Shame, guilt, anger—and lives lost
The body of 15-year-old Aritry Adhikary was found hanging from the ceiling fan of her room, with the door locked from inside, at her Shantinagar home on Monday. Since then, fury has erupted among students and guardians and turned the spotlight on the controversial handling of students by one of the top schools in Bangladesh. And I have scrolled through news after news like an addict on cocaine, possessed with an insatiable need to understand what happened and why.
When I take a moment to pause and ask myself why I have been doing this, I am taken back to my own experiences as a 14-year-old. The school year had been suddenly condensed to a six-month period. A new math coordinator had joined us from Britain. And in classic South Asian—forever suffering from post-colonial hangover—fashion, we believed the White Man had come to save us from the perils of a poorly designed curriculum. Arguably, the math syllabus, previously poor, had been complicated by this change that we, students and teachers, were expected to adapt to in a matter of days, and be able to successfully take final exam tests by the end of six months. But that was not the issue.
During a class test, my math teacher took my paper away and tore it up in front of me because he thought I was cheating. Following this, I was sent to the math coordinator's room where I was expected to plead guilty and apologise. I didn't. The next day my parents were called in. Although, I wasn't present in the room to hear the conversation that took place between my parents and this gentleman, my father came into my room that evening and said to me, "I have never been so ashamed in my life. My daughter has been called a cheat and arrogant. You should have admitted to your fault. Tomorrow you will go and apologise to the math coordinator."
I went back to school the next day, looked the gentleman in the eye and told him, "I am here because my father asked me to apologise to you. And so, even though I am still not at fault, I am offering my apologies."
Shame is a self-conscious emotion which informs us of an internal state of inadequacy, unworthiness, dishonour, regret, or disconnection. People with depression and anxiety frequently experience destructive and dysfunctional self-talk. They wallow in painful rumination, incessant and overly critical, attacking themselves to an extreme. Shame is often confused with guilt—an emotion we might experience as a result of a wrongdoing about which we might feel remorseful and wish to make amends.
In her book Shame and Guilt in Neurosis, Helen B Lewis argues that guilt and shame represent distinct modes of perceiving and experiencing information about the self that are congruent with gender-linked differences in socialisation. She claims that guilt for men, but shame for women, were predominant modes of organising information about the self. In further studies that tested her hypothesis, shame-proneness emerged as the principal emotion variable for females; it was linked to both internalisation and externalisation.
Shame, therefore, as research indicates, is an emotion primarily and most intensely experienced by women. This is no surprise in a society regularly placing an unrealistic expectation on women to uphold the honour of the family. So when Aritry was shamed for not living up to moral standards, it is understandable why she took it so hard.
According to the national coalition, Bangladesh Child Rights Forum, in 2017, there were 213 child suicides and 11 attempted suicides by minors. The Bangladesh Police records show, on average around 30 people commit suicide every day. In 2015, the reported number of deaths by suicide was 10,500; in 2016, the total number of suicides was 10,600; and in 2017 the number rose to 11,095. If we were to break statistics down by gender, we would see that in contrast to most Asian countries, the suicide rates lean more towards women than men in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights (BSEHR), based on reports from eight national dailies, states around 1,374 women committed suicide between 2014 and 2017 whereas 696 men committed suicide in the same period.
The steadily increasing rates of suicide point to another glaring issue which has been brought up time and again. There is a severe lack of resilience among young people. We are not building young men and women who are capable of taking a blow, moving on from heartbreak, rejection, capable of taking constructive criticism, or argue reasonably with un-constructive criticism. And they aren't the ones to blame.
We have created a world where news, often negative, travels faster than ever, with constant bombardment of information, and an education system that barely tests your creative and cognitive skills. Ideally, test papers should be designed in a way so that you can't cheat, even if you want to. This requires significant efforts on the part of those who design and implement curricula. But it is not all about school curricula either.
Do our children have access to sports which teach you to look at winning and losing as a part of life? Do our children learn how to combat negative self-talk, to be assertive in their day-to-day lives, to identify signs of stress and depression? Arguably, with urban children from privileged backgrounds, there is a lack of a sense of achievement. Is this surprising in the era of smartphones where everything, from food to love, is at the tip of your fingers?
What have we done to prepare our children in this era? Building resilience among youth and taking responsibility as adults are the first steps to curb rising rates of suicides.
As I write this, I am seeing social media posts are emerging that are investigating the character of Aritry's friend, Anushka Roy, who has been at the frontline of protests following Aritry's suicide. This is likely to escalate to a point where she must "prove" that she is worthy of speaking up for the loss of a life half-lived.
It is no wonder that young people are angry. There is so much anger about so much. This is the second protest to be led by children in the last six months. If this isn't a wakeup call for adults, I don't know what is. They are angry and they don't know what to do about it.
So how long before we stop assassinating characters of students, teachers, individual institutions, and start looking at ourselves? How long before we take collective steps as parents, guardians and teachers—those who work and interact with young people—to instil within them both strength and values, so they are able to survive? So they don't end up living half-lives?
Shagufe Hossain is the founder of Leaping Boundaries and a columnist at The Daily Star.