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The story of the Colombite woman is complex and paradoxical. Taking into account the historic and ingrained cultural attitudes surrounding ‘accepted’ behaviors, the effects of sexism are clear. Call it the “act like a lady, earn like a man” option.
Within the reading, you may find a tone of sarcasm; one suggestive of an ‘annoying, nosy aunt voice.’ Please, do know this is intentional, meant to convey the authenticity in the lives of Colombite women.
All about expectations
A girl is expected to perform in school with aspirations of higher education, but not so much that she thinks she is above any man she marries. If she is more educated than her mate, how will she willingly submit to him?
She is also expected to find something to study inside the country, while boys are sent away —allowing boys to access more acceptable options in pursuit of a higher education. A woman is expected to find something more ladylike to educate herself in, like Business Administration or Law.
She is expected to study right here in Lanka, under the nose of her 56 cousins and the watchful eye of her neighborhood patrol. She is only a girl after all, and too much independence is completely unnecessary and not encouraged.
Certain career choices are considered too manly. Becoming a pilot is not the best career for a girl, for example. It would require too much time away, and anything that might keep her out past 8 p.m. makes her character questionable.
Cultural traditions posing as law
In Sri Lankan culture, we have a saying: “he’s a boy —he can get away with it, but you’re a girl —your character cannot be questioned.” A woman is supposed to choose something where she makes good money, but has time for her family: a type of choice more acceptable.
The rare few that “rage against the machine” and break through their cultural bonds are the ones blessed with open minded parents. These parents believe women can brave a foreign nation with their dignity intact, while managing their independence without shaming themselves or their extended family.
Now, the crucial element in understanding Sri Lankan culture is understanding that when we say family, we mean extended family [which would normally consist of a few dozen blood relatives and their cats]. It is like this: when in trouble, you have 56 lifeboats to save you, and once you have been rescued, you wish to have drowned.
No respect for personal space, only because we care
It is very clear that these issues reflected in our cultural norms and expectations of women and young girls transcend poverty lines and gender politics. We are a close-knit culture that has no respect for women’s personal space, opinions or boundaries, but it is only because we care.
Offenses such as physical or sexual abuse, and domestic violence are considered impolite conversation. Small communities where everyone is a friend or family cannot tolerate scandal. Ans as shocking as it may be to imagine that these atrocities occur in an honor-based society, it is the reality.
But could there be change in the future? Shifts in cultural attitudes and behavioral norms take time and an enormous amount of effort., but it is possible.
Knowing this, Alana Athletica was founded on core values of women empowerment. Sharing women’s personal, impactful stories and increasing awareness around injustice, abuse and the complex lives of Sri Lankan women will continue to be a priority for our team. Women’s voices must be heard for positive change to occur.
Offenders walk away with the silence of the victims —bought by the society that empowers them. The ‘hush’ is maintained and the offenders keep offending. Domestic violence is, therefore, an issue that transcends a woman's level of education.
Now onto the story of Dilani
Dilani, 34, is a medical professional educated in one of the most prestigious universities in India. Once she returned to the country, her parents gave into pressure from family who were ‘concerned’ for the future of an overly independent young woman. She was introduced to a well-off son of an aunt's family friend.
He was deemed the perfect match for her family. He was well groomed and seemed to be the epitome of a gentleman. Dilani, too, came to believe that he was ‘mr. Right’.
But the nightmare began a few months after the nuptials. In the beginning, she was verbally abused for being out on night shifts at the hospital. After the verbal violence intensified, the physical assaults started. Dilani was shocked the first time it happened. Her in-laws called her ‘an insubordinate wife.’
Her husband’s outbursts became more frequent —and without remorse. Her behavior was seen as unbecoming of a good wife. She was told that she could carry on a private practice, but was banned from working at a hospital. She was blamed for the abuse by her immediate and extended family. Her workaholic lifestyle had ‘driven’ her husband into the arms of another.
It ended in a messy divorce, with Dilani being blamed for it all. Labeled a woman who couldn’t keep her man happy, she was judged as a failure in her society. Her offense: having more to contribute to society than to her domestic skills.
Marked by her culture with the label of divorcée, she was expected to conform with the needs of a man. When she refused, she was branded and discarded. It is a sad reality that unfolds all around in respectable Colombite society.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. It is a culture that shelters and protects its females, but at the same time subjects them to a form of gender politics that an outsider would struggle to grasp. It is a culture where a woman is sexually assaulted every 4 hours, and one in 3 women have been physically or sexually assaulted in their lifetime, a culture that has to change.
We have to determine how we, as a society, have gotten it wrong, and what comes next. We have to become an impactful force that drives positive impact through positive change.
Alana Athletica is here to change these harsh realities with your support.
Each piece of Alana Athletica’s [impact] activewear collection supports women across three transformative social causes:
One [EDUCATE] garment sponsors private tutoring for 5 lives in Sri Lanka.
One [EMPLOY] garment provides employment and prevents hunger for 4 lives in Sri Lanka.
One [EMPOWER] garment teaches self-defense to 7 lives in Sri Lanka.
Want to change the world? Let’s do it together, one yoga pant at a time.
[*names have been changed to protect identities as requested.]
[**Colombite: an individual hailing from Colombo; the privileged 3% or so of Lankan society.]