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Three gutsy women who chose the less travelled road



I was totally impressed reading about a Chinese woman of 56 who, tiring of her duty- filled work as housewife in an unhappy marriage just took off on a solo trip across China that, writers about her – Joy Dong and Vivian Wang – say “challenged deep-rooted gender norms.” She spends each night alone, curled up in a four and a half by eight foot tent, balanced on stilts on the roof of her car. She has seen her daughter and grandchildren only once in the past six months, and her husband not at all. Cheers to Su Min from Hunan Province, I say, now a feminist icon to the entirety of China. And she says, she has never been happier before cutting free “this time to find myself.” Cheers again!


The solo tripper

That is certainly not the end of the story nor all about Su Min. She felt she had done all she could as dutiful Chinese woman, maybe subservient to a domineering husband too. So she is “embracing a new identity: fearless road–tripper and internet sensation. For six months, she has been solo driving across China, documenting her journey for more than 1.35 million followers across social media platforms.” More interesting than the vistas she describes are intimate details of domestic life she reveals along with her dissatisfaction that drove her to a most unconventional step taken.

Su Min grew up in Tibet and when she missed the school bus, she walked the 12 miles on mountain roads. She used to drool seeing trucks pass by and imagined herself at the wheel. In China, she took on a factory job and married and found her husband would be away from home for long spells and not tolerate her asking him questions. Physical abuse was frequent. She never considered leaving home or him, due to fearing the social stigma that would surely follow. In 2017, her daughter gave birth to twins whose care was transferred to her. Her husband cooled down but there was nothing in the marriage. She sought solace in novels and travel books, and romantic Korean soap operas but loneliness increased until finally a doctor diagnosed depression,

Then, in late 2019, she came across a video online of someone introducing their camping gear while on a solo road trip. She remembered her childhood dream of driving – the freedom and comfort it represented. She planned her trip. She had already bought herself a white hatchback Volkswagen with her savings. Her monthly pension was around $300.

When her grandsons started schooling, she decided to leave on her trip, Her family did not approve; her husband mocked her. With her daughter finally turning cooperative, she left her home in Zhengzhou on September 24, 2020, with a tent atop her car and a packed minifridge.

Millions watched the video she shared on social media, marveling at her new found freedom and doing exactly what she wanted like eating hot peppers which at home she could not, the others not sharing her taste.

She has encountered hostility, along with hosannas. Once a man asked her how she aired her family’s private affairs and said he would beat her if they met in person. She replied, “Good thing I haven’t met you.” However, it’s been more sympathy and praise that she’s received. “Older women send her messages about how painfully familiar her story feels and greet her at each destination with fruit and home-cooked meals. For the younger, she is a fount of advice about marriage and child rearing.” “Her unexpected popularity speaks to the collision of two major forces in Chinese society: the rapid spread of the internet and a flourishing awareness of gender equality in a country where traditional gender roles are still deeply rooted, especially among the older generations.”

Ms. Su’s daughter, Du Xiaoyang, who visited her in Hainan last month, said her mother was a new person.”Anything she wants to do, she just does, whereas before she seemed afraid of everything.”

She plans to travel much more for a couple of years. She does not contemplate divorce but may move away from her husband if he continues his ill-treatment of her. “Now that I’ve finally come out, I need time to let it melt away,” she said. “There are many things that, as time passes, may have an outcome you never imagined.”



Local women solo trippers

Sri Lanka is definitely short of the likes of Su Min, and if there are women who threw it all away to fulfill themselves as independent women, managing adventuring forth alone, they have not taken off with their go-ahead instincts. Several young unmarried women travel in-country and overseas but in groups and maybe pairs; women only though.

I knew a young woman who said she dreams of throwing a backpack on her shoulders and just roaming around. That was in the 1960s with hippies breaking away. She did lead a fairly free life, mostly overseas, travelling alone, but with others in Sri Lanka.

Which brings to mind two daring women who deserve our unreserved admiration. The first has undoubtedly got it; actually not enough public acclaim. The second earned censure then, but she was a trailblazer in many ways.


Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala scales Everest

Jayanthy Kuru-Utumpala is the most prestigious of women who went their way, who was the first Lankan and one of the very few South and South East Asian and Western women to scale the Himalayas. She conquered Mt Everest on the Vesak full moon night of May 21, 2016.

