By Jude Fernando –
On November 6, 2022, popular Sri Lankan national cricket player Danushka Gunathilaka, who was on tour with the Sri Lankan T20 World Cup team, was arrested in Sydney, Australia, for alleged sexual assault. He was denied bail and remanded in custody. But after Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) paid $38,000 in “legal fees” to the Australian law firm representing Danushka, and after a surety of $150,000 was paid by a “mysterious Sri Lankan female who is residing in Melbourne”, Danushka was released on November 17.
This is not just an unpleasant story about Danushka. It is also a story about Sri Lankans and our pervasive culture of violence against women—a rape culture. This violence is woven into the stories currently making the rounds about the Danushka case. These are mainly masculine narratives underpinned by arrogance, deeply entrenched sexism, and xenophobic nationalism. They are drowning out the shame many Sri Lankans feel about Danushka’s behavior has tarnished Sri Lanka’s image. Such feeling of shame, however, is misplaced.
In fact, the news about Danushka’s story has brought to light Sri Lanka’s rape culture. Even as you read this article, women are being abused sexually in the country. The country’s legal system handles sexual abuse cases poorly, and convictions are rare, while our culture silences and even penalizes women who speak out. Commentaries by influential media, legal and political personalities on Danushka’s case continue to entrench the culture of violence against women; few seek to change it. These are the unsettling realities of our society that should embarrass us all. However, if we are brave enough to speak out, Danushka’s story can open an opportunity to engage in a productive national conversation about the culture of violence against women in Sri Lanka. We can break the taboo and bring the discussion from the margins to the center of society.
Sexual violence is physical or emotional abuse of women. It includes rape, assault by penetration, sexual assault, or causing someone to engage in sexual activity without consent. Sexual harassment involves unmistakable acts such as coercing women into sex in return for favors, refusing to take a woman’s “no” for an answer, and hurling insults at women who have rejected sexual overtures. Harassment also includes covert and subtle acts such as men denying women’s expertise and talking over them, presuming women will perform menial caretaking tasks at work, or with less knowledge of the topic at hand correcting or talking down to women, or telling jokes that reinforce rape culture. Although Sri Lankan laws cover a wide range of sexual abuse, their effectiveness is limited by the patriarchal culture that shapes legal interpretations and prevents victims from seeking justice.
Discussions on consent in sexual relationships are taboo in Sri Lankan culture. Consent is the agreement between partners to have sexual contact or perform a sexual act. Both partners must expressly and unequivocally consent. Consent can be withdrawn at any time during sex, and partners are able to change their minds at any time. Proceeding after consent is withdrawn constitutes sexual assault or rape. Consent cannot be inferred by the absence of refusal or resistance or by a person’s apparent attitude; it must be explicitly verbalized or signed. Consent can never be inferred from a woman’s appearance, attire, personality, the location of an incident, her previous sexual history, or the nature of her relationship with the man in question. Sex in the absence of consent is the main characteristic of sexual violence.
Sexual violence is so ingrained in Sri Lankan society that it has seeped into every facet of our lives. We have learned to see sexual abuse as “normal” behavior and to presume women are the cause of men’s violence. The subtle manifestations of sexual abuse are invisible to most men and many women. In Sri Lanka, where the highly masculinized practice of racialized and xenophobic nationalism divides and criminalizes voices raised against human rights violations, combating sexism is especially challenging. I hope to make this culture of violence against women more visible by examining four narratives about Danushka’s pending trial: two by lawyers, one by a journalist, and another by a politician. Rather than debating Danushka’s guilt or innocence, or examining the legal aspects of the case, I want to focus on the stories themselves and examine the kinds of stories about women and rape that “experts” produce, and audiences consume in Sri Lanka—stories that explain why the culture of violence against women is so pervasive in Sri Lanka.
