By Chandula Kumbukage
Many believe that women in Sri Lanka are in a better place compared to its counterparts in South Asia. This is true up to a certain extent where women enjoy a high level of education, high life expectancy at birth (74 years) and access to economic opportunities.
Sri Lanka elected the first ever female head of state and had since been governed by two female heads of state – namely Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge. Yet women face gender related issues. Dominant among them is violence against women. Once President Chandrika Kumaratunga noted, “There’s a new problem – violence against women, social violence like rape, even rape of little children. Physical violence, (some) not heard of before, is on the increase”.
Indeed as President Kumaratunga says, women face diverse forms of physical violence where some are unknown to many. Like the instance of female students in Sri Jayawardanapura University coming under physical and verbal harassment for wearing three-quarter pants to university.
In the University of Sri Jayawardanapura female students are banned from wearing three-quarter pants and the ones who dare to wear them are often scolded in filth, threatened and raw eggs are thrown at them by the male students attached to the Students’ Union. This ludicrous dress code violating the basic freedoms and rights of the women was imposed several years ago by the male students of the Students’ Union in this university that is often attached to a radical Marxist party. The members of the Students’ Union argue that these pants are indecent and inappropriate to the culture of the University. Therefore it is evident that;
1) Three-quarter pants are banned to protect the culture of the university.
2) Scolding and throwing raw eggs at the ones who wear them are done to discipline them and to protect the culture of the university.
However, a glance at the rules and regulations of the University of Sri Jayawardanapura, does not suggest such ludicrous dress codes or ban female students from wearing three quarter pants to university. Therefore female students have every right to come in three-quarter pants to university as they are only expected to follow the rules imposed by the university not by the Students’ Union.
The University Student Union, which is considered an important body in a university, does not have any authority to make or impose rules in a university according to Section 112 of the University Act dealing with University Students’ Union and Faculty Students’ Union(http://www.ugc.ac.lk/en/policy/universities-act/48.html).
They are only expected to assist the administration of the university to maintain discipline and despite the clear guidelines; the members of the Students’ Union continue to harass female students who come in three-quarter pants. However, this madness of harassing students over their attire is not restricted to female students; it applies to visitors too. Once, two girls who came on a visit to the Post-Graduate Institute of this university had raw eggs thrown at them by the male students for wearing three-quarter pants.
The conduct of the Students’ Union towards female students coming in three quarter pants is similar to the conduct of Taliban militants flogging Afghan women for showing the ankle underneath the Burqa by mistake. And this conduct of the Students’ Union is a violation of Article 12 (2) of the Constitution which states that; “No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of the race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any such grounds.
In this specific issue, the University in any capacity does not agree with or encourage the conduct of the Students’ Union; however, it has failed to efficiently address the issue by taking action against the students who misbehave and harass female students. It appears that the authorities of the university treat this issue as an internal matter between the students and therefore the matter has not been taken seriously. Even the security guards stationed at the gate, who bear the responsibility of providing security to students, are reluctant to take action against the boys who harass students over three quarter pants. Instead they warn the girls on possible attacks from boys, rather than warning the boys not to harass girls.
The most unfortunate outcome of this is that it has become the norm in the university where the students have unwillingly accepted the conduct of the male students and the Students’ Union on three quarter pants. Similarly they don’t resist when they are subjected to similar harassment during the ragging season and when they are forced to take part in protests organized by the radical Marxist parties affiliated to the Students’ Union. Victims who come across verbal and physical harassment often bare the pain and shame in silence, while some courageously defend themselves by arguing with the boys, which is a rare instance.
Victims are often reluctant to resist the oppressors mainly due to the fear of much more stringent repercussions from the oppressors. The lack of awareness on basic human rights and the law of the country among these students also contribute to this. Most students who come across harassment do not know whom to tell, whom to complain to and have no faith on justice served upon them.
It seems that the male students of the Students’ Union have imposed this ludicrous dress code to simply cast their dominance over women and also to suppress the ones who follow a liberal lifestyle. Members of the Students’ Union often come from rural and impoverished backgrounds and fail to adapt to the realities of a modernized urban society. As a result they develop an inferior complex with the ones hailing from affluent urban backgrounds. Therefore banning three-quarter pants as well as ragging new comers (freshers) is a reflection of this inferiority complex.
Tolerance, which implies the loving acknowledgment of the unique dignity of every human being, mutual respect for privacy and rights and the right to equal concern and respect does not exist in the vocabulary of the student political bodies, student political parties and even among the student community. This is another reason that leads certain students to act in such an oppressive manner.
The negligence and the silence of the University authorities and the students who silently oppose these kinds of acts have empowered the rowdy oppressor to continue with this madness.
The writer’s personal experience of being humiliated for coming in three quarter pants made her write this piece to reveal this madness to raise awareness among the society regarding the seriousness of the issue and to date, this issue remains a nightmare for female students.
Despite the change in times and having a special act to deal with domestic violence (Prevention of Domestic Violence Act No 34, 2005), harassment and violence against women continue to occur at universities, which should be a place of light, of liberty and of learning as noted by Benjamin Disraeli.