Some years ago, I was walking out of a shopping mall in Colombo when a young man brushed past me. I didn’t pay much attention but in quick hindsight, realized that he had uttered some form of obscenity in my ear. At the time I was taking lessons in self-defence and somehow, my training kicked in; I found myself going after the man, grab him by his shirt collar and yelling at him that my anatomy was exactly what his mother too has. The man shirked and ran without looking back – my audience of young women from the shops around me, came out and applauded. We all hoped that he had learnt his lesson – it was not to avenge what he said to me but hopefully to make sure that he would not utter obscenities of any nature to any woman again.
Just a few days ago, our nation buried a beautiful little girl who had been violated physically and mentally beyond all human capacity; the crime which to most of us is still beyond comprehension, highlights the need for better laws yes but it also demands something greater. Something beyond heady demands for death sentence and better legal enactments; because if we don’t initiate that discussion now, we will forget little Seya and move on – only to be outraged once again when yet another crime happens.
We all know the pointers of sexual harassment against women in our society. Most of us have faced it at some time or another – as my encounter with the young man at the mall showed. There’s something sinister in the manner in which women are perceived in the Sri Lankan male psyche – this is not to fault every Sri Lankan man, there are hundreds of well meaning, good men who make fine boyfriends, friends and husbands and exemplary fathers. But going beyond that into society at large, whether at the office, public transport, shop or anywhere else, it makes itself very obvious. There are sexually oriented comments, groping and stares; before we start to stem these, can we find the flow and try to curb the flow?
All little boys are brought up by their mothers – and fathers. Can we teach our young men that women in their lives are to be treated with love and respect? If we do that right, chances are that the boys won’t grow up looking at women like ‘things’ and ‘pieces’ to be used and discarded. Young men can often be found to address women as ‘kella’ or ‘baduwa’. Can this be stopped at home itself, before the boys leave home to become adults?
Maybe the failure is in the lack of a dialogue between parents and child – many Sri Lankan parents, with good intentions, only drive a studies focused agenda, which does not leave much time to advise on building morals and values. Many do not engage in any form of discussion at all, busy with individual agendas.
Need for more open dialogue
Now before someone comes along and tells me that the fault also lies with women, I would say that’s true – to some extent. Women can be accused of many things – dressing provocatively, behaving in a compromising manner and encouraging some form of sexually loaded behaviour towards obtaining favours. There are always two sides to every story – but problems start when one side starts to use sexually aligned behaviour as a weapon to be wielded against the other.
There have been cases of sexual molestation of men in the work place – we all remember the movie. But we know that the majority of molestations are faced by women. There was a time when such behaviour was even acceptable. If your superior was a man, then there was a possibility that he may want sexual favours from you. You had to find a way to deal with that.
There was a time when eve teasing had to be tolerated – no one took it seriously. Today, if a groper is found on a bus, both men and women would not hesitate to throw him out and take him to the police. Today, sexual crimes are taken seriously enough to warrant a frank and open discussion on the topic – in a manner that does not seek to point out faults but find ways to minimize fault finding and maximize finding solutions.
Can a bridge of communication be built among the sexes in a way that encourages discussion and sharing of opinions – can we look at the ways in which men can be made to understand that degrading comments and behaviour towards women only highlights their own inadequacies? Can we find ways to bring healing to old wounds by empowering communities through discussion and engagement?
We live in the digital age when communication empowers everyone – can there be a discussion online in which everyone can take part? Can we look at the ways in which a wider group of young men and women can connect and engage in discussions that benefit the community? There were many such endeavours that were done in India following the horrible murder of Nirbaya; such discussions brought about a healthy sense of belonging for both men and women, seeking to heal wounds and foster better relations for the future.
Until and unless we find ways to bridge the gap, we will continue to have cases involving innocents. It is up to all of us to initiate and engage in such a dynamic and a result-oriented discussion.
(Nayomini Weerasooriya, a senior journalist, writer and a PR professional, can be contacted at email@example.com)