If there’s one thing all my female friends have in common, it’s that all of them have been stared at, catcalled, dry-humped and masturbated at. It’s not that all of them are alluringly sexy (sorry, folks) or go out in leather and heels every day. It happens whether they’re wearing jeans, shirts, skirts, hijabs, flat, sneakers. One of them is a work colleague who helped me pick out a shirt for a wedding the other day. She could barely make it across the road to Liberty Plaza without two men following her.
As men, we don’t often see this – the moment we appear, all of this fades into the background, and we’re left to wonder what kind of peculiar first world problems women seem to have. A woman is raped every 90 minutes?
Firstly, let’s start with the obvious: Sri Lanka, if not a rape-ey culture, a very unsafe environment for women in general. To test this, a friend and I walked for about a kilometer along Thimbirigasyaya. Then we backtracked, with her walking about 50 meters ahead and me following, and I watched.
It was disturbing. This isn’t the kind of wolf-whistling you see in Hollywood movies. It’s not the damn-she’s-hot double-take of the eyes. It’s an insolent, hostile, and yet strangely curious stare; a kind of stare that not just strips down the person on the receiving end, but also makes them feel like nothing more than a piece of meat in a dress and heels. It is the look you would give when you could either eat someone or kill them, and not necessarily in that order.
And the worst part is that this comes from not just the drug addicts and frustrated schoolboys and random seedy tuk drivers; it comes from almost everyone – from that man who looks like he stepped out of the CEB to that boy who looks like he works at a tech company.
And of course, it doesn’t stop at looks. It goes from “Psst…nangi”‘s to “Gaaana keeyada?” to all hands on deck. While my friend wasn’t touched, I think I can honestly say I’ve lost count of the times someone’s told me about being felt up under their skirt, or about being followed by a tuk, or just plain fapped at in public.
Put it this way: if it was us guys in that situation, every single street in this would have at least a couple of fights breaking out across. And while hardcore feminists will tell you that a woman can easily take on a man – I’ve met a few that could – most women aren’t going to put up a fight, especially in a skirt and heels. Most women do what they’ve been told to do: ignore it and keep walking, try not to cry – and hope they don’t touch you.
Personally, I’m about as far from politically correct as my friends can handle – I think being fat is ugly, I think paid maternity leave is stupid, and I will eat any vegan who denies me my chicken curry. But even so, it’s a fairly fucked-up situation when women have to feel like they’re crossing a battle zone every time they move ten meters in Kollupitiya. What gives?
Consider our public education system, which basically involves thousands of boys cooped up with other boys for twenty years and suddenly let loose upon the world.
Having been in this system, I can tell you that it’s fairly retarded, because most students of this system grow up not knowing that a girl is basically a human. Interaction is usually limited to a homogeneous gang of hormonal schoolboys making weird noises at an equally homogenous gang of schoolgirls. The only morals you inherit are those of the pack and whatever your mother mistakenly handed you – those golden, quintessentially Sri Lankan nuggets like “you know what they say about women who wear red” and “her skirt is so short her husband must be ashamed!”. Anyone breaking this mold is respectfully deemed to have “tapped that”.
Case in point: at some point during my A/Ls a friend of mine asked me how I’d “done” seven girls. I hadn’t. I wish. I was just busy leeching chemistry notes off them. The girls I knew had better handwriting than the boys and I was damned if I was going to spend hours trying to decipher rushed scrawls.
It doesn’t help that most girls pretty much play along with this behaviour, because most of them are also stuck with a thousand or so other girls in a puritanical single-sex school and have no idea how men are actually supposed to behave.
Now, unleash this horde into the world, feed them the standard stuff about how a woman should be subordinate and all that, and you basically have our parents’ generation: a whole lot of people who basically look upon a woman as property. Even the women are busy looking on themselves as property because they’ve been taught to be prim and proper and please everyone.
Thus, the men have free license to ogle this strange species of object that they must someday take to bed and provide for, and the women resign themselves to their fates without once questioning their mothers and fathers and all the ripe idiots who feed them this tosh.
It isn’t objectification. Men objectify women all the time, and women objectify men just as much; you only need to look at Cosmopolitan’s regular “battle of the bulges” listicles for verification. Sexual admiration is part and parcel of society. This isn’t sexual admiration – it’s ownership.
And then you get our generation, who are distinctly aware that something is wrong, but the guys can get away with it and the girls only rant about it on Facebook without summoning the courage to ask “what the fuck’re you looking at?” Instead, most of them stick to strength in numbers or summon their male friends and husbands to the fore, thus affirming the dynamic. It doesn’t really matter what social class you’re in. Sometimes it’s the easy way out: sometimes it’s the only way out.
Now while discussing this, this friend of mine who walked across the street pointed out an interesting little factoid: a couple of years ago, she’d modelled in a slum. It was a very poor, very, very tiny community, and while she fully expected to be stared at like an exotic animal, she wasn’t. People looked and went on.
I’m no village boy, but I do have a dubious claim to that title – I live in a little village in the arse end of Ragama and partly hail from a place in Ratnapura where people give you concerned looks and make you tea if you ever make the mistake of speaking in English. But it is true that within a small community, you get much less of the leering and the rapey faces. This is largely because in a small community, you tend to a) know that girl and b) know that her father, brothers, uncles and/or any other males in the general vicinity know who you are and where you live. It’s very easy to police this kind of behaviour in a small community.
Does it suck that women still have to rely on men for “safety”? Yes, it does.
But that’s how it’s going to be. Until our medieval education system starts putting boys and girls together (thus promoting both empathy and teenage pregnancy), until enough ladies turn into New York-style pepper-spray carryin’ women who can take care of themselves, it’s going to forever be a standoff between the men who want you and the men who protect you.
It will take a couple of generations of determined protest to upend this state of affairs. Historically, it always does – consider, for instance, that in the U.S., a white man and a black man are technically equal – until they aren’t. That debate was won a long time ago, and the world still hasn’t caught up with the law.
Perhaps we should start teaching life skills in school? “How to Admire a Girl Without Creeping Her Out, 101?” “Counter-stalking Tactics: How To Fight Back, Women’s Edition?”
But before this gets too tedious, here’s a photo of sexual admiration done right, or done wrong. The line is blurry, isn’t it? Whichever side you stand on: goddayum. Now let’s look away and try not to be creepy.
That wasn’t so hard, was it?