Colombo, Gender, Human Rights, Youth

USJP Students’ Union: Harassment and Gender Discrimination over clothing

Many believe that women in Sri Lanka are in a better place compared to its counterparts in South Asia. This is true up to a certain extent where women enjoy a high level of education, high life expectancy at birth (74 years) and access to economic opportunities. Sri Lanka elected the first ever female head of state and had since been governed by two female heads of state – namely Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge. Yet women face gender related issues. Dominant among them is violence against women. Once President Chandrika Kumaratunga noted, “There’s a new problem – violence against women, social violence like rape, even rape of little children. Physical violence, (some) not heard of before, is on the increase”.

Indeed as President Kumaratunga says, women face diverse forms of physical violence where some are unknown to many. Like the instance of female students in Sri Jayawardanapura University coming under physical and verbal harassment for wearing three-quarter pants to university.

In the University of Sri Jayawardanapura female students are banned from wearing three-quarter pants and the ones who dare to wear them are often scolded in filth, threatened and raw eggs are thrown at them by the male students attached to the Students’ Union. This ludicrous dress code violating the basic freedoms and rights of the women was imposed several years ago by the male students of the Students’ Union in this university that is often attached to a radical Marxist party. The members of the Students’ Union argue that these pants are indecent and inappropriate to the culture of the University. Therefore it is evident that;

1)    Three-quarter pants are banned to protect the culture of the university.

2)    Scolding and throwing raw eggs at the ones who wear them are done to discipline them and to protect the culture of the university.

However, a glance at the rules and regulations of the University of Sri Jayawardanapura, does not suggest such ludicrous dress codes or ban female students from wearing three quarter pants to university. Therefore female students have every right to come in three-quarter pants to university as they are only expected to follow the rules imposed by the university not by the Students’ Union.

The University Student Union, which is considered an important body in a university, does not have any authority to make or impose rules in a university according to Section 112 of the University Act dealing with University Students’ Union and Faculty Students’ Union (http://www.ugc.ac.lk/en/policy/universities-act/48.html). They are only expected to assist the administration of the university to maintain discipline and despite the clear guidelines; the members of the Students’ Union continue to harass female students who come in three-quarter pants. However, this madness of harassing students over their attire is not restricted to female students; it applies to visitors too. Once, two girls who came on a visit to the Post-Graduate Institute of this university had raw eggs thrown at them by the male students for wearing three-quarter pants.

The conduct of the Students’ Union towards female students coming in three quarter pants is similar to the conduct of Taliban militants flogging Afghan women for showing the ankle underneath the Burqa by mistake. And this conduct of the Students’ Union is a violation of Article 12 (2) of the Constitution which states that; “No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of the race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any such grounds.

In this specific issue, the University in any capacity does not agree with or encourage the conduct of the Students’ Union; however, it has failed to efficiently address the issue by taking action against the students who misbehave and harass female students. It appears that the authorities of the university treat this issue as an internal matter between the students and therefore the matter has not been taken seriously. Even the security guards stationed at the gate, who bear the responsibility of providing security to students, are reluctant to take action against the boys who harass students over three quarter pants. Instead they warn the girls on possible attacks from boys, rather than warning the boys not to harass girls.

The most unfortunate outcome of this is that it has become the norm in the university where the students have unwillingly accepted the conduct of the male students and the Students’ Union on three quarter pants. Similarly they don’t resist when they are subjected to similar harassment during the ragging season and when they are forced to take part in protests organized by the radical Marxist parties affiliated to the Students’ Union. Victims who come across verbal and physical harassment often bare the pain and shame in silence, while some courageously defend themselves by arguing with the boys, which is a rare instance.

Victims are often reluctant to resist the oppressors mainly due to the fear of much more stringent repercussions from the oppressors. The lack of awareness on basic human rights and the law of the country among these students also contribute to this. Most students who come across harassment do not know whom to tell, whom to complain to and have no faith on justice served upon them.

It seems that the male students of the Students’ Union have imposed this ludicrous dress code to simply cast their dominance over women and also to suppress the ones who follow a liberal lifestyle. Members of the Students’ Union often come from rural and impoverished backgrounds and fail to adapt to the realities of a modernized urban society. As a result they develop an inferior complex with the ones hailing from affluent urban backgrounds. Therefore banning three-quarter pants as well as ragging new comers (freshers) is a reflection of this inferiority complex.

Tolerance, which implies the loving acknowledgment of the unique dignity of every human being, mutual respect for privacy and rights and the right to equal concern and respect does not exist in the vocabulary of the student political bodies, student political parties and even among the student community. This is another reason that leads certain students to act in such an oppressive manner.

