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The Boston Globe: “Police learn how best to help abused South Asian wives here”

Immigrants from India make up 7 percent of Burlington’s population, but there are no South Asian officers on Police Department staff.

To bridge this cultural gap, the department now requires cultural awareness training, and by the end of this week, every police officer and dispatcher will have been introduced to Indian religions and the issue of domestic violence in that community.

The training started last month, when 12 men and two women in the department sat through a four-hour presentation by the Burlington-based women’s group Saheli.

Snacking on coffee and doughnuts, they watched a YouTube video about Hinduism and asked all sorts of questions: “How many Hindu temples are there in Burlington?” “Is it against the law in India for a man to beat his wife?” “Can people in India all understand the same language?”

Police Chief Fran Hart, who attended the training, said he learned about Sikhs, who wear turbans and sometimes carry a small dagger as a religious symbol.

“We really are not supposed to touch that,” he said, referring to the turban. “Maybe that’s a small thing, but [it] could be an important thing if you went to grab it instead of asking them to remove it.”

The training is funded by a $30,000 grant to Saheli from the US Justice Department, and includes money that will compensate the group’s director, Rita Shah, for translation services for the police. Shah speaks Hindi and Gujarati, a west-Indian language that is the mother tongue of many Burlington immigrants. Officers in the department will receive a similar training in the fall from Saheli.

Saheli, which means “female friend” in Hindi, was founded in 1996 in Burlington, where about 1,600 people of Indian origin reside, according to the 2000 Census. Cultural awareness training was requested last year by the Police Department because the number of domestic violence-related cases in the Indian community is rising, and police “don’t understand why women won’t talk to male police officers,” Shah said. “So this was really a long-overdue training.”

Sometimes police “are frustrated when they can’t press charges,” Shah said. But if they understand Indian culture, they will understand that a South Asian woman who presses charges against her husband has to face the community, the in-laws, the extended family, and younger siblings who may be unable to get married as a result, she said.

So, is it illegal in India for a man to beat his wife?

According to Meena Sonea Hewett, a Saheli member who led the training, domestic violence was outlawed in India only three years ago – but enforcement remains weak. Many Indian men in the United States may not understand that they could be arrested for abusing their wives, she told the officers.

“It’s OK to let them know that,” said Sonea Hewitt, adding that men should “keep in mind that police (are) on the side of the woman.”

Because some immigrant wives depend on their marriage for their legal status in the United States, presenters encouraged police to consider options other than arrest when responding to domestic violence in Indian households.

“The South Asian women don’t want to come out of the relationship. They don’t want divorce. They want the abuse to stop,” Shah said at the training session.

An alternative to arrest is a “no-abuse order,” that works like a threat by letting a man know police will be more involved if the abuse does not stop.

This strategy came as a bit of a surprise for Lieutenant Gregory Skehan.

“Usually other domestic violence trainings (are all about) arrest, arrest, arrest,” he said. “What I’m thinking about today [is] that maybe it’s not the best thing to do. I absolutely can see how an Indian woman may not want to report it.”

On another cultural issue, however, Burlington police would not budge.

“How offended would they be if I didn’t take my shoes off?” asked officer John Thompson, after watching a short video about Hinduism in which he learned that it’s polite to leave the shoes outside before entering a Hindu home.

The custom has to do with keeping the house clean – from cow dung, mud, and dirt – since many streets in India are unpaved, Shah explained. Shah said she would have a problem if someone entered her kitchen with his or her shoes on.

But Thompson said he would not go barefoot, no matter what.

“Nonemergency or emergency, my shoes are not coming off,” he said.

Officer Lyn Reynolds, who works the night shift, agreed. Keeping the shoes on is a “safety issue” for police, she said.

“You don’t want to take (your) shoes off because if you have to run after someone – if anything happens – we’re not going to have time to put our shoes on.”

Visit saheliboston.org for more information about Saheli.

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