By Ramya Kumar
This week’s Kuppi Talk takes off from an earlier piece on ragging that drew attention to the anti-democratic culture that breeds violence within the university system. Shamala Kumar linked this violence to the lack of democracy within universities, and society more broadly.
When we talk about violence within our universities, the conversation invariably turns to ragging. Some of us also talk about other forms of violence, such as the arbitrary sacking of a vice chancellor or an academic who does not toe the line. But the classed, gendered, and ethnicized forms of everyday violence we experience within the university system remain invisible. Here, I draw on discussions with students and teachers at various state universities to illustrate how gender violence pervades our everyday, and perpetuates exclusion and injustice.
Our education system, whether primary, secondary, or tertiary, coaches students to conform and to not question authority. Non-conformers are penalized, and alternative ways of thinking discouraged within an exam-oriented system that measures performance by grades. On top of that, school curricula reinforce social hierarchies and difference by using myths or tropes like the ancient Sinhala king, the sari-clad virtuous mother, or the meat-loving Muslim.
When they enter the university, students are already saddled with various stereotypes and prejudice conveyed as authoritative knowledge through this system. Many would not have interacted with people outside their frame of thinking/knowing. Ignorance, misinformation (conveyed through the ragging apparatus) and the unfamiliar environment of the university creates conditions for further polarization. An undergraduate talked about the oppressive environment she encountered in her first week at university:
“The seniors harassed the boys [in our batch] if we did something “wrong” like dress “indecently” or behave “incorrectly.” The male seniors had discussions with our boys about how we dress and what was wrong with us….[they were told] the girls were their responsibility… “See, we have our girls in the palm of our hands, they listen to everything we say, yours also should be like that” they said. So ultimately the way we dressed, where and when we went out, and everything we did were to be dictated by a group of boys who were our age, who were strangers … we knew better, but it was very stressful and confusing.”
University authorities have not been able to address ragging because the university itself is built on systems of hierarchy. In fact, our universities are complicit in such acts of violence. For instance, a Muslim undergraduate who wears hijab talked about feeling marginalized after the Easter Sunday bombings when security personnel singled her out to check her backpack, commenting that she looked like “Zahran’s sister,” while letting others pass through.
From second class students…
Students internalize gender and other “norms” with few opportunities or forums to question them. Their activities are often divided along gender lines, albeit varying in different settings. When organizing an event, women tend to take on clerical and accounts work and tasks like serving tea. In some faculties, women attend lectures, dutifully taking notes for men, who are coerced into less mundane engagements by unions (and others) during lectures. Those who fail to conform to this “subculture” are branded as selfish, anti-social, or elitist.
At many universities, women (students) are not considered for leadership positions, such as president of a student union or association, even in faculties where women far outnumber men. “The mental picture of a leader is always male…it is the norm,” said an undergraduate. This “norm” is often justified on the grounds that women cannot travel back home/to their hostels after meetings, a strange notion for the many women who travel on their own. Most elections do not involve voting as decisions are made “unanimously” before elections. When women find themselves in leadership roles, they are often spoken over and not heard.
Women’s attire is strictly under surveillance. A Muslim undergraduate spoke of being banned from the prayer room at her faculty because her skirt did not reach her toes. A Tamil undergraduate who studied in the south described how her (Tamil) friends in another faculty had to wear Salwar, a single plait, pottu and vibhuti to maintain their “culture” in the dominant (Sinhala) environment. Similarly, women Sinhala students in the North are warned by their male counterparts not to transgress so-called Tamil norms by wearing short skirts, or tight clothes, in the name of safety and security.
Gender norms are also reinforced by university teachers and others in positions of authority. A medical undergraduate felt discouraged when a clinician advised the women in her group to think carefully before embarking on postgraduate studies: “[The doctor] said we would get late to marry, that we may not find a husband, and that our studies would interfere with our duties as a wife and mother.” Another student spoke of a clinician who referred to female students, including herself, by body shape and size, making her feel humiliated. Women encounter these forms of violence on a daily basis, making them feel little and unimportant, even as some confront the system head on, struggling to redraw boundaries and trouble the status quo.
