It is 3 a.m. and I am awake with my heart pounding wildly. The sounds of nocturnal animals and insects outside provide a faint sense of reality that I am actually in my own surrounds.  I have not been able to sleep for two whole nights; my appetite is non-existent and I am afraid to [...]


‘Upskirted’ on the streets of Maharagama

Driven by anger, revulsion and a sense of duty to fellow Lankan women, Andrea Boekel, well known textile artist, speaks out

Pamunuwa Road in Maharagama town: A bustling, lively area at any given time

It is 3 a.m. and I am awake with my heart pounding wildly. The sounds of nocturnal animals and insects outside provide a faint sense of reality that I am actually in my own surrounds.  I have not been able to sleep for two whole nights; my appetite is non-existent and I am afraid to go out of the house.  Images of a large bearded man with a protruding belly and an odour of stale sweat keep appearing in front of me.  I feel humiliated, shamed and disgusted.  I am one of the many victims who was unwittingly upskirted by a lecherous predator and I am taking a stand to speak of my anguish.

Pamunuwa Road in Maharagama town is at any given time, a bustling, lively area.  Known for its shops selling fabric, accessories, garments and all items related to the garment industry, this place is frequented mostly by females.  There are many tiers of shops there – large, fancy stores; pavements selling cut pieces and makeshift stalls selling fabrics, buttons, thread, clothes hangers and a variety of other craft-related items.  Naturally, the largest volume of visitors would be women.

That Thursday morning was no exception.  I had decided to go to Pamunuwa with my employee, Dhammika, to buy some fabric.  For more than 20 years, I have been engaged in a self-funded women’s empowerment project employing widows and downtrodden women. I teach them hand embroidery and textile crafts that embellish garments.  These garments are then sold and the funds go back into their wages and purchases of raw material.  The garments are well received by the public.

I was at a makeshift stall on the pavement choosing fabric and the lady proprietor was assisting me.  Suddenly, I felt a shuffling by my feet and gave a cursory glance to see a well-built man bending down and picking something off the pavement that looked like money. It was then that Dhammika shouted to me that the man was using his camera phone to take pictures or videos up my skirt.  By the time I recovered from my shock and horror, the man had disappeared into the milling crowd. I was totally unaware of what had transpired and it was Dhammika’s watchful eye that had caught him first believing he was a pickpocket.

Unable to take immediate punitive action, we walked back to my parked vehicle, when suddenly Dhammika pointed out the offender returning.  Livid and trembling with revulsion I accosted him on the pavement and asked him in Sinhalese why he used his camera phone to upskirt me.  I raised my voice as I was by now, furious.  The man became defensive and suddenly switched to perfect English.  I used my own phone to take a photo of him so I could post it on social media to warn other females of this country, but he grabbed my phone and threw it on the ground.

Loathing and disgust overtook my sense of fear; I lashed out at him.  The shopkeepers across the road saw the commotion and came to my assistance.  They grabbed the phone from the man and demanded that he show them the photos on his device.  He then claimed that the “battery was dead”.  One shopkeeper located a phone charger but then he claimed that he had “forgotten the password”.  By then, I was trembling with powerlessness.  The shopkeepers asked me to take his phone to the Maharagama Police Station and told the offender to go to the Police to retrieve his phone.

Something that shocked me occurred then; whilst I had the support of every man there, there were some women who were telling me that I was wrong to retain his phone!!  I was aghast at their response – I would imagine that they would empathise with me, but this was not so.

Upon reaching the Maharagama Police I waited for my turn to record my statement when the offender walked in with another man.  I then spoke to the Officer-in-Charge who brought the offender into his room and ordered him to open his phone for us to see the stored images.  Again he mentioned the same excuses – that he had forgotten his password, and he did not know his phone number.  The Officer in Charge did not falter – he ordered him to be remanded, the phone to be sent to the Government Analyst and a court case filed.  His response was prompt and appropriate.

However, the response from the woman police officer who was to record my statement was disturbing.  Across the room I could see the man in a holding cell supported by his friend.  The woman Police Officer was not upfront when answering my questions. I asked what the process would be from now on, she mentioned that the phone would be sent to the Government Analyst and a court case would be filed.  I would be required to attend court when summoned and the embarrassing photos would have to be identified by me.  She also said it would most likely be a long and protracted course of action.  I felt I was being dissuaded from the whole process.

I asked her through my tears, if there was no other recourse to justice.  Could the Police not open his phone? Could they not persuade him to open the phone?  Could they not do anything apart from filing a court case?  The answer was a succinct “no”.  She told me that I could take his phone, attempt to open it and if I found any compromising images, I could bring it back to the Police.  With no other option available to me, I took the offender’s phone and over a day, made several unsuccessful attempts to open it.  Conceding defeat, I finally handed it over to the man in the presence of the Police the next day.

