Dynastic prime ministers aside, Sri Lanka is a tough place for women. Men will literally masturbate next to you on the bus and other passengers will say you were asking for it. Any night at a club is an invitation to get groped, and any walk down the street makes you a streetwalker. As law and order breaks down further in Colombo, nights out are even more unsafe for women. They are less in numbers, surrounded by men both sullen and wild. There are also more men with guns on the street, more attention to women as suicide bombers and generally higher stakes to the casual sexism of yore.
There is a tourist map produced by Lanka Map Publishers which states that ‘lightly dressed up women, walking round the city or touching men in a friendly manner, are not considered to be people.’ A sad typo perhaps, but in many ways true. Women walking around alone are subject to any number of hoots and ‘ah nangis’. They are treated not as people, but as sex objects who are presumably open for any invitation. Even if a woman is accompanied by a man, he is asked if she is his wife (at checkpoints), as if being single and out were impossible. In the subcontinent this behavior is sometimes taken for granted, but in a country where average law and order is rapidly declining this is a more worrying trend.
If you’re looking around the city for lightly dressed women, touching men in a friendly manner, Colombo nightlife is the place to go. The government in power has successively clamped down on alcohol, music and all the elements of conventional nightlife. However, at the same time the members, sons, and lackies of that government are avid patrons of the same nightlife. This leads to a dangerous situation where Colombo’s social life is simultaneously blamed and victimized by the powers that be. Minister’s sons aside, the general repression in the country (speech, travel, music) coupled with deep economic woes leads to a bunch of frustrated men, on the town.
The trouble is that going out in Colombo (or its suburbs like Hikkaduwa) now feels a bit more dangerous than it did before. At times it feels like packs of apes, each with an internal hierarchy, but with no clearly defined relations to the other packs. So each group of men tries to protect their women from the ominous males that hover, question, and occasionally grope. And then there are fights, dangerous sparks when there is often ministerial firepower around. But all of these interactions are male dominated, resting on a foundation of violence. It doesn’t feel like civilization. Feels like law of the jungle.
On a cultural level, Sri Lanka is still slow to accept that women can exist outside of their roles as daughters or wives. That is, that women have protection under law, not under men. So it is still unwise for women to travel in without male escort at night. It is still constantly irritating and degrading for them to walk around at any time of day. And, more and more, these inconveniences are tinged with danger as the culture in general gets more violent and terrorized. Couple this with the growing class division into those above the law and those below the heel and you have a bad scene all around, especially for women. Sri Lanka has never been especially welcome to the freedoms of women, but as civil society is burnt on the pyre of ‘national security’ what few freedoms there were are also disappearing. The combination of hopelessness and lawlessness is a dangerous one for all aspects of society, but we should keep an eye on what’s happening to half our population.