Editor’s note: This story contains graphic descriptions of violence
Serena Lalani boarded a bus from Toronto to Kingston, Ont., to see her boyfriend.
The then 19-year-old had taken the trip multiple times, but this April 2016 ride would be her last. After four years together, Lalani’s boyfriend, whom she had met through their Ismaili community, had become abusive.
“I still obviously loved him,” she says now. “But I knew in the back of my mind this wasn’t going to last.”
It started with emotional abuse and snowballed into acts of violence. Even after he covered her arms in bruises, Lalani felt pressure to stay.
“Our parents knew each other and I was always at his parents’ house. … I (had) to make it work,” she says.
“I felt another pressure within myself because I was the closest person to him and if I can’t help him, who will?”
In 1989, the École Polytechnique massacre propelled the issue of violence against women to the fore of the Canadian conscious, putting women’s rights and feminism under the microscope. Yet, 30 years later, to be a woman in Canada still means living with risk — to live knowing that, on average, a woman is killed every other day, that once a week a woman is murdered by her partner and that one in three women will experience some form of sexual violence over the course of their lives.
For women, trans and non-binary people of colour, living with violence and abuse can also mean living with pressure from family and communities to stay — a barrier that persists despite more women of colour speaking up. Often, violence or abuse is normalized, adding challenges for women of colour trying to leave.
Lalani got off the bus in Kingston.
She headed to a restaurant for her boyfriend’s birthday. The two fought at the end of the night. When they went home, Lalani could hear his roommates playing music in another room. She bolted to the bathroom.
He pursued her.
Locking the door behind him, he pushed her onto the toilet and started to scream. He called her a “slut” and a “b–ch.” He choked her and spat on her face four times, she remembers.
Lalani heard the music outside the door get louder.
“I thought, ‘This was it. This is the night he’s going to take my life.'”
He pushed her towards the tub and she fell in. As she lost consciousness, all Lalani could remember was hearing him say “sorry.” Gripping her blood-covered phone, she called the police.
Lalani’s abuser was ultimately convicted of assault.
There were so many instances where Lalani wanted to leave, but she worried about the stigma of being a survivor in a tight-knit community. It’s not an unusual feeling for women in her position.
“A lot of cultures are patriarchal in their structure and these cultures are raising families where the honour of the family is placed on the women,” says Henna Khawja, a registered social worker and psychotherapist at WellNest in Toronto.
“A lot of the gender-based violence that racialized women experience comes from the cultural and religious norms they’re raised in. A lot of the times, the direct family and community are the scorekeepers and holders of those values.”
Through this, violence and abuse become normalized.
“If they grew up in a home and witnessed their mother being treated a certain way by their father or grandparent … and of course if they experience abuse first hand, they would normalize that.”
There’s also shame and stigma around leaving your partner or getting a divorce.
Ashavari Joshi, a 27-year-old in Toronto, tried to make it work with her partner — even after multiple instances of emotional and physical abuse over three years.
“There are no divorces in my family,” she says.
Although her immediate family was more open-minded about breaking norms and leaving relationships, her extended family still viewed marriage as the only option.
When women of colour work up the courage to speak out and tell a family member about their abuse, Khawja says they often face the same set of responses — at least that’s been her experience from the work she’s done.
Women end up telling their immediate family members or trusted leaders in their faith community, Khawja says. Often, they get the same advice: work harder to make the relationship work.
Some religions see the role of men and women differently. If women are expected to be more submissive, it can change the perception of how much violence she’s supposed to endure.
So while it’s hard to pinpoint how certain cultures will respond when a woman is brave enough to speak about the violence she’s experienced, Khawja says there is some similarity.
It can be effective.
There’s chatter about what others will think, even a fear a survivor’s abuse experience makes their siblings less desirable for marriage. Sometimes, women — as Lalani feared — are completely isolated from their families.
“A lot of these women are abandoned by their families and they’re carrying guilt,” she says.
That guilt is even greater for some survivors speaking out as second-generation Canadians, she says, because of the struggles their immigrant parents had to go through to leave home.
That strain is compounded by the normalization of violence against women of colour in the media, Khawja says. In print, television and movies, women who are not white are fetishized, sexually degraded or labelled exotic.
The normalization of violence and how women of colour feel about their bodies contribute to a cycle that’s hard to break, says Kiaundra Jackson, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Los Angeles.
Violence and abuse become generational, she says, which can have a devastating impact.
“It sends a conscious and subconscious message that this behaviour is tolerated and no one cares about their lived experience … which just continues to perpetuate the stereotype.”
The fact there is so little data about violence and abuse against women of colour is problematic.
With the exception of Indigenous people, Statistics Canada stopped collecting police-reported data on the race or ethnicity of both survivors and suspects in 1991.
In that vacuum, Canadians are left with only data self-reported to the government at irregular intervals. From that, we know that in 2004 and 2014, visible minorities were less likely to report cases of domestic violence than non-visible minorities.
That self-reported data is bolstered by other studies showing that when women of colour did report violence, their cases weren’t taken as seriously as white women’s.
“White women have for generations had a different reality than women, trans or non-binary people of colour,” Jackson says.
“There is a lack of first-hand experience with knowing what it feels like to be marginalized, experience racism, microaggressions and blatant disrespect simply based on the colour of your skin.”
And yet, even after being exiled from their communities or separated from their family members, resilient women of colour are making change.
Black women, in particular, have been the force behind large advocacy movements for decades.
Tarna Burke coined #MeToo in 2006, but the hashtag didn’t gain attention until white women in Hollywood like Alyssa Milano used it themselves. Academic Anita Hill has been advocating for safer workplaces free of sexual harassment for most of her career.
It’s inspiring, says Khawja, but there’s still a lot needed to end gender-based violence.
“We’re making progress because (women of colour) are talking about their experiences, but they’re losing a lot to do that.”
Leaving community isn’t easy, Khawja says, and women who do so should seek resources when they’re ready so they have the tools they need to leave safely.
One option some women might find less daunting, if they can afford it, is therapy. But even then, it can be a challenge finding a therapist of colour.
Still, Roslyn Talusan, a writer, advocate and survivor, says finding a therapist of colour has made all the difference.
She says her South Asian therapist had a deeper understanding of what it meant to be a survivor of colour compared to her white therapist.
“The care and my trust with them was palpable,” she says. “It’s really comforting not having to explain how race factors into it.”
Ultimately, Jackson says escaping abuse starts with gathering the courage to tell one person you trust what you’re going through.
“After you allow yourself to stand in your truth with that person, (you can) receive the help and support you will need on this journey.”
It’s been three years and Lalani believes its incredibly important to keep talking about the abuse she survived.
Breaking through the fear of community isolation that kept her quiet has also created space for her to build a new community — one where she’s safe.
“So many people that were in my community, either my age or even older, sent me messages saying they had either gone through the same thing or they were still in it.”
It took Lalani months to process what getting those messages meant or even realize the abuse she suffered herself.
“I had to speak out about this, even though everyone would know my business,” she says.
“There is something larger here than just people knowing what I went through. … It’s so other people know there’s a way out.”
Our reporting doesn’t end here. Do you have a story of violence against women, trans or non-binary people — sexual harassment, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, or murder — that you want us to look at?
Email us: Arti.Patel@globalnews.ca