Two girls are seated at a restaurant table and when the waiter walks in with a plate, one of them gestures to the other’s blouse. Her friend self-consciously closes her blouse. A woman, wearing a sleeveless blouse, raises her arms to tie her hair and realizes that the driver maybe watching from the rear mirror and instinctively lowers her hands and ties her hair the way most Asian women wearing sleeveless garments attempt to tie their hair in public places.
The video Elle India uploaded in support of WEvolve, ‘a global campaign looking to bend societal norms that lead to gender-based violence’, is certainly thought-provoking. Kudos for the production team for observing the instinctive minor security measures women take to when in public places. It begs the question, are Asian men so depraved that a bit of exposed skin turns them on?
It’s a rhetoric question with a simple biological answer. “Hormones,” says medical doctor and author of the best seller Gehenu Lova Pirimi Lova Dr. Priyanga De Zoysa. “Men are aroused quickly, they also turn off quickly.” After all, all women are guilty of checking out good-looking guys. But it’s not as obvious, probably because the act of ‘checking out’ is hardly driven by sexual desires. This is because women take time to get turned on”, explains De Zoysa.
Many women have commended the video calling for more such endeavours of activism. But among them were the likes of Youtuber ‘lotiq’ who commented: “I get it now, all poor working class Indians are rapists at least in the minds of these white wannabe brown women.
“How is it that every petty thing that makes women uncomfortable is always the man’s fault,” commented Ritam Mukherjee. Arshad Kalim Khan warned “Encourage women to expose more and one day they’ll go nude.”
“If you think it’s not necessary for women to cover their body, you should not blame the abuse against women,” says Prakasam Palani.
Senduran, a Wadei vendor at Galle Face Green says: “Women come here in skinnies to buy Wadei. They drop their phone and bend to pick it up. Ethakota wadei newei, okkoma iwarai.” (When they bend, wadei and everything else is gone). That about sums it up. In the guy’s defense, his friend Shan explained that according to traditional Hindu culture only the mother and the husband should see a woman’s body. “Here we see all sorts of bodies,” says Shan.
“They wear miniskirts and put their handbags on their laps to cover their legs,” says Senduran. “Why go through all that trouble when you can buy something longer?”
Sankalpa, aged 30 and Kavisha, aged 28 despite being a couple had conflicting views. Kavisha was dressed in a strappy dress. “He doesn’t even like this,” says Kavisha. “Because men look at you when you wear stuff like that,” chimes in Sankalpa. “The thing is they don’t just look at you, they strip you nude in their mind,” admits Kavisha. “But if you’re properly covered they can only strip you naked in your mind.”
Are women increasingly underdressed and could doing so be an invitation for trouble? Where does one draw the line?
“You can’t draw a line and say don’t expose this much of body,” says De Zoysa. “All women shouldn’t have to conform to conservative culture. If they did the world would be a lot less colourful. But they should exercise a certain degree of cultural sensitivity.”
“I don’t like women who come to Colombo from the villages try to be all posh. I think it’s stupid,” says Nirmala Clinton, aged 21. “There is no beauty in that. Beautiful people are beautiful any which way.”
“I don’t care who looks at me,” says Nirmala’s girlfriend Dinithi Dilakshika, aged 20, clad in a strappy dress herself. “They’ll never change.”
“Men wear precariously low slung pants, exposing their underwear. How is showing a bra strap any different then?” questions Priyangani from Ratnapura.
“Why should I be forced to hide my bra strap?” questions Mary Anne from Negombo. “It’s the style and it’s supposed to be that way. It’s more expensive than my clothes. So why hide the strap.”
Anne pointed out that some Sri Lankan men have double standards about women exposing their body. “If they see a foreigner in shorts they don’t give a hoot. But if they see a local girl in shorts it’s suddenly a big deal. It’s hypocritical.”
“We are all human and should have the freedom to choose our own clothes. Men wear whatever they want, so why can’t women do the same”, questioned Thushani Thilakaratne, aged 29 from Kandy. “When a man has too many girlfriends it’s justified when he’s referred to as a playboy. But when women do the same thing, she’s referred to as a slut.”
Thushani points out that people live in a cage, made of stereotypes from which they can’t escape.
Graham is a former English head teacher. “Throughput my career I’ve been wearing suit and tie and so I wouldn’t want to impose a dress code on anyone. You can’t blame girls for dressing scantily or blame boys for looking at them.”
At the risk of sounding classist, it is obvious that foreigners and upper middle class Sri Lankans are more liberal about the dress code while some working class folk are vehemently averse to women exposing too much skin. Is it then a class or culture conflict? But then culture is dynamic and at what point do we deem culture archaic?