7th May 2000
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Political fairer sex: making them strong

Book review

By Dr. Wimala de Silva
A review of Women and Politics in Sri Lanka: A Comparative Perspective, edited by Sirima Kiribamune, Pp 287, Hard Cover, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Kandy, 1999, Rs 600/=

Mine is not a formal review. It is more a response from a near octogenarian who has been studying the subject for over a quarter century.

I found this book a scholarly one, well planned and written by scholars in keeping with the traditions of research. Each chapter is well documented and states clearly its objectives, focus and methodology.

The editor's introductory chapter gives succinctly and with great clarity a picture of the full scenario, the areas covered in each chapter and the broad perspective. Therefore I found the introductory section of each chapter somewhat repetitive.

The first three chapters, 'A Historical Overview, Opportunities and Challenges, and Women in Political Parties,' offered little new information even though they dealt with major issues, besides bold facts and view the Sri Lankan situation from a South Asian and sometimes from a global perspective. I suppose this is almost inevitable when dealing with history. But I wish the authors of these chapters had also dealt with newer and therefore less well known developments such as the programmes of state institutions (like the National Committee on Women and the Local Government Management Unit) to introduce the gender component in their programmes and the skills and capabilities of women already elected to local government bodies.

Occasionally there is an implication which seems to require greater dwelling. One such is the grouping of Ms. Aseline Thomas with persons such as Lady Solomon Bandaranaike thus suggesting that Ms. Thomas was from a similar background. This is not so, to the best of my knowledge I came to know Ms. Thomas over fifty years ago, when fresh from the university, I started my teaching career in a BTS school. Ms. Thomas was then a senior Sinhala trained teacher in the primary school, much respected by staff and pupils as a strong, forthright person. I also knew her as one who was deeply interested in temple matters. I never heard Ms. Thomas or anyone else mention any special interest she had in politics or women's rights.

I have been to her modest home in Bellanwila, then a very rural area, several times. Nothing about her personal appearance, professional training, interests or lifestyle, suggested in any way an elitist woman in a conventional sense. This knowledge of Ms. Thomas gives a fresh dimension to the Ceylon National Congress-that it had in addition to women of wealth, power and prestige at least a few from grassroot level. (Ms. Thomas came into the Congress as a Kulangana Samithi representative). Was Ms. Thomas at the time she made the proposal for women's rights to vote, more politically inclined than during the time I knew her? Or was I ignorant of that area of her interests? Or was she made the spokes-woman for a limited franchise for women to give a broader base and thus a greater legitimacy to this demand?

To me the more interesting chapters are the "Sri Lankan Organisations for Women - A Critical Appraisal" and the ''Field Survey".

In the chapter on Women's Organisations (WOs), Wickramagamage discusses many interesting issues such as: Can Sri Lanka boast of a women's movement?, the impact of the UN on women's organisations, the variety of WOs, the political dimension in some pre-1970 WOs the stance of WOs vis-a-vis the state and the preference on the part of many WOs for foreign functions. I was particularly interested in this chapter, because of my long involvement with a few WOs.

Wickramagamage points out that though the women's rights issue gathered momentum only in the 1970s (in fact after 1975 the International Women's Year), yet there was a focus on women's rights as far back as 1944 when the Sri Lanka (then All Ceylon) Women's Congress was established with Ezlynne Deraniyagala as President. I also recall Sylvia Fernando, a staunch co-worker with Ms. Deraniyagala, her research into subjects such as "Market Women" and her doughty struggle to establish the Family Planning Association.

Even more interesting to me was Wickramagamage finding that most WOs established prior to the 1970s eschewed politics, but some have now veered towards an interest in politics. One such WO she has mentioned is the Sri Lanka Federation of University Women (SLFUW), earlier Ceylon Federation of University Women. 