The first narrative I want to highlight is comes from an interview with U.R. De Silva, a presidential counsel. It is an excerpt from the YouTube video “Danushka is free: This is where Tinder [complainant’s name] failed.” In summary, De Silva raised doubts about the complaint against Danushka. He accomplished this by first positing that Danushka and the complainant were of legal age and could make their own decisions (the presumption of free will and a level playing field). They used an app to meet and build a friendly relationship. They dined and consumed alcohol together before entering her home, so De Silva believes Danushka was invited in. They traveled in a boat and took an Uber to her house rather than to a hotel. Despite the seriousness of the incident, she waited three days to report her allegations to the authorities, friends, or family, even though Australia provides ample means for reporting. De Silva claimed there was enough proof she consented to sexual intercourse. He pointed out alleged gaps and contradictions in the evidence to ask whether the claimant had planned the incident and had ulterior motives.
De Silva uses the words of the late legal scholar Granville Williams to support his claim about the possibility of false accusation by the complainant. While Williams thought rape the most heinous crime against women, he argued that women could use rape to accuse innocent men. Williams argued that rape cases were especially susceptible to intentionally generating false charges, and he blamed women’s false accusations on sexual neuroses, fantasies, or the refusal to admit participation in a shameful act. These arguments, made in the 1980s, were already outdated at the time, and counter to the reality that women vastly under-report rape and are likely to have their lives and careers destroyed by pressing charges. The perspective of the legal community has changed significantly since the 1980s, and De Silva’s rejection of advances in the knowledge and understanding of rape, more closely aligns with anti-feminist screeds on popular media than it does with contemporary and increasingly more mainstream understandings of sexual violence.
The second story was told by Chanaka Senanayake, the former president of the legal division of the SLC Board. In an interview with Derena Television, Senanayake gave many reasons for doubting the complainant’s account. Like De Silva, he mentions that they met through a dating app, had dinner together, and that the woman invited Danushka to her home. He also stresses the contradictions in the complainant’s account and the fact that she waited four days before reporting the crime to the authorities. He argues that the entire case hinges on her testimony against Danushka and, again like De Silva, Senanayake raises the possibility that the woman was seeking publicity and money when she made the allegations. Because he thinks the woman’s story was contradictory and the evidence unclear, he advises Danushka to plead not guilty because he has a chance of winning.
Women are erased from both these narratives, except as an instrument of a man’s entrapment. Both commenters are concerned only with Danushka, and not with the well-being of the woman he allegedly assaulted. Neither narrative refers to Sri Lankan women who are experts on the topic of sexual violence. It is likely that many listeners did not even notice the absence of women because, in our patriarchal society, we are used to their exclusion. One would expect professional journalists to at least interview female Sri Lankan experts on the subject, such as Rohini Mohan, Kushali Pinto-Jayawardena, Pearl Thevanaygam, Dasuni Yahanika Pathiraja, and Neloufer de Mel, just to name a few.
When commentaries are only concerned with seeking proof of Danushka’s innocence and victimhood, they cast doubt on the victim’s story and normalize sexual abuse. This is a widespread practice of many communities who want to blame the other party and whitewash “their party.” This then also serves as a warning to women who might protest. The system has conditioned women to internalize masculinist rape narratives as normal and makes it risky to discuss experiences of sexual abuse in public. Victim blaming reminds Sri Lankan women that their own criminal justice system, dominated by men, often does them more harm than good when they speak out against sexual assault. Likewise, the public commonly blames the victim.
The narratives of these lawyers, journalists, and politicians focus only on defending Danushka, casting doubt on his complainant’s claims and predicting his victory in court. Yes, I understand that we need to give the benefit of the doubt to Danushka because it has not been proven in court that he is at fault. However, my purpose here is to expose how popular media narratives contribute to misogynist views that hurt women. The tone of the interviewers is similar. Interviewers frame questions that make it easy for respondents contribute to societal narratives that prematurely defend Danushka. Both interviewers and interviewees demonstrate uninformed, outdated, backward beliefs about sexual abuse that mirror the ill-educated populist views that sustain Sri Lanka’s culture of sexual violence.
