We men and women’s activism

“Where, after all, do human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world… Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” – Eleanor Roosevelt, 1958

“Laws will be introduced to remove inequalities among men and women… Women will be assured of enjoying equal status in the society. Within one year, a Women’s Charter of Rights, which provides protection and equality for women, will be enacted. I will arrange to increases (sic) the number of nominations of women to a minimum of 25% of the total number of candidates in respect of Provincial Councils and Local Government authorities.” – Mahinda Chintanaya

Eleanor Roosevelt accepted reluctantly the offer by President Truman to join the US delegation to the first UN General Assembly in London. Although, she wasn’t taken seriously at first, her staunch championing of the rights of refugees won friends and a year after, led to her appointment as Chair of a committee at the UN that proposed an international bill of human rights. Unanimously appointed the first Chairperson of the UN Commission on Human Rights, Eleanor played a pivotal role in the creation of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Hansa Mehta, the Indian freedom fighter, and Eleanor were the only two women in the Human Rights Commission. It was Hansa, not Eleanor, who objected to the phrase in the first draft of Article 1 that “all men are brothers…”, noting that this could be interpreted in some countries to exclude women. Hansa’s persistence at incorporating an expression that fully recognised the equality of women and men resulted in the text finally adopted for Article 1, that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.

I coincidentally happened to be reading about these key architects of the UDHR when the Women and Media Collective (WMC) held a retrospective and exhibition of art and photography at the Lionel Wendt last week, celebrating a quarter century of activism on women’s rights in Sri Lanka. After spousal death, through their own merit, through favouritism, clientelism and occasionally, as elected Presidents and commanders-in-chief, women have indelibly stamped their presence in party politics for decades. And yet, although women make up of 52% of Sri Lanka’s population, they have abysmal representation in Parliament and local government authorities. Problems of agency, empowerment and representation abound and sadly endure. As Chulani Kodikara, writing to Groundviews last year noted, it is the exclusive, violence and male dominated driven party political culture that is a significant obstacle to the representation of women in political institutions, though not the only one. As she notes,

The enormous costs of contesting elections, the thuggery and violence, the competition within the party fostered by the proportional representation system and the general lack of support for women candidates from male colleagues mean that even the few women who are offered, are often reluctant to accept nominations.

Chulani ends her critique by asking whether we need to “revisit and reframe the discourse on increasing political representation of women in Sri Lanka, in order to have an impact in the near future”. The WMC’s retrospective was one response to Chulani’s submission. On the one hand, petitions and letters such as those written by Kantha Handa to President Jayawardene in the 80’s, sans the dateline, articulated concerns and challenges no less dominant in the present context and under incumbent Executive. Flagging the violations of and need to strengthen key social and political rights, including the right to strike, these print and poster campaigns in Sinhala, Tamil and English from the pre-Internet, pre-computer typeset era were essentially disquieting in exposing how little had changed in our violent political culture in general, and apart from some advances, the representation and empowerment of women in particular. Images of women in mainstream politics from 1948 onwards were exceptional, both in the sense of celebrating outstanding women who challenged the status quo and their atypical nature to this day. Particularly striking was the range of rights championed over twenty-five years by women’s organisations, eschewing cultish formations around certain provisions and articles in the UDHR, as well as purely opportunistic interpretations of rights. The posters and photographs on display framed inter alia, outrage, courage, determination, resilience and the remembrances of violence past. On the other hand, WMC’s mobile phone video and photography competitions to get the public to engage with women’s rights made this not just a tired retrospective of twenty-five years, but a tableau alive to current challenges and perceptions of woman and new forms of discourse. I have on many occasions proposed that for women and other similarly marginalised and muted groups, the strategic use of new media and mobiles offer a range of ways, unimaginable even a few years ago, through which existing obstacles to expressing voice gendered concerns, political participation, identity and progressive change can be overcome, or at least, mitigated.

The juxtaposition of Eleanor’s understanding of human rights and our President’s vision for women’s rights is a snapshot of how much Sri Lanka falls short of the UN’s UDHR in spirit and fullest implementation and expression in polity and society. This essential hypocrisy of successive governments in this regard is well documented, but of serious concern is why even after twenty-five years, more women and men fail to challenge the status quo and champion change. Much perhaps has to do with diminishing returns and increasing risk of physical harm, particularly under this government and the culture of impunity it has invested in so heavily and openly. WMC’s retrospective highlighted large civil and political rights movements in the 80s and 90s involving ordinary women and men, galvanised by a common calling to rise up against hate, harm, inequality and injustice. This is rare today.

The most insulting and insensitive language against women is published even in newspapers with female editors. Racists in Sinhala media and online in particular use a vicious argot of profanity against women writers who they find inconvenient, and this is most pronounced in anonymous comments and contributions under a pen name. Coupled with the overarching violence against political activism against the State, a fear psychosis and quite understandably, an unwillingness to be vilified in public, WMC’s exhibition perhaps unintentionally was a record of path-breaking and courageous activism in decline. And yet, the forms of violence such activism bore witness to is evident even today, from that which is systemic and physical to that which is expressed through the media and psycho-social in nature. Perhaps twenty-five years hence, a similar retrospective will capture contemporary struggles to prop women’s and human rights as those which facilitated a more representative and equitable polity and society.

As a woman or man, wouldn’t you be proud to be part of such a progressive narrative?

Published in The Sunday Leader, 16 October 2009


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