From her childhood, Jayanthi’s dream had been to climb Everest, even though two decades ago it would have seemed most unlikely. On any holiday the family went, she would find a hill to climb; five times up Sri Pada. Kirigalpotha and Horton Plains.

She has a Master’s degree in Gender Studies from Sussex University and is employed in the women’s rights field. When she attended seminars overseas, she saved every penny of her stipend and went mountain climbing: the Argentine Andes and Spanish Pyrenees being high points in her adventures. At the ages of 23 and 24 she followed basic and advanced mountaineering courses which taught her skills in rock and ice climbing. Both courses culminated in her scaling a 20,000 foot Himalayan peak in Sikkim, N E India.

And then she was set to climb the mountain of all mountains. In 2011 she met Johaan Peries who shared her zeal for mountaineering and her intrepid nature. They teamed up. She told me, with gratitude obvious in her voice, how much he helped her, supported her morally which was the kind of support she needed most. He was always a good companion. Jayanthi realized her dream.


Damayanthi Dunuwila sails with one other

My second example of an intrepid woman, adventurer really, is even more daring as she set forth on a sailing trip from Colombo to Lisbon with an American millionaire in his yacht during the later part of the 1950s. You can imagine the sensation she caused and censure among conservative women of Kandyan lineage. But she went her way and all we can say is ‘good for her!’

She was in University College when offered a scholarship to the London Royal Academy of Music. She grabbed it as her lifelong love was music. Elected a Licentiate of the Royal Academy, in 1950 she won the prestigious History of Music Prize, first Asian to win it. In 1955 her father fell seriously ill and she returned home. She performed on Radio Ceylon. When her father recovered, she wanted to return to London but her scholarship had lapsed, The lucky break (to diehard conservatives the daring temptation) was her being recruited by a visiting globetrotting American millionaire to assist him write his travelogue. Having a passport to travel anywhere, she sailed with him in his yacht to Lisbon to study Portuguese history. She met engineer Sven Sahlin and they married in 1962, making their home in Sweden. Her daughter engineer Shanaz married Per Sandberg. Damayanthi was a niece of D S Senanayake and probably was the inspiration for a famous baila still sung at parties.

This to be admired woman who broke bonds of conservatism and rigid stereotyping of women then, more so those of the ‘upper class’ was a talented musician, linguist and woman who achieved her desire to return to music studies in London unconventionally, yet successfully.

An anecdote told me by a Lake House staffer of then goes thus. In the furor raised by Damayanthi’s impending trip a journo visited her home to interview her. He found it full of dignified women in Kandyan dress. He asked her what they thought of her travelling alone across the ocean with a white man. “They are welcome to think whatever they want to, I care not.” Bravo to this intrepid woman who took the less travelled road which made all the difference!

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Have Humanities and Social Sciences muddied water enough?



By Maduranga Kalugampitiya

The domain of the humanities and social sciences is under attack more than ever before. The relevance, as well as usefulness of the degrees earned in those fields, is being questioned left, right, and centre. The question of whether it is meaningful at all to be spending, if not wasting, the limited financial resources available in the coffers to produce graduates in those fields is raised constantly, at multiple levels. Attempts are being made to introduce a little bit of soft skills into the curricula in order to add ‘value’ to the degree programmes in the field. The assumption here is that either such degree programmes do not impart any skills or the skills that they impart are of no value. We often see this widely-shared profoundly negative attitude towards the humanities and the social sciences (more towards the former than towards the latter) being projected on the practitioners (students, teachers, and researchers) in those areas. At a top-level meeting, which was held one to two years ago, with the participation of policy-makers in higher education and academics and educationists representing the humanities and social sciences departments, at state universities, a key figure in the higher education establishment claimed that the students who come to the humanities and social sciences faculties were ‘late-developers’. What better (or should I say worse?) indication of the official attitude towards those of us in the humanities and the social sciences!

While acknowledging that many of the key factors that have resulted in downgrading the humanities and social sciences disciplines are global by nature and are very much part of the neoliberal world order, which dominates the day, I wish to ask if we, the practitioners in the said fields, have done our part to counter the attack.

