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Despite the drive for gender equality promoted at the Beijing UN World Conference on Women in 1995, the Sri Lankan State appears to have taken little responsibility for narrowing the gender gap in political representation. Savitri Goonesekere explains this as a “non-recognition of the problem” while Kumari Jayawardena has observed that Sri Lanka has produced a female prime minister and president without confronting the patriarchy that exists across society. While these are credible explanations, the lack of progress in female representation is also part of a pattern of patriarchal State dominance and its power to render feminist discourses silent. One result of this subordination is that there are currently only 13 female Members of Parliament out of 225.
In order to understand the changes that need to be implemented to increase women’s voices in national politics, the author interviewed Rosy Senanayake, United National Party (UNP) MP for Colombo from 2010 to 2015, Deputy Chief of Staff from 2015 to 2018, and currently, the first female mayor of Colombo; Ferial Ashraff, Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) MP for Ampara in the Eastern Province from 2001 to 2010; and Jeevanee Kariyawasam, attorney at law, human resource development trainer and former SLFP Urban Council Member for Chilaw in the North Western Province from 2011-2015. Conversations with these women revealed that although in many ways their political trajectories vary due to their individual personalities, as well as intersections with class, religion, ethnicity and political affiliations, there are similarities that emerge in their experiences. By observing patterns in their participation, these have been divided into what Mariz Tadros refers to as “enabling” and “disabling” factors in political life. Although, given the small sample, these may not hold true for all women in Sri Lankan politics, the interviews reveal some distinct parallels. The enabling factors include the support of families and partners, as well as solidarity from colleagues and policy advisors. An imbalance is immediately apparent because the disabling factors outweigh their counterparts. These include: patriarchy and injustices in party politics, financial barriers, violence, character assassination and a lack of civil society support.
Support from families and partners
All three women cited family as being an enabling factor in their political careers whether this was due to psychological and emotional support, funding, campaign assistance or party connections. For some, exposure began at a young age – Ferial’s father encouraged her to read the hansard which sparked her interest, while Jeevanee’s mother, an active member of the SLFP party, took her campaigning in Chilaw. The conversations reveal that in line with Asha Abeyasekera and Harini Amarasuriya’s findings, a woman’s sense of self tends to be fostered by marriage and family. A politically nurturing home life appears to instill a sense of confidence. However, there are exceptions and despite enjoying the support of her family, Rosy revealed:
“I was not inspired because I came from a political lineage at all – I had absolutely no political background and no one backing me. It was on my own accord and with my own will because I had a passion to make change”.
In contrast, Jeevanee and Ferial entered politics with the support of their family connections. Jeevanee refers to her mother and aunt, both members of the SLFP, as her mentors. Coming from a family of politically empowered women, Jeevanee’s trajectory falls in line with Andrea Cornwall’s belief in the significance of being mentored by relatives and having help with constituency building. In 2011, Jeevanee found herself in a position to campaign for a seat on the Chilaw Urban Council. She conducted a door-to-door campaign, and found her mother’s influence and networks instrumental in the process. She explained:
“Women need a very supportive family in order to move up through politics. I am very proud of my mother. You know how I got the nomination? At the last minute they didn’t have anyone to put on the list for the election. If they didn’t add someone, it would get rejected. I thought this would be a good opportunity so I took it and won. I became the first female member of the Council since its inception in 1923”.
While Jeevanee came into politics through the political standing of her female relatives, which remains an uncommon pathway, Ferial entered following the death of her husband, Mohammed Ashraff – a route that from the 1930s to the 1990s was the primary way that women reached parliament. She said:
“If it wasn’t for my husband, the political path may not have opened out for me. Going into that setup as a Muslim woman is not easy – the way the community is, even talking to men is not accepted. Also your attire, how you behave and talk are constantly analysed”.
