Photo courtesy of Twitter

Malathi de Alwis, friend, mentor, teacher, feminist, anthropologist, birder, foodie and the most amazing cook, passed away on January 21. As we mourn this utterly devastating, untimely loss of one of the most prolific and most important feminist scholars of our time, I wanted to add my voice to those reflections about her work and her legacy. In her own words, her work consistently tried to act as a bridge between the disciplines and traditions of anthropology and feminism. For me, as a feminist activist and researcher, Malathi’s work has been indispensable to understand Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and its construction of the good woman; the relationship between the nation and its women; the politics of mourning and motherhood as well as the limits and possibilities of political activism, feminist or not, in this country. These are only a few of the many themes that she tackled in her work but they are ones that struck a chord with me.

I feel that one of the best places to start appreciating her rich body of work is her 2009 article “‘Interrogating the Political: Feminist Peace Activism in Sri Lanka.”[1] At the centre of this article is Malathi’s attempt to self critically and self reflectively understand why Women for Peace, an autonomous, Colombo-based, primarily middle-class, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious group, founded in 1984, of which she herself was a member, lost direction and eventually disintegrated in the 1990s. More generally, it is about trying to understand the fading or diminishing of the voice and visibility of feminist peace activists during this time. Malathi attributes this weakening of feminist peace activism in the 1990s and thereafter to two trends: Firstly, the increasing complexity of the political and social situation of those times, in which women activists were over stretched, trying to engage with multiple issues all at the same time, from documenting human rights abuses in the context of the war, to campaigning for domestic violence legislation to increase women’s political representation. Anti-war activism in her view was no longer a primary focus.

Secondly, and I think more importantly, in her analysis she refers to the institutionalisation and professionalisation of feminism, where feminist activists had become salaried workers in donor funded organizations. She recognises that this provided a great deal of stability to the work of feminists but points to the fact that it also now meant that a considerable amount of energy had to be spent to maintain funding, with less time available for feminist work. Moreover, she says that in this new scenario, feminism came to be taken for granted, with “hardly any fresh thinking on what constitutes feminism,” which in turn circumscribed how feminists thought about the “political.” She saw the proof of this depoliticization of feminist activism in a very clear shift in the strategies used by feminists from long-term, oppositional campaigns which she refers to as strategies of refusal (non-cooperation, civil disobedience, strikes), to strategies of request (like signature campaigns, lobbying, petitions). In her analysis, this shift from strategies of refusal to strategies of request is what really weakened women’s voice and influence for peace.

But “Interrogating the Political” is not just critique. It is also a manifesto of sorts, which calls for a feminist activism with an alternative vision, which engages the “political” and which can wage its struggles in a way that puts the parameters of the political itself into question. Drawing on Judith Butler, she calls for an interrogation of the political, through affective categories such as grief, injury and suffering. To get to this point of advocating for a politics of mourning and grief, Malathi traverses considerable historical, analytical and conceptual ground, from the poetry of Jean Arasanayagam to concepts of politics and the political articulated by Laclau and Mouffe, Partha Chatterjee and Nivedita Menon and the politics of the Mother’s Front. For Malathi, the women family members of the disappeared, who mobilized in the wake of the second southern insurrection to demand for truth and justice, as the Mother’s Front, was exemplary in the way they continuously put the political into question, through tears and curses against the incumbent regime, at a time when emergency laws constrained protests, demonstrations and rallies. The Front, was of course the focus of her PhD thesis, titled “Maternalist Politics in Sri Lanka: A Historical Anthropology of its Conditions of Possibility”, completed in 1998 at the University of Chicago.[2] In fact, “Interrogating the Political” revisits many of the themes she had begun to explore in her PhD.

Her PhD is both a rigorous work of scholarship and a fascinating read. It is unfathomable that it was never published, even though several articles based on it were subsequently published in edited volumes and journals.[3] In the thesis and in subsequent articles, she describes the Front as “the single largest women’s protest movement of its time and arguably one of the most effective in the history of modern Sri Lanka,” while recognizing the contingent usefulness of the maternalized repertoire of protest of the Front at a particular moment in Sri Lanka’s history. Her account of the Front is rich and detailed, containing poignant description about the rituals of lamentation, weeping and cursing. She was amongst the first group of feminist scholars around the world to begin theorizing the politics of motherhood in the wake of mass atrocity in the late 1980s and 1990s. But in theorizing the politics of motherhood of the Front, she is concerned, not with a detailed ethnography of the movement as such. Rather, she is driven by a much broader imperative to understand the “cultural categories that undergird (its) maternalized political space,” in particular the categories of domesticity, respectability and suffering as articulated within Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.

