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 Post subject: The changing role of women in Sri Lankan society
 Post Posted: Wed Mar 08, 2006 4:33 am 
The changing role of women in Sri Lankan society

by Malathi de Alwis

THE role of women in Sri Lankan society is a topic that has been debated and fought over for several centuries. During the British colonial period, for example, a significant strand of nationalist, anticolonial agitation centered on the role and status of Ceylonese women, both within and outside the home. As I have argued elsewhere pace Chatterjee (see de Alwis, 1998b; Chatterjee 1989), it was bourgeois Ceylonese women's bodies, beliefs, and behavior that were produced as the repositories as well as signifiers of Ceylonese "culture" and "tradition" in the face of the onslaught of colonialism and modernity (which worked hand in glove) upon Ceylonese society. The education of women, their employment outside the home, their agitation for political rights, their assumption of political office, etc., have been perceived as potential threats to women's "traditional" roles and status within Ceylonese society at various moments in Ceylonese history. Notions of "tradition" and "modernity," "staffs" and "change" were thus not only intimately intertwined with conceptions of Tamil and Sinhala "womanhood" but co-constitutive of each other (de Alwis, 1998a).

While the formulation and content of many of these debates and discourses on the role of women may have differed significantly at various historical moments, and due to different political, economic, or social catalysts, I wish to argue that the primary premise of such debates and discourses have not changed; Sri Lankan women, be they Sinhala, Tamil, or Muslim, continue to be constructed as the reproducers, nurturers, and disseminators of "tradition," "culture," "community," and "nation." In this paper, I want to think about how such discourses have been reiterated as well as resisted, during the past two decades. While my primary focus will be the mobilization of such discourses in the context of ethnic and antistate violence, I wish to preface such an analysis with a brief discussion of the discourses that have been engendered by two important shifts in the local economy that are largely dependent on the sweat and tears of women: the increasing reliance on garment and labor exports for the earning of foreign exchange.

Garment Girls in the Corrupt(ing) City

The establishment of Free Trade Zones (FTZ) under the structural readjustment programs initiated by the United National Party (UNP) government, in the late 1970s, resulted in a vast influx of young women to Colombo in search of employment. These women, who were predominantly young, single, and Sinhalese, constituted the main workforce in the many garment factories set up in the FTZs as well as outside them. The exploitative terms of employment, hazardous working conditions, sexual harassment these women faced soon began to be highlighted by feminist groups, (1) who were then summarily banned from entering the FTZs (which had also banned the formation of trade unions). Feminist support for the series of strikes organized by the Polytex garment workers in the early 1980s was one such example of cross-class solidarity between women workers and middle-class activists (Abeyesekera, 1990).

By the late 1980s, public concern regarding the exploitation of these women workers by foreign and local capitalists began to be superimposed by moralistic discourses that sought to censure the "decadent" and "loose" practices of "innocent village damsels" from "traditional" homes who had become doubly susceptible to the corruptions of the big city due to the absence of parental supervision and domestic stability. A lifestyle marked by the purchase and adornment of fancy clothes, jewelry, and makeup, along with a shift toward "provocative" and "unrespectable" behavior leading to unwholesome sexual liaisons, unwanted pregnancies, and unsanitary abortions, was posited as having become the norm among these women. (2)

Such discourses portray these peasant women as having been jackknifed from "primitivity" to "moral decadence" in the same way that bourgeois women were perceived to have been transformed several decades previously. Ironically, the women garment workers are perceived to have been corrupted because of too little education, unlike the bourgeois women who had become corrupted because they were too educated in Western ways. (3) This idea is also premised on a particular conception of the "village" and rural life in general, which posits it as being pure, slow-paced, and free of vice or violence.

Though many of these women garment workers are the primary wage earners for their families, and the mainstay of the garment export industry, they continue to be viewed and treated in a derogatory fashion by all strata of Sri Lankan society; while some view them as easy prey in terms of cheap labor, captive markets, or sexual conquests, others seek to make an example of them by censuring their excessive patterns of consumption and/or sexual behavior. While it is heartening that many of these workers have refused to be exploited in these ways and have formed their own groups to protest a variety of injustices that have been perpetrated against them, it is also saddening that very few constructive or organized steps have been taken by successive governments to ensure that these women's living and working conditions are improved, and that they can walk the streets without fearing that they will be harassed or raped.

