She has a new video on making delicious mutton dalca, and as far as her fans are concerned, all is well and forgiven.
On Tuesday, S. Pavithra uploaded a cooking tutorial on her Youtube channel Sugu Pavithra, and it quickly garnered over 6,000 supportive comments from Malaysians. “Lets (sic) start over,” a subscriber wrote in the comments on the post. And so a heartwarming story turned sour with domestic abuse and toxic masculinity resets itself. Or does it?
The Rise of Sugu Pavithra
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you would know of Pavithra and M.Sugu, the husband and wife duo who rose to fame virtually overnight thanks to their YouTube tutorials. Using a single mobile phone they own, they showcased cooking tutorials of simple Indian meals during the MCO period. Pavithra’s gentle demeanour and her fluent commentary in Bahasa Malaysia captured the heart of the nation. The couple saw their popularity and earnings increase dramatically.
But things started to take a troubling turn. On July 24, Sugu was charged with allegedly hurting Pavithra using a sickle and a handphone at the Raja Permaisuri Bainun Hospital parking lot. On the same day, the 28-year-old posted bail for her husband. She then said she forgave her husband and wanted to live a quiet life. The next day, all 98 videos on the couple’s Youtube channel were deleted or removed, shocking their fans.
Commenting on the matter, Sugu acknowledged that the dramatic move was his decision. Even if it meant a substantial loss of income, the former estate worker told the Press: “But that is okay, because I have hands, feet, to look for a job. Even before this (becoming a YouTuber), I earned money by working.”
Public opinion on a private relationship
As with all public figures, society had a lot to say about this young, unassuming couple’s meteoric rise to fame. Unsurprisingly, many are sharing their theories and assumptions about the recent developments. Most condemned the abuse that Pavithra suffered at the hands of her husband.
Some are saying that Pavithra has been asked to step back from the limelight to save her marriage. Many commenters, especially from the Malaysian Indian community, have brought in racial or cultural elements into discussions, saying it was unfortunately common for many families to hold the view that ‘a good wife was one who was submissive to her husband.’ Some said this traditional view was also held by other races or cultures too. Others rightly stressed that any woman can experience domestic abuse regardless of race, ethnic or religious group, sexuality or class.
Discussions on social media have also talked about the difficulties of sudden fame and the issue of toxic masculinity and sexist ideas – men or husbands who cannot bear to be upstaged by a more successful partner. Many Malaysians, obviously rooting for Pavithra, have stressed that we should leave the couple alone to solve their own problems privately.
But when does a private matter become a public concern? Should Malaysians be invested in this case to begin with? Let us remember and consider some facts:
Victims also have agency:
Many forget just how dynamic and spirited Pavithra truly is. She was the one who decided to supplement her household’s income by creating cooking tutorials. She learned how to do it, got her husband to help film her, and edited the videos herself after the children went to bed. And yet her channel bears her husband’s name first. It is also clear he makes decisions about their media engagements, despite her saying in an interview that she actually did not mind the media attention. Let us also not forget her history – she obtained 5As for her UPSR, until she had to give up her studies when she was 16. Pavithra’s father, a construction labourer, had told her to work to help support her family. Everything points to a woman who has talent, dreams and goals, yet has had to make serious choices due to tough circumstances and the men in her life. But we should remember that she was also the one to lodge the police report against her husband, when many other victims find it difficult to.
But abuse can disorient a victim:
“Abuse is a pattern, a war of attrition that wears a person down,” Laura Richards, a British criminal behavioural analyst has said. She has worked in the UK domestic abuse sector for two decades and said that “coercive control is the very heart of it.” Coercive control is a pattern of controlling, dominating and threatening behaviour that restricts a victim’s freedom and often isolates the victim. Perpetrators will often try and reduce a victim’s contact with others to prevent her from recognising that his behaviour is abusive and wrong.
Over time, Richards said, coercively controlling behaviour erodes the victim’s sense of self, their confidence and self-esteem, agency and autonomy. So if you know a strong and smart woman who exercises agency, do not assume it is impossible for her to be in an abusive relationship. Let us keep Pavithra in our line of sight, and always look out for signs of women being isolated or coercively controlled by their partners.
The thing about domestic abuse:
Couples argue or face issues around insecurities or jealousy all the time. But domestic abuse is an altogether different matter. It is a criminal offence. We can perhaps understand the circumstances surrounding fame or even empathise with feelings of insecurity. But we should not forget that domestic abuse is not normal and must not be normalised. In the charge sheet, Sugu was alleged to have assaulted his wife using a mobile phone and a 26-inch sickle which caused injuries to her lips, left cheek and right arm.
Some experts point out that abuse almost always escalates, as the abuser becomes more emboldened and finds new ways to exert power over a survivor. Findings also show that batterers often see themselves as victims, believing that men have a pre-ordained right to be in charge of all aspects of a relationship.
Abuse can result in deaths:
Let us not forget that Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) issued a public reminder in February titled ‘Stop domestic violence before it ends in murder.’ It pointed out a broader trend of the killing of women in Malaysia as often a result of domestic violence, highlighting disturbing local cases. The organisation also noted that a 2018 United Nations report concluding that the home was the most dangerous place for women, with 58 per cent of female homicide victims killed by their intimate partners or family members.
“If we want to stop these murders and save lives, we need to understand the context in which femicides take place, including the relationship between the murderer and the victim,” WAO wrote.
Turning the spotlight off
Pavithra and Sugu’s journey may end up a happy story after all. But what if it does not? Women should not have to wait until they are in deep crisis before we pay attention. A call for help was made by a woman with agency and media attention. What of those who are suffering abuse in their homes silently, behind closed doors?
The criminal justice system and wraparound services play an extremely important role to ensure we prevent and challenge domestic violence. WAO called for effective tracking and monitoring of repeated incidences of violence – saying it “should be one of the goals of the recently formed National Committee on Domestic Violence, a multi-stakeholder committee set up to coordinate and monitor the national response to domestic violence.”
What has the National Committee on Domestic Violence done with regard to the six urgent actions recommended by WAO? These include a clear standard operating procedure for responding to domestic violence, Interim Protection Orders and Emergency Protection Orders for survivors, and more temporary shelters in Malaysia.
Domestic violence is no joke
Pavithra may have withdrawn the report that she lodged against her husband and the couple may have declined counselling. But the first priority of the police and authorities remains – the safety and well-being of her and her children.
There have been facetious comments online that the Pavithra case is a dramatic Indian or Bollywood movie brought to life. Domestic violence is not a joke. Let us make full use of this case to ensure the structures and processes to do with protecting victims are solid, and keep the spotlight on changing behaviours and cultures. Women’s well being and their lives are at stake.
In her book, Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates writes, “When women are trapped in abuse and isolated from other women, we can’t be a force against violence because we have no voice. But when women gather with one another, include one another, tell our stories to one another, share our grief with one another, we find our voice with one another. We create a new culture – not one that was imposed on us, but one we build with our own voices and values.”
By Liyana Taff and Laych Koh
Feature photo from BERNAMA