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Decriminalizing homosexuality in Sri Lanka: Problems

homosexual (hɒmə(ʊ)ˈsɛkʃʊəl,ˌhəʊmə(ʊ)ˈsɛkʃʊəl)

So recently the government shut down yet another attempt to decriminalize homosexuality in Sri Lanka.

To wit, the bill proposed that people should not be discriminated upon based on their gender, and the old farts panicked.  We got the usual excuse that this is a Buddhist country, and this was culturally inappropriate.

This is, unfortunately, rational, if not perfectly logical. Consider the country that we live in:

  • Short skirts are frowned upon
  • Women working and not marrying before 25 is practically a source of family shame
  • We have enough trouble making multiple religions work, let alone multiple genders
  • All major religious bodies are still strongly conservative and anti-homosexuality

As a human being, I agree that this doesn’t make the slightest shred of sense. As long as there’s no rape involved, what two people do in bed is really none of my business. By all means do the wall if it pleases you.  As a Buddhist, born into a family of rather conservative Buddhists, it makes even less sense. Buddhism says absolutely nothing about sexual orientation. These morals are not Buddhist at all, but Christian ones inherited from British colonizers.

“Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.”
(Leviticus 18:22)

For some reason, England eventually agreed that short skirts were okay and gay people were not going to hell; we didn’t. If anything, a ban on homosexuality is a regression: the ancient Greeks were okay with it, the Romans were perfectly fine with it. Even in Sanskrit literature we have terms such as ubhaya, napumsaka, or shanda — a reference to “Third Gender”, unless I’m completely off the mark here; and that makes us look positively medieval.

Unfortunately this logic only works in Colombo. At the end of the day, we are a very liberal lot: we have the advantage of being exposed to multiple points of view, multiple perspectives, and are generally able to say look, the Greeks did it, why haven’t we progressed?

Captura de pantalla 2012-07-02 a la(s) 1.04.16 PM

Colombo is a tiny bubble, a bubble within a bubble, perhaps ten thousand people operating within a larger framework of conservative people. The rest of the country holds starkly different morals. People here have spent their entire lives knowing that being gay is evil; that belief has only been enforced by religious systems.

If any success is to be won here it can only proceed in stages.  First must come equal rights for women. That makes sense because, like it or not, women are working, generating a sizeable chunk of the economy, and no force of old men in Parliament can stop this; the working-woman stigma was dealt with in the early 2000s.

Next we probably need a tangent; we need to dissociate religion from the control it has over who we marry and why. Religion is one the great sticky social constructs of humanity. It binds people together: useful for forming coherent communities, terribly unhelpful for social change. In this case, I feel it’s one of the big sticklers holding us back.

Historically, this seems to be the pattern of acceptance that other countries faced with this issue have followed. Once all this is done comes the acceptance of homosexuality.


Hopefully on the heels of this will come the acceptance of other gender identifications. I don’t ever see the 58 gender types being accepted. Maximising the number of options you get on an ‘About me’ page is vastly different from implementing it in a social context. For example, a man identifying as a woman walking into a woman’s bathroom would still intense discomfort; a man identifying as an Apache helicopter would, and probably should be certified insane.

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But there is absolutely no reason why a reasonable reduction of these types, plus biological permutations of gender, and sex changes, cannot work perfectly within legal frameworks. The most efficient solution is to map out, statistically, the most common variants of gender/sex and cater to them; say the top 5. It’s a reductionist approach, but can lay the start of something until we work out the rest of it.

Realistically, this battle of ideas is not going to be won overnight. It will take years.

In reality the average Sri Lankan – who does not know or care about these movements – is the idealogical equivalent of those folks from the Westboro Baptist Church.

Any attempt to topple a strong idealogical standpoint overnight will only result in violent reprisal.  It doesn’t really matter if we consider it right or wrong or a matter of fundamental human rights. Ideas aren’t like on-off switches; they diffuse into people like ink into water.  Remember that when Obama decriminalized gay marriage, he was doing so in response to decades of sustained equal rights activism; movements that have been going on since the sixties.

In the meantime, cheers to all the folks who are actively pushing for this issue. It may seem futile, but five to ten years from now, their efforts are going to be the pebbles that set the avalanche rolling.

