Sri Lanka’s Daughter?

1

Voices rose in a steady chant last evening as men, women, the youth, the elderly, Tamil, Sinhala, Muslim and Burgher gathered in rush-hour traffic at one of the busiest intersections in Colombo to call for justice for Vidhya Sivaloganathan and all other victims of violence against women in Sri Lanka.
When this event was first widely shared on social media, it was accompanied by a poem written by organizer Shamila Daluwatte, attorney at law.

“First they raped Manamperi
And buried her body alive
I did not speak
Because there was an insurrection
Then they came for women in Kahawatte
I did not speak
Because I was not from Kahawatte
Then they came for women in Nuriwatte
I did not speak
Because I did not live in Nuriwatta
Then, they came for Women in the North
I did not speak, because
Krishanthi Kumaraswami, koneshwari, Isaipriya
They were not my sisters
Then they came for women with a different skin colour
Eight men gang-raped Victoria Alexandra
I did not speak
Because she was just a foreigner
Then they gruesomely gang-raped Rita John
Stabbed her body fifteen times
Left her murdered body on the Modera beach
I did not speak
Because she was an Indian
She was asking for trouble
By walking on the beach
with her jewelries in the evening
Then they gang raped a woman in Wijerama
I did not speak
Because she was just a prostitute
Then they raped hundreds of virgins
And celebrated with champagne
in Akurassa and Monaragala
I did not speak
Because too scared of politicians
Then they raped Logarani
Threw her naked body into a sacred temple
Then they gang raped Saranya Selvarasa
I did not speak
Finally they raped
Vithiya Sivaloganadan
I did not speak
Because she is Tamil
She lived on a small Island in Punguduthevu”

Out of sheer curiosity, I spent a good hour Googling and reading up on these individual cases [and I think you should too]. All the while wondering why, if it is out there in the public realm for people to see and the gravity of the abuse has been made known, why has there yet to be something done to change this gruesome pattern? To balance the statistics that say for the some 60,000 cases against women, less than a 1000 criminals have been convicted. Where was our justice system when these women were murdered? Looking for loopholes in the definitions of terms and making any other excuse to keep delaying cases so that the guilty never paid for their crimes, clearly.
Sri Lanka; a land like no other.

2

Vidhya’s face has covered every form of media, in all three languages, in the weeks since her death. The picture of her in her white school uniform, tie perfectly placed and hair immaculately styled in two plaits falling down to her shoulders.
This is how we should be remembering her; the young, beautiful girl so close to completing her education. She lived up to her name and namesake;
Vidhya; feminine beauty, clarity, learning, knowledge.

Many have and continue to justify the publication of the photo of her dead body for reasons that I personally can’t reconcile with. True, people should know the ‘gravity of the situation’ and how she was ‘brutalised by men closer to animals’ but at the end of the day, who was she? A young girl, 18 years old, who died an unfortunate death. Those men showed her no respect in the last few hours of her life, the least we can do is honour her memory by not sharing those photos for more people to gape at. Basic courtesy.

This brought up another interesting topic of conversation – Vidhya’s case is one where no one can dare to point fingers at her and say ‘she was asking for it’ because what she was wearing was too short/tight/revealing and it aroused/excited/provoked her attackers, as the ridiculous arguments of victim-blaming usually go.
To blame her attire would be to generalize all young girls in school uniforms as temptations for men, ‘inviting rape’. For as long as I can remember, my mother and all other relatives – especially the aunties – have told me to ‘act ladylike’. I love them dearly and have no issue with attempting to do so but what is this image of the ‘lady’ that we want our girls to portray? The most prominent issue would be the one where you’re told how to dress. ‘Decent’ is the approved dress code, not revealing anything that doesn’t need to be revealed. Why? Because having anything out of place can make a man do terrible things, you’ll just be inciting him.

For the n-th time, no woman – whether she is in underwear, a bikini, a short skirt, a saree, tight pants, an abaya – is ever consciously inciting a man into abuse. ‘Don’t teach your daughters how to dress, teach your sons not to rape’ because if manhood means being ‘incited’ by such, isn’t that something to be ashamed of? That the man sees no connection between his victim and his sister/mother when violating her. The rape culture is built on the argument that men lose control when they see an attractive woman and men should be the ones out to change that perception, to stray away from that macho image and tell us that in reality, men aren’t the uncontrollable predators they’re made out to be.

3

Shortly after the incident, the headlines in the Sinhalese newspapers were honestly disturbing. The one that struck me the most was the one that called the protests at the court house ‘a small war in Jaffna’.
Was that necessary? For someone who isn’t aware of the situation, this distorts the image of the incident to something completely different, to the point that people are now asking why the people of Jaffna were protesting so violently instead of asking why do we let people get away with treating our girls like they’re worth nothing.

In addition, shame on everyone who was trying to make this into a race incident. ‘It’s just the Tamils in the North complaining about something again.’ For starters, they have every right to be complaining considering the suffering the people in that province saw over the last three decades and continue to see today; with the denial of basic rights in terms of land, language and freedom of expression that still prevails, their pleas are legitimate. Secondly, if we don’t address the case of this one Tamil girl now, over the years it will escalate into many Tamil, Sinhala, Muslim and Burgher girls meeting the same end because some people couldn’t abandon their racist accusations long enough to deal with a very real, country-wide problem. If we don’t take action against the perpetrators of these crimes, it’ll be your neighbour/daughter/best friend next time.

4

When the documentary on the Jyoti Singh case was released, a friend – looking for opinions for a discussion she was atteding – asked me if I thought the title itself, ‘India’s Daughter’ was too patriarchal. I thought about it for a while; no, it seemed to feed into this collective identity, for all Indian women to be able to identify and stand for her in the call for justice, it was a beautiful unifying term.
Then I thought again, and came across several articles that confirmed my alternate musings that yes, identifying her in relation to someone took the risk of Jyoti’s personal identity taking second place. She was vibrant, outspoken and adventurous despite what India had dictated that she must be all her life and it was that very India that brought about what happened that night on a bus in New Delhi.

It was only time before someone started using that term in the case of Vidhya and right on cue, statuses and Tweets mourning ‘Sri Lanka’s Daughter’ popped up.

Don’t.

The men who did this to Vidhya were all Sri Lankan, and the status quo of the country created the appropriate circumstances for them to carry out and maybe even get away with the attack. Until we start taking responsibility to change these gross mistakes in our systems, the country doesn’t deserve that link to her – you don’t let things like that happen to your children.

The fault of our culture, that we’re still stuck in a patriarchal mindset where a woman is an object to be conquered by a man.
The fault of our education system that doesn’t teach otherwise.
The fault of our justice system that hasn’t prosecuted rapists to the point that these incidents continue to take place with no fear because of the impunity associated with acts of violence against women.
The fault of our media that can’t afford her dignity even in death and splashed photos of her body all over the internet.
The fault of our politicians, riding the wave of emotions after her death and manipulating it for their own gain.
The fault of our society, that women can’t speak out about violence committed against them for fear of being shamed, which allows stories to go unheard and allows criminals to walk free.

As Sri Lankans, we should feel ashamed to associate her – young, innocent Vidhya – with the rest of the country and all its systems that malfunctioned to bring her to this end. Would she want to be called a child of the place where so many forces conspired against her when all she wanted to do was to go to school that day?

Don’t call her Sri Lanka’s Daughter, because what happened to her is Sri Lanka’s fault.

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