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State racism and sexism in

post-war Sri Lanka

CHULANI KODIKARA 10 November 2014

Central to the resurgence of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in post-war Sri Lanka
is a redefinition of gender role and identities. Familial ideology is a key pillar of
this discourse with serious adverse implications for women and gender equality
The bloody end to Sri Lankas civil war in May 2009 inaugurated a renewed upsurge in
Sinhala Buddhist ethno-nationalism. Its outlines were clarified by President Rajapakse
himself in his first post-war speech to parliament when he said: the word minorities
have been removed from our vocabulary and claimed that no longer are the Tamils,
Muslims, Burghers, Malays and any others minorities. He did not however say that
there are no longer any majorities for that would take away the very corner stone of the
post-war national identity (re)building project.

This project is in fact fuelled by a hegemonic Sinhala Buddhist identity steeped in

brash triumphalism on the one hand and deep insecurity on the other, paving the way
for the valorization of the military, the binary construction of traitors and patriots and
the lack of tolerance for all dissent. Central to this redefinition of national identity is the
celebration of a glorious Sinhala-Buddhist past as well as redefinition of gender roles
and identities based on the conception of an ideal woman in Sinhala-Buddhist
nationalist ideology and historiography. Typical of ethno-religious nationalisms around
the world, familial ideology is a key pillar of this discourse with serious adverse
implications for women and gender equality in post-war Sri Lanka.
Nationalism and gender
Feminist scholarship distinguishes between emancipatory, civil, forward-looking or
modernizing nationalisms and nationalisms that exalt the religion, culture, and
traditions associated with a politically dominant group. In the latter the family often
serves as a foundational metaphor or trope for constructing national unity with different
roles allocated to men and women within it. Far from simply being a description of an
empirical social reality of kinship or household structures, the family in this discourse
has immense ideological significance and meaning. This discourse operates to
naturalize and universalize the sexual division of labour, where the woman, as good
wife and mother is primarily responsible for child rearing and domestic labour, while
the man is constructed as the economic provider and breadwinner, even though the
social reality maybe very far from this. This brand of nationalism formulates rights and
obligations in ways that strengthen the masculinity of the public sphere and the
femininity of the private sphere.
Post-war Sri Lanka is marked by the ascendancy of the second model of nationalism,
elements of which can be traced back to the 2005 election manifesto of President
Rajapakse. In a chapter titled An Affectionate Family, it referred to the family as the
foundation of society, stating:
"Our societys foundation is the family in which the Mother takes the prime place. It is
only through the improvement of the close and intimate family bonds that we can
ensure a pleasant society. It is my belief that economic hardship and pressures erode
such intimate bonds between family members".
The manifesto further referred to womens roles within the family as follows:

"The woman provides a solid foundation to the family as well as to the society. She
devotes her life to raise children, manage the family budget and ensure peace in the
Following Rajapakses re-election as President in 2010, many of these provisions on
women and the family, are being reflected in official government policy. There are two
policy arenas where its manifestations are already quite apparent.
Women migrant workers
Sri Lanka has long been a remittance economy, depending on its large migrant work
force to bring in much-needed foreign currency. In 2000 almost 75% of Sri Lankas
migrant workers were women. However reducing the number of women, especially
married women, migrating abroad for work has become a key post-war policy goal.
While there is no legal prohibition yet, the government has made it very difficult for
women, particularly those with children under the age of five, to migrate abroad for
A new circular issued by the Ministry of Foreign Employment in 2013 requires
prospective women migrant workers to satisfy two conditions: provide evidence of their
family background and proof of adequate childcare arrangements, and secure a noobjection certificate from their husbands. A Fundamental Rights petition filed by a
migrant worker against the circular was dismissed without being heard by the Supreme
Although couched in terms of protection, this policy shift is in fact driven by the idea
that the economic benefits of womens migration is outweighed by its social and
familial costsfrom school drop-outs, juvenile delinquency, and child abuse to their
men engaging in alcohol abuse and extra-marital affairs. What is erased is the fact that
womens migration is precipitated by a number of reasons, not least poverty and
abusive or violent relationships. Meanwhile women in Sri Lankas domestic labour
market, especially in free trade zones and tea plantations, continue to suffer
exploitation as a result of inadequate labour rights and social protection mechanisms.
Women as biological reproducers of the nation and its others
There has been a discernible push back in relation to family planning and reproductive

rights since the election of this regime, with Sinhala women being constructed as the
biological reproducers of the nation. In September 2007, the government closed down
all abortion clinics, which had been allowed to function for decades, even though
abortion is a crime under Sri Lankas Penal Code This crackdown included institutions
that provided emergency menstrual regulation (EMR) with proper counseling and with
certified medical professionals performing the procedures.
Furthermore, in March 2013, following protests against family planning organized by
extremist Buddhist factions expressing concern about the diminishing Sinhala race,
the Ministry of Health sent a circular to all government hospitals and private
institutions, banning all irreversible family planning methods that control birth, while
also banning non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from the provision of
sterilization services. This is a serious set back given that Sri Lankas family planning
policy can be traced to the 1950s, a time in fact when Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism
was on the ascendancy.
Post-war Sri Lanka is witnessing unprecedented levels of public discourse around
womens fertility. Sinhala-Buddhist extremist organisations, whose activities have been
unchecked and even tacitly endorsed by the state, have valorized fertility of Sinhala
women while demonizing the fertility of Muslim women in particular. Some Buddhist
monks have initiated a scheme to reward Sinhala Buddhist families with five or more
children. The government, for its part, is providing a 100,000-rupee cash benefit to
military and police personnel who have a third child. Since the military and the police
are overwhelmingly Sinhalese it is an ingenious way of promoting the expansion of the
ethnic majority.
Conversely, there are also fears that minority Muslim and Tamil women are being
forced to use birth control. A recent report from Kilinochchi in the North makes credible
allegations that some Tamil women were administered injectible contraceptives without
their informed consent. Muslim womens fertility is increasingly portrayed as a threat to
the Sinhala race and is a key element of vitriolic public discourse that is fuelling attacks
against Muslims.
Racism and sexism
Institutionalised racism-sexism in post-war Sri Lanka is not only essentialising women
and their productive and reproductive labour in different ways but also rendering it

increasingly difficult to build solidarities and connections across ethno-religious and

class boundaries. The suturing together of virulent Sinhala-Buddhist ethnonationalism, militarisation, undermining of democracy and the rule of law, and
aggressive neoliberal populism, is buttressing the power of a repressive state and
political economic structures of exploitation and exclusion.
The articulation of gender within nationalist discourse is not new in Sri Lanka. As
pointed out by scholars such as Kumari Jayawardena, Sinhala Buddhist nationalist
ideology which emerged in opposition to colonial rule in the 19th and 20th centuries
always had an elaborate gender ideology with an articulation of the good Sinhala
Buddhist woman. Yet public policy with regard to women and gender for the most part
remained outside of its grip. Ironically even as the Sri Lankan state became
increasingly ethnicised after independence it remained a more or less a gender neutral
welfare state with regards to women. But for the first time in our history we are now
confronted with both racism and sexism of the state.
This article stems from a presentation made by the author at the Secularism 2014
conference, held in London.
Posted by Thavam