A True Sri Lankan Intersectionality: LGBTIQ equality, MMDA reform and more

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Courtesy of the Sunday Leader: ‘Don’t make Sri Lankan women slaves!’

For awhile now, I’ve been thinking about intersectionality and what it would mean for feminists and other activists in a Sri Lankan context at this moment. For young women activists and queer-rights activists in Sri Lanka, like myself, the temptation is strong to follow young, American liberational discourses. on social justice. We ‘stood with Standing Rock’. We regularly disseminate Black Lives Matter material; and while this is all useful and important (and in some senses, the meaning of ‘intersectional’), it also becomes easy to do little else for us, here, now.

On the other hand, an older generation of feminists and queer activists can sometimes, in our eyes, seem hopelessly disengaged from current discourse and ‘out of touch’; this is for no other reason than the fact that they don’t always speak the same ‘social justice’ language we’ve become accustomed to or subscribe overtly to the ‘intersectionality’ we feel is relevant.

These definitions of our intersectionality are flawed; no, not necessarily flawed, but let’s say, incomplete.

It is time we undertake a more holistic, pro-active, local and responsible ‘intersectionality’.

Intersectionality, after all, must also mean that we as intersectional global South feminists question and resist western imperialism (cultural and otherwise), that we challenge it when we find it in our movements as well; that we reject neoliberalism and capitalism.

***

My mother, Sunila Abeyekera, wrote about ‘inter-sectionality’. She wrote specifically about the term, and the employment of the term[i]: “Inter-sectionality interrogates the many different dimensions of women’s oppression and looks at them from the diverse lenses that shape the world a woman inhabits”.  In this particular essay, she was interested in the trajectory we were making from ‘inter-sectionality’ to ‘political ecology’, which she defined: “Political ecology” is a new term that encapsulates a range of concerns regarding the environment and the impacts of changing environments on people’s lives and livelihoods.”

We have done intersectionaliy our way for many decades. Global South feminists have been resisting white feminism, talking about class, caste and labour, fighting for indigenous land and against corporate interests; fighting for environmental justice and traditional livelihoods for many decades.

What would it mean to define a truly Sri Lankan feminist intersectionality in this present moment?

***

Several key women’s struggles have shaped how the mainstream ‘women’s movement’ has experienced the post-2015 election period; since the election of the ‘Yahapalanaya’ coalition government in January 2015. One was the push to enforce a minimum 25% women’s quota at the local government level, which succeeded after a very telling ruckus in parliament, during which the Joint Opposition put on display the deeply-rooted patriarchal fear of women in power.

In addition, to this, women were key contributors to public consultations held to shape recommendations for a new constitution and for reconciliation mechanisms.

Across Sri Lanka, women and women’s groups participated in meetings held with government-appointed, civil society-led committees, tasked with recording and reporting the public’s ideas and opinions. Women activists and women’s groups were a major part of organizing and mobilizing a large protest which took place in Colombo last year, with demands in relation to the new constitution: affirmative action to ensure increased women’s political representation, accountability in the constitution drafting process, a commitment to ‘people over capital’, and a promise to enshrine socio-economic rights as fundamental rights in a new constitution.

Furthermore, women contributed with ideas and concerns on transitional justice, asking for accountability in relation to missing persons, a lasting resolution to continuing land issues, justice for survivors of sexual violence and demilitarization.

But while these seemingly significant shifts were taking place with some visibility, there have been, concurrent, some lesser talked about — but nonetheless important — struggles, taking place, rather in isolation, rather invisible. But more than ever, it is critical for all women who are a part of the struggle for gender justice and liberation – in some way or another – to come together and fight each others’ fights.

***

A Muslim Women’s Agenda to Reform the MMDA

There has been a Muslim women’s struggle to reform the Muslim Marriages and Divorce Act (MMDA) for many years. However, in recent times, it has been revived with great urgency, as the conversation about the possibility of a new constitution has arisen.

The Muslim Personal Laws Reform Action Group, led by dedicated Muslim women activists, has been struggling to create awareness and support for Muslim women’s demands. As long as the MMDA carries on being enforced as it is now, Muslim women and girls are not truly equal citizens of Sri Lanka. We are not all equal, contrary to the equality clause of the Sri Lankan constitution, because of legislation like the MMDA and because of Article 16, which enables laws in existence before the drafting of the current (1978) constitution to override it, and remain valid.

A comprehensive and detailed study, titled ‘The Unequal Citizens’, conducted and written by two Muslim women researchers/activists, concludes that there are three layers at which the personal laws are discriminatory. The laws themselves are discriminatory; the Qazi courts, which are tasked with upholding the laws are discriminatory; both together have created a culture of discrimination against women.

The study details the number of ways in which the Muslim Personal Laws are discriminatory to women and girls (with 7 chapters detailing 7 specific areas of issues), and gives countless anecdotes of women who have been affected.

Their struggle presents the real cracks which form when the two topics of ‘cultural/traditional practices’ and ‘gender equality’ meet. Historically, and universally, ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ have been used to justify and sustain practices and attitudes which are harmful towards women and girls, and often simply designed to ensure their subjugation.

To add to complications, Islamophobia is a very real problem and one that’s increasingly coming out of hiding (I hate the notion of ‘on the rise), not just globally but locally, in Sri Lanka as well. Extremists on both sides – the minority Muslims and the dominant Sinhala Buddhists – know this all too well and are using it to their own advantage.  The more extreme, patriarchal ‘Islamic’ groups such as the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) claim the reform agenda is a racist attempt by a hegemonic majority to dilute Muslim values and shatter their power (or a foreign-funded Western feminist project to destabilize the Sri Lankan Muslims); the no less patriarchal hegemonic majority use it to fuel their racist rhetoric (“See how the Muslims treat their women”).

This is something we have to pay attention to very closely, because we also must stand for racial equality and resist majoritarian hegemony. It may seem like a very fine line – between critiquing Sri Lankan Muslim Personal Law and harmful, oppressive traditional religious practices and reinforcing Islamophobic notions. But it’s also not too fine a line that we can’t find it: take your cues from local Muslim women activists you trust; listen to Muslim women’s voices and their stories; be culturally aware and sensitive, but draw the line at blatant discrimination and injustice.

Unfortunately, due to the heightened sensitivity around the issues, MPL reform activists are routinely disavowed by the Muslim community – men and women – and by the state; sometimes by the rest of the activist community and even by other feminists. ‘It’s a Muslim issue’ they all say, finding that, to their convenience, this means they don’t have to take a stand or intervene.

***

LGBTIQ rights and equality

The recently drafted National Human Rights Action Plan (collaboratively drafted by members of government and members of civil society) recommended the repeal of archaic, discriminatory colonial laws, such as Articles 365 and 365 A (which effectively criminalize same-sex relations and persons of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities), and the Vagrant’s Ordinance (among other things, used to criminalize sex-workers), in the pursuit of equality. These recommendations were reportedly initially rejected by cabinet members and even the President.

President Sirisena was quoted in the media as publicly disavowing any commitment to decriminalize homosexuality. The Justice Minister was quoted as having said homosexuality is a ‘mental illness’.

A collective of individual LGBTIQ activists (and allies) drafted a petition, and held a press conference some days ago, to clarify their position and demands: nothing more or less than all the democratic rights afforded other citizens, such as the right to privacy, protection from violence, fair and equal access to services including healthcare and justice.

