Don’t get me wrong. I love living in Colombo. I love living in Colombo so much that my husband and I (whilst living in the UK) visited Sri Lanka on holiday, and refused to go back. I could talk about the sunny beaches, the delicious food, the strong sense of loyalty, love, and ‘home’ that we were filled with that caused us to make this decision, but I won’t. Because it’s easy for us to talk about why Sri Lanka is so awesome, and smugly post it on Facebook whenever Sri Lanka makes it to a top 10 travel list.
I am here now, instead, to talk about something that I am faced with every day while living here: Street Harassment.
Like the multitudes of women living in Colombo, I frequently walk or take public transport by myself to a number of places. Unlike the multitudes of women living in Colombo, however, my choice to do so stems from living abroad for a lot of my adult life, and simply finding public transport (including tuk tuks) easier to use than wrestling with the scary driving experiences of living in this city.
And, very much like the multitudes of women that travel on their own in Colombo, I have faced, and continue to face, some sort of harassment. Daily. Yes, you read that right— Daily.
What has really led me to discuss this, however, are the reactions I get from people (men and women, but well, mostly men) when I relate my various stories of harassment to them. Let me outline a few—
• “So, where was your husband when this happened?” Erm, excuse me, I don’t know if you realized this, but I am a grown woman in my late 20s. I have lived on my own. I run my own company. It’s, quite frankly, extremely insulting to expect that I should be accompanied by my husband everywhere I go. And let’s leave ego aside, what about all the women who don’t have husbands, brothers, fathers who are able to drop everything they are doing to simply to walk with them to the corner shop to buy some bread?
• “Time to get a car, no?” So, we recently have purchased a car, but I still do use public transport when it’s convenient for me to do so. This response saddens me mostly because it is hardly a solution for the thousands of women in Colombo, who can’t afford the luxury of their own vehicle (And don’t get me started on the harassment that women drivers receive anyway).
• “Don’t worry about it honey, just take it as a compliment!” Thanks, dude. I’ll remind you to take it as a compliment the next time some random guy asks you to have sex with him. Oh wait, man-on-your-high-horse, you’ve never had to face something like that, have you?
• “It was probably what you were wearing.” Honestly, of all the responses I get, this one has got to be the worst. While yes, walking on the road, say, in my gym clothes, does definitely increase the level of harassment I face, what I wear when I am cat-called, gestured at, sung to, and tried to be run over for kicks (more on that later), is usually what I (and many working women in Colombo) typical wear to work— some sort of trouser and blouse combination.
Of course, it must be said, that in a perfect world (or even just a decent world) what a woman wears should have no bearing at all. After all, it is every person’s basic right to wear whatever he or she prefers, be it covered up, or stripped down. I have and always will be a firm believer that it isn’t anyone’s place to dictate what a woman (or a man, but no one ever tells a man that it’s indecent for him to wear shorts right?) should wear.
But I digress. This is not my point. My point is that women get harassed regardless of what they wear. And blaming women for the harassment they receive just perpetuates our age-old tradition of victim blaming. (God forbids men are able to control themselves when they see a woman walking on the streets wearing a short skirt. I mean, it must be so very, very hard for them to NOT ask her to go home with them).
So, to all those who claim that the harassment I receive on a daily basis has to do with what I wear (and less to do with moral and mental capacities of my harassers), challenge accepted.
I have decided to document what I wear, and the responses I receive on the street.
Because somehow, my word that I have received as much harassment wearing a baggy jeans and t-shirt as I have, say, a short dress, is usually received with an secretive eye roll and a “yeah right.”
Because we women get leered at, and groped, joked about, and marginalized regardless of what we wear.
• Tuk Tuk slowing down and honking repeatedly.
• “Ay hinawak naththey?” (Why aren’t you smiling)
• “Hello… Hello? Koheda yanney?” (Where are you going?)
• “Ah nangi!”
• Tuk tuk randomly served into me as I was walking ;a common form of harassment that I have faced, which I suppose is designed to get a rise out of the victim.
• “Enavada maath ekka?” (Will you come with me?)
• “How much, ah?”
• By a policeman, to his policeman friend, as I was walking by “Sha! May balanna ko?” (Look at that)
• A car honked at me, slowed down, and followed me for a while.
• A van full of boys near Royal College (and bearing a Royal College sticker on the van) “Sha!” “Hooo!” and “Sexy.” (I’d like to think they were talking about my super cool new running shoes, but I feel I might be mistaken)
I feel a few disclaimers are in order here:
1. Firstly, this is by no means the worst harassment I have received over the years. I could share some horror stories, but the purpose of this exercise is mainly to shed some light on the common misconception that what a woman wears is to blame rather than the mentality of the harasser.
2. These are honestly the comments I have received (give or take an occasional word) when wearing these exact same outfits, over the last few weeks.
3. I was a sociology minor, and I understand the importance of adjusting for variables. This is by no means a scientific study, but simply a snap shot of what I and many women face on a regular basis.