In March 2019, there were small rumblings on Sri Lankan Twitter which sounded and looked like #MeToo. There seemed to be, in at least one woman’s tweets, the markings of the iconic ‘movement’ which has taken much of the middle to upper-middle-class English-speaking world by storm since around October 2017. While #MeToo ostensibly has had the most real-life consequences in Hollywood, it has also made its mark in other pockets in the US, most significantly surrounding the controversial appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court.
But there have been consequences closer to home too; just one week after ‘#MeToo’ began going viral in October 2017, a crowd-sourced list of Indian academics and university teachers was posted online in India, alongside descriptions of (anonymous) allegations against them. It sent Indian feminist communities into dynamic, sometimes divisive debate. But besides one fired, another suspended, a third stepping down from his post, and some statements, nothing significant was done by way of investigating any of the men who appeared on the list.
That changed when the moment seemed to remerge in India nearly one year later, with a fresh wave of accusations, this time from women in media. In the most public of these cases, 20 women accused established editor and journalist (and now politician) M J Akbar of sexual harassment. The most significant was the case brought against him by journalist Priya Ramani, who was in turn sued for criminal defamation by Akbar (the case is ongoing). Though it started in academia, the movement in India has had major bearing on the film industry and within the arts community as well. Pakistan has seen its own #MeToo moments, which extend from its film industry to the mainstream political landscape, including allegations against the current President.
#MeToo without names
As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, the clearest sign that its #MeToo moment may have arrived in Colombo was the compelling thread made by a young woman journalist in March 2019, which detailed her experience of being sent an inappropriate photograph by an established male journalist (the incident occurred in 2016) followed only by an abrupt “sorry” from him. He has since deleted both the photograph and the “sorry” from their chat.
This young journalist’s Twitter thread started a small wave of similar threads and stories. When I reached out, the journalist said she had never meant for the matter to blow up on Twitter; she had tweeted about her experience only as a way of starting a broad discussion about sexual misconduct.
Maybe this was going to be Sri Lanka’s way – that it was not a public ritual of ‘naming and shaming’, but rather a way of quietly telling stories and holding space for the memories of violence.
Another story about sexual assault perpetrated by someone known to the survivor is a blogpost published and written by a Sri Lankan woman, Sachini Perera, also in March 2019. Titled ‘Yet to Name My Abuser’, it laid a number of things out in detail. It wasn’t an account filled with lurid details of a sexual assault, but was a story of coming to terms with survivorhood, beginning to accept what happened, and opening oneself up to the joys of sharing.
Around this time, some women, including Perera herself, declared their “inboxes open” to anyone who wished to talk about their own story of sexual harassment, and have it documented in some way. Those who wished to could be referred to a psychological or legal counsellor, whether they wanted help in navigating a public statement of some sort, naming the perpetrator, or not. This message was communicated from several personal handles on Twitter, in Sinhala, Tamil and English.
There was a common thread here, and it was an interesting one. Sri Lanka was having its own #MeToo of sorts, but without the names of any perpetrators. The woman journalist who tweeted about the individual who sent her an inappropriate photo didn’t name him. The many others who joined in the sharing online, never shared names but told their stories, in solidarity with other women, but also as a way of raising their hand and saying “me too”. In most of these cases, perhaps, the names of perpetrators are known to some – to friends, or to wider groups, through whispered information networks. So maybe this was going to be Sri Lanka’s way – that it was not a public ritual of ‘naming and shaming’, but rather a way of quietly telling stories and holding space for the memories of violence.
The ‘boy code’
This wasn’t the first time such conversation came up in Colombo. In November 2018, the feminist collective I co-run in the city (A Collective for Feminist Conversations) hosted an event called ‘Unpacking #MeToo’. Our speaker was Mihiri de Silva, who had very publicly spoken about the incident of sexual harassment she had faced at her former workplace (even providing an interview to the media) – though she never named the organisation or any of the people involved.