These narratives all suggest that Danushka’s accuser would profit from extortion, and this type of blackmail allegation is a cornerstone of the defense strategy in rape cases. The “blackmail myth” is the legal crystallization of the assertion that the complainant in a rape prosecution has corrupt, vindictive, or otherwise dishonest motives. Many of the recent legal rulings have typified the criminal justice system’s traditional response to rape allegations: indifference and hostility. Victims who bring rape charges are invariably traumatized during trials, since the legal rules established to govern the conduct of these cases favor arguments that mistrust the complainant’s motives and sworn testimony. How many influential businessmen, celebrities, and politicians would have been taken to court if blackmail were a such grave issue?
Allegations of blackmail are often false, and almost all women lose more than they gain by coming forward when they are raped and bring it to the notice of authorities. But defense lawyers and those who defend people like Danushka in the court of public opinion freely wield the blackmail accusation, all the while claiming that the risk to the “reputation” of someone like Danushka is a weightier matter than their victim’s physical and mental well-being. Blackmail is not the only form of extortion that could be in play, however. Rape is a form of sexual extortion, in which the extortionist (the abuser) demands the victim engage in sex acts, terrifying and dehumanizing their victims, while also making them feel ashamed to come forward to the authorities.
Along with the blackmail allegations, the narratives commonly include a “she asked for it” argument. In this case, those who insist that the female complainant invited Danushka into her home are attempting to shift the blame for the assault off the offender and onto the complainant. The unspoken assumption is that women who grant men one permission are presumed to have granted others. It is common for abusers to claim that their victims enticed them or “led them on,” based on the tired myth that men lose control and cannot reason in the presence of attractive women. But the increasingly accepted definition of consent is founded on the principle that any participant in a sexual encounter may withdraw consent at any point before or during the activity. Others do not have a right to your body; only you have the right to give or withdraw consent.
The trial has not even begun, and we do not yet know all the evidence. Those raising doubts about the allegations do not seem to know that many advanced tool kits are available today to collect a range of physical evidence to corroborate a rape victim’s account. Medical personnel may use a rape kit, any one of several sexual assault kits, or a physical evidence recovery kit to collect and preserve physical evidence after a sexual assault allegation. Physical injuries are not required to substantiate rape, because the threat of violence alone can coerce a person to submit to a rapist to avoid physical harm, legal proof of rape does not require evidence of physical resistance.
In the legal world, failure or delay in reporting rape is not an argument for the defense. Many traumatized victims wait to inform authorities, friends, or family, or even to seek medical attention. Women know that societal attitudes and the legal system’s corroboration requirements do not favor them. They understand that police and doctors may doubt or condemn them and thus fail to help them. Perpetrators often warn victims they will retaliate if the victim speaks up, and victims can also be harassed by law enforcement officials and defense lawyers if they file charges. Younger victims may try to avoid the ordeal of a medical examination or parental involvement. Since society views rape victims with suspicion and distrust, people may publicly humiliate victims they know or in the media. Finally, some may fail to press charges because the perpetrator controls their finances, because they want to protect their family’s reputation, or because they fear exclusion and stigma. Victims may not forward but instead try to avoid their harasser, downplay the seriousness of the crime, or simply try to ignore it or forget that it happened. Shame or self-blame, denial or disbelief, fear of consequences, low self-esteem, feelings of helplessness, and their disbelief in the justice system all contribute to a discouraging them from coming forward. Silence of victims must be viewed as expression of their vulnerability!
