Photo courtesy of IPS

Exploitation of women continues within patriarchal societies and marriages. Forced marriages is one of the more notorious examples; the most extreme version of this, is a form of modern day slavery. In 2017, the International Labour Organization (ILO) designated this in its statistics for the first time. Recent estimates indicate that 22 million people globally are living under forced marriages.

By making the current gendered order appear normal and natural, the patriarchal society has brought about lasting psychological damage on others due to gender differences. It has been done the same way that class and racial oppression have historically been framed as “natural” by those in power. These social norms have become today’s gender stereotypes. This includes the idea that women are a universally caring and nurturing species whereas men are violent and are more suited to war. By deliberately confining individuals to narrow gender roles, patriarchy not only disadvantages women but also many men. The intention was only to serve to reinforce the patriarchal mindset.

Capitalism grew and was sustained by the degradation and exploitation of humanity the world over. “Colonial policy frequently laid a heavy hand on social development, freezing old forms of hierarchy and creating new ones in the name of tradition. Simultaneously, colonial policy impoverished society; plundered social wealth and directed that wealth towards the North Atlantic states; and created social deserts in areas that once had rich cultural dynamics and the potential for social development.” (The Tricontinental 2021, Dawn: Marxism and National Liberation). Only a few saw the colonial intervention as progressive for their capitalistic social development, since these colonial powers typically collaborated with the worst elements in the societies of their colonies to maintain power, such as the aristocracy, landlords, clergy, and traditional intellectuals. “Bourgeois nationalists confronted this by denying it and by glorifying traditions, whether they were precolonial forms or forms fabricated under colonialism. This kind of revivalism only deepened the morass, stifling the development of the colonised economy and its society. Peasant and worker revolts pushed the bourgeois nationalists to understand that, while the task of political independence had to be seen as central, it could not be isolated from the social revolution and the revolution against the economic and cultural conditions that had been put in place by the colonial powers. These powers worked intimately with the landed aristocracy and the bourgeoisie to suffocate society.” (The Tricontinental 2021).

Patriarchy is closely associated with masculinity. Masculinity has provided the socio-cultural foundation for gender discrimination in social institutions. Hence, any policy formulation for moving away from gender discrimination has to start with policy conversations on patriarchy and masculinity. The concept of masculinity is associated with the ideas shared about “what men do and who men are, as well as what men should do and be.” (OECD 2023). For example, societies in many countries believed and still do that men make better political leaders than women.

Without critiquing and inhibiting the norms of masculinity that constrain the empowerment of women, it will be almost impossible to transform society into a more gender equitable one. In Australia, for example, this is attempted through dialogues and programmes that involve both men and boys and women and girls. In addition, Australian governments have enabled an environment where both women and men can take parental leave. That is in the belief that men and boys engaged in a fairer distribution of unpaid care and domestic tasks could help shift age old unexamined norms and practices.

Quota system and gender inequality

There has been decades of debate worldwide whether quota systems would help shift the balance of gender representation in both the public and private sector. Would such a system contribute to changed attitudes about women in politics? Would quota systems help change the status quo in environments where rigid gender norms restrict women’s ability to become political leaders?

In Sri Lanka, women are underrepresented at all levels of government – national, provincial and local. At the general election held in 2020, there was only about five percent women’s representation in the parliament. The amendments to have a mandated 25 percent quota for women and implemented since 2016 have led to women’s representation at local government level to increase from two percent to around 23 percent. However, an Australian government funded study found that despite the increase in the number of women, women representatives did not address the key issues of entrenched gender inequalities in the political system, the lack of democracy in political parties and predispositions against women in society. However, with increased numbers active in the public sphere, women have been  able to break through the glass ceiling at the local government level.

The study found that both female candidates and councillors encountered gender based violence and intimidation but neither legal frameworks nor media exposure protected them. In fact, the current system was found to be perpetuating male dominated structures. The study recommended that training and development programs in gender sensitisation and democratisation had to involve both men and women in order to address the power imbalances at the local government level. In addition, the local government system had to be made more participatory, inclusive and democratic. Political parties need to develop policies that will foster gender sensitive participation, structures, processes and promotion. A quota of at least 25 percent women at the parliamentary level was also recommended.

The JVP’s history in organising women

In the post 1984 record of the JVP, one cannot find many references to its pre-1984 activities carried out for organising women. Society was then much more male dominant despite several women dominating politics and the bureaucracy. Only a few mentions are recorded in the JVP history that has been written later in the nineties about the contribution women had made in the development of the party organisation. One reference is to the first rally the JVP held at Hyde Park in August 1970. Comrade Rohana Wijeweera, as the main speaker of the rally, made an appeal after his speech to make whatever donations possible for the purpose of taking the party forward. Some young women in the audience donated their necklaces and ear rings.

