Most of us know the song immortalised by Roy Orbison and Bill Dees. We have sung it on occasion…danced to it at weddings…and hummed the tune more often than we think. It’s a song that somehow makes us feel happy and upbeat. It’s been a personal favourite for a long time and taken at face [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

“Pretty Woman Walking Down the Street…”


Most of us know the song immortalised by Roy Orbison and Bill Dees. We have sung it on occasion…danced to it at weddings…and hummed the tune more often than we think. It’s a song that somehow makes us feel happy and upbeat. It’s been a personal favourite for a long time and taken at face value, in context, it’s a cheerful number. We also associate it with the fairytale ending of Happily Ever After.

Taken out of context however, the text is not so cheerful. The connotation of the words without the music, rhythm and context of the song, doesn’t make you want to hear it at all. Just to be clear, there’s no problem with the song itself or the singer or even those of us who love and enjoy it. As I said, it’s a personal favourite and good music and that’s that.

The matter for discussion, is this general phrase – and various versions of it – that we hear all too often. Whilst walking down the road, going into a shop, stuck in a traffic jam, climbing up the stairs, taking your child to the park, waiting for public transport or even just plain waiting…anywhere.

I truly believe, that the everyday-woman on her way to work, shop, do the school pick up, out for a run or a leisurely chat with friends, doesn’t want to be commented on at random, by a total stranger. Even less so, if it is dark and she is on her own. What is it about our culture that gives some people the impression that women are perfectly content to be objectified? That they enjoy hearing lewd and often sexist comments whilst they are going about their business? Worse yet, that men often feel they are somehow entitled to inflict unsolicited opinions on unsuspecting women and in extreme cases, suggest that women even ‘invite it’?!

According to the Legal Aid Commission, in 2012 “Sri Lanka topped the list of sexual harassment cases in the South Asian region, especially relating to women being harassed on public transport”. This is a very sad and disappointing statistic. Especially so, for a nation that prides itself on rigorously promoting Education and in 2015 was found to have a 92% Rate of Literacy – the highest in the South Asian region, as per the UNESCO Institute of Statistics Education. But this is not an issue that is unique to our country or even our region. In a revealing and disturbing article in 2013, Writer, Activist and White Ribbon Representative Mia Doering discusses how “Making lewd remarks to women on the street is not ‘banter’”. She writes this in The Journal. In her own country. In Ireland.

So again, this is not something specific or unique to our country and region. The attitude of commenting at women and making derogatory remarks as they pass by seems to exist around the world. I don’t claim that the issue is exclusive to women, there may well be situations where it affects men too, but by and large, it is probably fair to say that it negatively impacts women more and so I will focus on that for the purposes of this column.

So why is it so prevalent in our society? Is it a way of keeping women in their place? Of somehow subconsciously propagating the notion that women are the ‘weaker’ sex? Despite all the leaps and bounds we have made in the world of Women’s Empowerment, why do we allow this to happen and worse still, accept it as being ‘routine behaviour’? There’s nothing routine about it and there’s certainly nothing flattering about being observed and noticed for all the ‘wrong’ reasons. To call ourselves an enlightened society it has to STOP. This arduous journey begins not simply because we recognise it happens and then keep quiet about it, but when we are prepared to take an active step towards actually doing something about it. Being vocal about it.

I would wager that every woman has a story of her own. Some more harmful and hurtful than others. Some extremely serious and disturbing ones and others which are a little less potent and some even benign. But a story nevertheless, of being commented at, whistled at, called out to and often propositioned with the most ludicrous and unbelievable suggestions, by complete strangers. It is a sad realisation that in the empty recesses of their warped minds, these less educated and unenlightened people think this makes them more powerful, when in fact, it is the opposite. It exposes them to be the barren and weak souls that they are.

As a very kind reader – Mrs K – pointed out in a response to this column, “Why is her (a woman’s) Empowerment so irksome to some men?”

So upon reflection, it made me question: What is it that makes it attractive to one person to belittle another person by calling them ‘attractive’ in a manner that is definitely not attractive? In the most simple terms, we compliment people in order to give them recognition for the effort they have made, to do something well. Whether it be in relation to their appearance, athletic prowess, academic ability, house keeping, cooking, gardening, numerical and linguistic fluency, electronic & IT genius or musical talent. When we talk about looking good or doing well in relation to any of these things, with the exception of appearance, it is – most often – always welcome.

But imagine the Pretty Woman Walking Down the Street and add the often lewd running commentary about her appearance alongside it…made by a random stranger…out to have a little fun at her expense. It’s suddenly not such an attractive or cheerful picture and it is never welcome. And it rarely results in anything close to the fairytale ending of Happily Ever After.

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