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Research challenges “cultural defense” and “battered women’s syndrome,” applied in legal settings to domestic violence survivors

Professor Soniya Munshi advocates for Latinx and Asian/South Asian women, as well as LGBTQ people of color who face bias in the courtroom

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NEW YORK: August 27, 2019 — Borough of Manhattan Community College, The City University of New York (BMCC/CUNY) Professor of Sociology Soniya Munshi spent a decade working as an advocate for domestic violence survivors, “primarily Latinx and Asian/South Asian immigrant women and LGBTQ people of color,” she says.

Now with the support of a Mellon/ACLS (American Council of Learned Societies) Community College Faculty Fellowship, Munshi will look closely at the legal cases of defendants who are survivors of domestic violence — and examine how mental health evaluations reflect institutional assumptions related to the survivor’s culture, race and gender.

Munshi’s research project, “Cultural/Sane: Immigrant Domestic Violence Survivors, Mental Health, and Logics of Citizenship,” takes into account what is referred to as the “cultural defense” and “battered women’s syndrome,” she says. “These are frameworks that often reinforce reductive binary relationships such as Other/American, traditional/modern, and cultural/criminal or victim/criminal, thus requiring survivor-defendants to be positioned as wholly backward or passive in order to assert their innocence.”

As a Mellon/ACLS fellow, Munshi will conduct archival research at the National Archives of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Washington, D.C. and at the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Denver. She will also work with digital resources including the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, and Casa de Esperanza.

“To analyze accounts of the mental health of immigrant domestic violence survivors within the law, I will closely examine a select group of civil, immigration and criminal legal cases culled from news reports, community-based reports, and other sources,” Munshi says.

She also plans to conduct ethnographic research in Queens, New York City, “where almost half of the borough’s population is foreign-born, mostly tracing their roots to Asia or Latin America.”

This research will include participant-observation at various sites that serve domestic violence survivors, and public community meetings, as well as interviews with mental health practitioners, social workers, advocates and community-based healers.

Overall, Munshi says, “My research aims to understand the everyday implications of the relationships between health and legal systems in migrant communities of color that may themselves advocate for safety and wellbeing.”

The fellowship extends from July 2019 through December 2020, with a stipend of $40,000.

Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) is part of the City University of New York (CUNY) and enrolls almost 27,000 degree-seeking and 11,000 continuing education students a year, awarding associate degrees in more than 45 fields. BMCC ranks #5 among community colleges nationwide in granting associate degrees to minority students, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. Visit:

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