… to second class academics
The university hierarchy places temporary and probationary lecturers at the very bottom. A professor described the ways in which younger lecturers, especially women, are silenced at meetings in her Faculty: “They are just not taken seriously … their contributions are ignored or they are simply spoken over.” A temporary lecturer talked about being harassed by a member of the support staff when she commenced work. He was known for treating women disrespectfully, but her complaints fell on deaf ears. A system that favours internal recruitment sustains hierarchy, obliging junior staff to take on additional (uncredited) work and even forego first authorship in publication, to support their seniors in the race to professorship.
As academics, women are frequently excluded from decision-making processes, which usually take place at informal meetings among an “in group” of (predominantly) men, who flock around (and bow down to) the administration. This culture of decision-making prevails at all levels of the university, and, by virtue of its character, excludes women and minorities, who cannot participate in the “machan” talk and camaraderie, for different reasons. Those who speak up or ask questions are delegitimized as fussy, irrational, or troublemakers. “Men throwing a tantrum is totally acceptable, but when a woman does that, she is being emotional,” a senior lecture pointed out. A professor spoke of feeling stifled during Senate meetings where questions and discussion were generally discouraged: “When I pointed to a breach in procedure, the VC asked me to stop raising trivial issues.”
The gender hierarchy is more visible at higher echelons of the university. The UGC and university councils are dominated by men. Although women do hold positions of authority within universities, as deans and, less frequently, vice chancellors, the gendering of academic work continues. In various committees, women tend to take on a lot of coordinating and paperwork, but their contributions remain uncredited as they rarely share the limelight. In fact, many women are faulted for their “family commitments,” and any negative traits attributed to their gender. Yet, the (widespread) mediocrity of men is never attributed to gender.
At the root of all this is pervasive sexism that objectifies and sexualizes women. It is commonplace for women academics to receive comments on their hair do or attire. A professor commented, “There is no understanding of what is appropriate here.” Even when there are serious breaches of conduct, like sexual harassment, there is nowhere to go. “Using established university procedures to address sexual harassment comes with risks that most women are not willing to take,” she continued. Overall, there seems to be very little trust in the system, and, in all likelihood, any incidents, along with their inquiry reports, may be brushed under the carpet.
What does this situation ultimately mean for universities and society? Most immediately, it allows university administrators to function in the service of power. Second, rather than pushing the boundaries of knowledge and public discourse, central to their role, our universities reinforce social hierarchies, with accompanying exclusions and marginalisations. Third, by discouraging critical dialogue, the system sustains a disengaged university community that remains paralysed in the face of injustice, and supports producing graduates who easily comply with authority. The consequences are far-reaching, as we see in the unfolding COVID-19 mess.
Clearing up this mess must start from within our institutions. Building on the egalitarian principle of Free Education, we need to create inclusive spaces for students and teachers to come together to dialogue on the trajectory of higher education, and demand justice at this critical juncture.
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.
(The writer is attached to the Department of Community and Family Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Jaffna)
Amusement ride brought to life on big screen Jungle Cruise
By Tharishi Hewavithanagamage
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra from screenplay written by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, and Michael Green, ‘Jungle Cruise’ is loosely based on Walt Disney’s theme park attraction of the same name. After success of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ franchise, it comes as no surprise that Disney wanted to create another ride-based movie, this time featuring one of its first rides. The riverboat amusement ride was the only attraction to exist in the Adventureland themed section on Disneyland’s opening day in 1955. The live-action riverboat adventure stars Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, and Paul Giamatti.
The film is set in 1916, and follows Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) in a fervent search for a mystical tree whose petals known as Tears of the Moon, are said to have healing properties. Her strong belief that she could bring about medical breakthroughs and save numerous lives, prompts her to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, deep into the Amazon rainforest.
With a map in hand, Lily along with her brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) enlist the help of skipper and swindler Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) to help navigate the vast waters of the rainforest. Coveting the mystical petals for their own goals are Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) and a team of 400-year old cursed conquistadors led by Aguirre (Edgar Ramírez). In a race against time, the bad guys and the jungle, Lily must place her trust in Frank if she is to ever reach the tree, but it’s easier said than done.
