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Devi Jags — November 14, 2023

Defining Abuse and Cultural Differences

Devi Jags

As we enter the holiday season, more specifically, Diwali — I think about the dichotomy of my spiritual upbringing — Catholic, Hindu, and confusion. It is not so unique nowadays, being American trying to hold onto Indian roots that were hard to grasp in the first place. But to me, Diwali was one of those holidays I knew as one of the most widely celebrated holidays across Indian religions. It was the festival of lights, the victory of light over darkness and good over evil.

As a young girl, I remember my mother lighting lots of candles around the kitchen for dinner and my father taking us to TJ Maxx for a new sweater. I remember my grandfather giving us sweets and five-dollar bills while my grandmother made us pray to the deities in her kitchen and place pottu on our foreheads. It might not have been a “traditional” Diwali celebration, but it was ours. 

When I went off to college, my Diwali tradition faded in the private Jesuit school environment I renamed to call home. I celebrated in my own way, putting up lights in my dorm room with a box of Franzia and Indian takeout food to share with my friends. My exploration of my culture diminished or arguably stayed stagnant in some of these years. But I didn’t realize it would be my culture I returned to in times I experienced painful love and emotional abuse, the times when the exploration was exasperated due to my circumstances. 

Abuse and Cultural Context

Anyone can experience an unhealthy relationship, but how one experiences toxic behavior can manifest, especially given the cultural context of the relationship. This also includes the decision-making process of a survivor. In cultures where relationships are viewed in more patriarchal roles, one may feel like they cannot leave an unhealthy situation. The specific cultural setting may be determined by your race, gender, sexuality, class, education, or other factors. In immigrant communities, one might not feel empowered to leave because of factors like citizenship status, language barriers, financial resources, or fear of deportation. 

Spiritual Abuse

It took me a long time to recognize that a difference in cultural background or faith never justifies abuse. In emotional abuse, the way behavior manifests is sometimes slow and hard to recognize. It is also easy to write off as “cultural differences.” Spiritual abuse is most commonly known in reference to faith leaders inflicting abuse on congregation members, often by creating a toxic culture within the church or group by shaming or controlling members using the power of their position. However, this kind of abuse also can exist in an intimate relationship.

I was twenty years old when I was dating a man I thought I wanted to marry. He lived on another continent, so anytime our “cultural differences” would arise, it was easy to blame myself. But on the afternoon of my sister’s high school graduation ceremony at the temple, I wore one of my favorite light blue saris. It had an electric gold pattern, and the highlights in my hair complimented its shine. When I sent him a picture of me and my sister in our favorite Indian attire, I was met with a demeaning response — one that made me feel ashamed and questioned my beauty. It was a conflicting feeling because I knew how to live two versions of myself, the American and the Indian. But that was merely the issue in the entirety of my relationship with this man. I could never be all of me and loved unconditionally. 

Spiritual abuse is not limited to a particular religion or denomination. The National Domestic Violence Hotline says spiritual abuse can look like as follows: 

  • Ridicules or insults the other person’s religious or spiritual beliefs
  • Prevents the other partner from practicing their religious or spiritual beliefs
  • Forces the children to be raised in a faith that the other partner has not agreed to
  • Uses religious texts or beliefs to minimize or rationalize abusive behaviors (such as physical, financial, emotional, or sexual abuse/marital rape)

Spiritual abuse and emotional abuse often work in tandem with the perpetrator. It is difficult to celebrate the things that encompass who you are when your partner is constantly dismissing, judging, or insulting you. From the clothes you wear to the traditions you celebrate, a partner commemorates your background alongside you. 

This Diwali, I received a call from my grandmother that my partner had just left her house with a plate of sweets to deliver to her friends in the Indian community — just as he would do the same on Christmas morning.

Whether it is Diwali or any holiday you celebrate, the light and love that can and should exist at this time of year is something to be cherished. No one can dim your light.

For more resources on domestic abuse and the South Asian community, visit Dialogues of Desi Women at

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