UNLOCKED Blog 5: The Invisible Woman

12 Mar 2015

I am turning into an invisible woman.

No, I’m not talking about my progress in finally tapping into my Marvel superhero powers... Although, that would be pretty awesome.

I’m talking about how I have changed - how actions of some Sri Lankans is changing me.

Are you wondering what I'm talking about?

Let me start by sharing a small snippet of my life with you. I was brought up by my wonderful Ammi (Mom) and Thathi (Dad) in Canada - the land of maple syrup, cold winters and Justin Bieber. For several reasons, I made a decision to leave that part of the world and take up residence in tropical Sri Lanka, which has been my home for close to 2 years now.

Granted, there was an initial culture shock, but I soon picked up the do’s and don’ts, and I think that I am now accustomed to the “Sri Lankan way of life”, so to speak.

But I recently took a moment to just pause – to think about how my life here has changed me… and one frightening realization was that I am turning into an invisible woman.

In an attempt to adapt to my surroundings and be respectful of traditions, norms, and cultures, I have subconsciously submitted to ways of thinking that I normally would be opposed to. In my attempt to blend in, I never really questioned it - until now.

Street harassment, for example, is highly prevalent amidst the streets of Colombo.

Street harassment is, basically, unwanted words or actions made by unknown persons in public spaces motivated by gender that invade a person’s physical and emotional space.

I know that, as a young woman, I absolutely despise walking on the road, even if it is just to cross over to another building – because I know that in the span of 60 seconds, I would already have been subjected to one of the following:

“Ahhh nangi” (“Hey sister”)

“Shaaa lassanai” (“Whoa, beautiful”)

“Maru kaella “– “(Awesome piece of…”).

If the above isn’t verbally said, you can be certain of at least a full body scan, a creepy smirk or a car honk.

Now, some may argue that these are just harmless words/actions; in fact, the majority of adults to whom I brought this to the attention of, said “ Kollo ehema thamai aney…” (“Boys are like that”), as if it was suddenly part of their DNA to act this way. The strange part was that most of the adults who said this were women. They would tell me that I should just learn to ignore it and move on with my life, just as they have…

So I began to think, was I crazy for voicing my thoughts? For sharing my experiences? Is this sort of behaviour really acceptable?

I started to make some subtle changes in my life and took the necessary “precautions” to avoid such uncomfortable situations. I made it my mission to become unseen… invisible.

Precaution 1: Walk fast

Rationale: The faster you walk, the less likely someone will spot you before you reach your destination.

Precaution 2: Keep a blank/ angry expression while walking

Rationale: If you are angry looking, they will be somewhat intimidated to talk to you, right?

Precaution 3: Do not smile/make eye contact– immediately look at the ground

Rationale: If you appear to be happy, happy = approachable and this is somehow taken to be a signal of “I’m totally interested in you, I want you” to some men.

Precaution 4: Wear “appropriate” clothing

Rationale: Do not look like a woman; do not wear anything which will reveal that you are woman, loose fitting clothing is preferred. Also, don’t wear any bright colours – it also attracts unwanted attention.

My precaution list may sound a little silly and humorous, but these are in fact genuine steps that I began to take so that I could feel a little safer and in control of an uncontrollable circumstance. But, the reality of the situation was that no matter what ‘precautions’ I took, I still got harassed.

Recently, a few my girlfriends and I got together for lunch and I casually brought up the fact that I am altering my behaviour so that I don’t have to “deal” with men and their demeaning comments.

I was not alone…

All 5 of the young women at my table said that they have their own precaution mechanisms and soon shared a few of their own experiences.

Now, to some extent, I consider my friends and myself to be strong, educated women; women who are in charge of their own destiny who believe in equality and the Liberated Woman, but all these stories just showed how even these women are subjected to this kind of behaviour and don’t really talk about it. If these were just the girls at my table, it got me thinking “what about the other girls out there?”

By being exposed to ‘western culture’, so to speak, I may be able to shrug off these events and carry on with my “precaution list”, but what about girls who are not so ‘empowered’?

What about my sisters in other parts of Sri Lanka? What about the young girls coming home after their tuition classes?

When these women want to feel invisible as a result of harassment – what are they giving up?  Are they able to reach their fullest potential?

The Sri Lanka National Human Development Report 2014 on ‘Youth and Development: Towards a More Inclusive Future’ (NHDR) states that Sri Lanka can be proud of the fact that ‘young women dominate in both school admissions and performance’. However, their progress to employment strangely is far less than that of men. Are young women not applying for positions that make them visible? Are they limiting themselves to mediocre jobs, thinking they would rather not stand out? Are they thinking that they would rather just remain invisible? To what extent is harassment limiting them?

Harassment towards women of any kind can have ripple effects on the society we live in - we may not notice it at first glance, but if we look deeper into the situation, we can truly see how much of an impact it makes.

Globally,

  • Around 50% of harassed women experienced street harassment by age 17.
  • Nearly 1 in 4 women had been purposely touched or brushed up against in an unwanted, sexual way while in a public space.

To find relevant local stats was, however, a daunting task, as the amount of research done is extremely scarce. Which is, in part, the problem. We as a society have not given it proper importance.

However, according to the penal code in Sri Lanka, street harassment is punishable by law for up to 5 years! Why is this not publicized? Why are more women not aware of their rights?

The NHDR says that 92% of women who were surveyed said they did not know of any person that has experienced gender based violence of any form. This is in part due to the stigma and shame attached to revealing it happened.  

Similarly, harassment towards females is gravely under reported in our society, even though it’s condemned by law.

A large part of the issue is that many think of street harassment as a trivial matter - harmless, even humorous. We have become so used to it happening around us that this has suddenly turned into the norm, and even to report it seems silly.  But why should I or any other young woman be walking with fear? Why are we altering our lives such that we are left with no choice but to become invisible? We deserve to be respected. We deserve to feel SAFE.

Mindsets have to change.

Talk about it!

I urge women to talk about this issue and not just brush it aside as an expected public occurrence. If we don’t talk about it, how can we expect change?

I urge men to think about your female friends, colleagues, family members – don’t stay silent, stand up for an invisible woman!

Perhaps,

If the spotlight is given to these issues and programmes that are in place, which teach men to see women as equals and to respect them, then maybe…just maybe, we can hope for a safer walk in the years to come, and we no longer have to be invisible.

After all…

A developed world is one where women are safe, respected, and equal, and are given the space to fulfill their aspirations. Let’s build that world, together.

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