Resisting the agenda to control female and queer sexuality (nothing new!) is a deeply feminist issue. This agenda narrows down human sexuality — complex and fluid — into something that is, simply put, ‘productive’ and therefore essential for maintaining capitalist heteropatriarchal power: i.e, men and women are reproductive mates and women are reproductive vessels.

It is essential for us as Sri Lankan feminists to take on the LGBTIQ equality issue as a feminist issue; in fact, it is important to broaden and deepen the scope of discourse about sexuality itself. If we don’t do this, no one will.

Again, my mother wrote extensively about this. In an essay titled Sexuality: A Feminist Issue? (1999)[ii] she tried to broaden our feminist understanding of ‘diversity’ in sexuality:

‘In more recent times, the discussion about sexuality has become focused on alternative sexual practices. In some fora, speaking about sexuality has become synonymous with speaking about lesbians. Yet, in actual fact, the concept of sexuality encompasses a wide range of sexual behaviour and practice that is “alternative” to the dominant mode. It could include homosexuals, gays and lesbians; but certainly also, from the point of view of the struggle for sexual self-determination and sexual autonomy of women, this category could include single women, widows, celibates. Some of these women have been “prohibited” from having sex by the state, by religion or by the community-on the basis that they are too young, too old, married, unmarried, virgins who must guard their hymen since it is the most valuable object they possess. All of them are women who defy mainstream sexual codes and patterns of behaviour and are therefore particularly vulnerable to punishment.’

Her essay challenges us to think of all and any non-conforming persons, particularly female – in various stages of their lives – whose sexual desires and conduct are strictly controlled by their families, communities and the state. These non-conforming, ‘non-productive’ persons, with their diverse sexual desires and sexual behaviours, pose a real challenge to the heteropatriarchy. Surely then, it falls well within the feminist agenda to not only stand by these persons, but to, in general, force a broader, more progressive discourse on sexuality itself; to talk about desire, pleasure and power in a way that upsets the status quo.

***

And so, there are many moving parts. The repeal of the Vagrant’s Ordinance was also recommended in the National Human Rights Action Plan – this, as a step towards legitimizing sex-work as work, and towards ensuring rights of sex-workers. Additionally, we also seem close to the cabinet approving changes to the law that would legalize abortion under special circumstances.

This is a critical moment. This much is clear to us all. Globally, we are teetering on the threshold; over the cliff is increased authoritarianism, fascism and heteropatriarchal control of sexuality and reproductive rights.  Locally, we are all clambering to have our voices heard by the state while we are still being heard, however tokenistic or ‘symbolic’ the government’s efforts may be. It is clear that if we miss this window of opportunity to galvanize progressive change, politically, constitutionally and culturally, we may not get another chance for a long, long time.

It is more important than ever to come together as strong, unified movements – however diverse and divergent our approaches and strategies may sometimes be – to work together towards common dreams. It is simply not good enough to fight only ‘our own’ battles anymore, or indeed to obstruct each others’ pathways, intentionally or unintentionally.

This is what it means to be intersectional: that while we may disagree on the finer points (good movements should never be homogenous anyway), we also understand the importance of strategizing and acting collectively, in a way that moves us all forward, together, in the grander scheme of things; towards liberation/s both big and small, each one, meaningful, in solidarity.

A true Sri Lankan feminist intersectionality right now looks like one which stands for LGBTIQ equality; one which demands racial equality, and the more progressive constitution we as Sri Lankan people asked for, with legitimate power-sharing mechanisms and justice for all genders and ethnic minorities written in to it; an intersectionality which embraces the fight of our Muslim sisters, knowing that none of us are free until we are all free.

[i] Shifting Feminisms: From Inter- sectionality to Political Ecology, 2007

[ii] Sexuality: A Feminist Issue?, 1999

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The ‘Women’s Question’ in Sri Lanka: A Reflection in 2017

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(Written originally for and published in ShishtaLanka – DecentLanka – February 2017, in translation in Sinhala)

What is the role, and what is the status, of women in Sri Lanka today? Where do we stand? These are the primary questions I asked of myself when I began writing this essay. It seemed a good moment, at the beginning of a new year, at the close of the second year following what we believed to be a watershed general election, to reflect.

Sri Lanka has lived through several centuries of colonial rule, three decades of civil war, natural disaster and most recently, 8 years of authoritarianism. In January 2015, the Sri Lankan people effectively voted out a racist, corrupt, authoritarian regime and voted in the ‘Yahapalanaya’ (good-governance) coalition government, on the promises of transparency, accountability, an end to corruption and cronyism, long-term, thoughtful resolutions to our conflicts and a peaceful, inclusive future. Where do we stand? How far did we get? And so, it seemed a good time to reflect.

Last year, two key wheels were set in motion: one is a discourse on transitional justice, and the other, a call for constitutional reform. Two committees were appointed by the government to hear the people’s demands and concerns on both these matters: the Public Representations Committee (PRC) to consult with the public on constitutional reform, and the Consultations Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF) to hear the people’s suggestions and ideas on transitional justice processes and needs. The final reports of both those committees now remain in the public domain after being officially handed over to the government. Whatever the intentions of this government may be, they can now remain permanently a point of reference for what the people want.

Many interesting things arise out of the findings of both these committees but important to note was the role of women. Women made significant contributions to both committees across the island. Working together, over 20 women’s groups and over 70 women’s rights activists from around Sri Lanka made submissions to the PRC, highlighting women’s concerns and shaping suggestions for a new constitution that would strengthen women’s rights across the board. Women and Media Collective (WMC) notes, ‘Within the discussions there was an overall sense that the socio-economic rights of the people must be established. These include the right to life, education, health, water and shelter to name a few. On the other hand provisions pertaining to women on violence, equal wages, land and property rights, sexual and reproductive rights, political participation and electoral reforms and establishing a women’s commission were brought forward.’[1]

The CTF too received a significant portion of its submissions from women; women across Sri Lanka were particularly concerned about justice in relation to missing persons, with the wives and mothers of the disappeared taking an active role in this process, demilitarisation, justice for victims of sexual violence during the war, and having safe spaces for mourning and memorialisation.

The role of Sri Lankan women in this precise moment – post-independence, post-war, and post-authoritarianism – in building a peaceful, inclusive and democratic Sri Lanka, is critical. More critical, however, is that the need for women’s direct and dynamic engagement with these processes is acknowledged.

I see the role of women as two-fold in the present context:
a) Women, post-war, and their role in transitional justice
b) Women and their increased political participation and representation

It is 2017. We have seen change and we have also not seen change. We have felt hope and we have also felt disappointment. We feel uncertain, while we want to remain optimistic. However, 68 years after independence from colonial rule and 8 years after the so-called end of the war, we have to ask: what is our role, as people? Have we done enough? Have we given each other enough?

And through it all – as Kumari Jayawardena notes – ‘The women’s question is always with us.’[2]

The war, Sri Lankan women, and their role in transitional justice

In The Broken Palmyra, [3] Chapter 5 is titled “No More Tears Sister: The Experiences of Women, War of October 1987”. This was perhaps one of the earliest insider-accounts to document, sometimes verbatim, the experiences of women in the North of Sri Lanka, during the early years of the war.

