Sri Lanka: Curtailing choice in the guise of preserving culture

Daily Mirror
An opinion piece by Ambika Satkunanathan on the use of culture to control women and their sexuality.
"A lifestyle marked by the purchase and adornment of fancy clothes, jewellery and make up, along with a shift toward "provocative" and "unrespectable" behaviour leading to unwholesome sexual liaisons, unwanted pregnancies, and unsanitary abortions was posited as having become the norm among these women'.
Does the above quote sound familiar? You would not be mistaken in thinking these lines are from one of the leaflets circulated in the Eastern province a few weeks ago accusing women of several "transgressions" and calling upon them to stop working in NGOs and INGOs. The above quote however is from a paper by Malathi de Alwis and describes public perception of women in the Free Trade Zone in the late 1980s, when public concern about the exploitation of women FTZ workers turned to censure and moral policing of women. The use of culture to control women and their sexuality, and the use of threat of violence to restrict the autonomy of women remains unchanged, though the modes and methods of doing so have somewhat changed. For example, the human rights discourse/language has been appropriated by non-progressive/right wing groups, which under the guise of protecting and promoting the rights of women (in this case concern about the issue of violence against women) seek to control women's sexuality, reproductive capacity, financial autonomy and even freedom of movement. Hence, sexuality is the site of control of women's autonomy, movements, financial freedom etc.

According to a report in the Tamil language newspaper Virakesari on 2 April 2006, TNA MP Mr. Ariyanethiran in a speech at a seminar in Thirukkovil stated that he had evidence of 'sexual misconduct' of women NGO workers in the East and of numerous abortions that were taking place as a result of such misconduct. The seminar which was on 'Women & Culture' was chaired by Ram, the LTTE District Commander for Ampara. In the days following this speech, anonymous leaflets which accused women of contributing to cultural degradation by culturally inappropriate behaviour were circulated in the Eastern province.

The leaflets also stated that women were being sexually abused, exploited and forced to appear in pornography. The conflation of the two issues, i.e. culturally appropriate behaviour of women with the issue of violence against women, is designed to confuse the issue at hand. The intention is to reinforce long held gender biased views about violence against women, i.e. create the impression that the violence women experience is due to their culturally inappropriate behaviour, and thereby impose restrictions upon women. Such conflation also results in blaming/punishing the victim, as women will be censured and punished for both transgressing cultural mores, and in the opinion of a large section of the populace, for causing or at the very least contributing to such violence through their inappropriate behaviour.

The result of the MP's speech and the leaflets has been moral policing and censure of women by the community, with women being harassed in public places, in some instances by members of the armed forces at checkpoints. There have also been cases of groups of men visiting the homes of women and threatening them not to go to work. In a space that is already consumed by fear, where violence is escalating on a daily basis, this event created a fear psychosis amongst women in the East who are afraid to go to work, and sometimes even be seen in public spaces.

Violence against women is a serious issue and if there are cases of women being sexually abused and exploited by their colleagues or superior officers in NGOs and INGOs the focus should be on providing redress to these women and ensuring the perpetrators are held accountable for their crimes. Violence against women should not be used as an excuse to engage in moral policing of women and impose restrictions upon women. The aim should be to empower women and treat them as individuals with agency not protect them as one would children. For example, the language used in the pamphlets is protectionist and refers to grown women as children, with women viewed as those who should always be subject to control lest they 'go astray'.

The pamphlets ask parents of women working in NGOs and INGOs to prevent their "children" particularly "female children" from frequenting places where cultural degradation takes place. The code of conduct formulated at a meeting of NGO representatives and TNA MPs on April 18 (reported in Virakesari on 20 April 2006) continues to focus on culturally appropriate behaviour of women and asks the parents of women who work for NGOs to be vigilant about the behaviour of their "children". They further, state that women should not work after 5 p.m. and should not attend meetings outside their home base. Though the allegations in the leaflets state that women are being sexually abused and exploited, it is women who are being subject to further discrimination through the imposition of rules which restrict their freedom of movement, freedom to work and financial independence. It was also decided at this meeting that programmes to prevent cultural decadence should be conducted in every NGO. When we speak of culture whose culture are we talking about? It is important to keep in mind that the notion "culture" will be shaped by the positionality of the speaker. There is no pure static notion of culture.

It is fear of female sexuality that leads to the imposition of stricter controls which seek to control a woman's reproductive capacity, which is key to the survival of the group/community. Further, as women are viewed as repositories of culture, honour of community etc, it becomes doubly important to control their sexuality. At the same time it cannot be denied that historically women too have appropriated culture to battle hegemonic forces, such as colonialism, which has resulted in contradictory gender roles for women.

As economic progress provides more opportunities to women to come out of the private sphere the fears of the community that women will be tainted by outside forces increase, and stricter codes of behaviour in the name of culture are imposed. Hence, as opportunities for women increase outside the household so do attempts to impose greater control upon their sexuality and reproductive capacity. Although identities and gender roles have changed during the conflict it appears the new markers are also restrictive and attempt to control/deny the autonomy women have gained. Furthermore, we must also recognise that women's survival strategies operate even within exploitative circumstances. To use Rajasingham's term, we must recognise the 'ambivalent empowerment' that women experience. If we ignore women's survival strategies, we will force them into an even more exploitative reality.

As globalization brings about change at an unprecedented pace, communities struggling to deal with the rapid metamorphosis taking place seek refuge in culture in their struggle to retain the familiar. Further in the current context, conflict and then the tsunami have also eroded existing hierarchies and provided opportunities to hitherto marginalised groups, such as women. The dislodging of privileged groups from their positions of power and change in status quo could also be reasons why groups seek refuge in culture to maintain the 'purity' of their community.

If women are being sexually abused and exploited we need to ask why women are reluctant to report the crime. It is because social attitudes too contribute to the discrimination of women. When a woman is raped, abused or beaten she thinks not once but many times before lodging a complaint at the police station. This is due to many factors: one factor is shame and stigmatisation by society, which in many cases results in the family discouraging the woman from lodging a complaint. Laws delays and lack of sensitivity of the law enforcement sector and members of the legal profession are other reasons women do not report violence.

We must keep in mind that legal reform alone will not suffice to ensure that women have the power to make choices about their lives and have the freedom to carry them through. Changing the law will not change the status of women in the eyes of the community which might feel targeted and therefore take social measures to ensure the continuation of their cultural traditions to the detriment of women.

In the current state of affairs where are the key players in positions of power placed? The key players, the State, the LTTE and INGOs, who claim to be committed to the promotion and protection of the rights of women and do not shy away from rhetoric supporting the empowerment of women, have been largely silent on this issue. No statements were made by the Ministry of Women's Affairs or any other state institution. Where the LTTE is concerned other than Batticaloa political leader Daya Mohan's statement at a meeting of NGOs (reported in Virakesari on 20-4-2006) that they had evidence of sexual abuse of women and warning of serious consequences if such abuse was not stopped, no other statement has been made. Though the INGOs, which fund many gender programmes and claim to be dedicated to the empowerment of women, have issued a statement they need to be more active in creating a secure space for their female workers. Through their silence and inaction all key actors are complicit as silent partners in this attempt to curtail women's freedom of choice, agency and right to work.

By Ambika Satkunanathan, 22 May 2006
The writer is a Researcher at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo.