05 March 2012

Tripping along the path the path to liberation

Women’s liberation is about a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’.  It is about celebration and critique.  It is based on assumptions too, about the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ and about what is celebratory and what warrants censure.  Every year on the 8th of March, the world wakes up, as it were, to women.  Women’s issues including oppression and rights are talked about.   Empowerment is advocated.  Relevant laws are critiqued, new ones proposed and assessments are made about how far along the road of emancipation women and women’s rights have travelled.  And of course what territories are yet to be traversed to get to the promised land. 
For a long time, quite in the manner that those who did not subscribe to Western paradigms of development were called ‘backward’ or ‘underdeveloped’, drawing the woman out of the house and household was seen as an absolute necessary precondition for ‘liberation’.  Perhaps it is time to see where all this has got the Sri Lankan woman. 

‘Getting out of the house’ was seen for the most part as a key pathway out of patriarchal clutches.  ‘Job’ was an integral part of ‘liberation’ because it would give some degree of economic independence to the woman. 

Whether it was accident or design, the fact is that the moment women got into the cash economy they were automatically endowed with a troublesome tag, ‘Consumer’.   We can debate about the length, breadth, depth and meaning of enhanced purchasing capacity.  We can measure ‘liberation’ in such terms, but we can’t get away from the fact that there are many facets of victimization, that oppression and plunder are close associates in a political economy and that ‘culture’ (the ‘traditional’ version of which is vilified as ‘backward’, ‘discriminatory’ and ‘oppressive’ is not absent in the seemingly facelessness of buy-and-sell.  
The moment there is income, the woman in today’s consumerist world is not only preyed on by those who have to sell her things she never really needed nor felt poor because she lacked them, but is chased by financial institutions that want to make bucks out of her bucks; the vast majority of such outfits for all the rhetoric of helping, uplifting and CSR portfolios primarily and finally interested in the gap between marginal benefits and marginal losses. 

It is said that the ‘traditional woman’ is not only disempowered, exploited, abused and robbed of dignity, but her labour, multiple roles in family, household and community go largely unacknowledged and unheralded.  Is it different for (relatively?) emancipated ‘modern’ woman, though? 

Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan women work outside the country, collectively remitting over US$ 5 billion, by far the largest contributing segment of foreign exchange earnings (close to 35% and amounting to 8% of the GDP).  What happens to the money though and what happens to their families? How about acknowledgment beyond lip-service, not just for domestic workers but the other key contributors to the economy, namely the garment worker and the tea-plucker? 
These domestic workers send money home. They help sibling sort out their problems.  They spend a lot of money buying electrical items produced in other countries, some of which are not really essential but are necessities for status-acquiring purposes.   When they return the household is in shambles, their marriages are messed up and the children’s education severely hampered due to the lack of nurturing.  They then go back to earn more money and keep the cycle moving. 

In the meantime women continue to be sexually assaulted, harassed at the work place, suffer discriminatory wage policies and other indignities that go to show that ‘liberation’ in a capitalist economy is not applause worthy.  Indeed, in countries like the USA, touted as being more ‘enlightened’ about these things, we are seeing an alarming increase in violence against women in all forms. 
There was a time, let us not forget, that in the so-called inhibiting and disempowered circumstances, women did save in numerous ways, did exercise authority in decision-making processes, contributed to the household economy and social cohesion, and were no less celebrated for all they did. 

Is this a suggestion that we should go back to a past that is often described in idyllic terms but contained its own blurs and blemishes? No.  But we did have a time when a woman could walk from one end of the island to the other with less chance of having to suffer the kinds of violence she would most certainly be subjected to today if she were to undertake such a journey.  Perhaps what all this shows is that piece-meal liberation only props exploitative structures.  It is sad indeed that most ‘liberators’ are blind to these realities, a condition wrought perhaps by a flawed reading of history and a slavishness to theories of emancipation birthed elsewhere and uncritically applied in societies with different cultural, economic and political evolutionary paths.  We can’t go back, but we don’t seem to be heading in the right direction either. Maybe we just got the fundamentals wrong.
Like in all things, the embrace of the frilled comes with a price tag.  There’s a broken home, a child that is pushed away from school and into the alleyways of disaster, a mother who came back in a body bag, a sister whose alcoholic husband pinched her salary and beat her up, a daughter who came home with fine dresses and an unwanted pregnancy and savings that were diverted to fund ‘development’ that benefitted someone else, and other projects that only perpetuated overall exploitation of the same class.  It is easy to say ‘men are responsible and they need to be educated’, but that is simply not enough. 

Women’s liberation has slipped somewhere along the way.  And it was not just women who fell. 

[published in The Nation of March 4, 2012] 


Anonymous said...

Malinda . its an insult to woman hood that a man makes her to work at office and thereafter makes her work at home too..

in a marriage, it ought to be that a mans wallet belongs to his wife and her purse belongs only to her..

that's the only justice to a woman..

step out any work day, say at Thun mulla junction on a monday morning and see willing happy womens faces going to work ... ; dont they deserve better..

ultimately women get married late, have missed out on a nice sex life for most of their productive years and get laid almost at the end of their time..

the west is more practical; their women get indiscrinately laid from the age of 13 and are psychologically burnt out by 25 ;

we get married at 35 and are out of action soon after.. he he he

Shaik Ahamath said...

Our Government welcomes these hard earned remittances with open arms but without acknowledgment nor dignity to the women who send them. Also, the Dollars are squandered by supporting an exchange rate that benefits no one except the importers of those goods we can ill afford. Until about a couple of years ago, until very severe cases of abuse surfaced, there were no overseas office to look after their welfare. Even now, apart from helping to return the victims home, there is very little representation for an investigation or compensation. E.g Rizana Nafeek is still languishing in a Saudi death row since 2005 after nothing but a gross mistrial reported all over the world. The government only took up the case after repeated prompting by the Hong Kong based Human Rights Watch.

Biso Menike said...

beliefs and social and cultural things differ from person to person, family to family, place to place, society to society and country to country. things have changed a lot i believe. i see almost all the women are working and sometimes you find it really necessary just to share the economical burdens that a family general face. still women have choices and women are different too, the things they believe also are different to each other... some like to stay at home taking care of the hh work and children ... i enjoy working but not all the time (it depends on the nature of work i believe) i have the choice to stay at home or go to work. i personally prefer to stay at home doing the traditional hh work. i guess Mr. Seneviratne has his own choices and preferences ,perceptions regarding this matter. this is my personal view.