The latest Disney movie is definitely fun to watch. It’s a classic, and far too predictable, adventure, where a small group of protagonists venture into the unknown. The movie obviously borrows heavily from big screen hits like ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘The Mummy’ franchise, ‘Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid’ and even the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ franchise. This film is a patch-work of tropes.
The two-hour movie also packs a lot, which is precisely why the plot gets murkier as the audiences and protagonists cruise through. The big picture is brimming with smaller side stories which include characters that aren’t essential to the plot and in the end remain forgettable, like Paul Giamatti’s crusty harbormaster Nilo, who unfortunately falls into the margins of the movie. And scenes such as Prince Joachim talking to bees, makes the film utterly nonsensical. However, the strongest points of the movie are seen in the strengthening relationships and character development, which receive just about enough screen time to hold the story together. And while there is no overarching theme for this tale, it handles themes like women empowerment and exoticism.
‘Jungle Cruise’ offers audiences an imaginative look at deeper areas of the Amazon. The titular jungle, Frank’s beloved boat and adorable pet Jaguar Proxima are CGI highlights, whereas most other effects, notably the ragtag supernatural conquistadors, who look like they hung out with Davy Jones for too long, fall flat.
The film also delivers meticulously choreographed action sequences that showcase each individual character’s physical prowess. Everyone gets a chance to throw a punch with good form, not just The Rock. The film also draws in ideas and references from the actual ride. The humor, a courtesy of Frank’s pun-laden jokes is an actual reference to the theme-park attraction. The ride is known for its corny jokes, all delivered by skippers who narrate the adventure to visitors. Everything comes together to make the film a fun-filled experience. It falls short of a strong plot but is driven forward by the performance of the two leads.
An unlikely pair, both Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt showcase their stellar acting skills. Blunt brings a strong charisma as an intrepid scholar and adventurer, breaking barriers in ‘a man’s world’ through her role as Dr. Lily Houghton. Blunt expertly navigates the character’s inner nerd and heroine in doing amazing stunts and even takes on Johnson’s muscular self. Johnson pours his heart and soul into his character Frank. At first glance Frank comes across as a rogue character with no depth and mainly supplies humor to the tale, but as the story unfolds Johnson taps into deeper aspects of the character. The Blunt-Johnson pairing oddly makes their banter fun, but the sense of awkwardness can be overwhelmingly uncomfortable in some scenes.
Jack Whitehall’s role as Lily’s not-so-adventurous brother McGregor, is Disney’s latest attempt to introduce a gay character, but fails to leave a deep impression. It also seems like it’s never a good adventure without the nefarious Germans trying to kill everyone, but Jesse Plemons brings more comedic relief than menace to his role as Prince Joachim. The conquistador villain Aguirre played by Edgar Ramírez, remains sidelined and underused.
At the end of the day, ‘Jungle Cruise’ is a fun summer adventure that everyone can enjoy. Although the film doesn’t meet the standards set by their cooler counterpart ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, ‘Jungle Cruise’ brings its own unique quirkiness that saves it from drowning completely.
Astrologers suggested he be ordained
Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera
Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera was an eminent scholar monk in the nineteenth century. He was the founder of the Vidyodaya Pirivena.
He was born in the village of Hettigoda in Hikkaduwa on 20-01-1827.
As was the Sinhala custom, his horoscope was cast by an eminent astrologer who predicted that the child was under the evil influence of the planets and that he will have a life of misfortune, with a suggestion that he be ordained. The parents then consulted several other eminent astrologers who too, made similar predictions.
(As later events proved, the predictions happened to be from those who had not properly mastered the science of astrology, or due to the inaccurate time of birth recorded).
As per the predictions, his parents then decided to ordain him. With that in view, he was given only a temple-oriented education, with no formal schooling.
When he was about 14 years old, preparations were made to ordain him at an auspicious time. But, as the auspicious time was fast approaching, he was found missing.
After he was found, he told his father not to ordain him and bring the Buddha Sasana into disrepute, as his astrological predictions were adverse.
However, he was ordained later as Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, of his own volition.
Nobody ever thought, at the time, that he would one day be a scholar of great repute.
The following year, he sojourned at the Mapalagama Temple, in the Galle District during the Vas Season (rainy season) with his preceptor Mobotuwana Revatha Thera and several other monks.
