For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
By Ranga Jayasuriya
A new era of moral purity is in the offing in the New Year; if the new government directive has its way, miniskirts would be banned from public places.
Cultural and Aesthetic Affairs Minister T.B.Ekanayake has instructed the Arts Council attached to his ministry to prepare guidelines over ‘wearing of miniskirts.’
Minister Ekanayake, when contacted by Lakbimanews, said individuals and ‘groups’ had complained to him about the cultural impact of the miniskirt.
Religious and cultural interests
“There are individuals and groups representing religious and cultural interests, who have written to us raising concerns that this kind of dress would corrupt our culture,” Minister Ekanayake said.
“They say with the arrival of tourists, this situation would worsen,” he said.
The Minister did not name groups which have raised concerns.
“I have directed their concerns to the Arts Council headed by Prof Carlo Fonseka,” he added. When pressed whether the new move is a part of the government’s ‘moral crusade’, he said that it was not a government initiative and that the issue was not taken up at the cabinet level.
When asked how he could decide on a matter which is perfectly within the private rights of people, Minister Ekanayake said he had only responded to concerns raised by individuals representing the ‘moral high ground’. “The arts council would formulate recommendations and we will act upon their recommendations,” he said
Kamal Dissanayake, secretary of the subcommittee of the Arts Council said the council headed by Prof Fonseka had not yet taken up the issue and hence it was premature to ‘talk to the media.’ Prof Fonseka could not be reached despite repeated telephone calls to his residence.
When contacted by Lakbimanews, Udaya Gammanpila, legal advisor of Hela Urumaya – the political party generally associated with Sinhala ultra nationalism – said his party had not raised concerns with Minister Ekanayake against the ‘miniskirt.’
The latest moral drive comes in the wake of a previous government directive to remove advertising cutouts depicting what was described as scantily clad women, though in most cases that amounted to a reasonable exposure of legs or cleavage.
Two months back police brought down advertising cutouts in Colombo on a directive by the Women and Children Protection Bureau.
Later, police arrested alleged ‘porn stars,’ in a move which was widely criticized for bigotry and for victimizing the victims. Pictures of 80 or so women who allegedly appeared in ‘pornographic’ video clips were published in the newspapers.
The government’s latest move was ridiculed by cynics, while others feared that the Rajapaksa administration was taking on the role of a moral police.
We would soon become like Saudi Arabia, a media wag quipped.
Another raised the pertinent question as to how the government is planning to police the streets to make sure that every woman is suitably attired.
Repressive Islamic states in the Middle East ranging from Saudi Arabia, Iran to Sudan have special branches of religious police which are mandated with enforcing strict Islamic dress code on the streets.
Minister Ekanayake when queried as to how he plans to implement the miniskirt ban said the Arts Council would make recommendations including the procedure for its implementation.
The Rajapaksa administration has used morality as a means of ‘regime legitimization.’
The role of the government as the guardian and overseer of the moral well-being of its people is a much disputed concept. In classical liberal dispositions, the guardian of the moral well-being of a legal adult should be the individual himself. As former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau put it succinctly, the ‘government should have no business in people’s bed rooms’
However, religion, culture and morality remain to be a potent weapon in political mobilization, especially in conservative societies — as observed in moral and cultural resurgence in the newly independent former colonies, including Sri Lanka which jettisonec English and much of western tradition soon after independence.
Successive Sri Lankan governments, beginning with of D.S Senanayake and most notably of S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike have invoked religion and culture for political mobilization.
The Rajapaksa administration’s recent moral crusade against alcohol, photography and the now, miniskirts is intended to increase its ratings among the government’s core constituency, i.e. the conservative rural south. However, many others view it as excessive and as incompatible with the modern day reality of a more cosmopolitan and individualistic society. Some even complain that a climate of xenophobia has stemmed from the government’s recent rhetoric, including its moral drive.
Not surprisingly, a government reviled by the west for its culpability in alleged human rights violations and increasing authoritarianism at home is striving to rediscover its own identity. In the process it is rejecting everything associated with the west, including the seemingly harmless miniskirt.