Moreover, even as Malathi writes with great empathy about the Front, she does not back away from understanding its limitations. In particular, its failure to acknowledge that mothers and wives in the north and east had the very same experience as they did and to reach across the ethnic divide to build a movement for truth, justice and democracy based on shared vulnerability, grief and injury. In her analysis, rather than turning outwards, across communalized boundaries, to acknowledge a common experience of motherhood as well as of shared vulnerability and injury, this grief was turned inward and individualized and Sinhalized.

It feels uncanny to read these lines today, at a time when Tamil women in the north and east are waging a very similar struggle to that waged by the Mother’s Front in the South in the 1990s. Grief and mourning have also been central to the struggle for truth and justice waged by the Tamil women family members of the disappeared since the end of the war in 2009. Yet, solidarity across the ethnic divide has remained elusive, even though Malathi, seemed to have held on to the hope of this utopian possibility.

She concludes, “Interrogating the Political,” as follows:

. . . the formation of alliances under the mark of grief also requires the re-conceptualization of not only the ‘political’ but also injury and grief. Indeed, political communities of the sorrowing do not and cannot spring forth spontaneously and ‘naturally’; they must be made. One could argue that this is too Utopian a proposition, but for those of us who have tried all else and failed it is such Utopian re-conceptualizations and re-formulations which sustain an optimism of the will.[4]

I feel we need her vision of Utopia, more than ever, as we confront the devastating and continuing trajectory of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka. But we also need her searing look at the workings of nationalism as a gendered ideology; her analysis of masculinity and femininity as central to nationalism. In fact, the themes of domesticity, respectability and sexuality that she tackled in her PhD thesis, would become recurring themes in her work. She revisited them over and over again, in innumerable articles, relying on historical and contemporary figures such as Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Hema Premadasa, Viharamaha Devi and the Sigiriya Frescos, to illuminate her argument.[5]

For instance, she narrates these really fascinating stories about Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Hema Premadasa to exemplify the way in which respectability is made and unmade in Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and the risks that women have to face when they enter the public sphere. About Sirimavo, she recalls the way in which she was elevated to the figure of a grieving widow by her husband’s party, the SLFP, but sexualised by the opposition and media at the time. The ruling UNP, she writes, portrayed her as having fathered her children out of wedlock and sleeping with a leader of a Left party with which she was hoping to align her party, in order to undermine her political career.[6]

In the case of Hema Premadasa, the widow of President Premadasa, Malathi explores the backlash that followed her vote of thanks at her husband’s funeral, in which she pledged to continue her husband’s mission. Malathi argues that although she attempted to project herself as the mother of the nation, a counter discourse of rumours, juicy snippets in the press, and even scurrilous anonymous faxes attempted to sexualize and morally degrade her. She contends that while Mrs. Bandaranaike’s entry into politics centred on the fear that her “respectable” status would be tarnished, most objections to Mrs. Premadasa entering politics were premised on the very fact that she was not a respectable lady.

Malathi analyzes the figure of Viharamaha Devi, the mother of Dutugemunu as the epitome of feminine sacrifice and patriotism in Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, which we are all now expected to emulate. She describes how nationalist ideology and rhetoric has been able to construct Viharamaha Devi as a woman without blemish; who never forgot her place as a woman but was skilled in military tactics and governance; who nurtured her young son to be a true patriot and nationalist and encouraged him to wage war against the Tamil king, Elara, even when his father had forbidden him to do so. Malathi shows how nationalist ideology frames Viharamahadevi as being “moral” and “right” even when she called for violence, even when she supported and encouraged the call to arms for the protection of the Sinhala race, the Buddhist religion and motherland. Indeed, she is considered as having placed the needs of her country above her own, knowing her rightful place, and content to take pride in her son’s achievements. She is considered to encapsulate the vulnerability of the Sinhala nation and its people’s determination to retain what was perceived to be rightly theirs (a unified country dominated by the Sinhalese). The appropriation of Viharamahadevi by Sinhala Nationalists, Malathi argues, enabled the production of a particular kind of Sinhala womanhood – nurturing, sacrificial and patriotic – that is always already imbricated in Sinhala “history,” “culture” and “tradition.”[7]