Here the intersection between patriarchal values, ethnicity and religion becomes clear; on top of her position as a woman, Ferial’s faith meant that she faced added scrutiny. Although she had access to a wide network through the Muslim Congress, this did not significantly benefit her political career because after her husband’s death the party was divided in its support for her. Due to this, she switched allegiance to the SLFP: “It was not a question of who was better but the point was they didn’t want a woman there”.
Solidarity with political colleagues and policy advisors
Where support from male party members is scarce, both Jeevanee and Rosy gave examples of backing they have received from other female politicians or advisors. Kathleen Staudt writes: “the terrain in which to gain and share power is the political process. Once active, policy and budgetary levers from that process can be evoked and accessed to negotiate gender equality outcomes.” Although, this promotes a top down approach, whereas this author advocates for a more holistic model, Staudt’s conception is reflected in the way Rosy has worked across party lines with the SLFP MP, Sudarshini Fernandopulle, as well as academics such as Savitri Goonesekere and Radhika Coomaraswamy to create a set of recommendations entitled “Strengthening Women’s Rights” (2016) for the draft Constitution. This is an example of female solidarity and the pressure it can put on structural inequalities when there is a direct relationship between politicians and civil society actors.
Another example of a cross-party allegiance is the relatively secret 1325 Club – named after the UN Security Council Resolution that focuses on the equal participation of women in peacekeeping and security. The network of parliamentarians was set up following a conflict resolution course at Harvard. Rosy revealed:
“We work together to push the women’s agenda. We have identified the needs, the areas in which we have to work. Every time there is an election, you will notice the women’s part of the manifesto is very similar because of this. Our party ideologies may differ but when it comes to women’s issues we speak as one”.
This is a reflection of how women can “exploit and subvert” masculinist State power and create separate spaces within the political apparatus by having a deep comprehension of the unsystematic ways in which dominance works.
Disabling Factors: The political party system
Patriarchy is entrenched in party politics and women face discrimination in a host of forms: in the nomination process; in elections due to financial inequalities; in terms of the speaking time that is allocated in Parliament and through violence. For this reason, the notion that political parties are one of the most significant constraining factors for women holds true in the Sri Lankan context.
Patriarchy in the nomination process
Unless a woman enters through the death of a father or husband, there are massive barriers to confront in the nomination process. Jeevanee explains that party organisers who decide on the nominations and who are mostly male can abuse their power and “put a lid” on potential nominee’s attempts to progress, as well as the ability to communicate with the party leadership. Despite achieving a place on the urban council, she faced significant challenges when attempting to gain a place in national Parliament:
“I feel ready to break all the barriers but I don’t think it will be easy for me to get nominated again. They think I am a threat. The last time they rejected me was in the July 2015 Parliamentary election for Chilaw. Even though I showed leadership, they know I’m not an easy character to deal with. They want a very respectable lady who will follow their instructions. We have to talk in a certain way, obey the leaders. They don’t want people who are challenging the system’s barriers. I don’t think these parties will give me an opportunity in my lifetime so we have to build something different”.
Aside from her, everyone who was interviewed in the nomination process was male, highlighting the disparity even at this stage. Furthermore, Jeevanee suspects that it was not just her gender that jeopardised her chances, but her background, attitude and appearance – Parliamentarians’ daughters are favoured, as are those who are willing to work within the system, speak politely and maintain a ‘respectable’ image. Malathi de Alwis has written extensively on how Sri Lankan women are viewed differently to men through the patriarchal public gaze – their “physical attributes, sexuality and morality” are focused on more than their “intellectual capabilities and achievements.” Jeevanee refuses to fall into the binary construction that De Alwis terms as “respectability” or “degradation”. For this reason, it is easy to agree with De Alwis’ belief that it is time “respectability” was stood “on its head” and ideas of “national and sexual bodies” were reconfigured.
