There is never a dull day at Zubaan. If it’s not the discussions on the origins of water closets and showers or the age-old debate of ‘Tom-ay-to’ versus ‘Tom-ah-to’, there’s always chocolate runs and a constant stream of visitors – mailmen, writers, aspiring writers, activists, friends, interns and more mailmen – to keep things interesting. One of the most interesting aspects of working at Zubaan is the inspiring women we get to meet and interact with, who have been doing amazing work for the cause of women’s rights across South Asia.
So we recently had the privilege of a yum cashew-filled visit from Sri Lankan lawyer and human rights’ activist, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena. Kishali has been associated with Zubaan Books in the capacity of an advisor and contributor for the Sexual Violence and Impunity project and its Sri Lanka volume. Her tireless work towards safeguarding civil liberties and outspoken criticism of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, under a repressive state regime has led her to being acknowledged as one of the bravest women in the world.
And with the general elections in Sri Lanka around the corner in August, the eyes of the world are all trained on the island nation. So we decided to chat with her a bit about politics, women and activism in Sri Lanka. Kishali’s razor-sharp intelligence and vast knowledge base left us floored. Take a look at the conversation we had.
Dakshita: Sri Lanka has the proud claim of having had the first ever female head-of-state in the world in Sirimavo Bandranaike (1960). Then her daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, became the first (and only) woman to be president of Sri Lanka in 1994. However, there has been a lull in the political scene vis-à-vis women’s participation in recent years. What, in your opinion, is the reason for that?
Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena: It’s like this – the appointments of Sirimavo and Chandrika – even though the two events signalled, technically, a first for women politicians, they have really not resulted in any discernible or any positive impact on the political process where women are concerned. Infact, Sri Lanka has one of the lowest rates of female representation in the region across all political assemblies from central to provincial to local. But the issues are not merely on numerical factors. Where civil liberties and substantive issues of justice are concerned, in fact Bandranaike’s time signalled the first Southern insurrection (1971) where thousands of (Sinhalese) young people were killed. Kumaratunga’s period saw a clamping down of civil liberties, disappearances of Tamil civilians in the North and East, the fettering of the judiciary and assaults of editors and journalists. So both terms, even though, technically and theoretically they were firsts [for women] were troubling times for Sri Lanka. I have, in fact, long argued that the greatest steps taken backwards in terms of protecting the independence of democratic institutions, particularly the Sri Lankan Supreme Court, took place during Kumaratunga’s time. Her successor, Mahinda Rajapaksa only took this process forward to even greater degenerative depths.
And that’s the paradox. Particularly in the case of the political process, when women have achieved positions of leadership, there has been no filtering down or no impact really on the betterment of women as a whole or indeed for the betterment of the nation. And I think this [problem] is probably there in South Asia in general but Sri Lanka exemplifies it…really, really symbolises it.
D: But until very recently, there was talk of increasing political representation of women to 25% in all forms of local governments and provincial bodies within the purview of the proposed 20th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. How is that debate faring?
KPJ: Well, the debate is still on…[it] is still very much in the public forum. The January 2015 government – the minority government of the UNP (United National Party) promised to do [electoral reforms] for their own party, at least giving nominations…to have a quota [for women] for the nominations. And that’s there…that’s quite visible. But the problem that I’m having with this is that as much as one would want to see that happen, the degradation of the political process in Sri Lanka has been so profound and so great that having a technical or theoretical quota for women and letting it rest at that is very problematic. What we’ve been seeing so far is that these positions get stuffed [filled up] by the relatives of the male politicians. So this is the problem with making the struggle for nominations or for the quota the be-all and end-all in itself. Because there is really no functional political process to speak of, you know.
And we have this pattern, very clearly seen over the last two decades or so, where you get powerful politicians, male politicians at the centre putting their nieces, their wives and their daughters in various posts. It’s quite visible in Sri Lanka probably because it is a small country and everybody knows everybody else, it’s very obvious. And while I don’t want to put this forward as a reason for not giving the quota at all, because that is not a good position to take! But one has to be cautious and one has to be mindful that this cannot stop there. And as we have seen in the past, women when they come into positions of power have proved to be no better than men and sometimes they have proved to be worse.
D: And what are your views on women’s participation in public life currently? These days one gets to read about Sri Lankan women making headway in various fields – aviation, IT, even business – fields that have so far been inaccessible to them.
KPJ: Well again, theoretically you have the numbers, in terms of not the political process, but you have the numbers of women in university life, in the judiciary, in public administration, in the media. But whether they exert significant influence on affairs or on the process is another question all together.
I would say that in the field of public commentary, for example during the Rajapaksa regime it was amusing that some (male) commentators remarked on the fact that the women were the boldest in speaking out, in other words, that it was women who had the ‘balls’ so to say! So from that perspective, in terms of opinion-making, women have had a visible role but in policy-making, I wouldn’t really say that there has been significant influence exerted.
