Women & The Nation’s Narrative (Gender and Nationalism in Twentieth Century Sri Lanka)

Item Code: NAF884
Author: Neloufer De Mel
Publisher: Kali for Women
Language: English
Edition: 2001
ISBN: 8186706410
Pages: 304
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 540 gm
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Book Description

About the Book


This book explore the development of nationalism in Sri Lanka during the past century. particularly with in the dominant Sinhala Buddhist and militant Tamil Movements. Tracing the ways women from diverse background have engaged with nationalism. Neloufer de Mel argues that gender is crucial to an understanding of nationalism and vice versa.


Traversing both the colonial and postcolonial period in Sri Lanka’s history, the author assesses a range of writers, activists, political figures and movements. With her rigorous, historically located analyses, de mel makes a persuasive dace for the connection between figures like stage actress Annie Boteju and intellectual Anil de Silva; poetry written by Jean Arasanayagam Tamil revolutionary women; and political movements like the LTTE, the JVP, the Mother’s Front, and contemporary feminist organisation. Evaluating the colonial period in the light of the violence that animates Sri Lanka today , de Mel proposes what Bruce Robbins has termed a “lateral cosmopolitanism” that will allow coalitions to form and to practice an oppositional politics of peace. In the process, she examines the gendered forms through which the nation and the state both come together and pull apart.


About the Author


Neloufer De Mel is a senior lecturer in the department of English, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka, and a member of the visiting faculty in the women’s programme at the same university. She was the founder editor of Options, a magazine on Sri Lankan women’s issues. Her teaching and research range from cultural studies and theatre art to gender, politics and nationalism.




This Book Marks the production of important "events", 1 temporal moments and selected strands of nationalism in Sri Lanka? of the 20th century, particularly within dominant Sinhala Buddhist and militant Tamil nationalisms. Its main focus however lies in the way gender has been, and continues to be, a central trope within them. Through a discussion of how women from diverse professional, class, caste, religious, ideological, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds have engaged with nationalism, the book attempts to foreground the relationship between gender and nationalism and how feminism engages with the ideology of the nation. If tenets of bourgeois respectability, ethnic exclusivity, patriotism, self-sacrifice, etc., are cornerstones of the collective imaginary of the nation, it shows how women have both participated in this project and contested it, forwarding other, alternative ways of imagining the nation. At the same time it marks the fact that nationalism and patriarchy are never static institutions; they shift, at times adopt, a certain feminist stance and adapt to exigency. The engagements of the women fore grounded in this book show how women can, and have been, appropriated by such a protean nationalism. But they also show when and how women act on their own behalf, in their own right, and negotiate patriarchy, capitalism and political opportunity, as well as contradictions within nationalism itself, to their advantage. The book is engaged, then, in signalling that gender is crucial to an understanding of nationalism and vice versa. It also marks the fact that feminism, when it occurs, is not an autonomous practice but deeply bound to the signifying network of the national contexts which produce it.! As such, feminism too, like nationalism, is rich in paradoxes and ambiguities.


Women have been incorporated into nationalist projects in diverse and often contradictory ways. Nationalism, particularly in the Third World's post-colonial terrain, has been commensurate with the rise of feminism, women's movements and the construction of the "modern" woman through social and legal reforms encompassing education, marriage and inheritance laws, and religious/cultural customs. Equal rights for women has been a part of this campaign, from obtaining the vote to entry into public service. Nationalism has also subordinated women, at times through these very social and legal reforms, to keep them at the boundaries of the nation by controlling their sexuality, mobility, the trope of motherhood, rights of citizenship and a variety of personal laws that became codified with the advent of the modern nation state." Indeed these very boundaries of the nation have needed, for their organisation, the subordination of women even as they are posited in nationalist projects as central in the grounding of the nation. Thus even when women have been the sites of liberal reform, it has "always contained a degree of instrurnentalism, a sense that transforming women's place in society and the state represented an opportunity that was only partially about women themselves". 5 Despite repeatedly affirming the centrality of women to nationalist projects-whether as signifying sites of modernisation or for their allegorical value as mothers of the nation-women have in this respect been primarily a discursive terrain on which significant socio-cultural tenets of the nation are produced. Women are constructed as the nation's subjects not only as citizens, but also as members of ethnic, class and caste groups-differently to men."