Previously, Jeevanee forged an alternative route into national politics through her support of Maithripala Sirisena’s ‘good governance’ presidential campaign in 2014/2015 when she spoke at political rallies. A video showing her speech at a rally in Madurankuliya in Puttalam District in December 2014 received 17,300 views on Facebook. This was a form of subversion because through her own determination, she created a pathway into the State apparatus. If someone with as much constituency and family support, political experience, education, a large social media following, the backing of a former President and impressive personal drive feels little hope in getting a nomination to the national list, it reflects just how challenging the conditions are for women to enter Sri Lankan politics. It is a clear example of the need for a country specific analysis because Mariz Tadros’ statement that “a strong leadership profile and constituency trump culture” does not fit the experience that Sri Lankan women like Jeevanee face in the shadow of a dominant masculinist system.
Financial barriers and corruption
For candidates such as Rosy and Ferial, once successfully nominated into the party system, financial pressure can become a burden, particularly for women who are less likely to have sponsors. This becomes a major factor at election time. Rosy explained:
“Money talks in this country. The PR system is such that the man who makes his presence most felt to the public by handing things down to people, investing in elaborate newspaper and television campaigns, buying support staff to canvas for him, is the most likely to win. If you don’t have money to fight a district like Colombo that has 15 electorates, your own colleagues can become your enemies. Everyone wants to top the list. It becomes a bit of a hindrance”.
Meanwhile Ferial commented that funds are also needed to provide for constituents:
“In Ampara, I had 350,000 voters to feed, entertain and host. You have to have plenty of financial provisions. Due to the Proportional Representation system, the area I covered was huge – it took two days to travel around”.
It is difficult for women to contest on an equal platform if they do not have the funds to fuel their campaign. There is also the issue of rigging at the counting centres, which Rosy suspects occurred in Colombo where she contested in 2015. Clearly, it is challenging to progress in a political environment where corruption and bribery occurs.
The IPU identifies four types of violence inflicted on female Parliamentarians: psychological; sexual; physical; and economic. These conversations revealed that while psychological violence was experienced unanimously, Ferial also had physical force used against her. I did not specifically ask and it was not mentioned whether they had experienced sexual or economic violence but this would be an interesting area to explore in future research.
While IPU data reveals that psychological violence including sexist remarks has affected 81.8% of women Parliamentarians worldwide, this study argues that due to the abuse of executive power that followed the introduction of the 1978 Constitution; the weakening of the rule of law; and increased militarisation surrounding the JVP insurrection and the 26-year civil war, Sri Lankan women have faced an added level of violence at all levels. Savitri Goonesekere explains: “the political violence of the years after 1977 created an environment not conducive to women entering politics” while Radhika Coomaraswamy writes, “violence has become endemic in Sri Lankan society”.
a) Psychological violence: suppression of the female voice and sexism
Already in the minority, the Parliamentary system creates further marginalisation when male members restrict speaking time and silence women with sexist comments. Rosy revealed her experience of this form of psychological violence:
“Strong women are a threat because of the patriarchal mindset. At a deliberation or meeting my voice will be suppressed and the men’s voices will be heard. When I raise a question in Parliament they take it very lightly and come up with some sexist comment. In a very subtle way women are given less time; sometimes they don’t get any time at all. But there is a question and answer session when you are supposed to file questions – this is when I used to make my own time using the system. But some women don’t know how to do that”.
This is another example of how when the masculine State is understood in its porous form it can be subverted. Rosy saw how Parliamentary discourse was dominated by the male voice, and found a space in which to resist and ask questions. The subtlety she refers to in terms of time allocation, also links to Brown’s idea that the State’s masculinism becomes “more diffuse and subtle even as it become more potent and pervasive in women’s lives”. Yet the contradictory nature of this power is demonstrated in the contrast between the subtlety and the blatant sexism displayed in the response given to a question Rosy posed in 2012 to the then transport minister, Kumara Welgama: “You are such a charming woman. I cannot explain my feelings here but if you meet me outside Parliament, I will describe them”.
