Jaffna’s Changing Labour Migration Dynamics

5 Mar

An estimated 65,000 women left Sri Lanka’s shores as domestic workers in the year 2016. Of these the greatest numbers were from Kurunagala and Colombo – 7000 from each district as per statistics released by the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment.
The main exodus as per figures released by the SLBFE are from the South, West, and North Central Provinces. The East has a few thousands migrating from each of its districts too.

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The Jaffna war affected mother of two sons, one of whom died in a bomb blast, and the other abducted by the army currently among the list of the ‘disappeared.’ As the sole breadwinner, she just returned from Saudi Arabia and is on her way again to Kuwait as a domestic worker.

Migration from the North


The lowest numbers, albeit picking up steadily over the last few years, is from the North. Jaffna and many of the other Northern districts have been slow to pick up on this trend. Cut off by the war for many years, many Northern women did not take up this employment option over the last few decades, where the rest of Sri Lanka saw a boom.
Ever since war ended in 2009 though, the numbers have been picking up steadily, bringing with it several changes socially and culturally – though not much economically – that the local populace are unhappy about.

As per government records, 276 women left Jaffna as domestic workers, classed an unskilled category, in 2016. Some more leave without registering with the government, but numbers as of yet are quite low in this region, ranging in the few hundreds.
The highest numbers from the North are from Mannar (653), followed by Vavuniya (443).

From both these districts, the numbers are generally drawn from regions relatively less affected by war. People who had access to the rest of the country and were not cut off by war, have developed links and agencies to travel – mostly to the Middle East, as migrant labour.
It is yet a trend to be established in the worst of the war affected areas, even though the poverty, and the need of the women headed families there is greater. Only 64 left from Kilinochchi and two from Mullaitivu in 2016 as per SLBFE data.

Backlash on the women

From wherever the women go, the people left behind have not many positive things to say about the matter. In villages from where women significantly migrate, charges abound that the women:

– would be sexually licentious once set ‘free’ in those foreign countries. They need the familial, cultural and social restrictions back in the village to keep them in check.

– would come back with sexually transmitted diseases and therefore be sickly, because almost certainly they would have been raped by their employer – which is somehow considered their fault as well, not much sympathy is exhibited for them.

– that they are terrible mothers to their children for leaving them in the care of the fathers or guardians. The primary duty of childcare should solely be the mother’s.

– that they would be too ‘independent’ by the time they return, due to the arrogance of having worked abroad. They would no longer be meek and subservient and content to remain at home.

All of these are charges laid against women who are about to leave, have left, or returned.

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A returned domestic worker from Kuwait, who detailed many of the abuses she has to endure as a ‘fallen woman’ back home. She currently wraps beedis for a living.


As for the migrant returnees themselves, they span the spectrum from heavily traumatised by their treatment both abroad as well as once back here, to the newly confident and empowered women who feel better able to handle their own lives. What was different for the empowered women? The conditions they outline when questioned about their working conditions are abysmal. Yet when asked how they liked their jobs abroad, they enthusiastically gave positive responses. Here are a few samples:
“No one yelled at me unnecessarily. I only got scolded if my work was not up to standard, so I strived to be good at it. Yes, I had a lot of work to do from early morning til midnight, but that’s what we do back here too. We are used to it. At least over there, I earned through it and was appreciated by my employers for it.”

“I loved the freedom in Saudi Arabia to evaluate and understand myself as a person. Over here, we face a constant barrage of criticism from society, friends and family to be a certain way. It was while there, removed from our society’s constant harsh feedback on who I was supposed to be and how I was stepping out of line of those rigidly set boundaries, that I managed to evaluate myself and came to understand my own thoughts, needs and personality. I discovered myself while out there.

In answer to a follow up question put to the above lady on exactly what kind of freedoms she had had in Saudi Arabia to explore and discover herself, she replied, “Oh I didn’t mean freedom in terms of time or ability, to go out anywhere or do anything other than house work. I worked round the clock other than for the six hours I slept. They were exceptionally nice employers you know? They allowed me six hours of sleep, unlike most other employers there. They liked and trusted me because I had no inclination to go out on my own.

The only time I went out was once a week to do shopping. I had to cover myself in a black abaya and the lady of the house would come with me in the car, driven either by her husband or driver, to supervise my shopping. 

No, I meant freedom to process my own thoughts and understand myself contextually, in the absence of the barrage of constant criticism that gets thrown at us women here, as to who we should be and how we should behave, with little regard to our own thoughts and feelings on the matter.
It was good for me to remove myself from our culture for a while and be placed in a completely foreign culture, so that I could evaluate our society from a distance and come to my own conclusions on how I would reintegrate into it, once I came back.
No-one can point a finger at me now. Well they do, but I pay them no mind. I came back after 10 years abroad to marry and settle down. I went at 18 and returned at 28. I am a dutiful wife and mother. I continue to work here as a housekeeper for an NGO, and am quite strong in my views and thoughts. My husband is OK with it but my mother in law left the house in a rage, unable to see me treating my husband as an equal instead of being subservient to him.”

Another returnee: “People here claim that we must be sick with sexually transmitted diseases because we returned from the Middle East. How dare they? When it comes to culture, do they know how much more cultured, the Gulf countries are? I was in Kuwait for seven years.
The maama (lady of the house) would regularly check my phone every week to see if I had any other numbers or unwarranted phone call activity listed. I was allowed to have only her number and my Sri Lankan family’s number on my phone – and phone calls would be tolerated only to those two numbers. We were never allowed to go out of the house unless they took us somewhere. How could we be anything other than scrupulously moral in such a setting?
As for clothes, we had to be covered head to toe in black even in the house. Only my face would show. The men of the house would not even talk or look at us. They would communicate whatever they needed from us, through the lady of the house. We lived in a far more cultured place than anyone here, and yet they dare call us sexually corrupted when we return.”

As is evident from the above quotes, many women had a skewed perception and a very low threshold for what they termed ‘good employment.’ Many more with visibly puffed, red eyes even to this day said “The employment was good but we only had two to three hours of sleep per day.”

It became clear through the interviews conducted with several returnees through the provinces of the North that lack of time allowed for sleep is a common problem in the Gulf Countries, especially Saudi Arabia.

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People in the villages judge how well a migrant is doing abroad by their fencing, and beyond that their houses. Those who don’t earn much have the cheapest, natural fencing of coconut or palmyrah thatch, those doing a little better have tin fences, and the ones earning the best have cement walls and houses.

