Groundviews

Good women and bad women of the post-war nation

Photo by Anushka Wijesinha, 2011, via IPS

Since the end of war in May 2009, the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government has sought to forge a new overarching Sri Lanka identity inclusive of all ethnic and religious communities. As articulated by the President himself in his first post-war speech to parliament: “the word minorities have been removed from our vocabulary” and “no longer are the Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Malays and any others minorities.”[1] However, five years later, it is clear that the ‘Sri Lankan identity’ that is being forged is in fact a hegemonic Sinhala-Buddhist identity premised on the victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE), the valorization of the military, the binary construction of ‘traitors’ and ‘patriots’ and the lack of tolerance for all dissent. Central to this redefinition of national identity is the celebration of a glorious past as well as redefinition of gender roles and identities based on the conception of an ideal woman in Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist ideology and historiography.Typical of ethno-religious nationalisms around the world, familial ideology is a key pillar of this discourse. In this commentary, I illustrate how this discursive construction of gender and womanhood has serious adverse implications for gender equality in post-war Sri Lanka.

Nationalism and Gender

Feminist scholarship distinguishes between two kinds of nationalisms – the first, variously referred to as emancipatory, civil, forward looking or modernizing, generally tends to locate the nation as a community of citizens within a defined territory enjoying equal status and rights, including minorities and women. As Val Moghadam points out, women’s equality in this approach to nationalism is often equated with national development and progress[2]. The second model of nationalism centres on exalting the religion, culture, and traditions associated with a politically dominant group. In this type of nationalism ‘the family’ often serves as a foundational metaphor or trope for constructing national unity with different roles allocated to men and women within it. Far from simply being a description of an empirical social reality of kinship or household structures, ‘the family’ here is generative of additional ideological signification and meaning. It operates, in the main to naturalize and universalize the sexual division of labour, where the woman, as ‘good’ wife and mother is primarily responsible for child rearing and domestic labour, while the man is constructed as the economic provider and breadwinner, even though the social reality maybe very far from this. This brand of nationalism formulates rights and obligations in ways that strengthen the masculinity of the public sphere and the femininity of the private sphere.

Post-war Sri Lanka is marked by the ascendancy of the second model of nationalism, elements of which can be traced back to the 2005 election manifesto of Mahinda Rajapakse. In a chapter titled ‘An Affectionate Family’, Mahinda Chinthana I referred to the family as the foundation of our society, stating:

Our society’s foundation is the family in which the Mother takes the prime place. It is only through the improvement of the close and intimate family bonds that we can ensure a pleasant society. It is my belief that economic hardship and pressures erode such intimate bonds between family members.

The manifesto further referred to women’s roles within the family as follows:

. . .[T]he woman provides a solid foundation to the family as well as to the society. She devotes her life to raise children, manage the family budget and ensure peace in the family. . . (Mahinda Chinthana 2005: 13)

Following Rajapakse’s re-election as President in 2010, many of these provisions on women and the family, also found in Mahinda Chinthana II, have been adopted as official government policy and permeated judicial consciousness with far reaching implications for women’s rights in several areas. 

‘Women’s work’

Reducing the number of women, especially married women, migrating abroad for work has become a key policy goal of this government. While stopping short of a de jure prohibition on women with children under the age of five from migrating abroad for work, the government has taken a number of steps to render it de facto difficult. A new circular issued by the Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare in 2013 requires prospective women migrant workers to satisfy two conditions before they can leave the country. Firstly, they have to provide information on their family background and evidence of adequate childcare arrangements as a condition for leaving for employment overseas. Secondly, they have to secure a no-objection certificate from their husbands. A migrant worker who filed a Fundamental Rights petition in the Supreme Court on the ground that the circular violated her fundamental right to equality was not even granted ‘leave to proceed’.[3]

Although often couched in terms of protecting the rights of women migrant workers, this policy shift is in fact driven by the perception that increasing school drop out rates, juvenile delinquency, and vulnerability to abuse of children of migrant families are due to the mother’s prolonged absence from the home and these negative costs far outweigh the economic benefits of migrant women’s employment. Moreover, their migration is also seen to leave husbands more vulnerable to alcohol abuse and extra-marital affairs, leading to marital disharmony and eventual breakdown of the family.[4] Within this discourse, there is of course no appreciation of the fact that women who take the decision to migrate for work, do so because of dire poverty, lack of maintenance provided by their husbands and, in some cases, even due to domestic violence. As Women and Media Collective, a women’s organisation also recently pointed out this new policy is not just an infringement of a woman’s right to paid work. It removes from men their accountability towards the welfare of the family and the care of children.[5]