Chapter 5 in The Broken Palmyra documents rape and sexual violence, the way in which the enforced disappearances of young men affected the lives of women, and the relationship between women and the struggle for Tamil self-determination. While this was one of the first such accounts, it certainly was not the last to attempt an exploration of the ways in which the Sri Lankan civil war uniquely affected (and affects) women, and the ways in which women experienced the war. It took many years for any special focus to be placed on the experiences of women in war in Sri Lanka; it took many more to normalise, to some extent, a gender focus in discourses on war and peace.

Neloufer de Mel captures the range of roles that women play/played during and after the war, quite aptly, when she writes: ‘The women, of varying ethnicity and age, had experienced the war in a variety of ways, whether as mothers of sons and daughters in the Sri Lankan army or the LTTE; mothers of army deserters or soldiers missing or killed in action; women combatants and ex-combatants; women survivors of rape and torture by military personnel; war widows; wives and caregivers of disabled soldiers; or victims of numerous displacements, sudden heads of households and single parents. In many cases, women laboured under a multiplicity of such conditions.’[4]

And even so, even while women have been so central to the war-narrative, to the war-reality, and experience the war in every imaginable way – and some unimaginable ones – women’s stories and realities are often erased or sidelined in favour of the heroic, masculine narrative of war and combat. Women’s stories and experiences could perhaps offer us a more nuanced look at what happens in a war – and yet, time and again, we are happy to brush them aside for a more convenient narrative of war as glorious, war as necessary.

It is in the female experience of war that women are transformed into important agents of change in a post-war context. This, too, we are happy to ignore. Women, as mothers and wives, sisters and daughters, fighters and lovers, leaders and survivors, carry important power post-war, to shape and transform their own lives, as well as the trajectories of their communities. But, eternally cast as ‘victim’, women can often go unheard in peace processes and transitional justice processes.

Radhika Coomaraswamy and Dilrukshi Fonseka write in their introduction to Peace Work[5], ‘It is one thing to acknowledge and account for the overwhelming difficulties faced by women in times of war. It is another thing, however, to remain fixed to a one-dimensional conceptualisation of women as victims of war.’

They argue that this conceptualisation of women as victims is a disadvantage in three distinct ways: one is that it erases the reality of female militarism and the role of women combatants in war efforts; that ‘women are also capable of horrific violence’. Second, they argue that it does not account for the ways in which women may benefit from the circumstances of war, by acquiring new roles and/or new power within the home, community etc., and finally, that it does not allow for us to see the full potential of women in peace-building efforts. This last one is the most important to reflect on, in a post-war era, when transitional justice processes have been set in motion. Women are critical to real peace-building.

In my article for Options magazine “The Women Are Still Here: The Mothers and Wives of Sri Lanka’s Disappeared and the Trope of Reconciliation”[6], I asserted that women have a critical role to play in Sri Lanka’s process of transitional justice and in any processes that will take all Sri Lankans towards healing. They always have. As those who have suffered and survived the consequences of the war, short-term and long-term, in unique and cruel ways, women have always played a remarkable role in our history as seekers of truth and justice. Mothers and wives of the disappeared, South and North, have been at the forefront of the fight for justice and accountability for the last two decades. As community leaders and heads of households in a post-war landscape, Sri Lankan women make crucial economic and political decisions for their families and communities. Sri Lankan women have been called on to carry on living and ensure the survival of others in the worst of times; for this, they have had to be creative, resourceful, resilient and powerful, often – and this is perhaps uniquely female – working together with each other and strengthening bonds of community.

A feminine narrative of war could truly aid healing and transitioning – it is the female narrative of resilience, survival, solidarity, family, perseverance, entrepreneurship and resourcefulness in hard times versus the masculine narrative of war – a binary dichotomy of victory and defeat, heroes and terrorists, which serves only to antagonise those grieving and to remove culpability from ‘the victors’. The feminine narrative is rich, and deep and complex. It is perhaps, better suited to fuel a real search for truth, justice, peace and meaning. We have to make space for this narrative to be heard and recognised. It may be our only real shot at a peaceful and inclusive future.

Sri Lankan women and political representation

Sri Lanka gave women the right to vote as early as 1931, much earlier than most other countries, and of course, gave the world its first woman head of government, with the appointment of Sirima Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike as Ceylon’s prime-minister in 1960.

However, Sri Lanka still remains hopelessly behind in terms of the equal representation of women in all levels of politics. While Sri Lanka boasts a relatively high ranking in many development indicators, in comparison to other countries in South Asia, we still suffer from an abysmal low number of women in politics, at the local and national levels.

While we gave the world its first head of government, and her daughter too became our President in later years, it’s good to remember that these are not necessarily signs that Sri Lanka, has, in any way, met patriarchy head on, though we are quick to say they are indeed such signs. Major women leaders in our societies, as we have seen across South Asia, are typically either wives or daughters of beloved male leaders and members of wealthy, old dynastic political families. The pattern seems to go that they sweep in to power subsequent to an assassination of said male relative: Aung San Suu Kyi, Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, Sirima and Chandrika Bandaranaike.

This is not to detract from the important shifts in existing power structures for which they were invariably responsible. But as Kumari Jayawardena notes, ‘…there is no point just electing a few women who, even at local level is somebody’s wife or relative.  We have done studies on local government, and found that many of the women who contested Provincial Councils and pradeshiya sabhas, had a link to a man – a husband or uncle or somebody who got assassinated, leading her to enter politics.’ [7]

We refer to this as the ‘Bandaranaike Syndrome’, and Jayawardena asserts that the Bandaranaike Syndrome can be seen not just at the level of national politics, but at the local, rural levels too. ‘The ‘Bandaranaike syndrome’ at the top, comes down to village level politics: where the name is known and they are from influential political families and have been engaged in political work themselves, women are accepted and their entering politics is not opposed. These women politicians keep talking about the legacy of the man who brought them the winning seat.’[8]

This is where a conversation about quotas becomes important.

The struggle for quotas for women in politics has thrown light on many layers of problems. There are many levels at which women are held back from succeeding in the world of politics: one is at the level of self-selection – socio-cultural and socio-economic realities ensure that women often themselves do not believe that they are worthy candidates or could enter a life of politics; the second is at the level of the party, where parties systematically discriminate against women candidates and rarely if ever nominate women; finally, it is at the level of the electorate, where a combination of a lack of visibility in relation to other campaigns, and conditioned sexism and social biases towards male authority prevent women from being elected by the public.

To advocate for an increase in women in all political spheres is to attempt to address all these problems holistically and simultaneously. Women’s groups have been lobbying political parties to be fairer in their selections, capacity-building women leaders to contest in elections and take up office, and attempting to change the biases of the public, for decades.

In 2011 Chulani Kodikara wrote, ‘Recently the Sri Lankan government has also sought to explain away the low levels of political representation of women to the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), attributing it to women’s own choices, their preoccupation with multiple roles, the high costs of electoral campaigns and the lack of confidence of political parties in the ability of women to win votes.’[9] Unfortunately, these are the arguments we still hear: ‘women don’t come forward’; ‘women have too many other responsibilities’.

In 2015 and 2016, with the election of the new government, however, the women’s movement was more hopeful than it had been in awhile. The news that President Maithripala Sirisena in his 100 day Work Programme, was proposing that legislation would be introduced to ensure at least 25% women’s representation in Provincial Councils and Local Government, was received with optimism. This was approved in parliament in February of 2016. In 2015, the cabinet also approved a 30% quota for women at the Provincial Council level.

