Why women in politics always matters: A conversation with Chulani Kodikara

Chulani Kodikara has written five articles for Groundviews, three on the topic of women in mainstream politics in Sri Lanka. Revealingly, they are comparatively three of the most under-read articles on this site. Women are not willing to go back to pre-war status quo, a compelling essay written for the special edition on the end of war, has at the time of writing only generated around 450 pageviews, abysmal in comparison to the tens of thousands who read and engaged with other articles in this special edition.

This marked lack of interest in and awareness of a vital issue provided the backdrop for a recent conversation with Chulani on the issue of women’s representation in Sri Lankan mainstream politics. Fundamentally, the issue is marginal to mainstream political parties and of peripheral interest at best to most voters – female and male. In an important essay, Chulani notes that “the main obstacle to equal political representation of women in political institutions in Sri Lanka is political parties” and goes on to say,

In reality however, beyond the symbolic inclusion of one or two women in nomination lists, both parties have not taken concrete action to seriously address the under-representation of women in political institutions. The enormous costs of contesting elections, the thuggery and violence, the competition within the party fostered by the proportional representation system and the general lack of support for women candidates from male colleagues mean that even the few women who are offered, are often reluctant to accept nominations. (From Women and politics in Sri Lanka: The challenges to meaningful participation)

In this interview, I ask Chulani about affirmative action, and also whether for example, the entry of telegenic females sans political acumen to parliament in any way helps advocacy on stronger female representation. Pegged to this, I also question her about substantive equality, that goes beyond, in her own words, the classical liberal notion of formal equality which assume that removing formal barriers, for example giving women the right to vote and be elected to political office, is sufficient to give women equal access to political institutions.

We talk about the role of women in post-war Sri Lanka, examples from South Asia as well as the rest of the world where women play a far more active role in politics, getting women to vote in women, the political culture in Sri Lanka and changing it for the better, experiences of other countries that post-war that have actively encouraged the participation of women in processes of reconciliation and the need, that Chulani herself has identified, to “revisit and reframe the discourse on increasing political representation of women in Sri Lanka”.

  • ordinary lankan

    Might is right and the King can do no wrong

    That is the current constitution – In England I think they reversed this in the 17th century and women fought for the vote and equal rights in the 20th century

    we are in the 21st century but 4 centuries behind England now and 2 centuries behind India which got the hang of what rights and western norms are about. we are still groping in the dark – we really dont know what rights are –

    the fact is that despite our impressive social indicators we are a terribly immature nation – we are pretty poor in terms of our emotional and social health – we have lost all rights – what is left is selective patronage and relationships

    I beleive that most of the assumptions made in this discussion are just that – assumptions that we have a democracy and the rest – if not how can you talk like this?

    all that is make believe – and we are probably well ahead of the rest of the world in deceiving ourselves

  • ordinary lankan


    and I may be a patronizing MCP for saying this – but I will say it all the same

    Integrate your spirit and spirituality
    Into the work you do
    Don’t follow the western secular model
    It has limitations
    Check if you are on the right track
    Keep walking
    You will arrive

  • Ived Amos

    Just wondered whether this ‘lack of interest’ in Chulani Kodikara’s writing is a reflection of the Groundview audience. Do we know what the gender balance of the viewers are, or what the ‘political culture’ of Groundviews itself is? HOw do other gender issues fare? do they get much higher coverage?

    • http://www.groundviews.org Groundviews

      Impossible to ascertain via server logs, and given that we are read now on avg. around 2,000+ times a day, its tough to even hazard a guess.

      However, from the 1680+ fans on our Facebook page 41% are female, and 56% male. The largest amount of fans are between 25 – 34 and the second highest between 18 – 24. 757 of the fans are from / or in Sri Lanka. Facebook offers detailed breakdown of fans because of the nature of the platform, whereas the site itself requires no registration to read or comment.

      Articles like On women’s attire and gender equality: pondering on the long way ahead and On a woman’s attire: Are we really tempting young boys and priests? in particular generate much higher interest than articles, most notably by Chulani herself that are extremely well written and backed by solid research dealing with gender and mainstream politics, as well as the more robust discussions on gender identity and construction. All articles dealing with gender can be read here.

  • http://-- MCM Iqbal

    Listening to Chulani made me wonder why women in Sri Lanka are not involved in politics as much as they do in other vocations.
    It has been said that politics is a dirty game. Others have said that it is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Not that I am saying all our politicians are that but we have seen a lot of mud slinging both inside and outside the political arena. Perhaps this is inhibiting women from getting into politics.