Additionally, the government has adopted various measures to increase the recruitment of males for foreign jobs. In December 2012, the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) proudly reported that for the first time in nearly three decades, men outnumbered women in job placements overseas. The head of the Bureau was further quoted as saying: ‘We need to reduce the number of females sent abroad and provide more opportunities for the males because it will also scale down the domestic issues that take place once the women leave for work overseas’.[6]

Where women’s economic activity, productivity and leadership is promoted by the government, it tends to be in traditional and stereotypical roles and activities. For instance, training in hair dressing and beauty culture has been a key pillar of the government’s vocational training programmes for female ex-combatants of the LTTE. Although in the case of ex combatants, the government is not merely seeking to make hair dressers and beauticians out of them. It claims that it is restoring their ‘femininity’, denied to them by the LTTE. In the words of Dr. Rohan Gunaratne, the architect of the government’s reintegration programme:

It was intended to be a livelihood training programme for the female ex-Tamil Tigers. However it actually had a far deeper impact on the women. These women who had been trained to kill and to think, dress, and behave like men from a very young age suddenly discovered their femininity. It helped to bring out the woman in them. More than learning the skill and the art of beauty culture, they were more interested in getting their hands waxed, their hair blow-dried and putting on some make-up. They watched in amazement at their own transformation reflected in the mirror and felt alive again. That was a moment of true healing when the impact of such a small gesture was enormous in terms of reconciliation.[7]

Apart from the explicitly sexist gaze that such a view represents it is also signals the obsession to ‘rescue’ women who have strayed from conforming to patriarchal constructions of femininity.

Violence Against Women

The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (PDVA) was enacted in 2005 following intense campaigning by women’s organisations. Even while the Act was being debated in Parliament, members from almost all parties across the spectrum had termed it anti-family.[8] Now, seven years later, President Rajapakse himself is leading the political backlash against this Act, terming it as ‘western’, a threat to Sri Lanka’s ‘ancient culture’, and alleging that it is undermining the family. At a Women’s Day celebration in his constituency, Hambantota, in 2010, he said:

Some laws from the west have been introduced in Sri Lanka. At first glance they seem very attractive. But Sri Lankan women occupy a high status based on our culture which is 2500 years old. . . and under current legal regulations, our cultural values are being weakened, while the legal bond has been strengthened.

. . . There is a saying in our culture that domestic violence is only until the rice is cooked. When two people who are different to each other live together under one roof there will be problems. These problems most often will only be until the rice is cooked. Sometimes they may last longer and be reported to the police. According to the existing law, the police now have to file a case in court. Then the husband is not allowed to enter his own home. Then the rice may get cooked, but the parties have gone to court to file for divorce . . . we end up unable to reconcile the husband and wife. We are now complicit in their separation . . . [9]

The presidential discourse on domestic violence not only seeks to trivialize and normalize it, but also claims that the PDVA is contributing to increasing numbers of divorce in Sri Lanka, a claim which has no basis in fact. A perusal of police statistics show that of the thousands of domestic violence complaints received by them every year, less than 1% of end up under the PDVA.[10] Yet, the message from the highest levels of Sri Lanka’s political leadership is unambiguous—women’s bodily integrity, autonomy, and agency can be sacrificed on the altar of the collective good of the family and by extension the nation. I would argue that given this resurgence in family values, if the PDVA were to come before parliament today, it would most likely not be passed.

Furthermore, according to a recent news report,[11] the Minister of Child Development and Women’s Affairs, Tissa Karalliyadda, apparently concerned over the increasing number of reported rape cases, has proposed that rapists should be bound by law to marry the victim, provided she givens consent in court. If this idea were indeed legislated, rape, which has been a criminal offence and an offence against the state since 1885, will suddenly become one in which the victim is able to (or more likely forced to) post-facto consent to. This will not only completely indemnify perpetrators but will essentially amount to a decriminalising of rape itself. This proposal is also effectively treating rape as a problem of women’s honour to be fixed by marriage rather than a grave violation of physical and mental integrity, stemming from patriarchal domination.