The International Federation of University Women, to which the SLFUW is affiliated, was established soon after World War I for a specific political purpose, namely to put an end to the war. However, in the first three decades of its existence, the SLFUW shied away from anything which had a political flavour, interpreting politics in conventional terms of governance and party politics. Since then the SLFUW has recognised politics, in the broader sense, as a legitimate area of activity. The change can be illustrated by a few events and incidents.

In the late 1950s a seconder could not be found for a proposal protesting against the debarring of women students from the recently established universities of Vidyodaya (now Sri Jayawardenapura) and Vidyalankara (now Kelaniya). By the early 1970's there was more positive thinking on politics in spite of the fact that there was still a strong conservative element in its leadership. Yet prior to the 1970 Parliamentary Elections it was possible, though with a mighty struggle, to get the green light for a meeting (or was it a series?) on the election manifestos of the major political parties. 

By the mid-1970s the winds of change were more strongly felt. Lorna Dewaraja had no problem in getting the SLFUW to write to the major political parties requesting that more women be nominated for Parliamentary and Local Government Elections. In the most recent news letter of SLFUW (November 1999 - February 2000) the message from the President of SLFUW gives one of the goals of the Association as "Increasing Women's Role in Policy and Decision Making" and the programme for year 2000 includes a lecture series on "Raising Awareness on Current Issues". No doubt many women's organisations have come to realise, like the SLFUW, that most issues, which have an impact on life (from the price of rice to the North - East war) have a political dimension.

A viewpoint that I found refreshing was Wickrama-gamage's acceptance of programmes that meet basic needs as a first step in promoting women's participation in politics. This is a change from the condescending stance taken by many radical feminists towards programmes denigrated as "welfarism".

This section took me back to a conversation I had with Dr. Colvin R. de Silva soon after the debacle of the leftist parties at the 1977 Parliamentary Elections. I was naively bemused by the fact that while their manifesto had a well thought out section on how they would reduce redress grievances women suffer from, the UNP which won a landslide victory had made no reference to women's rights. "Surely," I said, "nearly half the voters are women! So how could this have happened?" Colvin replied, " I think it was the women's vote that brought about our defeat. Women are more affected by practical matters which they believe are the wellbeing of the family than by abstract issues. These come later. Our defeat was their silent but most effective protest against our economic policies, which lead to shortages of basic goods and long bread queues bringing immediate hardships to the family".

The fact that people's basic needs must be met before they can become interested in "higher" or abstract matters has been recognised by great spiritual leaders such as the Buddha as well as by modern psychologists. So it was well worthwhile for women's organisations to reiterate the "meeting basic needs" programme as a preliminary step in rousing women's political participation.

One type of women's organisations that Wickramagamage has failed to touch is the locally bred Kulangana Samithi. I am sure many would like to know whether they are still entrenched in their traditional role, or whether they are moving towards the realization of their potential as change agents as illustrated by the part played on the issue of the women's vote.

Another chapter I found interesting was the one on the "Field Survey" covering practically the whole country except the North East, the major ethnic and socio-economic groups and all educational levels. The empirical data, thus obtained support to a great extent, the substance of the other chapters on the Sri Lankan situation.

What I found new in this survey was the focus on gender differential necessitating a sub-sample of males in each study site. The gender analyses has shown little difference between men and women in views about adequacy of females in legislative bodies, perceptions regarding women in public politics and the obstacles that women face in participating in public politics. 

But as regards political knowledge and awareness of political issues and the influences exercised on them in voting, the men of all socio-groups are ahead of the women and show greater independence. However, one has to be rather wary in interpreting the responses of a questionnaire, for it is well known that for various reasons including hidden values, reality can get distorted.

The findings as regards short term intervention for greater female participation in legislative bodies, should be taken note of by policy makers and women activists. Of the four interventions suggested, there was more or less equal agreement regarding two. The most accepted intervention by both men and women was to encourage women in active politics. The lowest ranking by women was for quotas and by men for nomination by political parties.

It seems a pity that there isn't greater focus on the influence of the radio and television in creating political interest, enhancing political knowledge and forming political opinions. Political programmes over the electronic media are very much in evidence during election times. 

