Saturday, January 14, 2012


This blog entry is not going to be all that hunky dory of a topic, but it is something that has been germinating in my mind for a long time now and I think is an important one. Plus, what is life without a bit of balance right?

I’d like to start out by saying (disclaimer tone) that Sri Lanka is an incredible country, there is no doubts about that. Its scenic overload, fresh coconut curries, and, for the most part, incredibly welcoming people are unparalleled by most other places I’ve been to. This little teardrop island packs a lot of punch in the regard of awesomeness. It is also generally a safe place (Mom, this point if for you). It is a communal society where people are invested in the lives of their neighbors, friends and families and once you are included in one of those groups, people will break their backs to make sure you are fed, clean and happy. Often I find myself overwhelmed by the incredible generosity of people I just met.

At this point one might wonder “well then, Kelly dear, if Sri Lanka is so darn dandy and all, would you ever consider living there?” The answer to that question is yes, EXCEPT (and the emphasis is huge here) for the way men have been taught it is appropriate to treat women. Usually I would go on to make another disclaimer that “well, not all men, that kind of blanket statement is unfair” but to be honest, it is far more of a culturally ingrained mentality than that, so deeply part of the way things function in Sri Lankan society that it even seems to transcend the most decent and ethical of chap. To put it pointedly: sexual harassment in Sri Lanka is unreal. Absolutely unreal. And yes, yes, out of all of my travels to and fro across this globe, I do understand that countries have different gender roles and the relationship between men and women are not going to be the same as what I am used to. But honestly, out of every country that I’ve been to, Sri Lanka is hands down the worst when it comes to rampant sexual harassment of women, both local and (perhaps especially) foreign. I’d even go as far to say that it is worse than India and Ghana (the two other places that this has been a problem) COMBINED. Yeah…for those of you who know or have experienced what it is like there, that is not a small number.

Let me begin by some specifics (and blame it on the science, but I relish these kind of data collection opportunities). The past two days I’ve keep track of the number of cat calls, sexually suggestive comments, hand gestures, and exposure to gentlemanly private parts (yes, oh yes) that I get between my house and the local super market 30 minutes away. I feel like it is important to note that the road that I take is a back road in a residential and generally well to do neighborhood. I have grouped the comments to their most relevant category.

Very forward “Hi”/ “Hello”: 11

“Nice”/ “Nice______”: 6

“Hey, Sexy”/ “Sexy!”: 5

“Come!” “Come here!”: 5

Baby, where you going”/ “Hey baby”: 3

“Sweetheart”: 2

Male genitals: 1

This is one hour of walking over a two-day span of time in a relatively secluded area. This does not include figures from riding buses (groper’s paradise), going on trishaws (a constant battle to defend why I do not want to marry you), and walking to the university (where I have been flashed countless times). A week or so back my friend was stuffed into a public bus and where the bus conductor proceeded to run his boner along their bodies as he collected the bus fare from passengers. Although I am incredibly fortunate to not have been touched by anyone (which would result in their imminent death), the point I am trying to make is that this is not an uncommon thing. The verbal abuse especially.

I think that there are several reasons for this. The first is historical. Sri Lanka in many ways is a very modernized society, but it is also a state in transition, especially after the civil war. One residual aspect of a more traditional worldview is an emphasis on male dominance. That combined with having one of the world’s highest rates of alcohol abuse explains why Sri Lanka also has one of the highest numbers of domestic abuse cases in the world. Being a foreigner only adds to this problem for two reasons: 1. I am fleeting. Most assume that I have no family connections here and their actions will not be reprimanded by the collectivist society. Sri Lanka is a small island, everyone knows everyone, which is why being an outsider to this system makes the think they can get away with a lot more, and 2. Pornography. This point came as an “Oh my God! Why did I not think about that” moment when a fellow Sri Lankan male friend of mine and I were talking about this issue. Despite pornography being a federal offence, most men’s only interaction with a white woman is through the porn’s sites on the internet. Alongside the exported American media they see, which, let’s be honest folks, is basically pornography , their primary interpretation of white women is that we are ready, willing and non-discriminating with our sexual desires. This has very real repercussions. For a long time I did not understand why they were so obsessed with us foreign ladies, but it is because more often than not me walking down the street to go to the supermarket is not just me going to the supermarket, it is me caked in their fantasy and expectations of who white women are that results in the transmutation of me into not just Kelly-on-a-stroll, but a Sex-Goddess-From-Outer-Space-Here-To-Please-You. Strong words? yes. Slightly exaggerated? sadly only slightly.

