries, gender violence and family in Australia’ by Manjula Datta O’Connor

O’Connor, Manjula Datta. Daughters of Durga: dowries, gender violence and family in Australia. Melbourne University Press, 2022. RRP: $34.99, 290pp, ISBN: 9780522879155.

Jenny Hedley

Indian poet and dancer Tishani Doshi fixes her gaze on the audience, ‘leaking secrets from unfastened thighs’ (‘Girls are Coming’) as she performs the eponymous poem from Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods against a midnight TEDx backdrop. Her pre-recorded voice, layered over sitar, drums and synth, is a battle cry against men ‘who put bullets in [women’s] chests / and fed their pretty faces to fire, / who sucked the mud clean / off their ribs, and decorated / their coffins with briar’.

As ‘Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods’ reaches its crescendo—‘against the sad, feathered tarnish / of remembrance’—Doshi’s hips undulate slowly, fingers weaving together a series of yonic impressions like a Georgia O’Keeffe bouquet. These gesticulations evoke an unfurling of self through ovaries and uterine passageways, before hands evolve into hummingbirds ‘the ways birds arrive / at morning windows—pecking / and humming, until all you can hear / is the smash of their miniscule hearts / against glass’. She assumes a final fighting stance, fists clenched, challenging patriarchy’s devaluation and exploitation of women.

Doshi’s subversive call to arms is representative of the multitudes of transnational Indian women whose lives are subjugated under the types of patriarchal abuses detailed in Manjula Datta O’Connor’s Daughters of Durga: dowries, gender violence and family in Australia. This book is the culmination of O’Connor’s three decades of supporting women as a clinical psychiatrist, delivering community-based research projects through her NGO—Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health—and her ‘one-woman army’ campaign against dowry abuse in Australia. This campaign led to the criminalisation of dowry abuse under Victorian family violence law in 2018 (Hall).

O’Connor’s goal in writing this book was not to bring shame upon her community, but rather, as she suggested in conversation with Jess Hill, to understand ‘in granular detail’ the ‘patriarchal abusive tools’ specific to Indian culture, in the hopes of reducing domestic violence in Australia (‘Daughters of Durga’). O’Connor’s richly historied Daughters of Durga challenges notions of culturally accepted gender roles and dowry practices that persist today in South Asian populations overseas and in Australia. She traces the demonisation of women and the hierarchies of the caste system back to the legislator Manu, whose Manusmriti formed the basis of Hindu law in the 1st century CE, around the same time that ‘Christian theologians spread the notion that female inferiority was a result of sin’ (14). Like Mahatma Gandhi, O’Connor’s family follows the modern Hindu movement Arya Samaj, which opposes the caste system, aims for social reform and is based on the ancient wisdom of the Vedas, which were written 3,000–4,000 years ago.

During the Rig Veda period, from 1,000–1,500 BCE, ‘[W]omen in India enjoyed an unprecedented position of strength and respect’, and some ‘were allowed to choose their own partners’ (13). Contrast this with common practices by transnational South Asians, as described by O’Connor throughout the book: a girl is valued less than a boy child and ‘inherits one-fourth the share that her brothers will’ (56); people marry within their caste under threat of honour killings; after marriage brides must ‘relocate to their husband and in-laws’ home, and serve their new family’ (20); non-resident Indian men living in Australia command a higher bride-price, and the imported bride’s uncertain visa status and isolation from community make her, and by extension her family, vulnerable to extortion and exploitation; where the fear of ‘breaking social norms enforces entrapment in abusive marriages’ (36).

O’Connor develops and substantiates an argument for a return to ancient wisdom, linking a swing in cultural values to the Manusmriti; to the Mogul King Akbar, who required women to remain veiled during his 1556–1605 rule; and to the 1858–1947 rule of the British Raj, which turned the ‘once-flexible system’ of the Manusmriti into a ‘rigid system that became unfair to all women of India’ (17). When British colonial rulers codified the Manusmriti for all castesalthough it was originally written for the highest Brahmin caste—it stripped women of their right to inherit real property and forbade divorce and remarriage, even for widows.