A single domestic worker would often be expected to serve several families living in multi storied compounds – either due to a system of extended families living together, or polygamous family systems. Once she finished working for one family, she would have to move on to the next.
There was no concept of ever being able to take a break in between. Nor any concept of off days or holidays other than for a two week break every two years.
“We could never use any of the chairs in those homes. If we sit down on the floor for even a few minutes, the women of the house would scold us for slacking.”
Thus they often didn’t finish their work until well after midnight, yet had to be up well before dawn to tend to multiple families’ needs before the children went to school and the adults for work.
“I slept only two hours for five years in Saudi Arabia. The employers were very nice otherwise, They didn’t pay me til I returned however and gave my money as a lump sum for the five years service. I was happy with the amount until I reached home and an educated relative did the math and told me I had been cheated of three years’ worth of salary. I am illiterate and so didn’t realise the numbers didn’t add up.”

 Sexual Abuse

All of the returnees were reluctant to talk of any sexual abuse they might have faced; understandable in the context of the stigma they face over it, back in their communities. As such, many took pains to say their male employers had never even talked or interacted with them. In a few cases however, after first denying they had been abused, some relaxed over the interview period to detail stories that clearly showed abuse. None admitted to rape, but they did admit to gropings and sexual solicitations. Always with the entreaty, “Please do not publish this in the newspaper under our names. We face enough stigma back here already.”
Having endured abuse, 
they silently bear it, and cringe at the many aspersions cast on their character and reputation.

For all this work and abuse, they earn on average Rs.20 – 30,000 a month from the Gulf countries, from which deductions are made by their employers for phone calls they make home and other miscellaneous expenses, including medicine.
About Rs.15000 reach their homes every month, which the families back here use up without saving. The remittances are enough to ensure the subsistence of the family back in Jaffna but not much else. Thus when most of these women return home, they return to the same conditions they left, with no savings whatsoever.
A few enterprising families over here take out bank loans to upgrade their houses on the strength of the migrant’s stable monthly remittances, but only in cases where the husband or other family members work too. Drawn from the most vulnerable and poorer sections of society, families from these villages are used to eking out an existence through wage labour on a subsistence economy.


“That Rs.15,000 our men and women send home is not more than what we earn here actually. We work about 15-20 days a month and earn around the same for coolie work here too. Men can earn up to Rs.1,500 for masonry work and women up to Rs.800 for domestic work or farm labour. Under such a system, we finish the money as soon as we earn it however. The only good thing about migrants’ remittances is that their money gets deposited in a bank in stable, dependable amounts, so we are able to plan and where possible save, unlike how we deal with our daily wages,” explains one woman whose sister is in Qatar as a domestic worker, and husband in Saudi Arabia as a driver. She has three children at home. Asked whether she found it difficult to cope as a single parent without the assistance of her husband who would get two weeks’ leave every two years, she was firmly negative; “No, he was a nuisance here, always drinking his wages away and causing trouble at home, beating me and the kids. Now he is in a country where he can’t drink, a very good thing. And his salary gets deposited to our account back here, so it is a huge relief. He can’t spend it either.”

Effects of Men Migrating

 

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Interviewing a man and his wife in the field. He had returned from Dubai after working as a driver for two years, and is working as a bus driver here.

 

Far more men than women migrate out of Jaffna currently, heading out as skilled as well as semi skilled or unskilled workers to the Middle East. Their mothers. sisters and wives back home view it as a good thing, as they are prone to alcoholism back in Jaffna. “The Gulf countries are good. Workers can’t consume alcohol there so it keeps our men in check.”

Yet here too stigma attaches – on the women left back home. The migrants’ wives report that they can’t step out of their houses to do shopping or talk to a male relative in the street before gossip about their licentiousness abound, with unsavoury reports sometimes being sent to the husbands as well.
“Nobody ever talks about the men,” says one migrant’s wife. “There are husbands left back here with wives abroad, drinking their remittances away and carrying on openly with other women. Some husbands who migrate leaving their wives here, contract other marriages abroad. Yet whatever they do, we are somehow blamed for it. People say we didn’t satisfy our husbands and so it is our fault, not theirs. No stigma attaches to the men, no matter whether they were the ones to migrate or the ones to stay, and over whether they indulge in adultery or not. The blame is always upon us women, whether we migrate or whether we stay, whether we engaged in adultery or were abused.”

 

Socio-cultural Dynamics

According to staff at SOND – Social Organizers Networking for Development, an NGO which works with labour migrants and migrant returnees in the North, the social, cultural and economic issues surrounding such labour migrants are many, few of which are positive.
“The majority of the migrants to the Gulf are generally drawn from the oppressed castes and class in our society,” Says Mr.Senthurajah, Executive Director, SOND.
“The others try to migrate too, but to what they call the ‘big countries’ – Canada, Australia, UK and the like. The Gulf and other associated countries in which they will never gain permanent residency are called the ‘small countries’ in local parlance. Migrants to such countries will have to return eventually. They often return, especially in the case of women, to not much better circumstances than when they left, despite years of work abroad. In some cases, because husbands have gotten used to drink, and relatives including children have gotten used to stable remittances in her absence, the women are abused for no longer being the economic sustenance they once were, when they return.”


He further adds, “If you study the villages these migrants are drawn from, you would see they have been traditionally relegated to the most resource poor of areas – places where there is not enough ground water, infertile lands that cannot be farmed, and inadequate plots of land that lack the space to plant even a few coconut trees. A coconut sells for Rs.100 now. How can wage labour dependent families survive under this rate of inflation? Unlike the wealthier landed families of Jaffna with their own home gardens and coconut trees, they have to buy everything. The curses of the feudal hierarchical systems and caste continue to affect them – impelling them to leave for exploitative work conditions abroad. This troubling migration pattern is not an accident. The inequalities of the past continue to fuel inequalities in the present, in our society.”

This article is the first in a five part series on labour migration of domestic workers from Sri Lanka.

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Polishing Diamonds in the Rough

13 Aug

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Ever since it was announced a few weeks ago that Gethsie Shanmugam (82) is a recipient of this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Award – Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize – visitors and journalists have been flooding her home. The sprightly silver haired lady is taking it in her stride with good humour and grace, although the constant influx is not easy on her elderly husband (89).

The chaos currently in her home is nothing compared to what she had to undergo not too long ago. She was voluntarily, constantly in and out of the war zone in the North and East, juxtaposing Colombo’s relative stability with the constant aerial bombardments of bombs and shells in the war zones she was traveling in, in order to counsel the war-affected and heal their trauma – even as they unfolded before her eyes. She was by then already in her 60s, but did not consider her age, gender or ethnicity as frailties.

How did she do it? Was there ever a time she feared for her life?
“No, I never thought about it. I just did what I had to do.”
Was she traumatised herself or suffer compassion fatigue?
“Yes, sometimes I would almost quit. Then I would get back up and go on.”