The underlying purpose of sexually provocative comments such as this is to discourage women from being active in politics but having more women in Parliament, who can challenge such male dominance, is likely to open up space for their voices to be heard, to democratically represent half of the population and to impact decision-making.
b) Psychological violence: character assassination in traditional and social media
Ferial experienced abuse from the traditional media when she was accused of causing her husband’s death. However, because she was grieving and stayed inside for the customary 4 months and 10 days, she said it did not affect her: “When they want to put a woman down, the first thing they try to do is slander. But the criticism was not as important as what I had lost. Therefore I didn’t focus on all that. It was one-sided and I did not respond”. Similarly to Rosy and Jeevanee, she found that with experience and greater confidence, negative comments have affected her less.
As a Sinhalese Christian, Rosy pinpoints the disparagement she has received to: “being a woman and belonging to the majority community but minority religion.” If constructions of fair-skinned, Sinhalese, Buddhist women are seem as ideal and representative of national culture, then in line with Kumari Jayawardena and Malathi de Alwis’ conception, deviations from this are viewed as “unpatriotic” and “subversive”. This highlights that women’s bodies are still viewed symbolically as emblems of nationhood, which in turn reinforces subordination and hampers “their emergence as full-fledged citizens”.
Social media is one of the newest arenas through which women experience psychological violence. Jeevanee is an active user of Facebook – her account has over 25,000 followers and in many ways, she finds it a positive medium through which to publicise her political identity and share her beliefs, yet paradoxically it is also where she has faced the greatest level of harassment. She revealed that she has been attacked for being single and for the appearance of having boyfriends, which correlates with the 2016 IPU study, which found that women frequently face abuse based on their conjugal status and that women under forty receive an increased amount.
Jeevanee feels that the argumentative tone she adopts in her Facebook posts and public speeches is not welcomed by men – most likely because it challenges their stereotypical constructions of the ideal woman as modest and polite. She explained the result of uploading a photo showing her drinking wine with a group of friends:
“They started assaulting me, criticising me due to the cultural barriers and questioning my values. I replied to their comments on Facebook writing: “I am human: I am eating and I am drinking”.
This is a clear example of how Jeevanee is unafraid to subvert traditional modes of behaviour favoured by a patriarchal society and how women in politics resist violence on a regular basis.
c) Physical violence
Ferial reported experiencing several incidents of physical abuse. These were generally at political rallies by opposition supporters. She recalled a meeting in Sammanthurai in the Eastern Province:
“When I was on stage, the stones were so big I had to take cover. They would pelt them at the lights so it was completely dark. I lived through it. When faced with things like that, I just stood my ground. That’s the adrenaline… I guess”.
For protection, President Kumaratunga provided her with a bulletproof vehicle and she travelled with a police convoy. She explained: “More than harm me, they tried to scare me. Unfortunately, it was the wrong tactic. They couldn’t scare me”. Although Ferial suspected this would also happen to a male candidate, it highlights the day-to-day threats faced and the inner strength needed to pursue a political career.
While the women in this study have remained undeterred by the violence they have experienced, it is important to remember they are a small sample and do not necessarily reflect the majority, many of whom may have been discouraged by the risks involved in entering politics. An IPU study points out: “when women decide that the risk to themselves and their families is too great, their participation in politics suffers, as do the representative character of government and the democratic process as a whole.”
Lack of unity with civil society organisations
Women’s groups and NGOS could play an important role in lobbying the government on the topic of violence against female politicians. Although there are links between the government and civil society organisations in the form of collaborations on gender rights policies, all three women have felt largely unsupported in their political careers. This aligns with Marella Bodur and Susan Franceschet’s belief that a lack of unity occurs when “women working within the State are deprived of outside support, such as public demonstrations and other forms of solidarity which can pressure the State to be more inclusive of women’s demands.” This disconnect has not been emphasised in literature on the topic of Sri Lankan women’s participation but is clearly a significant barrier to the strength of the women’s movement and the potential pressure it could put on patriarchal structures within government.
Editor’s Note: Also read “An Uneven Playing Field” and “Increasing Women’s Participation in Politics: Solving the Problem or Veiling It?”