Informed interventions

NEWSPAPER columns are ephemeral things. Like the butterfly, they have a 24-hour lifespan. Yet, at their best, they can serve to cast light — albeit more in terms of the humble torchlight than the blinding searchlight — on unfolding events and personalities that eventually comprise the stuff of history. The format offers writers a luxury that the authors of more permanent work do not have. They can revisit old themes and arguments and spin out, in the process, a continuing critique.

The volume under review needs to be perceived in this context. It comprises the best from the popular weekly column, "Cat's Eye", that was carried in The Island, a national newspaper in Sri Lanka. The column, quite unapologetically feminist in its perspective, was written not by any one person, as is usually the case, but by a collective of women and some men, many of them prominent academics and media activists in their own right. Some of these pieces, as Malathi De Alwis's introduction to the collection informs us, have becomes "classics in the canon of Sri Lankan feminist writing". The tone adopted ranged from the serious and committed to the satirical and irreverent. Sometimes, as the introduction puts it, the patriarchal gaze is returned with a wink!

However, when high seriousness rather than a wink is called for, the column does not disappoint either. The conspicuous absence of women in mainstream politics, the situation of female domestic aides in West Asia, working conditions of women in free trade zones, the rising tide of domestic violence, all these themes are grist to the column's mill. Studies in India on domestic violence have highlighted how its very ubiquitousness has rendered it so ordinary, so acceptable, that even those who experience it as part of everyday life do not recognise it as a crime being perpetrated against them. In Sri Lanka, too, it is the same story. One column in this volume quotes a woman as saying. "He (hits) but not daily... He just hits with his hand." The columnist then goes on to observe, "what we have is a system that reinforces the violence experienced by women". How indeed can justice be done to women, when the social and political system is so deeply patriarchal in its structure? As another column, written in 1997, pointed out, even though Sri Lanka has had a female prime minister and president, there are only 4.8 per cent of women in parliament.

The columns always kept a sharp eye out for the odd male comment that illuminated a larger reality. Take, for instance, the letter to the editor that followed the news that a group of women had stood up for their right to live as lesbians. The letter writer suggested that the police should let convicted rapists loose "among the jubilant but jaded Jezebels... so that some wanton but misguided wretches may get a taste of the zest and relish of the real thing". As the columnist commented, "We need to ask ourselves what the implications for us Sri Lankans are when someone who claims to be speaking from within `Sri Lankan values' advocates rape to teach non-conforming women a lesson". Or there was that outrageous remark passed by a Sri Lankan parliamentarian, no less, on noted Sri Lankan athlete, Susanthika, looking like a "black American man". The column, in this instance, stripped the sexism and racism behind the remark, and rued the carefully cultivated myth that Sri Lankans are light-skinned "Aryans from north India".

The other persistent theme in this volume is, in fact, ethnic chauvinism. "Cat's Eye" was constantly reminding readers that "Buddhism belongs to the world, not to any particular race or ethnic group" and comes out firmly on the side of federalism and devolution of power in an island which has witnessed two decades of a vicious and bloody ethnic conflict. Responding to a report brought out by the Sinhala Commission, it decried the alarmist approach of the Commission: "Running through the pages of the Commission (report) is another belief that the Sinhalese are the custodians of morality... That the minorities, especially the Tamils, are violent, irrational hordes... . Let us not forget what happened to the Jaffna Public Library. No community has a monopoly on barbarism".

It needed courage to raise such sensitive issues at a time when the political spectrum was so sharply polarised. Not surprisingly, "Cat's Eye's" unrelenting critique of the rising tide of intolerance in Sri Lankan society led to the column to often be termed "unpatriotic". If all this reminds the Indian reader of our own version of ethnic chauvinism, it should come as no surprise, because many of the concerns that find voice here echo those that we, in this country, have also had to grapple with.

India, as a social, geographical and political presence, keeps surfacing in these columns. The Pokharan explosions of May 1998, provoked a sharp observation about how India chose the year marking the 50th anniversary of Gandhi's death to conduct five nuclear rests. Later, the impact that economic sanctions against India and Pakistan, and Indo-Pak tensions in general, was having on the Sri Lankan economy, was considered. There is expressed here the helpless rage of a nation that is saddled with the prospect of a nuclear war at its doorstep and can do little about it. India is also the source of some scrutiny and interest. The panchayati raj experiment, for instance, attracted attention in these columns, as did people like Mahatma Gandhi, Annie Besant, Mother Teresa and Indira Gandhi. References to Arundhati Roy's writing and Romila Thapar's delineation of how to read history in order to avoid a fascist future make an appearance, as do "Bandit Queen" and the controversy over Deepa Mehta's "Fire".

What we have here then is an extraordinary range of fairly informed interventions. Of course, not every piece of writing is outstanding, some in fact verging on the superficial. But that's the downside of having a column emanating from a collective made up of people with different skills. Yet, it is a comment on the commitment of the women and men who made up the "Cat's Eye" collective, that they could bring so much conviction to anonymous pieces of writing over such a long span of time. Their tenacity and passion is worth emulating. Here's wishing more power to their pen!

Cat's Eye: A Feminist Gaze on Current Issues, edited by Malathi de Alwis, Cat's Eye Publication, p.361, price not stated.


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