Migrant Maids and Fissured Families

From the early 1980s onward, Sri Lankan women have been involved in another form of migration as well. Vast numbers of lower-middle-class, working class, and peasant women have been migrating to the Middle East, Singapore, and Hong Kong as domestic aides. While predominantly Muslim women first sought such employment in the Middle East (due to the compatibility of religion), many Sinhala and Tamil women are also now employed in that region of the world. Despite the common knowledge that one can be frequently duped by unscrupulous job agents and employment agencies as well as be mistreated, sexually abused, and even killed by one's employers, (4) it has not stemmed the flow of labor to these countries. In fact, these workers' frequent extensions of their contracts--more out of necessity than desire--has often, except for sporadic visits, kept them away from their homes for five or seven years at a stretch.

These women, like their counterparts in the garment factories in Sri Lanka, are the primary wage earners for their families as well as crucial foreign exchange earners for their country. However, their prolonged stays abroad have engendered national debates in which the demerits of absentee mothers--as well as those who are "corrupted" by new lifestyles abroad--are much discussed and lamented, along with the attendant complications of unfaithful or spendthrift fathers (who fritter away their wives' earnings), and incompetent and indulgent grandmothers burdened with the care of their grandchildren in their old age; such unhappy home environments have provided ample fodder for several tragic teledramas (one of the most popular forms of television entertainment in Sri Lanka) in which children deprived of a mother's love and nurture "go astray" and break their hardworking mother's heart. Ironically, the reason for such extensive stays in what is perceived to be particularly inhospitable and unhappy climes has frequently been articulated in terms of enabling the long-term welfare of the family; most women who worked abroad have done so with the hope of attaining a key bourgeois goal of domesticity: building a small house.

While women domestic aides--many of whom are in their thirties and forties--are not as frequently tarred with the brush of sexual promiscuity (unlike women garment workers) due to their age, marital status, and most important, the harsh punishments that are meted out for such behavior in their host countries (though this has not precluded their male employers of taking advantage of them whenever possible), it is they, along with women garment workers, who are held responsible for not only what befalls them (when they leave home) but what happens to their families in their absence; the promiscuity of Sri Lankan men, their spendthrift qualities, and their susceptibility to alcohol and other vices are rarely censured or denigrated in a similar fashion in these discourses. The reason for this, as I noted at the beginning of this paper, is that it is women who are perceived to be the reproducers, upholders, and signifiers of their "culture" and "tradition"; any woman who is perceived to not be conforming to her heteronormative roles of docile daughter, chaste wife, nurturing mother, or sagacious grandmother is thus open to censure, ridicule, and even punishment.

Gendering and Countering Violence

The past two decades in Sri Lanka has been dominated by much violence--anti-Tamil riots in 1977 and 1983, a Sinhala youth (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna [JVP] party), anti-state uprising in the south from 1987-1989, and a protracted civil war in the north and east, fought between the Sri Lankan state and Tamil separatists, which spans almost the entire two decades. Women's lives continue today to be framed by the contours of war while they also bear the scars--both physical and psychological--from previous episodes and processes of violence.

In this section I want to consider four different kinds of roles that women have assumed within a context of violence as well as discuss some of the discourses and debates that have been engendered because of the assumption of such roles. The first two roles that I will discuss, those of war widows and women warriors, illuminate, in different ways, the gendering of violence; while war widows are grim reminders of the destructive capabilities of war, women warriors are equally troubling reminders of women's active participation in war. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that Sri Lankan women have also sought to counter violence, that they have collectively and publicly spoken for peace, as women, and more specifically, as mothers and feminists.

Gendering Violence: War Widows

The continuous context of violence has produced an unprecedented number of war widows and concomitantly women-headed households. While women-headed households are not an uncommon phenomenon in Sri Lanka (see Weerasinghe, 1987; Perera, 1991), they have increased in large proportions because of the decimation of the male population of Sri Lanka that has occurred as a result of ethnic riots, civil war, and anti-state violence. While such households are scattered across the entire country, one sees the largest concentrations among displaced populations in the districts of Puttalam, Jaffna, Wanni, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, and Ampara. (5)

Recent research on war widows (Rajasingham-Senanayake, 1998; Thiruchandran, 1999) has sensitively pointed out the many adverse conditions and contexts under which they live. These women have not only been traumatized by the violence they have witnessed and the loss of their loved ones, but they also have to support financially and emotionally and nurture similarly traumatized and devastated offspring who sometimes turn on their own mothers (Thiruchandran, 1999: 7). The social stigma that surrounds widows in all three communities has not made these women's tasks any easier and is a key contributor to their own lack of self-worth and confidence and their sense of guilt (for being alive, for being bad mothers) and victimhood. This sense of victimhood is also re-inscribed upon these women by relief and rehabilitation as well as social health and trauma interventions in the conflict zones (Rajasingham-Senanayake, 1998: 10; Samarasinghe and Galappatti, 1998). (6)