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She recalls scenes of devastation in the aftermath of frequent battles. Army and LTTE fighters alike flailing in pain, along with civilians. Of civilians even then showing humanity by tending to both factions regardless of whether they were Sinhala Army soldiers or Tamil LTTE cadres. At great personal risk to themselves she takes care to reiterate, as both factions took revenge on those who gave succour to the other. That was what led her on. The fact that even if she saw inhumanity in some cases, she also saw great humanity in other instances, cutting across the lines of ethnicity and war.

“I never took sides in the war, it was not my place. As an Estate Tamil brought up by a Sinhala lady and eventually married to a Jaffna Tamil, I have been from childhood beyond the narrow definitions of ethnicity and regional affiliations. The same goes for religion. I am a christian married to a hindu, then turned to buddhism and vegetarianism among other paths in my search for truth. I keep an open mind, whether its ideologies or people.” says Gethsie.

As such, as a Tamil lady who speaks all three languages,Tamil, Sinhala and English,  she had no trouble gaining permission to move frequently into the war zone, keeping on neutral terms with both the Army and the LTTE in order to go about her work to serve the war-affected people directly.

It is for this work that she has now been awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award. For nearly four decades she has been engaged in psycho-social healing, especially of women and children in conflict settings in various areas of Sri Lanka, but particularly the war zone.

Yet she says she had no sense of this mega destiny early in life. She was born in a tea estate in Nawalapitya to parents of Indian origin. “My father was the chief clerk on the estate and we had an idyllic childhood there, growing up in a bungalow with well-endowed facilities. Tragedy hit a little later. My mother passed away when I was 15, and my father nine years later, at which time I was the only earning member of our family. With an elder brother still in University and two younger sisters, I had just begun to earn as a teacher after completing my education at teachers’ training college.”

Her career started placidly enough as an English teacher. She took a break of some years to get married and raise her young family before joining St.Joseph’s College, Colombo in 1967, where her capacity to be a counselor was identified by the rector there. “I noticed some of the boys had psycho-social issues which impacted their behaviour and concentration in class, so I often stayed behind after school hours to talk to them and see what I could do for them. The rector Fr. Joseph Benedict who saw this recommended me to Rev Dr. Mervin Fernando who was then pioneering psycho-social services in Sri Lanka. I studied Basic Counselling from him at the Family Studies Services Institute in 1982 and from thereon became his protege.”

She reels off a list of her educational qualifications in psychotherapy and work experience in diverse areas of Sri Lanka as well as abroad in several countries from then on. Suffice it to say it is a very impressive list but beyond the scope of this article to encompass because it would take several pages to capture. She has lived a full and varied life ever since finding her vocation as a counselor nearly four decades ago. She has also written and published many of her findings in the psycho-social sphere in Sri Lanka, in order to share her knowledge, as well as to induct other therapists into her field.   

2013 Gethsie Shanmugam conducting session for Suriya Womens Development Centre

A regular complaint in Sri Lanka, made by those working in psychotherapy, is the lack of qualified and skilled personnel in magnitudes necessary to deal with the nationwide trauma the decades long conflict has caused. Gethsie however is not a complainer. She works instead to find creative solutions to overcome the lack of manpower in Sri Lankan psychotherapy – especially in areas that needs them the most.

“I had returned from Batticaloa to Colombo just before the tsunami of 2004. I got a call the day after the tsunami to come back. A large number of people were freshly traumatized by the massive natural disaster on top of the conflict they had been coping with. When I went back, the magnitude of the sheer scales of the  number of people affected overwhelmed me.”

She didn’t have the cadre of therapists necessary to counsel all the affected people, but their trauma was massive. What was she to do? “I thought for a while about what could be done to scale the numbers, and overcome our lack of trained personnel.  I then came up with the idea of ‘tea groups.’ Everyone drinks tea in Sri Lanka and the act of preparing it as well as sitting around drinking it in groups is itself a healing process. I told the counselors to get the community to make tea for these group settings every evening, along with kolukattais – a steamed sweet snack encased in dough. I asked for the Kolukattais specifically because kneading the dough to make it in batches necessary for the group would also be a healing process for the community. There is stress relief in doing routine things that you will later enjoy together, like Kolukattais and tea.  Later, while they enjoyed the fruits of their labour,  they could sit in a circle in each camp talking about what they had undergone, learning and healing from each other, listening and talking to each other. That was the first stage of their healing process, that I set in motion, in the absence of more sophisticated mechanisms at my disposal.”

Facilitating training in Vavuniya

Her experience in psychosocial care has been varied and diverse, beginning with counseling children in Colombo Schools, to mainstreaming street children, and engaging with war-affected children along with their parents. Her language as she explains all this, is one of humility and simplicity. She does not talk of healing the people as a one way process but a process which enriched her in a two-way system whereby she learned and grew as a person too.

“I always learn in these experiences but I especially learned from the Street children. The whole nation could learn from the Street children. They  were children of broken homes who ran away because they could not take it anymore. They bonded together on the streets and were fiercely loyal to each other. They all spoke Sinhala and Tamil simultaneously and when facilitated into schools by NGOs, demanded to learn English as a priority. The boys helped the girls to wear trousers and cut their hair – to prevent them from being sexually abused. Even as they slept on the streets, they would take care to have the girls safely in the middle while the boys slept on the perimeter. Their loyalty, integrity and hard work in the face of the continuous abuse they faced is unparalleled.”

Asked for one anecdote of a street child who influenced her, she tells the story of a young leader of a group of street children. He was 17, and as the eldest among them was a father figure to the others, working hard to ensure their food and sustainability.
“He had a Sinhalese name I recall, so I spoke to him in my halting Sinhala. After a while he switched to Tamil seeing that I was struggling. Amazed at his native fluency in Tamil, I asked him where he was from. Turned out he was from Mannar. He had woken up one day to see his village on fire. He had no idea what had happened to cause it but remembered his mother wailing. He simply walked away from the village in a daze, and then came upon a train. He got into the train, still in a daze, and ended up in Colombo. Aged just eight or nine, he had to live by his wits. Yet,with all the trauma he had undergone at his young age, he was extremely intelligent and industrious. He took great care of the band of street children he ended up with. He eventually married and settled down.”

She remembers a booklet she published on her work with street children titled ‘What’s inside?’