This brings us to the third commentary on Danushka, by the well-known parliamentarian, S. B. Dissanayake, who, like many politicians, normalizes the perpetration of gender-based violence against women. He wrote, “The entire blame cannot be placed on our players because boys will be boys,” and “while a certain level of control and discipline should be maintained, the players should also be allowed their freedom and liberty” (Coralage, 2022). A popular Buddhist clergyman Kotuwe Podi Hamuduruwo made a similar argument, and it is picked up and echoed by the public in many forms. The tired and entirely discredited phrase “boys will be boys” (the title of a 1935 movie) reinforces gender stereotypes while normalizing and excusing sexual violence. It reduces sexual abuse to a trivial matter—a product of a boy or man’s “natural” behavior that deserves, at worst, a slap on the wrist. The dinosaurs who make this argument expect women to accept and adjust to men’s behavior.
Those who are outraged by Dissanayake’s comments say he is an ignorant fool and “a stupid man talking like a boy,” but unfortunately, he is not a social outlier; he is expressing a widespread attitude toward sexual abuse in Sri Lankan society. Comments like his, deliberately normalize and trivialize sexual abuse, endangering women’s lives. Dissanayake plays on parents’ fears for their sons, warning the public about the dangers of strict adherence to rape laws as evidenced by his statement: “A child of a very close friend of mine also died by suicide, having jumped off a 27-story building due to not being able to face his parents after a complaint made by a professional prostitute. We know that the law in Australia is stringent, so they are quickly detained, causing them many problems,” said Dissanayaka.
By shifting focus to the presumed harm that (exceedingly rare) false rape accusations can do to innocent men, Dissanayake amplifies the fear of victims of sexual assault and promotes the country’s culture of silence, suggesting victims should be put on trial, rather than their abusers. His fellow lawmakers in the parliament voiced no criticism. Even the Minister of Women and Child Affairs, Geetha Kumarasinghe, who delivered a cabinet paper on November 16, 2022, urging the government to address sexual assault concerns that affect one in every twenty women in Sri Lanka, has been conspicuously quiet. It should be noted that Kumarasinghe’s proposal was not progressive. It only entails policing female behavior and only assisting after they are victimized by sexual violence, but it would not hold offenders and their defenders accountable.
The final narrative is found in Ranga Jayasuriya’s article “Danushka Gunathilaka’s Trial by Social Media,” which appeared in the Daily Mirror on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. “With the exception of her friends who saw the two in the pub or other forms of incriminating evidence at the crime scene,” Jayasuriya claims, “Danushka’s case is likely to rely on circumstantial evidence.” The outcome of the case depends on his word against hers. Jayasuriya warns that Danushka must not be exonerated and he “deserves some of the hatred” directed at him because his poor discipline harmed the entire team. But Jayasuriya recapitulates the claims of the other narratives, so he is also complicit with the culture of violence against women.
Jayasuriya is disturbed that “social media warriors have already found him guilty—before the Aussie cops … [could do] their job… Danushka appears to be universally despised, and his detractors on social media go beyond the average Sri Lankan.” He mentions that some of Danushka’s critics “suffer from an existential identity crisis and find validation through two seconds of fame on social media.” Jayasuriya argues that the social media nonsense of presumption of guilt should not sway the SLC. But even though the SLC is driven by the vested interests of its office bearers and is less responsive to the interests of the country and sport, such institutions run the risk of seeking guidance from social media echo chambers. As a result, “it is the duty of the government and the respective ministers of foreign affairs and sports to direct relevant agencies to provide consular and legal assistance to Danushka and to contest any signs of racial bias, of which Australia is far from free.”
Like other narrators, Jayasuriya turns Danushka into the victim. He suggests that Danushka may be at risk from national and international prejudice, further entrenching masculine narratives about violence against women in Sri Lanka. Xenophobic nationalists are primed to dismiss allegations of domestic rights violations committed by foreign actors, so they will read Jayasuriya’s suggestion that Australian authorities are biased against Danushka as one more in a long line of incidents in which the West mistreated the country. In this story, Danushka is victimized by the international community, and Jayasuriya places blame on those who judge Danushka, turning him into a national victim. Such treatment justifies the claim that the SLC, if not the nation, should save Danushka. Social media commentators may even cater to nationalism while upholding gender stereotypes by distinguishing between promiscuous Western women and “pure”/” traditional” Sri Lankan women; a good Sri Lankan woman does not provoke men to sexual activity. Tradition, here, normalizes women’s submission to sexual abuse, justifies policing women’s behavior, and diverts attention from male abusers.