The negligence and the silence of the University authorities and the students who silently oppose these kinds of acts have empowered the rowdy oppressor to continue with this madness.

The writer’s personal experience of being humiliated for coming in three quarter pants made her write this piece to reveal this madness to raise awareness among the society regarding the seriousness of the issue and to date, this issue remains a nightmare for female students.

Despite the change in times and having a special act to deal with domestic violence (Prevention of Domestic Violence Act No 34, 2005), harassment and violence against women continue to occur at universities, which should be a place of light, of liberty and of learning as noted by Benjamin Disraeli.

  • Silver

    I am a graduate of USJP, and during my time we had this problem from a few JVP arts graduates. I think the problem is limited only to the arts faculty, which is the hot bed of JVP terrorism, definitely not observed in the medical, science or management faculties as far as I know.

    The issue is, many students from rural villages with strong links to JVP (obviously most of them fill up the virtually useless dime-a-dozen arts degrees), fail to assimilate with the rest of the more sophisticated class of students coming from the towns. So there is the inevitable clash of the sub cultures, with the JVP’s talaibanish-frog-in-the-well village rustics trying to pontificate on the student community, in which they think can command because of their sheer numbers.

    Also, these village students tend to think that getting in to a university is THE ultimate achievement, oblivious to the more rigorous challenges they will have to meet once they seek employment, personifying the typically frog-in-the-well mentality coupled by militant JVP zest and obvious mental bankruptcy of our villages.

    The solution obviously lies in the lack of English education, which prevents the village folk from accessing more worldly literature, as opposed to the town counterparts. Address the mental bankruptcy first and all this will slowly die a natural death….already JVP has partly died and its remnants are in fact holed up in, well, none other than USJP it self, fighting for their last ditch battle by throwing eggs at women wearing three quarter pants!

    If Darwin or Wallance was here they shake their heads sadly and say “Ah my son that is just natural selection at work”

  • justitia

    In the fifties,at the (only) University of Ceylon, girls mostly wore saris, & a few
    wore frocks. There was no ‘dress-code’ as such.
    The “rag” was a one day affair – male freshers were taken into the King George’s Hall by male seniors, all doors closed, stripped naked, asked to dance, all buttons on their trousers were removed/cut off, asked to dress up and told to go home. The girls had their own ‘rag’ which was freshers being asked to recite ‘kavi’ etc.
    A netball match was organised between seniors & freshers – refreshments served afterwards funded by contributions by the latter – it was like a ‘social’ occasion. Many lifelong friendships blossomed, some between opposite genders ended later in marriage.
    The Board of Residence and Discipline was very strict on any misbehaviour which came to their notice. There was absolute discipline even during annual Students Union Society elections.
    All this was possible because the university had complete autonomy. The university (and later the new one at Peradeniya) ran itself.
    But when politicians were allowed powers of appointing Chancellors,Vice Chancellors and professors, the rot set in. This became worse when university staff were allowed to take part in politics – politics entered universities and political sympathisers – among both teachers & students – caused/practised/ignored unrest, intimidation, inhuman ragging which even caused deaths, sabotage of resources, posters, assaults/fights/boycotts etc.
    The causes of this present indiscipline is outlined by the author in the last few paragraphs – I agree with her.
    From what I hear, indiscipline by a few is the cause, exacerbated by the majority of the rest being intimidated to be silent, by fear of physical, violent retaliation if they object. These few should be identified and disciplined at the very beginning. Will the minister in charge take action?

  • DragonLady

    i agree 100% Its the same at Peradeniya and i too had eggs thrown at me once and had someone inform me to “fix my clothes” and demand of me “what i have done with my hair” Because it was a particularly bright shade of Red at that time 😀 and the sad thing is, im an instructor there and they still didn’t care. they have no class or refinement and no manners and have no idea how to talk to anyone let alone a teacher. So now i try and wear three quarter pants randomly when i go to uni in the MA student capacity. and i also colour my hair… many different colours. and i let all my students know that they have rights as individuals and no one has any right to make them do what they dont want to. im happy to say that it helps sometimes, other times, well… i can hope that it does!