De Silva’s case was emblematic of this kind of scenario. The complicity of the organisation in question was stark and obvious. De Silva, in many ways, tried to follow ‘due process’. She first alerted the human resources department of the company. She was asked to “keep it quiet” while they resolved it. No resolution came. She then spoke to the managing director, and when nothing happened still, she finally wrote a letter to the chairman of the company himself. She was threatened by the perpetrator that he would “make her life harder” if she didn’t comply with his wishes and enter into a non-consensual relationship with him, but no one did anything to stop the harassment. Perhaps de Silva’s most revealing statement was, “I feel there was a ‘boy-code’ operating at that level.” In the end, she quit her job. She said, “I was quitting a well-loved job…I was curtailing my career for something I hadn’t done or planned.”
De Silva’s honesty and willingness to speak left no room for ambiguity: she, like many others, was not describing an isolated incident. She was describing a culture of behaviour where powerful people (often, men) have total impunity to take whatever they want from those who report to them, and above all, have the confidence of knowing that they will be protected by their own.
At our discussion, Mihiri’s retelling of her story to a quiet and attentive women-only group (it organically turned out that way) opened us up to some challenging and honest discussion. Many seemed to identify with the ‘boy-code’ element of her story; one woman said she felt that there wasn’t always a very supportive environment in Colombo, in which one could speak confidently and openly about harassment. She said that she felt there was a lack of support even from other women. This point struck me somewhere deep, and has stayed with me to this day.
The instances in which we do seem comfortable employing a more public ‘shaming’ strategy online seem to be in relation to strangers. There is a Facebook page called ‘Not Your Nangi’, “dedicated to creating a safe, sexual-violence free Sri Lanka”, where women sometimes share images of men by whom they have been sexually harassed in public spaces. On Facebook, in particular, such photographs of faces of strangers are frequently shared with cautionary notes.
In July 2019, a tweet by another Sri Lankan woman journalist, Marianne David, in response to an event called Car-Free Colombo which encouraged people to walk or cycle instead of using a vehicle, went viral. As a woman, the tweet read, you could “barely walk 100 metres without some sick pervert or inbred idiot saying something perverted or stupid.” Though the language of the tweet was clearly classist, it compelled many women to tweet about their own experiences of sexual harassment in public spaces.
These stories, unlike the incidents detailed previously, were about strangers. They were not about men the survivors knew. They were not about men of the same social class.
When we talk about #MeToo, we are talking about a power dynamic between a powerful perpetrator and a victim who is imbued with less power. But #MeToo as it has emerged in media narratives has not typically been about sexual assault or sexual harassment across overt divides of class. We are not, for example, talking about sexual assault inflicted on domestic workers by their employers as part of #MeToo. We’re not, for example, talking about women working on a garment factory floor being harassed by their senior managers. We are not talking about Dalit women who are raped by upper-caste men as punishment for being Dalit – all of which are also realities across the region.
While for some of us this can be stifling, for others, it acts as a web of protection. Often, for many of us, it is both.
I don’t say this to diminish the devastating short and long term effects that protracted sexual abuse can have on someone. This is undeniable. Fortunately, some women who have led the #MeToo campaign have likely been bolstered by other social and economic factors (which probably made it more likely they speak out), such as being able to seek gainful employment in other places, and being able to expect some support and solidarity in their journey towards justice, even as they continue experiencing significant pushback.
I don’t say this to diminish their courage – it is to highlight, simply, what #MeToo is and what it isn’t. In fact, it takes exceptional courage to hold our ‘own’ to account, in the way that the many women of #MeToo, from the United States to Southasia, have done.
Class, wealth and affluence can be a protection charm for both men and women – and this is pretty universal. In Colombo too, as in other places, affluent women may sometimes not confront the deep-rooted misogyny practiced by the men of their own social classes.
We have a strange and distorted relationship with this truth. We are often victims on the frontlines of this behaviour and yet at times, we are also apologists for it. But it’s quite likely that when we don’t call out such behaviour, others who are less privileged are treated much, much worse.
A question of class
Despite all of the stories of sexual assault and abuse which have bubbled to the surface in Colombo in recent years, some still ask, “Why hasn’t #MeToo happened here?”