“I titled it thus, because the children functioning as outsiders from an early age were deeply curious of what was inside other people’s homes. What was inside the shops and buildings they were not welcome in? They were always trying to peep in. They had been thrown outside the system but still had zest for life. I learned so much from working with them.”
She quotes a poem that directly speaks to her of such children she has regularly worked with, beginning from those at St. Joseph’s College to the street children and the children in the war zone:

A Diamond In The Rough

A diamond in the rough,
is a diamond sure enough:
And before it ever sparkles,
it is made of diamond stuff;

But someone has to find it,
or it never will be found:
And someone has to grind it,
or it never will be ground;

In the hands of the master,
it is cut and burnished bright:
Then that diamond’s everlasting,
shinning out its purest light.
…..

—- 1972 Bradley Ray Wardle —-

 

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She fondly recalls children she worked with as ‘diamonds in the rough’ some of whom were eventually burnished bright – but as she is too well aware, she too was a diamond in the rough and was burnished by them in turn.

“Humans are valuable,” she says softly in parting. “This reconciliation process – it is taking too long. But we all have to do our part. We have to recognize the humanity in ourselves and in each other as something valuable, which needs to be healed; needs to be cherished. We were all affected. We all have to heal.”

Photos are all of Gethsie in the field, courtesy Sabrina Cader, Suriya Women’s Development Center and Ananda Galappatti.

 

 

 

The Story of Ravana & Mandodari: giving womankind their say

9 Jun

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Victors it is said, write history. India might have its version(s) of the Ramayana but over in Sri Lanka, Ravana remains a tragic and misunderstood hero. A hero to this day loved and mourned by his people.

His tale continues to be enacted and re-enacted via drama and theatre in the Serendib isle. One of the foremost artistes of the isle to keep on studying and revising Ravana’s character and story as he gains new insights on them, is Professor S. Maunaguru – an authority on Sri Lankan Tamil drama and theatre.

Professor Maunaguru was a youth of 22 when he first wrote a now iconic play in Sri Lanka called Ravanesan, produced and staged by his mentor Professor S.Vithiyananthan. He also acted the main character of Ravana in the play, staged at the University of Peradeniya back in 1965. Now a retired academic and veteran artiste of 73, Professor Maunaguru has rewritten and re-staged his play many times over, most recently in November 2016 during a countrywide reconciliation festival between the war-torn North and South of Sri Lanka.

Ramayana Sri Lanka Feminist point of view

Professor Maunaguru with his theatre students

There was a time in Sri Lanka’s recent history he reminisces, when theatre artistes could not portray contemporary life without threat to their lives. Southern artistes faced the same kind of restriction but for their fellow artistes in the North and East, the threat was double. Neither the Sri Lankan government nor the LTTE were open to criticism, and contemporary life being full of war and chaos caused by both, could not be well-reflected in the arts unless one was willing to risk one’s life.

“Many of my colleagues and friends left the country and urged me to do the same but I preferred to stay on in Sri Lanka, even with its constraints rather than be free in exile. My consuming passion was theatre and the different art forms of Sri Lanka and I couldn’t contemplate a life without them. Since times had changed to such an extent that I could not be a modern artist depicting contemporary situations, I turned to exclusively researching indigenous art and producing only mythical / historical productions. Which as in the case of Ravanesan could still land me in trouble,” he says.

Still from 2016

He explains how that came to be. As he evolved as an academic and artiste, the professor gained new insights about his main hero, which he infused into his characters interpretation in the script.

“I heavily re-edited Ravanesan for a Year 2000 production. With insight as an older man, I tried to portray Ravana as a more human character. Rather than the usual arrogant portrayal, I depicted him as someone who brashly entered war, realized it was a mistake but was too proud to back out. The next thing I knew, I was getting angry calls based on some interesting and innovative interpretations of my meaning in the play. I had a lot of trouble defending myself against inferences in the then contemporary context which I still don’t want to talk about.” 


He might have chosen to stick to ancient, mythical lore rather than focus on contemporary stories – but a good artist will always elicit feelings of connectivity in the audience. To an audience undergoing a contemporary war, the enactment of an ancient mythical war upheld many parallels they could relate to. Which in turn led to inferences that he had obliquely critiqued a contemporary character who was very powerful at the time.

                                            Women’s perspective

In the meantime, the Professor was also criticised for not bringing in a perspective that was much needed, yet often sidelined. In Sri Lanka both during war and post-war, the fall-out has affected women tremendously in a myriad ways. Yet their perspectives; their fears and pain, do not find much scope for expression in mainstream media or the arts. From the time of Ravanan to the times of Prabhakaran and Rajapakse, the tales remain focused primarily on men and their triumphs and losses.

Whether it was the story of Draupadi in the Mahabharatha, Helen in the Illiyad or Sita in the Ramayana, men simply relegated women to being props to raise the tale of their own varlour,” explains Professor Maunaguru.
What happens though when one of these male storytellers has a feminist wife? We don’t know about Valmiki, Homer and Kamban but in the case of Professor Maunaguru, he had to re-write his script. Professor Chitralega Maunaguru, an academic and feminist activist in Sri Lanka did not let her husband get away with giving a bit part to Mandodari, Ravana’s wife.

“The original Mandodari I wrote was a cry-baby but Chitra was scornful of my interpretation. Even as the war unravelled in Sri Lanka, she was travelling the country listening to and documenting women’s stories. She let me know what women would have had to say in Mandodari’s place, and I re-wrote my script accordingly,” says Professor Maunaguru.

Thus in his new version, in tandem with the war-cries of Ravana are the anti-war cries of his wife, who relays firsthand the grief of women who have had their agency hijacked by men, yet pay the steepest price in the repercussions of war.

Many a war-affected person in Sri Lanka, especially its women across all ethnicities, tend to identify first hand with Mandodari’s rage and anguish in this play. It depicts not only Ravana the tragic anti-hero too proud to back out of a war that he knows will devastate his family and citizens, but also his wife, the tragic feminist icon who knows all too well the repercussions of war, and seeks to counsel her husband that the concept of honour can take many forms. She, like many women, knows that there is no cowardice in backtracking or extending olive branches instead of thumping one’s chest and raising battle cries. Battle cries of the men that would end with the wails of their widows and children, as she forewarns.

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Mandodari bringing Ravana to his knees in her impassioned plea for peace and not war

 

And so with the revision of this iconic play in Sri Lanka, we no more have the men alone telling the story of war from their vantage viewpoint. The women are being given their due space too. As a culture evolves, so do the voices of its legends. “The story of Mandodari and Ravana continue to live on in the minds of their people, but as living legends I told Maunaguru that they have to evolve with the times,” says Chitralega, when asked about her input to her husband’s famous play.

And thus this tale as old as time, reverberated with its audience in both North and South Sri Lanka where it was staged recently. The thespian has done his job once again in getting his audience to connect to his story. And this time we can put a name to the woman behind his success.

