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Tamils & Gender Inequality

| by Gajalakshmi Paramasivam

( March 9, 2014, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) I write in response to the article ‘Strong Women: A Book Review’ published by Sri Lanka Guardian.

We are introduced to the article as follows: ‘In post-war phase, discourse around women and their rights remains extremely weak. As such, attention must be paid to the day- to- day increase of violence against women and girls across the country. The continuing ethnic issues and insecurity together with other socio-economic factors, including the rising cost of living, have placed a great burden upon the women in the North and East as well as women island-wide who have faced the consequences of the war.’

Interestingly, the authors – ‘Women’s Action Group’ have linked the gender issue to the ethnic issue and eventually pooled it with the common issues of security and socio-economic wellbeing of the nation.

Issues of discrimination as per physical attributes eventually do affect our enjoyment of life through our home units. The closeness to the base is the unit damaged by injustice, the deeper the damage. In this instance given that gender differences prevail in most households, we need to conclude that gender based discrimination is more important than race based discrimination and when ignored would change form to become other forms of discrimination.

Those who habitually discriminate on one basis are likely to use other forms of discrimination using the physical senses. Hence those who discriminate on the basis of race are also likely to discriminate on the basis of gender, age and apparent disability.

As per my knowledge, Sri Lanka as a country carries the record of having produced the first female prime minister as well as the first female president. But only those Sri Lankans who feel connected to these positions and / or the persons through common belief, would render substance to that credit. I believe I carry this with Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike through my faith in Mother Vadivambikai of Muneeswaram and to the latter through my direct experience during Tsunami Reconstruction work in 2005 – which again to my mind, happened through my faith in Swami Sai Baba. When I went to meet Madam Chandrika Kumaratunga I was included as part of a religious group led by Minister Douglas Devananda with least effort / activity on my part to meet with the President. But when it happened, I took it as my Tsunami Reconstruction work being worthy of Presidential attention. It was therefore an Administrative followed by ownership outcome due to me having worked through my official position and beyond. The official position was the position attributed to me by the officials in the area. The ownership part was the contribution I made beyond these position duties. To that extent the empowerment came from the victims of Tsunami who trusted me and shared common belief with me. Hence the meeting happened on an auspicious day with me being part of an auspicious group. When waiting for the President, I placed myself in the shoes of Madam Kumaratunga and admired the lady for having stayed in that position. My common belief with the person helped me feel I was the President for purpose for which I was there. I believe that to the extent I was an independent woman believing in my freedom from male hierarchy, I was / am part of the power that renders substance to the status that Sri Lanka enjoys as the nation that produced female Heads of State. Likewise every person who has lost consciousness of gender based hierarchy. The credit we have is real only to the extent it is experienced in common with the other side – the citizen in this instance. The President could also become citizen to make up for the shortage on the citizens’ side.

The authors state ‘Thangesvari Kathirgamam who was elected following the Parliamentarian Elections in 2004 and who is from Kannankuda in Batticaloa; Saraswathi Thevanthirum who won elections held in 2011 in Mullaiteevu after three decades; Jensila Majeed, who was evicted from the North by the LTTE and has challenged social and cultural norms through her work on women rights and equality for 22 years and was awarded the US State Department's International Women of Courage Award in 2010 and Shila Irudayaraj from Jaffna, who was nominated in 2005 for a Nobel prize with 1000 other women from 150 countries for her work on women who have lost their husbands; all these women find no mention in this book.

The Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs also does not consider Chandiraka Kumaratunga who was the 5thPresident of Sri Lanka for two consecutive terms and was also the 1st woman President of Sri Lanka as a strong woman. Furthermore, women such as the former Chief Justice of Sri Lanka, Shirani Bandaranayake or internationally acclaimed human rights and women’s rights activist Sunila Abeyasekera who established several organisations for human rights and for women’s rights, Radhika Coomaraswamy who was the Under Secretary General of the United Nations; scholar and academic Kumari Jayawardena, who’s contribution to political science and women’s histories, have all excluded in this book. Women who have earned space and acclaim in fields that historically excluded women, women writers, artists, dramatists and journalists who have courageously written and expressed dissenting views and raised important issues, all find no mention. It is clear therefore, that human rights and women’s rights activists, women from other political parties, critics of the current repressive government have been consciously excluded.’

In terms of showing Elimination of Gender Inequality – we Sri Lankans have already done this through the Heads of State position. To then individually claim recognition at lower levels is to disintegrate towards showing outcomes at lower levels. On 08 March 2014, I was requested by Dr. Gamani Goonetilleka – the Chairperson of an event here in Sydney on 15 March in support of war recovery programs – to read out the President’s message during function. Of special interest to me was also the knowledge that the Hon Philip Ruddock who was the Attorney General who engaged mostly with me at the Federal level, would be the Chief Guest. To me, being asked by the group to deliver the message of the Head of State is the parallel of the folks at Mankerni, Batticaloa trusting me to be their representative with the Government in relation to Tsunami Reconstruction. Such authority comes out of service work that gives us credits / rights with the Natural system driven by ownership. We then take up our natural positions. Facilities in Democracy are the structures that confirm this common ownership. One should not be ‘told’ nor should one be required to ‘ask’ within this area of ownership.