Although dowry has been illegal in India since 1961, O’Connor stresses that the institution persists, ‘[Allowing] grooms and their families to steal in broad daylight’ (71). She notes that a woman’s dowry is comprised of the cost of five out the six ceremonies associated with an arranged marriage. This includes a three-day wedding, flights and accommodation for the guests and gifts of cash and gold for the groom’s extended family, plus white goods, cash payments and sometimes even cars for the groom’s parents. ‘The investment is based on a fragile dream, one that can shatter easily’ (54); it’s an investment made in faith that the groom, as ‘benevolent patriarch’ (27), will cherish and support his bride in their new life together and not abandon her to poverty. Unfortunately, O’Connor points out that the ‘line between so-called “benevolent” control and coercive control is very thin’ (32).

Despite the specificity of this book’s application to transnational South Asians, O’Connor reminds us that violence against women is a ‘wicked global problem, not confined to any class, religion, [or] country’ (6), and that one cannot make sweeping generalisations about a country populated by 1.4 billion people across twenty-eight states and twenty-two official language groups (Hall). O’Connor repeats the following quote by Johan Galtung twice in her book to remind us that the personal is political: ‘When one husband beats his wife, there is a clear case of personal violence, but when one million husbands keep one million wives in ignorance, there is structural violence’ (Galtung 171).

O’Connor’s chapters on dowry deaths, honour killings and suicides are particularly chilling, due to a crushing onslaught of case histories illuminating the statistics. Dowry abuse, O’Connor argues, ‘bears close resemblance to human trafficking and modern-day slavery’ (115). We are reminded of the cluster of seven suicides over 2018 and 2019 of newly immigrated Indian women in the Melbourne suburb of Epping, most of whom had previously reported family violence.

It is not just women who are negatively affected. O’Connor describes men as being stuck in ‘man prison’ (199), where they are pressured to conform to dominant ideals and seduced by the privileges granted them; she suggests that their ‘unhealthily close bonds’ (205) with their parents prevent them from developing independent thoughts and weaken their own spousal relationships.

The messages in this book are timely and urgent, adding nuance and cultural complexity to important writings on domestic abuse by, for example, Jess Hill and Jacqueline Rose. Just as feminism is not complete without accounting for intersectionality, our awareness of domestic abuse must be sensitive to a variety of cultural practices. This book should be required reading for those who might positively intervene in the lives of South Asian immigrants: social workers, maternal and child health nurses, doctors, legal practitioners and police.

O’Connor charges us with maintaining eye contact, like Tishani Doshi dancing her way out of the woods. We must not avert our gaze from those suffering ‘multiple layers of disadvantages’ (68) while the Australian immigration system ‘enhances the power of the groom over the bride’ (69).

Durga, the titular deity of O’Connor’s book, represents resilience and power; it is to this ancient goddess that O’Connor turns for answers. In the final chapter, O’Connor reimagines the Manusmriti as it would have been written by a daughter of Durga. The resulting prescriptions grant women respect, agency, gender equality and freedom from outdated social structures.

Works Cited

‘Daughters of Durga: Professor Manjula Datta O’Connor In Conversation with Jess Hill’. YouTube, uploaded by The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre, July 27 (2022). Sourced at: youtu.be/mxW_9jqFihY.

Doshi, Tishani. Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods. Harper Collins, 2017.

Galtung, Johan. ‘Violence, Peace, and Peace Research’. Journal of Peace Research 6.3 (1969): 167–91. Sourced at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/422690.

‘Girls are Coming out of the Woods | Tishani Doshi | TEDxChennai’. YouTube, uploaded by TEDx Talks, June 29 (2018). Sourced at: youtu.be/Q4ZheZ-3ZCk.

Hall, Bianca. ‘“I felt such shame”: Manjula Datta O’Connor on the fight for daughters’. The Sydney Morning Herald, July 15 (2022). Sourced at: www.smh.com.au/culture/books/i-felt-such-shame-manjula-datta-o-connor-on-the-fight-for-daughters-20220602-p5aqnv.html.

Hill, Jess. See What You Made Me Do: power, control and domestic abuse. Black Inc., 2019.

Rose, Jacqueline. On Violence and On Violence Against Women. Faber, 2021.

Jenny Hedley’s writing appears in Overland, Archer Magazine, Cordite Poetry Review, Diagram, Mascara Literary Review, Verity La, Admissions: Voices within Mental Health and elsewhere. She lives on unceded Boon Wurrung land with her son. website: jennyhedley.github.io/

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