Meeting Domestic Violence Survivors Where They Worship

Sikh survivors of domestic violence in a embrace

It was in a bathroom stall at a New Jersey Sikh house of worship where she saw the flyer to “stand up to domestic violence.” The Punjabi woman, who was married to a man she described as physically abusive, quietly grabbed the paper and put it in her diaper bag before walking out. The helpline listed on the front would eventually save her life, she said.

“At that point, I was in trouble,” the woman said in a translated interview. “I was scared to tell anyone.” 

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Ever since the woman had immigrated from India to the U.S. with her husband, he had restricted her access to a phone. She wasn’t able to call her family back home. She didn’t know anyone in her New Jersey town. But as time went on, the abuse escalated, and she believed she would be killed if she stayed.

“I didn’t know where I was going to live with my children,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “I didn’t know if we would have a roof over our head, but I thought, ‘Instead of dying at the hands of my husband, I need to get out. If I survive, I’ll be able to raise my children away from him. It’s worth a try.’”

After multiple calls to the police about her abuse, she and her children were finally removed from the home and placed in a women’s shelter. When the shelter struggled to help her plan for her new circumstances, she remembered the flyer in her diaper bag and called the Sikh Family Center. The nonprofit connected her with a family offering shelter, plus other necessities, such as babysitting, clothing, transportation to and from the courthouse and a pro bono attorney.

“I never worked in the U.S., I didn’t have a driver’s license, I didn’t even have a credit card or debit card,” said the woman, who had received her B.S. in India but didn’t work in America because she said she was expected to become a homemaker. “I was given another life by the Sikh Family Center.”

While data about the Sikh community is scarce, a 2017 Sikh Family Center survey found that 25% of Sikh women and 11% of Sikh men in the U.S. had experienced domestic or family violence. For a community where these traumatic experiences are often unspoken and where the importance of marriage and family is historically ingrained in culture and religion, it can be hard to know where to turn. But that doesn’t mean Sikh and Punjabi women aren’t interested in getting help. That’s where the Sikh Family Center, the only professional organization in the U.S. focusing on gender-based violence in the Sikh community, is providing support. 

“The one thing that we should push back against is the idea that the topic is so taboo that people are not going to want to talk about it,” executive director Mallika Kaur, who is of no relation to the author, said about domestic violence in the Sikh community. “When so many people are impacted by the issues we’re working on, sometimes the response can be deep discomfort. … But we try to be proactive to prompt the conversation.”

Providing the trauma resources lacking in Sikh communities

Since its founding in 2009, the organization has provided a needed service for the underserved community that faces language and cultural barriers — particularly immigrant and refugee families. While the nonprofit doesn’t directly offer legal or mental health services, it does connect community members with established resources, like pro bono attorneys and domestic violence shelters. It also provides training and workshops for other crisis centers and agencies to navigate gender-based violence and mental health concerns within the Sikh community.

“We wish people had direct connections to all the services that exist out there, but that’s not often the case,” Kaur said. “We often have to really push for them to make those connections and get those services.”

Kaur said the Sikh Family Center is constantly trying new methods of community outreach, like setting up tables, talking to members and putting up flyers at Sikh religious temples called gurdwaras, which are often social hubs for locals. 

Flyering in gurdwaras’ bathroom stalls is a particular method that works, she said, because it is a safe, discreet space to jot down a phone number. “We’ve had some pretty telling stories about people who have taken that information down and called us months later, or in one case, called us years later,” she said. 

Calls to the Sikh Family Center’s nonemergency helpline spiked 160% between 2018 and 2022, with the largest uptick from 2020 to 2022 during the pandemic, according to the nonprofit. Kaur said those calls were often focused on gender-based violence resources and trauma-related and mental health advice, as many in vulnerable circumstances had been forced to isolate themselves with abusive partners or relatives. 

Jasvir Kaur, a domestic violence survivor who is not related to Mallika Kaur, is an active volunteer at the organization. Since the Sikh Family Center wasn’t around when she needed help over a decade ago, she feels fortunate to be able to support others now. 

“After I healed, I was like, ‘One day I want to help other women that have been abused,’ and this just seemed like the perfect thing for me to do,” she said. “It was a safe space where I could help other folks.”

Jasvir Kaur said she wanted to become more confident after her separation from her husband — a part of her that she felt had disappeared during her marriage. She was initially reluctant to become active at her gurdwara again since she knew some community members would gossip about her, even if they didn’t know the full scope of her situation. However, she said it was necessary to reconnect with her faith and face it head-on.

“I didn’t talk about my experience, nor did I want to, but [focusing on myself] helped me want to help my community more,” she said. “I got involved in helping women and children and working with seniors — the neglected people at the gurdwara.” 

Navigating cultural norms and stereotypes to get help

Harleen Singh, an associate professor of South Asian Literature and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University, said some of the most vulnerable individuals in these cases are often older adults, children and spouses who are on visas where they can’t work or who are dependent on their spouse’s visa.

“If those people were to leave these abusive situations, not only would they be without a family, they would actually be without legal recourse in this country,” she said.

The New Jersey woman said when she eventually told her father about the abuse, he urged her to stay with her husband, whom she married in an arrangement in India. “He said, ‘Dear, what will people say?’ and I finally asked him if he would rather have a daughter who’s divorced or dead.”

Singh said domestic violence in the South Asian diaspora is multifaceted and reflects the duality of American and South Asian heritage for many people. She pointed out that while residents in the U.S. rely on the state for resources like first responders, people in India generally depend on their family structure and community for support due to distrust of the Indian government and insufficient infrastructure in the country.

“The family has been important culturally, religiously and patriarchally,” she said. “When you have that apotheosis where you’re holding the family up on a pedestal, it obscures what the family can also have, which is abuse and violence.”

Singh said communal stereotypes like the model minority myth, which depicts Asian Americans as inherently successful and problem-free, also motivate people to avoid spotlighting these concerns.

“We are so taken up with the notion of the model minority, especially for many communities coming out of South Asia, … we tend to be blind to the not-so-model aspects of our community — patriarchy, misogyny, and a very stringent notion of how the family should behave and how women should behave,” she said.

The New Jersey woman said she is now working, caring for her family and planning to advance her career. 

“I wanted to share my story because I know there are other women like me who are being abused by their spouses and need help,” she said. “I found that help and now have a new life for me and my children.”

If you or someone you know is facing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence hotline for help at (800) 799-SAFE (7233), or go to for more. States often have domestic violence hotlines as well.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or chat live at You can also visit for additional support.