For awhile now, I’ve been thinking about intersectionality and what it would mean for feminists and other activists in a Sri Lankan context at this moment. For young women activists and queer-rights activists in Sri Lanka, like myself, the temptation is strong to follow young, American liberational discourses. on social justice. We ‘stood with Standing Rock’. We regularly disseminate Black Lives Matter material; and while this is all useful and important (and in some senses, the meaning of ‘intersectional’), it also becomes easy to do little else for us, here, now.
On the other hand, an older generation of feminists and queer activists can sometimes, in our eyes, seem hopelessly disengaged from current discourse and ‘out of touch’; this is for no other reason than the fact that they don’t always speak the same ‘social justice’ language we’ve become accustomed to or subscribe overtly to the ‘intersectionality’ we feel is relevant.
These definitions of our intersectionality are flawed; no, not necessarily flawed, but let’s say, incomplete.
It is time we undertake a more holistic, pro-active, local and responsible ‘intersectionality’.
Intersectionality, after all, must also mean that we as intersectional global South feminists question and resist western imperialism (cultural and otherwise), that we challenge it when we find it in our movements as well; that we reject neoliberalism and capitalism.
My mother, Sunila Abeyekera, wrote about ‘inter-sectionality’. She wrote specifically about the term, and the employment of the term[i]: “Inter-sectionality interrogates the many different dimensions of women’s oppression and looks at them from the diverse lenses that shape the world a woman inhabits”. In this particular essay, she was interested in the trajectory we were making from ‘inter-sectionality’ to ‘political ecology’, which she defined: “Political ecology” is a new term that encapsulates a range of concerns regarding the environment and the impacts of changing environments on people’s lives and livelihoods.”
We have done intersectionaliy our way for many decades. Global South feminists have been resisting white feminism, talking about class, caste and labour, fighting for indigenous land and against corporate interests; fighting for environmental justice and traditional livelihoods for many decades.
What would it mean to define a truly Sri Lankan feminist intersectionality in this present moment?
Several key women’s struggles have shaped how the mainstream ‘women’s movement’ has experienced the post-2015 election period; since the election of the ‘Yahapalanaya’ coalition government in January 2015. One was the push to enforce a minimum 25% women’s quota at the local government level, which succeeded after a very telling ruckus in parliament, during which the Joint Opposition put on display the deeply-rooted patriarchal fear of women in power.
In addition, to this, women were key contributors to public consultations held to shape recommendations for a new constitution and for reconciliation mechanisms.
Across Sri Lanka, women and women’s groups participated in meetings held with government-appointed, civil society-led committees, tasked with recording and reporting the public’s ideas and opinions. Women activists and women’s groups were a major part of organizing and mobilizing a large protest which took place in Colombo last year, with demands in relation to the new constitution: affirmative action to ensure increased women’s political representation, accountability in the constitution drafting process, a commitment to ‘people over capital’, and a promise to enshrine socio-economic rights as fundamental rights in a new constitution.
Furthermore, women contributed with ideas and concerns on transitional justice, asking for accountability in relation to missing persons, a lasting resolution to continuing land issues, justice for survivors of sexual violence and demilitarization.
But while these seemingly significant shifts were taking place with some visibility, there have been, concurrent, some lesser talked about — but nonetheless important — struggles, taking place, rather in isolation, rather invisible. But more than ever, it is critical for all women who are a part of the struggle for gender justice and liberation – in some way or another – to come together and fight each others’ fights.
A Muslim Women’s Agenda to Reform the MMDA
There has been a Muslim women’s struggle to reform the Muslim Marriages and Divorce Act (MMDA) for many years. However, in recent times, it has been revived with great urgency, as the conversation about the possibility of a new constitution has arisen.
The Muslim Personal Laws Reform Action Group, led by dedicated Muslim women activists, has been struggling to create awareness and support for Muslim women’s demands. As long as the MMDA carries on being enforced as it is now, Muslim women and girls are not truly equal citizens of Sri Lanka. We are not all equal, contrary to the equality clause of the Sri Lankan constitution, because of legislation like the MMDA and because of Article 16, which enables laws in existence before the drafting of the current (1978) constitution to override it, and remain valid.
A comprehensive and detailed study, titled ‘The Unequal Citizens’, conducted and written by two Muslim women researchers/activists, concludes that there are three layers at which the personal laws are discriminatory. The laws themselves are discriminatory; the Qazi courts, which are tasked with upholding the laws are discriminatory; both together have created a culture of discrimination against women.
The study details the number of ways in which the Muslim Personal Laws are discriminatory to women and girls (with 7 chapters detailing 7 specific areas of issues), and gives countless anecdotes of women who have been affected.
Their struggle presents the real cracks which form when the two topics of ‘cultural/traditional practices’ and ‘gender equality’ meet. Historically, and universally, ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ have been used to justify and sustain practices and attitudes which are harmful towards women and girls, and often simply designed to ensure their subjugation.
To add to complications, Islamophobia is a very real problem and one that’s increasingly coming out of hiding (I hate the notion of ‘on the rise), not just globally but locally, in Sri Lanka as well. Extremists on both sides – the minority Muslims and the dominant Sinhala Buddhists – know this all too well and are using it to their own advantage. The more extreme, patriarchal ‘Islamic’ groups such as the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) claim the reform agenda is a racist attempt by a hegemonic majority to dilute Muslim values and shatter their power (or a foreign-funded Western feminist project to destabilize the Sri Lankan Muslims); the no less patriarchal hegemonic majority use it to fuel their racist rhetoric (“See how the Muslims treat their women”).
