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Women’ rights, economic oppression and human rights



by Dr Laksiri Fernando

Women undoubtedly are the most oppressed in all societies, north or south, east, or west, poor, or rich, developed, or underdeveloped, and throughout most of human history. It is the number one human rights problem today not addressed properly. Out of around 7.8 billion world population, while male-female balance might be 1:1, there is estimated 1.7% people who are intersex. Whereas rights of all people are important, there is a clear oppression and marginalization of women and LGBT people in almost all countries.

In the case of Sri Lanka, out of around 21.5 million population, females are around 50.7%, perhaps due to many males being killed in wars and violence.

When we talk about human rights and oppression, the women question should be mentioned especially in the context of the International Women’s Day celebrated on 8 March. In this context, Dr. Santhushya Fernando’s speech on this day in Colombo should be especially appreciated. The remembrance of women’s rights or rights of all should not be limited to one day but all days. The most heinous among women’s rights might be the sexual harassment and subjugation due to male domination in love affairs, family, workplace, politics, and society. All of us as men should be mindful of this situation. If it has not come from the socialization of childhood, it should be inculcated through human rights education with emphasis on responsibilities.

There is a possibility that some of the human rights violations like women’s rights do happen because of the lack of awareness, socialization, or education. However, the social structures, property laws, workplace practices, profit making, and even religious institutions, justify and perpetuate them. Equality in education (perhaps largely achieved in Sri Lanka), equal pay for men and women, positive measures in promoting women in politics and social activities, are necessary in addition to promoting women’s rights through education.


Oppressors and the Oppressed

In historical awareness or advocacy of oppression, it is unfortunate that women’s rights have come almost at last. The first person who had talked about women oppression is considered as Alice Paul, beginning of the 20th century, but not yet in all aspects. Such was the prejudice or neglect.

When we talk about oppressors and oppressed, in a dichotomic or dialectical manner, Friedrich Hegel was the first to talk about religious oppression, Catholics as the oppressors and the Protestants as the oppressed in Germany in the 19th century. We know more about Karl Marx, who not only talked about class oppression, but explained underlying economic reasons, the bourgeoisie as the oppressor and proletariat as the oppressed, later in the same century.

The class analysis is still valid as the economic systems have not fundamentally changed except perhaps in countries where the state has strongly intervened as an intermediary like in China or Cuba. The Soviet Union has gone. Even in these societies the classes existed and still exists, but comparatively progressive to societies we live in. There are so many other thinkers who have followed the methodology or class analysis of Marx and Engels.

Vladimir Lenin perhaps was more future thinking in extending this analysis to the global context talking about oppressed and the oppressor nations under imperialism. What he or his disciples mainly meant by ‘nations’ is national states like Sri Lanka. However, there is a possibility of extending this analysis to see an ‘oppressed nations’ or an ‘oppressed national groups’ within a nation state.

However, it is highly questionable whether an ‘oppressed nation’ or a ‘national group’ within a national state, which is particularly in oppressed conditions, could obtain genuine support of an oppressor nation for their grievances or liberation. There are serious moral questions involved in ‘oppressor nations’ (i.e. Western) apparent intentions or motivations. All national groups in an oppressed nation under imperialism, whether majority or minority, are in the same soup.

There are several other forms to oppressor-oppressed dichotomy. One is caste. In Sri Lanka this is not unknown. Another is political. In a democracy when authoritarian governments take over or people feel or believe that is the case, that kind of a dichotomy might emerge. However, how far these are subjective, or objective is a subject for debate.

There are equal possibilities of political oppositions (or outside forces) propagating these feelings or ideas. These are symptoms of an underdeveloped democracy where political power struggles are intense. Otherwise, the normal practice in a developed democracy is to wait for the next turn, while constructively criticizing an incumbent government progressively. Australia is one example. There are also needs of bipartisanship on nationally important matters like foreign policy or social welfare measures etc. Sri Lanka is terribly missing them, involved in terrible hatred and violent feelings against each other between governing and opposition parties.


International Context

The terms like ‘imperialism’ or ‘oppressor-oppressed nations’ are quite taboo these days as Marxism has become discredited. However, no one can avoid the distinction between rich and poor nations or countries. Even the IMF and the World Bank are compelled to deal with them at least superficially. This is also a number one human rights issue in the world today like gender oppression. Poverty and women’s rights go hand in hand in many respects.

Since the end of the Second world war, which was considered a new era in human history, the poor-rich dichotomy or the gap has not subsided but increased. This is under the supervision of the UN with a clear human rights mandate. After the emergence of political neo-liberalism, the situation has worsened.

There are people who believe (and behave that way) that poor countries like Sri Lanka are at the mercy of rich countries like USA, Britain, and EU or OECD countries. It is said that we depend on them for aid, investments, and economic guidance and therefore we should not criticize them even in the human rights sphere. Political realism is wrongly invoked in defence of this despicable approach. This is the colonial mindset whatever the words or terms used defending such shameful approaches. This is the same as what is told to women: “you are dependent on men and they are your superiors. Therefore, do what they ask you to do.”

Challenging the West is also called ‘narrow nationalism.’ That is not the case. It is not nationalism, but justice. If it is nationalism, it is the ‘nationalism of the oppressed.’ What is rampant today in the West is ‘vaccination nationalism’ on their part. They themselves struggle and compete to monopolise the vaccine. Sri Lanka should support the call by India and South Africa to waver the intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. Otherwise, there is no justice to the poor countries, like in the human rights sphere.


Global Exploitation

The countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America are poor not primarily because of their fault. The rich countries are exploiting them. The world is not only in a Lucas Paradox, where the capital does not flow from developed countries to developing countries although the capital per worker in developing countries is terribly low. Adam Smith’s or Milton Freedman’s free flow or free market does not work. In addition, the studies have revealed that the flow of money from poor countries to rich countries far exceed the flow in the other way round. Let me quote Jason Hickel “Aid in Reverse: How Poor Countries Develop Rich Countries” (The Guardian – Australia, 14 January 2017).

“In 2012, the last year of recorded data, developing countries received a total of $1.3tn, including all aid, investment, and income from abroad. But that same year some $3.3tn flowed out of them. In other words, developing countries sent $2tn more to the rest of the world than they received. If we look at all years since 1980, these net outflows add up to an eye-popping total of $16.3tn – that’s how much money has been drained out of the global south over the past few decades. To get a sense for the scale of this, $16.3tn is roughly the GDP of the United States.”

Is this not a human rights problem? How far this outflow of money impinged on economic and social rights of the people in poor countries, and the right to development in general? The UN big guns, including the High Commissioner for Human Rights, of course allow few hours for the member countries to discuss the right to development ceremonially. But no tangible solutions are proposed to change the situation.

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Strong on vocals



The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.



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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year



Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.



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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations



Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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