It was in the early 1980s that one of Sri Lanka’s foremost feminist scholars Kumari Jayawardena (in picture) wrote Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World , considered a classic in the academic and activist worlds.
About 30 years later, the London-based Verso books republished it, proving the book’s enduring relevance. Writing in The Guardian about it in 2017, noted British socialist feminist Sheila Rowbotham said: “More than three decades after it first came out, the book remains the best introduction to the history of women’s movements in Turkey, Egypt, Iran, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan.”
“There was a gap about our part of the world,” Ms. Jayawardena told The Hindu in an interview that year, on her motivations for writing it. “To discuss the knowledge and status of women today, it is important to know what they have gained and how,” she said. It was in that spirit that a group of feminists from the region decided to meet in Colombo in early March. They may have got their timing just right, convening barely days before COVID-19 brought South Asia, like much of the rest of the world, to a halt.
The reason that the feminist scholars and activists gathered at a seminar, supported by UN Women, was to brainstorm and come up with a declaration. Their inputs will feed into deliberations at a forum in Mexico scheduled later this summer, to mark 25 years since the Fourth World Conference on Women and adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995), which called for global action for ‘Equality, Development and Peace’.
The participants at the Colombo seminar were from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. They represented different generations of women’s movements in the Global South and at times, very different perspectives too. That diversity was precisely what the organisers had hoped for. It wasn’t that one generation did not appreciate the work of the other, but they all felt there were serious gaps that demanded more collective thinking and action.
Human rights approach
They decided to avoid familiar ‘UN speak’ of Sustainable Development Goals, or the often-cited law and order approach, and instead focused on a human rights approach to women’s rights. The declaration is a feminist take on global concerns, ranging from climate change, violence against women, disappearance and extra-judicial killings, majoritarianism and authoritarianism to extremism. Apart from the document, the meeting also offered a chance for some introspection.
Speaking of a shift in women’s activism along the years, Radhika Coomaraswamy, a senior activist and former UN Under-Secretary-General who was involved in organising the seminar, noted that the subsequent generation of feminists were more focused on issues and at times, did not frame them holistically. “Also, South Asian feminist solidarity has weakened since the 1990s. There is perhaps solidarity nationally and even globally, but not regionally,” she told The Hindu . But the more worrying political reality facing women’s movements, she said, is the manner in which right-wing groups are “hijacking” feminist movements.
Subha Wijesiriwardena, a women’s rights activist in her 30s, agreed that regional solidarity could certainly be strengthened, but also pointed to other broader shifts in women’s rights activism that had now become way more “NGO-ised” and “donor-driven”. “At a micro level, each of our countries have become more insular with this idea of a nation being imposed by those governing us. Moreover, our generation grew up during the civil war in Sri Lanka, so that too has shaped our activism significantly,” she said.
The feminists also found out that the differences in perspective and positions were not merely generational. Some of the arguments in the discussions in Colombo were very political. For instance, on whether and how to include questions of identity based on sexuality, and rights tied to technology in the ambit of women’s rights.
According to participants, some resisted the idea of including sexuality and instead emphasised a framework centred on economic and social rights of women. It brought back a very fundamental question that the late Sri Lankan feminist Sunila Abeysekara raised in her famous essay ‘Sexuality: A feminist issue?’ almost 30 years ago.
While the discussions showed the differences even among “like-minded” feminists, for younger participants like Ms. Wijesiriwardena, it “re-ignited” the faith in the value of a gathering like this that allowed for such conversations. More than the seminar’s regional dimension, it was the inter-generational character that many found enriching. “It was an opportunity for us to be with that history while we confront emerging issues,” Ms. Wijesiriwardena said. It was on only fitting that participants invited Ms. Jayawardena and honoured her. The breadth and depth of her work, they know, will remain crucial to their struggles and the future of feminist history across the world.
(Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu’s Colombo correspondent)