While Rajasingham-Senanayake calls our attention to several displaced Tamil women in the Siddampuram camp and its environs who have refused to be cowed by social stigmatization and hostility toward their widowed status and women-headed household--and in fact, seem to enjoy their newfound freedom and economic independence--it is important to remember that these women are still very much in the minority. The majority of widowed heads of household in Sri Lanka face a constant battle for economic stability, privacy, physical safety, and most important, self-worth and social dignity. In a society that has convinced itself that men are the breadwinners and sustainers of their families and women ideally suited to the roles of housewife and mother, women-headed households are perceived as temporary aberrations that must soon be rectified through remarriage or consolidation within a male-headed extended family. Because of such assumptions, women-headed households have not become a topic of national concern or debate in the same way that women garment-factory workers or foreign domestic aides have become.

Gendering Violence: Women Warriors

Although women have been the victims and survivors of violence, they have also been its perpetrators. Although some women participated in the JVP youth insurrection of 1987-1989 (see de Mel, 1998), the issue of women militants has come to the fore in the 1990s with the increased participation of Tamil women in combat. (7) In fact, the women's wing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)--Suthanthirap Paravaikal (Birds of Freedom) has acquired almost as much notoriety as their male counterparts since a female suicide bomber killed Rajiv Gandhi, the former prime minister of India, in 1993. The increased visibility of these women in recent LTTE campaigns has also generated much discussion among feminists in Sri Lanka on the role of female militants in anti-state movements, a familiar question to those who have studied the positioning of women fighters in guerrilla groups. Much of this feminist debate is framed in terms of whether the women in the LTTE are liberated or subjugated (de Silva, 1994; Coomaraswamy, 1996), agents or victims (de Mel, 1998).

Sitralega Maunaguru's finely nuanced and historicized work on the construction of "woman" in Tamil nationalism has been able to transcend this dichotomizing debate by locating "women warriors" within the broader context of other male and female roles in Tamil society. Maunaguru also complicates this category of "woman warrior" by marking two distinctive phases of its mobilization by militant groups. In the first phase, which was spearheaded by the LTTE--and which "owed more to its militarism than to an ideological allegiance with feminism" (Maunaguru, 1995: 163)--the ideal Tamil woman was expected to be a mother as well as a fighter, thus integrating the role of "brave mother" with that of "woman warrior," that is, a "warrior mother." (8) The second phase, which was facilitated by the women's wings of the more progressive Tamil militant groups (that have since disbanded or been decimated by the LTTE) such as the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), enabled a formulation of the "new woman" who contested "patriarchal aspects of Tamil cultural ideology" and insisted on linking national liberation with women's liberation (Maunaguru, 1995: 165-7). (9)

A later phase of the "woman warrior" that Maunagnru does not discuss but which has been addressed by de Alwis (1998a) as well as by de Silva (1994), Coomaraswamy (1996), and de Mel (1998) can be described as the "masculinized virgin warrior." In a context where the LTTE reigns supreme, having exiled, incorporated, or killed all dissenters and critics (including many feminists), it is this ideal of womanhood that now seems to be foregrounded within Tamil society (through LTTE propaganda). As Radhika Coomaraswamy points out, the "armed virgin" is a purely LTTE innovation having no precedence in Tamil literature or culture (1996: 9).

However, while the LTTE woman's internal make up is expected to be "pure," "chaste," and "virginal," her outer body is marked as masculine; her hair is cut short and she wears a beret, combat fatigues, boots, and a cyanide capsule around her neck (just like her male counterparts) but no make-up or jewelry (9). The poetry of Vanati, a female "martyr" of the LTTE, captures the "woman warrior's" desire to transform her biologically as well as culturally marked body (as feminine) to that of "heroic" masculinity while simultaneously proclaiming her virginity and chastity--she refuses the red kumkumum and thali and embraces weapons, not men (quoted in Schalk, 1992: 95). This celebration of "martial feminism"--through extensive LTTE propaganda as well as through its ideologues such as Balasingham (1983, 1993) and Schalk (1992, 1994)--has also been critiqued by feminists, who, in turn, have been vilified by the LTTE and its sympathizers. (10)

Countering Violence: Mourning Mothers

The 1980s and 1990s have also witnessed the political mobilization of "motherhood" as a counter to violence, both in the context of the civil war in the north and east as well as the second JVP uprising in the south. In 1984, the Mothers' Front was formed in Jaffna to protest the mass arrest of Tamil youth by the Sri Lankan state. This organization was controlled by and consisted of women from all classes. The feminist Rajani Thiranagama has documented how these women "mobilized mass rallies, and picketed public officials demanding the removal of military occupation [by the Sri Lankan state]" (Hoole et al., 1990: 324). It was not only the spirit, observed Thiranagama, but also the enormous numbers this group was able to mobilize that "spoke loudly of the high point to which such mass organizations, especially of women [could] rise" (324). Although the members of the Mothers' Front had spontaneously mobilized their maternal identity in the face of state repression, they were also quick to criticize the blatant manipulation of such an identity when Tamil militant groups put up posters inciting women to have more babies in order to further the cause of separatism (Jayawardena, 1985b: 17).

The Mothers' Front also inspired Tamil women in the east to begin their own branch. In 1986, the eastern Mothers' Front took to the streets with rice pounders to prevent a massacre of members of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) by the LTTE (Hensman, 1992: 503). In 1987, one of its members, Annai Pupathi, fasted to death to protest the presence of the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF). She was subsequently immortalized by the LTTE (it was common knowledge that the LTTE had forced her to keep at her fast), who now offer a scholarship in her memory. It was finally the increasing hegemony of the LTTE and its suppression of all independent, democratic organizations that did not "toe the line" that pushed the Mothers' Front in the north and east into political conformism and reduced its wide appeal and militancy. "It became another Y.W.C.A.," notes Thiranagama, and its central structure, which was mainly made up of middleclass women, finally began to confine its activities to works of charity (Hoole et al., 1990: 324). Many members who refused to work under LTTE hegemony migrated abroad or to Colombo.

In July 1990, a Mothers' Front was formed in the south to protest the "disappearance" of their male kin during the 19871990 JVP uprising. (11) These women's only demand was for "a climate where we can raise our sons to manhood, have our husbands with us and lead normal women's lives" (Island, 9 February 1991). Their mass rallies and deva kannalawwas (beseeching of the gods) had a tremendous impact on Sinhala society during the two years this organization was especially active (see de Alwis, 1998a). The seemingly unquestionable authenticity of these women's grief and espousal of "traditional" family values provided the southern Mothers' Front with an important space for protest at a time when feminist and human rights activists who were critical of either state or JVP violence were being killed with impunity.

While many feminists in the south celebrated the successful campaign of the southern Mothers' Front and participated in their rallies, they were nevertheless split on how best to respond to such a movement. For example, while the front identified itself as the largest grassroots women's movement in the country (with an estimated membership of 25,000 women), it was common knowledge that it was founded, funded, and coordinated by the main opposition party in the country--the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)--whose politburo was predominantly middle-class and male. As members of autonomous women's groups, feminists were uncomfortable working with a political party that not only did not espouse a particular feminist ideology, but was perceived to be using the Mothers' Front for its own political ends (de Alwis, 1998b: 42). Feminists were also concerned about the limited agenda of the southern Mothers' Front, which precluded it from calling attention to similar issues faced by Tamil and Muslim women in the north and east of the island (37). Many feminists who had reservations about the front's mobilization of "motherhood" felt that they would have been more willing to compromise if it had been used as a space within which a mass movement of women from different ethnic groups could have united and launched a collective critique of the violence perpetrated by the state as well as militant groups (39).

Countering Violence: Anti-War Agitators

The anti-Tamil riots of 1983 and the start of a civil war in the north and east also led the feminist movement in Sri Lanka to expend a great deal of energy on promoting a peaceful and politically negotiated settlement to the ethnic conflict. Various feminist groups have spoken out against the increased militarization of Sri Lankan society, published articles and books on the ideological underpinnings of ethnic conflict, documented and protested human rights violations by the state as well as militant groups, set up peace education programs in schools, and organized peace demonstrations, pickets, and vigils. The committed efforts of several feminist groups to call for an end to the war and to highlight the shared suffering of both Tamil and Sinhala women as a result of this war led to their stressing the shared histories and cultures of the Sinhalese and Tamils--through articles, songs, and videos--and fostering greater understanding between the two groups by offering free Tamil classes, organizing goodwill missions to the north and east, and setting up various trauma-counseling and income-generating projects in the conflict zones.

Colombo-based feminist groups' concern for women refugees of all ethnic groups--Tamil women prisoners and detainees as well as Tamil women civilians in the north and east who were being raped and abused by the Sri Lankan military--has also frequently antagonized the Sinhala press. (12) In the mid-1980s, for example, the extremely nationalist mainstream Sinhala newspaper, the Divaina, was at the forefront of a campaign to "expose" Sinhala feminists--supposedly funded by foreigners and controlled by religious (meaning Christian) organizations--who were publicizing the plight of the Tamil people all over the world, and thus not only discrediting their own country, but their race and religion as well. More recently, feminist demands for peace and the resumption of talks between the government and the LTTE, with third party facilitation, have led to the renewal of attacks against feminist peace activists both by the media as well as sections of the Sinhala populace.


