Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sri Lanka: The moral police

By Indi Samarajiva | Sunday Leader Online

In an old Italian movie, a girl has become pregnant. The young man doesn’t want to marry her, and he’s trying to tell his father why. “Answer me this,” Peppino said. “In all honesty, would you have married Mama if she’d done what Agnese did with me?” The mother is also seated around the dining table and she says, “You tried to get me to.” The father, chagrined, says “So? It’s a man’s right to ask and a woman’s duty to refuse.”

This double standard, nay, this injustice is behind the Sri Lankan Police’s recent persecution of young women. In the guise of fighting pornography, they have tried to order newspapers to publish the faces of young women. Almost none of these women are porn stars in the sense of posing naked for money. Almost all are regular girls who had nude pictures of themselves released through carelessness, by vindictive others, or by mistake.

As Malinda Seneviratne wrote in the Sri Lanka Guardian, “These girls have been raped by the authorities. If any of these girls find it impossible to live with the shame and does something unfortunate, the nutcase who came up with this ridiculous idea would have to answer.”

Indeed, Lakbima News has already reported that one victim in Nattandiya has had to flee her home, while the others live in fear. Note that the victims here are the girls themselves, and the offender is the police.


Pornography is a dodgy business and something that the government has grounds to regulate. Most of the images they are investigating, however, are amateur, private images that have somehow become public. This is not pornography produced for the public, it’s just private images of naked people. Last I checked this was dumb, but not illegal.

The police response to these images is, however, both dumb and illegal. It is dumb in that — in an effort to stamp out pornography — they are asking newspapers to print what they call pornography. It is possibly illegal in that these women have a right to privacy, though that right is probably waved unless, as they say in China, ‘My father is Li Gan’ (meaning you’re connected to the ruling elite). The point is, however, in an effort to police morality, the police are behaving immorally.

Reverse Morality

In his recent book The Honour Code, Kwame Anthony Appiah discusses what he calls ‘wars against women’. He included the dialogue from the Italian movie above, a film called Sedotta e Abbandonata (1964). That satirical film described what was then an Italian legal practice whereby marriage would forgive prior crimes. Like rape. A man could rape a girl but escape conviction if he married her. Out of shame the parents would often encourage this outcome.

Another practice involved publicly kidnapping a girl to have a pretext for marriage. All this because private seduction could not be acknowledged. It sounds terribly silly to us now, but this is how Sri Lanka’s bumbling moral police must look to the outside world.

In an effort to fight pornography, they are trying to investigate any naked woman they find. Nevermind who distributed the photos, or the websites that circulate them, since the police actually seem to be on their side. Whether it’s a spurned boyfriend or the cops, all seem to be involved in hurting the girls, and putting all the shame on them.

Killing Honour

Sadly, this dishonorable pretence of honour is all too common on the subcontinent. Honour killings happen in India and Pakistan when girls are raped, or when they want a divorce, or when they try to marry someone their family doesn’t approve of. In one 2008 case Appiah cites, three women who wanted to marry freely were killed and a Pakistani Senator rose to defend “these centuries old traditions”.

Sri Lanka is by no means this bad, but we still have a rather dishonorable sense of honour. It is, for example, bad for a woman to wear shorts, but we tolerate men that expose themselves in public. It is bad for women to appear in nude photographs, but understandable that people will look at them.

Admittedly, the police are also censoring pornographic websites, but they make no similar attempt to shame the perpetrators.

Indeed, all the shame is on the women. In this way, however, the shame is on us.


The key to changing this situation, however, is not rejecting honour out of hand. Instead, honour should be defined as what it really is — every person’s right to respect. The police are persecuting these girls because they don’t deem them worthy of respect. Any girl that’s seen naked or, worse, seen smiling naked is not worthy of respect. At some level, that perception may not change. But our perception of men can.

All too often, men are considered honour peers, part of an exclusive club. They deserve respect among themselves, but they don’t extend it to women. There is the exception, however, of chivalry. This word is not entirely native to Asia.

Many Arab countries seem to prefer to not see women at all, hiding them under a hijab. In India and Pakistan, any male contact outside of the family is often seen as dangerous.

In Sri Lanka, we have elements of these cultures but — like India — we have other moral guides. In Sri Lanka we know what an ideal wife and woman should be like, but we also have a concept of a decent man. A decent man wouldn’t drink to intoxication and violence, would try to practice Buddhist precepts (or whatever religion), and would generally be a compassionate human being.

These values are within all religions, but Sri Lanka also has deep Buddhist traditions to draw on when it comes to basic human behaviour. These values are not Puritanical, they’re practical. And they apply just as much to men as to women.

If we want decency on the Internet, we should start with the men that create this demand, that circulate these pictures. Before this, however, we should first make sure that women are respected on our streets, in our buses and in the home. The police should treat any woman trying to report spousal abuse or rape with respect and ensure that respect for women has the weight of authority behind it. Only then will Sri Lanka’s moral police deserve respect, instead of being a cause for international shame.

© The Sunday Leader Online

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