The Sri Lankan Phobia of the Confident Woman

For a country that won’t shut up harping on the fact that it elected the first female Prime Minister, Sri Lanka sure can’t stand to see a strong woman hold her own without giving into some innate need to tear her down.

A strong, opinionated woman who is willing to face her oppressors head on, an anti-thesis to the patriarchy most of them have been fed since birth. Conflicting with what they’ve been raised to expect from women – quiet, docile, and with a physical appearance for their pleasure.

I suppose it’s most visible online, since we’re all drowning in our digital existence [don’t deny it], and the comments and memes are too hard to ignore. While the harassment of women online is not specific to any particular type of woman, those who step out with confidence in themselves and in their convictions are going to get torn down solely because some narrow-minded idiot can’t stand to see that strength.

The most recent being the spate of memes that Lanka Comic Con 2017 generated. I was there on Day One, my eyes wide in awe at the work put in by amazing people to bring their favourite characters to life. Variations on Wonder Woman, each looking equally stunning, bringing to a familiar character touches of their own personality, as cosplay allows one to. My sister herself went as Supergirl on Day Two. Far more unapologetic and body-confident than me and while we agree on absolutely nothing, she owned that costume.

Give it barely 48 hours before the troll pages had started making memes that trashed their bodies as being too skinny or too fat, taking the photos they had posed for with pride and turning them into a mockery. The comments sections as they play out become more and more appalling, kunuharapa laced with male privilege and bitter comments from other women too – which is obviously more upsetting.

Before that, it was Meliza Leitch – proud of her body and her achievements, she chose to share it all on Instagram BECAUSE SHE CAN. And that too, spiralled into some ridiculous pit about values and culture and ‘maybe it’s a little too much no?’

Before that, it was Ermiza Tegal – a kickass human rights lawyer who addressed the problematic MMDA on a BBC Sinhala Facebook Live chat. The sexist comments were coupled with racist ones in this instant, and it riled me up that they had the gall to take this out on someone who does actual solid work helping people while sitting behind their keyboards and having a laugh.

Before that, there was Bhoomi Harendran. Her confidence radiates from her body and words whenever she’s speaking, so of course some bigot will make a comment that asks her if she doesn’t feel ‘weird’ to be transgender, and people proceed to make rude posts about her body and genitalia. One of the country’s foremost LGBTIQ activists, a trailblazer in her own right, and people can’t stand to see someone who doesn’t fit into their black and white image of a what a woman should be actually having a voice and making a difference.

Before and in between all of that, there was every woman who dared make a statement online, got memed for it, got called an lesbian SJW feminist [please tell me how these are insults, someone?] and had a bunch of slurs thrown at her simply for standing up for what she believed in.

We’re very aware of what happens in our Facebook/Twitter bubbles, and that’s fine because the abuse that goes on there is truly appalling. Out there in the world, women who work on truly amazing causes deal with threats of death and violence. Very real threats of death and violence.

One of the organisers of the protest for justice for those who have disappeared in Mullaitivu was harassed one day and threatened with death if she didn’t give up the protest and go home.

Women’s rights activists in the East working on MMDA reform are subject to surveillance as well as death and rape threats.

Heads of community-based organisations for women widowed during the war can’t allow their names to run in the media for worry that they, or the women they work with, will become targets of violence from a range of actors.

I understand that these don’t equate precisely with women being degraded through online channels, but what I’m going for is that our society cannot stand to see women being ‘out there’ and doing something that they [and sometimes specifically their community] have deemed as not ‘mild’ enough to be becoming on a woman.

As I said earlier, it only makes it worse that sometimes women partake in the abuse, on occasion even generating it. We’re no strangers to the fact that aunties can be your worst critics. On that vein, it stings to see women joking about degrading posts made about other women, instead of sticking up and calling the trolls out.

Resorting to body-shaming and abuse threats when you can’t deal with a strong voice – be they male or female, really – doesn’t reflect very well on you. You’re intimidated and it shows, it shows that you can’t bring yourself to forming a good-enough counter-argument so you just resort to something, anything to tear another person down. With absolutely no thought about the consequences of your actions.

[Veering off solely female victims to the field of cyber-bullying in general – what if any of the people you’re memeing and joking at is in a fragile mental state? What if your words are the necessary push they need to take a drastic step? But you didn’t think about that when you ran the photo through Paint to edit the text, and you’ll share and pretend to be all concerned if things had gone south after your little joke.]

These personalities aside, I feel like any woman who stands out from the patriarchal mold is going to be met with backlash. The single mother, the businesswoman in a ‘man’s world’, the female politician, any form of outspoken liberal woman. Backlash from the men who created the system and the women who are deeply trapped in that same system, occasionally without even realising it.

To the women themselves, I can’t say how much I respect you. I have zero body confidence to unapologetically don a fabulous costume. I have too much anxiety to confront people sometimes. I don’t have the impact that you do in the amazing work you do on the ground. The idea of what people subject your confidence to therefore riles me up to no extent.

It’s oversaid, and you’ve probably heard these words a million times – you’re much bigger than their hate. The grace with which most of you handle the absolute garbage people rain on you makes me believe in superheroes. And I can only hope that the words of small-minded people don’t ever deter you from being the amazing people that you are.

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  1. Reblogged this on lettingthemindrunfree and commented:
    “You’re much bigger than their hate. The grace with which most of you handle the absolute garbage people rain on you makes me believe in superheroes. And I can only hope that the words of small-minded people don’t ever deter you from being the amazing people that you are.”

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  2. There is an element of Sri Lankan male culture that is too evil for words. The kind of evil that defies naming. What you describe are just its outer hairs. I saw parts of IT evil growing up in the machan culture of Sri Lanka’s boys schools. Even as an adult I struggle to describe that evil in words. Doubt anyone can see it’s complete hellishness and stay sane.

