The Violence of Money
A story of stories
By Supriya Singh
I am writing the stories of 12 women who suffered family violence. They belong to the Anglo-Celtic and Indian communities in Australia. These stories are from open-ended interviews I conducted for a project on ‘Money, Gender and Family Violence’ between 2016 and 2019.
I am telling their stories to help us talk about money and family violence. These stories are of older and younger women, professional women and housewives, migrants and non-migrants. Sharing their experience could help us recognise economic abuse when it happens to us and to our friends and family. It is not something that only happens to someone else from a different culture. If we don’t talk about economic abuse, we cannot recognise it. We cannot prevent it.
I began writing these stories after writing peer reviewed papers, pieces for The Conversation, submissions to Parliamentary inquiries, working with an organisation that offers settlement services and financial counselling to multicultural clients, media interviews and presentations to academics in Australia and India and to a woman’s club in Australia.
In writing the stories of these 12 women I also had to recognise I had suffered economic abuse. I did not recognise it till I read in 2016 that gambling is economic abuse. I had told myself that gambling was an addiction that my first husband suffered. I thought I suffered impoverishment and physical and mental ill health in the 14 years of my marriage, because I had not chosen my husband well, because I had not known myself.
I had not talked of it, had not recognised it, despite having studied money as a medium of relationships since 1990.
I accepted that writing women’s narratives would require a different kind of writing from a peer-reviewed paper, a Senate submission and a media piece. My training as a writer and journalist enabled me to do that.
What surprised me was the insufficiency of open-ended interviews as a basis for these stories and the ethics involved in focusing on a woman’s life, rather than data generating and supporting theory. Writing these stories made me recognise that open-ended interviews give a partial story. The story is frozen at one particular point in time. In writing the story of individual women’s experience of family violence from interviews I know I am writing of how they were at that point of time.
The interview focused on understanding women’s experience and survival of family violence, rather than the precise sequence of events. The interview was also shaped by the research questions and audiences I had in mind at that point of research.
Research always leads to unanswered questions and missing data. These unanswered questions become the starting point of the next phase of research (Singh & Richards, 2003). My questions were different with each interview as I learnt more about family violence. The interview guide changed but the interview I had just conducted did not.
An open-ended interview has more potential for answering unasked questions than a semi-structured interview or survey. But when I began writing these stories, I realised interviews give a static slice of the story. Moreover, the focus is on what the women said, rather than the silences in their lives.
In the absence of other data about the woman, the interview becomes the whole story.
I missed the richness of participant observation over a sustained period and from different, sometimes conflicting perspectives. I had done a traditional anthropological field study of Simunul Bajaus in the 1970s. I had stayed in a Simunul Bajau village in Borneo for eight months (Singh, 1984).
I met women in different contexts - at home, at the village coffee shop, just walking on the street, at village celebrations. Every day I would get a chance to check the previous day’s insights and interpretation of data. The story I heard in one house was commented on by other members of the family and neighbours.
At times, this meant I didn’t write the story at all because I didn’t know what had happened. If I wrote it, it was to show how difficult it was to use just one version of the story to make a theoretical point.
Of course, interviews are sometimes the only way in. I could hardly ask to live with the women. It was difficult for a woman to tell her story even when she was telling it 20 years after the violence.
I tried to get a deeper understanding of family violence through a steering group for the family violence project. This allowed me to hear perspectives of persons trying to help women who were suffering family violence. I attended public workshops and events related to family violence. I collaborated with an organisation with a multicultural clientele dealing with issues of settlement, financial counselling and family violence.
Then there was the ethics involved in writing more detailed stories of the women. In research papers, often only part of their stories was told, to make a theoretical point.
I had informed consent from the participants when I interviewed them. But recognising the story would go into greater detail than any other kind of writing, I sent the draft stories back to the participants to ensure they were comfortable with what I had written. I worked on the central ethical principle that the research should not harm the participants or the researcher.
