The barbarian phase

Sunila Abeysekera
18 May 2009


“I am reflecting on experiences in Sri Lanka of working with women involved in conflict situations at a time when the situation in Sri Lanka is perhaps the worst it has ever been in thirty years of a very protracted and bitter civil war.”

Sunila Abeysekera is Executive Director of International Women’s Rights Action Watch – a Sri Lankan feminist activist and human rights defender who has worked on issues of women’s rights and human rights in the Asia Pacific region and globally for thirty years and more. These were her opening words to the panel on ‘Women organising in conflict, post-conflict and militarised situations’ at the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference in Guatemala. At this tragic time for her homeland, she is hoping to contribute to “our discussion about how to redefine democracy”, and her inspiration, as unlikely as it may at first seem, is the activism of women in the Sri Lankan context:

“This takes me back to something that was said yesterday - that a lot of the time we struggle for women’s participation in formal processes, whether it is in parliament or in peace processes, but in fact the achievements of the women’s movement lie mostly outside those formal structures.”

Dual effect

Sri Lanka provides Sunila with an example of a well-known phenomenon. In Sri Lanka, as in many countries where people have lived in a conflict situation for a long time, women are prone to a curious dual effect. On the one hand, they are the victims of displacement, violence and the violation of a whole range of rights. Having suffered, the survivors would then regroup. But women in Sri Lanka who have attempted to become part of the formal processes of decision-making – whether you are talking about getting into local government institutions in the north and the east where conflict has been most intense, or into the peace process – have done so to little effect. In 2006, just when they and their supporters throughout South Asia, and indeed internationally, had successfully campaigned for the inclusion of women’s concerns in the peace process after four years’ struggle, and the Norwegian facilitators had actually managed to persuade both the government and the LTTE that there should be a subcommittee on gender issues as part of the process, the latest round of peace talks collapsed.

But conflict also brings agency to women. It destabilises some of the existing patriarchal norms, simply because they cannot hold sway when the conflict is creating such havoc. Women may very strategically find themselves a space for activity or they may be pushed involuntarily into spaces that they could never otherwise have occupied, “Sometimes in very bitter ways, conflict creates spaces for women and for women’s activism that would have been denied them had there been no conflict.”

The original denial of democracy

The present carnage in Sri Lanka, for the men and women who are long-standing activists in social movements for peace and democracy, has thrown into sharp relief what led to conflict in the first place - a denial of democracy. The original sin was the imposition of a majoritarian form of government by British colonial leaders when they left Sri Lanka in 1948, and the consequences of the subsequent majoritarian rule. This meant that members of the Tamil minority community would for ever be a minority in parliament, and a minority in terms of having a voice in power sharing. These were the inescapable political issues that grounded the conflict and continue to ground the conflict today. As a consequence, in the women’s groups that crossed ethnic divides between Tamil, Muslim and Singhalese women, there has been an intense and protracted debate about how to move away from the brink of conflict by devolving or sharing power in such a way as to create a new democratic structure – “one within which the minority/majority division would cease to be the defining factor of the relationship between the communities who live on our island.”

There are several lessons Sunila wants women democrats to learn from this. If you need to prevent the bitter polarisation of communities, democracies must acknowledge that the essence of a vibrant democracy is the peaceful reconciliation of conflicting interests through negotiation. They must prepare for conflict, and foreground the equal rights of minorities in whatever framework or structure for conflict resolution they can create:

“What happens when you have a denial of democracy, of participation, and people’s rights and dignity as equals, is the emergence of identity-based politics. It is familiar to us because we do it ourselves, this identity-based politics. We are very aware of the fact that in the long term it can be extremely divisive and can have very negative consequences for women.”

Identity politics

This is the inexorable process of deterioration that Sunila has watched happening in Sri Lanka. As the minority communities become more focused on defending the respective identities that they see as being at stake in the conflict, that narrowing plays out on women’s bodies, on women’s capacity to exercise choice and on women’s ability to live as free individuals. Everything becomes constrained by male-dominated, patriarchal norms about “what a woman is” and “how a woman should behave”. The woman becomes the bearer of the community’s honour and their identities as women come into conflict with their identities as members of a particular minority community. Their capacity to organise as women is the first casualty:

“In Sri Lanka we have faced that for almost 20 years now, always struggling to hang onto the space where our old feminist friendships and solidarities have actually helped us to take a stand together across the ethnic divide, in a context where the levels of ethnic polarisation even among women’s groups is really very strong.”