Women as Biological Reproducers of the Nation and their ‘Others’

As in other cases of ethno-religious nationalism, women are also being cast as the biological reproducers of the nation, with explicitly adverse consequences for women’s bodily integrity and reproductive rights. Alarmist discourses concerning the cultural and demographic extinction of the Sinhala nation have been gaining in currency in the last few years, and appear to now have the sanction of the government. A popular slogan of post independent Sri Lanka—Punchi pavula raththaran (small families are like gold) has therefore come under increasing attack. The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) has charged that government policy on family planning has rendered over 890,000 Sinhalese women infertile![12] The Hela Udava Jathika Vyaparaya, while careful to state that they are not just targeting the Sinhala community, has urged people to get out of the Punchi Pawula Rattharan mentality, while also asking families to hand over unwanted children to the temple, so they could be ordained as there is a severe dearth of Buddhist monks.[13]

In March 2013, following protests against family planning organized by extremist Buddhist factions expressing concern about the diminishing ‘Sinhala race’, the Ministry of Health sent a circular to all government hospitals and private institutions, banning all irreversible family planning methods that control birth, while also banning non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from the provision of sterilization services. Given that Sri Lanka’s family planning policy can be traced to the 1950s,[14] and has been a model for other developing countries, this represents a major policy shift that would have the effect of reversing the gains from Sri Lanka’s population policy with adverse implications for other socio-economic rights of women and girls such as education, health, etc.

Recent reports also raise questions whether this government policy is being selectively applied and whether women from minority communities are being coerced to use family planning. A recent report from Kilinochchi alleges that some Tamil women were administered injectible contraceptives without their informed consent, leading to the death of at least one woman.[15]

Despite the Hela Udava Jathika Vyaparaya stating that they want all communities in Sri Lanka to have more children, fertility of women from minority communities, especially Muslims, have become a focus of fear-mongering. The BBS in particular has been asserting that the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka is soon going to outnumber the Sinhalese and overrun the country, while also spreading rumours about Muslim retailers who are allegedly selling certain products that make Sinhalese women infertile or rewarding male Muslim employees who marry Sinhalese employees. These rumours have created a context where boycotts of Muslim owned businesses and even violent attacks on such businesses have become permissive. The government, unsurprisingly, has done nothing to address such hate speech or quell the activities of the BBS and its ilk.

Although there has been some talk about liberalizing the abortion law to allow abortion in cases of rape during the post war period, there has been a hardening of attitudes towards abortion under the Rajapaksa regime. In September 2007, the government closed down all abortion clinics, which had been functioning de facto. Although abortion is a crime under the Penal Code, abortion clinics have been allowed to function for decades.[16] This crackdown included institutions like Marie Stopes, a well-known international reproductive health clinic that had been functioning in several parts of the island since the late 1970s. This was one of the few centres in the country that provided emergency menstrual regulation (EMR) with proper counseling and certified medical professionals performing the procedures.[17]

Lakbima, 20th June 2013, page 6.

All these measures have to be read together with incentives given by the state and non-state actors for larger Sinhala families. For instance, Paravahera Chandraratana Thero (see photo extracted from Lakbima news article above) has initiated a scheme to very explicitly reward Sinhala Buddhist families with five or more children. The government, for its part, is providing a 100,000 Rupee cash benefit to soldiers and police personnel who have a third child. This serves the two purposes. Firstly, since the military and the police are overwhelmingly Sinhalese it is an ingenious way of promoting the expansion of the ethnic majority while claiming to cater to welfare of the security forces. Secondly, it is also a way of militarizing and securitizing motherhood itself.

Conclusion

Sri Lanka’s development indicators for women, generally considered a model for developing countries were the result of two things. Firstly, equal access to education and health under the post independence welfare state and secondly, laws and policies which guaranteed to women equal status in the pubic sphere. The legal and policy developments catalogued in this essay represents a serious rolling back of and back lash against women’s rights in Sri Lanka.

The President’s comment about minorities in his May 2009 speech was followed by the following words:

There are only two peoples in this country. One is the people that love this country. The other comprises the small groups that have no love for the land of their birth. Those who do not love the country are now a lesser group.