This young Sumangala Samanera (novice) endeared himself to the devotees, with his disciplined demeanour and with his sermons, based on the Jathaka stories (stories of the former lives of the Buddha). One such devotee – John Cornelis Abeywardena, an English scholar (an ancestor of the present day Galle politician Vajira Abeywardena) volunteered to teach English to this young inspiring preacher.
It was a time when some bhikkhus were engaged in native medical treatment. And Sumangala Thera, then still a novice, was to answer this question as to whether the bhikkhus could engage in such a practice.
He construed that it was harmless to treat the hapless, destitute patients, friends or relations, provided it was not for any material gain and that it was not a serious violation of the Vinaya rules.
While travelling by train, one day, this Samanera met a group of pilgrims from Siam (now Thailand), coming down south, after a pilgrimage to Anuradhapura.
The pilgrims knew only their Siam language and the Pali language, resulting in they being cut off from the local populace.
One of them, half-heartedly spoke to this Samanera in the Pali lanugage. It was then that he realised that he was spaking to a Pali scholar. This resulted in exchange of views between the two of them.
Later he continued with his higher learning under several reputed venerable preceptors and also authored several valuable books.
During the Vas Season, in that year 1858, he sojourned at the Bogahawatta Temple, in Galle, and commenced publishing a newspaper for Buddhists named “Lanka Loka”.
He was a close friend of Col. Henry Steele Olcott, who arrived in Ceylon in the year 1880.
During those colonial days, the first class compartments in trains were more or less reserved for the white masters. Quite often, these compartments were seen going empty, except for one or two of them, while the second and third classes were crammed. Though some Sri Lankans had the means to travel first class, they didn’t have the courage to do so. There were others who did not care a damn for the white skins and unhestatingly travelled first class.
One day Sumangala Nayaka Thera was travelling to Kandy and entered a first class compartment, occupied by two high- spirited Englishmen.
With characteristic arrogance they subjected the Nayaka Thera to a barrage of vulger comments and rude insults.
“This old fellow has, by mistake, got into this compartment” one of them said.
“No, this is not a mistake. He is purposely, fraudulently, travelling first class with a third class ticket.”
“Shall we hand him over to the Railway Authorities?” asked the other.
The Thera gazed at them silently with a benign smile on his face.
At Polgahawela, the train was shunted into a siding, for the train carrying Sir Arthur Gordon, Governor of Ceylon, who was returning to Colombo, after a holiday, was due at any moment.
The train arrived and the Governor’s special compartment drew up right alongside the one occupied by the venerable monk. Glancing out of the window, the Governor saw Sumangala Thera and a smile of pure pleasure shone on the Governor’s face. For he and the learned monk were close friends. Scholars both, they visited each other quite often and spent many hours in erudite discussion.
“My dear High Priest! Fancy meeting you like this!” said Sir Gordon, opening the door of his compartment and walking into the one occupied by the Thera. They were engaged in a lively conversation, in English, and the train was 11 minutes late.
With the Governor’s departure, the two louts now crestfallen and repentant at their boorish behaviour, profusely apologised to the Thera.
With a smile on his face, the Thera, accepted their apologies with a brief exhortation. Thereafter they were engaged in a lovely conservation till the journey’s end.
Once there was a clash between some Buddhists who went in a procession and some Catholics at Maggona, resulting in the death of a Catholic.
As a sequel, a Buddhist named Seeman Fernando was sentenced to death. On representations made by the Nayaka Thera to the Governor, Seeman Fernando was released.
One day, a group of pilgrims that also included some members of the Cambodian Royal Family, went to Kandy with the Nayaka Thera for an exposition of the Tooth Relic.
It was a non-event as no prior intimation had been made to the Dalada Maligawa authorities in time.
The next morning, the Thera was walking leisurely along the Nuwara Wewa, when Governor Gordon, who was going in a horse drawn chariot saw the Nayaka Thera and after greeting him indulged in a lively conversation. When he told him about the non-event of the exposition of the tooth relic the previous day, the Governor took immediate steps for a special exposition, directing the Government Agent to make the necessary arrangements.
In the year 1873, he founded the Vidyodaya Pirivena – a seat of Buddhist higher learning. It was his greatest service to Buddhism.
