Colombo, Gender, Religion and faith

On women’s attire and gender equality: pondering on the long way ahead

I was strongly tempted to write this article after reading an article entitled On woman’s attire: Are we really tempting young boys and priests, by a writer under the pen name “Gypsy Bohemia”. The article was published on Groundviews on July 10 2009. We learn that the writer of the said article is a journalist working for a leading Sri Lankan newspaper. What follows is a ‘salad ball’ of ideas that stemmed from reading Gypsy Bohemia’s article and reader comments.

First of all, as a Sinhala Buddhist and a Sri Lankan, I extend my sincere appreciation of this writer and I my regret on her unpleasant experience. I fully endorse her viewpoint on the issue. To put it in a nutshell, a Sri Lankan woman found Gypsy Bohemia’s attire ‘unacceptable’ at a public event. Reading through some forty-three reader comments that follow this article, I was left with partial satisfaction and boiling rage. The comments made by some Sri Lankans demonstrate the daunting extent of male-dominated, macho attitudes of some of my countrymen. One Groundviews reader laments the extent of ‘Western influence’ on Sri Lankan women’s’ attires. Some others seem desperate to know what Gypsy Bohemia was wearing, so they can judge if she wore ‘acceptable’ clothes or not. By any means, it is crystal clear that Gypsy Bohemia’s article sparked a good few reactions among Groundviews readers.

In the present article, I wish to make a simple, clear statement: in a ‘civilised’ nation in modern society, a woman’s attire should not form the subject of discussion in relation to national values and morality. The comments made to Gypsy Bohemia’s article clearly show that for some Sri Lankans, a woman’s attire represents something close to morality, and even national values/identity. Through views of this nature, I see a major malaise in contemporary Sri Lankan society.

A woman, especially a young woman (i.e. 80s generation and after) definitely has the right to wear a dress she deems appropriate. If her parents, family or anyone else finds it inappropriate in any way, that is their problem, and not hers. The woman who approached Gypsy Bohemia, who calls herself a consultant, represents the high level of above-mentioned amnesiac malaise in Sri Lankan society. The most challenging fact is that the present political regime in Sri Lanka strongly encourages the healthy continuation of this malaise, instead of taking prompt steps to eradicate it. A good few months ago, I watched a Sri Lankan news bulletin featuring a controversial government minister, who holds a high degree of hatred towards media institutions, notably to the Maharaja Group. When asked why he was so mad at Sirasa TV, the minister’s answer was that Sirasa was instrumental in removing half-saris and dressing up young women with short skirts (Sri Lankan readers may understand, and non-Sri Lankan readers are kindly requested to ask someone familiar with Sri Lanka for clarifications). This view is both directly and indirectly propagated by the present government, which uses it as a means of appeasing hard-line Sinhala nationalists and the Buddhist establishment. This is the government’s key strategy to remain in power; when the large majority of the island’s permanent ethnic majority is successfully fed on Sinhala nationalist euphoria and the endorsement social conceptions on women’s attire and freedom, their support ensures the safe continuation of the regime.

Hence one commenter’s conviction that the ‘priests’ referred to in Gypsy Bohemia’s article are Sinhala Buddhist priests. This writer fully agrees with this view. As some other readers have mentioned, the word ‘priests’ can also refer to ministers of religion in other faiths. If holy men and women of non-Buddhist faiths share this level of contempt on a woman’s attire, it goes without saying that all such views deserve is outright condemnation.

Secondly, some people are worried about so-called ‘Western influences’. To summarise their views, Western influences have a negative impact on the way Sri Lankan women dress. This, by all means, is a pitiful and extremely ignorant assumption, which only shows an extremely high level of prejudice, ignorance, and a chronic inability to understand Sri Lankan society.