Nationalism thrives on binaries such as these. Thus the construction of the ‘good woman’, in nationalist discourse cannot exist without its’ other, ‘the bad woman’. Women, especially women’s rights activists, who refuse to conform and who challenge this racism-sexism have to be ready to bear this label. In fact, according to the Minister of Women’s Affairs the idea of gender equality is a meaningless concept advocated only by some sexually promiscuous women from NGOs.[18] It is imperative that both women and men beyond the narrow circle of NGOs challenge the regressive discourses of this regime and rescue our multiple identities and citizenship from the grip of both sexism and racism, albeit as ‘bad women’ or traitors of the nation.

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[1]Address by HE President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the ceremonial opening of Parliament, Sri Jayawardhanapura – Kotte, May 19, 2009, http://www.president.gov.lk/speech_New.php?Id=74

[2] Moghadam, Val. 1999. Gender, National Identity and Citizenship: Reflections on the Middle East and North Africa

Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Spring 1999 19(1): 137-157.

[3]Lankan women’s groups dismayed by restrictive rule for female migrant workers, Sunday Times, September 29, 2013, http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130929/business-times/lankan-womens-groups-dismayed-by-restrictive-rule-for-female-migrant-workers-63592.html

[4] Abeysekera, Asha and Harini Amarasuriya. 2010. Why aren’t we empowered yet? Assumptions and silences surrounding women, gender and development in Sri Lanka. In Charting Pathways to Gender Equality: Reflections and Challenges, 107-138. Colombo: CENWOR.

[5]Lankan women’s groups dismayed by restrictive rule for female migrant workers, Sunday Times, September 29, 2013, http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130929/business-times/lankan-womens-groups-dismayed-by-restrictive-rule-for-female-migrant-workers-63592.html

[6] Berenger, Leon. 2012. Lankan men overtake women in foreign jobs, The Sunday Times, December 9, 2012. Lankadeepa, 10th March 2010: 5.

[7] Speech made at the National Conference on “The Role of the Business Community in Reconciliation” organized by the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations, 24 January 2012. http://www.kadirgamarinstitute.lk/events/event_24012012/doc/rohan.htm

[8] Kodikara, Chulani. 2012. Only Until the Rice is Cooked? The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, familial ideology and cultural narratives in Sri Lanka, Colombo: International Centre for Ethnic Studies.

[9] Lankadeepa, 10th March 2010: 5.

[10] Kodikara 2012.

[11] Sunday Leader, ‘New Anti Rape Laws Proposed’, 11th April 2014. http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2014/04/13/new-anti-rape-laws-proposed/

[12] https://srilankamirror.com/news/14693-890-000-sinhalese-women-made-infertile-bbs

[13]Citing threat to Sinhala Buddhists
Hela Udawa calls for baby boom, slams Punchi paula raththaran concept by Shamindra Ferdinando, Island, 25.11.2008. http://www.island.lk/2008/11/25/news18.html

[14]A government policy document in 1959 noted that rapid population growth was a barrier to economic development and asked the question whether “the course of the birth rate could be influenced by a deliberate effort on the part of social policy, which excludes at the same time all forms of compulsion?” and answered it in the affirmative” (National Planning Council 1959, p. 16). Since then the government has actively promoted and provided access to family planning. As a result fertility rates in Sri Lanka fell from 5.32% in 1953 to 3.45% in 1981 and to 1.96 between 1995 -2000.

[15]Above the Law: Violations of Women’s Reproductive Rights in Northern Sri Lanka, by The Social Architects – on 10/11/2013 http://groundviews.org/2013/10/11/above-the-law-violations-of-womens-reproductive-rights-in-northern-sri-lanka/

[16] Women and Media Collective 2011 Shadowing the State through CEDAW: A compilation of the Sri Lanka NGO shadow report, CEDAW concluding observations and other documents, Colombo, Women and Media Collective.

[17]http://www.nation.lk/2007/12/02/eyefea6.htm. This report alleges that the crack down came in the wake of a meeting between a prominent global pro-life organisation and First Lady, Shiranthi Rajapaksa.

[18] http://www.ft.lk/2013/12/03/women-and-media-collective-calls-for-minister-tissa-karalliyaddes-resignation/

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This article is part of a  larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.