A downward spiral then sets in. Militarism sheds its full light on democracy, only when we truly understand the ensuing cycle of violence for what it is. It involves violence against women, but is not confined to violence against women. It can entail violence against children, or against minority communities. What Sunila sees as the major legacy that militarization has left behind it in Sri Lanka, as in many countries where there have been lengthy conflicts, is the role of violence itself as a fundamental attack on the creation of public consent – the core of any democracy worthy of the name. The crux of the matter is that “militarization creates wide acceptance of the idea that you can crush dissent, that you can win consensus by using violence, torture and intimidation. That is the biggest legacy that militarization has bequeathed to us in Sri Lanka. Everybody – almost everybody in that society – accepts that violence is a way to crush people’s voices when they don’t agree with you, whether it is in the family, or in the community, or what is happening at the level of the state.”

Feminist fightback

Does a feminist understanding of the culture of violence help us to imagine how such a fate could be avoided? Sunila believes that it sheds a new light on our assumptions, for example, the assumption that in a democracy people have a right to think differently and to articulate their different opinions. Nothing could be more counter or alien to a context in which people have been silenced brutally for many, many years, simply for speaking their minds. And so, if you know where to look for it, the extremity of the conflict holds up a mirror with a sharper focus to more peaceful democracies.

“What insights can I share with you that have come from within the space of feminist organising against conflict and for peace? Perhaps the most important is an understanding of diversity and trying to be as inclusive as possible in the way we work. Secondly, we have something to say about ‘citizenship’. I would like to refer you to the work of Carol Pateman. Her formulation of the sexual contract as part of the social contract has been very influential for us in our attempt to move forward. In countries like mine where a system of democracy was imposed on us by a colonial power, we have never had an experience of the social contract as it was supposed to be in democracy. So the feminist idea that the social contract was also a sexual contract and that the whole idea of democracy was located within a patriarchal understanding of the world of rights, and of the different roles of men and women in terms of citizenship – that has helped us in our attempts to move forward.”

Sri Lankan activists have been further prompted, both by the large-scale internal displacement as well as the huge outflow of refugees from Sri Lanka to many parts of the world, creating a huge diaspora community, to interrogate the whole concept of “a citizen” and to ask, “What is the special role of the female citizen in this nomadic space?”:

“ We are trying to find terms to talk about all the women from Sri Lanka who migrate, whether they go as refugees or asylum seekers or simply as migrant workers. We are trying to articulate the second-rate citizenship that has been granted to women in a country like mine - a huge challenge for anyone trying to redefine democracy on a more inclusive basis.”

Transversal politics

What do we see when we peer into the mirror that Sri Lanka is holding up to the most advanced democracies in the world but our own most advanced feminist thinking on the nature of democracy. In the Sri Lankan context, Sunila concludes, feminists have been strongly influenced by Chantal Mouffe, a Belgian scholar who in recent years has been writing about the key concept of a ‘transversal politics’.

"The idea of trans-versality – where trans is the movement beyond, or the transcendance of a single meaning – helps us to locate ourselves in our struggles for justice and equality. At one and the same time, we claim our own identity and yet we must do that in such a way that it does not preclude our recognition of other identities and their mutual impact. Many feminists around the world have been exploring this as a way of understanding how we may work together across all the differences; how we may enjoy inclusivity in a space which respects the differences; and how we may create some kind of solidarity which allows us to build alliances across difference. This has enabled us to make connections with feminists from many other parts of the world who are also living and struggling not only against conflicts, but against a whole range of impositions of discrimination and violence. It enables you to reach out and to create some kind of synergy between a whole range of different identities."