This is something we have to pay attention to very closely, because we also must stand for racial equality and resist majoritarian hegemony. It may seem like a very fine line – between critiquing Sri Lankan Muslim Personal Law and harmful, oppressive traditional religious practices and reinforcing Islamophobic notions. But it’s also not too fine a line that we can’t find it: take your cues from local Muslim women activists you trust; listen to Muslim women’s voices and their stories; be culturally aware and sensitive, but draw the line at blatant discrimination and injustice.
Unfortunately, due to the heightened sensitivity around the issues, MPL reform activists are routinely disavowed by the Muslim community – men and women – and by the state; sometimes by the rest of the activist community and even by other feminists. ‘It’s a Muslim issue’ they all say, finding that, to their convenience, this means they don’t have to take a stand or intervene.
LGBTIQ rights and equality
The recently drafted National Human Rights Action Plan (collaboratively drafted by members of government and members of civil society) recommended the repeal of archaic, discriminatory colonial laws, such as Articles 365 and 365 A (which effectively criminalize same-sex relations and persons of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities), and the Vagrant’s Ordinance (among other things, used to criminalize sex-workers), in the pursuit of equality. These recommendations were reportedly initially rejected by cabinet members and even the President.
President Sirisena was quoted in the media as publicly disavowing any commitment to decriminalize homosexuality. The Justice Minister was quoted as having said homosexuality is a ‘mental illness’.
A collective of individual LGBTIQ activists (and allies) drafted a petition, and held a press conference some days ago, to clarify their position and demands: nothing more or less than all the democratic rights afforded other citizens, such as the right to privacy, protection from violence, fair and equal access to services including healthcare and justice.
Resisting the agenda to control female and queer sexuality (nothing new!) is a deeply feminist issue. This agenda narrows down human sexuality — complex and fluid — into something that is, simply put, ‘productive’ and therefore essential for maintaining capitalist heteropatriarchal power: i.e, men and women are reproductive mates and women are reproductive vessels.
It is essential for us as Sri Lankan feminists to take on the LGBTIQ equality issue as a feminist issue; in fact, it is important to broaden and deepen the scope of discourse about sexuality itself. If we don’t do this, no one will.
Again, my mother wrote extensively about this. In an essay titled Sexuality: A Feminist Issue? (1999)[ii] she tried to broaden our feminist understanding of ‘diversity’ in sexuality:
‘In more recent times, the discussion about sexuality has become focused on alternative sexual practices. In some fora, speaking about sexuality has become synonymous with speaking about lesbians. Yet, in actual fact, the concept of sexuality encompasses a wide range of sexual behaviour and practice that is “alternative” to the dominant mode. It could include homosexuals, gays and lesbians; but certainly also, from the point of view of the struggle for sexual self-determination and sexual autonomy of women, this category could include single women, widows, celibates. Some of these women have been “prohibited” from having sex by the state, by religion or by the community-on the basis that they are too young, too old, married, unmarried, virgins who must guard their hymen since it is the most valuable object they possess. All of them are women who defy mainstream sexual codes and patterns of behaviour and are therefore particularly vulnerable to punishment.’
Her essay challenges us to think of all and any non-conforming persons, particularly female – in various stages of their lives – whose sexual desires and conduct are strictly controlled by their families, communities and the state. These non-conforming, ‘non-productive’ persons, with their diverse sexual desires and sexual behaviours, pose a real challenge to the heteropatriarchy. Surely then, it falls well within the feminist agenda to not only stand by these persons, but to, in general, force a broader, more progressive discourse on sexuality itself; to talk about desire, pleasure and power in a way that upsets the status quo.
And so, there are many moving parts. The repeal of the Vagrant’s Ordinance was also recommended in the National Human Rights Action Plan – this, as a step towards legitimizing sex-work as work, and towards ensuring rights of sex-workers. Additionally, we also seem close to the cabinet approving changes to the law that would legalize abortion under special circumstances.
This is a critical moment. This much is clear to us all. Globally, we are teetering on the threshold; over the cliff is increased authoritarianism, fascism and heteropatriarchal control of sexuality and reproductive rights. Locally, we are all clambering to have our voices heard by the state while we are still being heard, however tokenistic or ‘symbolic’ the government’s efforts may be. It is clear that if we miss this window of opportunity to galvanize progressive change, politically, constitutionally and culturally, we may not get another chance for a long, long time.
It is more important than ever to come together as strong, unified movements – however diverse and divergent our approaches and strategies may sometimes be – to work together towards common dreams. It is simply not good enough to fight only ‘our own’ battles anymore, or indeed to obstruct each others’ pathways, intentionally or unintentionally.
This is what it means to be intersectional: that while we may disagree on the finer points (good movements should never be homogenous anyway), we also understand the importance of strategizing and acting collectively, in a way that moves us all forward, together, in the grander scheme of things; towards liberation/s both big and small, each one, meaningful, in solidarity.
A true Sri Lankan feminist intersectionality right now looks like one which stands for LGBTIQ equality; one which demands racial equality, and the more progressive constitution we as Sri Lankan people asked for, with legitimate power-sharing mechanisms and justice for all genders and ethnic minorities written in to it; an intersectionality which embraces the fight of our Muslim sisters, knowing that none of us are free until we are all free.
[i] Shifting Feminisms: From Inter- sectionality to Political Ecology, 2007
[ii] Sexuality: A Feminist Issue?, 1999