By: Suranthi Fernando
As a Sri Lankan child who was raised in Singapore, most of my childhood and teenage years were spent freely walking around the streets without much fear of being catcalled or harassed, as the culture and general societal personality in Singapore is to ‘mind your own business’. In fact, most females independently travel and go around the country confidently and almost fearlessly, the knowledge of Singapore being one of the safest countries in the world acting as their safety cushion.
Going back to Sri Lanka during the school holidays brought about a whole different world of fear and anxiety to me, as the people fearlessly roaming the streets are of the male gender. Now, this isn’t too much of a big deal if you think about it. However, the main difference between the majority of Singaporean males and a small percentage of Sri Lankan males is that the latter feels that they are entitled to speak to any woman they wish to, regardless of whether their advances are wanted or unwanted. Should a girl openly reject their advances or snidely cause embarrassment to the male, they retaliate in shocking ways such as publicly causing a scene, continuing to harass them or stalking them all the way to the females’ destination in an attempt to get her to respond to him. In the most extreme cases, they might even drag the girl away and physically harm her, convinced that they are teaching the girl a lesson.
I was a victim too, despite still being in my teenage years when it happened. Thankfully, it was all verbal and never escalated beyond that.
I developed curves early on in life, which made me look more mature than my actual age. In most countries, to have womanly curves is a thing to be celebrated, and is considered a blessing. In my case, every time we visited Sri Lanka I would wear baggy shapeless clothes and walk with a slight hunch to avoid drawing attention to my figure. Even then, I could not escape annoying catcalls and whistles. I would shrink behind my mother in fear and discomfort, only to be sharply told to ignore them and walk straight (as showing any form of reaction would only serve as encouragement for them to continue).
I quickly learned to walk with my eyes cast down to the floor and walk with my shoulders hunched forward, as opposed to the confident squared shoulders most young women hold with confident striding. I would half walk-half run to my destination, my heart thumping like a heavy bass drum set in my throat any time I got within 5 feet of a scruffy looking group of males lounging around on the streets. I often found myself wanting to stay home, even though I longed to explore my country freely while on vacation.
Most often, even with my attempts to avoid being catcalled, I would have unwanted comments on my hair, my face, and even my clothes. One time, a young man got way too close to me, calling me ‘nangi’ (‘younger sister’ in Sinhalese), tugging on my shirt and asking me where I bought it (it was an old misshapen checkered lumberjack flannel button-down), while also attempting to ask me unnecessary personal questions. I yanked it out of his hand and walked quickly towards my family. To my horror, he followed me! I sprinted towards my cousins while calling out to them. They noticed my panic and proceeded to stare the horrible man down, effectively causing him to slink away. Had I not called out or had they not reacted at that exact moment, I might have been in harm’s way.
While this may not happen every single day, having unwanted male attention forced upon them is an unfortunate reality of most women, not just in Sri Lanka but around the world, which makes me honestly wonder what sort of delusions some men have to think that their harassment can be translated into a mating call that their targets are obliged to respond positively to.
While the main topic I speak on is about women, I would like to bring to attention that it is not only women who can be harassed on the streets. Males are also equally susceptible to such unwanted advances and have equal rights to speak up if they were unfortunate victims.
The question I often ask when I see such situations is, why do people feel that they have the right to pursue, but their targets do not have the right to reject? Most importantly, how can we, as the generation that is currently about to run the world, change ourselves and the future generations that we will bring forth, so that women and men can all peacefully coexist without having catcalls and filth directed at them as they innocently go about their day?
If it can happen to me, it can happen to you. Or your sister, your mother, your wife or your daughter. It might be your brother, your father, your husband or your son too. While it is important to teach girls not to provoke attention with behavior or dress styles (and this is NOT in any way shaming women), it is equally important, if not MORE important, to teach our boys and men to respect women and to treat them as humans, not to objectify them. We need to cultivate a global society of people who respect other people, and never allow the justification of hunters pursuing their prey.
Suranthi Ineshka Fernando recently graduated from university with an honors degree in International Trade and Psychology and is currently in the process of fulfilling her dreams of becoming a published author and digital marketing specialist. She enjoys reading and watching Korean dramas in her free time in an effort to become fluent in Korean.