The Problematic Discourse on ‘Preserving’ Tamil Culture

14 Jul
Photo Courtesy: Amila Gamage

Photo Courtesy: Amila Gamage

We have all heard this being discussed at some point in the recent past – especially after Vidhya Sivaloganathan’s tragic death: degradation of Culture (கலாசார சீரழிவு) is what led to it apparently. It is a blanket term used to blame any and all ills in our midst. We have to preserve our ancient culture (which if applied properly would have nothing ever go wrong, according to its stalwarts) at all costs.

So how do we seek to preserve it? It was the men who raped and murdered yet every time ‘preservation of culture’ is summoned like a spectre, it is the women who get haunted.  And then will begin the exorcism rituals. “Don’t wear that dress. Don’t wear T-shirts.  Don’t wear your saree like that. Don’t go out alone. Don’t go out with a male friend. Don’t go out in groups that include boys. Don’t go out after 6.00 pm. Don’t smile too much” etc, etc.  The list goes on and on…

5Amila Gamage

The minute a woman crosses any of these arbitrary boundaries, she is passed all the blame for whatever untoward incident might get inflicted on her by vigilante males. In Vidhya Sivalogananthan’s case, that is well nigh impossible. She was a young schoolgirl on her way to school at 7.00 am in the morning when she was abducted, brutally gang raped and then murdered.

Let me repeat that: She was an 18 year old girl on her way to school, in her school uniform, at a perfectly respectable time in the morning. See anything AT ALL here to pin any blame on the victim? We certainly can’t. Yet victim-blaming is such an integral part of our ‘glorious’ culture that quite a few people tried.
Here are just a few issues her family and those sympathetic to her fate had to answer to:

“Did the girl have a boyfriend?”
No, she did not have a boyfriend. Not that her having a boyfriend would have been wrong in our eyes but we are glad you are unable to follow that line of questioning any further, to cast unwarranted aspersions on her character.

“Why was she traveling alone? Couldn’t her brother have accompanied her?”
Her family has been put on the spot to say that her brother did accompany her to school as often as he could but on this particular day she had gone alone. Can’t 18 year old girls travel alone at least to school? Is that also somehow wrong now?

“Why were they living in Pungudutivu?, it is an area well-known to be unsafe for young women after all?”
Because the family is in straitened circumstances with the father who was the main breadwinner, having become debilitated with a stroke two years ago. They were not in a position to have too many choices and had gratefully received the offer of a relative to live in his vacant house in Pungudutivu.  They have been put on the spot to explain this too.

“We heard that Vidhya’s mother had reported a robbery in her neighbourhood and that is what got her daughter killed. Couldn’t she have minded her own business?”
Well done, bravo! Hereafter, every time anyone sees anything wrong happening to anyone else, exclusively mind your own business and don’t ‘poke your nose’ into helping them. Poking your nose into others ‘ affairs  is only desirable the way you do it – flexing your tongues any which way you like to hurt and blame the victims instead of seeking solutions. That’s the way to preserve our glorious culture.

Vidhya Sivaloganathan

Vidhya Sivaloganathan

The stress due to all this is telling on Vidhya’s family. Instead of being allowed to grieve the horrible tragedy that have befallen their midst, they have been made to defend themselves repeatedly  on a variety of arbitrary issues that people around here have raised, from the mundane to the downright stupid.

“I didn’t even know I was going to meet the president when the police van took us to meet him. We had been transported so many times to the police station for questioning, that we thought this was going to be one more such visit,” says Vidhya’s mother. “When our pictures appeared with him in the papers next day, we had to answer questions several times over as to why I had gone to meet the president in my house-dress and why my son was in his shorts. We meant no disrespect to the president, as they implied.  Alternately we have also been accused of sucking up to him and using my daughter’s tragedy to gain material benefits from the government. We did no such thing. The president on his own asked us about our circumstances and how we lived. The next day, it was reported in the press that we had asked him for land and a house – we had not. We have been ridiculed for that too.”