What the humanities and the social sciences engage with is essentially and self-consciously social. What these disciplines have to say has a direct bearing on the social dimension of human existence. It is near impossible to discuss phenomena in economics, political science, or sociology without having to reflect upon and use examples from what happens in our lives and around us. One cannot even begin to talk about teaching English as a second language without taking a look at her/his own experience learning English and the struggles that many people go through at different levels doing the same. One cannot talk about successful ways of teaching foreign languages without recognizing the need to incorporate an engagement with the cultural life of those languages at some level. No reading of an artwork—be it a novel, a movie, a painting, a sculpture, a poem, whatever—is possible without the reader at least subconsciously reflecting upon the broader context in which those artworks are set and also relating her own context or experience to what is being read. A legal scholar cannot read a legislation without paying attention to the social implications of the legislation and the dynamics of the community at whom that legislation is directed. The point is our own existence as social beings is right in the middle of what we engage with in such disciplines. To steal (and do so self-consciously) a term from the hard/natural sciences, society is essentially the ‘laboratory’ in which those in the humanities and social sciences conduct their work. There may be some areas of study within the humanities and social sciences which do not require an explicit engagement with our social existence, but I would say that such areas, if any, are limited in number.

Needless to say that every social intervention is political in nature. It involves unsettling what appears to be normal about our social existence in some way. One cannot make interventions that have a lasting impact without muddying the water which we have been made to believe is clear. How much of muddying do we as practitioners in the field of humanities and social sciences do is a question that needs to be asked.

Unfortunately, we do not see much work in the humanities and social sciences which unsettles the dominant order. What we often see is work that reinforces and reaffirms the dominant structures, systems, and lines of thought. Lack of rigorous academic training and exposure to critical theory is clearly one of the factors which prevents some scholars in the field from being able to make interventions that are capable of muddying the water, but the fact that we sometimes do not see much muddying even on the part of the more adept scholars shows that lack of rigorous training is not the sole reason.

Muddying the water is no simple matter. To use a problematic, yet in my view useful, analogy, a scholar in the said field trying to make an intervention that results in unsettling the order is like a hydrogen atom in H2O, ‘water’ in layperson’s language, trying to make an intervention which results in a re-evaluation of the oxygen atom. Such an intervention invariably entails a re-evaluation of the hydrogen atom as well, for the reason that the two atoms are part of an organic whole. One cannot be purely objective in its reading of the other. Such an intervention is bound to be as unsettling for the hydrogen atom as it is for the oxygen atom. Similarly, in a majority of contexts, a scholar in the area of the humanities and social sciences cannot make an intervention, the kind that pushes the boundaries of knowledge, without unsettling the dominant structures and value systems, which they themselves are part of, live by, and also benefit from. For instance, the norms, values, and practices which define the idea of marriage in contexts like ours are things that a male scholar would have to deal with as a member of our society, and any intervention on his part which raises questions about gender-based inequalities embodied in such norms, values, and practices would be to question his own privilege. Needless to say that such an intervention could result in an existential crisis for the scholar, at least temporarily. Such interventions also entail the possibility of backlash from society. One needs thorough training to withstand that pressure.

In place of interventions that unsettle the existing order, what we often see is work, which re-presents commonsensical knowledge garbed in jargon. To give an example from an area that I am a bit familiar with, much of the work that takes place in the field of English as a Second Language (ESL) identifies lack of motivation on the part of the students and also teachers and also lack of proper training for teachers as the primary reasons for the plight of English education in the country. This reading is not very different from a layperson’s understanding of the problem, and what we often see as research findings in the field of ESL is the same understanding, albeit dressed up in technical-sounding language. Such readings do not unsettle the existing order. They put the blame on the powerless. Very limited is the work that sees the present plight of English education as a systemic or structural problem. Reading that plight as a systemic problem requires us to re-evaluate the fundamental structures which govern our society, and such re-evaluation is unsettling is many ways. I argue that that is what is expected of scholarship in the ESL field, but unfortunately that is not what we see as coming out of the field.

If what gets produced as knowledge in the humanities and social sciences is jargonized commonsense, then the claim that such fields have nothing important to say is valid. If what a scholar in those fields has to say is not different to a layperson’s understanding of a given reality, the question whether there is any point in producing such scholars becomes valid.

In my view, the humanities and social sciences are in need of fundamental restructuring. This restructuring is not the kind which calls for the incorporation of a bit of soft skills here and a bit of soft skills there so that those who come out of those fields easily fit into predefined slots in society but the kind that results in the enhancement of the critical thinking capacity of the scholars. It is the kind of restructuring that would produce scholars who are capable of engaging in a political reading of the realities that define our existence in society and raise difficult questions about such existence, in other words, scholars who are capable of muddying the water.

