My experience being sexually harassed in Mirissa, Sri Lanka

JMy experience being sexually harassed in Mirissa, Sri Lanka

On March 8, 2019, which ironically was International Women’s Day, around 11:30pm, a male friend and I in search for coffee walked into a rotti shop in Mirissa, a beach town along the south coast of Sri Lanka. As my friend walked in and asked for a coffee, a local middle-aged man brushed past me and grabbed my vagina. At first I was confused. What just happened? I was shocked that this stranger had just sneakily molested me in a roomful of people. He walked away pretending nothing had happened. My defenses kicked in and I ran after him to confront him. “What’s wrong with you?” I screamed. The onlookers who were all men began to ask me what happened and I shouted that he had grabbed me “down there.” Many of the men watching tried to protect the man who assaulted me. I was surrounded by about 10-15 men, some of them telling me that it’s his first time, he’s drunk, he’s sorry. I asked them, “Don’t you have a mother, a wife, a daughter? How would you feel if a man just walked by and grabbed her down there?”

இலங்கை வந்த அமெரிக்க பெண் ஒருவர் பாலியல் ரீதியாக துன்புறுத்தப்பட்டுள்ளதாக தெரிய வந்துள்ளது.
இம்மாதம்  மார்ச் மாதம் 08ஆம் திகதி மிரிஸ்ஸ பிரதேசத்தில் வைத்து குறித்த பெண் துஷ்பிரயோகத்திற்கு உட்படுத்தப்பட்டுள்ளார்.

தான் துஷ்பிரயோகத்திற்குள்ளானதாக அமெரிக்க நாட்டு பெண் ஒருவர் பேஸ்புக் பக்கத்தில் பதிவொன்றை பதிவிட்டுள்ளார்.

கெரன் என்ற பெண் தனது பேஸ்புக் பக்கத்தில் “கடந்த 8ஆம் திகதி இரவு எனது நண்பருடன் கோப்பி அருந்திக் கொண்டிருந்தேன். இதன்போது அவ்விடத்திற்கு வந்த நபர் ஒரு திடீரென என எனது அந்தரங்க உறுப்பை பிடித்துவிட்டார். அந்த சந்தர்ப்பத்தில் கோப்பி கடையில் இருந்த அனைவரும் அதனை பார்த்தார்கள். இதன் போது எனக்கு என்ன செய்வதென்றே தெரியாமல் போய்விட்டது.

என் மீது பாலியல் சேட்டையில் ஈடுபட்ட நபர் குடிபோதையில் இருந்தார். இதனால் அவரை மன்னிக்க வேண்டும் என அருகில் இருந்தவர்கள் குறிப்பிட்டார்கள். அந்த சந்தர்ப்பத்தில் பாலியல் சேட்டையில் ஈடுபட்டவர் முச்சக்கர வண்டியில் ஏறி தப்பிச் செல்ல முயற்சித்தார். எனினும் நானும் எனது நண்பரும் அதே முச்சக்கர வண்டியில் ஏறி தப்பி செல்ல முடியாத வகையில் அவரை பிடித்து கொண்டோம்.

பின்னர் சம்பவம் தொடர்பில் அருகில் பயணித்த போக்குவரத்து பொலிஸ் அதிகாரிகள் இருவருக்கு அறிவித்தோம். சந்தேக நபரையும் பொலிஸ் அதிகாரிகள் இருவரையும் பொலிஸ் நிலையத்திற்கு முச்சக்கர வண்டியில் அழைத்து சென்றோம். அதற்காக 700 ரூபாய் முச்சக்கர வண்டி கட்டணம் அறவிடப்பட்டது.

இந்த சம்பவத்தில் பொலிஸாரின் செயற்பாடு தொடர்பில் திருப்தியடைய முடியவில்லை. தனது தொலைபேசி இலக்கங்கள் மற்றும் அமெரிக்க வீட்டு விலாசம் போன்றவற்றை பொலிஸார் பெற்றுக் கொள்ளாமல் இரண்டாம் தரப்பு நபர் ஒருவரே பெற்றுக் கொண்டார்.

