Conference explores Indian divorce stigmas

BY MARIEM QAMRUZZAMAN
Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 6, 2006

LSA junior Shyam Shah, whose family is from India, said he was well aware of the stigmas he and his family would face when his parents divorced five years ago.

For many years and even today, divorce is considered a taboo among many South Asians.

Shyam's mother, Gita Shah, told her story at the South Asian Awareness Network Conference, "Impact Through Interaction," Saturday at the Michigan Union.

In the Indian American community, the divorce rate is much lower than the state average.

The divorce rate in Michigan is 55 percent. In the Indian community, it is only 10 to 15 percent, said Roger Rathi, an attorney based in Southfield, who spoke at the workshop.

Much of the stigma surrounding divorce stems from a cultural tendency to keep discussion about spousal relationships within the home, Gita Shah said.

Her son explained that specific traditional family values contribute to the taboo nature of divorce.

"Some people might think it's selfish," her son said. "Marriage is a holy institution. Marriage is highly regarded, and to break that is taboo in itself."

Shah told attendees how she expected her marriage to be "one of those fairytale marriages," but when she moved to United States with her husband, she realized it was not.

Many of the conflicts between Shah and her husband stemmed from their clashing priorities, she said.

Twenty-four years later, with the encouragement of her son, she filed for divorce.

Soon after, most of her friends began to shun her and sympathized with her husband.

"They started a rumor that I'm having an affair," Shah said.

Her son didn't receive much support from his Indian friends.

"Ninety-five percent of my Indian friends never mentioned it," he said. "These types of situations make you realize who your friends are."

He added that his American friends were the opposite - nearly all offered their support.

Shyam Shah said he still supports his mother's choice.

"When it comes to the question of happiness, that shouldn't be compromised," he said.

But when his mother went back to India to visit, her reception was ironically warm and welcoming.

Shyam Shah attributed the welcome to "Americanization and modernity" in India.

"(Most Indian immigrants) came here in the '70s, '80s and early '90s," Gita Shah said. "We still have that old frame of mind of India and the culture. People in India have moved on and adopted changes."

After the workshop, the attendees divided into groups and discussed divorce.

Many students in the groups said expectations for women are getting higher. South Asian women are expected to have a good education and a successful career.

They also said some South Asian women have a tendency to gossip about each other.

LSA freshman Tasha Vardya said the stigma of divorce still exists in the current generation.

"It's still going to be taboo," Vardya said. "It's hard to completely get rid of that. We were raised by our parents."

She said that because American society views South Asians as giving a lot of importance to family values and respect for elders, divorce is out of the ordinary.

But Shyam Shah said divorces will slowly become more accepted.

His mother said she doesn't believe divorce is always the best option.

"But if it happens, there's nothing wrong with it," she said. "We should all be supportive."