So what does one do about it?

I’ve oscillated from getting violently upset and yelling back at them, to looking at my feet and passively walking by (like most Sri Lankan women do), to learning Sinhala phrases to rudely snap back, to not going outside at all. But what I’ve learned (aside from the fact I am really bad at sitting still or being passive) is that any kind of attention only feeds it. So, after a lot of thinking about the issue, I’ve been working with what I set out to Sri Lanka to accomplish: a study on compassion. In Buddhism there is a phrase “May you be well, may you be happy.” It is a part of a meditation called metta, loving kindness. And although there are some things that are intolerable and would warrant other action (when verbal harassment turns physical for example), this method has had beautiful resultsRather than getting upset or walking shamefully by, I look them in the eye and say (either to myself or out loud) “May you be well, and may you be happy.” I've started to look at these guys as husbands, grandfathers, brothers and Dads, not just ugly, awful human beings. And what I have seen as a product of this is incredible! . I’ve realized that these guys have actually been the best teachers of compassion and loving kindness I’ve encountered in Sri Lanka. My walk to the store, my bus rides, my trishaw conversations have become a practice, an embodiment and opportunity for compassion. And that means, in turn, each time they call out at me they give me a gift, and for that I am grateful to them. It is circular. The more they enable me to practice, the more I am grateful to them, the more loving kindness I have to give. Interconnectivity at its best. The other benefit of this method is the changes I have seen in the way this physically manifests. When I see a large group of preteen boys ahead, as I walk towards them I send them kindness and keep telling myself may they be well and happy, and by the time I reach their group the anticipated chorus of rude remarks that I have grown so accustomed to there is only a mild trickle of one gutsy boy in the back, the rest just stare blankly as I walked by. Its not full proof by any means. But the point is I have seen a difference. I don’t know if it is because I am viewing things differently or I am giving off some kind of funky pheromones. Regardless, I’ve learned that although I cannot change a culture, I can change the way that I interact with it. There is a lot of power in that.

I suppose the other moral of the story is that you find what you are looking for in the most unexpected places. I came to Sri Lanka to find compassion in Theravada Buddhist monks and have found it in the cat calling men on the streets. How beautifully ironic is that?

So much to be learned from the mundane.

May you be well and happy :)




  1. Wow, that's a great story! I'll be sure to share it! :-)

    I'm reminded of the time I hiked out to Plateau Point in the Grand Canyon, my favorite place on Earth by far. I was overwhelmed by the majesty of the place and its remarkable positioning at four turning points in the Earth's history, and I desperately wanted to let the feelings I was having wash over me, but.... my pack was really heavy, and every time I set it down there was a chipmunk that really, REALLY REALLY wanted to get into it, and I knew he would if I let him and then I'd have a hole in my borrowed pack and probably a hole in my hydration system which I needed for the hike back up, and... a ranger had suggested throwing rocks at the chipmunks (really), so I tried this and succeeded in hitting the poor guy right between the eyes (causing no apparent damage) before I realized I was defiling the temple of Mother Earth with petty violence to this little guy who LIVED there, and here I was just a pilgrim. So I put the heavy pack back on and tried to get back into the mood, but by then it was gone. Someday I'll go back and not throw any rocks.

    But getting back to the subject, I had wondered how you were dealing with the gender roles and such in your travels, and this post far exceeds anything I expected. You are a remarkable person, Kelly!

  2. Hi Ben,

    Thank you so much for your comment! And for reading and sharing. :). I can most certainly understand the rock-throwing inclination, especially when it seems like a threat to your safety or wellbeing. But I suppose we've both come to a similar resolution that there may be more wisdom in respecting life, may it be a feisty chipmunk or a sexually repressed street vendor in Sri Lanka.
    May all beings be happy!

    May all being be happy.