D: Even reading through your work, one can see that you have always been a very uninhibited critic of the state especially on the issue of civil liberties. Which begs the question of whether you have ever feared censorship.
KPJ: No, absolutely not. I have never in any way…on a personal level I have never let that govern what I write. I’ve always said what I wanted to say very directly and for some reason or the other…probably because the government also wanted particular dissenting voices to be there to show to the world or to show to people that ‘we have so and so and so and so…’ – I have only been subjected to hate propaganda not to actual physical threats.
I can’t remember a point where I’ve ever constrained or censored myself. But of course you took risks knowing that particular consequences may follow.
D: But in the aftermath of the war, one reads of how dissent has become problematic in Sri Lanka. Most political discourse would like the world to concentrate on the more positive aspects of the rebuilding of the nation. Do you really think there are enough safe spaces to generate and express dissent?
KPJ: Oh absolutely. This is an interesting question, because even during the worst of the times there were spaces within which one could work and you could fashion out spaces which were safe, in that process. In a sense, there was a little bit more vigour then than now, because at that time you were very conscious of the dangers around you and you were pushing the boundaries fully conscious of that and there is a certain push that comes with that because you’re doing it knowing what may happen but you’re doing it nevertheless.
Now it is a little bit more complex…because on the face of it there are more spaces within which one can work and far more freedom as it were. But there is also a certain sense of, not exactly disillusionment but a certain sense of acknowledgement that we have really deteriorated to a large extent. And the extent of deterioration is being realised only now. You can see the extent to which institutions are run by corrupt men and women, including the law, where we have bribe-takers and one (alleged) rapist sitting in the judiciary! I mean these are not things Sri Lanka was comfortable or familiar with decades ago. So these are the realities now that one has to contend with.
D: Yes, it has been almost over half a decade since the civil conflict in Sri Lanka came to a pronounced end. And there is now, of course, the larger issue of examining the extent and impact of human rights violations and atrocities committed during the war. In this context, do you see the state working consciously to address and redress women’s issues?
KPJ: There’s a very significant lack of gender sensitivity in the making of policy, particularly in the issues of liberty and security – you find that lacuna very strongly evident. Sometimes the impression is that we are talking of Sri Lanka as a country that has had to contend with this war for 30 years. But the point is that the problem Sri Lanka has, really goes beyond the war. So we have had not only the Northern and the Eastern war, but we have had civil conflicts in other parts of the country, twice during the ’70s and the ’80s, where over 60000 or so young Sinhalese teenagers died – women and girls and boys. So coming from that there has been a complete militarisation of the country’s civic structures and civic processes, to the extent that emergency law has actually but replaced the normal law for many, many years – for decades. And of course the North-East conflict brutalised society; in the war terrain,the minority had to contend with high levels of state and non-state terror while in the South, life became perilous with constant fear and suspicion prevalent between communities. These are common effects of long drawn out conflict, I assume.
In that context, women have become really fragile and vulnerable. Post war many of these problems have not been really looked at. And the state has actually taken no special steps towards addressing that. So if you look at the post-war years, the issue of safety and the issue of security have become predominant…not only for women in the North and East but also women in the South, because there has been an overall brutalisation of the culture and the process.
So for example, over last 2-3 years, in particular, we have had increasing incidents of rape being reported from all parts of the country, because there has been a breakdown of law enforcement. And you do not see the state or the government reacting strongly, and in a focussed manner to address these issues. It has just become political rhetoric which everyone is tired of.
D: But there has always been the presence of a strong feminist voice in Sri Lanka, in stalwarts like Kumari Jayawardena, Malathi de Alwis, Sunila Abeyasekara, yourself and many, many more. Looking beyond the government’s apathy, how has the Sri Lankan populace reacted to women’s movements? How significant is the society’s attitude to women’s empowerment?
KPJ: At one level, women’s movements have not really been stigmatised or demonised as has been done to other movements like the human rights. You know you work on human rights in Sri Lanka and you are immediately demonised, so it’s like you’re this Western lackey… But the same hostility and the vituperative impact has not been seen with regard to women’s movements. The marginalisation of women has not been evidenced to that extent in Sri Lanka, because as you said, women ascending positions of significance and articulating authoritative views have never been strange to Sri Lankan public.
But that does not mean that women have not been oppressed; across classes…at all levels…there is oppression. There is the oppression of working women, oppression of professional women and there is oppression of those women who are….particularly those who are in very security conscious, militarised environments.
