Clinical psychiatrist Dr Manjula Datta O’Connor’s non-fiction book Daughters of Durga: Dowries, Gender Violence and Family in Australia (Melbourne University Press 2022) opens with the sobering statistic of a cluster of seven suicides in one small Indian/Australian community in Melbourne; that more than half of these women had contacted police about domestic violence; six of the seven had no driving license; and most were unemployed and isolated. Australian Indian women were shocked. While one woman a week is killed in Australia by their current or former intimate partner, these killings seemed to be prompted by cultural differences and silence around mental health and family violence.

Dr O’Connor’s interest in this issue is personal, historical, cultural and professional. She specialises in treating Indian women (and men) suffering or perpetrating abuse and much of this fascinating book details clinical case studies of patients that she has treated over many years. She is of Indian background herself and throughout this in-depth examination of abuse and trauma, she inserts snippets of her own life experience that both confirm or deny the stereotypes or commonalities that she sees as a doctor. It’s a most interesting premise, as she is able to give a balanced and nuanced depiction of both problems and solutions.

Throughout, she asks the question as to whether modernisation and better educated women have challenged traditional societal gender roles or only perpetuated modesty and submission. Referring to the Goddess Durga of the title, and her brave claim to power, versus Sita, the consort of Lord Rama, she provides a knowledgeable history of thousands of years of Indian cultural norms regarding gender roles, equality and expectations. She quotes the ‘suffering of Indian women from cradle to grave, living as a burden to their families from conception to widowhood’. She explores the patriarchal bargain, life without a child (or worse, without a son) and her work with victim-survivors in Australia, through issues such as transnational abuse, dowry exploitation, economic exploitation, domestic servitude and sexual exploitation.

Globalisation and migration have led to pressure for many young Indian women to move to Australia and often their mothers follow, to support their daughters, only to also be caught up in extreme distress, insomnia, clinical depression and anxiety. Dr O’Connor’s situation was different to most – she grew up without expectation of caste, or barriers to a suitable marriage partner. In Australia in the 1970’s, she had relative freedom. But the continuing situation in India disturbed her: harassment, assault, rape, and pressure on women to protect their honour rather than on men to change. She interweaves this with data about colonialism and racism in Australia, influential women, the study of Western versus Eastern cultures, and the challenges of gender roles, greater freedoms, loss of family and a new language combined with family violence and mental health issues.

Her own study combined Western medicine, psychiatry and treatment such as cognitive behavioural therapy with Eastern influences such as yoga and meditation, with a result that this book attempts to harness the strengths of ancient knowledge combined with a science-based culture. Dr O’Connor is determined to provide advocacy and support, to enhance heterosexual relationships, to increase equality and the value of daughters. She states: ‘the synthesis of my education, cross-cultural experiences, research, deep clinical observations and community-based work’ inform her writing.

She writes of those traumatised, anxious, suicidal, deported or killed, but describes these women as not passive but victims of abuse who have strengths and use them (generally) to survive unspeakable family violence, demonstrating human resilience and an inner power to survive.

Delving deep into her own historical family stories, she determines how she gained the values she now has, and compares these with Indian history in general. She examines the purdah (veiling), the history of fighting for female rights, the prominent activists, dowry abuse, dowry murders, sex selection abortions and rape. She discusses labial surgery, anorexia and an obsession with the appearance of teeth, breasts, bottoms and light skin. She writes of the cost of ‘benevolent patriarchs’ to individuals, families and society; masculinity; the fine line between benevolent control and coercive control, and asks whether modernity and traditionalism can ever co-exist?

The book covers the perpetrator’s abuse of power, and that a fear of judgment enforces entrapment in marriage; structural violence; arranged marriages. Entire sections are devoted to the topics of dowry and caste, both of which cause huge problems. I gained a detailed understanding of the dowry system, including the six separate celebrations for marriage (all elaborate and expensive!), the history of the dowry, that a marriage is a marriage of two families, and that a lack of equal inheritance laws and gender inequality lead to female feticide. Dowry abuse, which is supposed to be based on honesty and trust, is basically a form of stealing.

Coercive control is discussed at length and she includes many case studies of pressure by families. Education can be a two-edged sword. Multiple layers of disadvantage make women vulnerable, with severed connections and networks. A daughter is always only a guest in her father’s house, until she marries and becomes a guest in her husband’s house. Questions are often the impetus for violence if a man’s authority and control are challenged.

The discardable or disempowered bride is explained – abandonment is seen as worse than a breach of trust or domestic violence and so often women try to keep their marriage and family together, putting up with abuse, demands, and even rape, rather than cope with marital breakdown or the stigma of divorce. This is a particular problem with non-resident Indian men (NRI). But O’Connor believes that education and awareness are key to dismantling this system of oppression.

O’Connor states: ‘societal fear paralyses social change’, and she discusses crucial red flags and unhelpful language. Economic or financial abuse equals domestic violence which equals an abuse of power or control. The tools used to maintain control, power and dominance are threats, intimidation, violence, financial control and criticisms. Women are seen as not important or valuable and not intelligent, and gender norms and poor modelling lead to elder abuse and honour killings. These killings may be prompted by an affair, sexual activity when unmarried, homosexual attitudes, rejection of an arranged marriage or fleeing a violent marriage.

In discussion of the caste system, O’Connor stresses the clear understanding of identity and the empowerment of women as essential to counter mental illness and emotional trauma. She also touches on abuse via technology, such as being stalked through social media, phone, internet, spyware or cameras in the house; cybercrime such as the distribution of nude pictures; and slavery. She identifies the importance of therapy to counter trauma, psychological abuse, stalking and identity destruction, and encourages women to be free, empowered, and to have agency and choices, to be believed and validated. Narrative therapy (very similar to a victim impact statement) allows the victim-survivor to be heard, believed, respected and validated, and assured that they are not imagining their trauma.

In a section on migration, family and suicide, O’Connor discusses the impact of high expectations on men (husbands, fathers, sons) and different parenting styles. She says the key to equality is education, stating ‘the human brain has remarkable capacity to regenerate, reorganise pathways, create new connections – a concept called neuroplasticity’. She believes in the power of dignity in allowing women to find their voices. She explores the problem of conscious and unconscious bias and ‘othering’, but says ‘culture is not fixed; it changes in response to changing social circumstances’ – a sign of hope. In her experience over the years, she says that most women victim-survivors want to return to their marriages but only if this comes with respect, compassion and no abuse. ‘Education is a liberating force. Let us allow it to flourish.’

A whole chapter is devoted to the burden of men in modern society; she uses the terms ‘Man Box’ or ‘Man Prison’, arguing that the expectations on men to be ‘real men’, to exhibit strength and masculinity causes even more problems. Stalking is role modelled through masculine representation in pornography and Bollywood films.

Dr O’Connor concludes by discussing legislative and behavioural changes that would have a significant impact on levels of violence, coercion threats, sex-selection abortions and the idea of women as property. She declares that Indian women are resilient, intelligent and capable, and that there is help available, but that ‘cultural and social norms that support violence need to change’. The final section is her innovative modern reimagining of the harmful verses of the ancient text Manusmriti, a wish for Indian women to have freedom from misogyny and inequality, an extensive and helpful bibliography and notes section for further reading.