Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sexism and gender based violence in Sri Lanka

An old family friend of my Uncle, when explaining something to a girl from Britain remarked that "in the East, it's a man's world". This elderly gentleman would never have dreamed of being discourteous to a woman, let alone ill-treating one, but it typifies the latent sexism in our society.

Gender based violence in Sri Lankan cinema  was the subject of a discussion this evening, held in connection with the One Billion Rising campaign to stop violence against women. I confess that the actual presentation went over my head but the discussion afterwards proved to be fruitful.

There is some awareness the harassment that women face on a daily basis but few are aware of some of the types of abuse that take place at home and work. I refer to a common practice whereby a boy's first sexual experience would take place with a servant of the house.

I first encountered this practice as a 17 year old in the A level class, where one of my classmates was describing an 'encounter' with his servant and was happily inviting a few of his friends over to do the same. I, having sneaked through my father's collection of Penthouse magazines and, in passing,  read an article about "When No means, No", knew this was rape, but not knowing how to confront them, kept silent. Later I found this practice to be rampant, most would say at least half the boys in a certain sort of school went through this.

For some it was a just a passing phase. For others it was a habit that they would return to in later years, often when drunk. This I learned from a female friend who had to rescue her servant from her brother-in-law, who would habitually return to the practice of his school days when drunk. My friend had to threaten to rat on her B-I-L to her M-I-L to get him out of the servant's bed. The experience sickened her and eventually contributed to the ending of her marriage (to another sexist), but that is another story.

This behaviour is impossible to justify, but it may owe its origin to an earlier, feudal practice where the landlord or 'Hamu' would take a woman from the estate to be his concubine.

With many more women entering the workforce there is also an increase in the abuse of power by male managers. A friend of mine who used to work for a large multinational was narrating a tale of how the managers would wait, almost drooling at the thought, for the next batch of interns to come in. They would pounce and groom them for sex. I asked if the company had no code of ethics. He said as long as it was voluntary, and indeed it was, nobody could say anything. What may have been missed however was that this was an abuse of a power relationship, which should have been covered in the manual of ethics. My friend and I were cursing our poor upbringing which prevented us from doing the same.

A similar problem exists in the tutories with some teachers abusing the pupil-teacher relationship for sexual gain. Again, things are entirely voluntary but the pupil-teacher relationship, just like the boss-subordinate relationship, is a relationship of power. Women are attracted by power and it is the abuse of this power that presents the ethical dilemma.

Perhaps these are minor quibbles, compared to the bigger abuses going on, but something to reflect on nevertheless.

One of the other points that was raised in the discussion was economic abuse, but this was quickly dismissed since around 40% of the workforce was estimated to comprise women.  A subtle factor may have been missed however, the number of women working as teachers.

I have come across at least a couple of instances where women have been steered out of careers in the corporate world to become Montessori teachers. This is done by their husbands ostensibly to give them a better work-life balance, but as one husband confessed to me, in order to ensure that they do not start affairs with male colleagues.

The Montessori schools tend to be run entirely by women so insecure males feel safe in shunting their wives into this, away from the preying eyes of other males. Again there is no compunction or coercion used, just gentle persuasion, so not a major problem in itself, just that it is a more acceptable manifestation of an old prejudice.

I of course, being a man of enlightenment betray no such prejudice, although I may admit to being pampered a bit. Just a bit.

I don't cook, I don't wash clothes, I can't iron; all these mundane things are taken care of. I don't really know how, food appears, dirty clothes disappear and appear, washed and ironed, as if by magic. I spend my time at the gym, at concerts, reading or conversing friends and improving my mind. I fully subscribe to the concept of sharing work and say I would gladly share daily chores with a potential wife, even though I've never lifted a finger at home.
I'm pretty sure I am a model citizen, many would agree. Am I, really? Perhaps we all need to turn the searchlight inwards and to ask ourselves a few hard questions?



Anonymous said...

You are raising a very good point here. Many would think that they are model citizens who conduct an exemplary lifestyle. We are not. I cook, wash cloths. I prepare kid to go to school. I love gardening. I drink. I excelled in my studies too. But I do not think that I am a model citizen because I have lots of weaknesses too. When I write these things (in my blog)people would say that you are doing so because you are a well-to-do person and poor people have other stuff to think before worrying about social justice. No I am not. I am a lower middle class man who works hard to live. These things you cannot teach somebody. Your lifestyle comes from your inner heart.

Jack Point said...

Thanks for the comment anon.

Cadence said...

Nice post JP. Definite food for thought.

Jack Point said...

Good to see you on the blog again, Cadence.

Do you have any examples of the abuse of power sexism in the business world that would like to share?

Delilah said...

I think it's something handed down with good parenting. Especially an example set by a father for a man. And for women, the confidence inspired by parents to stand up for yourself, perhaps a strong mother.

Women with potential leaving work for more domestic-friendly jobs at the nudging of husbands is a crying shame. But unless its an absolute demand from a spouse, women should also take responsibility for that choice. If you as an individual can take a strong stand then nobody could make you do something detrimental to yourself.

Harrasment that happens in the work place is another issue. I'm sure most women have experienced some subtle form of it. Either outright sexual, milder or even harrasment in other ways for not reciprocating. I personally know a couple of brave women who have sued and won harrasment cases in SL. Its again a matter of taking a stand.

Jack Point said...

Good observations, Delilah and welcome back!

Anonymous said...

(Gender) Egalitarianism is a salient point we all must think over.

Jack Point said...

Thanks for dropping by Anon.

Yes, I have recently discovered that I have been (inadvertently) sexist, so a trap we can all fall into.