In light of Women’s Day, this year we decided to speak to women from various professions and backgrounds to find out how many challenges and obstacles they have had to face in their journey, simply owing to the fact that they are women, and if the situation has improved over the years, stayed stagnant, or gotten worse. Here are the most common problems women feel they’ve had to face and how to overcome them.
Can a woman handle it?
Good Life X Founder and CEO Randhula de Silva noted that she didn’t like to look at things through a gender lens but she also couldn’t prevent it from happening. She observed that when you assume a leadership role, especially when you settle into a role that’s rather new, a lot of people question your ability to execute it or whether you’re suited at all. “There is a lot of talk that happens around you, like ‘Is she really the one for this?’ or ‘Does she have enough experience?’ or ‘Is she going to make it?’ instead of acknowledging their position and helping them grow,” she stated.
Instead of supporting women, there are many people who stand in your way questioning when you’ve already taken up a big task and the work at hand is difficult. De Silva observed that there were more people who would throw you off a cliff and watch you fall rather than give you a leg up.
Sharing her personal experience, she stated: “I’ve seen instances where men who take up roles that are new and a breakthrough are celebrated and supported; everybody wants to stand with them and help them shine. For women, a higher or new position comes with a lot of questioning, doubt, and a lack of support,” adding that she had experienced it herself and seen it happening to other women too.
Commenting on the current social context, she stated: “I’m unsure whether it’s changed over the years, but I personally wouldn’t have wanted it to change for me because it helped me become who I am, made me carve out my journey, and showed me whom to choose as my mentors and such.”
While she wouldn’t change it for herself, she has changed it for those she has encountered in her work – for instance, when it comes to a woman who is shining and stepping up to the challenge, she does not let them dim their shine just because they are accepting something new.
She concluded: “I learned how to lift as I climb as there were many who didn’t help me in my journey.”
Hate speech and degradation
Former Human Rights Commision of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) Commissioner Ambika Satkunanathan stated: “I would say that every woman would have encountered some form of discrimination, marginalisation, or violence at some point and if you haven’t that means your privilege is so immense that you have been protected from that.”
Sharing her own experience, she said that she too had faced gender-based discrimination, hateful and degrading speech, and cyberbullying. For example, in recent times, she was subject to gender-based hate speech, cyberbullying, and fake news being generated about her on different social media platforms.
“When I was at the Commission, there were also several anonymous letters written to the President, the Prime Minister and the Speaker at the time which had a lot of gender-based degrading sexist speech,” she told us.
Satkunanathan noted that when you looked at discrimination and violence faced by women, it was important to adopt an intersectional approach. “The violence women experience may be exacerbated due to their ethnicity or religion or they may be subject to targeted gender-based violence due to their ethnicity or religion,” she stated, adding that iin her case for instance, it often began with gender-based hate speech, following which they would throw in comments like “you’re LTTE”. She observed that the multiple identities of women were impacted whether or not they faced discrimination and marginalisation, and the extent of it.
Satkunanathan affirmed: “The bottom line is that Sri Lanka is a patriarchal society and feminism is still viewed as anti-men. We don’t acknowledge or address the root causes of gender discrimination and violence, nor do we address that this is an unequal and inequitable society.”
She added that sexism and misogyny were normalised, sexual harassment was quite common, and sexist remarks were passed off as jokes – but no one wanted to call it out. If you call it out, it is said that you don’t have a sense of humour and that you’re making too big a deal of it. “Until you address the root cause – which is the patriarchy – women will continue to face discrimination and violence,” she added.
Makeup artist and model Dominique Sedra shared that she had noticed people of all genders experience body shaming but the stigma was worse for women as societally more was expected from women with regard to appearance.
“Having been told my body was undesirable since I was a teen severely impacted my confidence. I would shrink myself because I felt disgusting and ashamed to live in a bigger body; my worth was tied to my body and as a result, I constantly felt like I deserved less. I would hinder myself from opportunities because I was so self-conscious,” she told us.
She noted that she no longer felt this way towards her body and the fat shaming had definitely slowed down, but that it was only a result of her being more vocal against it and not because there had been any notable improvement in people’s attitudes towards larger bodies.
We asked her how she would encourage body positivity, to which she explained that a good place to start being kinder to people in larger bodies was by listening to them when they speak about the discrimination they receive and by questioning your beliefs around fatness.
She shared some questions to ask yourself: Why do you see fat as inherently bad? Is it because of health? If yes, why does someone’s health status determine how you treat them? Do you feel morally superior toto fat people because you compare body types and judge/look down on a fat person’s body and think, ‘At least I don’t look like that’? Why does that thought make you feel better about your body? Why do you feel superior for having a more ‘agreeable’ body? Is it because you are told that only thin bodies are good? Where does this belief come from?
Once you’ve found the answers to these questions in your mind, you will find yourself becoming more accepting towards plus-sized people and maybe we can begin to erase one problem in the world.
Sexual expression and sexuality
Hashtag Generation Social Media Analyst and freelance consultant (SGBV and queer rights) Saritha Irugalbandara commented: “One of the things I realised that women have to think a lot about that (cis) men generally don’t, is sexual expression and sexuality.”
Taking the online space as an example, Irugalbandara noted that the risk for a woman or a girl – regardless of whether they are wearing a bikini or a burka – of their pictures being taken and manipulated and then shared, sexualised, and objectified without their consent was quite significant.
She noted that even offline, a lot of the times ‘upskirt’ images were a thing and we don’t even know when they are being taken. “Anyone can take a picture or video of us walking on the road, minding our own business, and then share it with people,” she told us, adding that the crux of it was the unwanted sexual objectification – even if we as women are not expressing our sexuality, we get sexualised and objectified a lot, without our consent.
On the flip side, Irugalbandara observed that if you owned up to your sexuality and if you expressed yourself in a sexual way, then that too came with a host of problems that men often didn’t face. “I’m not saying that men don’t experience sexual harassment, but women are on the receiving end of a significant majority of it,” she shared, explaining that this means that even if you decide to express yourself however you want to, there is always a lingering thought – internalised fear and stigma – that maybe a woman deserves the violence she may face when she posts whatever she wants to.
She also shared that as a person with a feminine body, when she posts a picture in a swimsuit or a ‘revealing outfit,’ the direct message requests pile up and she experiences fear that people may sexually harass her, which is exhausting.
“There is always a mental load whether we are offline or online; we constantly have our guard up in fear of getting sexually harassed. I’m not talking about rape or sexual assault, rather the everyday sexual harassment we endure – and that’s not something men ever have to think about,” she stated, adding that even now, walking out of one’s house was a stressful event.