By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Finance and Mass Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera deserves full marks for taking the initiative to reform the archaic 1955 law prohibiting women from purchasing alcohol at a tavern and working in an establishment that manufactures and sells alcohol. He also deserves zero marks for the manner he went about amending the law resulting in the withdrawal of gazette Extraordinary containing the Excise Notification No 3 of 2018 within a few days.
Since the advent of the Yahapalana government, it has been forced to retract their decisions on many occasions including budget proposals due to objections from some of their own, the unofficial opposition or various interest groups. Prevarication is necessarily a hallmark of a coalition government in the Wonder of Asia.
After three years in office, cabinet ministers are yet to learn, their proposals are best discussed, and consensus reached with the President, Prime Minister and cabinet of ministers, before implementation. Failure to do so often results in opposition from some cabinet members and the government having to back down under pressure with egg on its face, not the smartest of moves.
Returning to the issue at hand, this writer worked in the hotel industry for ten years in the 1980s and had since patronized hotels regularly. I must plead ignorance of the law prohibiting a female from purchasing alcohol at a hotel bar, the more sophisticated name for a tavern, and prohibition from working in an establishment manufacturing or selling liquor. It is not due to lack of observation powers, but because I have regularly observed female customers, foreign and local, sit in hotel bars and swimming pools and purchase alcoholic beverages. Furthermore, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks are often served by waitresses (females). A recent web poll conducted by a leading newspaper resulted in an 85.1% negative awareness factor.
Thanks to Minister Samaraweera’s modus operandi of implementation without consultation followed by retraction under pressure, a dormant law, mostly observed in the breach, has taken center stage with the distinct possibility of serious consequences.
Should politically motivated hotel union employees decide to abide by the law which most of them like this writer were unaware of until last week, the government would be compelled to make some hard choices. It would have to inform tourists of the inability for female tourists to purchase alcoholic beverages at hotels and kiss goodbye to its ambitious tourist arrival targets. It would also have to prohibit females from working in hotel bars and restaurants resulting in at least some job losses or else withdraw the ban.
As ridiculous as it may sound, the excise notification does not prohibit the purchase of alcohol by females in supermarkets as no consumption takes place!
There are other more critical issues such as infringement on fundamental rights of women, equality before the law and gender-based discrimination. The Yahapalana government implemented regulations requiring 25% representation for women in local governments bodies, considered progressive and in sync with global trends. Retraction of Minister Samaraweera’s gazette notification which merely formalized what has been in practice in the breach for decades can by no means be termed progressive. It is regressive.
The issue of extended hours of taverns is as nonsensical as closing them on Poya Days resulting in liquor sales on the previous day skyrocketing. No tippler forgoes his tot due to the Poya Day ban. Similarly, consumers of alcohol will consume their hearts content irrespective of closing time. Some years ago, UK stipulated closing times for Pubs. A gong would be rung 15 minutes before closing time announcing; ‘Drink up gentlemen, last orders please’ which resulted in customers purchasing not one but two or three beers. Pubs never closed until customers had consumed all they had purchased.
The justification for revocation of Minister Samaraweera’s Gazette was; it was against the nation’s cultural and Buddhist values. President Sirisena and his band of opportunists in the cabinet objecting to the Gazette need give serious thought, how does one reconcile the recent altercation in Parliament on January 10 to the grating rendition of ‘Hora, Hora’ with Sri Lanka’s cultural and Buddhist values.
A weak Speaker, despite his assertion, the incident may have been a planned event has failed to assert his authority and take the culprits to task. Is it so difficult to identify the first ten MPs to enter the parliament well, using CCTV footage and mete out the maximum punishment permitted under standing orders? Or else, will he allow culprits to go unpunished in the same manner unruly parliamentarians have escaped punishment in the past?
About politicians, two leading female politicians, namely the former lady President and current Colombo Mayoral candidate are known to imbibe in the occasional glass of wine. They have, in the past, campaigned for women’s rights and gender equality. Their silence indicates a sudden change of heart. Ideals would appear to have been dumped in favor of political expediency.
Some female candidates including at least one from the celluloid industry contesting the forthcoming local government elections have voiced their support for the ban in the media. What they fail to understand is; this is not a matter of alcohol. It is a matter of women’s rights and gender equality, guaranteed in the constitution. Such is the caliber of those aspiring to be future parliamentarians.
Let all Colombo voters insist, the Mayoral candidate and all others seeking their vote take a stand and publicly state if each of them endorses Samaraweera’s original gazette thus upholding the rights and equality of women or the subsequent Gazette as directed by President Sirisena which downgrades the rights and equality of women. Feminist movements should mobilize their membership to advise all voters, male and female, to make their vote dependent on the reintroduction of the Finance Minister’s original gazette. That is the only option left for women to win their rights and gender equality, guaranteed in the constitution.
Gutless leaders in both the executive and legislative branches of government prone to making politically expedient decisions regardless of consequences need be made to do the right thing. The threat of an anti-UNP and SLFP (Maithri wing) vote might have the desired effect.
Alternatively, is the government awaiting a diktat from USA, European Union or UNHRC as observed on such issues since January 2015?
Meanwhile, kudos to the women who have taken the matter to the Supreme Court.
One can only hope, the judiciary, the third arm of government, will put matters right keeping in line with current progressive trends around the globe and defeat the politically expedient culture vultures in other branches of government.
Let us reverse this post-independence trend of taking one step forward two steps backward.