(Note: I am neither homosexual nor of any other non-heterosexual orientation, so one might argue that being straight and male affects my thinking here.  However, if we are to accept other genders and orientations as rational human beings, then we must also drop straightness and maleness as grounds for  a flaw in reasoning). 

Ravi K Presents the Budget

Honorable Speaker, as the 20th Minister of Finance of Sri Lanka, it is my privilege to present the 71st Budget for 2017. First I’m going to put the rest of the Parliament to sleep by singing the praises of Yahapalanaya and Ranil W. Now, if you can all forget our track record of failed budgets, let’s begin.

We spend around Rs. 200 billion to import food products and agriculture related goods annually. Honorable Speaker, I propose to spend 1 billion rupees more trying to get our country to be self-sufficient in Potatoes, Big Onions, Chilies, Maize and Soya. We’re going to remove VAT on farming machines and use another 50 million to subsidize their purchase. How many of those magically turn into BMWs I cannot say.

Honorable Speaker, we’re kinda losing the tea market, but we’re going to make genetically superior coconuts, and try to get people to grow sugarcane.

Our cows, having being born under the previous regime, are unfortunately not producing enough milk. I propose to throw Rs 600 million at those blasted herbivores.

Our fisheries, if the Indians don’t keep stealing, will be amazing. I propose to spend Rs 3 billion to make sure that they are. There’s some shit here about chickenfeed and ornamental fish that I shall also now read out to you. You can pretend to listen.

Now some of you may not know this, but the Moragahakanda, Uma Oya and Yan Oya irrigation projects, if we finish them, will do a lot of good for the Northern, Eastern, North Western, Uva and Southern Provinces. Families living there will also need water and electricity. Honorable Speaker, we’ve allocated over Rs 60 billion for the whole shebang. We’re also going to spend some money upgrading over 80 dams.

By the way, I also want to do this Heda Oya thing. New reservoir. Only costs Rs 20 billion. Money? Foreign loans, not to worry. Trust me. We can make irrigation great again.

Honorable Speaker, education is centric in our development model. But we’re going to drop investment on this by 40%, because it turns out the Ministry doesn’t know how to spend money. If anyone complains, tell them we’re still better than the previous government.

We’re going to spend a lot of money upgrading schools that need it. I’ve also been reading science fiction, and so we’ve decided to spend Rs 5 billion free Tabs for 175,000 A/L students and 28,000 A/L teachers. Telcos are going to provide WiFi connections. What’s that? No, I don’t mean 3G connections, I mean WiFi. Don’t bother me with actual science. No, they won’t watch porn.

Honorable Speaker, we’re going to add Hospitality Management, Fashion Design, Digital Technology, Logistics and Financial Literacy to O/L and A/L streams. I don’t know what we’ll actually teach them. We’ll figure something out. Also, the Ministry is going to support 1,000 gifted students by giving them 2,500 rupees a month each, which will make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Honorable speaker, all schoolchildren between the ages of 5 and 19 will receive an insurance policy for Rs 200,000.

We’ve also thought long and hard about the universities. Honorable speaker, you’ll agree that a lot of people who want degrees can’t get them; these failures eventually pay for their own education or end up here in Parliament.

Therefore, I propose to double the intake into universities: to give scholarships to the top three students of every university to continue in Harvard or Cambridge; and by the way, here’s Team SHARK. Did I tell you about Team SHARK? These boys built a car. Fabulous stuff.

Please stop yelling about the budget cuts now.


Note: This is a parody, numbers are accurate and the full text of the budget speech can be found here.  

Prostitution: A History of Attitudes Towards Hookers

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Not too long ago, the Sunday Leader published an article on prostitution in Sri Lanka. It was so absurd and poorly written that the Queen, had she seen that English in print, would have clawed her eyes out. In response to the outcry, and presumably to save whatever is left of the UK, the Sunday Leader mercifully took it down. My friend Senashia wrote an excellent critique on it while the rest of us were hooting at the writing.

But the purpose of this article is not (just) to slander that article. Prostitution is literally an ancient and complex social issue – for starters, it’s certainly older than journalism.  Much of what we believe are modern attitudes towards ‘the oldest business in the world’ are rooted in events much older than we suppose.

