Featured image courtesy Ritchy Feet

This report of an incident of sexual harassment is from a female friend who was too afraid to publish under her own name. Just as disturbing as the incident itself, is the complete lack of faith in our public service to hold accountable sexual predators. My friend feared for her safety and thus did not complain to the Department of Motor Traffic (DMT) – how many others have found themselves in similar situations? Below is her story of bribery, sexual harassment and complicity at the DMT. All names have been changed in line with the victim’s request to remain anonymous.

On the day of my exam, I went to my driving school’s office at around 6.30 am. I discovered through conversation with others in the group that only I had not paid a bribe. The instructors repeatedly mentioned that the bribe was intended to help exam candidates who were competent drivers but whose nerves prevented them from performing at their usual standard.

After a morning of practicing reversing and driving on the road in the driving school’s vehicles, we were finally called to scan our fingerprints and submit our documents to be checked by the driving examiners. When my turn came, the examiner told me one of the required documents was missing from my application. I had realized that this document was missing two months earlier, and had immediately notified the driving school. They told me not to worry – “the examiners never ask for it anyway”. I recounted this story to Rohan, an instructor from the driving school, who was standing by. He told me to wait in a corner until the examiner had finished checking all the applications. At this point, Rohan followed the driving examiner into a large room and managed to convince him to accept my application.

After a further wait, the group was called to start the reversing component of the driving test. Rohan and another driving school instructor drove the driving school’s cars out to the reversing area. We were informed that both cars would be used for reversing test. The examiner sat in the passenger seat of one of the cars, while a driving school instructor stood outside the other car. This instructor would be the ‘examiner’ for the students in this car and would report on each student’s performance to the examiner. We formed a line and were called one by one to alternate cars. My turn came and I was called to the examiner’s car.

I got into the car, acutely aware that this man had done me a favour by accepting my application. I also wondered whether he knew that I was the only one who had not paid a bribe. I wondered whether he would judge my driving extra harshly for these two reasons. My nervousness must have shown on my face because he asked me if I was nervous. I said “Yes, Sir”. As I turned out of the slot and reversed back into it, he casually asked me whether I was working. I said I was. He asked what I do, so I said “research”. “Research into what?”, he wanted to know. In my substandard Sinhala I tried to explain the areas of research that my organisation focuses on. As I reversed into the slot, he noticed my earring. It is an unusual earring – he probably hadn’t seen an earring of this kind before. He asked me some questions about it . I’ve had the same conversation countless times with people who notice it for the first time. They always ask if it hurt ­to get ­– yes, whether it still hurts – no, ­whether I can sleep on it – yes, whether it gets caught in things – no, ­and finally, can they (or can I) twirl it – ok sure. He said,“no, I can’t touch it here, I’ll touch it on the road”, which I thought was a strange thing to say, but given that he didn’t say it in a threatening manner, I didn’t have much of an internal reaction. I got out of the car and joined the others.

When everyone finished, we started the second component of the test: driving on the road. When it was my turn, I got into the driver’s seat. Rohan was sitting at the back. I wondered why he was there. As I was adjusting the seat and mirrors, the examiner started talking about my earring again. This time, he reached over and with his hand, he twirled it, following up on what he had said he wanted to do earlier. I found this a little strange, but I was fully focused on starting to drive. I started getting concerned when he continued to touch my ear. The earring is in the cartilage at the top of the ear, but he kept touching my ear down to the lobe. I thought this was really inappropriate. I didn’t say anything – my test had started. I signalled right and started turning the wheel to edge the car onto the road. It was about 5pm and traffic had started building up. As I was inching forward onto the road, he said “mata happana oney – happana puluwanda?” and giggled. Internally, I thought what the hell? Instead, I said “naa Sir”. I was now on the road, driving among other cars. Then he said “Mike Tyson vage happanne naa, nikang laavata happana puluwang”. I didn’t respond – I was changing gears fast as we had been instructed to change from 1 to 2 to 3 in a relatively short period of time so that the instructor could see that we could change gears wihtout a problem.

