20 October, 2017

Six Inches Or Six Yards

By Thisuri Wanniarachchi

Thisuri Wanniarachchi

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.

*Thisuri Wanniarachchi, 23, a graduate of Political Science and is the State Literary Award-winning author of novels Colombo Streets (2009) and The Terrorist’s Daughter and (2014).  She is Sri Lanka’s youngest nationally acclaimed author. 
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Latest comments

  • 5
    18

    6 inches suggests lack of knowledge of the finer point of a lascivious tongue lashing and fingers. God didn’t just give 6 inches she also have a tongue and fingers for many pleasurable reasons having nothing to do with Saree or Skirt hetero or lesbo. Ask my3

    • 0
      2

      such a stupid comment to make. where is your brain dude. hehe

  • 2
    3

    Guess it’s upholding the cultural dress over Western dress. All kinds of suggestiveness when wearing the sari will be allowed. But oh no, not for the Western dress. After all it is thought, “Western sexual overtones and undertones are more profane than our Sinhala ones.” Getting “high” on traditional dress-code feels inherently comfortable. But seeing local women emulating Western dress can be downright terrifying.

    But to be fair to local elitist culture, the shortness of the skirt and the sleevelessness of the blouse will depend on the slimness and youthfulness of the wearer. Anything else looks quite terrible. Yet, the terrible bare backs and stomach are soothing to the ordinary man of the soil. Misogynistic and nationalistic maybe.

    But yes, the sari is hardly the correct dress-code for the hot low-country tropics. It is healthy for fashion of a nation to evolve (and not by back and stomachs being showed at wider and wider scales).

    Guess aversion towards Western culture is from an implicit awareness that there is only so much that Sri Lanka and go in that direction considering actual country monetary value and others. Our national spirit needs to be preserved – not just as a costume or icon, but for real life too. And it is in the women’s domain to do so.

  • 13
    7

    Keep writing, Thisuri. You have all the right to be critical about what you see, hear etc. I for one, am in total agreement with your views on women’s dress to work (and whatever else). I feel the same as you do about the issue.
    However, we must remember that we live in a rather conservative, predominantly Buddhist country where certain social and religeous values exist and most people expect them to be respected; hence such criticism that you seem to find rather unpalatable!
    Please continue to express your feelings the way you do at present. There is bound to be bouquets & brickbats but a true social critic need not care too much but continue with that task.
    Best Wishes!
    L I Wijesuriya

  • 15
    7

    Keep writing Ms.Wanniarachchi! Don’t let the critics get to you! It takes enormous strength to have convictions and beliefs that challenge the societal norms and to put those convictions out there for all to see makes you a true hero. As a strong feminist (who is incidently a man) I am overwhelemed by your efforts.

    If I can make a suggestion, the Sri Lankan Law does make any allowances for Medical Termination of Pregnancy except to save the life of the mother. I am not sure what your views on this are but regardless, i for one would love to hear your views on this. Other, equally conservative countries like India and Nepal have passed comprehensive MTP acts making provisions for legalized abortion. Don’t you think it’s time we did the same?

  • 0
    2

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  • 17
    14

    I have a question? What was the point of this article? I feel like the sole purpose of this was because something did not go your way or god forbid you got glares for not wearing a saree.

    There are far more pressing issues in this country other than crying if women should wear sarees to work or not. If it is not the law the person is free to wear what she wants, regardless of what society thinks. But companies have rules and regulations that you must follow and if you don’t like it, don’t work there. Simple!

    Also I’m yes I’m sure your “great at your work” just as I am sure that Nanda Malini is at hers..or maybe the saree is constructing her vocal chords, let me go through her decade long career and confirm it with you.

    There are other platforms to cry about the issues in your privileged life like twitter for example. You can join Donald Trump and tweet every time something doesn’t go your way.

    • 6
      10

      “no cry, no women” – Got to tolerate anyway, or oily food.

      • 7
        9

        Totally agree! I could not believe this meaningless article.

    • 3
      1

      Do you wear saree everyday to work. Why do not men wear saron to work every day, mens make things comfortable make there life easy, but women has go through all the hard ship to save your culture, most government offices need to wear saree regardless of the choice even schools. I don’t understand what is Buddhism has to do with sare. most western ppl follow Buddhism correct way than srilankan without a saree,

      • 1
        0

        If we were allowed to wear sarongs to work we would have done this along time ago. Trust me on this one xD…

    • 0
      2

      What is the point of your comment mate. And whats the role stupid god have to do here any way. seem to be you are scared of smart women. hehe

  • 12
    0

    When you talk seriously about Sinhalese culture and heritage, why don’t you give importance to ‘reddha hette’, the traditional dress and promote it? Instead, I see foreign cultures being promoted, saree, salwar etc.