    Could it also be that women, at least those who are competent and capable of getting into it, do not want to step in because they do not like the hurly-burly of of contesting elections and encountering all the unpleasantness that take place in the field of politics. I do not mean to say that they cannot face these things but they perhaps feel that it would be wiser to keep out of it.
    It could also be that as Chulani rightly mentioned that though many women are involved in various vocations and activities they still have to continue to do housekeeping and looking after their children, which they perhaps wish to continue doing. So they may be thinking that if they enter into politics they cannot play this traditional role effectively, could also be something that inhibits women entering politics which is a full time job that leaves no room for other activities as a mother and a wife.

    These are some thoughts that occurred to me which I am sharing in the hope others would join in the discussion.

  • Belle

    I always find it too utterly boring to consider the issue of increasing women’s representation in currently existing political parties. These parties are patriarchal, without a doubt. So what would be the point of getting more women in there, especially if the mandatory quotas are going to be so miserable as hardly to make a dent in women’s power within the party structure?

    Why not instead start a feminist party of sorts, a new party that would stand for alternative values and policies, championing precisely the values and policies that would bring women voters (mothers, wives, widows, daughters) out in hordes to vote for it as well as sensible men who want a real values change in the political scene? That would be really exciting. Party membership and leadership positions should be open to both men and women, but the party’s constitution should include a mandatory provision that at least 50% of candidates standing for election must be women.

    Female voters don’t see any reason to vote for women candidates in existing political parties because a woman in a patriarchal party is just another prop to the patriarchal system. They don’t expect such women to stand for female interests. As Sanjana notes, the women who have been President and Prime Minister hardly changed the patriarchal system. But women standing for election in a new party that promises real change, including bringing an end to violence and corruption, and offering policies that would benefit women and families–that might draw a lot of voters. Such a party could stand for minority rights too, and attract more voters that way.

  • Belle

    Ordinary Lankan,
    Feminism is not a Western thing. Women had real power in South Asian and South-east Asian societies centuries before Western women enjoyed such power. Women went out to work in the fields and in the courts. In South-east Asia, women rulers were highly prized because they presided over periods of peace and mercantile success. It was colonialism with its backward Victorian culture that messed up their civilizational development, and incarcerated them in the home. South Asian women have been writing feminist literature since 600BC whereas the Western woman only started writing from the Rennaisance period.

    And, yes, you are a MCP for suggesting this. It is a MCP trick to say that feminism is a Western import, and to use that to ‘keep Asian women in their place.’ Anyway, if there’s nothing wrong with SL men Westernizing and modernizing themselves, why is there something wrong in women doing so?

  • ordinary lankan

    we dont need to go over that simplistic east v west thing – nor am i an MCP (that was a joke)

    read again – I am not against feminism – that is a good thing – we have learned much from the feminist critique

    this is something more sophisticated

    the ref to secular western thinking is a ref to the ethic of justice – the dominant mode of thought in western and western influenced circles. one of the key features of this is SEPARATION or dualism – that because there are men there must be women in politics – this is getting trapped into formal identity

    the value system that integrates spirituality is the ethic of care. Now this is actually not opposed to the ethic of justice but rises above that to affirm the whole and RELATIONSHIPS.

    rights is too narrow – we must look at relationships – go from concept to reality

    the reality is connections and relations – today even quantum physics says there are no things – just different ways of relating … it’s a different perspective and one that is badly needed in our hopelessly polarised society

    we have forgotten that we are all connected – such a broad perspective is essentially spiritual (however you like or dislike that word)

    so madam my advice to Chulani stands

  • Belle

    Ordinary Lankan,
    If you picked up ancient Indiian women’s writings or a more recent feminist theory text, you’d realize that everything you mention in your last post–the need to critique binaristic thinking, incorporating greater spiritualistic perspectives into traditional modes of rationality, making connections between various areas of life, etc–is part of the feminist philosophical outlook, or at least of some dominant schools. So why would you assume that Chulani has not gotten onto that track yet and that you need to steer her toward it?

  • ordinary lankan

    Alright great.

    so we are on to that rare thing called common ground

    I know instinctively when a conversation is going on the narrow paradigm – and then i want to say – hi – open it out …

    i am not assuming that Chulani has not gotten onto the spiritual track – she is on it – I felt that in this conversation she was not using it. it may be something to do with the questioner …

    But your good question requires a more detailed answer so let me revert with that

  • ordinary lankan

    you said:

    “incorporating greater spiritualistic perspectives into traditional modes of rationality, making connections between various areas of life, etc–is part of the feminist philosophical outlook, or at least of some dominant schools. So why would you assume that Chulani has not gotten onto that track yet and that you need to steer her toward it?”

    I listened very closely and went thru the whole interview.