However, in the fight to procure women more political representative power, we are still up against many challenges, least of all the unchecked and unquestioned male privilege and sense of entitlement of most male politicians, a sheer lack of will from political parties to give women a chance, the poison of a viciously patriarchal political culture, and deeply-rooted social and cultural biases against women in power.  It is in this realm, in the realm of politics, that we sometimes find ourselves up against the basest forms of sexist ideology. It is often here we see it all laid bare. Kodikara writes, ‘The paradox of strong development indicators and weak political representation of women is a sign of enduring patriarchy, reinforced by political and judicial elites.’ [10]

Kodikara wrote, in an extensive stock-taking study about women in politics in Sri Lanka, ‘A major barrier to equal representation of women in political institutions in Sri Lanka is the current political culture, the male model of politics and the lack of internal democracy within political parties.’[11]

Women have to be able to make decisions; women need their fair share of real, meaningful power. Women need the opportunity to make decisions that matter, for themselves, their communities, and their country. It is only a true and lasting change in political culture, which will allow women the opportunity to enjoy and exercise more power and thus engage in more critical decision-making, at all levels. Until women are given the space to engage with and contribute more fully to nation-building and decision-making, until the full potential of women in nation-building is not recognised, Sri Lanka will remain behind socially, economically and developmentally. Women need to be recognised for their full potential as unique and extraordinary agents of change and transformation; only then, can we all truly tread the path of real progress.

 

 

[1] Women and Media Collective: http://womenandmedia.org/womens-submissions-to-the-prc-on-constitutional-reforms/

 

[2] The Hindu: “There was a gap about our part of the world”, Meera Srinivasan (Jan 01 2017)

[3] The Broken Palmyra: The Tamil Crisis in Sri Lanka – An Inside Account: Rajan Hoole, Daya Somasundaram, K Sritharan, Rajani Thiranagama (UTHRJ, 1988, 1990)

[4] Militarizing Sri Lanka; Popular Culture, Memory and Narrative in the Armed Conflict: Neloufer de Mel (SAGE Publications,2007)

[5] Peace Work; Women, Armed Conflict and Negotiation: ed. Radhika Coomaraswamy and Dilrukshi Fonseka (Women Unlimited & ICES, 2004)

[6] OPTIONS 51 (Women and Media Collective, 2016)

[7] OPTIONS: “What does women’s political participation mean in 21st century Sri Lanka? | An interview with Dr. Kumari Jayawardena” (WMC, 2013)

[8] OPTIONS: “What does women’s political participation mean in 21st century Sri Lanka? | An interview with Dr. Kumari Jayawardena” (WMC, 2013)

[9] Open Democracy: “Sri Lanka: where are the women in local government?”: Chulani Kodikara (Open Democracy, 2011)
https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/chulani-kodikara/sri-lanka-where-are-women-in-local-government

[10] Open Democracy: “Sri Lanka: where are the women in local government?”: Chulani Kodikara (Open Democracy, 2011)
https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/chulani-kodikara/sri-lanka-where-are-women-in-local-government

[11] Equal Political Representation of Women in Sri Lanka A Stocktaking Report for the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment and the United Nations Development Programme: Chulani Kodikara (Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment, Sri Lanka and UNDP, 2009)

 

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The Women Are Still Here: The Mothers and Wives of Sri Lanka’s Disappeared and the Trope of Reconciliation

 

Sri Lankan mothers from the "Dead and Mi

“Sri Lankan mothers from the “Dead and Missing Person’s Parents” organisation hold photographs as they takes part in a protest in Jaffna, some 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Colombo. Photo: AFP” (International Commission on Missing Persons)

Note: This piece was commissioned for and originally published in Options Magazine, 51 edition, in Sri Lanka, in 2016. The full magazine is online here. This article is published here in full with only one minor edit.

Women are still mostly invisible from many of the processes which govern and shape our societies. The matter of women in politics is not the only matter at hand – but it does unsparingly reveal the crux of the problem. Keeping women from politics is about keeping women from a serious engagement with decision-making; it is about how women’s voices are shut down and discredited, the moment they appear in the public sphere. The world, in general, does not like listening to women. The very concept of listening to women still evades many people, many conversations and many spaces. The twenty-year long fight in Sri Lanka, to get the mandatory women’s quota in all political parties contesting in elections fixed at 25% (from an abysmal 2% before) was won earlier this year, but even then, not without ugliness. Our systems have a way of disappearing women.

But they are here; they are still here. In fact, in a post-war country where an armed conflict took lives for nearly 30 years, and other cycles and mechanisms of violence before, during and after claimed their own, there are, sometimes, only women. Many households, many communities, particularly in the North and North East of Sri Lanka, are women-led. The women are, emphatically, still here.

This year, in addition to the ‘25%’ victory, women are being heard marginally more than usual in Sri Lanka. The state has engaged women directly through critical consultative processes on significant issues. One was the mechanism of public consultations on constitutional reform; across Sri Lanka, women made daring submissions to the Public Representations Committee, which addressed issues of gender equality across the board.

The second such process is, of course, the Consultations Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms. The Consultations Task Force (CTF) has been receiving and reviewing public submissions since April this year. One of the key mechanisms mandated is the set-up of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), and getting the OMP bill passed.

Enforced disappearances have been a deep, dark problem which Sri Lanka has had an intensely complicated relationship with. They happened in the North and North East to members of the Tamil community, with the war for nearly 30 years; they happened in the South to members of the Sinhalese community when previous governments tried to violently crush youth-led Marxist insurrections more than once. It remains one of grossest acts of violence committed on civilians in times of war and crisis, primarily because no government has ever admitted it to be true. Just recently, on the 23 August 2016, the speaker of parliament signed the Office of Missing Persons Act, making it a legal act.

While commissions have been appointed before to look into disappearances, many of those were for investigating disappearances in the South. The mandate of the OMP includes investigating disappearances in the North and North East. Finally, something is being said about the Tamil community’s losses. For the first time, steps have been taken by the state, post-war, to at least acknowledge disappearances which occurred as a consequence of the war, of war-related measures of ‘security’ taken by the Sri Lankan state and armed forces, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

However, it is clear that the problem of enforced disappearances is yet to entirely disappear from our society – with the war ‘ended’, with a new government in place, there are serious indications that it still continues. With the OMP now in motion, the new government must also take steps to abolish the dangerously exploited PTA if it is serious about dealing with disappearances.

But it didn’t take the OMP to bring the topic of disappearances into our midst. Throughout the civil war in Sri Lanka, and throughout the other moments of violent conflict, it has been women – typically mothers and wives of the disappeared – who have been the face of all the disappeared, Tamil and Sinhalese, of this country; women, refusing to disappear, standing in for their loved ones who have been made invisible.

Through organisations like Poorani, Mother’s Front and The Association of War Affected Women and Parents of Servicemen Missing in Action, mothers and wives of the disappeared have made their voices heard – in a sustained, long-term manner, over decades, North to South. They have been in the struggle for justice for a long, long time.

In their story, the story of Sri Lanka’s civil war – marked by racism, violence and the strategic deepening of ethnic divisions – is immediately made less simplistic, less black and white, less ‘us’ and ‘them’; it complicates things, and in a profound way. Tamil and Sinhalese women have come together on several historic occasions to protest enforced disappearances, when relations between the two communities have been at their worst. Even when they protested among their own communities, in their own towns, their protests stand out in history as incredibly provocative: often, the moral and emotional authority of ‘mother’ and ‘wife’ ensured that these women could express their grief and rage without fear, and with gravity. But their demands were never simplistic: they wanted them back, or they wanted the people who had killed them to be tried through fair, concrete mechanisms.