And again discussions on, say for example the legalisation of prostitution. It’s got so bound up in the false ideas of morality and what a Buddhist country should be like. ‘We should not have prostitutes…we are very moral…this is a country which has Theravada Buddhism.’ Such tying up of religious and moral values into this narrative has actually had the impact of marginalising women even more! There are very powerful forces when you talk of religion, you know, in a society like Sri Lanka. So that oppression comes at various levels…at societal, at legal and at….law enforcement, or administrative, government machinery, or bureaucracy, as the case may be.
D: While reading about the Sri Lankan civil war, I was fascinated by the kind of activism that was born as a result of the civil war. I learnt about the ‘Mothers Fronts’ – a peace effort – a distinctive convergence of women, across fault lines, who had lost their children to either death or worse, disappearance in war. Are these fronts still in existence or have different causes taken precedence? How is activism in present-day Sri Lanka shaping?
KPJ: The Mothers’ Fronts were a signal example of women coming together across racial and ethnic boundaries. And to my mind, it was actually one of the best achievements of activism that activist movements in Sri Lanka can talk of. Because that recognised the pain of mothers regardless of what area of the country they came from, you know. But unfortunately that movement was subverted by political forces and it ultimately faded away to nothingness at a point long years ago. And this politicisation of movements is a highly worrying factor in Sri Lanka. The inability of movements to stand up against irritants of all colours and all hues has been a persistent problem within the last 10-15 years.
So the nature of political movements that we see now in Sri Lanka, particularly after the defeat of the former president in January 2015…they have been very vibrant, very vocal…particularly the vernacular which was not so earlier, and I see that as a very good sign because earlier the movements and the activism was very confined to English-speaking [communities/circles]…to elites. But now, from January – or December onwards, that has been conducted more in the vernacular – both Sinhala and Tamil – interestingly and importantly. But the problem is that within a country where there are such fractured histories of political movements, subversion of political movements and the corrosive influence of politics, as it were, on activism….the problem I see now is how to sustain the momentum…in an intellectually rigorous manner, without letting that momentum fizzle out or deteriorate.
Because even though the government changed and though the president changed, the old problems still remain the same. And these are problems impacting directly on women. Like, for example, the issue of security. Like, for example the issue of democratic electoral process. You know enabling good women to come into politics. Who wants to enter politics? Because it’s so corrupt and so horrendous now! So these are institutional, systemic problems that remain with us even though there has been a change of political leadership.
D: And what are your views on the involvement of the Sri Lankan youth in facilitating the democratic process? Considering the fact that the generation that is coming of age has only experienced the war from a safe distance.
KPJ: You don’t have a generation right now in existence, in Sri Lanka, that has not experienced the war in any way at all. The generation that is coming of age has in fact seen the war, because the war ended only in 2009. The difference in us is that we have seen the war in all parts of the country and not only limited to the North and the East.
When I was studying in the Faculty of Law in Colombo and simultaneously involved in political journalism, I saw the unfolding of the second Southern insurrection along with the Northern war and its devastating impact on communities…that the young generation now has not seen. They have experienced only the Northern war as a distant…essentially a distant war…but resulting in bombs and calamities in the South, though not actual fighting in the South.
However, the reason why the government was defeated in January 2015, was in large part because of the young people and due to the social media, because they came out in numbers and said they wanted a change…and there was a lot of momentum around them…pressure…and I think the pressure is still there. You know, the significant contribution made by young people who are just attaining the age of voting is quite strong. And I see that continuing for the future as well, in a very positive way.
D: On that note, I’d like to shift the focus to you and your work…
KPJ: On a general level my work has to do with how systems and institutions in Sri Lanka have survived as a result of decades of degenerative political assaults and attacks and seeing how some core values can be fashioned out of this collapse. So my focus has primarily been that – legal institutions and legal process.
The work I have been doing for many years has focussed mainly on where the gaps in the systems have been…where the failures have been. So now seeing all that in perspective, and in a context where we don’t have authoritarian leadership anymore, seeing where we can build anew ….renew…and encouraging discussion and debate around those issues. And making people aware of the basic problem – that the issue with Sri Lanka is systemic impunity, it’s not to do with one political leader or one particular government or period. It is decades of impunity and insensitivity. So how to tackle that really and to engage in the rebuilding and renewing of Sri Lanka’s democratic process and institutions.
D: You have also been working as an advisor for Zubaan’s Sexual Violence and Impunity project. What kind of collaborations in women’s movements do you see forming, across South Asia?
KPJ: One major issue of collaboration is exactly this – sexual violence and state violence. And I think that really is a focal point…it should be a focal point! It’s extremely important and I think that right now the context that South Asia finds itself in, is very, very central to the discourse.
It is also looking at impunity from various aspects and identifying issues that are common across the region so that you understand that this is also part of a shared problem in the region and that it is not peculiar to a country, as it were. So I think that is really very important.
As told to Dakshita Singh. Title quote from Amnesty International.