On January 14, 2018, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena reversed a new law that would have allowed women over the age of 18 to purchase alcohol for the first time in 39 years since 1979. The law had been decided just a week earlier by the country’s finance minister, mangala Samaraweera in an effort to “restore gender neutrality” and remove remnants of sexism from the statutes. It would have also allowed women to work in bars without a state permit.
To put the law in context, when it was first enacted in 1979, Sri Lanka had just been established as a Socialist republic. Public reaction, however, was averse to the socialist policies and a number of protests soon moved the nation towards an open market economy. Still, the ban remained in place—perhaps due to the religious demography. 70% of the nation is Buddhist, 12% Hindu, 10% Muslim, and the remaining Christian or other. Because of the predominance of Buddhism, alcohol was highly discouraged, being that it is inconsistent with the very values of the religion.
The specification of women in the restriction, however, “was likely originally imposed… to appease the conservative Buddhist hierarchy at the time,” says Samaraweera. In many traditional Buddhist societies, women are viewed as merely caretakers, who are to be obedient to husbands. Motherhood and marriage are regarded as extremely valued activities, implying that women are expected to remain in the household and care for the family as opposed to establishing an independent lifestyle for herself.
Over time, though, it became clear to Samaraweera that these laws needed to change. Repeated requests from the tourism industry to extend bar hours and allow sale of alcohol to female tourists forced officials in the finance bureau to reconsider the law. In addition, an official said that the strict regulation of liquor manufacturers and consumers of alcohol in fact creates a black market that loses revenue for the state. Thus, just a week before the ban, Sri Lanka passed legislation to allow women to purchase alcohol.
But the decision prompted mass backlash. The National Movement for Consumer Rights Protection accused Samaraweera of encouraging drinking, claiming that such a relaxation of the law would undermine the culture and values of Sri Lanka. Many leading monks argued that this would destroy families as it would get more women addicted to alcohol.
On account of this, just a few days later, President Sirisena announced that he had ordered the government to withdraw the reform, claiming that he had only heard about the law after reading about it in the newspapers. According to a report from the WHO in 2014, 80.5% of women in Sri Lanka never drink. Thus, it may seem to some redundant to prohibit women from drinking given such a large amount who already do not.
What such an act boils down to, though, is a matter of gender equality. During his election campaign, President Sirisena launched a national campaign called “Women for Change,” designed to increase political participation for women. He even asserted that “it is a critical issue that there is a shortage of their representation in political and constitutional sectors.” But by striking down this relaxation of laws, it is clear that Sirisena is only continuing the tradition of gender inequality in Sri Lanka.