I had not reckoned that some women may not want their story told. One woman questioned why I hadn’t told her I would be writing stories when I interviewed her. She did not like the story I was telling about her. She did not like its sequence, structure and style. She wanted to be identified. She had written her own story. The story I had written no longer rang true.
But let me go back to the beginning, as to how I, a sociologist of money began to research money, gender and family violence.
 I worked with Associate Professor Marg Liddell (RMIT University) and Dr Jasvinder Sidhu (Federation University). We interviewed 30 women who had suffered family violence (17 Indian and 13 Anglo-Celtic) and 17 persons from community organisation providing services related to family violence and religious organisations. This project also led to two related projects on ‘Money, Gender and Culture’ and ‘Money, Gender and Ageing’. These two later projects involved 10 ‘conversation circles’ with 99 participants mainly from Anglo-Celtic, Indian and Afghani communities in Melbourne and a small number of Africans. The Money, Gender and Ageing project also involved interviews with seven persons.
Money, Migration and Family
I have been researching remittances, that is, sending money home, for 15 years. Till 2016, I was writing of it as a moral, filial act. Like most researchers of money and migration, I saw remittances as a currency of care (Singh, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2013b, 2017a; Singh & Cabraal, 2010, 2014; Supriya Singh, Anuja Cabraal, & Shanthi Robertson, 2010; Supriya Singh, Anuja Cabraal, & Shanthi Robertson, 2010; Singh & Gatina, 2015)
The research was partially based on biography, for like many migrants from the global South, I used to send money from Malaysia and Australia to my mother in India. I soon discovered this was unusual. In India most often it is the sons who send money home. But I only had sisters and gender norms in my family had changed after the Partition of India in 1947 [See (Singh, 2013a)].
I studied 186 persons from 95 families in Australia and India over ten years and wrote Migration, Money and Family: India to Australia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). One of the persons I interviewed was Ekta , 27. She arrived in Australia in 2005 after a hastily arranged marriage. She came on a student visa but because of her previous study and work experience, she soon became a permanent resident (PR). She was the main earner in the household, but her husband controlled the money.
She cried when telling how her husband sent all his earnings and some of hers to his parents in India to build a luxurious house. She had to work at three jobs. She then learnt her husband was waiting to get permanent residence through her sponsorship, before marrying again for a large dowry.
She left with her daughter. He had already withdrawn all the money in their joint account. Her marriage was over in less than three years.
Ekta’s story did not fit the moral tale that I, like other scholars of migration, usually tell of remittances, of a man being a good son to his parents. Remittances are one of the largest international flow of funds[i] that reflect the continued ties between the migrant and the family left behind. But in Ekta’s story, a man intentionally appropriated his wife’s earnings and withheld his own.
For Ekta, remittances had become a medium of abuse for the daughter-in-law. The story of remittances is about the ‘good son’. The daughter-in-law is absent in this story, though she must bear the consequences of a limited household budget.
Once I began to see remittances could be a medium of abuse, I became sensitive to similar abusive practices in the Anglo-Celtic[ii] community. Joint accounts which are a symbol of togetherness of marriage, also made it easy for a husband to appropriate the wife’s money, as well as failing to provide.
Soon after I wrote Ekta’s story, the final report of the State of Victoria Royal Commission on Family Violence was published (State of Victoria Royal Commission into Family Violence, 2016).
Economic abuse is part of the legal definition of family violence. It involves the denial and appropriation of money and resources, as well as sabotaging attempts at earning money.
Remittances were not part of the story they told. The report did not include the cultural and social shaping of money – a core tenet of the sociology of money. It also did not account for the gender and morality of money.
But as a sociologist of money, I too had not thought of submitting to the Royal Commission. I had not associated family violence with money.
Ekta’s interview led to questions that became the start of research on ‘Money, Gender and Family Violence across Cultures.’
 Participants’ names are pseudonyms.