Without any evidence, Jayasuriya claimed that social media unduly influences SLC decisions. His dismissal of the social media stories of Danushka as “baloney” allows him to ignore social media posts through which vulnerable women have shared their stories of sexual harassment. Social media platforms are dynamic environments that host more varied points of view and debates than traditional media, which affluent and powerful politicians’ control. Any fair review of social media comments on Danushka’s situation demonstrates that many are not as concerned with his guilt or innocence as they are with exposing sexual assault, which is ubiquitous in Sri Lanka—a situation the mainstream media all too frequently ignores.
Jayasuriya’s nationalist arguments are reprised by Tirantha Walaliyadde, a well-known member of the President’s Council. Walaliyadde derides Australia as a British penal colony, claiming that when the original Australians lived in slums, our rulers lived in palaces; we were far more developed and advanced than the Australians. He argues that we are among the best cricket-playing nations in the world—better even than the Australians—and he demands our lawyers’ association and elected officials tell Australia to stop this nonsense and return Danushka to Sri Lanka. Walaliyadde emphasizes the pain of the Sri Lankan nation overseeing one of our Sinhala cricketers “abused” in this manner. Like other Danushka supporters, he questions why Danushka’s Australian accuser invited him to her home after she claimed he physically harassed her earlier. Why did it take her several days to report the incident? Walaliyadde blusters that he would not allow her to utter such gibberish in a Sri Lankan court: “I’ll have her sweep the roadway.” And, like Jayasuriya, he warns that “we must not ruin Danushka,” because there is a difference between breaking discipline and sexual assault charges.
Jayasuriya’s and Walaliyadde’s comments are dangerous because they dismiss Danushka’s critics and encourage people to use nationalism and complaints of racism to defend sexism. This is a betrayal of Sri Lankan women. The decision to eradicate the victim from the account is misogynistic, as is Jayasuriya’s claim that feminists are “bitter” (such a tired trope). Jayasuriya dismisses the women whom he believes are using Danushka’s situation to highlight the “everyday acts of harassment they allegedly suffer at the hands of men.” “Allegedly” is the keyword here. In Jayasuriya’s worldview, it should not be Danushka on trial, but his accuser and all women who speak up about sexual abuse. Walaliyadde thumps his chest and tells readers how we ought to treat women assault victims in Sri Lanka, while claiming the accused is the real victim.
The fact that both men can ignore women’s critiques even as they admit Danushka had already been punished for harassing women and breaching team’s discipline previously reveals their complicity with patriarchy. Jayasuriya argues that Danushka’s frequent disciplinary violations make him unfit for the national cricket team and that his lack of discipline infected the rest of the team. At the same time, he excuses Danushka: “…habitual breaches of discipline and the charges of sexual assault that he is now accused of are not the same thing …. the former should not be interpreted as causing the latter.” Moreover, Walaliyadde contrasts team discipline offenses with sexual assault. While he acknowledges that the two offenses must be dealt with separately, he overlooks the potential that men’s celebrity or national hero status could be used to seduce women. When men are aware that neither society nor the legal system will hold them accountable for their actions, they take advantage of the privileged social position that they occupy.
Jayasuriya also takes issue with Danushka’s local critics, whom he sees as replicating the error of thinking that past abuses have anything to do with current abuses, an opinion with little legal support, and that Jayasuriya certainly would not use to defend a woman who had erred by inviting a dangerous man into her home. A woman’s past will be mercilessly used against her to cast doubt on her accusations.