Before we unpack why people continue to think ‘it’ hasn’t happened here, let’s take stock of what the requirements are, ostensibly. First, it seems, women need to be willing to speak out – and apparently need to be willing to name their perpetrators.
But how free are we to do that here?
The English-speaking middle and upper-middle classes in Colombo, of which I am a part, is a relatively small community, both literally and otherwise, compared even to some other cities in Southasia. They are not typically socialised to be openly critical of each other. Instead, politeness and keeping up appearances are prized. It is ‘close-knit’ – by choice and not by choice. This really just means that most individuals are usually only a few degrees of separation from each other; they’re distantly (if not closely) related, they’ve dated each other’s exes, their siblings are friends, they went to the same school, one’s parent was another’s school teacher, they were neighbours growing up – that kind of thing.
What we definitely need more of, is a general culture of solidarity with those, who (in small and big ways, direct and indirect) want to hold perpetrators – often our social peers – accountable.
These networks of family, friendships and close-knittedness serves many of them well into adulthood – it means they have connections to pursue when seeking employment, and so on. Many reap the benefits of nepotism and favour. It also means that many in these classes are unlikely to have experienced the taste of true anonymity and autonomy in their lives.
While for some of us this can be stifling, for others, it acts as a web of protection. Often, for many of us, it is both. As a teenager, growing up, going to school and hanging out with other girls and boys my age, one got accustomed to the way in which boys seemed to operate in a different moral universe than we girls did. Impunity was guaranteed to them even then, while our personal lives were often carefully surveilled and catalogued. One small ‘mistake’ can walk with you for a long, long time. News travels. Shame sticks.
And women are not the only ones subjected to aggressive hyper-masculinity. Queer men and boys, those refusing to conform to gender norms or any man who refuses to perform these extreme overtures of masculinity or defend them, are penalised, sexually and otherwise.
In this context, what we definitely need more of, is a general culture of solidarity with those, who (in small and big ways, direct and indirect ways) want to hold perpetrators – often our social peers – accountable. The ever-strong bro-code in operation among Colombo’s social circles is a major obstacle. It is blatantly obvious that we could much more easily speak out about our experiences in a society where at least some men will display support and take our side, and stand up to their male peers.
This very same close-knittedness could force us to ask tough questions, about the ways in which we are complicit in cultures and systems of power which enable abuse.
It may take us all being a little less ‘nice’, a little more ‘okay’ with the mess that confrontation can create: to remember, that when one of us chooses the comfort of niceness over what we could be saying in that moment, we make the line that much harder to cross for others as well.
Yes, maybe we burn some bridges, we risk losing some opportunities, maybe professional opportunities. But I think we know that, in the long term, we have far more to gain from standing by each other in these important moments, standing by our shared experiences, than by protecting our social connections to those for whom misogyny is so every-day and so casual that it is part of their persona, part of their sense of humour, part of their perceived charm.
Perhaps Sri Lanka’s ‘small island’ factor yields a broader lesson in the pushes and pulls embedded within the notions of ‘justice’; perhaps its own little #MeToo reminds us that we can remake the meaning of the word however we like. What we’ve got is a variation of MeToo that reflects the complexity of the Sri Lankan context, and maybe we are better for it. For our close-knittedness, we are unable to speak our abusers’ names, but the very same thing forces us to bear witness to a more complex deconstruction of power structures and where we ourselves are located within them – if we are willing to take it on. This very same close-knittedness could force us to ask tough questions, about the ways in which we are complicit in cultures and systems of power which enable abuse. The close-knittedness should not allow us to turn away from profound questions about the fact that the perpetrators often come from the same community.
In a context where we know there will be little to no consequences for perpetrators, and in which we know the stain will likely be on survivors, perhaps not naming the perpetrators is also another form of boundary-setting. It means their lives can go on, to some extent, without the spectre of an abuser – and the gossip – following them around. I believe it also means that survivors are really and truly making this about themselves, because if we do away with the exercise of naming, we are left with the exercise of sharing, reflecting, dealing with, and transforming, collectively. The priority, then, is to create a space for people to not be alone in what they are saying, especially when they are saying something that, we know, is costing them.