Colombo: What do miniskirts, booty shorts and low rise jeans have in common with rape? With the uproar that arose in India and the region, following the Delhi Gang Rape, which drew the kind of attention that issues of rape and sexual violence do not generally receive in this part of the world; also gave rise to a classic victim-blaming style counter-movement that propounded that women, by way of dressing in a certain way, or staying out past a certain time at night etc.. incite the sexual violence brought upon them. I took to the streets in Colombo on a sunny Friday afternoon to ask the passers by what they felt.
`Thennakoon (39) is a security guard at a state-run corporation adjacent to the Independence Square in Colombo. He agrees that it’s easier being a man in this society than otherwise, but doesn’t understand why women choose to wear revealing and ‘provocative’ dresses. ‘I would understand if there was a shortage of fabric. But there is no such shortage. A woman should know how to dress in a decent manner. Yesterday there was an event at this office and some women were wearing disgusting clothes. Men have feelings too. So, women need to take necessary precautions.’
We thanked Thennakoon and walked along the path leading to Independence Square when we met Soorya (short for Sooryalakshmi) she was 47 but the wrinkles on her face made her seem at least 60. She worked for the Colombo Municipal Council cleaning staff. Soorya thinks it’s much difficult being a woman in today’s world. ‘We have to work in the kitchen, do the washing and cleaning and also find money for the family’. But she added that women should ensure their own security, to this end, she said, women should not dress in a way that might provoke a man.
Walking along the lawn at independence square we met Dharshana, Pradeep and Ranjan. They were seated on the grass in a circle and were going through some notes. The trio were 3rd year students of the Faculty of Science at the University of Colombo. Ranjan explained that they were preparing for a presentation scheduled for later that afternoon. Apologizing for intruding, we posed our question to them. They all felt that even though certain instances of abuse exist, the situation of women in general has vastly improved. ‘Today in a lot of fields women are competing with men in an equal footing’ said Pradeep. Dharshana felt that wearing short dresses has made some men feel ‘those women are like prostitutes’. He added that Sri Lanka is a country with a proud history and culture and our women should dress accordingly. Pradeep nodded in approval. Ranjan, however, seemed to differ, he said ‘fashion evolves with time and women should be given the same freedoms as men. Whatever the way women choose to dress maybe, men should control their emotions.’ Dharshana, Pradeep and Ranjan stay in the same hostel and take the same classes in university, but the way Ranjan looked at the issue was different to his friends’ views.
Walking along Independence Avenue, we met Mr. Priyantha, hurriedly walking from one office building to another with a large stack of files with the state emblem. He worked at a government department located along the road. He felt that women today have a much better place in society than men. ‘Even in our department, women have a much better place than men. Sometimes women get jobs simply because they are women.’ When we questioned him as to why then issues such as sexual harassment of women still exist in our society he said ‘it’s all the woman’s fault. They wear short dresses and arouse men’s feelings. Be honest, son, when a good looking girl is wearing short stuff like that wouldn’t you will feel like turning to take a second look?’ We told him, that doesn’t mean we can rape someone. But he went on ‘my mother didn’t even put her washed clothes out in the garden to dry up. That’s how women those days were’. There was a slight sense of condescension in his voice as he concluding by saying ‘but women these days are too much.’
Sujith (43) is a trishaw driver. You’d see his red and brown Bajaj parked adjacent to a popular night club in Colombo city. Sujith finds it appalling that sexual abuse still takes place in our society. He thinks that rape is unacceptable and that skirts are not the problem. He believes that ‘as times are changing new fashions come up and kids like to keep up with these trends’. He sees nothing wrong with this. In fact he believes that is short skirts are banned, rape ‘cases’ may even increase as men who get some kind of pleasure by seeing women in these dresses may get even more deprived and frustrated! Impressed by the ‘tuk tuk wisdom’ Sujith enlightened us with; we thanked him and walked towards the University of Colombo.
Chathuni, an undergraduate following double degrees in Economics and Law thinks ‘that short or otherwise, revealing clothes invite rape is neither fair by men nor women. It makes men appear incapable or controlling themselves and recognizing that there is more to a woman than appearance. And upon women it places both the burden of guarding against harassment and that failing, of being society’s derision.’ She ended with this question ‘if rape is wrong, why is the rape of a woman in a short skirt less tragic than one in saree.’ With that, my friend Kumudithe and I ended our interviews for the day with the scorching Colombo sun right above our heads.
That evening, at a Youth Parliament meeting, I met Stephanie Siriwardena who won the Miss Sri Lanka contest in 2011. Stephanie, who is also quite an activist, thinks ‘we are asking the wrong question. We tend to focus on the shortness of the dress rather than focus on the shallowness of intention in men perpetrating these crimes.’ I also spoke to Shahidar (23). Shahidaar who is also a very passionate activist, has been a hijabi most of her life. She said ‘each man is responsible for his or her own behaviour. Although I think a short skirt will desensitise a man’s reaction towards a woman, her rights cannot be violated. A short skirt is not an excuse to satisfy carnal desires. In Islam, a man’s hijab is to lower his glance and to avoid looking at the opposite sex deliberately. ’
The stereotypical sequences of events that lead to rape are often the same. A woman is walking down a dark alley, by herself, in a short dress. But facts show, that often the situation is much more complex: more often than not, perpetrators are not strangers but people very close to the victim. Rape sometimes occurs in broad daylight and often victims are not supposedly ‘attractive’ women clad in ‘provoking’ clothes. We’ve seen and heard of instances when the victims were older women: sometimes grandmothers in their late 70s and 80s, and sometimes prepubescent children as young as five or six. These old women and kids have clearly not worn ‘provocative’ dresses.
But that is all beside the point, drunk, alone at night or wearing a short skirt: rape is never the victim’s fault. City planning is not only about fancy jogging tracks and upmarket restaurants; it’s also about making our cities safer for our women and girls. Perhaps the greatest need of the day is a change of attitudes about how we look at these issues. The condescension in Priyantha’s voice when he said ‘women these days are too much’, how Darshana feels like men view women is short dresses as ‘prostitutes’; these people have been socialized into holding these opinions. It is the responsibility of the state and civil society to catalyse a change of mind-sets so as to look at the real issues without blaming innocents.
What Sri Lankan tweeps say:
Some names have been changed.
Post written by our guest author Senel Wanniarachchi from Sri Lanka. Posted also at The Nation. You can reach him through his Blog and Twitter.