In March 2019 Sydney dentist Preethi Reddy attended a dental conference in St Leonards on Sydney’s North Shore. It was one of those awkward situations where her recent ex, fellow dentist Harsh Narde was also there. He still had feelings for her, but Preethi had moved on. It made her feel bad that he hadn’t let go, so she agreed to have dinner with him and accompanied Harsh to a nearby Indian restaurant in Crows Nest before going back to his room at the Swissotel in Sydney’s CBD. At 11.06am she rang her Melbourne-based partner and told him she’d spent the night with friends and told him she loved him. Preethi had been planning to move to Melbourne to be with her new partner. Harsh obviously heard the call, as a short time after that he murdered her in the bathroom. She died from the combined effects of blunt force head injuries and stab wounds to the neck and back. Harsh extended his hotel booking and was captured on cctv buying a large suitcase, garbage bags, towels and cleaning products. At 5pm he arranged a concierge to help him move a large suitcase from the porter’s trolley into the boot of Dr Reddy’s car. Narde drove the car to a discount shop in Kingsford where he dumped it, then he hired a car and drove back to Tamworth. Two days later Preethi’s body was found in a suitcase inside her car.
This is the story of what happened to Preethi Reddy. It is her name that is being used on the amendment to the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violenc) Act called Coercive Control – Preethi’s Law. It was put up before NSW parliament on 22 September last year, and this year it’s hoped that it will be passed. This kind of legislation will go a long way to protecting women from the kind of fate experienced by Preethi Reddy.
In 2005 the UK was one of the first nations in the world that criminalised coercive controlling behaviour, making it punishable with up to five years in jail. In one UK study it was found that of people who experience coercive control, 95 per cent are women, and 74 per cent of the perpetrators are men.
So what is ‘coercive control’?
It’s threats, humiliation, monitoring and isolation from friends and family. It’s not a slap to the face or a punch to the stomach. It’s the pervasively devastating psychological torment that underscores the reason why a women doesn’t ‘leave’. Because she’s under his control. She’s full of fear. Her confidence and self-belief are eroded. He tells her what to wear, and what she can’t. When she puts on a short skirt he says, ‘Who’s that for? You looking for someone else?’ He tells her which friends she can see and which friends she can’t. When she comes home he says, ‘What did you talk about? Did you talk about me?’ She has to detail the conversation. He doesn’t believe her. He never believes her. He says to her, ‘I don’t want you seeing that bitch again.’ When the phone rings, and she answers, he stands nearby and listens. He asks ‘Who was that?’ When she answers, he doesn’t believe her. He never believes her.
When a male colleague rings and she takes a work call he accuses her of having an affair. When she goes to the bathroom he reads the messages on her phone. He got her the phone as a gift so he knows the pin to unlock it. What she doesn’t know is that he found the little book where she keeps her logins and passwords to her email account and her Facebook, and he’s been reading her messages for months. He knows where she’s going, who she’s seeing. He doesn’t like her family. He can tell they don’t like him. So at Christmas when she wants to go to her family lunch he says, ‘If you loved me you wouldn’t go. They hate me.’ So she stays home. She starts to avoid family occasions because it causes fights. He follows her car when she leaves the house. When she says she wants to leave he threatens to kill her. But not in an overt way. He says, ‘You should be careful what you do’. When she goes to a girlfriend’s house for a few days because she’s depressed and confused, he texts her that he loves her so much he’s going to kill himself. She goes back. The person most at risk is this woman. This is coercive control. It’s why one woman a week ends up dead at the hands of her partner or her ex.
The importance of coercive control being criminalised isn’t just to give victims the power to protect themselves from abuse. It sends a message to society at large that these behaviours are illegal. That the systemic and historical sexism we all endure – because it’s deeply embedded and normalised in our patriarchal culture – is dangerous. It dehumanises us. It makes us ‘less than’. It permits these controlling and abusive behaviours to occur.
The other day my friend told me she was watching a horse race and one of the horses was called ‘Zipitsweetie’. She was appalled. The name is supposed to be funny! A phrase usually used by a man telling a woman to shut up. To ‘zip it’, followed by the belittling term ‘sweetie’. That’s a statement of power and control used to silence women. Used to minimise us. It’s so normalised someone was comfortable about using it to name their racehorse. Why not ‘Punchherintheface’ or ‘Killherinthebathroom’? I hear a seething violence in ‘Zipitsweetie’ that is unsettling. I guess it’s going to get backed by the coercive controllers at the TAB. Because that sort of behaviour is normalised and endorsed in some groups of men. I wait for the day when Zipitsweetie is beaten by You’regoingtojailforfiveyears.
Controlling behaviour is a crime. Gaslighting is a crime. Monitoring someone’s behaviour is a crime. Women don’t just end up murdered in suitcases in the boot of their car without a long history of coercive control behaviours, preceding it. It starts somewhere. Maybe it’s as simple as asking this new man you’re in love with not to drive so fast, it’s scaring you, and his face darkens and he says ‘Zip it sweetie’.
Thursday 14 February is V Day – One Billion Rising – an event that happens all over the world to draw attention to violence against women. We meet at Main Beach in Byron at 6.30am for a 7am dance. Wear red.