I never quite understood it; the logic behind the expectations of Sri Lankan women to wear sarees to work. In a country with humid weather, insane traffic, over populated public transport infested with casual sexual harassment, women are expected to wear six yards of cloth that plump them up and often expose their belly and back, to work. Men, on the other hand, can wear the “western” formal clothing, trousers, shirt, and/or tie. Nobody ever asked them to reciprocate and wear the national outfit; a convenient double standard, because, patriarchy. Some women rock the saree, it empowers them and they choose to wear it with pride. Hell, for some women in many parts of our country wearing a saree to work is an honor, a sign that they’ve made it, gotten a job that requires them to live up to the expectations of the average Sri Lankan professional woman. But just because some women choose to wear it, to assume that all women have a choice is presumptuous. In government institutions across the country, women are required to wear saree. In most of these institutions this isn’t a rule, but a norm. Rules are upheld by law. Norms are upheld by society. While there are many offices across the country at which wearing the sari is not mandatory for women, in most government offices the sari is the norm, a norm that is upheld as if it is a rule, and enforced by both men and women to maintain the traditional double standards women are handed on a silver platter all their life.
I have, in many instances, been informed by my male employers to consider wearing a sari to work, in some cases they have insisted that I do. In the United States, some parts of Europe and many parts of the world where social standards are upheld by legislature, this falls under sexual harassment. I know I’m not alone in this experience. I also know that countless women have faced much worse treatment in their workplaces. In a country such as ours, where social norms are bent towards sexist practices, it’s fair to believe that we need to establish legislature that gives women protection from the everyday exploitation they face in workplaces. In 2017 why is it that we are yet to establish this legislative infrastructure? The answer to this question is written all over our society and the many barriers women face in having equal rights and respect; one of the main reasons behind it being elite conservatism.
A year ago I wrote a piece for the Colombo Telegraph titled What Your Schools Didn’t Teach You. It was one of the most criticized pieces of my writing only second to my second novel The Terrorist’s Daughter. I wrote it fully aware of the backlash it is vulnerable to receive and the fact that it disavows much of the unique egomaniacal fraternized misogynistic culture Colombo society upholds. I specifically chose the Colombo Telegraph for the purpose of reaching the exact community that its target audience comprises. What Your Schools Didn’t Teach You didn’t belong in Sri Lanka’s elite print newspapers, or my books, or in the conversations had in coffee-shop-liberal forums. It had to be in a medium that could be freely accessed by those riding the wave of Colombo’s elite conservatism; and that, it did. And it trickled down to the very bases of our societal, government, business, and NGO/ INGO sectors that are overtaken by the essence of this elite conservatism. It stung them hard, and created a wave of backlash that pronounced the very misogyny that my writing was referring to.
There are instances when one can justify conservatism. This shouldn’t be the case, but in some parts of the country, where rural society is abandoned time and time again from the development equation, where basic resources don’t reach their schools or hospitals, creating many barriers to social development, rural conservatism and backward thinking is somewhat justified. But elite conservatism on the other hand, is inexcusable. Elite conservatism is a situation in which despite the existence of the optimal socioeconomic conditions for social progress, society blatantly chooses to discriminate, and not defend equal rights and respect for all. That is a problem. When we point out elite sexism, people immediately dismiss it, often using anecdotal evidence to prove that sexism doesn’t exist in Colombo. They point at Otara Gunawardene, Hirunika Premachandra and Rosy Senanayake and all the other Colombo women who overcame these challenges and made a name for themselves. They conveniently forget the character-bashing Hirunika had to deal with in the wake of her father’s murder, they forget that people found Gammampilla and Weerawansa to be more electable than Rosy, and that despite it being far from the truth, people like to talk about how Otara didn’t have time to be a mom because she was such a busy career-woman. Sexism in elite Sri Lanka is an undisputed reality.
Take our government, for instance. The decisions on public policy made by our government affect all Sri Lankan men and women alike. But out of our Cabinet of 47 members only 2 are women. Think about it, although women take up over 50% of our population, at the most powerful table in the country where the most crucial decisions are made, only 4% is women. Representation matters. Lack of representation nourishes oppression. In our schools, workplaces and government women face a constant double standard of scrutiny. The dress code is a symbolic element of the institutional sexism in this country that reinforces this deeper issue that leads to lack of women in places of power.
In some of the most powerful offices in the country, the saree is not a mere norm women adapt to fit in, to avoid shame from their peers, or live up to socialized standards set by society, it is an institutionalized protocol. Women are not allowed into certain parts of the parliament if they aren’t dressed in a long sleeved saree jacket. This institutionalized sexism is nourished in Sri Lankan elite society. Many elite schools in the country impose bizarre dress codes for mothers who come to pick up their kids. The excuse being, mothers exposing themselves to young boys may cause them distress; because apparently men are so fragile they cannot look at a woman in a sleeveless blouse or a short skirt without getting aroused. Why is it that it is the job of the woman to assure that men don’t get aroused by them? Hate to break the news to those who didn’t know, but not all women who choose to dress comfortably and fashionably in this humid country are looking to arouse men.
Forget the dress code, some Colombo elite institutions have established rules to ensure women are given a back seat in its organization and left out of its administration altogether. One of the most elite sports club in Colombo, the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) as a rule, does not allow women to be full members of their board, women are only allowed Associate Member status and do not get to vote. Several years ago when some women attempted to change that rule and allow women too to have voting board seats, male board members who hadn’t set foot in club meetings for years, including bed ridden men in wheelchairs showed up at the meeting and voted no to allowing women into the board. To this day, women are not allowed in the SSC Board nor are they allowed full membership. Don’t tell me we don’t have a problem of elite sexism in this country, because we most certainly do.
Some women, myself included, prefer to wear pants and a shirt, but turns out most men do not like it when women wear pants to work, almost as if the fact that we too have limbs is best kept a mystery. In the past two years I spent working and attending meetings at Government offices I chose to stick to my values of wearing what I felt was respectful to both the institution I was walking into and also my own body; until a couple of months ago, I had never worn a saree to work. My professional priority has always been the quality of my work. In my head I always assumed that respect is earned through delivery, through a work ethic that’s powerful and gets things done. I knew my not adapting to the normative dress code held me back a little, but I always worked twice as hard to make up for that. My theory was that if you work really hard and are really good at your job, you become invaluable to the institution and eventually nobody is going to care about what you’re wearing, they will want you regardless. This has been the case for the most part. Once at a meeting, a woman in a saree asked me, “the Saree is the dress code. How did you get in here without wearing saree?” I told her it’s because I’m really good at my job, and continued onto the meeting. But I couldn’t kid myself, things are much harder for the women who don’t obey the norms.
As an experiment I tried wearing sarees to meetings at state institutions to which I have previously worn my usual business formal clothing. There’s a distinct difference in the ease of getting things done and getting people’s attention to the matter you need addressed when you are in saree. The nicest of all, to me, was the absence of the glares of scorn that I got from other women at state institutions when I didn’t wear saree. As if my pants and I were letting down all womankind. Most male employers validate your role in their institution when you show up in saree. It’s often very subtle, but for anyone paying attention, it establishes a clear ceiling, putting you in your place. Yes, it’s just a dress code, but it also sends a clear message: if you don’t have your six inches, you’ve got to wear your six yards.