    I heard a professional giving a nuts and bolts technical perspective – a good appeal to the head
    but I did not hear Chulani the woman
    and I did not hear Chulani the human being

    on two ocassions – once when she confessed that she herself had earlier overlooked women candidates when voting and then when she protested “I am a researcher” when asked why she does not go into politics there were flashes of the human being – but very brief flashes.

    Chulani’s dilemma is also yours and mine. we want to change a system that is wrong but we really dont know how to do it. so we hide this ignorance behind a screen of technical words.

    can I suggest that laws are coercive measures and that they ultimately rest on VALUES. If a law does not reflect a living value it becomes an empty and lifeless shell …. this is the fate of our constitution, laws and political system.

    and that means we must start afresh – the process of value creation starts within the human consciousness. It is cultivated there (yes all this is written down in India but hear it from a living human being and fellow sri lankan) – and there are two things that push your passive spirituality into a more active mode

    1. enhancing modes of personal communication

    2. generating internal communication

    you get people to reflect within and see themselves ….

    most of all you spend a lot of time in silence and you dont speak unless you can really speak from the heart.

    another major flaw is an outright rejection of the present. she is at war with the present and does not see any possibilities there. what is her dialogue with the likes of anthony mariamma and yes even photogenic anarkali ….

    Anarkali had a fight on her hands and she took a man to court as well – so these are the raw material on our hands – and we should not despise what we have. It is not prudent to bemoan the low rep and also run down those who are there. you have to bring out the HUMAN dimension

    there is over reliance on rationality. so this feminine approach of incorporating spirituality into traditional rationality has to be taken off the shelf – dusted down and USED. may be you can help Chulani to do that?

    all I can see is the local elite bound by the mind forged manacles of a western education rambling on an on without really getting to the point.

    Chulani has to engage with the issue why she as a woman is keeping out of politics and encouraging other women to get involved – I dont think she has to get into politics but she has to engage with that question as it is important. The other thing is that women must speak and tell everyone how they feel and what they go thru in terms of feelings and emotions – that voice is important
    because it is the voice of truth and that is what will persuade people – not the kind of discussion that they had. That was bone dry.

    If this is your life work Chulani – try to balance what looks like an exclusively legal and political approach with something less detached and abstract.

    hope this helps in some way

  • ordinary lankan


    the concept driven secular western approach and the more open spiritual approach generally works in mutually exclusive compartments

    they dont talk to each other. but if we want to clear this impasse this is a mandatory direction to take – security of familiar concepts must be left behind to grapple with the present.

    take the cue – or take your time

  • Belle

    Ordinary Lankan,
    Great post (Oct 21, 11.39pm)! I agree with a lot of what you wrote. I think the problem here is too little engagement with feminism, not too much. The women are currently looking at how they can fit into the system, find a place for themselves there. As you pointed out, there’s no change potential there. That’s why I suggested that women should try to start a new party. Just thinking about starting a new party will get their creative juices going–they will have to reflect on what kind of a society they want; they will have to dream of a new utopia (not one that’s going to serve only women’s interests, but men’s too, all of society), and stop limiting themselves to what is already available (especially when that is quite pathetic). I believe in the power of dreaming. Once you actually reflect on and visualize the kind of world you want, there comes a powerful urge to transform the dream into reality. That’s what you’re after I think–ideas that are connected to the heart, where the heart says “Yes, that’s ethical–that speaks to my higher spirit.” I agree with you that this kind of total mind-heart-spirit engagement is required, and that it is currently lacking.

    However, I don’t think one is born with this wisdom, of the heart knowing what is right. It comes from reading, and more reading, with engaging with the ideas of all the great philosophers, past and present, both Western and Eastern, contemplating them. This is how people living under regimes which limit their education can beat the system, can go beyond what they are allowed to think.

    Your question about why Chulani is not prepared to go into politics herself is something I asked too. Perhaps she has wondered about it herself. I can’t speak for her but I know that if I framed the whole issue as one about whether women have equal representation in existing political structures, I wouldn’t want to enter the political arena–too much risk to take for too little gain. On the other hand, if I re-framed the issue as being about whether women can bring a different sensibility to local politics and transform it for the better, to create a more just and caring system, it would motivate me to take that risk because there would be so much to gain from it.

    But also, Chulani doesn’t really need to be a politician herself–she can help to create such a new political party. As a researcher, she would know Sri Lankan women in civil society as well as men with alternative values who could work together to infuse new energies into the political scene. I’m not Sri Lankan but a Singaporean of Sri Lankan heritage. I have been constantly inspired by some of the civil society actors and intellectuals interviewed here in Groundviews, but it seems like all their great ideas are just whistling in the wind. They need to be brought together in a new political party to make their ideas count. In some countries, like Canada especially, civil society organizations, think tanks etc can work with government to introduce and lobby for changes, but not so in the Rajapaksa regime. The civil society space for intervention is severely limited. The political party process is the way to go.