Four discursive arenas provide useful insights into the way nationalism is shaped and gendered; their significance as shifting sites of control and struggle in the story of nationalism and gender in Sri Lanka will be seen throughout this book. First, nationalism produces normative ideas-about sexuality and gender with which it closely intersects and on which it rests." Its discourse also constructs a division of gender which renders the male as the author and subject of the nation.! while the female stands for the nation itself, in need of male protection, the reproducer and nurturer of future generations and transmitter of cultural values. As reproducer she carries the responsibility of avoiding-miscegenation to ensure ethnic, class, caste or racial "purity". Her sexuality has to be policed and regulated to this end in the service of the nation. In another context, when European nationalism from the 17th century onwards began to fuel the imperial conquest of territories in the Americas, Africa and Asia, it was projected, in its colonialist discourse, as aggressively masculine in its penetration of feminised colonial territories." Wars have, through the : years, been fought in defence of the nation by "sons of the soil". Modern technologies of aggression take place, yet again, within a framework of a penetrative male discourse. The very names of the most recently developed missiles on the Indian subcontinent Trishul (trident of the god Shiva) on the Indian side, and Half (the lance of the Prophet Mohammed) on the Pakistani side, simultaneously invoke male prowess and resonate as symbols of Hindu and Islamic iconography. Following the Indian nuclear tests of May 1998 Bal Thackeray, the leader of the Shiv Sena which expounds a right-wing Hindutva ideology proudly proclaimed, "We are not eunuchs anymore"; and when Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's Prime Minister, delayed responding to India's nuclear challenge with tests of his own, he was the recipient of glass bangles by a section of the public intent on shaming him for his lack of male virility and courage-hence the "gift" of women's ornaments. Evident here is the notion that male virility and aggression are the traits that protect a feminised nation. Politicians and a military unable to fulfil these roles fail the nation. Conversely, women who break the mould of a feminised subjectivity and refuse the obligatory roles of chaste and dutiful wives and daughters become the target of attack. Such emasculation and female transgression blur gender distinctions and produce a confusion seen as compromising the potency of the nation.'? This. in turn evokes an anxiety that permeates political rhetoric as well as popular culture, with very specific consequences for both men and women.


During the formation of the modern nation state, when the concept of a fraternity of national subjects took hold of 18th century Europe after the French Revolution, women were conspicuously left out of this fellowship. They were excluded from its civil law through a dispossession of their inheritance in favour of their brothers, and through the legal regulation of their sexual, biological and reproductive roles.!' Muslim and Hindu personal laws continue, in South Asia, to deprive women of inheritance and equality in marriage.


In India, under the Hindu Succession Act of 1956, only patrilineal forms of inheritance are legitimate. Accordingly, a Hindu woman cannot inherit a share of ancestral property at birth as her brothers do. It is only to her father's self-acquired wealth that she can lay claim equally with her brothers.'! In Sri Lanka, under the Thesavalamai, the laws governing Tamils of Malabar origin who live in Jaffna, in the north of Sri Lanka, women cannot dispose of their property without written male consent. Under the Muslim Intestate Successions Ordinance of 1931 which recognised the right of Muslims to inherit according to their sect, women within the Shafie sect (the majority Muslim sect in Sri Lanka) can only inherit half the equivalent of the male, although there is some protection for her in that her property cannot be willed away. Again under Muslim personal law in Sri Lanka, it is only the male guardian's consent that is required for a woman's marriage. Under the Hudood Ordinance, operative in Pakistan, one man's evidence in a court of law is considered the equivalent of two women's. In this way women have been constructed as partial citizens of the nation-state. Moreover, that women's regulation is seen to take place in the private spheres of the domestic and familial, rather than the public domain of the state has hitherto encouraged the erasure of women and gender from discourses on the state and nation.':' It has been the task of feminist scholarship of the late1980s and 1990s to dismantle this idea of a polarised, dichotomous public private binary. Partha Chatterjee, in a path-breaking essay for the time, noted that in mid to late 19th century India, the Bhadralok nationalist elite invested heavily in a private domain epitomising indigenous/spiritual values because the public sphere, associated with the material, was contaminated by the presence of the coloniser. While in public the male Bengali elite had lost its power, it could still determine events and discourses in the private domain. Women were central signifiers of this private domain.!" It has since been the task of feminist scholars to show that Chatterjee's understanding of the Bhadralok's "resolution" of the women's question as a subaltern move is predicated on an erasure of women's agency,15 that in fact, "this division between outer and inner, with its homologies no longer corresponds to the lived reality", 16 and that women have redefined their limits and (re)crossed their boundaries to make the private/public not water-tight, but porous.


