the crowning glory of beauty and conflict

An event that took place in the Easter weekend this year in Sri Lanka which hit the world news platforms, had a stark difference to the news of Easter events which took place two years ago, when several churches were ambushed by suicide bombers. 

An event that took place in the Easter weekend this year in Sri Lanka which hit the world news platforms, had a stark difference to the news of Easter events which took place two years ago, when several churches were ambushed by suicide bombers.

This time the camera was on the glitz and glamour of a beauty pageant.

Beauty contests, even being a dated idea, have their place in society for those seeking fame and fortune and the desire to impress the world with their perfectly turned out bodies and killer outfits. The Mrs Sri Lanka 2021 contest held at the Easter weekend concluded with the reigning ‘Mrs World’ (2020) who happens to be Sri Lankan, crowning this year’s winner. Just as the cameras were zooming in on the beaming winning candidate, the reigning Mrs World returned to the stage and boldly announced that the winner was a divorcee and was not eligible to hold the crown! She then proceeded to remove the crown from this lady, who was deeply startled by the sudden turn of events, and announced the 1st runner up as the winner! What was most surprising was the gleeful acceptance of the crown by the 1st runner up who did not seem to have any compassion towards the lady from whom the crown was snatched. Unbelievable sequence of events which brought about a furore of opinions that hit the national and international press around the world.

I am not writing this to put any wrongs to right of this beauty pageant, neither am I writing to offer sympathy to any bruised egos nor defend any character assassinations. If not for this incident, most of us will not have even heard of this competition. The contest in question will have its rules and processes which will no doubt take its course.

I couldn’t help but jot down my thoughts as this was a perfect storm that highlighted a trait that permeates through every level of society, in the day to day life, in this multi-cultural, multi faith country even in the year 2021. Women in general have lower social recognition but added to that if women to do not meet the cultural expectations that society demand of them, they can be ranked even lower.

A woman if she is single for whatever reason, unmarried, divorced, separated or widowed is deemed to have less value than a woman with a husband. An apparent quality in a patriarchal society that confers validity to a woman only if she is affiliated to a man. For a country that raised the first ever woman Prime Minister in the world, this can be an alarming fact to take in. This kind of caution also extends to women who are married but who don’t give birth for whatever reason. Women in such life situations have no respectful place at auspicious gatherings like weddings and coming of age ceremonies.

The ancient Indian practice of ‘Sati’ where a woman throws herself on a husband’s funeral pyre, a ritual which began as a voluntary heroic act of a woman’s desire to remain pure and separated only to her husband may be a dying trend in South Asia. Although this practice probably never occurred in Sri Lanka, the purity of a woman who has lost her husband and remains unmarried is usually met with suspicion. If one is divorced the woman becomes a social target. This rejection although at times subtle and nuanced, can be deeply cutting and debilitating for the woman concerned. It can sometimes take the form of overt physical and verbal insults or even assault.

How do I know this? 

I write with the pain of having faced the consequences of being a divorcee and a single mum in the last 20+ years. The value attributed to me and my family unit was certainly taken down to lowest levels which caused so much pain and distress. The length at which people went to discredit me and cast undue bad light on my character or criticise me as being a ‘social disgrace’ was deeply hurtful.  Especially so when it was directed by close family. I struggled to understand this when I put things in the context of our shared Christian faith.  Not my feelings towards the folk who rejected me, but what conceives otherwise reasonable human beings to act that way.

Witnessing the events of the beauty pageant in question allows me to be more aware of the reasons behind such acts as shame and honour defines the culture in question. Nonetheless, it also fuels the desire in me to push for change.  Not being a feminist for the sake of feminism but to see society honour, respect and cherish women in their own right irrespective of their marital status or the ability to bear children. This has to begin at grass roots level, in a family unit.

Here’s a story that illustrates cultural expectations that make people act in ways that seem harmless on the surface but yield unintended consequences.

When a younger relative is being married, an older female sibling who is already married usually performs various auspicious cultural acts at the wedding ceremony to bring forth good luck, prosperity and fertility etc. Even Christian families perform these rituals that seem harmless, to be culturally relevant. At a point in life when I was married and yet was without child, I was not permitted to take part in my due role at a ceremony because of my childlessness. It was instead given to a younger relative who was married and had a child.  

I think there is danger in making such a judgement call. I felt at that time, the honour that was mine as the elder relative was taken away from me. I got over the social and cultural humiliation directed at me, but what unravelled afterwards in my life and in the lives of the others involved gave me cause to pause and think of these actions and their consequences. Playing with culture without the covering of godly values can be dangerous.

It so happened, that despite all the cultural rituals being followed, this married couple was sadly not blessed with children.  He was the only male in that generation to carry the genealogy of the family name. It is sadly now not to be.  To cause a twist in the tale, a couple of years later, my perceived barrenness was proved wrong! The irony of it was too confusing to witness despite the joy of my being blessed with two sons.

What if… what if, I was given the place of honour despite my childlessness as the elder relative to perform my role, would this male relative be blessed with child?  We simply don’t know. When we profess a faith in the Almighty God, and play with culture without consideration of the other, demeaning the value of a person, we are playing with fire.  God honours culture only within his laws of love and consideration extended to the other. What the world perceives as wholesome can be quite the opposite in God’s economy. He loves the widow and the orphan. The social outcast is No. 1 in his sight.

I have pondered further on the reasons for this kind of judgement call, as I strongly believe that it is done out of sheer ignorance rather than malice.

The culture in which we operate, forms our values and opinions on how we do things and treat each other. 

My parental generation were the first young adults of the post-colonial era.  During the immediate post-colonial time the Sinhalese people felt the desire to re-align their cultural identity.  This identity is intrinsically entwined with the majority faith culture.  Customs and rituals handed down from a mainly patriarchal culture and subjugation and superstitions that society have layered on continue to remain and thrive if not addressed. Sinhalese Christians were and still are the minority in that country although they were the socially larger group comprising 80% of the population. In hindsight, I recognise that the Sinhala Christian identity has struggled to evolve. This concept is nothing new when you consider minority Christian groups around the world.  

In contrast, my life here in the UK as a divorced single mum belonging to a church family, gave me such comfort and value. I must state that this was in an intercultural setting rather than a language or ethnicity specific church group. I had the honour and privilege of being involved in two young couples’ marriages who were closely associated to me. My divorced status was not a hindrance in their sight as they had witnessed my life for many years prior to that.  What balm to my soul!  They had absolutely no idea of my story described above but I felt God restored my dignity in his family by their generosity of spirit.

Whoever does God’s will, will be my brother and sister and mother”. Mark 3:35

Cultural traits travel with people groups as they settle in other parts of the world, and perpetuate itself especially if they exist in their cultural silos.  We have a great opportunity of allowing migrant communities to share their positive cultural attributes in a worshipping community whilst allowing ourselves to unlearn negative values that we carry from our birth cultures.

We cannot do this in culturally segregated groups where we only mingle mono-culturally. There is a deep, deep necessity to shine a light on cultural blind spots, and this works both ways as we worship with the majority culture.

We can only hope that the players involved in the unfortunate incident of the beauty pageant, find their true worth and learn to honour each other as women, whatever their faith or status in life.

Beauty can bloom out of conflict, that which brings to light hidden values that need the refining fire of God.

Published by rugunawardene

Worship, song, dance, food, art, travel, music, culture (did I say culture?!)

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