September 05, 2007

Shylaja Praveen: When Despair Replaces Anger

AT 24, Shylaja Praveen’s life was ahead of her — an untrammeled space to be explored, full of possibilities and promise. That’s not quite how it turned out though. Shylaja committed suicide last month, allegedly driven to despair by continual sexual harassment by the regional head of ING Vysya Financial Services in Bangalore where she worked.

This is not the first case of this kind. In June 2000, Sangeeta Sharma, an advocate in the Andhra Pradesh High Court killed herself after leaving a suicide note containing allegations of sexual harassment by fellow lawyers and senior advocates. Sangeeta did not want to name her harassers because she feared repercussions for herself and her child. Shylaja tried multiple routes to justice in vain, including and up to approaching the State Women’s Commission. Both had probably reached some nadir of hopelessness where they felt the only way out was death.

These were not weak women. They had explored their options. In Shylaja’s case, she had even asked her superiors for help as recommended by Pramila Nesargi, Director of Karnataka Women’s Commission. She must have patiently recounted her story again and again, risking humiliation and further victimization. This was no wilting flower.

Suicide and depression share a close bond and internationally, various studies have established a clear link between sexual harassment in the workplace and severe psychological trauma. According to the Fourth European Working Conditions Survey:

The proportion of workers reporting symptoms of psychosocial factors, such as sleeping problems, anxiety and irritability, is nearly four times greater among those who have experienced violence or bullying and harassment as among those who have not. The negative impacts are not exclusively psychological or mental, however. It is also the case that a higher incidence of physiological symptoms, notably stomach ache, is reported by those subjected to bullying and harassment.

So it’s not hard to see how continually dealing with sexual harassment at the workplace can, in some cases, lead to suicide. What is more disturbing is that in India, we have a socio-cultural ethos that actively encourages women to be soft, submissive and, above all, silent. Take a look at how the Deccan Herald reported the story. The first paragraph said:

She used to lead the retail and corporate team in her bank and was known for her knack for communicating well in her profession. But ironically, she failed to take charge of her own life, and unable to cope with the alleged harassment from her boss, ended it on Friday evening.

Instead of focusing on the sexual harassment (they haven’t even used the term), there is a condescending statement on Shylaja’s inability to handle her own life. Because women are expected to take these things in their stride, ignore it, smile in the fact of it. Suck it up, baby. After all, it gets much worse. And if you give in and break, it’s your own fault for failing to “take charge” of your own life. Meanwhile, the culpable one cocks a snook at the cops and retreats into hiding. Immediately after the suicide, Bharath, the sexual offender who was also regional head at the bank, was absconding. Later reports said that no comprehensive evidence had been found. Why doesn’t this surprise me?

Then, take a look at how Pramila Nesargi, Chairperson, Karnataka Women’s Commission, helped her ‘fight’ this battle. She advised her to ‘talk to her superiors’. Later, she said: “Unfortunately, they were not very helpful. One of her bosses said he would help her find another job after directing her to save the messages sent by Bharath.”

Is that the best Ms Nesargi could do? The most effective plan she could craft as an ‘expert’? Where was the contingency plan? What was the backup option? What was the recommended Plan B? When the superiors were not helpful, why didn’t she immediately ask Shylaja to file a complaint, to demand that an Enquiry Committee be set up? When Nesargi was aware that the company did not even have a sexual harassment policy in place, on what basis did she trust (and therefore ask the girl to trust) her superiors for a solution? Why didn’t she encourage her to take a hard line on this?

Let’s not kid around. When you’re fighting something like sexual harassment, you cannot also play ‘nice girl’. The problem is that, inevitably, others expect you to. Even the women. Sometimes, especially the women. No matter what a woman is being forced to deal with, she must maintain the veneer of politeness, of delicacy, of being a ‘good woman’. And good women don’t get aggro.

Expecting women to continually seek the most ‘peaceful’ solutions, to compromise rather than confront, to negotiate rather than demand is a form of repression. It forces women to put up with more than they need to, stick in there longer than they have to. It forces them to continually settle for second best, for less than they deserve. And when the peaceable methods don’t work (because, let’s face it, they often don’t), this expectation makes them feel trapped. Because nobody ever tells them that fighting is an option — sometimes, the best option.

While fighting sexual harassment in my previous job, aggression is what got me through. Well-planned, deliberate aggression. Every time the company came back with a carrot, a compromise, or a cock-and-bull story, I went back with long emails on what was wrong with it and how it had pissed me off even further. I was angry. And I showed it, acted on it, practically lived on it for three months. Things may have turned out differently if Shylaja had felt that way. If she had felt anger instead of despair. If somebody had helped her marshal her mental forces and told her she can ‘fight’. Not ask, plead, negotiate, request or supplicate, but fight. If they had looked her in the eyes, shaken her by the shoulders, and said: ‘Get the bastard and I’ll help you’.

She may have felt less helpless. She may have felt like she had a choice.

The tragedy is that Shylaja actually approached the State Women’s Commission and tried to access the relevant support mechanisms. Few women would have had the courage to do this. But the commission failed to provide her with options or bolster her confidence. Shylaja’s descent into despair is not just another unhappy accident. It is the product of a culture that traps women into choiceless living. And worse, it is a failure of the women’s rights mechanism in the state.

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15 comments to Shylaja Praveen: When Despair Replaces Anger

  • cowsdung

    Shouldn’t we do something about Shylaja’s? Shouldn’t we make sure the Bharath’s of the world know that they can’t get away with it even if their victim’s dead

  • on comment is free:,,2161978,00.html

    some of the comments that follow are appalling.

