‘It also happens on Gregory’s Road’ (The F Word: Let's Talk Feminism & Gender)

(This piece first appeared as part of a weekly column for - The Sunday Morning - a Sri Lankan national print newspaper)

Last week, I had the privilege to join four incredible (and well known!) performers to act in one of the skits staged as part of “V Day 2019: Colombo 7”. Ashini Fernando, Pia Hatch, Tracy Jayasinghe, Lihan Mendis, and I performed one of the eight sketches that looked at the hamlet of Colombo 7, supposedly where the most elite, classy, and cultured of Sri Lankans reign. Our 10-minute offering called “Black Coffee, No Sugar” was a parody of a coffee morning and gave a brief window into the dynamics between the women as it revealed one of them had left her husband over domestic violence.

My favourite line of the piece is delivered when Ashini’s character Amanda (played as a morally-grandstanding activist) accusingly asks Pia why she didn’t tell her what was going on and is told: “For what? You only care about domestic violence in Ampara, Kilinochchi, and Vavuniya.” Tracy’s character Tashaya then cuttingly says to Amanda: “It also happens on Gregory’s Road.” But we know this. Don’t we? We know that abuse cuts across social classes, ethnicity, religion, geographic locations, and income levels. Of course, we do! But I ask – do we really in our hearts, minds, and souls believe this?

‘They are the other’

I remember when I was much younger at a very “Colombo 7” party, listening to some friends of my parents discussing a mutual acquaintance who had just left her husband for allegedly subjecting her to years of abuse.

They expressed their surprise and allowed disbelief to slip in that “such a man” could have done this. They talked about “what a good family” he came from, how he held an important job, and had a successful career wielding much influence. They talked about the school he went to; how polite and suave he had been in their interactions with him.

Little by little, they talked about how it was so difficult to believe that someone they knew could do this. After all, men who beat their wives don’t have this profile do they? They are “poor thugs”, drug dealers, drunkards, and “jobless”. They come from the lower strata of society. They are the other. They are not the men that we know, have raised, loved, are friends with, live near, or laugh with. They just can’t be.

In the many, many years to come, I would hear variations of this conversation endlessly and countless times. This is also not just limited to domestic violence – it comes up when we talk of rape and sexual harassment – but virtually any form of harassment. Haven’t we heard this about bullying? This child is a straight-A student, good family, captain of sports teams, debater, and so on and so forth. This child does not fit the profile of a bully. The profile cartoons media and society have created for us.

How many times have we heard this? These people are not us. They are not the same as us. We do not need to take responsibility for this issue because it is not our creation or our fault.

But here! Don’t be annoying – we also know that “it also happens on Gregory’s Road”. Do we? I ask again, do we really in our hearts, minds, and souls believe this? Even when it has happened to us?

Our notions of class

In our work, we regularly have people who approach us to take the message “to the villages”. They say this earnestly and with a great deal of enthusiasm. Every session we do, every training session conducted, every conversation had in urban-upper-middle-class Colombo has at least one person who will use this exact phrase. Therein lies our deep-seated and rooted notions of class.

We believe that with the “exposure” and “education” available to us in these urban centres, we no longer face the sexual harassment and violence that is so prevalent. We believe we are better than them and we need to gather and lead the sheep who have gone astray.

But what of the wolves in sheep’s clothing who are lurking among us, whom we all know and yet in our moral superiority forget? Or perhaps choose to forget about? What of the people like the man who, about three months ago, driving a BMW, pulled up alongside me as I waited on the kerb outside a bank on Galle Road, Bambalapitiya and invited me to get in?

When I said no, he urged again saying: “Why not? We can just have some lunch!” I said no again and he muttered something under his breath before shooting me a nasty look and driving off.

What about the people like the man who approached me as I sat in a coffee shop and offered to buy me a coffee? When I said no, he asked again. I repeated myself with obvious irritation in my voice and he told me: “Don’t be such a bitch,” before walking off.

Both these happened in “classy” places, both these men spoke English and fit the arbitrary “decent” profile we speak of.

What of them? What of the people who have made inappropriate jokes, made passes at women we know, despite being married, and made people feel uncomfortable, but we don’t know how to bring it up because we know them?

We stop to have a chat when they are working out at Independence Square. Our fathers and husbands have a drink and chat with them at Colombo’s elite bars. We sit next to them at dinner parties and are seated at the same table at weddings. We spot them in high society magazines and listen to others talk about what “top chaps” they are. We know them. We know exactly who they are.

Emotional, physical, and sexual violence is not limited to rural and provincial mindsets. Our gendered notions in Sri Lanka, which often lead to violence, are well established in most curious places.

It is rooted in this patriarchal sense of entitlement we raise our children with and make no mistake, this sense of entitlement is also deeply-rooted in class. So the next time you hear this conversation, remember – it also happens on Gregory’s Road.

(N.B: If you or someone you know needs help addressing an issue of domestic or intimate partner violence, please contact Women In Need for advice and support. If you would like to speak to someone about a situation you are struggling with in confidence, you can call the toll-free 1333 line which has trained counsellors and is anonymous or contact Shanthi Margam, which is a counselling service. You can also visit bakamooono.lk and read more about the laws and how to report this issue under Learn àViolence Prevention. Help is available for you if you need it. You are not alone.)

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