South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Published in on Nov. 10 by Chulani Kodikara ::

Central to the resurgence of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in post-war Sri Lanka is a redefinition of gender role and identities. Familial ideology is a key pillar of this discourse with serious adverse implications for women and gender equality.

The bloody end to Sri Lanka’s civil war in May 2009 inaugurated a renewed upsurge in Sinhala Buddhist ethno-nationalism. Its outlines were clarified by President Rajapakse himself in his first post-war speech to parliament when he said: “the word minorities have been removed from our vocabulary” and claimed that “no longer are the Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Malays and any others minorities.” He did not however say that there are no longer any majorities for that would take away the very corner stone of the post-war national identity (re)building project.

This project is in fact fuelled by a hegemonic Sinhala Buddhist identity steeped in brash triumphalism on the one hand and deep insecurity on the other, paving the way for the valorization of the military, the binary construction of ‘traitors’ and ‘patriots’ and the lack of tolerance for all dissent. Central to this redefinition of national identity is the celebration of a glorious Sinhala-Buddhist past as well as redefinition of gender roles and identities based on the conception of an ideal woman in Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist ideology and historiography. Typical of ethno-religious nationalisms around the world, familial ideology is a key pillar of this discourse with serious adverse implications for women and gender equality in post-war Sri Lanka.

Nationalism and gender

Feminist scholarship distinguishes between emancipatory, civil, forward-looking or modernizing nationalisms and nationalisms that exalt the religion, culture, and traditions associated with a politically dominant group. In the latter ‘the family’ often serves as a foundational metaphor or trope for constructing national unity with different roles allocated to men and women within it. Far from simply being a description of an empirical social reality of kinship or household structures, ‘the family’ in this discourse has immense ideological significance and meaning. This discourse operates to naturalize and universalize the sexual division of labour, where the woman, as ‘good’ wife and mother is primarily responsible for child rearing and domestic labour, while the man is constructed as the economic provider and breadwinner, even though the social reality maybe very far from this. This brand of nationalism formulates rights and obligations in ways that strengthen the masculinity of the public sphere and the femininity of the private sphere.

Post-war Sri Lanka is marked by the ascendancy of the second model of nationalism, elements of which can be traced back to the 2005 election manifesto of President Rajapakse. In a chapter titled ‘An Affectionate Family’, it referred to the family as the foundation of society, stating:

“Our society’s foundation is the family in which the Mother takes the prime place. It is only through the improvement of the close and intimate family bonds that we can ensure a pleasant society. It is my belief that economic hardship and pressures erode such intimate bonds between family members”. 

The manifesto further referred to women’s roles within the family as follows:

“The woman provides a solid foundation to the family as well as to the society. She devotes her life to raise children, manage the family budget and ensure peace in the family..”

Following Rajapakse’s re-election as President in 2010, many of these provisions on women and the family, are being reflected in official government policy. There are two policy arenas where its manifestations are already quite apparent. 

Women migrant workers

Sri Lanka has long been a remittance economy, depending on its large migrant work force to bring in much-needed foreign currency. In 2000 almost 75% of Sri Lanka’s migrant workers were women. However reducing the number of women, especially married women, migrating abroad for work has become a key post-war policy goal. While there is no legal prohibition yet, the government has made it very difficult for women, particularly those with children under the age of five, to migrate abroad for work.

A new circular issued by the Ministry of Foreign Employment in 2013 requires prospective women migrant workers to satisfy two conditions: provide evidence of their family background and proof of adequate childcare arrangements, and secure a no-objection certificate from their husbands. A Fundamental Rights petition filed by a migrant worker against the circular was dismissed without being heard by the Supreme Court.

Although couched in terms of protection, this policy shift is in fact driven by the idea that the economic benefits of women’s migration is outweighed by its social and familial costs—from school drop-outs, juvenile delinquency, and child abuse to their men engaging in alcohol abuse and extra-marital affairs. What is erased is the fact that women’s migration is precipitated by a number of reasons, not least poverty and abusive or violent relationships. Meanwhile women in Sri Lanka’s domestic labour market, especially in free trade zones and tea plantations, continue to suffer exploitation as a result of inadequate labour rights and social protection mechanisms. 

Women as biological reproducers of the nation and its ‘others’

There has been a discernible push back in relation to family planning and reproductive rights since the election of this regime, with Sinhala women being constructed as the biological reproducers of the nation. In September 2007, the government closed down all abortion clinics, which had been allowed to function for decades, even though abortion is a crime under Sri Lanka’s Penal Code This crackdown included institutions that provided emergency menstrual regulation (EMR) with proper counseling and with certified medical professionals performing the procedures.

Furthermore, in March 2013, following protests against family planning organized by extremist Buddhist factions expressing concern about the diminishing ‘Sinhala race’, the Ministry of Health sent a circular to all government hospitals and private institutions, banning all irreversible family planning methods that control birth, while also banning non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from the provision of sterilization services. This is a serious set back given that Sri Lanka’s family planning policy can be traced to the 1950s, a time in fact when Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism was on the ascendancy.

Post-war Sri Lanka is witnessing unprecedented levels of public discourse around women’s fertility. Sinhala-Buddhist extremist organisations, whose activities have been unchecked and even tacitly endorsed by the state, have valorized fertility of Sinhala women while demonizing the fertility of Muslim women in particular. Some Buddhist monks have initiated a scheme to reward Sinhala Buddhist families with five or more children. The government, for its part, is providing a 100,000-rupee cash benefit to military and police personnel who have a third child. Since the military and the police are overwhelmingly Sinhalese it is an ingenious way of promoting the expansion of the ethnic majority.

Conversely, there are also fears that minority Muslim and Tamil women are being forced to use birth control. A recent report from Kilinochchi in the North makes credible allegations that some Tamil women were administered injectible contraceptives without their informed consent. Muslim women’s fertility is increasingly portrayed as a threat to the Sinhala race and is a key element of vitriolic public discourse that is fuelling attacks against Muslims.

Racism and sexism

Institutionalised racism-sexism in post-war Sri Lanka is not only essentialising women and their productive and reproductive labour in different ways but also rendering it increasingly difficult to build solidarities and connections across ethno-religious and class boundaries. The suturing together of virulent Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-nationalism, militarisation, undermining of democracy and the rule of law, and aggressive neoliberal populism, is buttressing the power of a repressive state and political economic structures of exploitation and exclusion.

The articulation of gender within nationalist discourse is not new in Sri Lanka. As pointed out by scholars such as Kumari Jayawardena, Sinhala Buddhist nationalist ideology which emerged in opposition to colonial rule in the 19th and 20th centuries always had an elaborate gender ideology with an articulation of the ‘good Sinhala Buddhist woman’. Yet public policy with regard to women and gender for the most part remained outside of its grip. Ironically even as the Sri Lankan state became increasingly ethnicised after independence it remained a more or less a gender neutral welfare state  with regards to women. But for the first time in our history we are now confronted with both racism and sexism of the state.

This article stems from a presentation made by the author at the Secularism 2014 conference, held in London.