    I see such a party as having a mandate that insists that half of its candidates are women, and which ensures that all the ethnic groups are amply represented among the candidates they field (up to 40% from minority communities—so that they have a real say in the party). Of course, they must stand on the platform of making legislative and policy changes for racial and gender justice. The cards may be stacked against such a party in terms of attracting votes but even in their process of election campaigning, they will already be challenging citizens’ race and gender prejudices and their expectations from government.

  • ordinary lankan

    Thank you Belle…

    lets continue this conversation – till some more feminists (male or female) drop in

    what you are referring to is a social movement rather than another political party? something that generates its own power as opposed to seeking external power through thuggery and deception – or any of its derivatives

    internal communication – an inside out process without doubt

    and in reframing the discourse there are some valued positions must be open to questioning – including the very title of this thread – WHY WOMEN IN POLITICS ALWAYS MATTERS

    Our professionals are trapped into the classic trap of diagnosis and prescription – both remain cherished and a part of our identity –

    in isolating this issue we can forget that this is ONE aspect of a much broader issue of powerlessness. and if we want to select this we must justify why? why is this a good entry point? should we not look for another entry point?

    so if the diagnosis can be challenged – so can the presecription and then we lay the whole subject open to a discussion – in a way that the interviewer and intervieweely were actually not able to do.

    why must we go behind UNP MP’s we are sure are paying lip service? are we so impoverished that we would rather have faith in agreements and concessions made by immoral men than in morality itself? why must we look up to a dead horse which is just a shadow that can hardly even deceive itself?

    these are questions – and the spirit like Rosa Parks generates itself – it does not have to cling creeper like to these dead trees

    i have great faith in womankind – its just that womankind must recover its faith in itself

  • ordinary lankan

    This website offers plenty of resources along the track I have suggested


  • ordinary lankan

    The legal system that nurtured and nourished many of us and also the political system are male dominions – they were created by men for men to operate – this is basic feminism

    if so why is it that the discussion between SH and Chulani was conducted within that same narrow paradigm? so long as we play by these old rules the results will be the same – we need to create our own rules – for example Gandhi when he first tested self reliance washed his own clothes and cut his own hair – very small, very humble and very real –

    we in sri lanka seem to despise and eschew small, awkward and humble beginnings – we want changes at the political level rather than the social and family level or even at the internal and spiritual level – No we are too big for those things ….

    neither affirmative action nor the celebrated distinction between formal and substantive equality goes deep enough to touch the heart of the issue –

    that is SELF – the consciousness that is divided within – content to see more women in politics but not too interested in getting to know them as human beings – at least this is the impression one gets

    The extract below is from Sharon Salzberg one of the best living gurus of loving kindness from her book – LOVING KINDNESS – the revolutionary art of happiness


    Once I knew two people, who had both suffered from abuse in childhood. One, a woman, grew up to be quite fearful, while the other, a man, grew up to be quite angry. The woman found herself in a work situation with the man, disliked him intensely, and was trying to have him fired from his job. At one point in the process, she got a glimpse into his background and recognized how they had both suffered in the same way. “He’s a brother” she exclaimed.

    This kind of understanding does not mean that we dismiss or condone a person’s negative behaviour. But we can look at all of the elements that go into making up that person’s life, and can acknowledge their conditioned nature. To see the interdependent arising of these impersonal forces that make up our “selves” can provide the opening for forgiveness and compassion.

    Compassion means taking the time to look at the conditions, or the building blocks, of any situation. We must be able to look at things as they are actually arising in each moment. We must have the openness and spaciousness to see both the conditions and the context. We may for example hear a statement such as “Heroin is a very dangerous drug.” This is undoubtedly true. But is it necessarily true for someone who is terminally ill, in excruciating pain? What is the context of the reality of the moment? If we can look in that way, we are not held to rigid categories that may close off our compassionate understanding.

    END Quote

  • ordinary lankan


    the dogmatic insistence that women in politics always matters – will need a completely open examination

    this may not be the real issue that women need to fight for – the correct entry point may be something else

    I believe very much in women power – but harnessing it requires great wisdom and great skill

    I can only wish these attributes to all those committed mothers and sisters working to open our eyes to reality

  • Belle

    Ordinary Lankan,
    Thanks for your responses. It’s a busy period at work right now and will respond as soon as I have some time.