They had a clear sense of what ‘justice’ meant, long before talks of transitional justice had begun in Sri Lanka. They had understood that these questions were going to need to be answered, in order for there to be ‘reconciliation’. Decades ago, these women were already telling us that ending the war wouldn’t be enough to really end the war.

In the reconciliation mechanisms processes, it is in the spaces of these women that some feeling of understanding seems to be making itself felt; it is these women who are beginning to talk to each other, to be the first to instinctively understand reconciliation and reparation. It is them who are crossing boundaries of race and mistrust to say, ‘I understand we have a shared experience of unthinkable pain; I also understand we, as members of different ethnic communities, have experienced the war entirely differently.’ It is in them that we see most clearly the need for accountability and justice; with them, we see that without accountability and justice, we cannot begin making the journey towards reconciliation and healing.

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Rape, the Abuse of Power: Feminist Thoughts on ‘Silence in the Courts’

 

 

silence-in-the-courts_theatrical-poster-001-1Note: In this piece, when I refer to ‘rape’, I refer more or less exclusively to heterosexual rape, as committed against women, by men. The omission of the discussion of other versions of sexual violence and rape is not exclusionary in intent, but because the piece attempts to discuss ‘rape’ as presented in the film ‘Silence in the Courts’, which explores two occasions of heterosexual rape. However, I have tried my best not to be exclusionary to other experiences of rape, in being conscious of my use of language. Further, I use the word ‘victim’ only to connote ‘victim’ in a legal sense; i.e ‘victim of the violence/assault’ as opposed to a suspect/perpetrator etc.

Prasanna Vithanage’s latest film, the documentary ‘Silence in the Courts’, reveals many crises: primarily of course, the absolute fragility of the concept of justice as we understand it and how easily it can be manipulated by those meant to uphold it. It is about a ‘grave abuse of power’. It is also about a much more difficult thing, actually: it is about how this ‘system of justice’ is itself flawed and unjust.

The documentary is particularly timely and relevant to us now – though perhaps the ideas explored there are always relevant. We in Sri Lanka are caught in a moment where the optimism we had about regime change leading to a possible shift in our political culture is in rapid decline. While we had dared to dream of transparency, accountability and good governance, the vision on which those hopes were built is slowly slipping away from beneath us. On the international stage, the topic of misogyny and its relationship to power has perhaps never been as ‘mainstream’ as it is now, with Donald Trump exemplifying many of the most troublesome aspects of the impunity often granted to rich, well-connected, powerful men, by elite, patriarchal systems – essentially ‘boys’ clubs’ – which protect ‘their own’.

‘Silence in the Courts’ should be championed for many reasons, but also for the subtle way in which it asks difficult questions, for its quiet, strong strain of feminist thinking in its dealings with the questions of ‘what is rape’, ‘what is consent’, and ‘what is justice’, especially when it comes to those historically excluded from power and access to justice. In many ways, as the film shows us, access to justice is power, and preventing people from accessing justice is a way to exclude them from power.

While the documentary chooses not to dwell on dramatizations of the violence of the rape itself, for which I applaud it, it explores the process of reporting rape, and being rejected – the array of ways in which survivors of rape are further violated – particularly when they are face-to-face with the justice system. But the responses of the justice system to rape are merely a reflection of society’s common responses to rape, and vice versa. The onus is on the victim of the assault to prove her credibility. This is how we – individuals, society and systems – respond to women when they try to speak about rape.

We begin with disbelief.

Rape is a rare kind of crime where, universally, the process begins with suspicion of the victim, and the victim is asked to prove her story; it is possibly the only crime in the world where the victim, just by reporting it, risks being blamed for it. In the words of Dale Spender, the Australian feminist researcher, “Rape – where it is a woman’s word against a man’s – is one of the few crimes where corroboration is required. If you have your handbag stolen you don’t have to provide a witness. But if you are a victim of rape – you have to prove it happened: and the unquestioned authority of men and the untrustworthiness of women, works against every woman who is sexually assaulted or violated.”

‘Why did you not come forward before?’ is the first of the questions. It is also sort of the bottom-line. We hear this now every day, as Trump defenders try to explain away the ever-increasing number of allegations of sexual assault being levelled against him. This is a famous question; it is meant to cast doubt on the person reporting the rape. More important questions should be asked in its place, but are not.

Why is it so many survivors of rape wait until so much later to come forward and talk about it (whether it is to report it or to simply talk to someone they know)? Why is the answer to this not obvious to us already?

The irony is this: in the asking of that question itself lies the answer to the question – it is precisely because the world and its systems are conditioned to disbelieve the victim’s accounts of sexual assault as a default reaction, because the default is to believe that accounts of rape seem so ‘unbelievable’this is why victims don’t come forward. Why should the victim of the assault further suffer through the humiliation and indignity and frustration of deliberately performed disbelief; disbelief of a thing which occurs so frequently and is so universal and widespread, that anyone’s first instinct should be to believe it right away?

We only need to look as far as our own Sri Lankan system in relation to reporting rape and the procedure of rape trials to see how these so-called justice systems fail survivors of rape so miserably; so much so that it is now no longer absurd to imagine these are deliberate attempts to disenfranchise women and keep them powerless in their most vulnerable moments. Most typically, women victims are questioned, tried, and the worth of their stories ‘judged’ by men and male-centric institutions. Convictions for rape are abysmally low.

First, in many countries and in ours, rape cases need to be built overwhelmingly on physical evidence. This itself is the ultimate sexism, and reveals that these systems were put in place by men who never had any experience of sexual assault. The gathering of valid physical evidence requires timeliness, and is often intrusive. This requires the rape survivor to go to the police, right after the rape has been committed, report the rape, give a statement, recount all the details as accurately as possible, and submit herself to a physical medical examination by the authorities.

The design of these procedures show that we are either delusional about the social frameworks that we all live within, or we simply don’t care about the kinds of ways in which women are uniquely affected by them. The reality is one in which survivors of rape will feel shame and fear, in which she will first assume she must be responsible for it, in some way. The reality is one in which she fears being rejected by her family and community and considered impure. It means we care nothing for the fact that experiencing rape must evoke fear and cause trauma in survivors, two things which will only subside – if ever – with time.

So – this is why women don’t come forward sometimes until months, even years later. Why should they? They are met with blame, disbelief and then slim chances of their trials ending in a conviction. Some women never come forward. Many women never do. Some never report it. Sometimes women come forward only when another woman has already done so, in accusing the same man. This too is illustrated in the film. This is a common pattern, especially when the man is particularly powerful and well-known. There is nothing suspicious or dubious about this. It should all be perfectly understandable.

As the documentary then shows us, the questions which follow the first question become increasingly concerned with the agency of the woman to resist rape. ‘Why didn’t you run away?’, ‘Why didn’t you scream?’, ‘Why did you go back there?’ The onus is shifted from the perpetrator and the incident of violence to the woman and her ability to respond to such a situation – the notion then, is that the rape must have occurred because she simply did not resist hard enough, or was stupid enough to return to a place/person she knew was dangerous. Somehow, yet again, the system looks for a way to pin the blame on the victim of the rape.

