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The Future is female?

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By Farzana Haniffa

Statistics from the University Grants Commission (UGC) for 2020 show that out of 109,660 students that constituted the UGC intake for the year, 64.3 % were female. The preponderance of female students exists across disciplines with Engineering , Technology, and Computer Science being the only disciplines with larger male populations.1 In the Colombo Arts Faculty, the student numbers for 2020 were 2013 (85%) women and 352 (15%) men; in Peradeniya it was 2962 (82%) women to 651 (18%) men.

Our university administrations and policy makers, while being aware of the demographic reality of more women within the university system, have done little so far to acknowledge and respond to it. The formidable promise of the fact that there is a captive population of young women with relatively high educational achievements at secondary level has not significantly impacted education policy or the way universities are administered. We are we not yet at the point of realising its promise and using it for positive change.

Pervasive misogyny

Sri Lanka currently is not a very nice place for women and especially for young women. The most obvious indicators of the country’s rampant misogyny are the low rates of women’s political participation/representation in the legislature and local government since independence, the high incidence of gender-based violence and the economy’s exploitation of vulnerable women’s labour. The lack of female leadership in politics, and the violent masculinity of most politicians, the degrading language used against women politicians also impact the way leadership is understood in the country and women’s place as leaders.

The long history of problematic female representation in politics was partially addressed by the quota at local government in the last election. It is apparent from nominations for elections this time around that the idea of women in politics is becoming normalised. With the emergence of female MPs such as Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle and Dr. Harini Amarasuriya (from the University community), there are role models for our students to emulate. But the presence of only 12 women in a parliament of 225 is indication not just of the ongoing crisis of leadership in the country but of women’s absence. The parliamentary leadership’s embracing of violence together with their current exhibition of a criminal lack of awareness as to the troubles of the people is intolerable and is gendered.

A microcosm of sexism

Enabling not only young University women in Arts Faculties but across the system to critically understand and respond to challenges in a country where misogyny reigns will ensure that they are strategic in the choices they make about their future(s). Sadly, the university system does not model female strength and leadership for the young women in its student body. In keeping with the trend in the country, the higher levels of university administration too are mostly male. While the University Teachers Union at the Colombo Arts Faculty has had many secretaries who have been women, women presidents have been rare. There has only been one female Dean of the Faculty of Arts in Colombo. There has been a woman bursar, registrar and three vice chancellors. They are however, the exception. It is unsurprising therefore that despite the high numbers of female students, the student leaders are almost always male.

Beyond numbers, we also still have male lecturers – residual from a previous era —who dominate faculty meetings on the basis of their masculinity and ethnic identity, silencing women and minority staff. Many male lecturers of all communities continue to engage in sexist behaviour that demean female colleagues and students. Such behaviour, while frowned upon by colleagues both male and female, is generally left unaddressed. We are yet to cultivate a culture where calling out such actions is the norm. These individuals, although thankfully a minority, continue to model objectionable behaviour for both female and male students. As for sexual harassment experienced by staff and students, several Kuppi columns have been written about that. Universities, therefore, continue to perpetuate problematic gender roles and norms that are hardly enabling of young women, whose experience at university is often challenged by other struggles.

Against all odds

Students in the Arts faculties, and arguably across the university system, hail from families that are very poor or from the newly emergent or struggling middle class. For instance, I recently discovered that according to UGC criteria regarding need, students must be from families with income below Rs. 150,000.00 per year. And there are many who qualify. Additionally, the poorest districts in the country with underserved schools send large numbers of students to the Arts Faculties. Conversations with our students indicate that their families are facing serious economic challenges and that they may struggle to find their way after graduation. Many of them are likely in the current economy to see their families fall back in to poverty. Young women who come to university from such backgrounds are already struggling and have battled huge odds to enter and stay the course. Current education reform processes barely recognize their struggles.