Vidhya's mother and brother at their meeting with the President

Vidhya’s mother and brother at their meeting with the President and the Northern Province Chief Minister

How much can one family take? As part of our glorious culture, can we not maintain gracious, kind speech and empathy in times of others’ tragedy?

No, our கலாசார சீரழிவு is not because women are not ‘dressing properly’ or ‘behaving properly’. It is because the mores of a bygone age, attempting to have a stranglehold on a contemporary society, will inevitably take its toll. Arbitrarily nominating just one gender to be the keepers of these traditions and culture will have its repercussions too.

Overall, this is  a culture with laxer standards of behaviour for men than women; where  the men identify as sexual beings yet scorn women who do the same; where the myriad frustrations of not being allowed to mix freely yet respectfully between the sexes leads to a male contempt for women while at the same time, yearning for them – leading to a vicious cycle of societal ills which keep perpetuating and re-perpetuating; where an increased focus on women’s morals and behaviour leads to a culture of men not bothering to examine their own behaviour too closely whilst seeking to police the opposite sex’s.

This has given rise to a noxious culture where male vigilantes feel it is OK to grope, pull and pinch at women should they get caught to them in vulnerable situations such as being alone somewhere at night, and justifying it with views such as “what was she doing out alone at that time of the night? She must have come out to meet her boyfriend.”

Whatever it was she was doing alone out at night, whether it be to meet her boyfriend or not, it doesn’t warrant her getting sexually harassed. Yet the community upholding our ‘culture’ at all costs do not concede this point easily; they tend to justify it with that old chestnut of a proverb: “Whether it is the thorn that catches the saree or the saree which gets caught on a thorn, it is still the saree which gets torn” (their brilliant allegory for relationships between males and females and how it is the females who have to take care to preserve their ‘chastity’). Some of us females caught at the wrong end of the stick here are not all that thrilled with it.

Photo Courtesy: Megara Tegal

Photo Courtesy: Megara Tegal

Not to say that all males in our community are this crude, but the culture we so like to glorify and hold on to is inherently misogynistic. It is high time we as a community learned to address this instead of brushing it under the carpet, and then blaming women’s dress and behaviour a la கலாசார சீரழிவு every time something goes wrong. Because usually, the victims of such cases are women themselves and the culture of victim-blaming on top of that is a puerile aspect of our culture which we need to call out.

Internet3

A Tamil counselor from Colombo who came to hold a prayer meeting for Vidhya in the North, shared with me his shocked receptance of what a member of his congregation had said. “We were trying to pray for Vidhya when one person spoke up and said, ‘well, who knows what kind of a girl she was after all?’ (avalum ennamathiri aanavalo, yarukku theriyum?). I am still hurting over that. Why are some people so needlessly mean spirited?” he asked in bewilderment.

It’s not all that uncommon a view to hear though, every time a case of gender based violence against women is broadcast. Someone or other will inevitably voice this gem of a platitude, wondering what the woman had done to ‘ask’ for it – thus also cementing their place in society I suppose, as upholders of our culture, and gloriously virtuous beings themselves.

It would take too much to go into for the moment so let’s leave aside all arguments for a woman not to be raped no matter what it was she had done or said. In this particular case, even  after all the microscopic exploration of Vidhya’s circumstances and background in the press, which still could  not throw up anything at all to fault her with, even by our traditional culture’s absurd standards  –  the member of that congregation harboured these doubts against her?  Seriously?

If there had been even a teensy bit of information that could have cast her character in a negative light, don’t worry – you’d have heard about it by now. So here’s a little piece of advice for all such people, men and women out there, who are inclined to blame the victim: If you ‘don’t know what kind of a girl she was’ – then don’t mention it at all. It doesn’t warrant mention. All it does is make those of us watching from the sidelines cringe with embarrassment at the cultural norms which makes it alright for you to air such reprehensible views; views that are not of any use to anybody, do not add to any discussions whatsoever, and are nothing more than air and noise pollution combined.  Some aspects of our culture such as the one you represent are not facets we are proud of. High time for some changes.

2 Amila Gamage

Photo Courtesy: Amila Gamage

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