Sexual assault, sexual harassment, domestic violence and rape – committed most often (but not always) by men on women – are about power. Every time a man gropes a woman on the bus, or starts masturbating in her view in a very public space – it is about power. Every time a man rapes a woman – whether through physical coercion or through other means of non-physical intimidation – it is about power. And because it is about power, the perpetrator doesn’t need to physically overpower the victim. It is because he can and because he knows there is nothing she can do about it. It is an attempt to humiliate, to paralyse, to dis-empower completely.

The rapist doesn’t need to hold a victim down for it to be considered ‘rape’. It is rape if she is scared to leave the room, if she is scared to scream, if she is scared to refuse him.

And the film shows us this very clearly. Why doesn’t she run away? Why does she go there, again, knowing what he wants to do? It is because she is scared and she is powerless in relation to him. Because she has no choice. Rape is an attempt to assert power over someone with no power to do anything about it, and then enjoy it.

In ‘Silence in the Courts’, the rapist is a man who is particularly powerful, who the system has deemed worthy and granted with protection and impunity, and the survivors of the rapes, in both cases, are women who are disenfranchised and ‘powerless’ in this system. He is a magistrate, he presides over cases where their lives are implicated; they are poverty-stricken, they are alone. While the circumstances of this specific scenario illustrates the point of power very acutely and very literally, the film also reminds us – even if he weren’t that ‘powerful’, and she wasn’t that ‘powerless’, in the world in which we live, men are inherently invested with more power than women, by a system which they protect and which in turn, protects them. We are not equals, in this sense, no matter the specific circumstances. She has no recourse, no real ability to take any action or access the justice system and hope it will favour her. She cannot fight him one-on-one; not physically, not in any other way. Justice is not on her side.

Rape itself is the abuse of power.

The film also deepens the discourse about male power in its reflection on the responses of each of the husbands to the rapes of their wives. It asks us to question notions of honour/dishonour, ownership/guardianship and pure/polluted. In some sense, it asks us to question the very beliefs which have shaped a justice system, which is deliberately exclusionary.

The film’s theme is justice and its quest is justice; it attempts to pick away at the veneer of cover-up and of the terrible crimes which were covered up. But more importantly, it seeks to uncover this ‘boys’ club’ in some way and to shatter its armour. For this, it is a film of importance and of significant courage.

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It’s Really Time We Stopped Rejecting Feminism

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Lahore feminists (1983) protest the Islamisization of Zia government.

Feminism is the only real way to challenge sexism; when we reject feminism, we play right into its hands.

You would be surprised at the amount of messages I get from women (writing to say they so agree with something I have written) which begin with ‘I am not a feminist, but…’. There are some others which begin with, ‘I am a feminist, but…’ These are usually to disagree with something I’ve said, or to tell me, I could have said it better; I could have been less angry.

I try to feel both the encouragement and the discouragement; I try to understand both my own reactions and the subtext of the messages themselves.

In some way, I read both kinds of messages as rejections of feminism and therefore, they are upsetting. I hate to hear young, modern women rejecting feminism in this day and age, though I understand now it is for reasons more complicated than it simply being an ignorant, selfish choice. I understand this rejection itself is a part of the insidious success of patriarchy.

I hate it because it’s not only political, of course, it also feels personal – it feels like a rejection of something I work hard at every day, for all of us, and thus a rejection of who I am. So it upsets me but it also hurts me.

But as I said, many of those messages are usually fundamentally supportive, and go on to say that they agree with something I had written, and they are glad I wrote it. These statements of mine that they wish to champion are clearly feminist statements – so it has me asking all the questions we’ve been asking women who reject feminism for a long, long time: ‘If you believe all that, then why do you not consider yourself a feminist?’.

Sometimes, women go on to tell me, they never felt affected by sexism, but they just became mothers, and are now severely worried about the state of the world. The message will perhaps say: ‘I am not a feminist, but since becoming a mother I have really started to worry about the kind of world my daughter/son will grow up in, and the awful sexist ideas being presented to them in this world as normal.’ This is where I start to worry about how self-centered we have become.

But this is no longer a mystery. Neoliberalism has taught us to be consumerist, self-serving and competitive. Many of us women of the middle and upper classes are content with the perceived ‘benefits’ of its systems afforded to women: economic independence, entrepreneurial confidence, rewards for merit and commitment, the possibility of rising to power within its structures, and most of all, the illusion of liberation from domestication. Neoliberalism, like all ideologies shaped by patriarchy, is effective in its invisiblization of systemic power – the key ingredient in sustaining existing power structures. We don’t realise we – our bodies, our minds, our labour – are merely trapped in another kind of patriarchal machine. It offers itself up as the solution to our problems, convincing us to see our problems as individual, and not related to systemic power relations and structural injustice.

And so we reject social justice movements like feminism; because we think our problems with injustice are really problems of our own inadequacies, or the inadequacies of our colleagues, bosses, partners. We see them as isolated incidents we just have to put up with if we are to ‘get ahead’.  

But the machinery of patriarchy has been discrediting feminism for as long as feminism in any shape or form has been around; from even before we ever used the word, even when there were other words – witch, suffragette, whore – women who fought for their autonomy or in any way refused to conform or be controlled by men and their institutions were demonized, incarcerated, ridiculed, killed. The silencing of feminists and of feminism has a violent history. The war against women has been on for centuries.

And it is very much ongoing. We only need to look today to the entire spectrum of hurt that self-identifying feminists or every women who challenges male power in any way, have to face, in life, on the internet: from being mocked to being abused, from being shunned to being ostracized, from being threatened to being assaulted, from intimidation to violence, from bullying to revenge porn, from shaming to condescension. Women who dare to live differently are still being killed.

These campaigns erase the richness and depth of feminist discourse from our collective consciousness; it erases feminist perspectives from popular culture, from media, from public spaces by simply silencing women or obstructing women from ever reaching those spaces. Most frustratingly, it shapes us culturally to dismiss these perspectives when they appear in the public domain.

Over decades, feminist discourse has been deliberately subjected to context-blind, reductionist revisions: ‘Feminists are man-haters’, or ‘Feminism is reverse-sexism’, or ‘Feminism’s agenda is so narrow, it only cares about ________, it never addresses __________’,  ‘Feminism has never achieved anything for anyone’, or worst, ‘We don’t need Feminism anymore because everything it fought for has already been won.’ We are told, feminists are angry, hysterical, unreasonable.

So we do the work of patriarchy ourselves, and we dismiss feminists and reject feminism. Every time we reject feminism, we give sexist power a little more space to thrive. There is nothing novel or radical about the rejection of feminism. It’s just us, signing away the only ideology and movement which fully supports our autonomy and humanity.

The truth is that feminism is the vast collection of decades, maybe even a century, of the hard work of countless activists, academics, thinkers, writers, teachers, doers. It is a holistic, emotional, political response to – and attempt to understand – the denial of the full humanity of women. It is the opposite of the narrow, rigid, hardened ideology that it is so often made out to be: it is deep, rich, historic and contemporary. It is complex. It continues to thrive and grow with the challenge of deep self-critique and self-interrogation – feminism has never been closed to intra-movement criticism and has constantly moved forward as an ideology, with time, old values questioned and new ones adopted. It is an ideology of profound humanity, solidarity and compassion. Feminism has opened up so many countless discourses for us. Nearly every imaginable topic has been enriched by feminist critique and perspective: from gender and sexuality, to capitalism, consumerism and economy, to war and militarisation, to art, cinema, media and popular culture; history, epistemology, science, medicine, technology, environmental justice. I would argue few other social justice movements have provided us as extensive, diverse and vibrant a discourse through which to understand ourselves.