  • chaths

    hi just thought i would point out a few things,

    but first I totally agree with what you have said. I faced the same problem in the Colombo university. BUT not in my faculty which was the arts faculty. Unlike what Silver seems to think its not because “The issue is, many students from rural villages with strong links to JVP (obviously most of them fill up the virtually useless dime-a-dozen arts degrees), fail to assimilate with the rest of the more sophisticated class of students coming from the towns. So there is the inevitable clash of the sub cultures, with the JVP’s talaibanish-frog-in-the-well village rustics trying to pontificate on the student community, in which they think can command because of their sheer numbers.”

    It was actually the science faculty the so called modern fellows who imposed this on the students. Mind you when two arts faculty students who three quarter pants crossed through the Science fac. to get to the college house they verbally abused them and hooted at them causing much distress to the girls. the only guy who was with them who as silver rightly points out was from the village stood up for the two girls got beaten up. The whole thing was blown out of proportion after that. yes ideally the girls should have stood up for their rights. but hey this is not an ideal world.

    two things i wanted to point out in this was that Arts fac students are not always the ones who are archaic minded. in colombo its only arts and law facs that DOESNT have raging! i have heard listened to so called modern Colombo people defend raging and their rule over no three quarters. to quote one of the then science undergraduate educated all his life in one of the leading schools in Colombo not far from uni “chicke what is that, that is not a descent thing for a girl to wear”. If u ask me some of them can even justify sathi pooja!!!!

  • chaths

    ohh and another thing Silver,

    the so called Dime a dozen Arts degree you seem to devalue so much also taught the students in our faculty a thing or two about gender, sexuality and identity.

    If I am correct in medical faculty they are not allowed to where pants. And in the management faculties they have raging with specific dress code for three months. Cheetha gawuma for girls and shirt pants and rubber slippers for boys.

    Arts faculties hot bed for JVP??? who told you that lie. take a look at kalaniya university will you.

    I think the problem is more to do with the over all culture in our society. University is also part of our society and since of late there has been a lot of talk about culture and religion, preserving it and how best it should be protected and similar things. In this discussion the role of woman is often discussed in detail and many seem to think that culture is best preserved through the woman. this may be just a side effect of that.

  • I just find it so outrageous that administration would forgo the rights of their female students to let these thugs rein in protecting their “culture”. Shouldn’t the female half of this culture have a say against this anachronistic rule? Totally unacceptable.

  • Neelaka

    Silver’s point of view sounds to be very narrow minded and biased against the arts faculty, but thats the bitter truth. I am a USJP grad during my time this was more severe. The pro-JVP union thinks there is a sub cluture within the university and that should be distanced from the outside world. In this so called sub culture, you are banned from wearing shorts and three-quarters in the campus or do any other styling, but perfectly alright to have sex in the campus corridors. Its also perfectly acceptable for undergrad monks to have affairs with the female students. Its also fine to “rag” the first years and bucket them with mud and other crap.

    Unfortunately, barred the Medicine faculty, students from all other faculties participated in these rituals. We had too much time in hand. I was in the management faculty, but we had three to four lectures a day and basically very little assignments. Think about the arts faculty who has one or two lectures a day and virtually no homework or assignments. These losers in the student unions have to understand the fact that there is no freaking sub-culture and they should finish whatever the degree they enrolled into and find a job. Sadly, we have all agreed that this is the so called campus culture and we should accept as it is.

  • godaya

    what the union does is wrong no doubt. My wife and daughter too wear three quarters. me and my son wear baggy shorts. however i believe in dress code should u wear inappropriate clothes to temple ,schools (uni for that matter) what about office. Freedom does not mean wild ass freedom to offend majority.

    what if male students start wearing baggy shorts.it is fashion now

  • Arul

    Harassment and Gender Discrimination over clothings article shed the light on the oppressive attitude of the Sinhalese to minorities

    The Sinhalese are rubber-stamped the genocidal war victory by the Sinhala forces.

    For some Sinhalese it is not enough to have physically defeated and destroyed the Tamils.

    They will not rest until the Tamils’ brains are operated and the freedom, dignity, fairness neurons excised.

    Tamils know what kind of “democratic arrangement” is possible between three lions and a sheep in a lawless jungle like Sri Lanka

  • chaths

    Arul,

    where did the article speak of Sinhalese oppressing the Tamil female students? If i read right it spoke of female students regardless of any ethnic back ground.

    Neelaka,

    I am from the arts faculty of Colombo university and let me tell you we didnt have that much time to spare. We had to take 7 units a semester and each unit had a mid semester exam or two assignment submissions (3000 words) and a final examination. on top of that many of the students were engaged in different activities theatre, music sports and some even did part time jobs. I did all :D. so no apart from a few many were involved and had little time to spare. when they did have time we had fun sang our hearts out, played the fool, and read.