    It’s an evil that venerates brutality. Finds orgasmic pleasure in sadism. Its instinct is to dominate and torture those who are physically/socially disadvantaged. It supports the perpetuation of such disadvantages to survive. It views cruelty as a strength. Kindness as a disability. It demands the ability to oppress as a divine right.
    Rape is its ultimate expression of power. The ability to rape with impunity is its idea of immortality.

    I see this evil in every sneering, jeering, foul sprouting troll. Who in reality are scared stunned cowards and they all know it.

    Their biggest fear of all is the woman they can’t shout down. A woman who achieves anything through striving, intelligence and compassion. A woman who is happy with who she is is terrifies them.

    Because in her strength and achievements they see their pathetic impotence. They see their laziness. The fact that they are not worshiped. The fact that they cannot have greatness delivered to them. Because for then striving is too much work. They fear compassion because they can’t comprehend it.

    These demons might be nice charming people who only beat their wives in private.
    They may be the meekest mice in the office. The most devout faces at the bhodi puja. Until the half the arrack bottle is gone. Or when someone (male or female) does anything positive.

    At some point I’ll have to prepare my daughter to deal with these yakos. She’s not yet nine. I don’t know where to even begin. May be this is a start.

    Grateful to your post for clicking a few floating thoughts. Sorry for the long rant.

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    • Thank you for reading and I appreciate the comment! Please don’t apologise, it brought up some really good points, and illustrated the core of the issue really well. I see the truth in your words from what we see online and the stories of the way men treat women – and anyone they perceive as weaker or a threat – across the globe. Says a lot that you’re still reckoning with that reality – I feel like you’ll therefore be better in passing that message on to your daughter, since you’re questioning and critiquing that way of thinking.

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      • I often feel that questioning and critiquing isn’t enough. Yet I don’t know what effective action there is. The instinct towards the evil that I refer too is normalised among the “boys” culture. It’s outer layer wears the excuses of “harmlessness” “just teasing”. The next level is stalking/opportunistic groping backed up the standard off the shelf victim blaming.

        Arguing about it with the machans only brings out only variations of “you are crazy”.

        I see how sons are brought up as the key to hope. Until the education cess pit breaks them.

        Perhaps this evil eternal. The only practical thing is to plug the dike and keep it check. May be I’m being pessimistic.

        Most men can either ignore the issue or simply don’t get it.
        Guys that do are about as helpless as Jews in 1942 Berlin. They give up beating their heads on the wall and get practical training their daughters in self defence. I have thought about starting martial arts training by 11 or 12 (no joke). Not sure yet about psychological defences. It’s the “I was just joking” pricks who are the trickiest to deal with.

        Thank you for your articulate writing in framing the issue. Reading your for patient responses in the other posts has help focus my rambling a bit. I call that a small hope for optimism 🙂

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  3. It really warms my heart to see so many Sri Lankan women writing about this issue – perhaps that is the first step – get the message out so that other women, especially the quiet, docile ones who have had to endure more than we will ever know, will be inspired. Perhaps the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs will finally catch on to the fact that a new approach at the national level is what is required to bring about this long-term change (if that is what there intentions are – fingers crossed)!

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    • The show of support that the girls have gotten has really helped keep them strong and in good spirits so yes, knowing that people won’t stand to watch others being treated like this will hopefully let others experiencing it know they deserve better. I certainly hope that is the intention. Also buy-in from the Ministry of Education and a more effective response to online harassment, things that we really hope for.

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  4. I don’t suppose that a woman costume-playing as a superhero in a conference dedicated to it and getting certain backfires of humor and ridicule is as equivalently brave as a female activist operating amidst death threats. And yes, it is mentioned in the article as such, however, it makes the argument look more rhetorical than logical.

    I suppose the whole comic-con fiasco was overblown. I’ve observed a clear and very much lopsided imbalance between admiration and satirical remarks of it. Even out of the humor spewed on Social Media about their poses and/or appearances, I presume the ones which were actually based on patriarchal bias are fewer. I find most of them spontaneous and lacking any roots patriarchal beliefs.

    I agree with almost every other argument made in this article. The verity of the kind of situations mentioned here which state grave dangers faced by certain female activists is genuine. The thing is, silencing all those vocalism using the term patriarchy and the purpose of inculcating “respect to diversity” won’t work. I suppose this is one of the points where you’d be regarded as a SJW and belittled. Certain circles of social conservatives and social progressives use Individual Identity (racial/ethnic identity, sex and sexual orientation etc) as a pivotal tool for their critiques. Social conservatives use it to correlate with ideological bankruptcy of an individual and social progressives use it for entitlement based on perceived victimhood. I find this to be a toxic practice. An individual’s identity wouldn’t significantly matter in many affairs, so it shouldn’t be that much of a concern as it is now.

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    • It was meant to illustrate the range of ways in which women are subject to a certain kind of violence from those around them, and yes they are in no way equivalent. Just felt the need to add that in alongside the cosplay incident, to show how bad it has been known to get and the way it extends beyond online memes.

      The fact that these [mostly male] admins think it’s okay to make posts that degrade a woman in this way is patriarchal to begin with, whatever the content of the post is. Seeing them as objects that they can ‘joke’ about ‘spontaneously’, in an extremely humiliating manner, is also a symptom of the power patriarchal thinking has on men.

      Agreed to an extent, and it isn’t about respecting diversity as it is just respecting the fact that the other person is also human, with feelings, and probably doesn’t want to be talked about/treated in this manner. I know there’s a lot more to be analysed and discussed here though.

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  5. Reblogged this on ankie renique's blog and commented:
    Excellent perspective on sexist issues in Sri Lanka today.

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