Photo courtesy the BBC

Chaucer’s notorious Wife of Bath claimed that ‘there is no libel on women that the clergy will not paint, except when writing of a woman-saint, but never good of other women’. She was, without a doubt, a woman with a colourful past and with plenty to hide; and the clergy she was maligning belonged to the 14th century world of Chaucer’s England.  Be that as it may, if we were to consider her message instead of shooting the messenger, we would see a remarkable and uncanny resemblance between England in the 14th century and Sri Lanka in the 21st century.   Take for instance, the posters that have recently appeared outside two premier boys’ schools. These carry a series of pictures, with ticks against what is considered ‘right’ attire and a cross against what is considered ‘wrong’ attire.  I scrutinized these pictures in order to discern what was so wrong about the so-called wrong attire.  As far as I could make out, the women seemed to be well-groomed, neat and smartly dressed. However, one girl’s knees could be seen in one picture; while a few wore sleeveless or strappy tops teemed with jeans, tights or a fairly long skirt. The reason why these were considered objectionable was because boys with ‘raging hormones’ should be safeguarded from an excessive display of sin-inducing, female flesh. It seems as if nothing has changed since the time of Adam and Eve as women are still being blamed for the failures of men.

It is not Christianity alone which designates women as the repository and symbol of sin. Whenever sin is equated with sexual temptation, the major religions of the world are guilty of pointing their fingers at the woman, who must therefore be prevented from tempting frail man towards his downfall. And working towards this end, they deem that all attributes of the feminine must be covered up or suppressed. Fear of women is at the root of misogyny writ large in the poster displayed at the boy’s school.   And yet, as one commentator has pointed out, the irony of it all is that the sari can be just as or even more revealing than Western attire. Scooped necklines and bare midriffs that are often sported by sari-wearers, reveal more of the body than strappy tops and jeans or a short skirt. As a pre-teen in the late 1960s, I remember wearing ‘micro-minis’ which would have put the so-called minis of the present age to shame. And yet, forty years ago, people took these micro minis in their stride, seemingly without an accompanying apoplectic fit! My family and I would often travel into the (then) relatively undeveloped rural countryside where the only reaction we provoked would be a few stares and suppressed giggles. Oh yes! People laughed at us – but their laughter seemed non-threatening: gentle and amused rather than angry and resentful.

Or so I believed. That is, until the first JVP insurrection of 1971 jolted us all into an awareness of how sharply divided we were as a society. The ethnic divide had already made itself felt with the ‘Sinhala Only Act’ and the race riots of ’58, but with the Southern insurrection, the fissures in society began to deepen and take on the appearance of a grid, with divisions based on economic and social factors. I realized that behind the smiling faces of the rural poor was a seething mass of humanity angry with the perceived ‘haves’ in society when they so clearly did not have.  Western attire at that time became synonymous with ‘having’ and a symbol of privilege. Thus when I became a student at the University of Peradeniya in the late 70s, long after the insurrection, I was ragged because of my short hair and western style of clothing – attire that they associated with privilege and oppression. One young man who ragged me repeatedly asked me time and time again why I had cut my hair. He left me alone only after I claimed that I cut my hair because I had a head full of lice!

Thus the claim that the sari–wearer is invariably modest, while the sleeveless, just-above-the- knee skirted, skinny- jeans wearing woman is not, could in part reflect an underlying fear of Western cultural domination – a fallout from our colonial past, perhaps. This attitude is widely prevalent despite evidence to the contrary as the sari can after all be worn in a sexy and provocative fashion. But apart from this East-West divide, there is something else at play here. For in addition to the other fissures in society, sexism seems to be on the rise. Long before the two boys’ schools drew unflattering attention to themselves by putting up such blatantly sexist posters, government schools all over the island had begun to insist that mothers wear sari when they come to the school to pick up or drop their kids. I have heard numerous complaints from mothers from the poorer segment of society because they have had to invest in saris merely for this purpose and who, sometimes in the middle of the day, must shed their customary clothing and drape themselves in six yards of material in order to do so. Now it seems as if some of the private schools, who are under no compulsion to follow such backward and unenlightened rules, have joined the band wagon. If this is in order to keep the ‘raging hormones’ of adolescent boys under control, I wonder whether these boys are blind-folded when they leave the precincts of the school, as the clothing portrayed in the posters is what is commonly seen in the streets of Colombo. Or do these hormones rage only within the school premises?

Fear cripples society. It is fear and suspicion of a perceived ‘other’ that exacerbated the ethnic, socio-economic and religious divides in our society. As long as we treat someone from a different socio-economic, religious or ethnic background as different, we are divided. To cap it all, there is the gender divide which vivisects these other divisions.  One has only to read the dailies to realize that gender-based violence is on the rise. Some of these stories haunt us to date – like that of the fresh-faced school girl who was repeatedly  gang raped and then strangled while on her way home after school; or like that of the little 5 year old girl who was stolen from her parental home, raped and then murdered. Surely, the response to such violence is not to segregate the sexes, blame the woman for being the agent–provocateur and bring in more repressive measures? Isn’t it time we as a society addressed the underlying causes of the malaise in our society and searched for genuine answers instead of (always) shooting messengers and blaming women?


Editors note: Also read Deadlier than the Male by Dr. Devika Brendon and Good women and bad women of the post-war nation by Chulani Kodikara, which expand on and deal with the same themes as this article.