    But i agree with you when you say that unions seem to think that there is a sub culture. Well there is a sub culture. You will get that any where in the world, when there is a high concentration of youth in a single location they develop their own culture. it is a separate sub community BUT that doesnt mean that they are not under the common law. They ARE very much under the common law and order and many a times the VCs have demonstrated that.

    having said that, existence a sub culture doesn’t mean that they can oppress any members within it. I totally disagree with who ever says that and have fought against that too.

    But you have to remember in any community in sri lanka, opposition is not heard if ever there is any against the powerful forces. in this case what happens is that the minority which is powerful (the unions) impose rules on majority which is not powerful and have no voice to raise any opposition. that is the bitter truth. In one of the researches I did I had to interview VCs of local universities and I quote one VC when i asked about why the majority who is against violence does not stand up against the minority in univerisities ” Universities are a part of larger society, and of course the student community mirrors what is done in society”. i think this explains a lot. But generalising and saying that Arts fac students coming from rural backward backgrounds are the people who impose these rules certainly does not help. I think i brought out the fact that it was not so in COlombo

  • TT

    Arul,

    Injecting race and racism into everything is shameful. Only losers with no way out think in terms of racism. Unfortunately for them there is no salvation there, either.

    Race is certainly not relevant here. Please read the article.

    On the other hand there are 2 tax payer funded universities in the country where Sinhala students are effectively not welcomed! But that too is out of this topic.

  • Vivimarie V

    Good article Chandula. I agree with Chaths, Silver is evoking too many stereotypes. When I was at the Uni of Kelaniya it was the Commerce students who ragged us really badly, and a section of students in the Science faculty were stuck in the stone age. There are students who try to dictate terms to female students no matter which faculty they are from. So I suggest to those who try to equate Arts students=idiots who are reactionary, wake up and try not to see this in terms of who knows English and who is an ‘Arts’ student and who is from a village. Some of the most progressive guys and girls I met at Uni of Kelaniya when i was an undergrad, and who taught me a few things about women’s rights and identity were NON-English speaking rural background students who read Marx and Sartre and Camus in translation. Their notions and ideas and kindness inspire me to this day. And though I was doing an English Hons degree they accepted me as one of them and had fewer complexes/ hang ups than some of my own ‘friends’ in the English department who looked down their noses on everyone and anyone who could not speak English.

  • srikantha

    Dear,All
    whats ever your ideas for the matter,I agree with some points.

    BUT DEAR,THINK,WE ARE SRILANKAN AND WE HAVE OUR CLTURE AND WE HAVE OUR IDENTITY AS SRILANKAN WOMEN AND GIRLS.
    aLL THE WESTERN STYLES JUST GRAB ABD HUG.ITS NOT GOOD FOR SOME TIME.
    fIRST THING WE HAVE NO ADMINISTRATION IN THIS UNIVERSITIES.
    sTUDENT MUST HAVE DRESS CODE AND DISIPLIN RULES.
    iTS THE MAJOR AND ONLY ONE PROBLEM.
    hOW WE CAN EXPECT AnY GOOD ADMIN,EVEN COUNTRY HAS NOTHING THAN POLITICS HENCH ALL OVER.
    hOPE THIS REGIM WILL GO TO RIGHT WAY.hOW CAN SAY THAT?STILL ALL BULLS TAKING THE CART AS THEY NEED.

  • chandula kumbukage

    Dear Srikantha,

    So you think that a pair of three quarter pants which goes to the ankle length is inappropriate for an adult university student, simply because it was invented in the western world?

    How familiar are you with the culture and history of Sri Lanka? Do you know that during the Anuradhapura period, which boasted a rich civilization, women covered only the lower part of their body? For more facts kindly refer to Martin Wickremasinghe’s book on “Women’s attire in ancient Sri Lanka” and also have a look at the famous Sigiriya paintings.
    The society at that time was tolerant to such attire of women in contrast to the students union of Sri Jayawardanapura university living in the 21st century.

    When you say that women and girls should dress according to the culture and identity of sri lanka, are you suggesting that women should be clad in the traditional “Redhdha & hettei” to university?