பொலிஸார் என கூறி நபர் ஒருவர் எனக்கு அழைப்பேற்படுத்தி சந்திக்க வருமாறு அழைத்தார். பொலிஸ் அதிகாரியை சந்திக்க சென்ற போது சிவில் உடையில் இருந்த நபர் பொலிஸ் அதிகாரி அல்ல என தெரிந்த பின்னர் அங்கிருந்து சென்றுவிட்டேன். அது தொடர்பில் பொலிஸாரிடம் தெரியப்படுத்தினேன்.

எப்படியிருப்பினும் இந்த முழுமையான சம்பவத்தை பார்க்கும் போது இலங்கைக்கு சுற்றுலா பயணம் செல்லும் போது அவதானமாக இருக்க வேண்டும். எனக்கு நடந்த துன்புறுத்தல் போன்று வேறு பெண்களுக்கும் நடந்திருந்தால் அச்சப்படாமல் சட்டத்திற்கு முன் செல்ல வேண்டும்” என அந்த பதிவில் குறிப்பிடப்பட்டுள்ளது.

இந்த சம்பவத்திற்கு தொடர்புடைய நபர் கைது செய்யப்பட்ட நிலையில் நீதிமன்றத்தில் ஆஜர்படுத்தப்பட்டு பிணையில் விடுவிக்கப்பட்டுள்ளார்.

No woman should ever be subject to sexual harassment just because a man is drunk. It’s not ok if it’s his tenth time or the first. It’s not ok if he’s sorry after he’s committed a crime. The more the group of men tried to protect the man who assaulted me, the more I knew I needed to press charges. None of these men tried to help me call the police. My friend was the only one who tried to protect me by confronting the man who assaulted me. When he walked toward the man, the bystanders came in between and tried to separate them. My assaulter hid inside the passenger seat of a tuk tuk but my friend went inside the tuk tuk to prevent him from driving away. We had to cause a scene in order to get the attention of two traffic officers. They stopped by to see what all the commotion was about, and even then, the traffic officers didn’t voluntarily call the actual police for me. I made it very clear from the very moment they saw me that I wanted to report the man. They kept asking me whether I wanted to call the police and I would repeatedly tell them yes. It was before midnight when the incident occurred. At 12:52am on March 9, I was still standing in the middle of the street in front of a crowd of male bystanders trying to get the police to come so I can file a report. This was my first experience with the sexist and dysfunctional Sri Lankan justice system. The traffic officers who showed up barely listened to me before they turned to my white male friend to get the details from him. The entire time, they continued to only communicate with him instead of me, the actual victim. Some of them assumed my friend was my husband. “Your wife,” they referred to me when they spoke to my friend. No matter how much I protested that they should talk to me directly, they continued to ignore me and only spoke to my friend. Fed up by the language barrier, I called my friend from Colombo and told him what had happened. He called the police for me in Colombo. Then I placed him on speaker so that he could talk to the traffic officers who had spent over an hour on the scene and still haven’t contacted the actual police for me. I took photos of all their uniforms with their names and number plaques. When they realized that my friend from Colombo had already called the police and that I had photographed all their uniforms, they finally managed to get another police officer to arrive on scene.

I thought that there would be some order after that police officer arrived, but I was wrong. The officer placed handcuffs on the man who assaulted me and went straight to my male friend to talk to him. Both of us protested that he should talk to me. Ignored yet again and frustrated, I called my friend from Colombo to interpret for me. The police officer walked away and refused to listen to my phone. After a while, the officers spoke to me in a loud and reprimanding tone, “you want to go to police station, right?” They yelled at me, as if I was the criminal inconveniencing them. They dragged out the process and kept asking me because they wanted to hear me give up on pressing charges. This was well over an hour after the incident. When I told them I still wanted to file a report, instead of a proper police vehicle, they hailed a tuk tuk. A police officer got into the tuk tuk with the man who assaulted me. Then they wanted me to sit inside the same exact tuk tuk to go to the police station. I refused. “Why do I need to sit next to the man who molested me?” Why did these police officers think it would be ok to seat us in the same vehicle? Where is the compassion for sexual assault victims?

Seeing how the events have unfolded, my friend thought that the man who assaulted me would somehow escape in the hands of the police. He volunteered to sit inside the tuk tuk to ensure that he would be brought to the police station. They drove off and I thought that the police would get me another tuk tuk to go to the station. Another tuk tuk came and the driver demanded 1000 rupees. I was incredulous. I was just sexually assaulted by a man and now I have to pay 1000 rupees to go to a police station to file a report. I refused. More time was wasted as I argued with the officers. In the mean time, two more of my friends had joined the scene. They didn’t want to waste anymore time so we agreed to pay for a tuk tuk to the police station. It cost us 700 rupees.

