By Harini Amarasuriya –
The recent debate particularly on social media spurred first by the government’s decision to repeal a law forbidding women from buying or selling alcohol and then to revoke that decision to repeal, has highlighted something that most Sri Lankan women have known almost all their lives: we live in a highly misogynistic society. Our women may not be dying in their thousands and child birth; we may not kill baby girls simply because they are girls; we may not expect our widows to jump into the funeral pyre along with their husbands; our education statistics may show that women outperform men at almost every level of education; but it’s time we stopped hiding behind these statistics and confront what Sri Lankan women have consciously or unconsciously known since birth: our society is NOT good for women. Our society is not good for women of any class, ethnicity or religion. Let’s stop pointing to the exceptional women who have carved out successful lives for themselves, as indications of how progressive our society is with regard to women. Privileged women who are able to do as they please including buying alcohol, aborting unwanted pregnancies, ending unhappy relationships and marriages do so despite society’s restrictions and because of their privileged positions. Those women succeeded because of their individual circumstances and not because their rights have been recognised in our society.
At a recent public discussion, at which I was present, one speaker stated that perhaps this is one of the most liberal government we can expect. Of course, the speaker was not suggesting that this is the most liberal government per se, but that in the Sri Lankan context, the most liberal government we can expect to have. Liberal governments are generally considered to be progressive on women’s rights and freedom – at least from the point of view of equality especially in relation to individual rights. Let me cite a couple of recent examples, to show this government’s record on women’s rights. The attempt to reform Sri Lanka’s archaic abortion laws and bring in some minimal reforms, such as the right to abort in an instance of rape, has gone nowhere. The moment religious groups, led by the Catholic Church objected, the reform initiative was withdrawn. The long running efforts by Muslim women’s groups, to reform Muslim marriage and divorce laws have been running into one brick wall after another. In all of these instances, powerful men – across the political, religious and ethnic spectrum have united to oppose these reform initiatives. In almost all these instances and others, men have told us: these are not the ‘real’ problems women face – focus on the ‘real’ problems.
Another characteristic of resistance to reforms pertaining to women in Sri Lanka, is the extent to which ‘culture’ features as the barometer by which the appropriateness of the reform initiative is measured. Not just any culture, but the ‘great and unique culture’ that we have inherited. I know of no other country where from our birth, we are reminded that ‘our culture’ is superior to every other culture in the world and that we have a ‘unique’ culture that is different to every other culture in the world. Predictably, on the alcohol issue as well, culture was piously invoked as the reason for withdrawing the earlier gazette. Minister Rajitha Senaratne at a media briefing reminded us that we are not England or America. JVP MP Vijitha Herath also reminded us that laws have to be ‘culturally appropriate’. Culture is the most invoked category for resisting reforms that target women’s issues.
It is indeed an utter indictment of our political leaders that in this day and age, they invoke ‘culture’ as if it is a bounded, fixed, and holy category that has divine status. It is especially sad, when politicians on the left of the political spectrum or those who profess liberal positions do so. The silence of those who know better, is even worse because it shows that pragmatic politics in Sri Lanka – has always meant compromising with the powerful, and with regard women, that has meant that men get to decide what is right, what is important, what is real for women and what is appropriate for women.
The controversy and debate around the alcohol issue is important not simply because it is about whether women have the right to drink or not. It exposes yet again the extent to which misogyny is embedded within Sri Lankan society and within our political structures. This is not simply about an unsophisticated reaction of a President from a rural background – I wish it were that easy – this is about how deeply anti-women Sri Lankan society is beneath its women friendly exterior. Scratch beneath the surface of even the most liberal and progressive Sri Lankan man and this misogyny will be apparent. This is why this is not simply a problem of elite Sri Lankan women who want to maintain a particular lifestyle; neither is it a problem of the lack of sophistication and liberal values amongst the majority of our political leaders. It is about an ethos that pervades throughout society that reproduces and maintains male privilege.