Many studies have shown that women students also encounter violence of an intimate nature that is pervasive. Several extreme incidents of such violence have made it to the media in the last few years. On the 17th of January 2023, Chathuri Hansika Mallikarachchi, a recent graduate of the Faculty of Science at the University of Colombo was murdered by her boyfriend, a student of the same faculty. The great distress and unease experienced by our student body in the aftermath of this tragic incident prompted many of us in the University to address the incident in class and help students make sense of it. In April 2022 Apsara Wimalasiri also a part of the University community doing her PhD in Wellington, New Zealand was killed by her former husband when she was on a visit to Sri Lanka. Then in January 2020, Hapuhettige Don Roshini Kanchana, a medical student at Jaffna University was murdered in broad daylight by her husband, a soldier attached to the medical corps at Paranthan. A 2015 study by the UGC, FUTA and CARE International, identified students’ horrific past experiences of ragging and sexual harassment leading to long term physical and mental health issues and even death. They also identified, through a study on masculinity by CARE International, that men in Sri Lanka felt entitled to commit violence against women in general, but intimate partners in particular. The CARE study is a frightening reminder of the preponderance of violence in the home and among kin that women must be strengthened to face, name and refuse.

Inadequate measures

The current reforms driven by the quality assurance process emphasises English and IT skills and learned entrepreneurship to make our students “employable,” efforts that seem divorced from the gendered social context of the university and the larger world. This emphasis derives from an inadequate understanding of both the gender distribution of the student body as well as the challenges our students face when trying to navigate a violently gendered world with their families, at university and in the world at large. Gendered labour contexts—only alluded to in this piece—range from male employers preferring to not employ women due to their requests for maternity leave, and early release from work due to difficulties getting home, rejection of requests for time off, absence of child care support to harassment and blatant sexual violence. The unpaid care work women are compelled to carry out that sometimes precludes employment is also absent from analyses of employability.

The column this week has tried to argue that it is important that the University system respond positively to the demographic reality that Arts faculty students are mostly female. These students, many of whom come from troubled backgrounds have surmounted great difficulties already to attend university. Their resilience must be recognised and validated and they must be supported to grow further. What such support might look like must be carefully thought through. Our current syllabi, teaching methods, as well as the gendered context of university campuses themselves are wholly inadequate to prepare young women for the challenges they will face. There must be a recognition of how the university reflects the gender roles of Sri Lankan society, and student safeguards must be institutionalised.

Our students’ access to resources opportunities and self-realisation are compromised at the outset due to problematic gender and class configurations in society. We must ensure that these young women are provided with a language to name the problems that they are constantly facing and are enabled to imagine resistance and not just praised for forbearance.

(The author is Professor and Head in the Department of Sociology at the University of Colombo)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.



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Religious nationalism suffers notable setback in India

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People casting their votes in the recent Lok Sabha poll in India

Democratic opinion the world over could take heart from the fact that secularism is alive and well in India; the South Asian region’s most successful democracy. While it is indeed remarkable for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to win a third consecutive term as head of government in India’s recent Lok Sabha election, what is of greater significance is the fact that the polls featured a resounding defeat for religious nationalism.

Consequently, India’s secular credentials remain intact. Secularism, which eschews identity politics of all kinds, including religious nationalism is, after all, a cornerstone of democracy and secularism has been a chief strength of India. The defeat of religious nationalism, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, is a triumph for not only the democratic forces of India but for their counterparts the world over.

It was plain to see that the Bharathiya Janata Party under P.M. Modi was going the extra mile to placate Hindu nationalist opinion in Uttar Pradesh and outside through the construction of an eye-catching Ram temple in the state, for example, but the vote-catching strategy has visible failed as the polls results in the state indicate. For, the number of seats won by the BJP in the state has shrunk dramatically. In fact, the BJP was resoundingly defeated in the very constituency where the temple was constructed.

Constructive criticism of religious nationalism should not be considered an indictment of the religions concerned. Hinduism is one of the world’s most profound religions and it would sustain itself and thrive regardless of whether vote-hungry political parties champion its cause or otherwise. However, the deployment of any religion in the acquiring and aggrandizement of power by political forces calls for criticism since it amounts to a gross abuse of religion. Religious nationalism is an example of such abuse and warrants decrying in democratic states.