  • […] at Young Feminists writes about the case of Shylaja who committed suicide. At 24, Shylaja Praveen’s life was ahead of her — an untrammeled space to be explored, full of […]

  • This is appalling. And what makes it appalling is, as you say, that it’s not unique. Other than Sangeeta’s case, there have been at least a few stories of women in the armed forces in the last couple of years (ah yes, more reason not to recruit women, ‘they can’t take it’).

    I would suggest that Premila Nesargi (and the National Women’s Commission) – post this tragedy – is persuaded to ask for declarations from every registered company and government institution about the status of their Sexual Harassment Committees; these declarations can then be used for sustained monitoring. Let’s not even start on the status of women workers in most of rural India or in the informal economy whether urban or rural at this point, though that too is moot. Corporates and the state would be the least she can do. Besides, I know a research organisation that was trying to collect some data on this; I’ll send you that information offline.

    Want to start a petition for this? I’m game – and it may be something that the bloggers on UV can rally around and spread. Particularly as the Sexual Harassment Bill gets discussed and tabled in Parliament; it’s strategic timing.

  • a much needed write-up. you have questioned the roles of individuals and the system as a whole. especially you have smashed the rubbish Deccan Herald.

    //Shylaja’s descent into despair is not just another unhappy accident. It is the product of a culture that traps women into choiceless living. And worse, it is a failure of the women’s rights mechanism in the state.//

    i am totally with it. now the voidness left out by shylaja with anger replaced by despair needs to be filled out by anger again. but this time collectively. i remember watching in a news channel two women beating up such a bastard in Ghaziabad recently. i think we should do the same. blogs can be helpful to propogate ideas. but scores can be settled only in the streets.

  • […] Anindita reports on sexual harassment in the Indian workplace. […]

  • Hi Anindita….Well, I wanted to add something. I covered this story. Well, I say what Nesargi told me. Shylaja had approached Nesargi on an informal basis. She had asked Shylaja to file a complaint against the people harassing her. However according to Nesargi, it was Shylaja who decided to first write to her employers first. Following an unfavourable response from her employer, why she did not proceed further is something no one knows. According to her family members, she had put in her resignation a month before her death. They also said that the company wasn’t relieving her. I am not trying to defend Nesargi per se. Just thought that I should clarify certain things.

  • @cowsdung
    We are thinking about what can be done. Any ideas?

    Thanks for the link. I will post it. The comments are appalling. Just when you forget the levels of misogyny that exists, you run into something like this.

    That’s a great idea. Would love your help with it. Will email you separately on this.

    Thanks for the comment and the link. I have to disagree with the proposed solution though. We definitely need to fight — but beating up one Bharat is not going to change a system.

    Thanks for that input. It does clarify things somewhat. But I feel (and I may be wrong, of course because none of us can know the absolute truth now) that support systems failed to instill enough confidence in Shylaja. She must have felt that filing would be worse in some way than — dying? Why did she feel that? What was she so scared of? Why couldn’t someone (in this case, Nesargi) make her feel it wouldn’t be.

    This is the problem — so much of our approach in these matters is slipshod and superficial. It is NOT enough to tell a victim to ‘file a case’. She must be counseled, supported, provided with the emotional wherewithal to go through with that.

  • The Deccan Herald reportage sucks, and is shocking in its judgmental terminology. This was the reported news story, and not an editorial, right? An awful lot of Indian papers do not seem clear on the distinction. They have no right to judge someone within the body of a straight news story.

    Looking at the situation as an American, I am alarmed at how very often suicide appears to be the best alternative to a number of educated young Indians. To me, it certainly seems to be letting the a**holes win. My first response would be, no way in hell are they going to win this battle!

    But so many women are never taught the defensive coping skills that I take for granted – as Anindita says, the ability to get angry, get aggressive and fight back.

    It sucks that the woman did not feel she had enough support from a community (any community) to do this – especially considering that a “women’s group” got involved, so ineffectually. I don’t pretend to know what can be done about this….I would just love to see more women learn to fight back.

  • you have got me wrong Anindita. i didn’t said it’s the solution. but i certainly mean to beat him as part of the struggle. when i say the scores are to be settled in the streets it’s not a mere muscle exercise but i mean it politically. we need to get the issue to the people if not to end up in sobbing email chains and petitions. Khairlanji would have suffered the same if the maharashtra dalits didn’t organised in the streets.first of all let the people know the case widely with agitations, dharnas but don’t stop with that. ghereo him, shout around him, file a case against him, if get a chance beat him. With all due respect on you, i quote from your own lines.
    ” Let’s not kid around. When you’re fighting something like sexual harassment, you cannot also play ‘nice girl’.”
    hope i’ll not be misunderstood again and the debate would not get narrowed in to whether beating him is right or not.

  • Anonymous

    There are women’s organisations, commissions etc to help women but it is unfortunate to see that no one comes handy to the suferer at the time of need. If the offender to be punished there are ample evidence. One can go back to the previous banks where Bharath was working and the harassment met by women staff under him. Most of them were forced to leave their jobs by the management protecting the harasser and vicimising the victim.

    Now he is back to normal life. Victim is dead and gone. All have forgotten about it, no noise made by the public or women’s organisations etc.

    It is disheartening at the state of affairs.

  • Tried using the link to your own harassment experience but the post isn’t there any more. I think that the first person stories are the most important and oddly there are very few available. Is there any way that I can read the post?

  • kalagam

    ???? ???????????????????? ???????????? ??????? ??????????????????? ???? ??????? ????? ???????? ???? ?????? ??????? ?????????? ??????? ????? ????????.??? ????????? ????? ??????????.??????????????? ???? ?????????? ????????.??????? ????????? ???????? ??????? ??????????.??????,????,????????,???? ?? ????????????? ???????????????????????? ??????????. ?????? ?????? ???????? ?????? ??? ??????????? ???????????????? ?????? ?????????? ?????????

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