Featured image by AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena via WTOP
Yesterday, the day before one of the most historic elections of post-independence Sri Lanka, I sat with a friend who is standing for local government elections for the first time. She is a dynamic leader who was inspired to stand for elections and work for her community, particularly women who were fellow members of her village sangam. Her community was displaced multiple times during the war. She and other women from her community fight a daily battle to earn an income and access the social welfare benefits to which they are entitled to. Many of them carry grief, losses and pain from the war years. They are strong contributors to their communities.
My friend described to me the moment in which she felt excitement that she too could be a representative leader of her community. It was after watching the film ‘Do not think of me as a Woman’, directed by Chulani Kodikara and Velayudan Jeyachitra, which was screened in Batticaloa in 2016. The film told the story of an ordinary Muslim woman from Kinniya, Aynoon Bibi, who decides to stand for local government elections in 2011. Aynoon Bibi was present for the film screening in Batticaloa and spoke to a hall full of women from local communities. My friend said, “after watching the film you turned to me, gave me the mike and asked me to speak…that was the moment I felt inspired”.
Yesterday, the day before the local government polls, my friend was sad and frustrated. She has been a strong voice for her community for many years, she had helped individual families in times of need, and yet, she was feeling very alone in her attempt to stand for elections. She kept asking, “where are all those women who said, ‘you stand for elections, we are with you, we will support you’? No one offered to come even one day to distribute leaflets, no one offered to arrange small meetings for me. No one offered to give a meal or a few water bottles. What’s the point of all the training programmes, when women from my own village don’t come out to support me?” Many of the women from her community were faced with the complexities of their own family members and kin (often men), standing for elections through the mainstream parties, and therefore were unable to openly support my friend who was standing as an independent candidate.
Yesterday, a few of us sat with her, sharing her sadness and saying encouraging things. My friend had to stand as an independent candidate as all the main political parties refused to nominate her. She did not have the status, wealth, kin or caste connections that would have assured a place on those nominations list. She had heard that the women who were standing from mainstream parties had got party support and publicity. In her case, she had to get into personal debt just to print 3 banners for her campaign. A few of us had contributed to printing thousand copies of a leaflet for her campaign. We talked with her about this election campaign being a first step, that her struggle was going to be historically important and that she was a role model for many women to come. We started making tentative plans for how she might contest the next elections.
As the voting gets underway, I feel emotional. Its been a long struggle of over 20 years to get a reservation for women in the electoral process. I remember Shanthi Sachithanandam, the late women’s rights activist, who fought for this for many years, and even stood for parliamentary elections in Batticaloa as an independent candidate in 2010. She didn’t win, but the legacy of that struggle continues. My last conversation with Shanthi was in 2015, during which she was arguing on the phone with the Elections Commission about the proposed reforms to the local government act, including the quota for women.
Women activists in Batticaloa have worked very hard for over 3 years, supporting women across geographic locations, across ethnicity, across party affiliations to come together as women leaders with a strong women’s rights platform. We call ourselves The Women’s Collective for an Equal Politics and 20 women, including my friend, are standing for elections today from different political parties or as independent candidates. We are waiting to see how the public vote will go.
Many women activists in Batticaloa are also engaged as election monitors for the first time. They are living through the intricacies of democratic processes as they unfold in this district. In the run up to the election, young women have been trained to be independent election monitors – to observe the voting and the counting. Some among them will be voting for the first time. They will experience the impact of their role in a democratic process for the very first time in their personal political lives.
Women activists in Batticaloa have been documenting the gendered challenges and violence that women candidates have faced in their pursuit of elected office in local government. These challenges came from within the parties, from their own communities, on social media, and within their own homes.
These elections are historic for several reasons. Local elections have been long overdue, they are happening under a new electoral system, and there is a 25% reservation for women. There is a general feeling of confusion, cynicism, humour and even fear about all the women who are suddenly in the political process. In one pre-election official meeting, women candidates were instructed on how they should dress, how they should behave in order to uphold morality. For my friend, this was irritating. She didn’t need to be instructed by men on how to behave, she did however, want concrete commitments from them on how they were going to support the democratic rights of women who were standing for elections for the first time.
In the run up to the elections, The Women’s Collective for an Equal Politics was part of a pre-election public meeting where many of the political parties were present. After much undue delay women leaders demanded to speak. They were given two minutes and one of the women leaders stood in front of a room full of men and spoke clearly about the demands women were placing in front of all political parties to ensure women’s rights. A leaflet with these demands was distributed to everyone present at the meeting. In that moment the subtle all pervasive nature of patriarchal dominance within public politics was clear as was the firm resolve of this group of women to challenge that culture.
Yes, there is no doubt that women’s entry into local government is creating ripples in pre-existing power structures. What interventions will this make in public political space in Batticaloa? How and to what extent will it challenge the ingrained patriarchal power structures of party politics? Does my friend have even a slim chance of winning? Will she at least receive a respectable number of votes from within her own community? Will it be that people continue, as has been the practice, to vote for their traditional parties (that are steeped in kinship and caste affinities) and will women, unable to evolve an alternative political culture, dissolve into the same problematic political ethos? What then will the 25% quota mean in political spaces such as a municipality or a Pradeshiya Sabha, where there have never been more that 2% women at the table?
The challenges that women candidates face are immense. It includes the Muslim cleric who openly speaks on social media that it’s a shame for Muslim women to be in public and stand for elections; the party leaders who don’t include photos of their women candidates on the billboards; to social media actors who defame women candidates in their bid to ‘prove’ their alleged ‘immorality’; and of husbands who increase their violent behavior towards their wives who are now electoral candidates.
The questions and challenges, as always, are overwhelming. They aren’t however, paralysing. The victory in these elections for women isn’t just an electoral victory. They are many and are sprinkled over moments when women have claimed space in the public sphere; have done so upon the collective strength of women coming together to support one another; have fought and won the battles on deciding to stand for elections within themselves, their homes and communities.
The process has been complex. The resistance to women’s political participation has only been matched by the complexity and haphazardness of the solidarity and support, even among women. The past few months have shown us that we have a long way to go before it becomes part of public memory and ethos for women to contest elections. But a beginning has been made and the growing pains of a whole new path being felt. This is a historical moment, not only of victory and celebration for women, but of the enormous excitement of hope and possibility. A 25% reservation for women isn’t an end goal in itself. It is a process that has just begun. The pebble has been dropped. The ripples will continue.