Two years ago, Nashville pediatrician Vidya Bansal started a Facebook group for women like herself — specifically, doctors of South Asian heritage, living in North America, who were also mothers. The Desi Physician Moms group was a space to share the frustrations and joys of work, family and travel. But slowly, stories of domestic violence also began to surface.
Today, the group has helped dozens of women leave abusive relationships. And Bansal’s refrigerator is covered with cards she’s gotten from members thanking her for the support they’ve received.
She reads from one: “‘I’m grateful to my sister who introduced me to this women physicians group when I was struggling to find my worth and self-value…at 48 years with grown children.'”
She takes a deep breath, and says, “These are
physician women who are looking to find their value and self-worth.”
Bansal was born in Nashville to Indian parents. She’s a Desi — a person of South Asian birth or descent who lives abroad. Bansal started the group two years ago, she says, because doctors spend their entire adult lives either studying or practicing medicine, which can be isolating. All the more so for women who’ve moved to the U.S. or Canada, like many of her members, from highly patriarchal societies. Even the most affluent can go straight from their family home to their husband’s home.
And when that new home is an unhappy or violent one, leaving is often the last option. “The problem is twofold when it comes Desi victims of domestic abuse,” says Bansal. “One is the social stigma, where you don’t just leave him, you don’t just get a divorce.”
American women began getting over that stigma decades ago, says Bansal. She also points to an even greater problem: a gender inequity so deeply-rooted that many women think they
should be subservient to their husbands.
Still, Bansal was shocked when more and more highly accomplished women began shyly asking the group if slapping, choking, or even just emotional abuse from a husband was normal.
Take one pediatrician in her thirties, who lives in Indiana, and whose name we’re not using at the request of her lawyer. Like many other women, she posted about her domestic problems anonymously: “I thought, why not ask women who are just like me, they grew up in the same culture, they have the same level of education and they should have an understanding of whether this is acceptable or not.”
The responses, she says, were overwhelming, all along the lines of “this is not normal, this is not how it works in our household.” The woman says Bansal in particular held her hand — virtually — for 18 months before she gained the courage to file for divorce.
After she did, her husband of 12 years threatened to take their three-year-old daughter back to India, so she packed two bags — “my laptop bag with work stuff and then a little purse with a few clothes thrown in and my documents” — and she and the girl crawled out of a window one morning last year.
Despite her professional success, the pediatrician stayed with her husband much longer than she wanted to, she says, in part for her family back in India. She already had a so-called love marriage, to a man she met on her own — in a country where more than 80% of marriages are still arranged.
She says, “In my case it would be both those insults, as they call it, if I were to divorce. So I took it upon myself and didn’t want them to be worried or get hurt by my personal choices.”
She also waited until her sister in India got married, so that she wouldn’t be stigmatized either. Even thousands of miles away, the physician was deeply entrenched in the traditions of her culture.
That can be wonderful, says Pakistani-born attorney and activist Khizr Khan, “but when it comes to culture making you in-dignified, making you a second-class citizen, that is a violation of your basic dignity and basic humanity.”
Khan is best known as the man who challenged candidate Donald Trump to brush up on the U.S. Constitution at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
He has become a mentor to the Desi group. He says the legal and human rights of women must become a top priority of conversation, among families and social organizations — even the legal community in America, which he’s working to educate.
Khan testifies in divorce trials around the country, on behalf of Muslim women he says are incorrectly or illegally being held to law from their home countries, and not the rule of law in the United States.
In one case, he helped overturn the ruling of a New Jersey judge who refused to grant a Moroccan woman a restraining order against her ex-husband she alleged had raped her. The judge said the man wasn’t behaving criminally, just according to his religious beliefs.
But Khan especially wants to see Muslim and Hindu religious leaders overcome their reluctance to address the issues of gender inequality and domestic abuse. “This problem is so pervasive that the conversation should be equally pervasive,” he says. “It should be spoken with the loudest voice — no need to suffer quietly. No need to suffer.”
To that end, the Desi Physician Moms launched a foundation last year, based in Nashville. It has raised more than $30,000 so far to cover court fees for victims who leave abusive homes. And, at the urging of Khan, the foundation helps all Desi women, not just doctors.
Meanwhile, the original Facebook group now counts more than 6,000 members. As it continues to expand, a subgroup dedicated to domestic abuse sees about one new member daily, says the pediatrician from Indiana.
“We are a thick group of friends now and we share anything, it can be really personal,” she says. “We have a place where we are so confident, and we feel safe in sharing.”
That, she says, is a privilege not many women in her position have.