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Time for a gender revolution in Sri Lanka

We, Sri Lankans, need to catch up fast. Our political scene needs a seismic change. Let our women through. Let us collectively win






by Thulasi Muttulingam

( November 25, 2018, Jaffna, Sri Lanka Guardian) Some 50 years after Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first woman premier of the modern world, we still hear about it in Sri Lanka – mostly in a bad way.

Her premiership is used to knock down two birds with one stone – firstly, (apparently) Sri Lanka is leagues ahead of even the West when it comes to empowering women to attain positions of power, including at the very apex, and therefore, we need do nothing more to ensure women’s political emancipation.

Secondly, she is said to have been a particularly bad premier (I refer to all the political jokes of her regime still being recounted to this day), and is taken as proof that women are not fit to rule anyway – so the “mistake” ought not to be repeated.

The Sirimavo Bandaranaike era occurred well before I was born. I too, however, have heard many of the political jokes – ad nauseam. Just one thing though: Are all these jokes repeated so often through generations because she was really so bad? Or was it because she was a woman?

Will the antics of our politicians in recent years – or rather particularly in recent days – be repeated ad nauseam through generations? Or will they soon be forgotten because “boys... (ahem) men will be men”?

And as such, their bad behaviour and bad governance need not be recounted down the ages?

Feminist action


Whatever the case may be, women’s rights activists are currently at the forefront of demanding political change. They wish to see saner counsel prevail in Parliament, and they believe that housing more women representatives would definitely help.

As is always the case with feminism, however, media and social media alike have been running with some of the more outrageous placards carried by some of the feminists demanding change – making us all seem like active misandrists instead of the other way around.

Misandry refers to prejudice against men, and misogyny, prejudice against women.

The second is what prevails in our patriarchal culture, but the first is what is repeatedly called out as the problem. That too is an effective facet of the patriarchy.

Every time women campaign for their own rights, they are accused of misandry.

The problem actually is misogyny.

It is what operates when you still hear Sirimavo Bandaranaike jokes on repeat, but no S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike jokes to match, even though he was arguably the architect of the country’s wholesale misfortune since independence, with many of his policies.

So, Sirimavo’s policies left you queuing for bread? Big deal.

SWRD’s policies plunged the country into bloody chaos it has yet to recover from – where are the horror stories and political jokes related to that?

The media


I have been a media person long enough to know how this works.

Look for the fringe extremist elements bound to be there in every group and pick up on their antics – then give media attention only to those elements to make them seem like they represent the whole group.

Feminists have been the victims of this setup for millennia.

No, they are not crazy for demanding equality for other genders or accountability from men.

They have been campaigning long and hard all over the globe to vitally change the world for the better, not just for women but also men, other genders, and children.

Yet, news of all their hard-won worthy achievements hardly ever gain media traction.

Ask the average man (or even woman) what a feminist does and the answer is likely to be “they protest topless (like Femen)”, or “they burn their bras”.

Only a few people could name an active feminist right here in Sri Lanka, even though several have been putting in decades of policy-changing work for the betterment of humanity – but they could all name Femen, active somewhere in Ukraine. Such is the power of media.

This media bias has been operational again in recent days with women carrying seemingly misandrist posters gaining prominence in social media and media posts.

And just like that, once again, those of us campaigning for women’s pathways to politics and the opening up of parliament have been derailed into defending what we do, and why we do it.

“Yes, we know, not all men,” “no, we don’t hate all men,” “no… wait… but….”

This is getting a little tiring.

Here’s the bottom line: We women are 52% of the population (not to mean that being a minority means we should have lesser rights).

The point is we are half or even more than half the population and still get treated like minority, second-class citizens.

The Sri Lankan economy as a whole depends on women to survive – the garments sector, the foreign employment sector, and the tea sector, all depend on women primarily – yet in all these sectors, women are paid far less than men, are not provided even basic rights such as regulated working hours or fair wages, and despite decades of outcry, almost nothing has been done to improve their collective lot.

This tells us why many of our people want to hop on a plane (or even a boat) to the first foreign country we can think of to seek asylum. Because those countries (and I don’t mean the GCC countries) emancipated their women. Thus, they have systems in place to ensure fair(er) wages, working hours, and conditions.

All those systems generating our envy and wishes to live there were not by accident.

After the Second World War, when women far outnumbered men in those countries, and the women, out of necessity, had to come out of their homes to work to support their families, it gave rise to a feminist revolution that ensured rights for workers, and thus growing economies.

This revolution is primarily responsible for the developed world being where it’s at now.

Sri Lanka is in the birthing pangs of such a revolution currently – thanks to our own civil war. What remains to be seen though, is if the men at the helm will allow the birth to take place or (despite their much vaunted opposition to abortions) will abort it prematurely – which is what they appear to be doing right now, using everything in their power.

Political quotas


For the first time, we seemed to be gaining ground after years of campaigning by feminists for politics to open up to women, when the Government announced a 25% quota for women in local elections.

Since the quota for the 2018 elections was announced two years earlier, women all over the country geared to participate and finally take their rightful place in politics.

Yet, as a journalist travelling the countryside, I watched the process derail from the beginning.

Women had to overcome inordinate odds to come out of their homes in the first place.

They had to ensure that all their unpaid, scorned “women’s work” of cooking, cleaning, and childcare were in order before they pledged time for anything else.

They had to ask permission from fathers, brothers, and husbands, and if all those were granted still had to answer to the community on being “loose women” who wanted to enter “dirty politics”.

If they survived that too, then came threats – overt as well as covert – from the men in the various political parties they tried to join.

I watched many promising women leaders drop out due to the harassment and threats they faced – to themselves, and their families.

Ultimately, it is a well-observed fact that much of the quota was filled with wives, girlfriends, sisters, mothers, and mistresses of the men in politics – women who evinced no wish to enter politics on their own and appear content to be puppeteered by the men.

I am not saying this to diss the women leaders we elected – I have watched some very brave and deserving women leaders break through the seemingly insurmountable barriers to get through – but I also observed firsthand what kind of barriers were put in place for over two years, leading up to the local elections in early 2018.

Don’t ever tell us that that quota was handed to us on a plate – or that “undeserving women” took the place of “deserving men” due to that quota.

I am sick and tired of this charge now.

Due to a fluke, a murdered prime minister’s widow became the first woman premier of the modern world in 1960 – and of all places, it happened to be in Sri Lanka.

We, Sri Lankans, have been patting ourselves on the back ever since – while also sniggering ever since about her leadership and using her regime as a case in point on why women should never be in politics.

Her policies weren’t completely off the charts actually. The time of scarcity is what people remember because she tried to promote the local economy aggressively. The farmers and entrepreneurs of those days do remember making more money than they ever did under any other regime.

In the subsequent open economy introduced by J.R. Jayewardene, the northern farmers still remember how the market would be flooded with imported chillies, onions, and other crops they grew just as their own local crop was about to be harvested – leading to their economic devastation. Whereas under Sirimavo, they realised massive profits never experienced since.

The point is not that Sirimavo did everything right – but that male politicians before and after her have done (and continue to do) a lot worse, without attracting censure on the same scale. It’s now time to put her ghost to rest.

Long after she became the first female premier, other countries have gotten leagues ahead of us in terms of women’s rights – and as a direct result of that – workers rights, and human rights.

We, Sri Lankans, need to catch up fast. Our political scene needs a seismic change. Let our women through. Let us collectively win.

(Thulasi Muttulingam is a freelance journalist based in Jaffna. All views expressed are her own and not of any organisations affiliated to her. Version of this article first appeared on The Sunday Morning, a Colombo based weekly newspaper)

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