This book is very useful for all persons interested in promoting women's participation in politics. True, there are a few gaps, but which is the book of this type which doesn't have them? Further as a scholarly work, it is a well worthwhile addition to any library, more particularly to a specialised library on politics or women's issues.

Down memory lane 

She refused all proposals until Lalith came along

By Roshan Peiris
You are my sunshine', 'I'll be loving you' and 'Whispering Hope' were the songs they sang at the top of their voices when they travelled to all parts of the country during the school holidays. 

"We went to Jaffna, Batticaloa, Yala and Wilpattu and the memories are vivid of my two sisters, my brother, father and mother singing as we drove along," says Srimani Anoma Althulathmudali. 

Her father was a strong personality and her mother believed in discipline. At home, she recalls, they were asked to help people in trouble, to be truthful and work with ethics. "In this kind of environment there was no place for being naughty." 

This alert businesswoman and politician conceded, " I was a tomboy at school, climbing walls and trees. I also took part in sports such as long jump, high jump and discus throwing." Her schooling began at Holy Family Convent, Kalutara, then she went to Holy Family Convent, Kurunegela, Good Shepherd Convent and finally sat her 'O' Levels at Ladies and went on to do the Lady Irwin College Diploma. 

"I also went to Rogers Finishing School to do Elementary Accountancy, Shorthand and Typing." 

"My first boy-meet-girl encounter was when I was only11. But it was nothing serious. At 16, I was very interested in a boy who was a student, but it just fizzled out," Srimani smiles. 

Srimani met the love of her life Lalith Athulathmudali in 1978, when she was an Administrative Secretary in Geneva. "He came as the leader of a delegation to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Tariff (UNCTAD)," she says. "I felt attracted to Lalith, his personality and quiet good manner. I met him again in the Philippines having gone there from Geneva for a conference. Later Lalith confessed it was while there that he decided to marry me! 

" I came to Sri Lanka and mentioned to a friend's mother that I felt attracted to Lalith. 'Be careful,' she warned, 'he has many a girl chasing him. Also, he is a politician!' "

Srimani went back to Geneva and her mother wrote to her that there were discreet approaches made to her about Lalith's intentions. Her mother had indicated that she was doubtful, because Srimani had hitherto refused all marriage proposals. 

Srimani says, "Lalith sent me an X'mas card asking me to contact him when I come back to Sri Lanka. I did so and from then on began our tentative manoeuvres at courting. 

"He gave me sarees, perfume and chocolates and a lovely belt from Harrods." 

She went back to Geneva and Lalith while travelling to London stopped over and invited Srimani to dinner. He proposed to her at the restaurant. "We were cautious at first, since we lived so far apart. I wondered also whether I would fit in as the wife of a politician. We were engaged for three years and married in June 1982. 

"We married at the home of our Ambassador, Tissa Jayakody. I simply asked friends for dinner. They were surprised to find me in my bridal attire standing next to Lalith. 

"Politically there was no problem since I had associated with politicians from a young age. They were J.R.Jayewardene, Dudley Senanayake, Fairley Wijemanne, to mention a few." 

"Lalith was thrilled when our daughter was born one year after marriage, in 1983," Srimani says with a broad smile. "We had what Lalith called a threesome hug, when we three hugged each other." 

There is sorrow in her voice when she says, I lost a son in 1985 - a miscarriage. Lalith was in Argentina. He came back, held me close and consoled me. He was also very sad." 

And the tears came when she said, "I was devastated when I heard Lalith had been shot in 1993. My brother and I rushed to the General Hospital. He opened his eyes, smiled, held my hands, touched me, then breathed hard and died. I will always remember it as the most poignant experience of my life. 

"Lalith enjoyed family life, particularly matching wits with our daughter Serala. Lalith also had endearing ways. Once in Geneva I trampled dog dirt. He bent down at once and wiped my feet and shoes. Such a man was he." 

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