March 4, 2019

There is a word in the English language, with five letters that has a mixture of warning, embarrassment and contempt, which is known as taboo. It was originally used in the Philippines, and then adopted by the French and finally included in the British Dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary describes this word as “a cultural or religious custom that does not allow people to do, use, or talk about a particular thing, as people find it offensive or embarrassing. ”However, on a broad generalisation, is it that simple to draw a line in understanding this so called “social standard” in the electronic world today?

Discussing the undiscussed

Highlighted in the Sri Lankan print media, recently, was an Indian Association known as ‘Aura India’, which held their seminar in Sri Lanka on 26 January, in the form of an open forum, to ‘discuss the undiscussed’. It happened to be the first seminar of its kind in Sri Lanka, since being established, nine months ago.  The ‘Taboo in Sri Lanka forum’ was reported in the press as having discussed how the organisation was able to witness ‘a gap in some of the topics  that usually get phased out of discussion where taboos seem to override any of  the  subjects at the very beginning of a discussion, because of the  stigma attached to it. This could relate to any kind of behaviour, be it mental health, premarital sex, homosexuality, transsexuality and so forth.

Many who participated in this seminar- ‘Discussing the Undiscussed – Taboo in Sri Lanka 2019’, have debated on different issues from young girls attaining age, where such celebrations are currently transformed into a ‘sexual ceremony’, and how the Sri Lanka Government still regards ‘sexual education as  biological and clinical,’ and the  discussion of contraceptives being taboo to school children!

Provoking fear

What seemed to have emerged at the forum, on HIV, appeared to be far more fear provoking, as a heightened social prejudice. One of the participants at the seminar had experienced how her neighbours proceeded to the extent of setting her (victim’s) house on fire, at which point she had to “pull her children out of school”. This confirms to what extent HIV and AIDS are considered deadly (diseases) in Sri Lanka. The misconceptions surrounding AIDS & HIV were highlighted still further as rampant, during the seminar, by another participant  referring to  a public notice at a local Police station that read “AIDS is deadly, in 2019”.

From a religious perspective the panel seemed to have shared on homosexuality as something to be frowned upon; Sri Lanka being a Buddhist country. Yet there have been several arguments based on the fact that the five precepts the Buddha had referred to as ‘sexual misconduct’ having any cross references to homosexuality in the Pali Canon. The stereotype challenges to all such arguments had indicated to have one’s specific role for individual development only, and it is up to each one to stay within social constrains.

In the present circumstances, in the 21st century, social liberation has broken all barriers and what is acceptable in some societies, today, will certainly make our grannies to roll in their peaceful graves! The latest being  13 ‘gay couples’ in Japan who were willing to go to Court on 14th February, Valentine’s Day, demanding the right to marry, and blaming the  Japanese Government for violating Constitutional Right to equal treatment. Japan in this sense would become the first Asian country to allow gay marriage, depending on the court ruling. In some of the Western countries where gay marriage is  already permitted, a problem  what ‘gay couples’ have confronted was to identify officially details in adoption papers  the child’s mother & father’s names, separately.  In any  conventional birth certificate parents consist of a father and mother, not two males or females!

Comical or painful

When an accepted and acknowledged restrain in social behaviour is broken, the outcome could be either comical or painful. Social customs generally demand that one should not draw attention to other’s physical defects. Children, in this equation, are naturally exempted from this sensitivity, not because they are not privileged but, according to psychologists, a sense of tact is developed in a human being only around the seventh or eighth year. Prior to such development, any painful forthrightness is socially accepted and permitted because such bluntness coming out of an undeveloped tactless mind cannot be stopped at any cost.

When a child is born, the anxious parents force feed the baby with  belly full of milk, and when the baby  screams in pain, with sucked in air, parents carry the baby  over their shoulder and stroke baby’s back gently, until the baby makes a noisy burp, as a mark of relief, so that the whole neighbourhood could hear. The  parents become happy in that instance, but, when he grows up to the age of nine or ten, will the child be treated in the same loving manner? No! Not at all, but the poor child will be pulled up for being rude and bad manners!

Different Concepts

What is taboo in words and customs follow fashion too.  What is taboo in a certain period become fashionable after decades and vice versa. In Victorian days, it was taboo to discuss about sex but in the present circumstances to talk about it today is very common practice-not only discussing the topic but also participating in sexual activities. In 1900, it was taboo to admit that a woman was not a virgin, and still in France, it is considered taboo for a mature woman to have a sexual affair with a younger man!

Holding the door to a lady at an entry point in a building or car, is regarded not only etiquette in the Western  world, but unfortunately in Sri Lanka it appears to be taboo. In some of the Sri Lankan diplomatic missions, the writer has witnessed where even the lady employees hold the door when diplomats walk in and out of their offices or the main building! Needless to say, much about the Parliamentarians of this country who become ‘supreme’ Government servants, how they forget about their responsibilities and act  as if they are on cloud nine!

Holding the door to a lady

To lead a lady or a wife, when crossing a main road, by holding her hand, by husband or a companion for her safety, is  regarded as highly traditional and a responsibility against an accident, but appears to be taboo to an orient apparently. Wouldn’t it be entertaining to observe an Asian or an Arab, running across the road to save his dear life, leaving his wife or fiancée on the other side of a busy traffic congested road? Certainly, for an orient it appears to be quite traditional!

Once, a friend of the writer, who was on holiday, in Sri Lanka, walked up to the Air Lanka office, which was in the Ceylinco Building, opposite the Central Bank Building, at the time, happened to pass a woman walking on the pavement who sneezed loudly. The visitor having lived in London for decades automatically came out with a courteous gesture, “Bless you!” the woman who was unfamiliar to such gestures suddenly turned around and demanded to know whether it was a passing hint by aggressively barking at him thus: “Mokakda thamuse kiwwe” (What did you say). That shows the extent our social standards and taboos! The poor fellow was so embarrassed and hastened his walk to the Air Lanka office.

Taboos are required in life and society in the same manner as people adopt a religion or a superstition. They are purely based on needs of human beings, though only functions socially, have no meaning. Although they may break religious or superstitious declarations, people may find themselves very uncomfortable and uneasy not acknowledging them. They may be courageous and sincerely honest, but of course, very lonely indeed.
Most human beings are extroverts, and for those who are searching for the best solution to remain happy and contended, they would be advised to leave a particular social group whose taboos seem offensive to them. 

Whether such notions are farcical or embarrassing and to seek another group whose taboos suit them better, because  rest assured, there is no  society that exists without taboos, be it the superfluous cream of  elite  society or a gang of hoodlums.

Picture credit: www.ceylontoday.lk. & Google Photos

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