More tangibly, it is also all of us – it is a great network of sisters-in-arms spanning time and space, women before and after us, in all the world around us, who have made monumental changes to our world, for the greater benefit of us all. It has been and is often feminists at the forefront of the fight for so many of our human rights. Feminists have fought for and fought beside countless marginalised communities for decades.

But it has been more than a fight for practical social changes – the right to vote, to be elected, to work and earn, the right to control our own bodies, the right to protect our land and livelihoods, the rights to education and health; the rights young women now take for granted when they reject feminism – but it is an ongoing ideological fight, to broaden our knowledge and worldview, to deepen our humanity; a fight for a paradigm shift; a fight to have us imagine the world better, differently. There will never be a day when we don’t need feminism, unless we want to stop growing altogether.

Many women are disturbed by the continued impunity with which sexism seems to function in our 21 century world. We are all tired of street harassment. We don’t like being told what we can and can’t wear. We all agree that rape is wrong and that to blame victims for their assault is wrong. We are frustrated when we are treated like ‘silly little girls’ in serious forums, or are passed over for promotions at work. We all mostly agree homophobia is bigotry. We all want to be able to make choices about what we do, whether we have children or not, who we love. We are mad when men mock us for getting emotional about the daily injustices we face, and we are mad about the daily injustices themselves. On public forums, women very earnestly ask, ‘So what do we do about sexism?’

The answer is, simply, that we need to give our fuller engagement and commitment to feminism. Feminism is the answer. Feminism is the only real way to challenge sexism, and we are all going to have to accept that.

 

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DifferentYetEqual Press Statement on 15 August 2016 Vigil (English)

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Diverse people gathered to celebrate differences and demand equality (from the official DifferentYetEqual FB page)

 

The following statement can be found in all three languages on the Different Yet Equal Facebook group page. 

 

DifferentYetEqual: A campaign for equality and democracy

Press Statement: 16 August 2016

On the evening of 15 August 2016, we, a group of citizens from diverse backgrounds, gathered together under the banner DifferentYetEqual, at Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo 07.

We began discussing the need for such a campaign, to promote equality and justice in our society, as many of us are deeply concerned by the continued atmosphere of racism and intolerance in recent times. We have been particularly concerned with several incidents of attacks against Muslim and Christian communities and their places of worship, around Sri Lanka[i]. We have read countless reports (in 2016) of mobs disrupting Christian and Muslim religious activities and gatherings violently[ii]. We are concerned by the ongoing campaign by some groups to claim Sri Lanka as a ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ nation. We are also acutely aware of our responsibility as citizens to proactively counter these discriminatory ideologies. We are firm in the understanding that no community needs to be treated less than equal for this nation of ours to move forward. It is our diversity and pluralism than makes Sri Lanka the nation it is.

We began as an informal group, disseminating our ideas and thoughts through social media and other networks to a larger community of concerned citizens. We collectively organised yesterday’s vigil, of our own volition as a citizen-led collective, using our own personal funds. Everyone who attended the vigil came of their own accord. There were people of diverse communities and from diverse backgrounds present at the vigil.

Soon, the vigil was disrupted aggressively by a group of people claiming to be representatives of the ‘SinhaLe’ group. This group proceeded to carry out their campaign of the promotion of racism and hate-speech. Conflict between the two groups ensued, as the ‘SinhaLe’ group goaded the vigil-attendees constantly. It only subsided finally because all those at the vigil were able to be non-aggressive, non-confrontational, peaceful and tolerant, while making their point assertively and strongly. Finally, the DifferentYetEqual group disbanded collectively, peacefully, after singing songs of unity and peace and making their statements to the media in Tamil, Sinhala and English. We disbanded before the ‘SinhaLe’ group did; this was our choice.

We are not an organisation, nor do we have any affiliations whatsoever to any political party or personality and wholly reject any such claim.

The Media

 As those gathered to demand a more just and equal Sri Lanka for us all, we were disappointed by the behaviour of most of the media present there yesterday. Instead of covering the event they had come there to cover – the DifferentYetEqual vigil for equality – many immediately diverted all their attention to the disruptive elements. Most of the media present seemed more interested in quickly turning their cameras to the unfolding drama, rather than seeking balanced perspectives from those who had gathered for the vigil.

Several media reports following the vigil contain factual errors about DifferentYetEqual, which are a sign of this unprofessionalism. This could easily have been avoided had the journalists been interested in seeking out the facts; there were prepared media spokespeople present, and we would have been happy to answer any questions.

We urge the media to take its responsibilities more seriously; to ensure that they give equal time and effort to documenting and presenting multiple perspectives so as to commit to impartiality and professionalism.

We are grateful however, to the non-mainstream media on social media platforms giving the vigil coverage, and to mainstream media who worked hard to provide accurate reports.

 

The Police

The Cinnamon Gardens Police were informed of our plans for a silent, peaceful vigil days before, by representatives of the group. We believe they had and have a continued responsibility to stand by us, and all other citizens who are attempting to rally for equality in a peaceful, non-disruptive manner.

Many police officers gathered at the site of the vigil, once the disruptive elements had arrived. While members of the DifferentYetEqual group reasoned with officers asking them to step in and do something, the officers did nothing until much later, when the OIC arrived on the scene. By then, there was a strong police presence and we believe they could have contained the situation more effectively and efficiently.

The police did step in strongly towards the end, but mostly to reason with the DifferentYetEqual vigil group, and ask us to not engage and prolong the confrontation. They did also try to reason with the ‘SinhaLe’ group, but we believe and feel they could have done more. The ‘SinhaLe’ group also carried a distorted version of the national flag – a crime as far as we know – and we urge the Police, in the future, to at least act strongly on matters like that.

However, we are thankful for their presence there.

 

Finally, we are inspired at the way all vigil-attendees stood strong and responded peacefully yet assertively in the face of aggression and hate. We believe in the power of citizens’ collectives and urge more citizens to join together to stand up against discrimination. Together, we have immense power and we cannot be silenced. The vigil was not the end of the DifferentYetEqual campaign; it was only the beginning. We hope to continue using social media and public events to bring people together, to stand against racism and all other forms of discrimination.

 

[i] INCIDENTS OF VIOLENCE AND INTIMIDATION OF CHRISTIANS 2016; Compiled by The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL)

[ii] Special Rapporteur Report Submitted to Minority Rights Group Incidents against Muslims February, April, May, June 2016

 

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Holding Space and Speaking: Why, When, How We Say the Things We Say About Injustice

if you are not angry

 

Below are some notes and observations about how, why and when we choose to speak and what we choose to say on social media – but also in general. This is about how we respond to injustice, and how we respond to those who respond to injustice – and while specifically about recent events, can also broadly be applied to larger conversations about any kind of narrative about the marginalized and oppressor.