Another reference was to the Rosmead Case heard at the criminal justice commission in which 22 suspects were charged for attempting to abduct then Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike. Out of the 22 suspects seven were women; six of them were undergraduates. Among those who did not plead guilty at the trial were Comrades Somawansa Amarasinghe and U.A. Nandaseeli of Ragama, who played a leading role in resurrecting the Socialist Women’s Front. There was another note about the 4th congress of the JVP delegates held in Colombo in 2002. These references do not relate to organising or empowering women but to the presence of thousands of workers, farmers, youth, students and women in the JVP ranks during the post 1977 period.

In the pre-1984 JVP, there was a general belief and acceptance, particularly among the leadership, that women cadre/members/sympathisers of the organisation had not developed adequate political consciousness or were mature enough to take leadership roles in the party. The party leadership could not find any women who had these qualities. This was a general reflection of the socio-economic background and the backwardness which exhibited our political consciousness on the matter. Many of us including me had a rural Sinhala Buddhist upbringing. This was reflected in our political praxis when it came to women cadres.

When the JVP started its open political activities after the United Front regime withdrew emergency rule in 1976, all female cadre of the Socialist Women’s Front had been told to end their daily travel by 6.00 pm. Whenever a woman cadre had to travel during the day, another woman cadre had to accompany her for safety. When I heard this story, I was taken aback because at that time there was no danger lurking around for any woman to walk alone in the streets to have such a rule. Looking back, I think, if we compare the roles played by some of the male leaders of the party, then the JVP at that time would have had many female cadres who could have had political leadership roles in which they would have been more than competent. Sadly, they never did get the opportunity. I would like to highlight this not only as a self-criticism but also as a political learning experience.

A further complication was that the leaders of the JVP at the time did not see eye to eye with the agenda of women’s liberation movements that was gaining popularity around the world. We did not maintain or develop any networking relationships with any women’s organisations. I remember comrade Sunila Abeysekera, probably in early 1978, organising a discussion at  Ward Place with some women activists including a Tamil lady who became prominent later. Comrade Rohana Wijeweera also attended it. Unfortunately, the party leadership (including me) did not take this political initiative forward. This may have been because for us building Socialist Women’s Front was not different to building another solidarity organisation such as the Socialist Student’s Front or Socialist Bhikkhu Front – not one of empowering women.

Challenging patriarchy

Pre-1984, the JVP was not in a position to challenge the patriarchal political culture that prevailed in society. However, many of us were aware of the women’s rights movement growing in the form of feminist liberation movement the world over. This political current reflected an alignment of feminist intellectualism with women’s liberation, which we simply saw as a western influence on women rather than a liberating one. To a certain extent, comrade Sunila Abeysekera was representing this political current. However, the JVP comprised of individuals who grew up in a rural Sinhala Buddhist patriarchal society. Some of us may have been intellectually aware of the ingrained bias due to our upbringing, others may have openly displayed this bias in their political action.

Unconscious bias, prejudice or stereotype about women and people of other backgrounds to us was sadly a political fact of life. These subconscious attitudes may not have been well-formed, but appeared ingrained, which impacted our emotional and rational responses to the everyday issues we encountered. This unconscious bias (or implicit bias) affected the way we felt and thought about, women, who would have been suffering due to the socio-economic inequalities that were prevalent in society. Likewise, was the way many of us looked at the socio-economic issues affecting Tamils, Malaiyaha workers, Muslims, Christians and Hindus. Such biases were mostly ingrained in our consciousness during our childhood upbringings and tainted with the then accepted norms of caste, class and other social prejudices.

For example, during my childhood in Weligama, the latrines were cleaned by a class of people known as “sakkili”, a derivation from the caste classification in South India by the name of Chakkiliyan. These people were forced through Hindu religious edicts and sanctions and through violent means into conducting these demeaning tasks.

In countries such as India and Sri Lanka it is difficult to escape from casteism. It is a surviving social stratification that divides people into groups based on their karma (work) and dharma (duties). Over the years some measures have been taken to eradicate the caste system. Unfortunately, it still remains an inescapable reality.

Even after several decades these types of communities continue to suffer due to human bias and discrimination, although for many their situation has improved. Some of them have moved to other areas of work such as agricultural and casual day workers. In Tamil Nadu, after receiving a good education, some of them have been occupying administrative positions both in private and public sectors.

To be continued