TORONTO — Growing up in India as the daughter of a charismatic Seventh Day Adventist pastor, Aruna Papp learned that feminism was bad and Jews were “not nice people.”
As an adult, she heard feminist ideas about equality from York University professors – mainly Jewish women – and realized they made sense. The realization caused “unbelievable” conflict in her mind, but also served as a spark for her long career reaching out to and advocating for abused women.
An abuse survivor herself, Papp, 64, spoke at Pride of Israel Synagogue June 10 at an event sponsored by the shul’s sisterhood. Penny Krowitz, executive director of Act to End Violence Against Women (formerly Jewish Women International), provided a Jewish perspective on abuse. Her organization started the first Jewish shelter for women in 1989 in Toronto and also offers legal information, education and outreach.
Papp, who immigrated here in 1972 with her husband and two young daughters, had learned in the church of her youth that women had to be submissive, and were the “property” of their husbands and communities. She arrived in Canada with the equivalent of a Grade 3 education, following an arranged marriage at 17.
As a new immigrant, she was working two jobs at York when the late Elspeth Heyworth, who was working in community liaison at the university, took an interest in her background. Heyworth had seen Papp crying in the locker room where she worked handing out towels, and eventually offered her a job reaching out to potentially abused South Asian immigrant women. She encouraged her to further her education. Papp went on to earn two master’s degrees, and is the author of Unworthy Creature: a Punjabi Daughter’s Memoir of Honour, Shame and Love, which she co-wrote with National Post columnist Barbara Kay. Papp was a Canadian delegate to the United Nations in 2013.
She left her marriage when her then-teenage daughters pointed out the discrepancy between her work and home life. Papp, who has a happy second marriage, divorced her first husband despite pressure and threats of violence. “That kind of dishonour could not be allowed,” she said.
“Honour-based violence is different from domestic violence as experienced in the white Anglo-Saxon community,” Papp said. “The majority of victims are of child-bearing age, and the violence is related to family honour and shame.” Honour killings are premeditated, and the community is involved.
In Canada, from 1950 to 1970, white Anglo-Saxon girls were institutionalized because they were unwed mothers, Papp said, drawing parallels between them and women in her own community. “They dishonoured the families, so they were put away.”
But laws were changed, she said.
More recently, Papp urged Jason Kenney, Canada’s multiculturalism minister, to “tell everybody that culturally barbaric practices will not be tolerated in Canada.” Kenney has been involved in the debate over Bill S-7, Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, which passed recently.
Papp said there’s a difference between a culture and some of its practices, and affirmed her pride in her heritage.
Like South Asian women, Jewish women are also programmed at a young age, Krowitz said. The ideal of shalom bayit (peace in the home) is “the ultimate value we all aspire to.” But that also makes it “one of those things that prevents women from recognizing, disclosing, or admitting to themselves or to their community that they don’t have shalom bayit.”
Domestic violence can be found across the Jewish denominational spectrum, and regardless of economic and educational background, Krowitz said. “It can happen to anyone.”
One-in-four women will be abused in her lifetime, she added.
“We have a lot of our own cultural stuff,” Krowitz said. “We don’t call it honour. We call it shame, shandeh.”
Educating the community is important, Krowitz said, because abuse can be subtle, and many women don’t name it.
Pride of Israel’s Rabbi Sean Gorman thanked Papp and addressed his daughter, telling her she could pick her own husband, but that if she decided she didn’t like him, to come home. “There will be a safe bed, and a full refrigerator for you.”