It would seem that Sri Lanka is inherently sexist.
And there is data to back this up.
According to the 2015 Global Gender Gap Index of the Word Economic Forum, Sri Lanka ranks 84 out of 145 countries, with a score of 0.686. This means that women still lag behind men when it comes to economic participation, education, and political empowerment. Case in point: Sri Lanka has only 13 female to 212 male MPs.
The Index provides data on national gender gaps in the economic, political, education, and health sectors, and includes country rankings that allow for effective comparisons across regions and income groups. The highest possible score is 1 (equality) and the lowest possible score is 0 (inequality). A closer look at the Index reveals that most countries cannot escape the sexist tag. The Index names Iceland as the most gender-equal country and ranks Yemen as the country with the least gender equality.
While we seem to have scraped past the halfway mark, the truth is, there’s little to be proud of when out of 145 nations, there are only 61 countries with a track record worse than ours.
The truth is, in Sri Lanka, the foundation for unequal treatment is set in our schools, at home, at our workplaces. We have schools dictate what women and mothers should wear. We have elders who think that women are nothing but sperm repositories, breeders of the next generation ‒ the next generation of sons who will bring in pride to the families, and not girls who are a burden. Girls are seen as temporary responsibilities, a short-term inconvenience, to be married off at the earliest. We have workplaces that do not provide women employees equal opportunities and we have laws which disenfranchise the woman population when it comes to marriage and divorce rights.
And above all, we have politicians, elected representatives of the population, in whose books the concept of basic decency and respect for all genders, women in particular, does not exist.
Unfortunately, such politicians are not a rare phenomenon. Earlier this month, US Presidential Republican Candidate Donald Trump came under heavy criticism when a 2005 recording shed light on his ingrained disrespect for women.
In the recording, he seems to pass off sexual harassment as normative behaviour, and boasts that he “grabs them [women] by the p****” and kisses women without invitation, just because he can. Despite apologising to the general public and attempts to pass it off as “locker room talk”, the world has not and isn’t likely to forgive or forget.
The recording seriously hampered any chances Trump had to the Oval Office, with his opposition candidate Hillary Clinton’s performance in polls skyrocketing after the revelation.
In Sri Lanka, however, where comments of a similar nature are alarmingly frequent, we heartily seem to endorse the “forgive and forget” attitude, highlighting an underlying, systemic disrespect and disregard for treating one half of the population with basic decency. Our politicians are notorious for making salacious comments.
These comments are not leaked by whistleblowers or anonymous crusaders; they are covered by the media and reported as normal news. We see these comments reported as a matter of fact and consumed with gusto as part of the slapstick Sri Lankan politics has become, reflecting on the calibre of the consumers. We do not often see a condemnation from the public, or even the ghost of an apology from the politician.
A (Not So) Gentle Reminder
Need we remind you of the incident where former MP Mervyn Silva wished he could suckle at a female politician’s breast, like a newborn baby? The incident was telecast live in 2010 on the local television channel Swarnavahini, where MP Silva was judging an entertainment reality show.
The MP’s comment genuinely tickled the crowd, including the host, who laughed uproariously and egged the minister on. The fact that the crowd itself laughed at such a vulgar comment is telling.
It doesn’t stop there, however. When his fellow MP Rosy Senanayake, also a judge on the show, attempted to point out that such a statement was unwarranted, Mervyn did a Trump before Trump did a Trump. He boisterously berated Senanayake, brandishing his finger, interrupting her and in threatening tones telling her that she was wrong and he was right. The Minister clearly had no sense of what is right or wrong and his challenge to Senanayake to take the “correct path” just made it worse ‒ he genuinely thought he was justified in saying what he did.
In 2012, MP Kumar Welgama (then Minister of Transport) also infamously made sexist and disparaging remarks directed at fellow MP Rosy Senanayake. The incident went on to become one of the most sexist moments in politics according to The Guardian, highlighting the misogyny inherent in Sri Lankan politics.
MP Welgama made light of MP Senanayake when she directed a question at him. He claimed that he was enamoured to be questioned by a beauty queen and claimed that “he had no words to express his feelings,” and that “You are such a charming woman. I cannot explain my feelings here. But if you meet me outside Parliament, I will describe them… My thoughts are running riot… I don’t want to reveal [them] to the public.”
His statement is reflective of the underlying disregard male politicians harbour towards their female counterparts. By demeaning her, he attempted to reduce the validity of her question and tried to pass her off as merely a pretty face. Note that fellow male parliamentarians laughed gleefully with Welgama and encouraged him. Once more, MP Senanayake handled the situation with absolute grace, in comparison to the callow behaviour the male parliamentarians demonstrated, repeatedly.
