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Home > Women’s Rights > Beneath the veneer of protecting public morality in Sri Lanka

Beneath the veneer of protecting public morality in Sri Lanka

by Cat’s Eye, 4 July 2010

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The Island, July 3, 2010

Morality and the Police

by Cat’s Eye

A series of developments over the past few weeks has brought into focus the role of the state and the Police in safe guarding certain notions of "public morality" in Sri Lanka. Recent news reports show that a number of couples who were holding hands, kissing and cuddling in public areas including parks and beaches have been arrested in the cities of Kurunegala, Matara and Colombo. The arrests in Colombo have been attributed to a concerted crack down on "vice" within the capital by the Police. Similarly the removal of "indecent" hoardings in and around Colombo city was carried out by the Bureau for the Prevention of Abuse of Children and Women of the Sri Lanka Police. Apparently the Bureau made this move because it was "prompted by the sense that the younger generation of Sri Lankans do not show sufficient respect to women and that modern culture treats them as commodities." This also comes on the heels of moves by the Women and Children’s Desk of the Police to ban all pornographic content on mobile phones through the Children’s Courts.

The Police appear to be guided by a strong conviction of the need to protect and respect women as well as to fight against the "comodification" of women in Sri Lanka. This is indeed laudable, and Cat’s Eye is pleased to note the concern shown by the Police on these issues. However when the Police decide to act on an issue such as this it is extremely important to question as to whether these measures really do protect women or whether the outcomes and fall outs of this kind of action outweigh its benefits. This is obviously not something that can be quantified or measured but nevertheless any executive action seeking to safeguard public morality needs to be carefully thought out.

Public Morality

In this article Cat’s Eye will explore the implications of policing "public morality" for society in general and more specifically for women in Sri Lanka. A glance at the cases referred to above suggests different understandings of acts that "corrupt" public morality. This leads to the question as to whether "indecent" hoardings on public roads in Colombo are as likely to "corrupt" public morality as the sight of couples holding hands in public? Furthermore reports on the arrests of couples in Colombo also note that the Police raided guest houses, hotels and motels in the early hours of the morning. This is also problematic since none of these places are essentially "public" in the same sense that a billboard is public. Clearly the definitions of acts that are "indecent", acts that can "corrupt" public morality and areas that are considered "public" are very ambiguous and broad.

Furthermore in discussing the idea of the "public sphere" and "public morality", the questions that arise are - who is the public? Who determines "public morality" and how? These questions lead back to the debate as to where the "private" ends and where the "public" begins. The term "public" sphere is in itself a very loaded term, particularly for women. The separation between the public and private sphere is a fraught division and a woman’s personal life (i.e. her sexuality, labor and morality) is very much a matter of public discussion and debate. However it is also important to recognize that society treats a woman’s morality very differently to that of a man’s. It is no surprise that one of the key factors that drove the Police to step in to protect public morality was the need to protect women. Furthermore it is not too farfetched to assume that the consequences of being arrested for "public indecency" would fall more heavily on the woman rather than the man. The repercussions of this or the punishments imposed on women may not always be visible but any casual observer would realize that it is the woman who would have to bear the brunt of family and social disapproval for her actions.

Women and Purity

This issue revives the notion that "the woman" is the symbol of cultural identity, public morality etc and that by "protecting" the woman, the "purity" of society as a whole can be protected. This characterization of culture and morality is misleading on one hand and discriminatory on the other. Interestingly enough, whenever this connection is being made between women and culture/morality, one finds that it is often the powerful or men (often it is both) who make it and impose it on everyone else.

Another relevant question is – why is it that acts related to sexuality are always considered to impinge on public morality far more than other issues faced by our society - for instance, poverty or violence? The tragic plight of street children in cities, the harassment of women in public transport are common occurrences in our society, which should animate public discussion and affect our "public morality."

The issue with policing public morality is the fact that at the end of the day morality is essentially a framework for making personal choices and not a choice to be made on behalf of individuals by a public authority. Morality becomes public when there is (a perception of) common agreement with a set of minimum standards that are necessary for the functioning of society. However because morality is essentially a personal choice it is difficult to reach a consensus on a definition of public immorality. It is important to question as to whether there was any significant degree of public consultation before these decisions were taken. Since it appears that there was no consultation with the larger public on these issues it also raises questions on the capacity and authority of the state to take such strident action to admonish "corrupters" of public morality. Clearly the Police appear to believe that they are the ultimate deciders in this regard. This is, to use a common image, "a slippery slope." Allowing the police or any other public authority to determine what is meant by "public morality" or "indecency" is to give them a freehand in controlling society i.e. to restrict our freedoms. Is that what we want as a society?

Harassment of Women

The role of family, education, culture, religion etc in defining public morality, in learning to respect other members of society – should be highlighted here. The "religiousness" of Sri Lankan society as indicated in statistics – does not seem to translate into our daily practices in the "public sphere." The sexual harassment of women and girls on roads and in public transport is an indication of this. Another indication is that any woman who chooses to walk about in the city in the night, unaccompanied, does so at a risk to her safety – both physical and emotional. Is it possible at all to change such negative perceptions of women, by removing "indecent" hoardings? Moreover, is the Police the most appropriate public authority to take up this matter?

Cat’s Eye raises these questions because it is well aware that beneath the veneer of protecting public morality lies a stricter policing of a woman’s morality, a control over her body and her sexuality. Within such a context Cat’s Eye wonders at which point a private consensual act impinges on considerations of public morality. Who should ultimately decide on the demarcation between the boundaries of public and private morality? With this in mind the earnestness shown by the Police to protect public morality require a careful reexamination in terms of what it means for women in Sri Lanka.