Sexism or Culturalism?

By Shonel Perera

Petitioners of a case filed in Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court this past week which challenged the recent abrupt call to reverse a decision made also just last week which allowed women to be employed in places of the production and sale of alcohol, had all come together in order to construct a revised petition. This petition was filed after the Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera had issued a gazette notification to revoke the 10th of January order which had permitted women in Sri Lanka to work in establishments where liquor is produced or served, and also provided them the legal ability to purchase alcohol going back on a law that had stood for almost 40 years.

The petition signed on Wednesday by a group of 11 rights activists cum veteran professionals had sought an temporary order to have the minister barred from issuing the said gazette which would revoke the rights of the women to purchase alcohol or work at an establishment which produces or serves alcohol, until the petition is taken upfront hearing.

A few sources had noted that the petitioners had said they were now reexamining the petition to seek out a court ruling against the old 1979 law on the grounds of discrimination and gender bias.

The move comes as the government’s main coalition partners, the center-left Sri Lanka Freedom Party and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s center-right United National Party, are campaigning for long-delayed local elections. Officials at the finance ministry said the ban was lifted after repeated requests from the tourism industry to extend bar hours and allow female tourists to buy alcohol. But that move was criticized by opposition parliamentarians who said the move would damage Sri Lanka’s Buddhist values. Sinhalese Buddhists account for more than 70 percent of the island nation’s 21 million population.

The petitioners are Ms. Nishanthi Bandaranayake, M.D.J.B. Fernando, Samanalee Fonseka, Chandima Ravini Jinadasa, Deepanjalie Abeywardana, Sabrina Esufally, Sharanya Sekaram,   Randhula de Silva, Meneka Galgamuwa, Sujatha Gamage and Visakha Perera Tillekeratne.

The earlier petition had stated that “an imposition of a prohibition applicable to members of only one gender would tantamount to an unequal treatment of the members of such gender”.

Last week the subject Minister issued out two gazettes, one which was undoing thelong standing law which barred women from purchasing liquor and also selling it, and the second – to extend the opening hours of liquor shops, pubs and restaurants. However, this all changed when President Maithripala Sirisena, last Sunday, had made an order to revoke both of these two rules.

Finance Minister’s move changing the old law banning women from buying alcohol was welcomed by many in Sri Lanka as a positive step towards equal rights for women.

Minister of Finance and Mass Media Mangala Samaraweera on 10th January announced that he amended the schedule in the Excise Notification no.666 of the Gazette Extraordinary of 1979 to allow females over 18 years to purchase alcohol legally and to allow women to be employed in licensed premises without prior approval from Excise Commissioner.

The Government has now said that the gazette rescinding permission, only granted a few days ago by the Finance Minister, for women to be employed in a pub or place of production and also to sell alcohol, which men are so easily and unquestionably entitled to, will be issued out after Minister Mangala Samaraweera returns from his overseas visit soon. On Thursday the Minister issued this gazette.

The Minister, the Treasury Secretary and the Attorney General have been cited as respondents. The petitioners state that this so called “prohibition”  was a draconian measure that was arbitrary, irrational, unreasonable and discriminatory to female citizens of the Republic.

The only reason however, that the public sees for this prohibition is the authoritarian and arbitrary reasoning by the President.

“The petitioners state that the above circumstances gives rise to a reasonable apprehension regarding an imminent infringement of the petitioners’ right to equality and equal protection of the law guaranteed to them by Article 12 (1) of the Constitution. The petitioners state that the above circumstances gives rise to a reasonable apprehension regarding an imminent infringement of the Petitioners’ right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of their sex guaranteed to them by Article 12(2) of the Constitution,” the petition noted.

Leading monks in the Buddhist-majority country had criticised the decision to lift the ban, arguing it would destroy Sri Lankan family culture by getting more women addicted to alcohol.

Saying he had listened to criticism of the government’s step, President Sirisena told the rally he had ordered the government to withdraw its notification announcing the lifting of the ban.

It came as no surprise to some as he runs an anti-alcohol campaign and has warned in the past that alcohol consumption among Sri Lankan women is increasing “drastically”.

However, commentators say the abrupt cancellation of the government’s reform suggests there are differences within the coalition government.

Critics have accused the president of not taking gender equality seriously.

While the previous law was not always strictly enforced, many Sri Lankan women had welcomed the change. A ban on alcohol being sold outside the hours of 09:00 to 21:00 would have been changed to allow sales between 08:00 and 22:00.

President Sirisena has now encouraged women in the country to play a more active part in politics, boasting last year that his government had acted to ensure more women were returned at future elections. His apparent double standards over the alcohol issue drew anger from both women and men on his official Twitter as well this past week.

According to World Health Organization data from 2014, 80.5% of women never drink, compared to 56.9% of men. Less than 0.1% of women above the age of 15 are prone to heavy drinking, compared with 0.8% of men in the same age bracket. A majority of women in Sri Lanka traditionally choose not to drink alcohol as they see it as contrary to Sri Lankan culture,

Meanwhile, The National Movement for Consumer Rights Protection had accused the finance minister of encouraging drinking, and had urged Sirisena to intervene and restore the restrictions as well.

The ban on women buying liquor was likely originally imposed in 1979 to appease the conservative Buddhist hierarchy at the time.

Liquor vendors in Sri Lanka are also forbidden to sell spirits to police or members of the armed forces in uniform. The Subject Minister has said that strict curbs on Sri Lanka’s licensed liquor manufacturers only encourage a black market for spirits, and deprive the state of much-needed revenue. Sri Lanka in its November budget unveiled steep tax rises on hard liquor, but greatly reduced tariffs on wine and beer.

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