The so-called Western societies, and some societies in non-Western parts of the world, have evolved into societies that tolerate equality for the two sexes to a high extent. This applies to all aspects of life, including sexuality. Women’s fashion has evolved through the years, in par with the evolution of societies and cultures into more accommodative and inclusive entities. A society is something in constant evolution, and modern Britain, to give an example, has turned the clock a full circle since the days of Victorian values (which were exported to all parts of the British Empire, and still have some degree of influence in some post-colonial societies).

In Sri Lanka, we belong to an energetic and creative society that is in constant evolution. In such a social landscape, it is our responsibility as young Sri Lankans to tirelessly promote ideas that help create a modern society marked by gender equality, mutual respect (among genders, ethnic groups) and an increasing openness towards the world. Today, what we see in Sri Lanka is the exact opposite, where the state propagates ideas that do not correspond to the social and political needs of the times. Instead of mutual respect between ethnic groups and the development of a sense of in-depth appreciation of ‘the other’, the government is harnessing ethnic prejudices, promoting majoritarian clichés, and capitalising on the rising tides of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Instead of promoting the rights of women, gender equality and sexual freedom, the government is actively promoting the exercise of ‘social control’ over women’s sexuality, women’s dress code and is vehemently attacking media groups such as Sirasa that provide new platforms to explore young talent. The euphoria over female dress code can be seen everywhere in public service, where, to be decently and appropriately dressed, it is compulsory for a woman to be dressed in a sari, whereas men in normal office clothing is absolutely fine. This is a major violation of a woman’s right of suitable attire. If a female public servant deems it suitable and convenient, she should have the fullest right and possibility to wear office clothes (i.e. in more comprehensible terms, the so-called ‘Western’ office attire). This should apply to the teaching profession and most importantly, to the Sri Lanka Foreign Service (SLFS). It is pitiful to see how the SLFS forces its female officers to go around in saris, as if a sari (a completely Indian import) represents our national identity. A foreign service that upholds views of this nature can be of very little ‘service’ to a country like Sri Lanka.

I conclude this rendering with a note on what I view as timely and essential acts of reform for Sri Lanka. The state should actively support gender equality, and the rights of women to dress as they wish. In a place of high temperature all year around, it is fully acceptable for people to be dressed accordingly (what some condemn as ‘showing too much flesh’ is an expression of sexual frustration, and should be vehemently opposed). Gender equality is essentially achieved by sexual freedom, and a woman’s sexuality is exclusively her own business. Therefore, the Sinhala Buddhist practice of ‘white-cloth virginity proof’ should be officially prohibited as a punishable offence by law. This also applies to so-called ‘age-attaining ceremonies’, where a young girl’s sexuality is made a matter of family and social concern. These practices are extremely disrespectful, and should not apply to future generations of Sri Lankan women. Now some may say that these are elements of our ‘traditions’. If these acts represent traditions, such traditions only receive contempt and condemnation, not endorsement. Such traditions should be done away with, and replaced by new traditions of sexual freedom and respect. Moreover, the use of the pill, the morning after pill and the female condom should be widely popularised in Sri Lanka, so that young women can freely live their sexuality (this should obviously be accompanied by an extremely strong emphasis on sexual education and safe sex). These are areas where the state needs to take political risks and push new policies forward. Social considerations of wanting to marry a ‘virgin’ and that a young woman should remain a virgin until legal marriage should be discouraged, and gradually made to perish from Sri Lankan society. Reforms of this nature must most certainly include homosexuality, which needs to be legalised in Sri Lanka. Reading these ideas, some may think that given Sri Lanka’s culture and the present situation, this is more of daydreaming; but I stand firmly stating that these ideas in no way present one person’s ramblings, but represent a deeply felt desire among a substantial proportion of Sri Lankan youth.

If reforms of this nature cannot be pursued at state level, it is up to young Sri Lankans, such as the commendably conscientious Gypsy Bohemia, to promote these ideas among Sri Lankan youth (and in the wider Sri Lankan society at home and abroad), leading to required social and political changes.

P.S. the views expressed in this article are exclusively those of the writer. They do not represent positions of any other person or organisation.