When the permit to have a perahera was first introduced at the turn of this centry, the Nayaka Thera, as Head of Vidyodaya, sought permission to hold the annual perahera of the Pirivena. Permission was at first refused, but mysteriously granted a few days later.
Despite the refusal, the Nayaka Thera had gone ahead with the arrangements to hold the perahera, and when a senior police officer on horseback brought the permit personally to the High Priest, he contemptuously rejected it and sent the officer away.
This incident was reported to the I.G.P. who, in turn, reported it to the Governor of the colony of Ceylon.
The Governor, a close friend and admirer of Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, sent his Maha Mudliyar, Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, as his personal emissary, to respectfully request the learned scholar monk to come to Queen’s House to discuss the matter, as His Excellency feared that the act of the Nayaka Thera would be an undersirable precedent.
“I refused to accept the police permit for this reason,” the Nayaka Thera, told the Governor. “When I first asked for permission to hold the perahera, permission was refused. A few days later, permission was granted. This indicates that permits are given, not according to any law, but at the whims and fancies of police personnel, which is all wrong. That is why I refused the permit that was given on second thoughts. The freedom to practise the Buddhist religion and its rites have been guaranteed in the Kandyan Convention, and I shall be grateful if you and your minions will kindly remember that.”
The chastened Governor was profuse in his apologies to the outspoken scholar monk.
The Nayaka Thera was taken ill on the 21st April 1911 and passed away on the 29th (about 110 years ago).
Perhaps he would never have envisaged, that his much cherished Vidyodaya Pirivena would be no more on a tidal wave, in the years to come.
Talented and versatile
Shareefa Thahir is not only popular, as a radio personality, but she also has a big following on social media. Each time she uploads a new photo, or an event where she is in the spotlight, the ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ keep soaring. Shareefa does the scene at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (Radio Sri Lanka – 97.4 and 97.6) as an English announcer, and news reader, and she is also a freelance TV presenter, and news anchor, on Rupavahini.
Had a chat with this talented, and versatile, young lady, and this is how it all went…
1. How would you describe yourself?
In just a few words, I would say a simple, easy-going person. And, my friends would certainly endorse that.
2. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I love myself, and I accept whatever laws I may have. So, obviously, there’s nothing that I would want to change in myself.
3. If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
Absolutely nothing because they are amazing…just the way they are (and that hit by Bruno Mars ‘Just The way You Are’ came to mind when you asked me this question!)
Melbourne International, and Gateway College. I was the captain of my house and participated in athletics – track events, etc.
5. Happiest moment?
Oh, I will never forget the day I won the Raigam Award for my work on television.
6. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Accept yourself and enjoy the tiny things in life.
7. Are you religious?
I believe in God, but I don’t think you should go about announcing it. I stay true to my heart.
8. Are you superstitious?
A little …..stitious! Hahaha! Just kidding – not at all!
9. Your ideal guy?
Someone who accepts me for who I am, and who is supportive in my journey…like I would be in his.
10. Which living person do you most admire?
I would say Jennifer Lopez, for the simple reason that she is still very energetic, and active, for her age (52), keeps herself in good shape, and still has a huge fan base.
11. Which is your most treasured possession?
Yes, I would say my talent.
12. If you were marooned on a desert island, who would you like as your companion?
My best friend as I would certainly need someone to chat with! Hahaha!
13. Your most embarrassing moment?
Saying ‘good morning’ to viewers on an evening live show!
14. Done anything daring?
Not yet. I wonder when I would get that opportunity to do something…real daring, like, let’s say, climbing Mount Everest!
15. Your ideal vacation?
A life without social media, in Greece, enjoying the beauty of nature.
16. What kind of music are you into?
Oh, I can go on and on about this; it depends on my mood. I love alternate rock, mostly, but I enjoy reggae, and pop, too.
17. Favourite radio station?
SLBC’s Radio Sri Lanka.
18. Favourite TV station?
Channel Eye (for obvious reasons).
19 What would you like to be born as in your next life?
20. Any major plans for the future?
I’m hoping to start a new venture. However, I’m keeping my fingers crossed, as right now the scene is pretty dicey, with this virus being so unpredictable.
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