Embodied Shame And Gendered Demeanours In Young Women In Sri Lanka

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Feminism And Psychology


In South Asia, shame is valued as a virtue and a means of social control, particularly for women. For Sri Lankan women, shame (læjja-baya) denotes modesty, purity, innocence, and self-effacement. For unmarried girls, sexual improprieties—rumoured or real—threaten loss of respectability and jeopardise a girl’s marriageability and her family’s honour. We investigated the dynamics of shame and norms of propriety in adolescent girls’ lives by re-analysing a subset of interviews of daughters and mothers (N = 24 pairs) collected in a prior study of nonfatal suicidal acts. Many such acts took place after girls were accused of violating norms of propriety. Other such acts served to ‘blame and shame’ wrongdoers. Girls and their mothers reported further that public knowledge of a suicide-like act sullied a girl’s reputation because onlookers ascribed sexualised meanings to it. We point out the incommensurability between parents’ goals and aspirations for their daughters’ educational and occupation attainments and the rigid demands for respectable comportment to which they must conform.


Sri Lanka, shame, sexual respectability, læjja-baya, suicide-like acts

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