If two consenting adults choose to live their lives together, should other people’s morals limit their chosen way of life?
Moving out on your own (unless you’re married) is always something of a prickly subject in Sri Lankan culture. Part of this is because no matter how old we are, we will always be children in our parents’ eyes, and for better or worse, our culture strongly reinforces that parents must always manage their children, regardless of whether that child is five or 50 years old.
In Sri Lanka, the Children and Young Persons Ordinance (1939) defines a ‘child’ as a person under the age of 14 and ‘a young person’ as a person between 14 and 16 years. The age of majority is recognised to be 18 years according to the Age of Majority Ordinance (1865) as amended by the Age of Majority (Amendment) Act No. 17 of 1989. Hence, it can be understood that as the legal age of majority in the country is 18, the moment a private citizen turns 18 they are an individual with agency independent of their guardian.
If this is the law, then why is there so much moral policing when it comes to legal adults making decisions for themselves, such as moving out of their parents’ homes and choosing to live with a partner or perhaps with a group of friends?
The single bias
If you look at advertisements looking for tenants in Sri Lanka, there appears to be a clear list of preferences; families, married couples, single boys (preferably students), girls, and then finally at the bottom, unmarried couples.
Often, a shared experience for singles looking to rent is that landowners prefer to rent out to families or married couples, with newly married couples often given preferential treatment because they are ‘young and inexperienced in life’.
When it comes to renting out to individuals, it is almost always preferred for it to be a boy. One such landlord who advertises his property only for boys reasoned that this meant he did not have to expend the same amount of energy for security. “I do not want to rent out to girls because then I feel that I have a responsibility to look after them, maybe an extra layer of responsibility about their safety. I would lose my peace of mind if I rented out to a young, single girl, especially if they are alone. I have daughters myself and it is difficult for me to not care,” he said.
Similarly, another couple who rents out a home near a university shared that for a long time, they had preferred to rent to female students because they themselves had daughters. However, now that their daughters have left, they preferred to have boys – this too for security reasons.
The unmarried bias
From a landlords’ perspective, it appears that renting to unmarried couples is even more undesirable, with one landlord noting that they have had negative experiences when renting to such couples: “They are not legally bound and many of them are very young and have moved out of their homes not by choice but due to various family complications. They are volatile and it is never stable to enter into legally binding agreements with them.
“I had an unmarried couple who signed a three-year lease living on my property, but later they wished to separate and were incredibly distressed that their ‘freedom’ was compromised by having a legal document binding them together. It was such a headache for me because they clearly did not want to live together, but one of them refused to terminate the lease agreement even if I was willing.”
Antoinette George shared that she and her husband had recently been in search of a house for rent together with their friends – an unmarried couple. However, they faced challenges when it came to renting for the two couples, notably because one couple was unmarried.
She noted that not only did renters often prefer to have married couples, but also just one unit. “This is probably more because of logistics, especially when it comes to fixed rent prices where utilities are included. They would rather have one couple as opposed to larger groups or even a family due to the likelihood of more wear and tear with more people,” she said, adding: “In our case, we came across a place that had two rooms and it was pretty ideal for us, but the landlord was looking for singles or families. They definitely did not look favourably upon the addition of an unmarried couple.”
The other factors at play
Sri Lankans typically do not have a culture of moving out once they’ve attained the age of majority. As a practice, it is not uncommon for Lankans to remain in their parents’ homes well into their adult lives or to just never move out all, even if they are financially independent. In our culture, unlike others, this is not considered odd at all. Possibly due to this social norm, landlords tend to request from younger people looking to rent homes – whether singles, couples, or otherwise – to meet the renters’ parents before entering into any form of agreement.
Ruwandi Gamage, a woman in her early thirties, shared that she had experienced this when trying to rent a place. “There have been occasions when they have absolutely insisted that I bring my parents over to meet them. This was despite all my other credentials, none of which mattered until they met my parents.”
Ruwandi noted that she tried to avoid getting her parents involved in this since it would blur the lines and affect her privacy as a tenant: “When they meet your parents, they will speak as if they are taking on not just the responsibility for you and your safety, but also the policing of your moral character. They say things like, ‘Don’t worry, we will take great care of her,’ ‘You can leave her in our hands,’ or ‘She is safe with us,’ which is assuming a responsibility I do not want them to have, because then my freedom is curtailed.”
This does indeed happen. Malithi Patabendige, who is currently renting a home with two of her university batch mates, shared that when she and her friends had rented their current home, despite all three of them being legal adults, the landlord had met with each of their parents and established a relationship with them.
As the landlords have now established that line of connection, they report every little action that they feel to be moral transgressions back to the parents: “There was an incident where my friend and I were dropped off quite late at our rental home by my father after an event at the university. This was around 2 a.m. and the landlord had viewed this as a male figure dropping us off at unacceptable times and had called my father as he drove away, to inform him of my misdeeds. It was really a ridiculous thing and my father had to explain that he was the one who had dropped us off.”
Malithi highlighted that religion and race also played a significant part in whether you could rent a place, a matter which depended largely on the landlord. “When I first went to visit my current place, there was a huge emphasis on the fact that I was a Buddhist. My friends are both Catholics, but when the landlords saw that I was a Buddhist, they really softened up, but this is dependent on each landlord and their preference,” she said.
Renting when LGBTIQ
Technically, it is not illegal to be gay in Sri Lanka, but homosexuality is frowned upon and sodomy laws still remain in the Penal Code. Therefore, things can be incredibly difficult for gay couples in Sri Lanka.
Ursula Bastiansz and Ruwandi Gamage shared that often it did not even occur to Lankan landlords that same-sex couples existed and whenever they looked to rent a place together they were treated as two single women. “While it is fine that they treat us as two single women, the issue arises when they think that two single women will be troublesome because we will end up bringing our boyfriends back to our place, which ends up deterring landlords,” they shared.
The duo also shared that as a lesbian couple in Sri Lanka, they did not have the luxury of signing a legal document to prove their union and often when it came to travel abroad, if they wished to apply for travel documents, they must apply as individuals and hope for the best. A rental agreement or a co-signed lease would be an ideal document that could support their claim as a couple, but when landlords allow two apparently ‘single’ women to co-sign a lease, it can be disheartening and disadvantageous to them.
Similarly, a gay male couple who wished to remain anonymous shared that they too faced this challenge of finding a place, as they would often have to pretend to be father and son or present some sort of familial bond in order to rent a place together. “It is an unfortunate thing – we are a couple but we have to live our lives as an explicit lie. We have to be conscious of our every move even near our own home. We consciously change behaviours and adjust our mannerisms just so we do not appear as a couple and it can at times get exhausting,” they said.
A dilemma for tenants
It is unfortunate that in practice, being a legal adult still does not grant one the rights that should be afforded. While the sense of community that Sri Lankans feel and the familial manner in which they treat even their tenants is something to be admired, it can also be detrimental to tenants, as those who wish to rent out a home are looking to create a space of their own and to establish some privacy, and a meddlesome landlord can defeat this purpose.