Mere days after it had been lifted by the country’s finance minister, Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena has reimposed a ban on women buying alcohol that has been in place since 1979. The ban, which prohibits women from buying any type of alcohol, was originally proposed to “appease the conservative Buddhist hierarchy at the time” and was revoked this year under the spirit of gender equality, as ministry spokesperson Ali Hassen candidly declared. The president’s office offered no justification for the reimplementation of the ban, noting only that the status quo was to be restored.
As of 2012 over 70% of Sri Lankans were estimated to be followers of Buddhism, while Hindus (12.6%), Muslims (9.7%), and Christians (7.4%) composed minority religious groups in the country. Consequently, the consumption of alcohol is frowned upon by more conservative elements of Sri Lankan society, as Buddhism prohibits its followers from indulging in mind-altering substances. Many perceived the President’s reversal of the ban as an attempt to appeal to his core Sinhalese political base, which contains conservative Buddhist elements.
Sri Lankan finance minister Mangala Samaraweera had intended to revoke the prohibition on women purchasing alcohol in the context of other liberalizing measures, including permitting longer hours at bars and revoking a separate ban on women working in bars, distilleries, and breweries. Beyond the stated purpose of furthering gender equality, these policies were enacted with the intention of recovering revenue that had been lost to the black market for liquor.
Despite how many have perceived this renewed law, Sri Lanka has long been considered one of the more gender-equal societies in South Asia. To be fair, its competition is limited: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal all have substandard records in gender equality, with sex-selective abortions, honor killings, and lack of female participation in the labor force rife. By contrast, Sri Lanka boasts a female literacy rate of 92%, on par with its male literacy rate of 94%, and a 36% rate of female participation in the labor force (in comparison with rates around 10% lower in comparable regional countries). In addition to these promising figures, Sri Lankan civil society encompasses numerous women’s organizations that provide moral and concrete support for women in a society that is considered quite patriarchal.
What is interesting about the president’s recent ban on women purchasing alcohol is that it is not unanimously opposed by women. Certainly, many activists have been outspoken in their condemnation of this reversal. However, notable women such as Ruwanthi Mangala, Podujana Party (SLPP) candidate and actress, have not hesitated to voice their approval of the ban. According to the Sri Lankan newspaper Daily Mirror, “Ms. Mangala said many Sri Lankan families were suffering because of men being addicted to alcohol and pointed out that women should not be encouraged to consume alcohol… She said when women work in bars, they tend to end up as victims of sexual harassment and women working in bars were likely to be misled to choose the wrong path.”
While her statement could easily be construed as an appeal to her political base, Ms. Mangala’s words should not be written off totally. They demonstrate a lack of unity among women on their own rights and show that conceptions of human rights are certainly not universal. This trope seems to be especially true concerning the extension of Western notions of universal rights in the developing world. Although gender equality is the fifth of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, global progress is unlikely to be made if standards differ by region and international agreement cannot be arrived at. This Sri Lankan example therefore shows that “global’ human rights and development standards in fact differ by region, and even within countries. The implications such a revelation might have include an increase in the inclusion of developing countries in international political forums, and, of course, the encouragement of further discussion on levels across societies.
Article written by Sophia QADIR
CIA World Factbook: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ce.html