Apna Ghar: Domestic Violence and Reaching Out to Chicago’s Faith Communities (2001)

Apna Ghar is a Hindi term that means “Our Home,” and is the name of a non-profit organization and shelter located in Chicago for victims of domestic violence that are specifically of South Asian descent. Like many organizations, Apna Ghar began as an idea in the minds of a small group of people. In this case, that group was composed of five women—three from Chicago’s Asian Human Services Organization—Prem Sharma, Kanta Khipple, and Lee Maglaya – along with friends Ranjana Bhargava and Mohini Pai. All were activists, professionals, and leaders in their communities, who throughout the mid-1980s, became increasingly aware of the rise in domestic violence distress calls and abuse cases reported from within South Asian community. Many stories began to emerge about South Asian women who had been victims of violence to varying degrees of severity and in a variety of circumstances. Yet at the time, no social service agency existed that was familiar enough with South Asian cultures, languages and family values, to adequately address the needs of these women.

Thus, Apna Ghar was founded in 1990. Its mission: “to provide multi-lingual, multi-cultural comprehensive services to South Asian families seeking shelter and protection from domestic violence.” Today, it provides a variety of social services to South Asian women in need, including a 24-hour hotline with staff fluent in multiple South Asian languages, a safe shelter facility, counseling services, legal advocacy, and general social service advocacy.

In addition to offering these basic social services, Apna Ghar’s mission also includes a provision to reach out to the communities, both the ethnic and faith communities, of the women they serve – to create awareness, dialogue, understanding, and to gain support. For the greater Chicagoland area, the relevant faith communities for the majority of Apna Ghar’s clients are the Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and Marthoma Christian communities. Unfortunately, from its very inception, Apna Ghar’s relationship with Chicago’s South Asian ethnic and religious communities has been wrought with tension.

In researching Apna Ghar’s relationship with the faith communities of its clients, there are three perspectives that are important to consider:

  1. That of the faith communities and their attitudes and beliefs about the issue of domestic violence.
  2. The victims themselves, and how well they feel their communities are able to support them during times of crisis, and finally,
  3. Apna Ghar as an organization, and its success in gaining support for its cause.

My research is overwhelmingly skewed to Apna Ghar’s perspective as an organization, and that is for two reasons. First, my personal connections are with the staff and board members of Apna Ghar and most of my interview opportunities came from members of the organization. Secondly, even though I was a volunteer for several years and have interacted with clients before, this time I was not allowed to interview them, because I was there in a research capacity and not a volunteer one.

With that in mind, I’d like to address some of the barriers and obstacles that Apna Ghar faced in its goal of reaching out to these communities. It should be kept in mind it is very difficult to amalgamate the vast array of ethnicities and religions that fall under the term “South Asia” into one coherent worldview or set of values. But in looking at Apna Ghar’s interaction with what I’m calling the “South Asian ethnic and faith community,” there have been three broad trends, three main tensions, three barriers that Apna Ghar has faced in advancing its cause within these communities.

One preliminary obstacle that Apna Ghar faced in raising support lay in a widespread denial of the problem of domestic violence within the community. A board member of Apna Ghar said, “When we started there was such a denial that we even had a problem with that. People would say, “These kinds of problems are American problems, they do not happen in our community.” Convincing the community that violence did indeed exist among South Asians was among the organization’s first main tasks.

In addition to widespread denial, a second larger obstacle to community outreach soon emerged: that of the dominant cultural attitudes towards the issue of domestic violence itself. Even if the problem did exist, there was a widespread belief that “these sorts of disputes” would naturally occur between husband and wife or within families and that they should be resolved at home. K. Sujata, the current executive director of Apna Ghar, said “Women are taught to keep their problems private, they worry what the community will think if they report the abuse, and they fear the stigma attached to airing dirty laundry in public.” Another widespread cultural phenomenon is the taboo of divorce. Even well educated women, and many of Apna Ghar’s clients are – doctors, lawyers, and engineers – feel that divorce is out of the question. “They worry that the community will outcast them as divorcees, so they keep quiet to save their marriage.” There are other tremendous cultural pressures specific to the way that women’s roles are conceived – women are often taught to be the devoted wife and mother and to take care of their families at all costs. Women who want leave their families are often viewed, or afraid they will be viewed, as home-wreckers, bad wives and mothers.

A third barrier to achieving support for Apna Ghar’s cause had to do with the fact that the South Asian community, as an ethnic minority, did not want bad press. Some members of the community felt that they had a hard time surviving and succeeding as minorities in America, why make it more difficult by highlighting and publicizing the community’s weaknesses?

A related barrier to achieving support came from the fact that some South Asian religious centers did not feel that social change was part of their moral and spiritual agenda – they conceived of themselves as religious centers and not as agencies for social change.

Over the years since Apna Ghar was created, these barriers to outreach were manifested in a variety of ways. Donations from the community were meager (most of the organization’s funding comes from grants), faith leaders did not welcome Apna Ghar’s efforts to outreach and educate, and some community members even actively spoke out against Apna Ghar’s mission. For many years, faith and ethnic community organizations provided almost nothing in the way of financial and social support.

That, I’m happy to say, has changed.