Unfortunately, religious nationalism is rampant in South Asia and it is most alive and well in Sri Lanka. And to the degree to which religious nationalism thrives in Sri Lanka, to the same extent could Sri Lanka be considered as deviating from the cardinal principles and values of democratic governance. It is obligatory on the part of those posing as Sri Lanka’s national leaders to reject religious nationalism and take the country along the path of secularism, which essentially denotes the separation of politics and religion. Thus far, Sri Lanka’s political class has fought shy of taking up this challenge and by doing so they have exposed the country as a ‘facade democracy’.

Religion per se, though, is not to be rejected, for, all great religions preach personal and societal goodness and progress. However, when religious identities are abused by political actors and forces for the acquiring and consolidation of power, religious nationalism comes to the fore and the latter is more destructive than constructive in its impact on societies. It is for these reasons that it is best to constitutionally separate religion from politics. Accordingly, secularism emerges as essential for the practise of democracy, correctly conceived.

The recent Indian Lok Sabha poll was also notable for the role economic factors played in the determining of its final results. Once again, Uttar Pradesh was instructive. It is reported that the high cost of living and unemployment, for instance, were working to the detriment of the ruling BJP. That is, ‘Bread’ or economic forces were proving decisive in voter preferences. In other words, economics was driving politics. Appeals to religion were proving futile.

Besides, it was reported that the opposition alliance hit on the shrewd strategy of projecting a bleaker future for depressed communities if the BJP ‘juggernaut’ was allowed to bulldoze its way onward without being checked. For, in the event of it being allowed to do so, the concessions and benefits of positive discrimination, for instance, being enjoyed by the weak would be rolled back in favour of the majority community. Thus, was the popular vote swung in the direction of the opposition alliance.

Accordingly, the position could be taken that economic forces are the principal shaping influences of polities. Likewise, if social stability is to be arrived at redistributive justice needs to be ushered in by governments to the extent possible. Religious nationalism and other species of identity politics could help populist political parties in particular to come to power but what would ensure any government’s staying power is re-distributive justice; that is, the even distribution of ‘Bread’ and land. In the absence of the latter factors, even populism’s influence would be short lived.

The recent Indian Lok Sabha elections could be said to have underscored India’s standing as a principal democracy. Democracy in India should be seen as having emerged stronger than ever as a result of the poll because if there were apprehensions in any quarter that BJP rule would go unchallenged indefinitely those fears have been proved to be baseless.

‘One party rule’ of any kind is most injurious to democracy and democratic forces in India and outside now have the assurance that India would continue to be a commodious and accommodative democracy that could keep democratic institutions and values ticking soundly.

Besides the above considerations, by assuring the region that it would continue with its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, India has underscored her ‘Swing State’ status. That is, she would take on a leadership role in South Asia and endeavor to be an inspirational guide in the region, particularly in respect of democratic development.

As for Sri Lanka, she has no choice but to be on the best of terms with India. Going forward, Sri Lanka would need to take deeply into consideration India’s foreign policy sensitivities. If there is to be an ‘all weather friend’ for Sri Lanka it has to be India because besides being Sri Lanka’s closest neighour it is India that has come to Sri Lanka’s assistance most swiftly in the region in the latter’s hour of need. History also establishes that there are least conflicts and points of friction among democracies.

However, identity politics are bound to continually cast their long shadow over South Asia. For smaller states this would prove a vexatious problem. It is to the extent to which democratic development is seen by countries of the South as the best means of defusing intra-state conflicts born of identity politics that the threat of identity politics could be defused and managed best.

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AKD’s Speech on Rule of Law: Merits and Demerits?

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Anura Kumara

by Dr Laksiri Fernando

Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s (AKD) speech as the Leader of the National People’s Power (NPP) at the National Convention organised by the Retired Police Officers Collective on 9 June 2024 is quite promising in terms of establishing or reestablishing rule of law in the country. They have been talking about a ‘system change’ now for some time, and various independent critics and observers were asking the details of this promise, without merely depending on the slogan.

I was fortunate to listen to this speech online and live, through Horawa News, and one weakness or wrong that I immediately observed was its leading phrase ‘Malimawa shows its police power.’ I have no idea about who runs the Horawa but that was not what AKD was quite obviously advocating. “Power’ is not a good word to use in democracy, worst still is the ‘police power.’