Following the incident, the headline in the Daily Mirror read “Welgama enthralled by Rosy’s charm,” demonstrating how some media organisations echo the same attitude towards women. The article neatly overlooked the fact that Welgama was demeaning Senanayake and not complimenting her.
In 2014, then Minister of Women’s Affairs and Child Development, Tissa Karaliyadda, proposed new anti-rape laws to bring justice to victims. A noble thought, of course. Until people realised that his suggestion was that rapists should be bound by law to marry the victims of the crime.
During his tenure as a minister of Women’s Affairs, he also refrained from ratifying international equal rights conventions by infamously saying that women’s rights are against our culture and religion. He popped into the limelight once again in 2013 when he commented that gender equality is a meaningless concept, and that he didn’t want women to hold responsible positions because “by nature they are unable to get on with each other and constantly fight and slander other women.”
Meanwhile, S. B. Dissanayake, former Minister of Higher Education (also currently, and ironically, Minister of Social Empowerment) wanted former president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to be “be put down on the ground, trampled and stripped naked, and made to run along the streets.” He made this remark on a live television broadcast and, obviously, infuriated many social groups and women’s’ rights organisations who called for his resignation. With time, however, the hype died down and the claims were forgotten.
Even our beloved President has made a few blunders down the line. Back when he was Health Minister, President Maithripala Sirisena made a comment that underlined the inherent sexism of Sri Lankan society. While addressing the Women’s Federation of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Sirisena, impressed by the work constituted by the Federation for the event, wished for them, and all other women, to be reborn as men in their next life.
“Whenever I leave home my wife kneels and bows, and as a Buddhist I wish her to be reborn as a man.” His words, not ours.
We assume he intended the comments to be respectful, but it only revealed the higher status men are given, even in the Samsara.
In 1997, then Media Minister (currently the Minister of Foreign Affairs) Mangala Samaraweera, following allegations of sexual harassment in the Sports Ministry made by female athlete Susanthika Jayasinghe, said that her allegations sprang from a deranged mind, and that no one would want to have sex with her because “she looked like a black African man.”
These Comments Are Just The Tip Of The Iceberg
What they reveal is an underlying phallocentrism that governs Sri Lankan politics. These elected politicians don’t seem to care that they have a moral responsibility towards their office and their voters, because they know they can make these remarks and get away with it. It reveals the high levels of unprofessionalism these politicians have towards their office, and the callousness with which they perform their duties.
Most of us would remember how these incidents were reported, discussed, criticised and, most often than not, made light of. It is also interesting to note that absolutely nothing came out of the criticism. The comments were made, and those who made them were in no way held accountable.
As a result, politicians and public representatives continue to ignore the fact that they have a responsibility. Furthermore, equal rights are clearly not a priority to them. For every Donald Trump, there are five sexist politicians in Sri Lanka taking his place.
It took until April 2016, after over 6 decades of democracy, for the realisation that our elected representatives actually need a code of conduct. The first draft of the proposed Code of Ethical Conduct for Parliamentarians and Public Representatives was tabled in April for discussion and debate. The Code was expected to inject some much-needed sense of morality and civilised conduct inside and outside the Diyawanna Oya abode, in hope that our Parliamentarians would tread the path of righteousness.
Five months down the line, little or nothing has been heard of the Code of Ethical Conduct, and these five months have provided plenty of reason, as evidenced by the continued unruly behaviour of Parliamentarians, as to why such a code is needed. One can gather from the deafening silence that the code appears to have gone into a period of extended hibernation.
What we need to realise is that gender equality and gender sensitivity are as serious as fighting corruption and crusading for social justice. It is difficult, however, to even imagine a day where women will represent the country equally, when the seeds of inequality are sown deep within the government and Parliament itself. If our leaders don’t and won’t set an example, what about the rest of the country?
Matters of equality, and in this case, even basic respect have, however, become comic relief, a silly little joke in the eyes of the majority, aided and abetted by our politicians, who face zero consequences for their behaviour. Our elected representatives have a moral obligation to their voters, and as voters, we have the right to expect a better calibre of leaders.
If this doesn’t reflect the degraded nature of the country’s moral fabric, nothing does. If a country’s moral values don’t encapsulate equal and dignified treatment of all the country’s citizens, the boast of Sri Lanka’s long cultural heritage is an empty one. What we need is a culture of respect, not a culture resting on the accomplishments and ambitions of those long dead.
With contributions by Gazala Anver
Cover image credit Roar.lk/Rajith Warren