Chitra and Maunaguru

Professors Chitralega and Maunaguru

Heritage Sites of Jaffna’s last kingdom

16 Jan
Nallur temple

Nallur Kandasamy Temple – Photo courtesy T.T Mayuran

Jaffna was once a Kingdom with its seat in Nallur.
The Nallur Kandasamy temple, originally built by the Kings of Jaffna, has a recorded history going back more than a thousand years, and is still the cultural icon that many people identify, with the peninsula of Jaffna. The temple’s famous annual festival which drew pilgrims and tourists from all over Sri Lanka has recently concluded. What many people are unaware of however is that there are many other historical sites to see in Nallur, apart from the main temple. Jaffna’s last kingdom still has remnants of its heyday dotting the area. Listed below are just a few of the sites you can visit to get a glimpse of its historical past. Note however that we’re telling the stories of these places as per local folklore. There hasn’t been much research to corroborate the community’s claims about them, but they’re fascinating nonetheless.

King Sankili’s statue
Statue of King Sankili

Just a few meters away from the Nallur temple, on the Jaffna – Pt.Pedro Road is a gold plated statue of Jaffna’s last king. The old white statue made of stone was damaged during the war, so this is a new one, installed after war ended in 2009. King Sankili II’s rule ended in 1619 when he was caught and executed by Portuguese invaders. He was not necessarily known as a popular or benevolent king according to the local people.  They report contradicting anecdotes as to his claim to the throne – differences of opinion exist as to whether he was in fact the previous king’s nephew or illegitimate son.

Either way, he is said to have come to power by killing the legitimate heirs, and became known as a tyrannical despot who ruthlessly squashed dissent.  Not content with subjugating his own people, he also made the fatal mistake of annoying the colonial Portuguese government in Colombo by beheading 600 of Mannar’s local populace who had converted to Christianity. This brought about the vanquishing of the Jaffna kingdom and his own execution. He is now remembered and lauded for fighting the Portuguese whom the people didn’t want to see taking over their land either, but  Sankili II in the end is more famous for being the last king of Jaffna than for any yearning of the people to get back under his reign.

Palace Arch

King's palace arch

The expanse of land (now reduced to a few kilometres) surrounding the Nallur temple were once known as the grounds of the Royal Family of Jaffna. The land is known, even to this day as Sankilian Thoppu (Sankili’s Garden) as the Royals had properties dotting the area, which were also thickly planted with trees.

The Royal Palace which Sankili II took over however has long since been destroyed (even before the war) except for one solitary remnant – the Arch to the Palace Gate. Carved from thick stone and worked in intricate detail at the looping arch end, it can be seen a few meters away from the King’s statue on the Jaffna –Pt.Pedro Road. This Arch alone from the original palace structure is still standing – a solitary testament to a bygone age, of Jaffna’s palace intrigues and history.

Queens’ Bathing Tank

Queen's bathing tank

The Queens and their attendants had a private bathing tank (now no longer private) behind the Palace, known as the Yamuna Aeri. According to local reports, there was once a tunnel leading from the palace to the tank so that the royal retinue of ladies (who probably practised purdah), could not be viewed by the common people as they wended  their way to their daily baths. This tunnel was seen by people until recent decades when fears that the LTTE might utilize it, led to its being sealed by the Army apparently.

Situated in a small hamlet just off the Jaffna –Pt.Pedro Road, the tank still has an aura of historical nostalgia about it. As if it were reminiscing of a time when Queens once bathed in it instead of the little boys now irreverently frolicking in its abandoned moss green waters.

The Raja Manthiri’s Mansion

Manthiri Manai

Known in Tamil as the Manthiri Manai (the Minister’s Mansion), this building is in a much better state of preservation when compared to the Palace structure.  It stands on the other side of the road opposite the Palace Arch. The Raja Manthiri’s Quarters as it is known, is a rather fascinating, picturesque old world structure which is beginning to look increasingly out of place in fast urbanizing Nallur. If buildings have personalities, this one’s is reminiscent of a venerable old man, lost in his own musings of a bygone age, oblivious to the antics of the hipster youths around him.

Manthiri Manai from the inside

Of the antics of these youths, a whole lot can be written. The ancient walls within the mansion have been vandalised all over with unseemly graffiti. The abandoned and cobwebbed nooks and corners of the Mansion seem to have become ideal Lover’s Spots away from prying eyes, and while conducting their clandestine rendezvous there, the young lovers have also left behind their eternal (or not) love for each other inked on the walls. This seems to have set the trend for other visitors to also ink their names and random thoughts on the ancient walls.  Despite this vandalism however, the building retains an aura of proud history and heritage, which deserves to be preserved, at least from now on.

 Jaffna Archaeological Museum

Museum

The museum, opened in 1978 at the former home of the nineteenth century Tamil nationalist reformer Arumuka Navalar has quite a few interesting and diverse artefacts harking back to Jaffna’s history. The eclectic collection ranges from prehistoric artefacts excavated from Kandaroadai to colonial memorabilia of the Portuguese, Dutch and British eras. From palanquins used by Royals and Nobles to wooden stocks used to punish the common people, intricately carved Hindu Gods and Goddesses made of wood and stone along with the Buddha carved in  various positions and facial expressions  & features, the museum offers an ad hoc yet fascinating view of Jaffna’s past, spanning centuries. It is open Wednesdays-Mondays from 8.00 am – 4.00 pm and is well worth a visit.

The next time you visit Jaffna to check out its culture and history, allocate a day to visit all these spots in Nallur. The history of the ancient kingdom of Jaffna is obviously deeper than this, but if you’re wandering around Nallur, it’s a compact way to get a sense of what once was.

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Photo Courtesy T.T Mayuran

 

 

 

 

Writers’ Woes

5 Sep

calvin

You know that saying, “find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day of your life?”
Can you find out who said that for me? I want to bash his (or) her head in.

As a thickly bespectacled little girl growing up with her nose perpetually stuck in books, I had only one career choice that ever made sense to me: to be a writer.

Unfortunately, conservative middle-class Sri Lankan parents had never heard of the job description. Still less had they heard of anyone having a successful career after studying Arts. “Arts? (Gasp) Who studies Arts?”
Never mind that when I moved on to non-fiction as a teenager, my nose was stuck inside historical, sociological or anthropological tomes.

“Science is the only option,” the Sri Lankan Tamil mother decreed. “Of course it is,” echoed the Sri Lankan Tamil Father.  “Good Choice” approved the Sri Lankan Tamil community at large. No-one tactfully mentioned (or even appeared to think) that ‘choice’ was a misnomer in this situation.

So came a few years of skipping biology lab classes on rat dissection days and nearly setting the school on fire on Chemistry lab days.

