- A mother, a successful businesswoman, and a celebrated artist, she paints her life experience as a tortured wife and daughter-in-law to educate and empower people in a similar situation.
I was introduced to Tanya Momi under unusual circumstances. Following the publication of my article in American Kahani on the impact of domestic abuse on adult children, she wrote to me with her own experiences and observations. She invited me to the Los Gatos Art Museum, where her painting titled “OurAbortion Rights” (2021) was selected by the jury to be showcased through March 12.
Momi’s life sets an example of a woman caught in domestic violence and finding a way out. She is a survivor, a role model, and a beautiful human being. She wears many hats as well: a mother, a successful businesswoman, and a celebrated artist. She paints her life experience as a tortured wife and daughter-in-law on canvas to educate and empower people in a similar situation.
Momi was born in India and raised in Chandigarh. She has fond memories of growing up in India as one of the four daughters in a professional family. Being sponsored by her eldest sister, her parents left India for Canada in 1982. However, Momi’s visa paperwork got lost in the paper trail. She was barely 21; her parents did not want to leave her behind in India. So in 1983, she moved to California through an arranged marriage. Her husband had come here to study pharmaceuticals, joining three of his brothers. He was the youngest of six, and his father was a doctor. His credentials were promising. When Momi joined her husband, her in-laws moved in with her from India.
Unhappy Marriage and Domestic Violence
Momi says she was in a marriage full of abuse and torture for nine and a half years. No one told her that her husband was a chain smoker, an alcoholic, a gambler, and a womanizer. He didn’t want to get married and have children; he just wanted fun.
Her in-laws were cruel and abusive. The emotional abuse started from day one: her mother-in-law would make up stories and turn her son against her. She would say that her son was king and “doesn’t do anything wrong.” His drinking, gambling, smoking, and womanizing were all Momi’s fault. She had to cover her head, touch everyone’s feet, wear only Indian clothes and cook three meals a day. She wasn’t allowed to contact anyone outside the family without her in-laws’ permission, according to her husband’s instructions. She even had to ask for food, clothes, and money. She had no freedom to call her parents because her husband would listen from the other phone line.
Momi came from an educated family with four sisters. She described her father, a writer and a journalist, as “an amazing man who loves his daughters.” Her mother is a strong woman, who told her that “anything is possible. The sky’s the limit.” She says her parents had struggled to move from Pakistan to India during the partition. “They raised us to be very strong,” she says of her parents.
However, Momi’s confident personality became a curse in her marriage. Her mother-in-law would taunt her. “I was stripped of my identity,” she says, adding that she was nothing but “an educated slave.” The family also pressured her to ask for expensive gifts from her parents.
As a new immigrant, Momi did not know her rights and did not know where to go. She did not want to stress her parents. She lived in complete denial, forced to be a pleaser, a co-dependent, a doormat. “He would push me to the walls,” she recalls. “He was drunk every night and was hitting me.” But she was blamed by his family for all his faults, even his DUIs.
In the meantime, she had two children — a boy and a girl — born at the El Camino Hospital in the 1980s. They were the main reason she stayed in the abusive marriage for so long.
Work as Identity and Hope
In India, Momi earned a Bachelors in Fine Arts and wanted to be a graphic artist. In this hopeless marriage, she had no opportunity for financial freedom. And mother-in-law would taunt her, saying, “My son is earning, but you are not making any money.”
Momi thought financial independence might redress her suffering. In 1988, her neighbor encouraged her to pursue a beautician’s certificate license. Her husband would not support it, so her parents sent $1,500 to attend evening school. She took the bus because she was not allowed to drive. After she got her license, her neighbor gave her a job. Quickly she had over a hundred clients each month. Even after 33 years, Momi continues to be in this profession, surrounded by many clients who have supported her.
But despite being employed, her income was not hers. Like clockwork, her husband would come to her salon at 3:30 p.m.; he would open her drawer and take the checks written in her name. She wasn’t allowed to touch it. She didn’t have a bank account in her name until she was divorced in 1994.
In the meantime, Momi was losing her mind. She would come to work with bruises and scars, and even though her clients would notice and offer help, she refused. She was so afraid of her husband that she thought it was safer to do nothing.
Momi found out that her ex-husband was abusive to their son, physically and emotionally. She was terrified that he would abuse her children. With more bruises and night-long fights, her children started to complain. They were frightened by their father’s beating and the trauma at home. “Mom, we need to leave. We need to move,” they said. She realized that she had to protect her children. A book — “Co-Dependency No More” — given by one of her clients gave her strength and how. She wrote this story on paper and read it every day.
Her next step was to call her parents from Canada, thanks to advice from a colleague, a divorced Iranian hairdresser. The night her parents arrived, they waited for her husband to come home from work. He was surprised to see them and defended himself, and denied that they were having problems. “Everything has been your daughter’s fault,” he said. With her parents’ support, Momi went to see an attorney and filed for a restraining order and a divorce in 1991.
When Momi left, her children were six and eight. “My heart breaks,” she laments, “I look nice, I dress up, I get ready, and face life, but the wound is still there.” As a mother, she worries for her children. She fears that her adult son and daughter still struggle to cope with the childhood trauma despite extensive therapy.
Following the divorce, she got support from her mother, who stayed with her for seven and a half years. She helped with the kids’ homework and cooked meals while she worked full-time and went to business school at night. Her father sent money from Canada. “There was no way I could’ve done all of this by myself,” she says. “If you have supportive parents, your journey becomes much easier.”
At the same time, Momi’s non-Indian clients were quick to help her children. They started taking her kids to church and inviting them to community events. Some of her clients became her close friends. “Whatever they did, they included us,” she says. “My biggest supporters were my parents and my clients.”
Scrutiny and Judgment
While leaving her abusive husband has saved her life, life hasn’t been easy. Momi found the judiciary system very male-centric and biased. She found that corrupt judges favor men, and attorneys play games. One of her attorneys made her sign a paper never to leave the Bay Area.
She regretted that oversight and ended up changing three attorneys. At that time, she was paying $250 an hour in attorney fees and ended up spending $40,000 — all her parents’ money.
As her husband wanted to show no financial responsibility for her and her kid, he had cleaned up his bank accounts, transferred his money to his brothers’ account, and left no financial trace.
Instead, the court asked Momi to pay her husband. The court was on his side. Finally, her divorce was settled as a bifurcation, and nothing was left for her and the children. “I got zero compensation.” She was 31 at the time, with two young children. She ended up closing the salon.
After the divorce, her children suffered in the Indian community, school, and gurudwara. Her neighbor in Santa Clara was a Punjabi woman who had kids the same age and went to the same school. But when she learned of Momi’s divorce, she told her that her husband told her to not be friends. Momi was shocked. The hardest part for the family has been going to an Indian event, or the gurdwara, where she always felt scrutinized and judged. As she was labeled a divorcee, the family hasn’t been invited “to any Diwali party, or any of the festivals,” for the past 30 years. As the Indian community has been unkind to Momi and her children, they kept to themselves.
Momi is privy to the wealthy women’s vanity at her salon in the posh Los Altos area. Even though most married couples suffer from dysfunctional marriages, they stay on for money, status, and prestige in the community. The peer pressure is high, and these rich, educated women try to look good in others’ eyes which is all fake. They look down upon the divorced as a virus.
She has always drawn upon Sikh religious teaching and her religious guru, Gobind Singh, who lost his four sons, has been her role model.
Even though she’s been divorced for the past 31 years, Momi still shudders from her experiences. It’s been challenging to resume her life from scratch. Along the way she has realized that parents, temples, or society have not taught Indian women how to get out of the patriarchal setup. “We are taught to ‘‘fit in’ in society and serve others,” she says. “We try to look good for our parents, family and in the process, lose ourselves.” Society expects women to stay in unhealthy relationships and not make the necessary changes in their lives, she says.
The Indian community in the diaspora is not much different — divorced women are considered to be failures, and very few people are supportive. “There is so much to learn: finances, buying a car, homes, and managing children, and it is easy to give up.”
Reclaiming Her Identity as an Artist
Momi always wanted to be an artist. Her childhood painting of the Indo-Pakistan War in 1965 is a testament to her artistic talent. Unfortunately, she gave up her passion for many years. She resumed painting after her divorce. Her pain and suffering are expressed in her painting. She is stronger than ever and stands tall with pride through her art.
Her 86-year-old father beams with joy. “She makes us very proud, and we are so happy to see that she is now living her life to the fullest,” he says.
Momi doesn’t wish that anybody’s daughter, sister, mother face what she’s gone through. “It is a harrowing journey, but there is the healing part: when you leave your abuser and start your life afresh.”
Her father agrees. “My wish is that no child suffers at the hands of an abuser and that parents can support their daughters who are suffering in an abusive marriage. My daughter’s story should empower others to take a stand against abuse.”
She has a message to all women going through abuse — girls, mothers, and daughters. “Do not kill yourself,” she says. “Do not lose your soul, your identity. It’s not worth it.” Instead, she advises them to “take charge” of their life; “make it safe,” and live life for themselves. “Do not let these people break you. In the end, you want peace and harmony in your life. You can get it if you are hungry enough.”
Over the years Momi has realized that women were the biggest enemies in her journey. So she paints to “empower women.” Through her art, she wants to tell her story and tell women like her that she understands. She finds joy in seeing empowered women helping one another and building communities. “If I can do it, you can too,” she says. “Society needs us. I was a very naive, innocent daughter, and I went through this turmoil, but I am still standing.”
Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received a Fulbright scholarship for fieldwork in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.