With the exception of the Mothers' Fronts in the north, east, and the south, which received unprecedented popular sympathy and support and were consistently valorized by the media, (13) the other groups of women I have discussed in this paper-garment-factory workers, housemaids, war widows, or feminists (14)--have frequently suffered at the hands of their families, communities, and the nation as a whole. It is thus clear that we cannot talk about the changing role of women in Sri Lanka without also considering as well as countering the societal pressures they face and the heteronormative strictures that continue to be imposed on them.

Debates on the "woman question" in Sri Lanka, which were centrally concerned with questioning and transforming such strictures and pressures on women, have also been overdetermined by ethnonationalism and the civil war in the north and east from the late 1970s onward. Thus, while there still remains a small but vibrant feminist movement in the country, it is frequently pushed into a reactive rather than a proactive role. Many organizations that agitated against the cultural oppression of women or their exploitation in the labor market are now primarily involved in the fields of development and human rights--setting up microcredit schemes for displaced women, offering skills training in refugee camps, and monitoring human rights violations. In the same way that the left deferred the liberation of women until after the socialist revolution, feminists in Sri Lanka seem to be pushed to defer the transformation of societal strictures on women until the civil war in the island has ended.


(1) One of the earliest such publications was Women Workers in the Free Trade Zone of Sri Lanka (Voice of Women, 1983).

(2) As a counter to this "corrupting" trend among village women as well as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) militant movement (usually understood as being an expression of the frustrations of unemployed youth), President Ranasinghe Premadasa sought to open 200 garment factories in the villages, thus creating more jobs for the rural youth who could now work from their own homes. Many of these factories, which were opened hastily and with much fanfare, are now closed.

(3) See, for example, a newspaper article that advocated sexual education for these women (Daily News, Jan 29, 1999).

(4) This latter fact, like the government's inability to impose better working and living conditions for FTZ workers, highlights the powerlessness of Third World nation-states in the face of international capital.

(5) Large concentrations of female-headed households can also be found in the districts of Moneragala, Hambantota, and Matara, which were some of the worst affected during the JVP uprising in 1987-1989.

(6) It must be noted, however, that several humanitarian aid organizations have made a conscious effort to change this perception by organizing awareness-raising and leadership-training workshops for these women while also helping them to become economically independent through the provision of credit facilities and vocational training.

(7) Women only make up about 8 percent of the Sri Lankan armed forces and rarely engage in armed combat. For an extended discussion of this noncombativeness, see de Alwis 1998a.

(8) This model is exemplified in the now cliched image that was used by national liberation movements in the Third World in the '60s and '70s (Maunaguru, 1995: 164; cf. di Leonardo, 1985: 602-3).

(9) The "new woman" was not necessarily a "woman warrior." It was primarily a feminist subject position that enabled a critique of both the Sri Lankan state as well as many militant groups.

(10) For example, consider the furious letters to the editor that were sent in response to Radhika Coomaraswamy's article on LTTE women (Coomaraswamy, 1996), which was translated into Tamil and published in the MIRJE newspaper Saranihal.

(11) Women also joined the Organization of Parents and Family Members of the Disappeared, which was formed on May 20, 1990. This group was closely aligned with Vasudeva Nanayakkara, opposition legislator and member of the left-wing Nava Sama Samaja Pakshaya (NSSP) politburo. Members of this group often attended the Mothers' Front's rallies and vice versa, although they pursued a much more radical agenda. While this group did not mobilize around "motherhood," it nevertheless valorized (nongendered) familial identities. See de Alwis (1998b: 37).

(12) These groups' critique of patriarchal structures of power within Sri Lankan society has drawn a great deal of criticism in the press (see de Alwis 1998b; Jayawardena, 1985; and Jayawardena and de Alwis, 2002) and even led to their harassment and beating by the police on many occasions (see de Rosairo, 1992).

(13) The support and coverage they received was, of course, different, depending on the ethnicity of the group--that is, the southern Mothers' Front was predominantly valorized by the Sinhala press and primarily engendered the support of the Sinhala masses.

(14) The support for the Birds of Freedom is a more complicated issue since it is connected to broader support for the LTTE and the cause of Tamil separatism.


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Malathi de Alwis is Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for Ethnic Studies in Colombo, Sri Lanka. A founder of the Women's Coalition for Peace in Sri Lanka, she is coeditor of Embodied Violence: Communalizing Women's Sexuality in South Asia (with Jayawardena, 1996).

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