  • shimantha

    I’m not going to get interfered with every point in the article.But i should mention that this so called dress code is something which is valid only to a certain period of time ( The rag season ).This is not a permanent ban.Not only girls but even boys have to follow a code.They are asked to wear GENTA and not to wear normal denims and stuff.My girl friend is an undergrat of kelaniya uni – management fac- they were also asked to wear the dress code for a certain period and now,as the rag season is over they enjoy the freedom of wearing what they prefer.Such “dress codes” can be seen in many faculties and trying to picture it as a JVP/ARTS/GODE phenomenon is factually incorrect and misleading.I’m from the “prestigious” anti-JVP Law faculty of colombo university,and as boys we had to follow a dress code – at least a month.I may have disagreements with the rule which orders a dress code but of course i have to add no one can point that out as “gender discrimination”because the same rule applies on male students during the rag season.The article is therefore is based on incorrect facts,which is often caused as a result of not having contacts with the “common” students in an university.

  • Grasshopper

    I find the concept of trying to protect one’s culture very naive and people who are adamant about trying to build high walls and not allow anything in tend to fail miserably over time. Culture, by definition is a dynamic thing and it evolves with time either for better, worse or mere change. Desperate attempts to make a culture static goes against the grain and is bound to fail. Every individual has to have the right to choose whatever he or she wants to do as long as it does not harm someone else.

    How is it wrong to wear three-quarter pants? What right does a Student Union or a group of Uni students have, to impose dress codes on their fellow students even if it is for a short time? Subculture within each University is also a dynamic system and every student has to have the right to partake in it or not. If one does not like Western Culture, don’t do anything Western in nature; simple as that. But what right have you got to stop someone else doing it simply because you do not like it?

    • SD

      Grasshopper,

      Nicely put. It appears that it’s all about being a Borg Collective – everyone thinking alike and forcing their ideas of “perfection” on others. IMHO, this indicates a lack of moral awakening in realizing that mere consensus amongst a majority of people does not mean that others too must agree and conform to that consensus. Unfortunately, this is the popular (mis)conception of democracy in Sri Lanka. It’s this misconception that leads to callous disregard for others’ rights, be it at a university level or at an ethnic level. Clearly, public consciousness must change with regard to how collective agreement is reached – based on fairness for all, not the convenience/wishes of a group. It is only with this kind of consciousness raising that we can hope to do away with those forcing their collective will on others – be it about university student dress codes, “Sri Lanka belonging to the Sinhalese” or “The North & East belonging to Tamil Eelam”.

  • Luvi

    Dragon lady/Chandula.

    well i think urban crowd in local uni. try to appear as a different social class. if others wear full length pants then this ppl would wear 3/4s or vis-versa. i guess this would continue till one segment look like hippies or tribal ppl, because of their need for differentiation.
    Other thing here in France wearing Burk-ha in public is not permitted! what do u guys think about it?

  • Chandula Kumbukage

    Dear Luvi,

    There is nothing wrong with students coming from urban backgrounds trying to appear as a different class, if the students from rural upbringing can also appear as a different social class. If the urban students can respect the rural students for the way they speak, dress and behave, it should be same towards the urban students too.

  • pravz

    don’t forget guys also don’t wear three quarters or baggy shorts etc..so i dont know how you say it’s only for females…i agree this is an absurd law..but it applies to both guys and girls.so you are totally wrong with your article.poor

  • Chandula it is true that women are still harassed and discriminated against in various fields, particularly in South Asia. We are generally not given the same rights as our male counterparts. However, in organisations like HCLT, under CEO Vineet Nayar, changes are being seen and felt. We are encouraged and motivated to give 100% to every task by our male counterparts.

    I have come across an article by Vineet Nayar that talks about women leadership. The link is as follows:
    http://www.vineetnayar.com/women-in-leadership-neelam-manwani/

  • chandula kumbukage

    Dear Kavitha,
    Thank you for sharing your views and sharing the article on this forum. It is encouraging to see women excelling in leadership in certain organizations as mentioned in the article.

  • Harassment of female managers in the workplace has been a problem within the Jackson MS VAMC intensified since the reign of the current AFGE President’s regime.
    what happens when the guardians of employee rights themselves indulge in unprofessional and disgusting behavior? “This seems to be the case in Jackson MS. One might say the VAMC allows
    such incidents to take place. Black women managers are intimidated into silence to avoid reprisals and abuse by this African American Male Muslim union President. Don’t take my word evoke the FOIA and sequester the emails of this prolific bully.

    Black Women manager’s livelihood is in danger in Mississippi not at the hand of the Klan

    But in the fists of a very disturbed Black Man

  • Rishard

    It is absurd.The way they carry out ragging. Each batch they male or female they undress them in front of at least few others. The damage to the university property caused by them deserve not raw eggs but whipping in public.
    This type of barbaric act should be stopped at any cost!