I believe that to better understand prostitution, in any context, it’s important to understand how we came it view it the way we do today.

Note: You can, in your head, refer to prostitutes as “sex workers” or “R2D2” or “Starship Enterprise” if it makes you feel more comfortable: the actual word is irrelevant as long as we’re referring to the same thing. 

 BEFORE CHRIST

In ancient Mesopotamia, the birthplace of civilization, there was a city called Babylon. From Babylon comes an ancient document known as the Code of Hammurabi. Lawyers  might know of this one: over 1700 years before the birth of Christ, the sixth king of Babylon set down 282 laws and just punishments for violating them. It’s one of the oldest known documents of law in the world.

It’s also a big fucking rock, seven-and-a-half feet tall, but don’t let that stop you. Somewhere on it is a list of rights of prostitutes.

Ancient laws in 10-point font!

Legal docs in 10-point font!

Here is a translation for those of us who don’t speak Ancient Rock. Note number 179:  If a “sister of a god,” or a prostitute, receive a gift from her father, and a deed in which it has been explicitly stated that she may dispose of it as she pleases, and give her complete disposition thereof: if then her father die, then she may leave her property to whomsoever she pleases. Her brothers can raise no claim thereto. 

Now, people don’t go about carving stuff for the sake of it: if they had to lay down laws regarding the rights of prostitutes, we can make a reasonable case that prostitution was a thing in old Babylon, and they approached it in the same way we approach vehicle taxes or property rights: legalize it, regulate the ins and outs and watch it prosper. Herodotus, writing in ~450s BC, talks about prostitution as a religious ritual, with many “houses of heaven” along the banks of the river.

Babylon was not alone in this behavior. Ancient Greece was famously sexually liberal, every by today’s standards. Both men and women engaged in prostitution – in fact, the Greek word for prostitution is porne, which is where we get the word pornography.

Before Pornhub. Back when you had to carve stuff before streaming it.

Female prostitutes in Greece had, as far as I can make out, two distinct classes. The hetairai were independent and sometimes influential courtesans, well educated who were required to wear distinctive dresses and paid taxes -not sort of like the Oiran of Japan (we’ll get to them in a later century).

Τhe hetairai were also the only women participated in the symposia, where their opinion was welcomed and respected by men, and also the only women who had independent control over lots of money.  Then there were the pornai , who sold sex by the act and worked on the streets or out of brothels.

Then, of course, we have Rome.  Rome celebrated practically everything about life; they integrated prostitution into everything, including religion. Roman prostitutes of the highest ranks often held significant financial and political clout – a lot like, say, a modern-day politician.

Yeap, they put it on coins.

Yeap, Rome put it on coins.

And some parts of ancient India had a tradition of Nagarvadhu, or “bride of the city”:  women competed to win the title of a Nagarvadhu, and only the most beautiful was chosen. A Nagarvadhu was respected like a queen or Goddess, and her price for a single night’s “dance” was very high; only kings and princes were said to be able to afford her. It’s basically Miss Universe crossed with good business.

I can’t statistically prove that prostitution is the oldest job in the world, but we do know that since the earliest days of civilization, what started out as a primal exchange became both religion and big business. In short, we definitely had a lot of fucking going on, and some of it was definitely paid for.

FROM CHRIST TO 1600 AD

All of this changes when Abrahamic religions began their meteoric rise to popularity. Jewish law has always been no-no on prostitution, but it’s not until Christianity took over Rome that the Word of God really began to matter on the subject.  In Rome, in about the 4th century AD, the emperor Constantine destroyed quite a lot of those sites of holy prostitution that we talked about in the name of Christianity.

Not this guy

Not this guy, but close

Religious pressure steadily increased. A little bit later down the line, the Prophet Muhammed outlawed prostitution on all grounds. Suddenly, you had the Holy Roman Empire saying prostitution was sinful; you also had the Muslims saying the same.

Even so, prostitution was tolerated, because people – get this – held that it would prevent rape, torture and murder. I quote Augustine of Hippo (aka Saint Augustine): “If you expel prostitution from society, you will unsettle everything on account of lusts”. That’s a very modern outlook – or rather, our modern outlooks may actually be pretty old outlooks.