    Other than ‘Avurudhu Kumari’ contests, cashew nut vendors in Kajugama and some older mothers in vegetable markets, I don’t see women wearing it.

    Why rest of the world don’t seem to like our traditional dress and SL food, while everyone seems to love Indian dress and food? (example, if you enter an SL restaurant out of SL, you find only Sri Lankans there, but if it is Indian you find people from every part)

    Or, don’t we promote SL as much as Indians do?

  • 3
    4

    There is no rule that women must wear sarees to work except school teachers or only few private organizations may have uniforms(saree) The most daily public transport commuters willingly choose sarees because they know they are well respected by others rather than who wear other kind of dresses such as; skirts and blouse, dresses, jeans etc. to work.

  • 7
    0

    This is a good debate. For a working woman the choice should be based on conconvenience, cost and appearance. Shirt and pants can provide all these. TRhe davings to individuals and the nation will be substantial Of coucourse the plantation workers are happy with the saree which can cover their heads and shoulders when necessary. But they do not wear a differen saree every other day.
    A common uniform will also remove social distinctions. One can notice fast changes in the dress codes. Most Middle East non Muslim returnees have adopted the blouse and the long skirt as the accepted dress.
    Let their be some kind of convenient shirt and pants for working women andleve the saree for special occasions.

  • 8
    3

    Oh, dear Thisuri… here we go again… relentless efforts to undermine anything Sri Lankan in order to foist Americanism on us, primitive savages, at any cost.No woman is FORCED to wear saree in SL, that is proved by the fact that we have a plethora of garment outlets that sell alternative clothing. Have you travelled by bus? I do everyday. How many women would you see in a bus wearing saree? You will find many more women in dresses, or business clothes (skirts,shirts and jackets), jeans or pants than in saree. Women in this country wear saree, including girls in their late teens, because they fancy it; they like it and, because… yes, you guessed it right… it is our national dress. Americans don’t have a national dress (other than the native indians). The Queen of England wears long dresses… even in hot,tropical countries… but that is “OK” because she is the symbol of the “British Raj” and she is English. The American President is forced to wear full suit, in line with the countries policy, even when he is on an outdoor podium is India- But that is OK cos he is American. Get my drift… this is very sad, dear.

  • 1
    2

    Author misunderstands flamboyant ostentations to bold headings. The essay is a watery, freely running soup, without any traction; sounds like a Chariot Festival, after midnight Nadhaswara, Aalapana.

    Major defect on that is, its explicit Sinhala Buddhism, which assumes Point Petro to Dondra one single dress code; ignores Kattankudi to Colombo road signal lights but takes a straight drive. So the essay killed the writer’s openness of mind, but hanging on a trivial or petty office quarrels. It very narrowly focusing of Sinhala Buddhist women’s office sari, which is nothing more than another one Office gossip, or cannot be above office politics, not a siren call for the fight for female gender freedom. Not at all!

    Somebody talked about tea pluckers. Even some call for Redda/Hetti. Some commentators, those who probably got their six but still missing the important two, naively attempting to point at larger picture, but their lack of courage forcing them to vote for Biryani and arrack, the usual Sinhala Heroism.

    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,
    Before we go deep into this, let’s take a quick look at Hirunika case & dismiss it. Hirunika, who all the way had worked as a model on runways, was hurt by character assassination after the murder of her father? Is that possible author meant Hirunika was hurt by Premachandra ( ‘s way of) living, not dead in time? Hirunika’s record is kidnapping with Defender Van, walking in her father’s foot step. How a crime after the political office can become a character assassination, which was a detrimental to seek office?

  • 0
    0

    My understanding is, based on Colombo media, Hirunika sought out justice for fathers’ murders, but Old King and Chandrika guided her through politics, apparently to use that murder for their political benefit. Chandrika taught Hirunika how to whine on the stages the exact same way Sirimavo cried to become prime minister. I yet have to hear UNP Vijayakala Maheswaran or SLFP Sudarshani Fernandopulle crying to get votes. I don’t get why Hirunika is so important, but not those two? Is that because of their Tamil connection? The reality is JVP lost Professor Grade people in 2015 election, but Hirunika was elected by Colombo Modaya elites. I do not think Hirunika fit in politics to be paired with Rosy. Still Weerawansa stands out better than Hirunika. Hirunika and other 94 8th graders have to go out.

