Aritry Adhikary’s tragic death raises questions about the culture surrounding formal education
In an unprecedented move, the education ministry asked Viqarunnisa Noon School and College governing body on Wednesday to suspend three teachers, including the school’s principal, following the suicide of Aritry Adhikary, a student of class nine at the famous school in Dhaka. The instruction was promptly complied with and the teachers accused of provoking the teenager’s suicide were suspended, with their MPO status withdrawn. The decision came in the wake of demonstrations by Viqarunnisa students enraged by Aritry’s death.
With placards saying ‘We want justice’ and ‘Justice for Aritry’, the protest resembled closely with the student movement for road safety earlier this year that shook up the whole country. Students, including children as young as six years old, participated in the sit down in front of Viqarunnisa School displaying signs that read: ‘Today Aritry, will it be your child tomorrow?’, ‘What kind of education is this, that kills students?” and ‘We can tolerate our humiliation but cannot tolerate the humiliation of our parents’.
Aritry brought a mobile phone during a school examination and her parents were rebuked by the principal Nazneen Ferdous in front of Aritry. Deeply shaken by the incident, the 15-year old sprinted out of the principal's office, after which she was found dead at her residence, where she hanged herself from a ceiling fan.
The protest and subsequent coverage in the media generated widespread criticism about how her case was handled by the school and segued into wider discussions about examination pressure on students, societal pressure and the prevailing education system as a whole.
Author and social media activist Zia Hassan wrote on Facebook that attention should also be focused on the society where the peer pressure is so severe from family and the surroundings that a person can think of and actually commits suicide because of that. “We are now blaming the principal of Viqarunnisa but it’s not quite as black and white as that. Let’s assume she did actually cheat in the exam. Why did she feel so compelled to do well in exams that she needed to resort to cheating?” he wrote. Zia Hassan also said that her decision to end her life may not have been only because of her father’s humiliation. “How can you be sure that was the only or the dominant contributing factor? How can you be certain that she did not commit suicide from fear of her own humiliation?” wrote Hassan, who has over 9,000 followers on Facebook and has written opinion articles for Dhaka Tribune, Prothom Alo and Al Jazeera.
Author and social media commentator Parvez Alam expressed similar concerns saying, “We shouldn’t forget that in Bangladesh, parents are the primary authoritarian figures.” He said that parents want to compensate for their own failures through their children. “They don’t know how to live a free life. They take that out on their children by keeping them subjugated,” he wrote.
Asif Shibgat Bhuiyan, author and commentator, wrote that calling parents to the school was the most ominous thing he could think of when he was a student. He said that Aritry’s suicide should create the same ripple effect that Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide created in Tunisia and subsequently in the Arab world.
Bhuiyan also criticized the willingness of people to condemn suicide without any regard to context. “It is true that suicide generally is in conflict with a very important Islamic principle, which is to rely on God or ‘tawakkul’ in God. But does that mean you don’t look at the relevant contexts?” he said. He cited contemporary Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmad Bin Saad Hamdan Al Ghamdi, who praised Bouazizi saying, “We ask for God’s forgiveness and mercy for him because he awakened the ummah.”
A teacher training professional who is now an academic supervisor with a private school based in Dhaka, Khadiza Afrin said that there are established good practice principles in regarding how to deal with disciplinary issues in schools and those should be followed.
“Any meeting that takes place between teachers/administration and parents must happen with the best interest of the student in mind. Teachers must recognize that the students are not their enemy,” she said.
Afrin said that schools should recognize at the outset that discussing issues related to students with their parents is a very sensitive matter and should be treated as such. “Everything should be presented as information and not a complaint,” she said.
“Thirdly,” she continued, “teachers should approach disciplinary matters as dealing with a particular action or actions. The action is the problem, the student should not be treated as a problem.” Afrin said that it is very important that parents and teachers work collaboratively.
In Aritry’s case, Afrin said that the problem was how the matter was approached. “According to news reports Aritry’s parents were told that she would be given a TC because of the alleged cheating. The problem here is that they started handling the issue with a threat,” Afrin said.
“Whenever a student begs or pleas, you have to stop. And instead of threatening them, you have to work towards specific consequences,” Afrin told Weekend Tribune.