In fact, prostitution was so tied to socio-economics that the Church accepted it as a lesser evil, and even the idea of prostitute saints took hold – Mary Magdelene was quite popular as a Saint of her own right in the 12th century, and was promoted heavily by the Church 1200 years after Constantine went ham.

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What of the rest of the world? Certain countries in Europe had streets where prostitution was permissible.  Even in the Arab world, prostitution – of a kind – existed. Has anyone heard of the harem? Despite the word meaning a sacred, inviolable space where women were (in Muslim households),  a different type of harem is recorded –  for instance, Sultan Ibrahim the Mad, who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1640 to 1648, is said to have drowned 280 concubines from one of his harems – this implies he had a lot more. King Kashyapa, our own guy from Sigiriya, ruled somewhere in the late 400 BC and reportedly had as many as 500 women in a harem-equivalent; it was considered an honour to be a “lady of the king’s harem” in those times. 

1600 AD – PRESENT

All of this changed in the 16th and 17th centuries.  The outbreak of disease, combined with an increase in the power of the Roman Catholic Church, eventually turned prostitution from something religious and / or sacred, to something permissible, and finally something to be ashamed of and cast out. Protestant reformation and pressure from various popes and other cults built up, and eventually even Europe caved in.

Carl Spitzweg, 1863., Germany. Prostitute receiving disapproving glances.

Carl Spitzweg, 1863., Germany. Prostitute receiving disapproving glances.

The interesting thing is that economics came into play here and people began to obtain what they could not get in Europe from Asia and poor countries, especially Japan, which was now joining the world after centuries of isolation. A slave trade grew around Asia. Ironically, that’s very similar to the situation today: prostitution is illegal in many countries, and lots of people from around the world go to Asian countries to get sex.

As Britain, Spain and Portugal and other countries began colonizing and spreading their beliefs, this Christian ethos towards prostitution became the standard for most countries. Consider this anti-prostitution poster from World War II:

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Do you see a similarity here?

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Our attitudes towards prostitution – especially if you’re in a country that was colonized by a bunch of religious white dudes, like America, Sri Lanka or India – are strikingly similar to the 16th and 17th century morals of the Church and associated organs. We view prostitutes either as foul predators, plague carriers or poor creatures to be pitied (the Sunday Leader, of course, manages to fit both of these viewpoints into the same paragraph).

 Japan alone resisted, with the government-sanctioned Yoshiwara brothel district operating from 1617 to 1958. In fact, there were three major brothel districts: Shimabara for Kyōto, Shinmachi for Ōsaka and Yoshiwara for Edo. They were home to the Oiran, a sort of proto-geisha: incredibly talented and trained courtesans – very beautiful, trained in multiple arts of song, dance, calligraphy, and possessing a fine knowledge of both Japanese and Chinese literature.

In  an age and social structure where women were mostly just furniture, the Oiran were quite likely some of the best educated people in the land. 

Depictions of these courtesans by Kitao Masanobu (1761–1816, aka Santō Kyōden) emphasize the women’s academic training and intellectual lives of women in the Yoshiwara district.

Depictions of these courtesans by Kitao Masanobu (1761–1816, aka Santō Kyōden) emphasize the women’s academic training and intellectual lives of women in the Yoshiwara district.

Now this is by no means a complete history of prostitution, nor does it completely map the cause-and-effect chain; I’d need a lot more than a couple of thousand words to do that.  However, here are a few interesting points to consider:

  1. Our attitudes towards this prostitution have survived almost unchanged from the views that permeated the world in the 16th century. Almost everywhere in the world, prostitution is illegal, and even when publicly  accepted (as in Thailand), it is still viewed as morally and religiously repulsive.
  2. Attitudes that we consider liberal today are surprisingly old; Saint Augustine lived and died around the 4th Century AD, and his view that prostitution would lower the rate of crimes born of lust is an argument very much in use today.
  3. Regardless of actual legalities or moral codes, economics still continues to govern the human race in this matter: there is demand, and there was always supply.