In the wake of Brexit, the shooting of LGBTQ people in a club in Florida, the latest killings of Black people in the USA by the police, and other such international crises, different kinds of people are speaking up on social media platforms. The following thoughts are about those who materialize to criticize those who choose to speak their minds against these crises of justice, these failures of democracy, these violations of what is right and good in the world. This is about those who pop in to say ‘Who cares?’ or a more distilled version of that, ‘Why do you care so much about what’s happening so far away?’, or those who feel they can make inane jokes about these matters when others are grieving; those who can trivialize that grief, that rage; those who patronize others who are enraged to say that they, the non-caring, have understood the issue better than the enraged; those who speak to only say, seemingly, nothing more than they don’t care about this thing that you care about – or worse, that they feel the injustice you are grieving is not really ‘injustice’ at all.

This is very interesting to me – it’s not just a matter of morality (though I think it is just that), it is a matter of semantics. It is very interesting to me how people build their arguments, and indeed why they do so, and more importantly – when and why they choose to put forth these arguments. It is a question of, why have you chosen to speak in this moment on this matter?, and is there a concept of sometimes, simply, not speaking?

Social media gives everyone the platform to ‘speak’, even when we often have not earned the right to speak – in particular spaces, on particular topics. Thanks to the Western Liberal ideals on which much of social media is based (‘Freedom of Speech’), we no longer even believe that we need to earn the right to speak. We think we are just born with that inalienable human right to speak – but some of us more than others. It gives us the opportunity to say things which carry no meaning and have no relevance. It even gives us the opportunity to tear other things down, and really not achieve anything else with our words.

It is interesting: because it is a matter of knowing for yourself that there are things on which you should not, need not, speak – either because it is not your space, or because you are ignorant about the facts, or indeed, as you claim yourself sometimes, it does not affect you. Here are some questions I often ask myself before ‘speaking’: do you have something interesting to say? Do you have something substantial to say? Do you care?

If anything it reveals: who among us constantly wish to hold space, and who among us are willing to, even used to, giving up space, being silent and sitting down. And this is a matter of privilege, I observe – there are those of us who have always had space, automatically; those of us who have never had to prove ourselves or our right to speak, those of us who have never had to fight to be heard.

Further, it reveals more about you than you think it does. Not only have you now revealed yourself as someone who thinks themselves to be, by default, interesting, you have also revealed yourself to be someone who is openly admitting they do not care about injustice, problematically, in forums where people do care.

If you do not care about the killing of Black people in America, perhaps you don’t have to say anything around conversations about the matter, among people who do. Keep scrolling. If you haven’t been someone that has cared – in general – about the struggle of Black people in America, if you haven’t spoken up before about their oppression, then perhaps you don’t need to step in to critique their resistance. If you are only stepping in to critique their resistance – to say it’s not about race, to say that somehow the injustice and violence against them is justifiable and explainable – and you have not given any of your space to critiquing white privilege / white supremacy before that, then you are only revealing yourself to be someone who does not think the continued oppression of African Americans is wrong. If your own reproduction of the narrative has not been balanced, and the only moment you have spoken up on the entire topic of racism in America is to say Black Lives Matter is doing something wrong – then you are a part of the problem.

If you do care, but want to point out genuine contradictions in other people’s reproductions of events – to say they are building unfair narratives, if you have a critique of the things they give their space to, if you want to say ‘Why do you care about Black Lives Matter when you didn’t seem to care about Tamils being killed here/people killed in Syria?’ etc. then be very sure of what you want. Perhaps do not make sweeping generalisations. Ask yourself, is this true of all, or at least most of the people who will read your statement? If it is not true of all or most of them, and only of a few, why not engage those people privately? Would this not be a more effective and sincere method of engagement?

If you are keen to make a public statement – perhaps try not to sound righteous. Perhaps time your comment better and word it so they don’t feel reprimanded for grief and rage which seems a natural reaction – perhaps wait to ask the question genuinely, wait until people aren’t grieving Person/People X (as much) to say “Let’s not forget Person/People Y”. Perhaps don’t ask it the very day Person/People X has been killed. If you do, know that you run the risk of sounding as though you are saying that Person/People X did not matter.

If you do care about the murder of Black people but also really care about reminding us of our own unbalanced narrative, if your objective is to ensure we truly remember and grieve fairly, then why not use your own space to remind us that there others we should be grieving too, and say it like that’s what you are saying – why not write “as we mourn the murdered Black people in America, let us not forget those dead in _________ (insert place), instead of saying ‘WHAT ABOUT BAGHDAD?’ on comment threads under other people’s status messages? Try to see – when we say Black Lives Matter the day after two Black men were killed in rapid succession, on the spot, by police officers, we aren’t forgetting Baghdad or Pakistan or Bangladesh or Syria. If you think we genuinely have forgotten, or have failed to grieve them ever, then ask genuinely. Remind us genuinely. Use your own space constructively to do so.

Remember our contextualized focus on certain things over others in certain moments does not mean exclusion – remember when we say Black Lives Matter, for example, we are actually asking everyone to end exclusion. We ourselves are asking for more inclusive, fair, just narratives.

If you are trying to point out the inherent bias in much of the mainstream media we consume, to say it privileges first-world news over third-world news, that’s a good argument – but please make sure you note your critique of the media and the way we consume it clearly. Again, try not to reprimand grieving people. Try not to patronize us.

If this is the case: you better be someone who has given space to all these issues. You better be someone who has shown you care. You better be someone who has talked about all the issues you are raising – and not just someone stepping in to moderate or trivialize other people’s rage.

If you are not trying to genuinely remind us there are other injustices in the world (in a timely, non-patronizing, relevant manner), and you are also not trying to point out the bias in the way the media behaves and the way we behave with it – then hold on, what are you asking? Are you simply asking people to care about justice for some people but not others? Do you think our struggles are not linked? Why are you pitting injustices against each other? Why are you trying to narrow things down when people are actually quite broad in their grief and rage sometimes? If I care about minority rights here in Sri Lanka, I should care about the killings of coloured people in America. If I care about minority rights in Sri Lanka, why shouldn’t I care about Islamophobia in England? Why shouldn’t I care about the brutal murder of queer people in Orlando? If I didn’t, I would be the worst kind of hypocrite. I wouldn’t be someone that cared about the principle of human rights at all.

If you do not care about people’s struggles, then please, you don’t have to speak. Stop occupying those spaces. Leave it to the people who do care. If you have a critique, make sure you have earned the right to have that particular critique, on that particular matter, and to have us listen. This means, generally, we need to know you are someone who cares about the matter – we need to know you are not speaking only to reveal your own prejudice, that you are not speaking only because you find it impossible to not hold space everywhere all the time. We need to know your voice does not pop up only to criticize or make fun of those who are outraged by injustice.

Here’s another observation about privilege: you tend to not listen when someone is saying ‘I am being discriminated against’. When a community, or someone from within a community, is speaking about their reality – listen. You don’t get to say anything. You don’t have to say anything. You certainly don’t get to say ‘No, that’s not discrimination as far as I’m concerned’. Try and understand – it’s not about you or what you perceive to be the problem. It doesn’t matter what it sounds like to you. It matters what that someone/community is saying. You don’t get to ascribe meaning to their reality. Only they get to do that. Take your cues from them. Let them lead.

Finally, we should all do what we can to educate OURSELVES. It’s not anyone else’s job. Don’t pop up with arguments that have been put forth and then wholly defeated in public discourse a long time ago, as though they’re legitimate.

I can only quote that brilliant Jesse Williams speech here again, a lesson on morality and on semantics —

‘The Burden of the Brutalized is not to comfort the bystander;

If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression;

If you have no interest in equal rights for Black people, then do not make suggestions to those who do – sit down.’

 

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