When we arrived at the Kotiwila police station, my friend who had been with me during the assault had started filing a report. I thought that as soon as I arrived, the officers would ask me questions. But again, I was ignored and my friend was the main spokesman for me because he was a man. He had finished filling out his entire report while I sat stupefied. I called my friend from Colombo and he told me to ask my friend to file the report under my name. We protested to the police, an aggressive interpreter who pretended to be the police screamed at me and my friends for being disruptive. When I asked him to show me his police identification, he quieted down and confessed that he was only an interpreter. After half an hour, they finally gave me pieces of paper to file a complaint for “lost/stolen property.” They didn’t even have proper paperwork for me to write on.

After I filed my report, the aggressive interpreter told me that I needed to return to the police station at 9am. Before I left, he made me write my local number, WhatsApp number, and my hotel on the report. It was past 2am. Exhausted, my friends and I hopped into the first tuk tuk that brought the police officer, my friend and the man who assaulted me to the station. After we arrived back in Mirissa, the driver told us we’d have to pay 1900 rupees for the round trip cost of bringing the suspect to the police station. That’s a first I’ve heard – a sexual assault victim has to pay for a taxi for her assaulter and an “official” policeman to be brought to the police station.

The next day, I received a call from “the police” who asked me where I was staying. I had decided that I wouldn’t return to the police station without a local interpreter and wanted to wait for my friend from Colombo to go with me. The police on the phone told me he would come to me to talk to me. I agreed and told him where I was staying. When the man showed up, it turned out to be a regular civilian with long hair, walking without shoes, wearing t-shirt and shorts. I immediately knew he wasn’t the police. He sat next to me and asked about what happened. “You’re not the police, who are you?” I asked. After some back and forth, he admitted that he was a friend of the man who assaulted me. “How did you get my number??” When I asked further, the man ran off. This man had obtained my number from the police report I had filled out. This meant he probably had access to every personal detail I had filled out on the report, including my passport number, my US phone number and address. I couldn’t believe it. I was not safe. When the real police came and I told them that a man had pretended to be the police to find out where I was, they simply phoned the number on my caller ID and shrugged it off when no one answered.

This whole experience has left me indignant – my body is stiff from rage and clenched fists. In Sri Lanka or perhaps anywhere in the world, the justice system intentionally makes it hard for victims to file a report. It’s an endless obstacle course involving money, time and embarrassment. In total, I’ve already paid 3200 rupees just to travel back and forth to the police station. It doesn’t seem like a lot if you convert it to USD, slightly less than $18. But when you consider a local “hopper” (pancake) is only 15 rupees and a 4-hour 2nd class train ticket costs 240 rupees, 3200 is way more than a local Sri Lankan working woman can afford. From the moment the incident occurred, I’ve spent over 3 hrs on the first night dealing with the officers, going to the station and returning home after 2am. The 2nd day, I spent another 3.5 hrs sitting in a police station waiting for nothing. They made me go into the station and only asked me 2 questions that they could have asked me on the first evening or even when they showed up at my hotel. I sat for hours in the open waiting room as if I was being punished, right next to the jail cell that held my assaulter. Occasionally he’d pass by me as officers walked him back and forth to the questioning room. It so happens that I’m a long term traveler with no pressing itinerary and no where I must be for the day. But what if I were in the work force or even a tourist with only a 10-day vacation? How often would those women have the ability to report such cases? They make it hard on purpose, so that men who commit such shameful crimes can be let off scot-free.

When I began writing, there were moments I wondered if my case was too small. Shouldn’t I feel lucky that he only touched me above my clothing? But assault is assault. If everyone who gets groped remain silent, those men who think they can get away with it will just grow in numbers. The man who assaulted me might never be indicted because I’m only in the country until middle of March. But I did everything in my power to report him. I chose not to be silent. I’m sharing this story because I need to let those men know I’m not afraid of them. I also want to bring light to the unfair, dysfunctional and sexist Sri Lankan police officers I dealt with; and hopefully to get some closure myself.