The players on this stage are a subset of human beings.  I feel this point is important, especially in light of articles like that in the Sunday Leader. Some of the most charming, best-educated, most intelligent people were, and are, prostitutes.
In this subset that we call prostitutes you will find people, mostly women, who are doing this out of choice; who were forced into it; who like it; who hate it; who do it discreetly; who flaunt it. To repeat: they are human, and the least we can extend them is empathy and half-decent grammar. And at some point we have to get our heads out of our asses and realise that prostitution is not going to go away.

Brothel scene, 1537; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Brothel scene, 1537; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

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Brothel scene, 2015; Thailand

Who is Indrajit Coomaraswamy?

by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

When the identity of the new Governor of the CBSL was revealed, I saw congratulatory posts flying left and right on social media. An excellent choice, they said in general. Like many people, I saw his acceptance speech and felt inclined to agree. He sounds like the man we need in that chair right now.

Unfortunately, I don’t really know the good Doctor. The Asian Mirror did  a post on him, but it’s just a rehash of his Wikipedia page. I decided to look a bit further inwards and found the following information. My thanks to Namini Wijedasa, Anusha David and Dr Sue Onslow for their interviews with him. So, without further ado:

  • The man has a HUGE track record.
    Dr Coomaraswamy served in the Central Bank of Sri Lanka for 16 years (1973-89) in the Economic Research, Statistics, and Bank Supervision Divisions. After that, he had a stint at the Ministry of Finance and Planning.He joined the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1990 as Chief Officer, Economics, in the International Finance and Markets Section. Apparently, it was a toss-up between the World Bank and the Secretariat.  A lot of his work was based around Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPCs: that’s an actual term) and how to stabilize their economies. Highly relevant to Sri Lanka, I’d say.He later became the Director of the Economic Affairs Division and Deputy Director of the Secretary General’s office, and left the Commonwealth Secretariat in 2008 – that’s 18 years of service – and  returned to the  as the Interim Director of the Social Transformation Programmes Division in 2010. Here’s an excellent interview with him about this period of his work on the CommonWealth Oral Histories website.There’s a slight black mark: he also served as Special Advisor to Galleon Group. The Galleon Group was one of the largest hedge funds in the world, managing over $7 billion until it collapsed in a fantastic 2009 scandal involving insider trading. He’s now a non-executive director of John Keells Holdings and Tokyo cement.
  • He knows his stuff, but he’s not one to attract attention to himself.
    I have always felt that a public servant should not be seen or heard, but should work behind the scenes,” he reportedly said in a 2004 interview, before laying down an analysis of everything that was screwing up the economy: declining trade, a civil war, an unproductive and bloated civil service, and party politics that hinder effective growth.There’s an interview with Life Online that speaks volumes about the man: after succinctly explaining the challenges the Sirisena government would face, he discusses his personal life. Proudest moment? “Can’t think of a single event. Mostly things to do with our children.”“Indrajit still a humble soul” declares the Sunday Times’s Sports section. Apparently, his wife complains that he does not have enough hobbies.I like this man.
  • The caveat: he’s well-educated, well-connected and was a famous sportsman back in his day
    Ah, the key ingredients to winning the heart of the middle class: go to a prestigious school so that one can claim they knew you – and play sports. Dr Coomaraswamy education history does not disappoint: Royal, Harrow School, University of Cambridge (BA) and then Sussex (DPhil). He’s captained the Sri Lanka and CR & FC rugby teams back in his day, and apparently led the Harrow and Emmanuel College cricket teams at some point, and also played for the Tamil Union.He’s also the brother of Radhika Coomaraswamy, once Under-Secretary-General to the United Nations, now on the Constitutional Council of Sri Lanka, and an internationally renowned human rights advocate.If newspaper comments sections are any indicator, Dr Coomaraswamy’s history is probably leading to both a hearty cheer from the old Royal batch/es and fingers pointed at Ranil for building up an Old Boy’s Brigade of privileged Royalists. Regardless of what side you’re on, that’s a thoroughly impressive education and leagues ahead of the man we had before.
  • All in all, it’s wise to wait and see what he does before commenting, but here’s to an intelligent appointment in this country.

 

 

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