Women Still Can’t Buy Alcohol In Sri Lanka

A sexist colonial law was almost changed, until it wasn’t

Newspaper viewed through arrack (coconut liquor)

Every now and then Sri Lanka gets in the news for something dumb, like deporting a woman with a Buddha tattoo, or threatening to whip Enrique Iglesias with stingray tails because someone threw a bra at him. Now is another one of those times.

Last week we got some good news, that the government was finally overturning a colonial-era ban on woman buying alcohol. Here’s the Finance Minister:

Then we got notice that the President, after protests from monks, etc was staying the order. The law would stay on the books.

But Why

Sri Lanka has a bunch of weird laws on the books. For example, you can’t hang out on a verandah without good reason, that’s a 10 Rupee fine. Intercourse against the ‘order of nature’ is a 10 year fine, which would apply to homosexual and probably blow jobs.

In most cases these laws aren’t enforced, and that’s the case with the alcohol regulations as well. For the most part women can and do buy alcohol. Only about 20% of women do consume alcohol, but they generally aren’t stopped at a bar or liquor shop. I know of a few cases, however, where they have been sent away.

The reason for a lot of these laws is that they were inherited from our colonizers, or written back then, and we just haven’t changed them. While Victorian England has moved on, former colonies like Sri Lanka haven’t. Indeed, we think that many of these foreign mores are in fact our culture, I guess because we don’t remember that far back.

A glass of arrack

Sri Lankan Alcohol Culture

This is something which annoys my mother to no end. If you have a family gathering — be it a party or a funeral — the men will find some room or corner or even trunk of a car and turn it into a bar.

The men will go over there and drink, and the women will be on the other side of the room with sleeping children draped over them. South Asian men want to do all their drinking before they eat, so often everyone has to wait for dinner. My mother hates this and will go over and sit with and I suppose chastise the men for their behavior.

In general, our attitude towards alcohol is delusional and counter-productive. Until recently, hard liquor was taxed less than beer, with lager being the highest tax alcohol of all. Basically, the most damaging alcohol was the most incentivized by our government. The government also keeps raising taxes on legal alcohol driving more and more people to consume dodgily brewed kasippu (moonshine). People drink this dangerous and noxious stuff out of plastic bags first thing in the morning, tax free.

Rather than accepting that people like to drink alcohol and managing it, we generally deny it and let things get illegal, unsafe and weird. This delusional attitude towards intoxicants is not unique to Sri Lanka.

A guide for travelers which I found, though I forget the name

Sri Lankan Gender Culture

Also not unique to Sri Lanka, women are second class citizens here.

I can’t name a single woman I know who hasn’t been harassed or masturbated at in public, but the reaction to that is generally that it’s the woman’s fault. The general principle and result is that women are not equal participants in the public sphere, which extends from the streets to Parliament.

There is a paternalistic attitude that these problems would be solved if women just stayed at home, which I suppose is similar to the delusion that surrounds the alcohol issue.

That said, there have been some movements towards gender equality and some lip service from this goverment, like having a quota of women candidates for the upcoming local elections.

Where Two Delusions Meet

Our country’s delusions about alcohol and women meet in this particular law. There is a paternalistic attitude that people (usually other people) shouldn’t drink, and that women shouldn’t drink, so why wouldn’t we have this law? The nuanced argument that people do drink and that women are people is general drowned out by the moral certitude of the hypocrites.

This law like most other stupid laws is generally ignored and broken, but it is better to have laws that reflect reality. Both so that laws respect people and people respect the laws.

I live President Maithripala Sirisena very much. My feelings towards him are very much like that towards an old uncle or school teacher. But when it comes to gender issues he’s often very much in the wrong. Women should be able to buy alcohol if they want, and they should be able to throw their bras at Enrique Iglesias.

Sri Lanka is a free country and life is generally free and easy here. Women should be free too.

Written by

A writer living in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He/him. indi@indi.ca. Videos: tiny.cc/indication and podcast: anchor.fm/indication. patreon.com/indication

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