The second arena is the nexus between nationalism and modernity. The growth of feminism and women's movements in the 20th century is distinctly related to the modernising impulse of the nation-state. -What agentive moments and acts women have been able to achieve have taken place under circumstances that pushed towards a new modernity. Kumari Jayawardena has shown that in the 20th century it was at the historical junctures of anti-imperial struggles that women participated most keenly in nationalist projects. I? As the colonised elite at the vanguard of anti-imperialist struggles were keen to modernise their societies to claim parity with their colonial masters, women's emancipation became an essential and integral part of this process. Modernity would better equip native society to jettison its colonial bondage, and creating a "New Woman" became part of this campaign. Thus the terminology of the "New Woman" which had become fashionable in 19th century Europe was adopted in the colonies with zeal. From the publication of a book on women's emancipation entitled The New Woman by Kassim Amin in 1901, to the association in 1919 of Egyptian women under the Society de la Femme Nouvelle, the new agenda for women spread to East Asia. Japan saw the establishment of the Association of New Women also in 1919, and in 1919 and 1920 respectively, magazines entitled The New Woman were published in China and Korea.


Jayawardena cautions that what actually defined this "New Woman" varied from region to region according to historical specificities and cultural traditions. Nevertheless, in colonial situations the idea of women's emancipation allowed women a degree of freedom they had not enjoyed before either in pre-colonial or early colonial society. Obtaining access to colonial education, albeit with different emphases than what was on offer for men, they went on to professional careers, becoming doctors of western medicine and leading educationists. When women were part of militant struggles as in Palestine, China and Vietnam they secured a degree of mobility and public presence they had not enjoyed before in their traditional societies. In Palestine, from 1917 onwards, urban women openly demonstrated against the Balfour Declaration, travelling to villages, holding demonstrations at both Muslim and Christian holy sites thereby subtly subverting the highly segregated gender roles within traditional Arab society." In India, the slogan of swadeshi and the ensuing boycott of British goods, made even the handicraft sector, often associated with women, a site of political significance.2o· Women took to the streets for social service-helping in health care, slum education, cottage industry. In Sri Lanka, women took an active role in organising against British imperialism through the Suriya Mal movement. Launching their campaign in 1933 on Armistice Day, or Poppy Day on which poppies were sold to raise funds for British soldiers, they named their campaign after a common local flower, suriyamal, instead of the poppy associated with the western war effort. The proceeds of their sales went towards educating an undercaste girl." These women creatively subverted an imperial symbol for radical ends. In Sri Lanka today, .there are women militants who, as frontline combatants in nationalist! revolutionary groups, are active participants in nationalism. The women cadres of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) undergo as rigorous a military training as their male colleagues, are confident users of weaponry and other military technology at their disposal, and are part of elite fighting squads such as the Sea Tigers .and Black Tigers, the latter being the death squad from which L TIE suicide bombers await their call-up. Suicide/ sacrifice is already gendered, in that women have traditionally been called upon to make sacrifices for the family as wife and mother, as well as for the community as mothers who sacrifice warrior sons during war. But the LTTE women have redefined this role to collapse the distinction between private and public by making their. sacrifices highly visible and manifest.


Modernity, however, is a complex set of co-ordinates. These women can also embody the hallmarks of what Rajeswari Sunder Rajan terms a sufficient modernity that spells out the cost of such emancipation. This is when, in recognition of the needs of national development, human rights and civil liberties, women are no longer denied a role in "the time-space of the modern". But, as Sunder Rajan points out, When women become conspicuously visible in the spaces of modernity (such as the street and the work-place, places of mixing of the sexes), they are treated as having chosen the "risk" of harassment voluntarily-and treated accordingly. In other cases, more subtle ideological pressures are enacted to contain women's "modernity", to incorporate them within its class-caste frame. In influential anti-Enlightenment critiques, when gender and modernity are read together it is only to indict "modernity" for producing anomie, aggression and reactive orthodoxy in men, "feelings" which are then (inevitably) directed as violence against women. This comprehensive indictment not only leaves no room Jor ascribing other reasons for violence against women-of which there are myriad, complexly interrelated-it also refuses to recognise the benefits of modernity, not least for women."








Setting the stage, gendering the nation


Framing the nation's respectability


A question of identity


Agent or victim?


Mother politics and women's politics




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