The email from Groundviews asking me to contribute to this series came on the same day that President Sirisena decided that a law prohibiting women from being involved in manufacturing, selling or buying alcohol in Sri Lanka should remain in place. Days before, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera signed a gazette notification to revoke this law from a 1979 gazette.
The email, in short, invited me to reflect on what I thought it meant that Sri Lanka was on the cusp of our 70th anniversary of Independence. The timing of the email felt like no coincidence but rather, fateful. Indeed, as a woman in Sri Lanka in 2018, there is much to reflect on. None of it is very good. But some of it is also remarkable. How far along are we on the road to our true independence as women, at this landmark juncture?
In 2015, when many of us campaigned publicly within communities, and privately within families for regime change, we did it not because we believed that the candidate we were campaigning for reflected our values perfectly. Rather, we did so because we believed that the prevailing leadership at the time needed to be defeated. For many of us, it was a practical, strategic move.
Nonetheless, I think many of us did believe that some progressiveness could be expected from the incoming government. The subsequent years have showed that our new leadership – while not overtly authoritarian – was at best weak on all its promises of progressive state action and reform.
We may have never felt as uniquely trapped as we do now – the promise of progress, tempered constantly by disappointment. The apparent opportunities to engage with democratic processes and to be heard, contradicted endlessly by being shut out of processes while decisions which affect us are made at the executive level, unilaterally, revoked or reinstated.
For women, this government has been a veritable disaster.
The President is the perfect symbol of the patriarchal state machinery, the Patriarch himself – feudal, moralistic, misogynistic, overbearing, overprotective. It could be argued that the level of control exerted over women at the level of family, community, society and finally the State could not be more visible than at the present moment in Sri Lanka.
In 2014, when Sirisena was still a minister, journalists documented him saying “May all women be reborn as men” (at a SLFP women’s federation meeting, no less). It was already clear that these were possibly his true convictions.
But he isn’t the first of our leaders to display such troubling signs of deeply entrenched misogyny – and he will not be the last. This government’s attitudes to women’s rights are only shocking because it’s 2018 now and because we expected something else – but they are hardly the first to deliver next to nothing for women, while benefiting and profiting from the immense contributions women make in every possible sphere of private, public, social, economic and political life.
Across Sri Lanka, women continue to be engaged in various struggles, many of them unfortunately not fundamentally different from the struggles that our foremothers were engaged in 70 years ago and in the decades after.
The social welfare policies which were won through collaborative efforts across movements and because of the visionary leadership of many women in post-Independence Sri Lanka are at risk today, as the government accelerates down a path towards neoliberal economic policies. Its vision for a future ‘developed’ nation-state worryingly does not seem to include many of us. The lived realities of historically marginalised groups and persons, sexual minorities and non-conforming persons, the poor, and so on, are absent in this narrative.
Women are fighting to repeal or reform discriminatory laws which do not grant us autonomy as full citizens and human beings, but instead force us to submit to a state which continues to see us as inferior and unfit to make decisions about our own bodies, health, work and lifestyles. Muslim women’s ongoing struggle to reform the Muslim Marriages and Divorce Act (MMDA) is an excellent example of this; so indeed is the fight to amend or repeal the law which criminalizes abortion, the fight to repeal the Vagrants’ Ordinance which is often used to discriminate sex-workers, and the fight to decriminalize same-sex relations between consenting adults. The ‘alcohol ban’ was another example of the ‘Patriarch’ stepping in to decide what is best for women.
On the other hand, women are also fighting to impose stronger judicial sanctions for violence and discrimination against women — the fight to criminalise marital rape is one example. Our work in enabling access to justice for victims of rape, sexual harassment and domestic and family violence continues — much of the time with frustratingly limited gains and only on the extremely rare occasion at which justice is given to women who seek it. Justice systems themselves continue to be structurally sexist, where the odds are often stacked against women survivors. Our engagement with information and communication technologies — while granting us immense advantages as tools of resistance and expression — have also opened up considerable risks and dangers which affect us uniquely and for which, as with other forms of violence against women, we really have no redress.
The historic, more-than two decade struggle for an increase in women’s political representation at all levels of government, met continuously with the ugliest, most base forms of sexism, was fruitful when finally, last year, a 25% women’s quota was mandated at the local government level. However, the same remains to be achieved at the levels of provincial governance and Parliament.
Women, particularly in the North and East, are strongly and bravely resisting continued militarisation. They are pushing ahead in their search for truth, justice and reconciliation, and fighting to regain ownership of their land against encroaching military presence, against all odds and at great risk.
Women’s lives essentially happen ‘against all odds’ all the time. Sri Lankan women, at varying levels and across class, caste, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, commit acts of bravery every day, both grand and mundane. We continue to forge ahead, assert autonomy and indeed, independence. We continue to survive, thrive and negotiate power in structures which were designed to keep us out.
Sri Lanka approaches its 70th year of ‘Independence’ in an interesting global moment. As movements of resistance – of women, of indigenous peoples, of religious and ethnic minorities, of communities of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, of the historically invisiblised – become more visible and grow louder every day, systems are swinging towards becoming more cruel, more conservative, more controlling. As they do, our movements for resistance grow ever louder – and so the cycle continues.
While we are living in a moment of frightening, conservative authoritarianism within and outside, we are also living in a moment of bright, shining, creative resistance. And women are at the helm, as they have always been, of all these fights for equality and social justice, the world over. It’s no different in Sri Lanka. At every turn, when women are treated with contempt or discriminated against, women rise up — together — and find ways of agitating and disrupting within all kinds of restrictive systems.
There are many examples that bear testament to this: the immense bravery of Muslim women activists who put themselves on the frontlines of a battle against state, clerics and some members of the community, whether they are talking about the need to reform the MMDA or about the prevalence of FGM (female genital mutilation) in Sri Lanka; the bold and strategic position taken by the several dozen women who challenged the alcohol ban in the Supreme Courts through fundamental rights petitions; the persistence of women who are at the forefront of the struggle for land ownership in former war-affected parts of the country, protesting for hundreds of days on end, despite military control; or the women candidates who are contesting at the imminent local government election, who — despite how notoriously toxic Sri Lankan political culture has always been for women — have stepped up anyway, and now, predictably, are under attack.
So it is both a sobering and moving thing, to reflect on how much and how little we seem to have been able to carve out for ourselves, against all odds. How many of our struggles have borne such little fruit, how many of our struggles seem to have shaken the deepest structures to the core; how many of our basic rights are still a fight away and how our autonomy is, if ever, entirely self-given, never granted nor protected. We demand our autonomy and in doing so assert our autonomy at the same time; we find ways to articulate what we are owed by the structures while designing our destinies outside of those structures entirely. We are always fighting to have the rights which are ours ‘given’ to us while not waiting around to be ‘given’ anything.
I am always moved by the every-day bravery of women, both grand and mundane. To all of them I remain indebted for their courage, which always rises up, against all odds. This is the path to our independence – and we are on it.