    Let me ask a question, does Weerawansa ever accused of war crimes? Did he kill a girlfriend? Or is that the author grade activist doesn’t care, beyond their freedom of wearing pants, in case if a young girl, by her age and human nature, believe on a man and fell in love him, but get killed him? How bad can be a man, who only for popularity is fasting all over everywhere – whether it is in prison, or in his house or in front of UN-, than those heroes, who are war criminals, who kill their loved ones, who kidnap with white wans… ? So, those war crime accused can one after other be on the top seat of the country, but Weerawansa should not win an election because Rosy lost? Is that all in the theory of freedom to wear pants?

  • 0
    0

    Geetha easily won the election, but Hirunika suffered because there is no point in character assassinating Geetha? Can somebody tell me if Geetha can win an election then why shouldn’t Weerawansa do the same damn thing?
    To come to our base point, Rosy lost in 2015, but a war criminal walks around with a Thirukkai Vaal as fashion police is elected as the leader of the country. Author not ready to come down to that, but to be honest that is the larger picture. I disagree with Rosy, but she is a decent, fine woman, who 100 times greater than the clown sitting on EP chair, now.

    The Sinhala election, unlike American election, which hinges on male-female differences, hinges on pure Sinhala Buddhism. Seasoned, well established, popular figure, Dudley could not become prime minister, but an uneducated, completely novice, Sirimavo became a Prime Minister 60 years ago. The writer is wrapping the whole pumpkin inside the rice bowl by just mentioning Rosy’s loss, but not the reality of after freedom, ever sliding Lankawe’s state.

    In Lankawe people cannot protest against dumping garbage in their back year. Mother of an aids child is being bashed by the education minister for she attempting to have her child learned few letters and numbers in the short time left with her before lie down her mat for ever. Lankawe elections can be won, by irrelevant of being a man or woman, only by spewing Sinhala Tamil venom. Dudley – Sirimavo case is not Weerawansa – Rosy case. It is a clear message of, if you can come with venom, you will get the dictator’s authority.

  • 0
    1

    Colonist Imported Western Culture into Lankawe as the “usual business formal clothing”. They forced the bare breasted Sinhala Appuhamy men to wear undershirt, Shirt and jacket over that. Colonialist frowned at too open, sexy, four feet Redda/Hatte, but ticked off Tamils’ six yards sari, as fully wrapping. So while looters were shouting on outside office “Dosai-Vadai” appita Eppa, Sinhala Buddhist women inside were wearing Tamil Sari as the official dress.

    Instead of dreaming of beating at the Sari as beating at their arch enemies, the Tamils, the fight for freedom has to start on the appropriate point. Tearing off Tamil import and covering with Western import of Arabian import is not fighting for women freedom. If you don’t have an irrigation system for uninterrupted water supply needed, you cannot cultivate. To correct the mass on cultural issue, political establishment needs to respect the law and order, first. Wherever on a land the law cannot protect people, there the mass cannot become cultured or civilized. Let’s all get united and start at minority rights, MMDA, the 6th amendment, PTA, Weliweriya, Meethotamulla, central bank looting, Eklinegoda murder, Thajudeen love triangle murder….and come to cultural advancement.

    • 1
      0

      Mallaiyuran,

      “Let’s all get united and start at minority rights”

      It is that you want to take revenge on Govt. Now you have a lot to complain and point at things and even calling for protesting; all publicly, and that is the democracy.

      Where were you or what were your opinion when a rogue LTTE government was controlling certain area in the North, headquartered in Killinochchi?

      You kept quiet either you supported LTTE’s authoritarian rogue govt, or in fear. Whatever it is, I don’t think you qualify for pointing fingers at the govt now.

  • 0
    1

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    • 2
      0

      Rajash

      Brilliant

      Thanks

      Keep it up

  • 2
    2

    this is so far the best article I have read which you have written. good you are talking about this. Not just in schools this stupid dress code for women exists in our embassies also. I have seen our senior female diplomats forced to wear Saree in -10C temperature in the midst of snow storms.
    as a man I have experience serious issues with senior Sri Lankan government officials for refusing to put a tie and “dress like a real man” as they say. In some cases the comment came from senior female officers too.