State of the State

After an introduction, AKD ventured to explain the ‘state of the State,’ particularly during the last two three years, characterising it as a failed state with inability to pay back loans, to supply necessary medicine to hospitals, and failing to give children a proper education, and when they grow up, proper employment. He strongly characterised the State as in the grips of crooks and criminals (dushithayan saha aparadakaruwan), and the whole society being affected by this situation. He said, “this must be changed, and this to be changed like in all other changes. Sri Lanka should be a State based on rule of law.” Thereafter his speech focused, in detail, on the questions of rule of law. There were several principles that he enunciated.

First, equality before the law. All citizens in the country should be equal before the law. All citizens in the country should be able to go before the law against any discrimination by the implementation of law. He asked, “are we all equal before the law? No. Rich people have one law, and people who have political power have another law. At present, the Department of Police, the Attorney General’s Department and even the Judiciary have become a laughing stock. Let me ask you a question that I have asked once before. “

“Who knew best that Diana Gamage didn’t have citizenship? First, Diana. She knew that she came to the country on a tourist visa and even that visa had expired. Knowing all that, she came to Parliament. Knowing that, she also acted as a state minister. How did she do that? She knew that because of her political power that the law would not apply to her. An ordinary person even will not ride a bicycle without a license. Where is our law?”

“The second person who knew well was Ranil. But he protected her. This type of country cannot go forward. We need a state system which is entirely based on rule of law. I will give you an assurance. I personally or our movement do not have any financial fraudsters or criminals to protect. No underworld, no drug dealers, no rapists, no financial fraudsters, and no criminals to protect. If the existing powers given to the police to curtail these crimes are not enough, under our government, we will create circumstances to strengthen the police.”

Political Interference

AKD outlined some of the crimes and murders which were investigated, and the perpetrators were properly punished within the system. Those included the murder of the Manager of Noori Estate, Hokandara family killing, Killing of Sarath Ambepitiya, etc.

On the other hand, he emphasised the cases like Lasantha Wickrematunge, Eknaligoda murder, assault of journalists like Keith Noyar, Poddalla Jayantha and others that dragged on without a conclusion. Why? His correct answer was political interference. He praised the police but emphasised political interferences that hamper their tasks.

One of the aspects that he neglected was the ethnic bias in criminal investigations and other police matters. Will this be addressed by the NPP? That is my question. For example, I have known J. S. Tissanayagam as a student at Peradeniya who later became a prominent Tamil Journalist. He was abducted, beaten up and charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. There are so many similar cases that were neglected by AKD, and I hope he will rectify his neglect in the coming future. I also failed to identify any Tamil participation in the crowd.

AKD was correct in emphasising that the police have a major role in maintaining stability in society. “If there were no police, no one would be able to pass the Borella junction peacefully” he said. He emphasised correctly, that these premises were established after a long struggle in building up rule of law in society internationally. “These were not there in tribal societies,’ he pointed out. “The leader of the tribe (Rehe nayakeya) did all together,” he said. ‘It was through struggles that separation of powers was established between Parliament to legislate, elected Presidents to execute, and the Judiciary to rule on justice,’ he continued.

“What we can see today is a tendency to go back to tribal society. We need a civilised society. Especially the department of police, criminal investigation and the attorney genera’s department should work independently, efficiently and correctly. It is our task under an NPP government to create these civilised conditions. Today the police department is in a mess due to political interferences.” He gave examples.

“Do we have a proper procedure in recruiting and promoting police officers? No. I know that there are some officers who are constables at recruitment, and also when they retire. We will establish a proper procedure in recruitment and promotions. At present, when change of governments occur, the police officers are punished or promoted. The main task of the police officers is people’s security. However, what they are supposed to do today is patrician (prabhu) security.” He mentioned that he has been an MP since the year 2000 and never sought any police security. He emotionally mentioned the difficulties that police security undergoes with so many difficulties.

Vision for Future?

“Under our government, people’s security is the primary task of the police, and not politician or patrician security. During the last 24 years as an MP, I have never called the police for any assistance. But this is not the case with other MPs. However, I have to say that to eliminate criminals and fraudsters, we will give the police the necessary leadership and encouragement. Today, the MPs consider the police as their servants. I have heard some saying ‘my OIC’ (mage OIC). This is not our attitude. We will preserve the dignity of police officers. They are well trained and educated. They should not be the tools of politicians. Their task is to punish criminality, present and past. There are people who believe their past offenses will be forgotten. But we will not forget.” AKD related a story.