One particular session I couldn’t skip was an exam on dissection – we had to bring our own cockroaches. I, a born vegetarian, to dissect a live cockroach? I went hoping at least some of my batch mates would show up without cockroaches. The wet blankets that they were, they all turned up dutifully with the disgusting creatures in test-tubes, held up like trophies. “Where’s your cockroach?” demanded the teacher.

My quick-thinking skills came to my rescue. “Uh, well you see Ma’am, my house is so clean I couldn’t find one.”
Unfortunately, She didn’t buy it.

“Thulasi Muttulingam, Why did you choose Science if you don’t even like Science? Out! You have failed this exam.”And thus ended my ‘career’ in the Sciences.

The Sri Lankan parents convened to decide on my future course yet again. “Medicine and engineering are out now. What do we do with her?”
I put in my unsolicited two cents: “I want to study English Literature and become a journalist.”

It was duly heeded as per Tamil society norms.
“Accountancy is the only remaining option,” said the Sri Lankan mother. “Of course it is” agreed the Sri Lankan father.

Thus went the next seven years of my life.

“Which stage of the course are you at now dear?” asked community aunties who knew that the course had Foundation, Intermediate and Final stages.

“Uh… Intermediate Stage.”
“Weren’t you still at that stage two years ago?”
“Yes.”
“How long is the course?”
“Two Years.”
“How long have you been doing it now?”
“Five years.”

“Boo hoo hoo” went my mother one day. “I am inundated by the community talking about their sons and daughters being doctors, lawyers and engineers. What am I to say when they ask about you?”

“Tell them what I am is none of their business.”

“Booo hooo hoo.”

And so it was that at the ripe old age of 26, I threw in the towel, quit my accountancy classes and joined the Sri Lanka College of Journalism instead.

In my initial years as a professional journalist, I was on cloud nine. It took some time to float down. So the pay *cough* is terrible and some of the mid level editors are fire-breathing dragons, but I was finally doing work I loved. With the fresh memory of what it felt like to work and study accountancy (think Dementors Harry Potter fans), it took a lot to bring down my initial euphoria.

Not that I am complaining as yet. I just quit another stable, well-paid job unrelated to journalism to concentrate on writing full time. The call to write is strong. But then, so is the call to …  procrastinate!

I used to think it was my problem, that I was just plain lazy – but during my bouts of procrastination, I have been researching other writers and their writers’ woes. It’s a herd disease it seems. It’s not just writers’ block, where you simply can’t write because your creativity seems to have dried up. Even when we are raring to go, brimming with ideas and stories to write, we can still be hit by a condition called Writers’ Avoidance it appears.

Writers’ Avoidance takes ghastly forms. You will resort to having the cleanest house on the block. Or cooking up various recipes you found online. Or surf the net for hours on end. Or stalk and troll people on facebook and twitter. Or – as I do – research till the cows come home on the topic you are to write on. Research until you can write a book on it. And then avoid writing, because how on earth are you going to fit all that into a 1500 word article?

Sigh!  My house is clean because my sister is a cleanliness freak; and my meals are great because mom is a cooking enthusiast  –  which doesn’t leave me much to do in those departments when procrastinating. Which leaves me – the internet?

My procrastinating bouts of anything-but-writing productivity have produced some quite elaborate facebook posts. And a reputation as an online troll. Oh well…

Back to the grind of writing the article I was actually intending to write. I wrote this while procrastinating on that article.

The Debacle of Maajid Nawaz and the Guardian

14 Aug

And what it says of the Guardian Team’s journalistic ethics

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It all started with a landmark speech that the UK Prime Minister David Cameron delivered on July 20th. All too often, the people of the West are used to seeing their leaders take to their podiums whenever issues of Islamic extremism are to be addressed, with the words, ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ and ‘This has nothing to do with Islam.’

For an increasingly sceptical audience however, such speeches needed to step up their ante. As such for the first time, Cameron, while acknowledging that the vast majority of the Muslims of the world are peaceful, productive citizens, addressed also the fact that Islamism (their coined term for Islamic extremism) is not completely independent of the religion.

In Cameron’s own words: “… simply denying any connection between the religion of Islam and the extremists doesn’t work, because these extremists are self-identifying as Muslims. The fact is from Woolwich to Tunisia, from Ottawa to Bali, these murderers all spout the same twisted narrative, one that claims to be based on a particular faith.
Now it is an exercise in futility to deny that. And more than that, it can be dangerous. To deny it has anything to do with Islam means you disempower the critical reforming voices; the voices that are challenging the fusing of religion and politics; the voices that want to challenge the scriptural basis which extremists claim to be acting on; the voices that are crucial in providing an alternative worldview that could stop a teenager’s slide along the spectrum of extremism.

It happens to be a well known fact that Cameron’s advisor for this speech was Maajid Nawaz, a British Muslim reformer of Pakistani origin. Maajid, who is the founder of the counter-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation has both his detractors as well as admirers within the British Muslim community. His wider appeal though is acknowledgedly built on a majority non-muslim base, cheering on counter-extremism work.

One would think that a national British newspaper like the Guardian, which claims to be a champion of leftist values such as secularism and liberalism, would be glad to champion his work. Yet that is sadly not the case. Championing minority communities to have the right to hold views or host activities which would not be tolerated among White Britons by contrast – such as homophobia, anti-Semitism or female genital mutilation (FGM), has sadly become a facet of the illiberal left (or regressive left) as Maajid and other progressive brown-skinned reformers fighting illiberality in their midst have come to term them.

For their trouble, Maajid and his ilk are known of as ‘Uncle Toms’, ‘Coconuts’ and ‘Native informants’. All these are highly derogatory labels for ‘darkies’ who dare aspire to ‘white’ ideals for their own communities. As many brown-skinned liberals have pointed out, this attitude arises in fact from the ‘racism of low expectations’ – which imagines progressive ideas and ideals to be only the preserve of white skinned people.

Unfortunately, the Guardian has been taking this route for some years now, which it is finding itself hard to bail out of – that of a pseudo-liberal sympathetic approach with cultural and religious minorities, whatever repugnant views they hold or activities they dabble in; along with an associated attacking of all those who dare address those issues, even if they be members of those minority communities themselves.