  • 2
    0

    Thisuri

    You are right in that looks are considered more important than merit in Sri Lanka. This is universal across all races and socio-economic classes.

    I went to the Pension Department in a kurta and jeans, to get my dad’s pension issue resolved. The manager there , who was wearing a osari and chatting on the phone with a friend for almost 20 minutes while I waited patiently, hung up the phone, eyed me down and refused to help me. I was very frustrated, since I had all the paperwork needed. But she insisted that I bring my dad who is 84 and disabled, in order to accept the paper work I had in my hand!!

    When I went back to my taxi, and told the driver of what happened, we said that it was because I was not dressed in the “Colombo Professional Dress Code” of dress shirt (long sleeve), tie, dress pants and shoes!!! Had I been dressed thus, he said the manager would have bent in 3 to serve me and would have addressed me as “sir”. Instead, I a man with long hair, in a kurta and jeans was mistreated and discriminated for what I look like. I bet she never suspected that I am a university professor. In Sri Lanka looks are far more important than merit and your humanity.

    • 0
      1

      Wow, this is bunkum… I have seen and know so many gents and ladies who jhave gone to the RMV in Kurta and jeans and who have been served. This is n ot a case of discrimination but a case of an irresponsible, Iam-a-govt-servant attitude that still exists in ALL government offices. Go the GS’s office or to the passport office,amude or kurta, you will still have to await services from their “highnesses” when they are ready to give it to you. Again that is not discrimination due to dress, just crass arrogance.

    • 0
      0

      You’re missing the point here. Yes, people judge you by the way you look, and they may proceed to treat you accordingly. And they’re at full liberty to do so. As long as they way they treat you doesn’t border on harassment or illegal activity, there’s not much you can do about it other than suck it up and carry on. It’s not society’s fault, it’s just how the world works.

      Now, this pension department place does sound awful, and there’s no argument that their customer service is downright -insert alternative word for feces here-. And there’s no argument that the manager there was a serious douche.But I’m sure taking the issue to her superiors would be far more productive than whining about it in the comments section in some article and blaming it on Sri Lankan society.

  • 1
    0

    I wonder what the author would say if I turn up to a meeting with her in a pair of shorts. After all we are living in a hot humid country, so the same rules should apply to men. She’d probably bring up an argument about being aptly dressed for the occassion.

    But who really decides what’s an appropriate attire for an occassion is? The author looks at things from a western pov and seems that business casual attire is appropriate. Would she not frown on someone who breaks that norm? Wouldnt she frown on a person who turn up in a pair of shorts? So why is it wrong for another person/woman, who looks at things in a different pov, a different standard, to not like it when you break the accepted norm? Double standards anyone??

  • 1
    0

    I always ask men at my work place why you are expecting us to wear sarees when u dnt intend to shift your dress code to national dress. Since am an employee of a reputed gvt bank I am forced to wear saree eachday everyday regardless of anu weather condition or health condition (exept pegnancy). I wonder the “men” seated on the higher chairs have a sense of what it takes for a woman to wear a saree when it is raining or in a illness. Anyway what I believe is in a country where men decides what women should wear or do we could not hope for much sensible approach in womens affairs.

  • 0
    0

    I completely agree with the fact that it’s senseless and downright stupid to force women to wear saris in workplaces. But really? Someone insisting that you should wear a sari goes under sexual harassment? You’ve got to be joking. Yes, your peers can ask you to dress to work a certain way, but you’re at full liberty to ignore him and not do so. I understand that its annoying that some douchebag is telling you what to and not to wear, but labeling it sexual harassment is a bit over the top.

    Also, i don’t see the problem with the “norm” of wearing saris being prominent in workplaces where wearing a sari is optional. There’s nothing stopping you from wearing any other sensible form of clothing to work on a legal level, so why complain that your peers disapprove? They’re not obligated to approve or anything. They’re entitled to their own opinions the same way you are. So ignore what they’re saying and wear what you think is fitting and comfortable. As long as nobody obstructs you doing your job in any way because of what you wear, there really isn’t a need to complain.

    Aside from that, i more or less agree with the rest of the points brought up in the article. Sri Lankan culture and tradition is stained with sexism of all sorts. Just to clarify, I’m not a sexist of misogynist or whatever label people like to put on anyone who disagrees with a feminist. Just a guy who believes that every opinion is open to criticism. Cheers.

  • 0
    0

    Love this article & agree 100%. Women should not be forced to wear saree,it shows off more of your body,& its not practice at all in this type of weather.

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