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Asian, American, feminist.

When Shamita Das Dasgupta and five other Asian-Indian women got together in 1985 to form the consciousness-raising group Manavi, their goal was to analyze the experiences and concerns of South Asian immigrant women. But almost as soon as the feminist group was formed, its members were called upon to put theory into practice.

"Battered women started calling us, telling us |I have this problem,'" recalls Das Dasgupta, an Indian-born psychologist and women's-studies instructor at Rutgers University. The callers - generally immigrants from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal - told of being beaten by their husbands or abused by employers. Some had been abandoned without visas or left penniless; others reported sexual or racial harassment.

Such incidents are no more common in the South Asian immigrant community than in native-born populations, but for immigrant women the abuse is compounded by the loss of familiar systems of support. Isolated and often unacquainted with their new homeland's culture and laws, these women lack access to advice or services. "Information, language, finances, even driving skills or how to look at a paper, these are all lacking," says Das Dasgupta. After hearing the distressing stories of these women, she says, the group quickly changed its objective and work style.

Manavi became a self-help organization. The all-volunteer organization publishes a resource directory for women in the New Jersey-New York-Connecticut tri-state area, and offers translation services, legal aid, therapeutic referrals, interest-free loans, and housing and employment ad vice. And true to its feminist roots, the organization's approach is nonhierarchical; Manavi counselors simply offer clients the tools to solve their own problems.

Das Dasgupta is especially proud of the organization's no-interest-loan program, a response to "what we heard from women, something that is totally not understandable to the mainstream." Das Dasgupta says successful South Asian working women were reporting an inability to pay their bills because they did not have access to the money they had earned. "Women who have Ph.D.'s, who work for big companies-IBM, Bell Labs - and are making enormous amounts of money, they have never considered that this money is theirs," says Das Dasgupta. "Culturally, it has always been that men have taken care of the money, even if the women have worked. Women have always assumed that they don't have access, psychologically, to use the money without asking his permission. And if you're in a desperate situation, he's not going to let you use that money."

Rather than admonishing, these women to simply take the money, as many agencies have done, Manavi established a loan program. With this temporary financial security, women are better able to tackle problems.

Das Dasgupta notes that shelter providers often set up a false dichotomy for battered South Asian women, suggesting that they must separate from their community and culture in order to remedy problems. "Shelter workers would say, |You're in America. Act like Americans now. You can't do here what you did at home,"' she says.

Some local agencies have displayed a willingness to change. Several have invited Manavi members to speak and hold workshops on the needs and concerns of South Asian women. Through such events, Das Dasgupta hopes mainstream service providers will begin to recognize that cultural differences affect "what we do with pain, how we alleviate it, how we express it, and how we experience it."

Although Manavi is based in central New Jersey, the group receives phone calls from South Asian women living all over the country. Women in Texas and Alaska have called asking for referrals, says Das Dasgupta. People of South Asian heritage make up almost 2 per cent of the U.S. population, Das Dasgupta points out. Over the last seven years, Manavi has assembled a comprehensive list of service agencies based in South Asian communities. Many are run by women, she says. "I think that's because women's lives were affected tremendously by immigration. They had to organize, to find that space within the culture."

Das Dasgupta's plans include a twenty-four-hour hotline and a hostel for South Asian women who become displaced or who need to get away.

"Someone I really admire once told me, |You have to realize, wherever you stand, the ground underneath you, that's your battleground.' That's the wisest statement anybody ever made to me," Das Dasgupta says. "I don't need to be torn. I can give the best I can wherever I am standing."
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Title Annotation:Shamita Das Dasgupta
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Previous Article:Radio Bandung.
Next Article:The Clintonomics trap.

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