This is the agenda I wanted to explore further with Sunila, and as the closing ceremony unfolded inside a conference hall packed with chronically sleep-deprived yet exultant delegates, she found a moment to sit next to a small fountain outside and carry on the conversation. She explained that ‘transversal politics’ came to prominence as a concept precisely because within the wider feminist movement there has been so much division and difference:

“North-south, white-black, rich-poor, whatever it is, all those differences have been very divisive within the feminist movement. And these differences have dire consequences for women, so it was never going to work just to emphasise what we had in common – right? At the same time, within the feminist movement we are really aware that there is a piece of our work which is about international solidarity and about supporting each other and being in partnership with each other. So the idea of transversal politics allows us to be who we are in our own place and yet understand that we are part of a much bigger momentum for change that includes a lot of women and men who live in other places, and have other lives and other circumstances – yet we will stand together on issues of principle.”

Such a politics, she feels, allows us to identify the ‘bottom lines’ in terms of our principles:

“What will we not give up in order to stand together? There has been so much compromise and opportunism, and vague commitments to sisterhood that don’t in the end deliver, we need to know our principled bottom lines. For example, we don’t believe in slavery. No human being has a right to own another human being. We don’t believe in violence: no human being has a right to beat or hurt another human being. We believe that everyone is equal and has the right to enjoy equal opportunities and live with dignity. All I can say is that, for me, because I am a human rights person, transversal politics has meshed nicely with my human rights work and my feminism. I think it a really challenging idea.”

Closing moments

I ask her how this type of politics relates to another theoretical formulation “othering” that - since Jody Williams first introduced it into our collective vocabulary what seems like months ago, but which was in fact the day before yesterday - has emerged from these conference days as a crucial analytical tool. This is the threat of the proliferation of projected enemy images in all our societies, a process that pits one against the other, or that locks us away in one little box and does not allow us to escape from that little box.

Sunila agrees that this proliferation of division on the basis of identities is a major factor in the world today:

“ I do believe that it is getting every day more and more serious. We see it happening now in Europe as much as we see it happening in our part of the world, in terms of racism, the emergence of neo-fascism, in the treatment of migrants, and the rise of anti-migrant movements. In the context of today, 2009, transversality is even more important than it was for us when we first began to work with the idea about ten years ago. If you look at the ways in which Israeli and Palestinian women have tried to work together in the past, or Singhalese and Tamil women in Sri Lanka – whenever the conflict intensifies, the polarisation sharpens and the capacity to reach out, to have compassion, to be humble in the face of the enormity of what is being done in your name fatally shrinks. I am Singhalese and the Sri Lankan government conducts this war in the name of defending the Singhalese. In such circumstances, it becomes almost impossible to hang onto the idea that as feminists we have a common cause and yet it becomes imperative that we hang onto that belief.”

I ask her how she accounts for this wider resurgence of ‘othering’, citing the synchronised walk-out of the Durban Review Conference and why the ‘international community’ has been so craven in dealing with the governments she mentions. If each European country in its different way is also in the grip of a resurgent monoculturalism – does she attribute this seemingly universal trend to the ‘war on terror’, or perhaps, to an underlying economic and financial crisis?

It is time to say good-bye to treasured friends, and as always there is so much more to be said and thought. But Sunila takes the time to give me an answer that can lead on to new constructive agendas, wherever the women of the Nobel Women's Initiative and all those who identify with them, young or old, meet together. She has come to share and like many of the women here, she is generous with her time and her thinking:

“My understanding is that what is happening in Europe is just part of the way in which the nation state is becoming weaker in the modern context. From many different points of view, they are unable to hold onto their sovereignty, at the level of economics, for example, or coherent governance over diverse societies. As they find themselves unable to wield power, the issues around territorial borders and ‘sovereignty’ become the last available means for hanging on. Observe the ways in which this ‘resort to sovereignty’ is used by our governments to rebutt any attempt by the international community to intervene. For example, look at Sudan, where Omar al-Bashir is challenged by the International Criminal Court and his response is simply to say, ‘None of your business!’ This is a response of weakness not of strength.

But it is very dangerous. As in any domestic situation or national situation, when weak people feel insecure they resort to violence. We have that happening now at the international level. And you are right. It is in this context that ‘transversal politics’ needs to be very carefully nurtured and grown. Unless we have this transversal capacity to look at what we do, and see how we can live in the world in solidarity with ‘other’ people in a caring and compassionate kind of a framework that respects equality and dignity, we will revert to some kind of barbarian phase in history. You go backwards.”

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