Our society too often downplays abusive behavior by male celebrities because the public enjoys sport or entertainment and empathizes with celebrity men more than it empathizes with the victims of abusive celebrities. Those who speak out against celebrities are frequently labeled as Sri Lankan “haters.” The idea that “it’s not rape if it’s Alexander Skarsgård” (an embarrassing quote for which celebrity singer Randy Rainbow has apologized repeatedly) is founded on the premise that you are lucky if a celebrity pays attention to you, even if he is abusive. Male celebrities, the media tells us, are the natural prey of the “gold-digger,” who tries to “trap” rich, famous men. Because many men admire celebrities, we often hear defenses of Danushka from men who are not even cricket fans, but who support virtually any guy accused of rape if they think of him as “one of their own.” Their fundamental objective is to protect their gender privileges by treating women as second-class citizens. Too many men will rally to accuse women if they think there is the slightest chance their right to abuse will be abridged.
The masculinist narratives I have described are heavily influenced by liberalism, which places a premium on individual agency and rights. Liberals consider sexual violence to be gender-neutral and an assault on personal autonomy. They compare it to other forms of assault or illegitimate appropriation, focusing primarily on the harm done to individual victims. Liberals mistakenly assume that victims and perpetrators of sexual violence operate on an equal playing field and that those who decide whether sexual violence has occurred are free of bias. In the world described by these narratives, laws guaranteeing equal rights for women are meaningless because they are undermined not by gendered legal categories but by biased interpretations and gender inequality.
In contrast, progressive approaches to preventing violence against women prioritize gendered power and acknowledge resource disparities between men and women. Progressives know that rape is a deeply entrenched social practice that expresses and reinforces widespread inequality and oppression of women in society. Robbing women of their bodily sovereignty is an essential characteristic of women’s oppression. In the eyes of progressives, “rape” includes both overt physical force and violence and the abridgment of women’s right and freedom to say no to unwanted sexual encounters. Progressives see that subjugating women to men’s interests deprives women of the right to withdraw consent. Unfortunately, legal systems governing sexual violence have been more influenced by liberal than progressive perspectives (Johnson, 2005; Whisnant, 2008).
These encoded anti-woman narratives illustrated by popular commentaries on the Danushka saga should move us to transform Sri Lanka’s culture of sexual violence. We must embrace a version of masculinity that does not depend on subjugating women. We need, and Sri Lankan women deserve, a truly emancipatory project that transforms all our institutions—educational, religious, entertainment, and professional—into resolute supporters of women’s rights and staunch opponents of the gender inequality on which sexual abusers of women depend for protection.
Danushka is Free: Here is the reason Tinder Lost, Neth Balumgala, (11 November 2022) https://fb.watch/gRCHkw9Hox/
A New Story about Danushka and the Young Lady, (9 November 2022), Adaderena, Television, https://youtu.be/ujV372gYVMQ
Coralage, B. (2022, 10 November). S.B. says ‘boys will be boys,’ don’t blame only Danushka. The Morning. https://www.themorning.lk/s-b-says-boys-will-be-boys-dont-blame-only-danushka/
Jayasuriya, Ranga, (8 November 2022). https://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/Danushka-Gunathilakes-trial-by-social-media/172-248140https://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/Danushka-Gunathilakes-trial-by-social-media/172-248140
Johnson, A. (2005). The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, (2nd ed.). Temple University Press.
Pinto-Jayawardena, K (eds.). The Search for Justice: The Sri Lankan Papers. Zubaan Series on Sexual Violence and Impunity in South Asia. Zubaan.
MacKinnon, Catharine A. (2005) Women’s Lives Men’s Laws. Cambridge: Belknap Press.
Whisnant, R. (2007). A woman’s body is like a foreign country: Thinking about national and bodily sovereignty, in Global Feminist Ethics, P. DesAutels and R. Whisnant (eds.), Rowman and Little
Williams, R. (2015). Feminism and rape. Public Affairs Quarterly, 29(4), pp. 419–33. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44714931. Accessed 15 Nov. 2022