[i] International remittances that flow through formal channels like financial institutions and mobile money are larger than foreign direct investment (FDI) and official development assistance (ODA) flows to low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). In 2019, these remittances are estimated to be US$550 billion. India received the highest amount of remittances in 2018 at US$78.6 billion. It was followed by China, Mexico, the Philippines, and Egypt (Ratha et al., 2019).
[ii] The ancestry of the Anglo-Celtic group in Australia is predominantly English, Irish and Scottish (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1995).This group is the dominant community in Australia, accounting for at least 39 per cent of the population in 2016 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2018).
Money, Gender and Family Violence across Cultures
This research was based on 47 interviews with Indian and Anglo-Celtic women in Australia who had survived family violence, persons working in organisations serving survivors of family violence and religious organisations.
I drew on my earlier research on marriage and money among middle income Anglo Celtic couples (Singh, 1997) and my recent research on money, migration and family in India. [See also (Singh & Bhandari, 2012 )].
My first choice was to write peer reviewed papers and chapters exploring the conceptual frameworks around family violence, money, gender and morality as they relate to Anglo-Celtic and Indian communities (Singh, 2018a, 2019a, 2020a, 2020b; Singh & Sidhu, 2018).
The research showed there were continuities in family violence across cultures. Economic abuse involved a denial of freedoms. It had a disastrous effect on mental and physical health.
Family violence however took a different shape across cultures for economic abuse is shaped by the gender and morality of money. Women and men manage and control money differently across cultures. This also changes within cultures across time.
For instance, joint accounts in the Anglo-Celtic community symbolise sharing and the partnership of marriage. But joint accounts are also the medium of abuse, particularly when the husband stops providing. These accounts allow control without sharing.
In the Indian community, money is shared within the family, rather than being bounded by the couple. Money is transferred two-ways between generations – parents to children and children to parents. In the Indian community, remittances which stand for caring and belonging to the transnational family can also be a medium of abuse for the migrant family.
As I wrote these papers, there were unanswered questions. How does control differ from coercive control across cultures? Money has a moral dimension in that some kinds of money are seen as more moral than others. Money helps define family norms around a ‘good husband’, a ‘good son’, a ‘responsible father’. Interestingly norms involving money don’t define a ‘good wife’, a ‘good daughter’ or a ‘good mother’ as much. So how can behaviour be seen as moral if built based on gender inequality? How can the norm of trusteeship in India and the role of the man as the household head in some versions of Christianity be seen as a basis of morality?
Research papers are highly valued for an academic career. But as family violence is a universal problem, I wanted to write for a broader audience. I wanted to show how the violence of money removed freedoms and a sense of agency from women’s lives.
So, I wrote for The Conversation. The pieces are based on research, but they are readable, short and have an early deadline. Writing for The Conversation I had to keep testing my piece against a readability index. The pieces are generally about 800 words and involve valuable dialogue with the editor (Singh, 2016, 2017b, 2019b).
My pieces did not go viral but reached 14,287 readers.
The Senate Inquiry into Dowry Abuse
I also submitted to a parliamentary inquiry relating to a better family law system to protect those affected by family violence.
My wake-up call that we need to talk more about economic abuse across cultures came with my presentation to the Senate Inquiry into the practice of dowry and the incidence of dowry abuse in Australia. This followed my submission to the Senate Committee (Singh, 2018b).
The presentation to the Senate Committee took place on 21 September 2018 in a modest room in a hotel in Melbourne. Senators Louise Pratt and Ian Macdonald were present. Facing them were the presenters. Behind the presenters was a meagre audience.
The thrust of my presentation was that dowry abuse is an important problem in some communities of the global South. However, we need to place dowry abuse in the wider context of economic abuse. When giving examples of economic abuse we should also include cultural practices around the Anglo-Celtic joint account. We would then increase awareness of economic abuse and not just point a finger at one cultural practice in another culture.
Having lived with my research for three years, I didn’t realise how objectionable it would sound to Senator Ian Macdonald to say that money is always cultural, and that economic abuse also happens in the Anglo-Celtic community.
