Thoughts on Intimate Partner Violence from a Tamil Cultural Perspective
On September 11, 2019, Tharshika Jeganathan, was on her way home from work when she was brutally attacked and murdered by her estranged husband Sasikaran Thanapalasingam. He surrendered to the police and was charged with first-degree murder.
The parties were married in 2015; their marriage was arranged by their respective families.It is common for Tamil men and women to have their families actively engage themselves in finding suitable life partners. While in most cases these marriages are “arranged with the consent” of the marrying parties there are unfortunate instances of forced marriages where one of the parties, usually the bride, does not have a say in whether or not she is agreeable to her family’s decision on whom she should marry.
In Tamil culture, similar to many South Asian cultures, the wife joins the husband. In 2017 Tharshika immigrated to Canada from Sri Lanka to be with her husband, and she eventually left him. Tharshika had no family here. It is my observation that when women immigrate as spouses from South Asian countries to North America or Europe they have very few or no family members in their new homeland. Being in a new country with limited knowledge of the local language and culture adds layers of the unknown. This, combined with the lack of family and friends, leaves the newcomer brides vulnerable and alienated.
It is not unusual for the husband to continue to live with his parents after his marriage. Usually (but not always) a male offspring is expected to care for his parents and unmarried sisters. Tharshika lived with her husband and his mother. Living in an arranged marriage to a near-stranger could mean that the bride is walking into the lives of people she barely knows but is expected to serve as well as honour. There is a cultural expectation that a woman should prioritize her husband and his family over herself and her family. The relationship is hierarchical; unsurprisingly the wife is far down the totem pole, if not at the bottom.
“I think we have to be honest with what’s going on in our community, especially with young women brides in our community. There are too many cases of abuse with newcomer brides,” said Kripa Sekhar, the Executive Director of the South Asian Women’s Centre.Despite the challenges, Tharshika was steadfast and determined to build a life for herself.
In February 2018, Sasikaran was acquitted of two domestic assault charges alleged against him in 2017. He has a history of blatant disregard to the orders issued through multiple breaches of no-contact orders; he even allegedly assaulted a police officer.Reporting domestic abuse to police is a huge step. In addition to dealing with the challenges of intimate partner violence, the survivor of the violence faces many cultural obstacles. The words of Kripa Sekar are pertinent in this regard. “If a woman goes to police back home, there are consequences. Her life is now in danger — she has shamed the family, she has also disgraced the man.”
Frequently there are other family members present in the same household who have the potential to prevent it, but the intimate partner violence rages on. This is because the other family members either actively engage or incite domestic violence or passively ignore it. In the above-noted court case, Justice Crosbie said she did not believe the mother-in-law’s evidence, saying she was evasive and “danced around direct questions.” She offered “gratuitous criticisms” of Tharshika Jeganathan that “left me with the impression that even if her son had done what was alleged, she would have thought it was justified and would have defended him in court.” Justice Crosbie went on to say “Part of this impression came from her evidence that because her son was the complainant’s husband, she thought he could touch her even against her own wishes.”
The recommendations of the Ontario death review committeeon the 2016 case is both specific and comprehensive and as pointed out by Justice Crosbie, government agencies acting on these recommendations would be a step towards ending violence against women. I strongly believe that engaging the entire family and not just the offending partner is essential to addressing domestic violence as other members, especially parents and older siblings, have a considerable say on family matters which includes whether or not the husband can raise his hand against his wife. The community’s performance as the guardian of the voiceless cannot be understated. Friends, neighbours, colleagues all have a role to play in mitigating domestic violence.
Khamy Ganeshathasan is a Family lawyer and Mediator. She is an associate at RV Law LLP and Mediated Family Results Inc. Khamy cares deeply about helping people find meaningful resolution to their challenges. She volunteers with the Family Violence Section of FDRIO, the Centre for Sexual Violence Response, Support and Education, at York University, Warden Woods Community Centre.
*The opinions expressed are the author’s personal opinions
Both Tharshika and Sasikaran were Sri Lanka Tamils