Malathi’s more recent work has focused on mourning, memory and monuments; the bulldozing of LTTE monuments on the one hand and the building of war memorials for the armed forces on the other and what is at stake in the construction of the latter and the demolition of the former. In a talk she gave on the topic of “Trauma, Memory and Forgetting” at the University of Edinburgh in November 2016, she spoke of the important role played by memorial in all societies. She recognized that they function as repositories of memory, suffering and grief, and that they often help to translate the unthinkable to the thinkable. She condemned the destruction of LTTE monuments, while the state celebrated its soldiers in a proliferation of monuments. However, in her conclusion, Malathi seemed to suggest that what we need are not monuments, but counter monuments. She spoke of T. Sanathanan’s “Incomplete Thombu” as a counter monument, that calls attention to multiple readings and the residual nature of memory. She drew attention to the way Sanathanan brings together Tamils and Muslims who share divergent histories of violence as particularly noteworthy. What was also striking about her talk that day, was the visual archive that she drew upon. I can’t remember how long the talk was, but she had more than 60 images of monument, cemeteries and related ephemera. It seemed as if she had been collecting these over several years.[8]

In her work on monuments and memory, Malathi goes back to Judith Butler’s formulation of injury and interdependency, the need to remember that we are undone by others, and that we carry the enigmatic traces of others. But she also reminds us that “political communities of the sorrowing do not and cannot spring forth spontaneously, and naturally. They must be made.” This, she says is the challenge for us citizens of Sri Lanka, whether Tamil, Sinhala, Muslim or Burgher.

I first met and then read Malathi sometime in the 1990s when I was working at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES). However, we became friends much later. In April 2009, she shared with me her author soft copy of  “Interrogating the Political” fresh off the “Feminist Review”. At the time, I had just finished some work trying to understand women’s building initiatives in Sri Lanka for the Women Defining Peace Initiative and Sarala Emmanuel and I were co-authoring a paper on the same theme. Our paper was concerned with what is it that Sri Lankan women do, when they say that they are involved in peacebuilding and how effective was this work. We categorized peacebuilding into two broad streams of work: work advocating for a negotiated settlement of the ethnic conflict and then a plethora of other activities that fell under the banner of community level peace work. In the paper, we engaged with Malathi’s critique, while making a distinction between mass-based movement politics and NGOs. We felt that the effectiveness even of “strategies of refusal” was perhaps a moot point, in a context where women’s groups for peace lacked a mass-based constituency and given the extreme intransigence of the Sri Lankan state, when it came to matters of peace. We argued that the shift from refusal to request simply reflected a shift in the nature of peace advocacy groups – both mainstream as well as women’s groups – from independent, socially rooted organizations to becoming donor-funded professional NGOs. And that strategies of request were what it was possible for NGOs to do.

I shared a copy of the paper with Malathi. After she read it, she wrote me a long e-mail. Several of her many comments have stayed with me over the years because they have continued to haunt feminist activism in Sri Lanka. On strategies of request and refusal, Malathi said that she took our point regarding the fact that organizations such as Women for Peace lacked a mass base, and that she recognized, it was one of the key reasons that they were unable to sustain the organization over the long term. However, she insisted that the shift from refusal to request that she marked was premised on a conceptual distinction which referenced oppositionality and was not dependent on whether an organization had a mass base or not.

Her second comment was about community level peacebuilding. She said that she found the focus on women’s links across ethnic boundaries and at the margins of the nation in our paper interesting, while wondering why we had left out the Affected Women’s Forum in Akkaraipattu from the list of organizations engaging in peace building. She felt that the AWF was a force to contend with in that area. And then she went on to inquire whether we had heard of another women’s organization, which was primarily made up of Sinhala and Tamil women working together quite harmoniously until, some crisis had led to their break-up, with the Sinhala women going on to form a separate organization.

That was not all. She felt women activists needed to take the issue of funding more seriously, in her words “not in some knee-jerk, NGO bashing way popularized by the JVP” (at the time Wimal Weerawansa of the JVP was a foremost critic of NGOs) but as a serious factor in the sustainability as well as autonomy of these groups. She felt that some NGOs have been able to stand firm and refuse funds, if they thought that they didn’t have the capacity to mobilize adequately due to lack of staff, ideological standpoints, etc. but some groups have ended up being stretched too thin or worse in a scenario where many INGOs are desperate to find “promising” women’s groups they can fund.

These issues relating to strategies, solidarity across the ethnic divide, and funding remain questions that we need to collectively reckon with, if we are to challenge the resurgent authoritarianism and ethno-nationalism that we now face, with any seriousness.