This is how part of the conversation went as noted in The Hansard (p32):
Prof. Singh: I am saying money is cultural everywhere. Money is socially and culturally shaped in all cultures.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: We've had a lot of evidence about patriarchal societies. Well, can I say: Australia is not a patriarchal society. I am fifth-generation Australian. It's never been. In fact, I often say to my wife it's a matriarchal society, because she always bosses me around. The evidence we've had is that in certain countries women are very second-class citizens. You were saying that very often they weren't given big money; if they were given money at all, it was only in small coins.
Prof. Singh: … with due respect, that is not something that only happens to migrant Indian women. I have documented one woman who had no money and no account at all, married to an Anglo-Celtic man. She was not even getting social security payments.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: But you get bad people who'd kick the dog. (Commonwealth of Australia - Official Committee Hansard, 2018)
I was struck dumb that an Australian senator would think the Anglo-Celtics were a matriarchy.
I discussed this with an Anglo-Celtic friend of long standing in Melbourne. She has been part of my research on Marriage Money. She also knew some of the participants in the family violence study.
She told me she had never thought of money and family violence till I began to study it. She had never known anyone who had suffered economic abuse.
The conversation ended abruptly on my side as I recognised, she had not known the stories that women in her circle had told me about economic abuse.
I began thinking I would write these women’s stories so that we could talk of the violence of money.
The Violence of Money
When I retired as Professor at RMIT University in October 2019, I had an important but simple aim. I wanted to write of the violence of money in a way that women across cultures could recognise themselves in these stories. I wanted more people to talk of the violence of money.
I reverted to being a writer who is an anthropologist and sociologist. As a writer first, I could write stories.
I would seek publishing outlets, most likely online, that could be freely accessed by women who suffer economic abuse and agencies and organisations who are trying to prevent it. I saw myself and others trying to address family violence using these stories to reach out to small groups of people. I hope the stories will help them talk of money and violence, how to prevent it, how to overcome the abuse.
I wanted the story to be at the centre to understand the lived experience of the violence of money. The narrative however would be book-ended and contextualised by theory and methodology. Most of that would be in endnotes, to ensure the stories were readable.
I began writing. I went back to the un-coded transcripts of interviews and field notes. I wanted to give the sense of the woman, to place the interview in a certain time and place.
I wished at times the interview had been richer, that I had asked more questions. I knew the story was frozen in time, that it was a slice of a woman’s lived experience. But even this would communicate with more people than academic papers and submissions.
I wrote a draft story and sent it back to the participant. It felt good to be back in touch for we had shared intimate experiences. Three of the ten women wanted no change in their stories. One said, ‘I read the story. All good. No updates.’
I am perfectly alright with this.
This is [a] perfect description of my feelings and pain I have gone through…
God bless you Ma’am for researching these topics. Efforts like this give voice to many stories like mine…and at least [are] an acknowledgement that this is not acceptable behaviour.
Six women got back with deletions and modifications. One of these six also involved her sister and daughter in modifying the draft story. I wondered whether it was the first time they had understood her story as she saw it.
Another said, ‘Part of me feels really guilty about having that written down but it represents the truth of that time.’ She was so taken by the story that she began identifying with her pseudonym.
One of the 10 women withdrew consent for her story to be told. She withdrew for her story did not ring true.
This withdrawal of consent hurt in my guts. She, of course, had the right to withdraw. But I had not had such a withdrawal in 30 years of qualitative research. One woman in early research withdrew consent, but that was a day after the interview. She was uncomfortable with what she had revealed. But this withdrawal came later at the writing-up stage.
Her withdrawal also hurt because I admired her. Her story was a story of the trauma of family violence. It was also an inspiring story of how one survivor of family violence had empowered herself through education and communication and was helping other women heal. She has written her story and publicly identifies herself as a survivor of family violence.
She first questioned why I had not told her at the time of the interview I was writing a story. I told her the informed consent form said, ‘The project is for the purpose of research.’ Until you have the data you don’t know the shape it will take.