(Maduranga Kalugampitiya is attached to Department of English, University of Peradeniya)

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

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Selective targeting not law’s purpose



By Jehan Perera

The re-emergence of Donald Trump in the United States is a reminder that change is not permanent. Former President Trump is currently utilising the grievances of the white population in the United States with regard to the economic difficulties that many of them face to make the case that they need to be united to maintain their position in society. He is coming forward as their champion. The saying “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is often attributed to the founders of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, among many others, though Lord Denning in The Road to Justice (1988) stated that the phrase originated in a statement of Irish orator John Philpot Curran in 1790. The phrase is often used to emphasise the importance of being vigilant in protecting one’s rights and freedoms.

Ethnic and religious identity are two powerful concepts by which people may be mobilised the world over. This is a phenomenon that seemed to have subsided in Western Europe due to centuries of secular practices in which the state was made secular and neutral between ethnicities and religions. For a short while last year during the Aragalaya, it seemed that Sri Lanka was transcending its ethnic and religious cleavages in the face of the unexpected economic calamity that plunged large sections of the population back into poverty. There was unprecedented unity especially at the street level to demonstrate publicly that the government that had brought the country to this sorry pass had to go. The mighty force of people’s power succeeded in driving the leaders of that government out of power. Hopefully, there will be a government in the future that will bring the unity and mutual respect within the people, especially the younger generations, to the fore and the sooner the better as the price is growing higher by the day.

But like the irrepressible Donald Trump the old order is fighting to stage its comeback. The rhetoric of ethnicity and religion being in danger is surfacing once more. President Ranil Wickremesinghe who proclaimed late last year that the 13th Amendment to the constitution would be implemented in full, as it was meant to be, and enable the devolution of power to be enjoyed by the people of the provinces, including those dominated by Tamils and Muslims, has gone silent on this promise. The old order to which he is providing a new economic vision is clearly recalcitrant on ethno-religious matters. As a result, the government’s bold plan to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as promised to the international community in 2015 to address the unresolved human rights issues of the war, is reportedly on the rocks. The main Tamil political parties have made statements that they will not legitimise or accept such a mechanism in the absence of a genuine devolution of power. Politics must not override policies.


The sense of threat to ethnicity and religion looms too large once again for forward movement in conflict resolution between the different communities that constitute the Sri Lankan nation which is diverse and plural. Two unlikely persons now find themselves at the centre of an emotion-heavy ethno-religious storm. One is a comedian, the other is a religious preacher. Both of them have offended the religious sensibilities of many in the ethno-religious Sinhala Buddhist majority community. Both of their statements were originally made to small audiences of their own persuasion, but were then projected through social media to reach much larger audiences. The question is whether they made these statements to rouse religious hatred and violence. There have been numerous statements from all sides of the divide, whether ethnic, religious or political, denouncing them for their utterances.

Both comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya and pastor Jerome Fernando have apologised for offending and hurting the religious sentiments of the Buddhist population. They made an attempt to remedy the situation when they realised the hurt, the anger and the opposition they had generated. This is not the first time that such hurtful and offensive comments have been made by members of one ethno-religious community against members of another ethnic-religious community. Taking advantage of this fact the government is arguing the case for the control of social media and also the mainstream media. It is preparing to bring forward legislation for a Broadcasting Regulatory Commission that would also pave the way to imprison journalists for their reporting, impose fines, and also revoke the licences issued to electronic media institutions if they impact negatively on national security, national economy, and public order or create any conflict among races and religions.

In a free society, opportunities are provided for people to be able to air their thoughts and dissents openly, be it at Hyde Park or through their representatives in Parliament. The threat to freedom of speech and to the media that can arise from this new law can be seen in the way that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which is the world’s standard bearer on civil and political rights has been used and is being abused in Sri Lanka. It was incorporated into Sri Lankan law in a manner that has permitted successive governments to misuse it. It is very likely that the Broadcast Regulatory Commission bill will yield a similar result if passed into law. The arrest and detention of comedian Natasha Edirisooriya under the ICCPR Act has become yet another unfortunate example of the misuse of a law meant to protect human rights by the government. Pastor Jerome Fernando is out of prison as he is currently abroad having left the country a short while before a travel ban was delivered to him.