Unfortunately, the turning point came as the result of one of the most tragic events in the history of Chicago’s South Asian community – a brutal murder of a young Pakistani-American woman. Thirty-three old Shahpara Sayeed had emigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan in 1999 to be with her husband and children. Shahpara’s husband, Mohammed Haroon, worked as a taxi driver in the Chicagoland area. The relationship between husband and wife was known by neighbors and friends to be tense, and they often fought about children, finances, and other domestic matters. But on August 24, 2000, in a fit of violence that nobody yet fully understands, Haroon doused his wife in gasoline, locked her in his taxi, and burned her alive in the broad daylight of North Glenwood Avenue. There were many witnesses when the explosion occurred, but their recognition of what was happening came too late. By the time the police got to the scene of the crime, there was nothing left but the woman’s ashes and the remains of the taxi.

The case is now officially closed, but that is only because Haroon, who had been held without bond at Cook County Jail, died of AIDS-related complications this past summer. Regardless, the event sparked a massive community response that included Chicago’s Muslim leaders. People from all over the city left flowers and candles at the site of the young woman’s death, people held rallies, vigils, and even a “Unity Walk Against Violence,” that was co-sponsored by Apna Ghar. For Apna Ghar, the event, as tragic as it was, marked the beginning of a new sort of relationship with Chicago’s South Asian faith community.

After Shahpara’s death, Apna Ghar sent letters to a variety of faith and community organizations informing them about the tragedy that had occurred and inviting them to what they called a “Community Roundtable.” The idea of the Community Roundtable was to initiate some dialogue and discussion about the problem of violence in the South Asian community with the community’s own leaders. The first meeting took place in November of 2000, was quite successful, and included representation from the Lemont Temple, the Sikh Religious Society of Chicago (Palatine Gurdwara), the Muslim Community Center, and the Marthoma Church of Des Plaines. The Community Roundtable has met four times since its inception last year, and has recently organized itself into four committees based on the interest of its members: Research, Education, General Awareness, and Coalition Building. Though the committees have yet to do much in the way of actual activity, the creation of dialogue and the expressed interest of community members indicates an overall rise in the general awareness and support of Apna Ghar’s cause.

In addition to these open forums of discussion, Apna Ghar has also finally been able to outreach within particular religious institutions. Usha Wasan, who is both a board member of Apna Ghar as well as an active member of the Lemont Temple (she has been the President of their Hindu Satsang multiple times), managed to get the Temple to allow Apna Ghar to have a table and booth at their annual Greesham Mela this year. This Mela, or festival, is an outdoors, all-day affair at the Temple that has various booths, with food, activities, and games for the community. This past year was the first time that the Temple agreed to let Apna Ghar hold a table. Suresh Babu, who is the organizer of the fair as well as a member of the Community Roundtable, even persuaded the Temple president to waive the booth fees for Apna Ghar’s table.

Another result of the Community Roundtable was that the Muslim Community Center, one of the largest communities of Muslims in Chicago, began giving substantial donations to Apna Ghar in support of their Muslim clients who needed to get back on their feet. Donations included food, first month’s rent for women leaving the shelter, and other financial donations.

Another member of the Community Roundtable, Reverend Roy Thomas, invited Apna Ghar to the Marthoma Church of Greater Chicago, to give a presentation on the problem of domestic violence in America and specifically in the South Asian community, and to talk about the work that they do. The presentation was well received and Apna Ghar is planning on working with Reverend Thomas in future endeavors.

One of Apna Ghar’s founders, Kanta Khipple, is also an active member of the Sikh Religious Society of Chicago, and this past summer, she helped organize another educational and awareness building event at the Palatine Gurdwara. This event was a standard presentation about domestic violence that Apna Ghar gives at schools and other such institutions.

The other major initiative of the last year was the “Days of Healing” initiative sponsored by the Mayor’s Office Committee on Domestic Violence. The idea was born out of a summit on domestic violence in America that took place earlier this year – its impetus was the idea that women, and of course people in general, often rely so heavily on their faith communities for support in times of crisis. During the weekend of September 28-30, the Mayor’s Office requested clergy and religious communities all over Chicago to discuss the problem of domestic violence in the language of each community’s own beliefs and values. This struck me as a really important and legitimate way of reaching the communities – by having their own leaders talk to them, instead of having outside activists and leaders impose their values. Besides, organizations like Apna Ghar are 100% secular for some very important reasons, and so have no authority on a community’s spiritual and moral obligation to fight domestic violence. But faith leaders do have that authority!

The Community Roundtable was involved in the Days of Healing initiative, and several of the religious institutions I have mentioned were meant to participate. However, in light of the events of September 11, 2001, it has been difficult for me to get in touch with the leaders of the initiative at the Mayor’s Office as well as in the faith communities to find out how the project actually went. I can only imagine that the events of September 11 put the issue of violence even more at the forefront of the minds of the community – and I hope that the connection between domestic violence and violence in general is one that will affect people’s awareness and understanding for a long time to come.

The Community Roundtable, the Days of Healing project, and the other various outreach programs and initiatives that Apna Ghar has undertaken in the last year represent major landmarks in the history of Apna Ghar’s involvement and acceptance among the faith communities of Chicago. Though there are still limitations and there is still room for improvement, Apna Ghar has made great strides towards increasing understanding and support from the communities of the clients they serve.

— Tonushree Jaggi, Pluralism Project Student Affiliate


Author’s bibliographic note: Most of this research came from interviews with the following people: K. Sujata, Executive Director, Apna Ghar; Amy Paul, Community Outreach and Education Coordinator, Apna Ghar; Usha Wasan, member, Fundraising Committee, Apna Ghar; and Leslie Landis, member, Mayor’s Office Committee on Domestic Violence.

Additionally, quite a bit of background research and analysis came from a paper I had written for the Chicago Metro History Fair in 1997 entitled “Taking a Stand: The Struggle Against Domestic Violence in the South Asian-American Community.”