‘There was a gap about our part of the world’

Kumari Jayawardena, Sri Lanka’s foremost feminist scholar, explains the dots she had to join for her landmark book

January 01, 2017 12:15 am | Updated 01:21 am IST

Kumari Jayawardena

Kumari Jayawardena

The first draft, Kumari Jayawardena remembers, was all jagged. She wrote it on train journeys between The Hague where she was teaching and Brussels where she was living then. It was the early 1980s. As a visiting scholar at the International Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands, Jayawardena was preparing course material for the women and development programme she co-taught. The short manuscript later became the classic book, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World . The work is still considered a primer to understanding feminist movements in Asia and West Asia through specific struggles of women fighting against colonial powers, for education, suffrage and safety, and against poverty and inequality.

Three decades and multiple editions later, London-based radical publisher Verso Books has republished the book, which American liberal feminist magazine Ms. listed among the top 20 Feminist Classics of this Wave, 1970-1990.

Now 85, Jayawardena, Sri Lanka’s foremost feminist scholar, continues to be busy writing in her spacious Colombo home. She is still on the Council of the Social Scientists’ Association, which she set up in the late 1970s with left-wing academics and researchers as the country opened up its economy and witnessed sharpening ethnic tensions.

Not a Western import

Recalling how her best-known book came to be, she says: “There was a gap about our part of the world.” Having worked on a book, Feminism in Europe: Liberal and Socialist Strategies , German feminist Maria Mies and she felt there was a need for a similar, historical account of feminisms in the ‘third world’.

“To discuss the knowledge and status of women today, it is important to know what they have gained and how,” Jayawardena says. Her work drew from extensive research in several countries including India, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Egypt, Iran and the Philippines.

Jayawardena had two key preoccupations in writing the book. First, to challenge the prevalent idea that feminist ideology was a Western import, an argument that conservative sections in the non-western world used to suppress and delegitimise women’s struggles. “I am saying feminism has a long history in all these scattered countries of Asia and Africa, well Egypt really, and even South Africa,” she says.

She was also pushing the idea that there has to be change. “We as socialists have to put the picture in a certain framework not saying this is eternal — the women’s place and women’s role — and that it is not Western-imposed.”

The second was to challenge the Left from within for its apparent indifference to the women’s question. Most within the Sri Lankan Left, like their counterparts in other countries, believed that “when the working class is liberated, women will be liberated,” she laughs.

Jayawardena also drew from interactions with other feminists such as the Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi, Moroccan sociologist Fatema Mernissi, and Indians Kamla Bhasin, Ritu Menon and Urvashi Butalia.

She found that while women had made significant gains in franchise, education and professional development since the early 20th century, they were yet to make a breakthrough in politics. In Sri Lanka, the women’s movement today focusses more on political and economic equality, she points out.

“In earlier years, these were all male-dominated areas but soon women moved in, so you get a lot of women leaders coming up.” All the same, having a few women leaders does not signal a big shift away from patriarchy, she argues. Becoming the first woman prime minister of the world — Sirimavo Bandaranaike — put the then Ceylon on the world map for as a symbol of women’s emancipation, but that, she says, is far from true. “You can have a queen; you can have all sorts of situations where it looks like a woman is at the top. But that doesn’t mean that patriarchy has gone, or that women are not oppressed in terms of wages, employment, society, customs, superstitions.”

Reflecting on the Sri Lankan situation, since the time of anti-colonial personalities like Anagarika Dharmapala and Piyadasa Sirisena when a certain brand of nationalism was promoted, she refers to the song ‘ Me Sinhala, apege ratai’ (This Sinhala is our country) that ends with the line ‘ Mulu lova e ratata yatayi’ (The whole world is under us). Terming it “fascist”, she points out that the song was a paraphrasing of the German song ‘ Deutschland, Deutschland über alles’ .

Kinds of nationalism

When Jayawardena speaks of ‘nationalism’ in her book, she is referring to progressive struggles for “national liberation” against imperial powers, “a struggle of that period which entailed a lot of women joining liberation movements”, not a narrow ethno-religious nationalism that harbours chauvinism.

On minority nationalism and its claim to be progressive, Jayawardena says it is a common phenomenon in fascist, semi-fascist, or right-wing movements to incorporate women. “They don’t leave women out saying this is a masculine thing. Many of them attract women because of the kind of patriarchal leadership of the great Prabhakaran or great somebody — you know there is an element there.”

She recalls the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) woman leader Thamilini from one of the meetings she participated in on a gender committee during Sri Lanka’s Norway-brokered peace process: “She was quite a progressive woman. She had done Advanced-level education and joined the Tigers subsequently.”

The LTTE women came attired in white shirts and black trousers, their hair tied in plaits. “Their argument was that you people are asking only for a 30 per cent (political representation) quota for women, we are demanding 50 per cent.” They had their own kind of slogans saying ‘don’t think we are backward or anything, this is a progressive movement’. “Of course we all know how progressive these movements can be,” she says, voicing a lesser-heard critique of the LTTE from the Sri Lankan Left.

The ultra-right within the majority Sinhala-Buddhists were not all that different. “When we look at the role of women in any really ultra-right-wing, Buddhist-nationalist, Hindu-nationalist movement, we find that they don’t exclude women. They co-opt women in a second class way: you go and teach in a school, or open a day care, similar to what Hitler called Kinder, Küche, Kirche.

“Even today, if you look at all our religions there are deep prejudices against women. The women’s question is always with us.”


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