The offender was a cab driver from Avissawella who had come to Pamunuwa with a client; it was obvious that he was very experienced in upskirting women.  His reluctance and refusal to open his phone could have been because he probably had several more photos – possibly even more horrifying, on his mobile device.  He left the police station, with his phone in hand.

In recent times, sexual molestation of women using digital devices has increased alarmingly.  The perpetrators become bolder and more confident by the day, knowing that justice for the victimised woman is almost non-existent.  While in theory, laws may exist, their implementation means that eventually the victim will be victimised.

Sharing my story with several other women unearthed a shocking revelation – there was not one woman who had not been a victim of sexual harassment in public.  Respect towards women in Sri Lanka is on the wane; perpetrators are being dealt with very lightly and as a result, as technology spurts forward, more and more devices will be used to abuse women.

It will take me a while to get over this sordid incident – what I find hard to endure is the fact that the man still has unauthorised photos of me on his mobile device. Ironically, despite the fact that I brought the device to the very place that was supposed to offer me some reprieve, I found myself more isolated than ever.

Support on social media has been very encouraging and although my voice may be a whisper on the wind, that Thursday certainly changed me.  If my story and my experience can raise awareness and protect my sister Sri Lankans, I would consider my voice a deafening crescendo with the power to crush predators down to the murky depths where they belong.

What is upskirting?
Upskirting is the act of taking a photograph underneath a person’s skirt without their consent.  It is often performed in a public place such as on public transport or on an escalator, with crowds of people making it harder to spot people taking these photos.

A large proportion of women are targeted in places such as busy streets, restaurants and shops. Being victim to such an incident can cause emotional distress for a long time after it has happened.  Not only is the act itself sexually invasive, but the perpetrator can get photos of underwear or genitals which may be distributed or kept unbeknownst to the victim.

Being a witness to or the victim of such an indecent act may make you feel incredibly uncomfortable and vulnerable, particularly if you are alone. If the person or persons responsible are exhibiting intimidating behaviours, then you may feel unable to confront them for fear of further discomfort and/or of being threatened. The knowledge that someone has taken potentially graphic images without consent can cause emotional distress for a long time after the event itself.

Some upskirt and downblouse photos and videos are made specifically to upload onto the Internet, where many viewers seek such images taken surreptitiously. Such photographs are common on fetish and pornographic websites, as well as on video sharing sites such as YouTube.

Attitudes hardened with the very widespread availability and use of digital photographic and video technology, most recently camera phones. Such technology was also being used to record upskirt and downblouse images for uploading onto the internet. Specialist websites came into existence where people could share such images, and terms such as “upskirt”, “downblouse” came into use. Celebrities were popular victims of such efforts. Issues of privacy and reputation began to be raised.

Upskirt photos can be made in a variety of situations – when a woman is ascending stairs or getting out of a car or sitting on a park bench; and downblouse photos can similarly be made in many innocent situations. Upskirt photos are usually taken by a mobile phone camera attached on the shoe or carried within a bag so it is very hard for a woman to notice that she is being photographed in this manner.

The motives

Sometimes, upskirt videographers or photographers are simply doing it for a thrill or on a dare from friends. However, such actions may also indicate a mental disorder. A psychiatrist in Singapore explains that the act could be “part of a voyeuristic disorder where the offender frequently takes upskirt footage over a prolonged period.”

The idea behind taking the photos or videos is to achieve sexual arousal, either during the photography session or later on, when the offender reviews the photos at home. In some cases, these photography sessions may progress to an obsession, and the perpetrator may take more aggressive action, stalking or harassing the victim.

The consequences

At first glance, it may seem that the act of “upskirting” is fairly harmless, resulting in no direct bodily harm to the woman. However, studies show that women who are the victims of upskirting often feel violated and targeted. They may feel nervous and jumpy when they are going about their normal business during the day, and they may be more suspicious of strange men nearby. If these heightened feelings of suspicion and anxiety continue for a few weeks or more, victims of an upskirt photographer may be required to visit a counsellor or psychiatrist.

Underlying mental issues
of the perpetrator

Men who find themselves obsessed with taking upskirt photos should also consult with a mental health professional. According to psychiatrists, the habit often begins with a pornography addiction that becomes stale. To keep obtaining the same level of sexual stimulation, the user progresses to the taking of live-action upskirt images. With proper mental health care, men who struggle with this compulsion can find ways to channel and control these feelings so that they can avoid traumatising or harming anyone.

The law

Upskirting is a criminal offence in the UK and Australia and several other countries. Perpetrators could face extended periods behind bars if found guilty.  In Sri Lanka, the law surrounding such molestation is still sketchy.


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