“During the election campaign in 1994, Chandrika Kumaratunga accused the UNP stealing people’s money and property under their government. Vijayapala Mendis has obtained 75 acres of coconut land for two rupees per acre, altogether for Rs. 150. She promised that these crooks would be brought to the Galle Face Green and would be ‘skinned’. People rejoiced and clapped. However, within 7 years, the same Vijayapala Mendis became a Minister in Chandrika’s Cabinet. There are so many examples like that. Perhaps she had forgotten and even the people had forgotten. Ranil Wickremasinghe who accused [Gotabaya Rajapaksa] as the ‘Mastermind of the Easter Sunday attack’ also became the President based on the same Gotabaya mandate.”

There were several other points connected with the above that AKD ventured into taking about 20 more minutes. All are worth reflecting on and even in my case I have not heard them before from politicians. One of his newest arguments was to consider the rule of law, law and order, and equality before the law as the necessary basis of economic development. However, given the necessary word limitations for this article those may be discussed in a future occasion.

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Raffealla Fernando Face of Sri Lanka for Prerna Gupta

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It’s not only her name that is famous but her face, too, and I’m referring, of course, to Raffealla Fernando – Founder and CEO at Raffealla Fernando Photography, and Fashion Designer and Stylist at Raffealla – who excels in what she does and shines bright wherever she goes.

Raffealla was in India recently and, I’m told, her face did bright up the fashion scene over there. And, guess what! Raffealla is now the face of Sri Lanka for Prerna Gupta as she expands her unique fashion label to take in Sri Lanka, as well.

Prerna Gupta couture is an award-winning Indian fashion house, from Nagpur, and she creates beautiful sustainable outfits and textiles made out of milk, aloe vera and orange peel, and what Raffealla is wearing in the photographs, on this page, are clothes made out of orange peel, aloe vera and milk.

Prerna Gupta has launched and showcased at reputed fashion shows where celebrities like Vicky Kaushal, Rani Mukherjee, Raj Kumar Arao, Evelyn Sharma, Sana Khan, Kailash Kher, Shankar Mahadevan and Bhapi Leheri have visited and adorned her label.

Says Raffealla: “I feel truly honoured and privileged to be working with a brand like this.”

Sri Lanka’s celebrity was also featured in the leading Bangladesh fashion magazine ‘Fashion People’.

“I’m super hyped because it’s the first time FELLA got featured in an international magazine.”

And FELLA is the brand name for Raffealla’s fashion designs.

Talking about her recent trip to India, she said one of the interesting and colourful fashion projects she did in Mumbai (photography and conceptualization) was connected with Kutch – a district of Gujarat state.

Raffealla went on to say that costumes of Kutch are exquisitely stylized and intricately embroidered.

Dazzling with vibrant colours, flooded with striking mirror work and stunning jewellery, it’s one of the most alluring custumes in India, she said.

“The mirror work and embroidery work forms an integral part of Kutch. Although handicrafts, irrespective of the community or ethnic group to which they belong, remain the same, the workmanship differs.

“In fact, the various communities can be identified by the pattern of handicrafts and dress, or costumes, they are in. For instance, the Garacia Jat women wear only red or black chunis, while Rabari women wear black open blouses, or cholis, with odhnis to cover their heads.

“In the rural areas, the women wear Chaniya choli the whole year, Chaniya choli’s are of many designs and fashion. A typical Kutch costume is incomplete without ‘Abha’ or ‘Kanjari’. ‘Abha’ is the name of the typical choli worn by women folk and ‘Kanjari’ is a long blouse, beautifully embroidered and with mirror work.

“Most men in Kutch wear loose trousers, a long-sleeved under-jacket, and a short coat, a plain or silk-bordered cloth. Normally men prefer white clothes except the Muslims who prefer coloured clothes.”

Raffealla is now ready, and excited, to do it for Prerna Gupta.

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