As such, a few days after Cameron’s speech, the Guardian’s Peter Osborne wrote a sympathetic interview-profile of the current Head of the British Hizb ut-Tahrir branch, Dr. Abdul Wahid. The tone of the article reeks all over of the typical racism-of-low-expectations one has come to expect from the Guardian, where it pats Dr. Wahid on the back for being a good little studious boy even if he is prone to unfortunately, unacceptable thought processes. ‘Pat, pat… he believes in some terrible things but it’s his right after all. We really shouldn’t expect more of him nor should we judge him; we should instead champion his rights to hold these views, as this is a democracy. Never mind that Dr. Wahid is working to destroy this democracy to establish Sharia law in Britain; that is still his right in a democracy.’
Oh, and Wahid is a GP with a quite ordinary living room, just so you know. Quite what Osborne was expecting to see in Wahid’s living room is open to debate, but he was surprised (or charmed) enough to incorporate that into his article. ‘He’s just like the rest of us chaps. He has a typical British living room. There were no decapitated human heads mounted on walls there – not to worry.’

After Osborne had thus given his seal of approval to Hiz ut-Tahrir, it was Maajid Nawaz’s turn.
First Nosheen Iqbal, the commissioning editor of the Guardian’s G2 magazine sent this admiring email soliciting an interview with Maajid to the Quilliam Foundation.

nosheen email

It seems pretty clear from this correspondence that Maajid and Quilliam could reasonably expect to have a positive article resulting from this interview. For a very public media-oriented personality like Maajid, whose foundation released the now much favoured ‘Not another Brother’ video countering the call of ISIS a few days after this – agreeing to not talk to other media for the Guardian’s exclusivity policy would have been a sacrifice. Nevertheless, he made a call, based on this interview request that to talk to Guardian, even on their unreasonable terms would be worth it. Except it wasn’t.
The Guardian journalist David Shariatmadari wrote a wretched opinion piece on Maajid, masquerading as an interview.

The piece is basically a hatchet-job on the man and his personality, unacceptably taking pot-shots at his choice of club, coffee preferences, and work without much evidence to back it up. Unless you take the liberal use of anonymous quotes as evidence – and no-one in the journalism world does. Indeed, the Guardian’s Readers Editor, Chris Eliott has been obliged, due to the flood of complaints to his paper,  to put out a statement that ‘the use of anonymous quotes is an insidious way to take a swipe at public figures, and the Guardian was wrong to have used three in this way.’ The statement is not entirely acceptable however because he yet sought to protect the journalists Nosheen Iqbal and David Shariatmadari from further blame by claiming that they felt the use of anonymous sources to be necessary as otherwise those sources could be harassed online, as these journalists now are. In short, they thought it alright to attack a man risking his life among Islamists to do the extremely dangerous job of counter-extremism work, yet they needed to keep sources attacking him anonymous because they were afraid of some online heckling?

Is heckling only alright if a Guardian journalist does it, either via articles or on twitter?  One of the foremost rules of journalism is that the journalist’s presence and especially his biases should not be visible in his articles – unless it’s a column or opinion piece. This interview of Maajid was supposed to be neither, although it ended up in essence an opinion piece. Yet even as an opinion piece, it breaks way too many bars to come plunging down into mud-singling territory. They didn’t just set the bar low, they plunged it.

It’s worth reading Maajid’s own responses to this piece here and here. and also the parody account @kingofdawah’s hilarious take on it here.

David Shariatmadari’s piece is so incredibly bad, that as a fellow journalist living miles and oceans way, I am embarrassed for the journalism profession which has sunk to this new low. As once colonized countries, I suppose we still look up to British standards in professionalism. Certainly that was very much the case in my own student days at the Sri Lanka College of Journalism. “Don’t look to the Daily Mirror,” we were told. That’s a tabloid. “Look instead to the Guardian. That’s the standard you ought to emulate.” Well, we are looking. Where’s the standards?

In their consequent behaviour online dealing with the backlash, especially on twitter, many of the Guardian journalists come across as juvenile.

3Guardian journalists Nesrine Malik and David Shariatmadari sniggering about the fact the Shariatmadari left it to Nawaz to pick up the tab for their drinks. After which he still felt capable of taking a swipe at Nawaz’s coffee preferences.

This pattern is especially true of Nosheen Iqbal, the commissioning editor, whose appalling use of language and grammar, not to mention manners makes one wonder what kind of recruiting procedures the Guardian’s human resource management are employing. Whatever it is, they need to revamp it extensively.

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It was outed eventually that the admiration she displayed in her email, towards Maajid and Quilliam Foundation were patently fake. The day before sending this email, she responded to a fellow Guardian journalist on twitter with this:

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Maajid’s name is not a swear name that she felt the need to asterisk it. Neither is his last name Nawaaz as she probably very well knows. She deliberately corrupted his name in her response so that her views on him weren’t searchable online. Unfortunately for her, she was still caught.

There is nothing wrong with not liking him or his work, but pretending to do so, and pretending to want to do a positive story on him when she in fact clearly planned the opposite, was patently unprofessional. Called on repeatedly to clarify why she felt the need to approach him under false pretences for this interview, she has resorted to ad hominem attacks and childish tantrums on twitter. One person attempting to engage with her, signed off calling her a ‘petulant child.’  Is this behaviour fit for a Guardian editor?

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The Guardian, over the last week has lost the respect of readers not only within the UK, but also globally.  Maajid Nawaz is an internationally well known figure doing crucial work so the media releases associated with him are closely followed.

Just because Nosheen Iqbal and David Shariatmadari set him up for a sting by asking for an interview to write about his ‘crucial work’ and then wrote a sneering opinion piece dismissing his work instead, doesn’t mean he has lost ground with his followers. His work speaks for itself. As does the work of the Guardian’s for itself. Which is rather a pity.

The Problematic Discourse on ‘Preserving’ Tamil Culture

14 Jul
Photo Courtesy: Amila Gamage

Photo Courtesy: Amila Gamage

We have all heard this being discussed at some point in the recent past – especially after Vidhya Sivaloganathan’s tragic death: degradation of Culture (கலாசார சீரழிவு) is what led to it apparently. It is a blanket term used to blame any and all ills in our midst. We have to preserve our ancient culture (which if applied properly would have nothing ever go wrong, according to its stalwarts) at all costs.

So how do we seek to preserve it? It was the men who raped and murdered yet every time ‘preservation of culture’ is summoned like a spectre, it is the women who get haunted.  And then will begin the exorcism rituals. “Don’t wear that dress. Don’t wear T-shirts.  Don’t wear your saree like that. Don’t go out alone. Don’t go out with a male friend. Don’t go out in groups that include boys. Don’t go out after 6.00 pm. Don’t smile too much” etc, etc.  The list goes on and on…

5Amila Gamage

The minute a woman crosses any of these arbitrary boundaries, she is passed all the blame for whatever untoward incident might get inflicted on her by vigilante males. In Vidhya Sivalogananthan’s case, that is well nigh impossible. She was a young schoolgirl on her way to school at 7.00 am in the morning when she was abducted, brutally gang raped and then murdered.