She ended the e-mail saying “Hope you will find these comments helpful despite them being unsolicited and do hope you will continue to share your writings with me.” For those who have worked with her, all this probably sound very familiar.

Malathi was an extraordinarily generous scholar. She engaged with the work of feminist activists and researchers, young and old, in Sri Lanka with genuine interest and curiosity. She continued to be a part of grassroots feminist discussions and organizing efforts, whether she was writing about the topic or not. In the years since that e-mail, I continued to share my work with her and, true to her word, she would always read whatever I sent and she would always share her thoughts with me. During the time I was working on domestic violence discourses, she told me that she had been “Ranting and raving about the contradictions that inhere in the work of counselling” in relation to intimate partner violence, since Ameena’s (Hussein) study on domestic violence done at ICES, (published as Sometimes There is No Blood in 2001!). More often than not, she would suggest other Sri Lankan writers writing on the same topic or other examples that were relevant and worthy of scrutiny. It was for her “the way to build an archive on the topic.” She meticulously built her own archive and generously shared reading suggestions and examples (such as the reference to the AWF above) to illuminate all kinds of stuff. In 2018, we wrote a piece together, for the “Palgrave Handbook of Women’s Political Rights” juxtaposing the early achievement of universal adult franchise in Sri Lanka with the arduous struggle for representation for women in recent years. It was when we were finishing this chapter that the awful news of the first tumor came.

During the last four and a half years of writing a PhD, I have relied on many Sri Lankan scholars to guide me but it is to Malathi’s work on gender, nationalism and motherhood that I have repeatedly turned, reading and re-reading some of her work. And every time she provides new insights to the Sri Lankan condition and the relationship between the nation and its women. It is not possible to express how much I will miss her. Good-bye Malathi. Rest in peace and in power and know that our memory of you and your work will endure and will continue to guide and inspire.

[1] de Alwis, Malathi. (2009). “Interrogating Feminist Peace Activism in Sri Lanka.” Feminist Review 91: 81-93.

[2] de Alwis, Malathi. (1998). Maternalist Politics in Sri Lanka: A Historical Anthropology of its Conditions of Possibility, Phd Thesis, University of Chicago.

[3] See for instance “Motherhood as a Space of Protest: Women’s Political Participation in Contemporary Sri Lanka.” In Women in Peace Politics, ed. Paula Bannerjee. New Delhi: Sage. 2008. “‘Disappearance’ and ‘Displacement’ in Sri Lanka.” Journal of Refugee Studies 22(3): 378-391;“Feminism.” In A Companion to the Anthropology of Politics, 121-134. ed. David Nugent and Joan Vincent. Blackwell Publishing: Malden, Oxford, Victoria. 2009.

[4] “Interrogating the Political”, p. 91.

[5] These include “Gender, Politics and the ‘Respectable Lady’” in Unmaking the Nation: The Politics of Identity and History in Modern Sri Lanka, eds. Pradeep Jeganathan & Qadri Ismail. 137- 157. Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association. 1995. “Sexuality in the Field of Vision: The Discursive Clothing of the Sigiriya Frescoes.” In Embodied Violence: Communalising Women’s Sexuality in South Asia, eds. Kumari Jayawardena & Malathi de Alwis. Delhi: Kali for Women/London & New Jersey: Zed Press. 1996; The changing role of women in Sri Lankan society.” Social Research: An International Quarterly 69(3): 675-691. 2002; “Domesticity and its Discontents”. In At the Cutting Edge: Essays in Honour of Kumari Jayawardena, eds. Neloufer de Mel and Selvy Thiruchandran. New Delhi: Women Unlimited. 2007;

[6]  “Gender, Politics and the ‘Respectable Lady’” in Unmaking the Nation: The Politics of Identity and History in Modern Sri Lanka, eds. Pradeep Jeganathan & Qadri Ismail. 137- 157. Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association. 1995.

[7] “Gender, Politics and the ‘Respectable Lady’” in Unmaking the Nation: The Politics of Identity and History in Modern Sri Lanka, eds. Pradeep Jeganathan & Qadri Ismail. 137- 157. Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association. 1995.

[8] The talk drew from her chapter “Trauma, Memory and Forgetting.” In Sri Lanka: The Struggle for Peace in the Aftermath of War. ed. Amarnath Amarasingham and Daniel Bass. London: Hurst & Co. 2016.