In contrast, the article by Shamindra Ferdinando in The Island under the heading ‘Ananthi alleges Sumanthiran silenced her in Geneva TNA, Tamil Diaspora split over US-led resolution backed by UK’ , concludes with the following statement:

‘The TNA won the first Northern Provincial Council election last September. Sasitharan polled the second highest number of preferential votes after Chief Minister, C.V. Wigneswaran.’

It is noteworthy that Ms Sasitharan did not win the highest grading by Tamil voters. It is a Natural structure that confirms that the male continues to dominate in Northern Sri Lanka. To my mind, this is needed for reasons similar to the reason why caste based discrimination is still needed in some areas where the jobs associated with certain castes continue to be active. I wrote in this regard to a fellow Australian Tamil as follows in response to his objections:

[You state ‘Madam, with due respect, toddy tapping is a job for living, not a race or ethnic group. This wording could be rephrased in another way.’

With any job where we have positions as per a structure – there is a hierarchy. Hence the CEO and the cleaner have different positions until they fulfil their duties as per their positions to become common owners. But when it comes to performance in the name of that structure (family, workplace, community, country or global) we all need to take our positions as per those structures. Once we fulfil the position duties – and continue to contribute through that position – we become owners. To that extent we govern ourselves. The institution becomes our facility to that extent. We should no longer be administered.

Given that toddy tapping continues to be the main job attributed to the people of that area – it is appropriate for them to be called toddy tappers. Those who view it as such would respect those jobs and the contribution they make to our society. To that extent we give valuation by calling them toddy tappers instead of numbers who could be manipulated by those of higher status. To the extent they take dignity in their work and related culture – they would seek to be called Toddy Tappers. To my mind that is not of lower status in society outside this work structure. But many Vellalars (Farmer Caste) do use it to assess social status.

The strange thing is that the toddy tappers also do not find fault with the Vellalars for not treating them equally. There are many practical reasons why there is separation between the two groups. One is hygiene. During my last trip I happened to get a painter whose origin is from Nalavar / Toddy Tapper caste. The lady who recommended him to me does not allow him inside the home. But in my home there are no such separations. Hence when I had tea & coffee at office I made a cup for Mr. K also. But Mr.K left the cup unwashed on the floor. I picked it up, washed it and put it away and advised him that he needed to wash the cup he used and that which belonged in common to all of us. Mr.K. agreed but continued to take shortcuts – as if he knew better than I. For example, he used the more expensive paint to paint the ceiling in an area outside our management. To my mind, it was to extend the work period he would get from us. The result was I stopped the work for the time being – even though some parts of our essential work remains undone. The distance was necessary – given the unjust discrimination karma that we carry as a community. Vellallar lost the moral authority to take higher position in society to the extent they used higher authority above the level required for job purposes. As a Jaffna Tamil I carry my share and hence instead of disciplining Mr.K. I distanced myself. These are the practical aspects of the caste issue. When it comes to common areas – I am not at all conscious of caste – and even when others show such consciousness I become an observer and thus am unaffected by it. Local Vellalar who need to supervise – especially ladies – often use caste to derive authority and given that they are yet to be educated in our new democratic structure – we need to accept this – not forgetting that the old ladies often hire these local folks for their garden and masonry jobs. The younger folks – their sons for example – are not there to do the work themselves. So the caste system continues. Ultimately the essence of what we do is with us. So long as the motive is good – meaning to make us common – the outcome would be healthy.]

Gender equality unless underpinned by actual experience – would lead to lesser commitment to family – especially by mothers. Ms Rupa Jha of the BBC for example states:

‘Winnie said the fact that these widows do not resist the way they are treated by their families is deeply rooted in culture. “They still hope that, when they die, their son will come and light their pyre. Only if your son lights your pyre will you go to heaven. A son who breaks your legs, hits you so hard that your skull breaks and is willing to put cow dung in your mouth; yet, you want him to light your pyre.’

These women do not have much knowledge about gender equality or other laws under which BBC regulates its reporting. Theirs is largely belief based. One who follows a structure that gives form to gender equality would have difficulty understanding that the woman who stays at home and takes care of home activities would depend on the males in her family to connect her to the external world. This practice prevails in Jaffna even today through Thesawalamai principles. Even a woman with Australian citizenship sought to be represented by her husband in court. It is therefore not surprising that resident Tamils who are supported by the Tamil Diaspora which has allowed such mentally to keep growing, would not elect a female in preference to a male. This was an issue I took up with the LTTE leadership during my work through the UNDP to develop an appropriate system of Public Administration. The guy who was distributing the agenda handed out one each to the males on either side of me – but left me out. Ms Ananthi Sasitharan’s husband however did specifically listen to me during a Tsunami Reconstruction meeting headed by him. But LTTE is not the whole of TNA and hence our reality of gender inequality would continue for some time in Northern Sri Lanka. We need it for the time being due to weak investment by LTTE in democracy.

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