Let me repeat that: She was an 18 year old girl on her way to school, in her school uniform, at a perfectly respectable time in the morning. See anything AT ALL here to pin any blame on the victim? We certainly can’t. Yet victim-blaming is such an integral part of our ‘glorious’ culture that quite a few people tried.
Here are just a few issues her family and those sympathetic to her fate had to answer to:

“Did the girl have a boyfriend?”
No, she did not have a boyfriend. Not that her having a boyfriend would have been wrong in our eyes but we are glad you are unable to follow that line of questioning any further, to cast unwarranted aspersions on her character.

“Why was she traveling alone? Couldn’t her brother have accompanied her?”
Her family has been put on the spot to say that her brother did accompany her to school as often as he could but on this particular day she had gone alone. Can’t 18 year old girls travel alone at least to school? Is that also somehow wrong now?

“Why were they living in Pungudutivu?, it is an area well-known to be unsafe for young women after all?”
Because the family is in straitened circumstances with the father who was the main breadwinner, having become debilitated with a stroke two years ago. They were not in a position to have too many choices and had gratefully received the offer of a relative to live in his vacant house in Pungudutivu.  They have been put on the spot to explain this too.

“We heard that Vidhya’s mother had reported a robbery in her neighbourhood and that is what got her daughter killed. Couldn’t she have minded her own business?”
Well done, bravo! Hereafter, every time anyone sees anything wrong happening to anyone else, exclusively mind your own business and don’t ‘poke your nose’ into helping them. Poking your nose into others ‘ affairs  is only desirable the way you do it – flexing your tongues any which way you like to hurt and blame the victims instead of seeking solutions. That’s the way to preserve our glorious culture.

Vidhya Sivaloganathan

Vidhya Sivaloganathan

The stress due to all this is telling on Vidhya’s family. Instead of being allowed to grieve the horrible tragedy that have befallen their midst, they have been made to defend themselves repeatedly  on a variety of arbitrary issues that people around here have raised, from the mundane to the downright stupid.

“I didn’t even know I was going to meet the president when the police van took us to meet him. We had been transported so many times to the police station for questioning, that we thought this was going to be one more such visit,” says Vidhya’s mother. “When our pictures appeared with him in the papers next day, we had to answer questions several times over as to why I had gone to meet the president in my house-dress and why my son was in his shorts. We meant no disrespect to the president, as they implied.  Alternately we have also been accused of sucking up to him and using my daughter’s tragedy to gain material benefits from the government. We did no such thing. The president on his own asked us about our circumstances and how we lived. The next day, it was reported in the press that we had asked him for land and a house – we had not. We have been ridiculed for that too.”

Vidhya's mother and brother at their meeting with the President

Vidhya’s mother and brother at their meeting with the President and the Northern Province Chief Minister

How much can one family take? As part of our glorious culture, can we not maintain gracious, kind speech and empathy in times of others’ tragedy?

No, our கலாசார சீரழிவு is not because women are not ‘dressing properly’ or ‘behaving properly’. It is because the mores of a bygone age, attempting to have a stranglehold on a contemporary society, will inevitably take its toll. Arbitrarily nominating just one gender to be the keepers of these traditions and culture will have its repercussions too.

Overall, this is  a culture with laxer standards of behaviour for men than women; where  the men identify as sexual beings yet scorn women who do the same; where the myriad frustrations of not being allowed to mix freely yet respectfully between the sexes leads to a male contempt for women while at the same time, yearning for them – leading to a vicious cycle of societal ills which keep perpetuating and re-perpetuating; where an increased focus on women’s morals and behaviour leads to a culture of men not bothering to examine their own behaviour too closely whilst seeking to police the opposite sex’s.

This has given rise to a noxious culture where male vigilantes feel it is OK to grope, pull and pinch at women should they get caught to them in vulnerable situations such as being alone somewhere at night, and justifying it with views such as “what was she doing out alone at that time of the night? She must have come out to meet her boyfriend.”

Whatever it was she was doing alone out at night, whether it be to meet her boyfriend or not, it doesn’t warrant her getting sexually harassed. Yet the community upholding our ‘culture’ at all costs do not concede this point easily; they tend to justify it with that old chestnut of a proverb: “Whether it is the thorn that catches the saree or the saree which gets caught on a thorn, it is still the saree which gets torn” (their brilliant allegory for relationships between males and females and how it is the females who have to take care to preserve their ‘chastity’). Some of us females caught at the wrong end of the stick here are not all that thrilled with it.

Photo Courtesy: Megara Tegal

Photo Courtesy: Megara Tegal

Not to say that all males in our community are this crude, but the culture we so like to glorify and hold on to is inherently misogynistic. It is high time we as a community learned to address this instead of brushing it under the carpet, and then blaming women’s dress and behaviour a la கலாசார சீரழிவு every time something goes wrong. Because usually, the victims of such cases are women themselves and the culture of victim-blaming on top of that is a puerile aspect of our culture which we need to call out.

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A Tamil counselor from Colombo who came to hold a prayer meeting for Vidhya in the North, shared with me his shocked receptance of what a member of his congregation had said. “We were trying to pray for Vidhya when one person spoke up and said, ‘well, who knows what kind of a girl she was after all?’ (avalum ennamathiri aanavalo, yarukku theriyum?). I am still hurting over that. Why are some people so needlessly mean spirited?” he asked in bewilderment.

It’s not all that uncommon a view to hear though, every time a case of gender based violence against women is broadcast. Someone or other will inevitably voice this gem of a platitude, wondering what the woman had done to ‘ask’ for it – thus also cementing their place in society I suppose, as upholders of our culture, and gloriously virtuous beings themselves.

It would take too much to go into for the moment so let’s leave aside all arguments for a woman not to be raped no matter what it was she had done or said. In this particular case, even  after all the microscopic exploration of Vidhya’s circumstances and background in the press, which still could  not throw up anything at all to fault her with, even by our traditional culture’s absurd standards  –  the member of that congregation harboured these doubts against her?  Seriously?

If there had been even a teensy bit of information that could have cast her character in a negative light, don’t worry – you’d have heard about it by now. So here’s a little piece of advice for all such people, men and women out there, who are inclined to blame the victim: If you ‘don’t know what kind of a girl she was’ – then don’t mention it at all. It doesn’t warrant mention. All it does is make those of us watching from the sidelines cringe with embarrassment at the cultural norms which makes it alright for you to air such reprehensible views; views that are not of any use to anybody, do not add to any discussions whatsoever, and are nothing more than air and noise pollution combined.  Some aspects of our culture such as the one you represent are not facets we are proud of. High time for some changes.

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Photo Courtesy: Amila Gamage