She wanted to be identified, for she was proud of who she was. I couldn’t do that for it would also identify others in her story.
She said more than once, I should get a good editor and recommended one.
We had detailed interactions on the first draft, but the second time around, she said she was ‘not comfortable’ with her story being included in the book. She did not think the draft honoured ‘the truth of my story.’
We wished each other well, for both of us had the same important aim of preventing and addressing family violence.
She left me and other qualitative researchers with two valuable suggestions. She said the informed consent should be more explicit about the outputs. It should say a book may follow the research. She said, ‘For someone not in the research field I would not know’ that saying the interview is ‘“for the purpose of research” could mean that a book could follow.’
She went on to suggest
I think it is good practice if you are not making that explicit in the research request form … then send an email out to ask if my story could go in a book before you start the writing of it.
I agreed. This is what I did with the next four stories when I caught my breath. I first asked the participant if she was agreeable to her story being included in the book. I then began writing her draft story. Three women agreed their stories could be included. All three offered to review the draft book and would most likely be active in starting conversations about money and family violence.
Commonwealth of Australia - Official Committee Hansard. (2018). Practice of dowry and the incidence of dowry abuse in Australia.
Ratha, D., De, S., Kim, E. J., Seshan, G., Yameogo, N. D., & Plaza, S. (2019). Migration and Remittances: Recent Developments and Outlook.
Singh, S. (1984). On the Sulu Sea. Kuala Lumpur: Angsana Publications.
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Singh, S. (2007). Sending money home: Money and Family in the Indian Diaspora. :. In A. K. Sahoo & B. Maharaj (Eds.), Sociology of Diaspora: A Reader (Vol. 2, pp. 975-998). New Delhi: Rawat Publication.
Singh, S. (2008, 2-5 December). The Social and Cultural Interpretation of Number: A Focus on Remittances as a Currency of Care. Paper presented at the Re-imagining Sociology: the annual conference of The Australian Sociological Association 2008, University of Melbourne.
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Singh, S. (2016, 25 May). Money plays a role in family violence across cultures. The Conversation.
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Singh, S. (2019a). The daughter-in-law questions remittances: Changes in the gender of remittances among Indian migrants to Australia. Global Networks, 19(2), 197-217.
Singh, S. (2019b, 14 March). Dowry abuse does exist, but let’s focus on the wider issues of economic abuse and coercive control. The Conversation.
Singh, S. (2020a). Economic Abuse and Family Violence Across Cultures: Gendering Money and Assets Through Coercive Control. In M. McMahon & P. McGorrery (Eds.), Criminalising Coercive Control: Family Violence and the Criminal Law (pp. 51-72). Singapore: Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd.
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Singh, S., Cabraal, A., & Robertson, S. (2010). Remittances as a currency of care: A focus on ‘twice migrants’ among the Indian diaspora in Australia Journal of Comparative Family Studies, xxxxI(2), 245-263.
Singh, S., Cabraal, A., & Robertson, S. (2010). Remittances as a medium of relationship and belonging. In A. Babacan & S. Singh (Eds.), Migration, Belonging and the Nation State (pp. 85-104). Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
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State of Victoria Royal Commission into Family Violence. (2016). Report and recommendations.
About the Author
Dr Supriya Singh is a sociologist of money and communication. Her research focuses on gender and financial inclusion; the gender of money, migration and the transnational family; economic abuse, user centred design of information and communication technologies and methodological issues related to qualitative research.
Supriya has written Money, Migration and Family: India to Australia (Palgrave Macmillan 2016), Globalization and Money: A Global South Perspective (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), The Girls Ate Last (Angsana Publications, 2013), Marriage Money: The Social Shaping of Money in Marriage and Banking (Allen & Unwin, 1997) and On the Sulu Sea (Angsana Publications, 1984). Her current project is The Violence of Money.
Supriya is Honorary Professor at the Graduate School of Business and Law, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University.
Hear her talk of her research interests in a 2018 interview here.