The state media reported that a “Police officer said that since there is information that she was a person who was in the Aragalaya protest, they are looking into the matter with special attention.” This gives rise to the inference that the reason for her arrest was politically motivated. Comedian Edirisooriya was accused of having violated the provisions in the ICCPR in Section 3(1) that forbids hate speech. Section 3(1) of the ICCPR Act prohibits advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, violence or hostility. The international human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, has pointed out that in the case of Edirisooriya that for speech to be illegal on the grounds of being hate speech it requires “a clear showing of intent to incite others to discriminate, be hostile towards or commit violence against the group in question.” Amnesty International also notes that “When the expression fails to meet the test, even if it is shocking, offensive or disturbing, it should be protected by the state.”

Ironically, in the past there have been many instances of ethnic and religious minorities being targeted in a hateful manner that even led to riots against them, but successive governments have been inactive in protecting them or arresting their persecutors. Such targeting has taken place, often for political purposes in the context of elections, in blatant bids to mobilise sections of the population through appeals to narrow nationalism and fear of the other. The country’s political and governmental leaders need to desist from utilising the ICCPR Act against those who make social and political critiques that are outside the domain of hate speech. The arrest of Bruno Divakara, the owner of SL-Vlogs, under the ICCPR Act is an indication of this larger and more concerning phenomenon which is being brought to the fore by the Broadcasting Regulatory Commission bill.

The crackdown on the space for free expression and critical comment is unacceptable in a democratic polity, especially one as troubled as Sri Lanka, in which the economy has collapsed and caused much suffering to the people and the call to hold elections has been growing. The intervention of the Human Rights Commission which has called on the Inspector General of Police to submit a report on the arrest and its rationale is a hopeful sign that the independence of institutions intended to provide a check and balance will finally prevail. The Sri Lankan state will hopefully evolve to be a neutral arbiter in the disputes between competing ethnic, religious and partisan political visions of what the state should be and what constitutes acceptable behaviour within it. Taking on undemocratic powers in a variety of ways and within a short space of time is unlikely to deliver economic resurgence and a stable and democratic governance the country longs for. Without freedom, justice and fair play within, there can be no hope of economic development that President Wickremesinghe would be wanting to see.

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Girl power… to light up our scene



Manthra: Pop, rock and Sinhala songs

We have never had any outstanding all-girl bands, in the local scene, except, perhaps…yes The Planets, and that was decades ago!

The Planets did make a name for themselves, and they did create quite a lot of excitement, when they went into action.

Of course, abroad, we had several top all-girl bands – outfits like the Spice Girls, Bangles, Destiny’s Child, and The Supremes.

It’s happening even now, in the K-pop scene.

Let’s hope we would have something to shout about…with the band Manthra – an all-girl outfit that came together last year (2022).

Manthra is made up of Hiruni Fernando (leader/bass guitar), Gayathma Liyanage (lead guitar), Amaya Jayarathne (drums), Imeshini Piyumika (keyboards), and Arundathi Hewawitharana (vocals).

Amaya Arundathi and Imeshini are studying at the University of Visual and Performing Arts, while Gayathma is studying Architecture at NIMB, and Hiruni is the Western Music teacher at St. Lawrence’s Convent, and the pianist at Galadari Hotel, having studied piano and classical guitar at West London University.

They have already displayed their talents at various venues, events, weddings, and on TV, as well (Vanithabimana Sirasa TV and Charna TV Art Beat).

Additionally, the band showcased their talent at the talent show held at the Esoft Metro Campus.

The plus factor, where this all-girl outfit is concerned, is that their repertoire is made up rock, pop, and Sinhala songs.

Explaining as to how they came up with the name Manthra, founder member Hiruni said that Manthra means a word, or sound, repeated to aid concentration in meditation, and that the name was suggested by one of the band members.

Hiruni Fernando: Founder and leader of Manthra

She also went on to say that putting together a female band is not an easy task, in the scene here.

“We faced many difficulties in finding members. Some joined and then left, after a short while. Unlike a male band, where there are many male musicians in Sri Lanka, there are only a few female musicians. And then, there are some parents who don’t like their daughters getting involved in music.”

With talented musicians in their line-up, the future certainly looks bright for Manthra who are now keen to project themselves, in an awesome way, in the scene here, and abroad, as well.

“We are keen to do stage shows and we are also planning to create our own songs,” said Hiruni.

Yes, we need an all-girl group to add variety to our scene that is now turning out to be a kind of ‘repeating groove,’ where we see, and hear, almost the same thing…over and over again!

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