(Keynote address delivered at the launch of Urgent Action Fund Asia Pacific, 24 October 2017, Colombo, held in memory of Sunila Abeysekera: 1952 – 2013.)
It is an immense, humbling almost overwhelming honour to be standing here in front of you today. The realization of the Asia Pacific chapter of Urgent Action Fund is the result of the hard work, of collaborations, of the co-dreaming and co-plotting of many people who mean a great deal to me. I am so very grateful to some of those people for giving me the stage here today; for believing I can.
In 2005, my mother Sunila Abeysekera convened more than one hundred women human rights defenders from all over the world, at this very location. Sometimes, in moments where I am particularly angry about how socially regressive Sri Lanka is becoming, I have tried to picture that conference full of women, all kinds of women – and I have often thought sadly that such a radical, powerful gathering of women could never occur in Sri Lanka again. Maybe we are going to prove them wrong.
Sri Lanka has been through many phases since then – a terrible, brutal end to a terrible, brutal civil war, authoritarian rule which has left us with deep wounds, and more recently the deep disappointment with political change we all fought for.
But Sri Lanka’s women’s rights activists and women human rights defenders have never stopped. Women have been fighting for an increase in political representation for women; women have been leading movements to make public submissions towards transitional justice processes and a new constitution. Women are at the front-lines of the struggles for land, to end enforced disappearances, to demand justice and accountability. We are also in a struggle for sexual and bodily autonomy, as ‘the abortion debate’ has also resurfaced in Sri Lanka in recent times.
If my mother were here, she would have a finger in all of these struggles. She was as beloved as she was celebrated and she wore her many hats often with ease: feminist activist, singer, scholar, critic, friend, matriarch, human rights campaigner. Across Sri Lanka, Sunila facilitated the pivotal personal transformations of dozens of other Sri Lankan women who became and remain our feminist leaders, as well as the growth of feminist organizations and collectives.
She dedicated her life to the liberation of women, working on a cross-section of issues and with numerous communities, always maintaining feminist critiques on things like class, labour, capitalism, state machinery, and militarization. She was also a critical voice in the sphere of the arts and culture, producing landmark reviews in cinema and theatre through a feminist lens.
She was also one of the key proponents of the idea that ‘sexuality is a feminist issue’ in Sri Lanka – and we still can’t seem to say it enough! She wrote widely about the importance of women’s movements taking strong feminist stances on sexuality and sexual rights. She was one of the key pillars of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) movements in Sri Lanka. She advocated for feminist movements to centre the rights of lesbian, bisexual, trans and all non-binary persons in their work.
Over two decades of activism, Sunila also fostered strong relationships with feminists globally, and became a close friend of many. She embodied the feminist principle of ‘the personal is political’, and taught many of us, including myself, to do the same –always by example, never preaching.
As a young feminist activist, but also as my mother’s daughter, I occupy an interesting position between the generations. I work closely with my peers and I also work closely with many of my mother’s peers. In January this year, two friends and I started what was then a simple women-only Facebook group – today it has a membership of more than 300 Sri Lankan women, with a few South Asians who either live in or have ties to Sri Lanka. Today we are an unfunded intergenerational online offline collective of women with feminist values, named A Collective for Feminist Conversations. The broad objective for this collective was just to create a platform where different kinds of women can be connected to each other, to have the conversations which are meaningful to us.
But there are other goals. One of our goals is to support substantive young feminist leadership by connecting younger women to critical local feminist discourses, movements and histories. One other is to become a space where critical conversations can be had across the generations, leading us to examine how we have done movement-building and how we can do it better.
Through many of the conversations I have been a part of, inside and outside our Collective, there are a few things which always rise to the surface which are signs of our specific tensions and anxieties.
One is of course about age and the generational rift between older feminists and younger feminists – but I find that this particular anxiety often becomes especially expressed in the way we approach technology.
Interestingly, I was recently reading an interview Wendy Harcourt did with my mother in 2012.
