Editor’s Note: This piece was submitted as part of an ongoing series marking 70 years of Independence.
As Sri Lanka marks 70 years since Independence, yet again gearing up for an overt display of pageantry that stands as an annual reminder of our own militarised past and present, we are in need of a rigorous rethinking of how we perceive this day, beyond sovereignty from the coloniser. The discourse around nationhood, citizenship, and decolonisation, that remains very much a part of interpreting the fourth of February continues to be framed through a patriarchal and majoritarian thesis, entrenched in the glorification of victory from the coloniser and since 2009, victory for the majority.
Nationalist narratives of independence often tend to be embedded in patriarchal generalisations, historical subjectivities, and is majoritarian by design. In such a discourse around independence, in particular commemoration, a gender perspective is largely absent and the celebrations are distant from women’s lived realities. Such a narrative, more often than not, reinforces reactionary and old-fashioned value systems that are detached from the realities of today’s women’s lives, centering only on their traditional gender roles as mothers, nurturers, wives and symbols of the cultural purity of this nation.
As migration scholar Nira Yuval-Davis points out, a gendered reading of citizenship considers women’s citizenship in relation to ‘women’s affiliations to dominant or subordinate groups, their ethnicity, origin and urban or rural residences’ in contrast to that of men. A feminist analysis of citizenship is necessary to denaturalise and unpack the ‘totalising claims of nationhood’, as cultural scholar Purnima Mankekar argues.
Both traditional and new media content in Sri Lanka has increasingly become melodramatic, blurring the divide between news and entertainment. Most mainstream and web-based media content in Sri Lanka are largely focused on generating emotional reactions from people, rather than producing factual, contextual, and impactful stories. Women, in particular as interview subjects, then become further pulled into being objectified through sensational gossip-style stories, targeting their bodies, sexualities, privacy, and personal choices. In this sense, the first question this article raises is the absence of women’s representation and a gender space across media platforms in Sri Lanka, since 70 years of independence.
Addressing this gap, I began to document women’s narratives, in the form of question and answer in-depth profile interviews, with a feminist intent and through a female gaze as part of my PhD project. The site, Women Talk, produces a collective narrative of women, as feminists, activists, scientists, environmentalists, conservationists, entrepreneurs, financiers, sportswomen, psychologists, artists, writers, musicians, designers, photographers, filmmakers, educators, journalists, politicians, challenging and questioning the traditionalist patriarchal narratives and gender roles that are usually assigned to them in ethno-nationalist discourses. Indeed, when women write culture they ‘reverse emphasize’ cultural inscription, as feminist scholars Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon have argued in their notable work decades ago.
How do these interviews that are oral accounts of women’s expertise, knowledge, experience, and views contribute to examining independence, citizenship, and nationhood in Sri Lanka through a women’s rights and gender lens that is also intersectional?
Firstly, the interviews show that women’s rights and women’s roles as feminists have been questioned and rejected as far back as the formative years of the women’s movement in the early 1980s in Sri Lanka. As expressed in many interviews, a ‘feminist’ is still seen as a toxic person with the word having connotations that imply feminist as a woman who breaks the sanctity of the marriage and the family, propagating Western virtues and values.
As a result, feminists that have been pioneering the struggle for gender equality and women’s rights for decades as well as young feminists working in gender spaces in Sri Lanka continue to be received within these labels, as non-conformists, dismantling tradition and therefore, disturbing the nation.
In this regard, as interviewees have expressed, it is still extremely challenging to engage and generate a public dialogue on rights and issues relating to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), LGBTIQ rights, gender based violence, relationship education, and MMDA and MPL reforms that concern the rights of women’s bodies, freedoms, expression, sexualities, and gender diversity.
Many feminists find themselves being harassed and targeted, in ways unimaginable, in particular on online spaces. Increasingly, the virtual space of the internet has become a manifestation of the real life violence and inequalities that is deeply entrenched in the everyday lives of Sri Lankan society against women, minority groups, and LGBTIQ persons.
Therefore, gender based violence and violence against women is not merely an online phenomenon but part of a larger culture of violence, against both women and men who do not conform. As interviews show, domestic abuse, marital rape, and intimate partner violence continues behind closed doors as well as out in the open in Sri Lankan society.
Women are discouraged from seeking help or leaving their marriages. Women who have opted to counter this violence are, in many cases, rejected by the society as well as their own familial circles. Immediate support services, such as trained police, shelters, and counselling, needs strengthening in order for women to stand up to the everyday violence in their lives.
While the initial steps made to set up official mechanisms for transitional justice are highly commended by women working across diverse fields, they emphasise the need for action on many issues.
In particular, interviewees stress the need to address mental health issues that are prevalent in war-affected areas and paying attention to the socioeconomic and cultural rights of marginalised groups of women, such as that of female ex-combatants and war widows. Livelihoods, resettlement, and community empowerment needs acceleration, paralleling transitional justice mechanisms. In this sense, several interviews highlight the potential of social enterprise and the role small and medium entrepreneurship can and have played in strengthening women and communities.
For women in politics, while achieving quotas was a significant accomplishment in terms of women’s rights in Sri Lanka, they continue to face suppression, simultaneously navigating the highly patriarchal culture and behaviour of politics in the country.
The contribution women in arts have made in terms of producing culture, in particular in times of war and peace in Sri Lanka, remains overlooked and in need of recognition and mainstreaming, as women’s roles in art, as writers, poets, filmmakers, photographers, artists, musicians, performers, actors, and many more, tend to be generated, often, in alternative spaces, as interviews with women in arts show.
Issues and rights relating to environment, conservation, and climate change, too, require gendered approaches, in all thresholds of law, policy and action, in order to address these aspects in ways that could benefit women’s positions in Sri Lanka.
What needs to be kept in mind is that it is not entirely a dystopia out there because women have been working on creating an equal and just society for decades in Sri Lanka, from the grassroots to the alternative to the mainstream, despite the opposition and suppression their work faces on a daily basis.
If 70 years of freedom from the coloniser is a milestone worth celebrating through pageantry, the work and struggles of these activists, feminists, women’s groups, and women, fighting for freedom from a patriarchal system is worth celebrating through strengthening laws, policies, attitudinal changes, and visibility. A celebration of freedom from the coloniser and the nationalist inclination today to publicise a definition of the nation and womanhood through the Victorian moralities of that very coloniser forms a double bind.