I kept driving along the straight road. After a while he said jovially, “I’m going to take you home tonight – will you come with me?” I was shocked and very uncomfortable. Again, I thought what the hell, and again, I said “naa Sir”. “Ayi?”, he wanted to know. I mumbled something about my mother wondering where I would be- as if that would be the reason for refusing his proposition. He replied, “ithing oyage ammata kiyanne ada raata gedara enne naa kiyala”. Then, feeling bolder, I said “you can tell her that”. Undeterred, he continued, “maathhekka enna, mama oya mage boarding ekata genniyannang”. After reiterating this idea a few more times in slightly different words, he had to stop talking because a car was reversing onto the main road right in front of us. After I moved around the car, he asked me to park. I parked and immediately unlocked the door to get out of the car. “Where are you going? Don’t you want your license? I need to sign this slip.” I took the signed slip, thanked him, and got out of the car.

On the way home, undistracted by trying to manuevre a vehicle among crowds of people, I started thinking about what had happened. The examiner had told me he wanted to bite my ear and then propositioned me. He had done this during my driving test when I could not have retaliated for I had to focus on driving. Plus, my passing/failing lay solely in his hands. He would face no repercussions for his words and actions because the only other person in the car, Rohan, was one he had just done a favour for, by accepting my incomplete application. Hadn’t it occurred to him that I, an inexperienced driver, could panic and lose control of the vehicle? I could easily have stalled the car or pressed the accelerator instead of the brake, putting us all in a dangerous position. His hands were no where near the hand brake – pen in one and folder in the other. If I had lost control, he wouldn’t have been able to stop the car fast enough.

Although I had been thanking god that someone else was in the car, I began to realise that my feeling of safety had no basis. Rohan had seen and heard this whole interaction and had not said or done anything at all to stop the examiner’s taunting comments. He gave no indication whatsoever that he objected to this treatment of me. In fact, he had been so silent that I had forgotten that he was there. What had happened already constituted sexual harassment; what evidence did I have that Rohan would have stepped in had this man gone any further? After all, this examiner has a close link with the driving school and had done Rohan a favour just hours before by accepting my application. Rohan was not an innocent bystander. He was complicit in my sexual harassment at the hands of the examiner.

Although in my book, this man’s actions had been simply unacceptable, I acknowledged that things could have been much worse. At least I hadn’t been alone with him; at least he hadn’t touched me again, in a more inappropriate way; at least he didn’t have the opportunity to take the wheel and drive me anywhere he wanted. In comparison to the horrific possibility of being sexually assaulted by this man, what he had done was not that bad.

As I thought about it more, I realised that this couldn’t have been the first or the last time this man has harassed a female exam candidate. In fact, he could easily have done much worse to someone than he did to me. A friend suggested that perhaps the driving school is aware of his behaviour and therefore decided to have one of their own instructors – Rohan in this case – in the car to reign in the examiner if the need arose. Another friend pointed out that many women would have felt so uncomfortable and ashamed of the things that he said to me, that they would have refrained from telling anyone about the incident.

What makes matters worse is that I was strongly discouraged from making formal complaints or calling the driving school. The reasons given, including by people with ties to the DMT, were that complaints would be ineffective and revealing my identity could be dangerous – if anyone wanted to find me, they could do so easily as they had access to all my personal details through the driving school: my ID number, address, phone number etc. I don’t know whether I should have been, but I was swayed by these arguments. Instead, I chose to tell as many people as I could about this incident, in the hopes that they look out for themselves and others they know who could be put in this kind of situation. Although there are some places I go where I expect this kind of treatment, I did not expect my driving test to be one of them. This highlights to me the need for people, women in particular, to be aware that they can face sexual harassment anywhere – even in places they don’t expect. I strongly believe that we have a broken system that needs to be fixed in order to prevent and punish sexual harassment. However, in the absence of such a system, individuals must do all that they can to protect themselves, and speaking out is one such step.

Read “On the harassment of the Lanka Comic Con Players” and “Public Service Under Yahapaalanaya: A Rant“.