While my mother makes very many insightful and incisive remarks, I found to my surprise that she also has some rather archaic and embarrassingly simplistic views on young feminist organizing and on our relationship with tech!
Though maybe I shouldn’t be that surprised – unfortunately on one hand she has been gone now for four years, and I suppose it is true that in that four years feminist movements globally have expanded and deepened our critiques and discourses around tech, and of course these have become very mainstream now. Perhaps, probably, if she was here now she would have a more nuanced view of things. Also of course because I would be where I am now and I would surely tell her what’s what.
She claims that young feminists are not identity-sensitive about their feminism, and do not, for example, carve out women-only spaces for themselves in the online world. She also says she prefers the ‘real world to the ‘virtual world’ – whatever that is! She also admits, in the same interview, that she has a camera on her phone but cannot for the life of her figure out how to get a photograph from on her phone on to her laptop!
On the other hand – it’s also not that surprising when even today, some of the more established women’s organizations and feminists still espouse these ideas – that technology is the domain of young women, young feminists lack depth and substance and all they care about is social media, social media organizing/activism is not ‘real’, technology is but a tool etc., – and continue to enforce a somewhat dismissive binary between our online and so-called ‘real’ lives, and ‘social media activism’ and so-called ‘real activism.’
Technology is very much a feminist realm and a feminist issue – not just a tool, not just as ‘social media’ that ‘young’ feminists use for organizing – it is a site of our struggles and our movements. It is a site of patriarchal power. It is a site of liberation. It is a site of violence. It is all these things that feminists are very much concerned with! Technology belongs to us, too. It always has. And there certainly are many women-only spaces online – I personally co-founded and co-run one! I think it is all our responsibility to support feminists – immaterial of age – to reclaim technology as our own story – especially against the tide of ongoing resistance from within our own movements, as we work to make technology more democratic and free from violence.
The other thing of significance which keeps coming up for us and seems to be a conversation we desperately need to have is the relationship between our work and our funding.
The terrible price that women’s movements have had to often pay for funding is their feminist spirit, their feminist activism. As activist organizations which were founded in the 1980s and 1990s have become increasingly NGOized, to keep up with the demands of international donor culture, feminist activism – particularly in the South of Sri Lanka – has become hard to sustain.
Of serious concern to all of us is the particular political context prevailing locally and globally at the present moment, and its implications for women’s rights and social justice worldwide. It is clear to us that in an increasingly hostile, openly misogynistic political climate, strong, locally formulated feminist critiques of power, and feminist engagements with discourses are, more than ever, the need of the hour.
Many women’s organizations around the country are not able to commit to the work they really want to do: building strong, local feminist discourses through activism, research and knowledge-production, fostering new feminist leadership, and growing a feminist consciousness together. Feminist activists and organizations are often forced to dilute or compromise on their politics, in order to carry out ‘funded’ work. Many women’s organizations work hard to stay afloat and to stay relevant, with diminishing resources and capacity. Moreover, feminist activists or women human rights defenders who prefer to work as individuals or small collectives outside of organizations and institutions have few, if any, opportunities to obtain financial support for their work.
This is the crisis that it is our collective responsibility to address. The importance of a fund like Urgent Action Fund in Asia therefore is ever clearer: we hope that its work in our region will enable women’s / feminist groups who foreground marginalized feminist issues, which are critical, ignored and under-funded, to continue on their journeys and be strengthened; that it will enable Sri Lankan feminist activists and organizations to do radical activism and take ideological leadership in the moments that truly matter.
In closing I would like to remember — and to remind you — that I do not stand here alone; we never do. We always stand together.
I stand here because of many other women who have gone before me; many who are not with us, and many who are. I stand here because of all the women who have raised me; not least of all the women who made up my mother’s family and who make up my family, biological and otherwise. And I stand here because of her – four years have gone by since my mother’s death in 2013. In death, as in life, she continues to make me, to make me who I am. She brings me into the paths of people who matter; she brought me here today. So, ma, thank you for this room, thank you for every room in the world in which I belong.