Empowered Sri Lankan Women: In Past Times and Now

Rochana Jayasinghe, courtesy of The Island, 10 March 2016, where the title is “A parallel between Sri Lankan woman and her western counterpart. ‘Being but a woman, raise not the sword?’”

bbb Mrs B CBK-120114 Pic from DBS Jeyaraj

In divorce, too, western women were in a precarious position. A husband needed only to show evidence of his wife’s adultery to obtain a divorce, her property and custody of their children. The wife had to show evidence of other marital shortcomings besides adultery to get a divorce, for example, cruelty, incest, rape or desertion. Then again, beating one’s wife was LEGAL at the time. Well, the entire world just celebrated the day of the woman on March 8th. On this note, it would be quite fitting to look upon the role of women in our own country – whether women in Sri Lanka have overcome the perennial role of the second fiddle that women have always occupied throughout world history, or whether they are currently at an impasse

Recent events in our country have borne sufficient testimony to the fact that no Sri Lankan women are yet to escape the rapacious clutches of a very much patriarchal culture. Wolf whistling, cat calling, eve-teasing, lower wages, secondary access to certain facilities, double standards and moving on to more harrowing examples, rapes and murders pertain to this fact.

Sri Lankan society is getting more and more repressive for females, the way I see it. The things my mother did, the clothes she wore when she was my age, are suddenly ‘indecent’ now. One would think that we’d have become more liberal after all these years. But, instead of shirking all bounds of repression our society is actually heading towards retrogression, further imposing restrictions on women, pushing them to a screeching halt at a cultural cul de sac.Of course, it is dangerous to generalize. Sri Lanka has become liberal in some aspects, but not everywhere in the country.

The world thrives under the faulty observation that it is in the West that women are more liberal, while women in the Orient are the downtrodden. This is true to some extent. Yet what could be more ironic than the fact that the United States of America, ‘the most Western’ of the ‘liberal’ West is yet to elect a female President? Hilary Clinton, known as a ‘clearly talented’ woman with ‘infallible’ leadership skills is currently struggling in the ongoing party election. Incidentally, it is the countries in the East that have had the most number of female Heads of State.

In an era where even the most liberal of liberal nations hasn’t had a female Head of State to date, Sri Lanka still retains the crowning glory of electing the first Female Head of State in modern politics, in the year 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike as the Prime Minister. It didn’t stop there; she became Prime Minister three times, contesting against men. Her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga followed in her footsteps, becoming the Prime Minister and later being elected President of the country for two consecutive terms. In the first of her presidential elections, she contested against another female; Srima Dissanayake. This is the first Asian election, or perhaps the first of its kind in the entire world, where two women contested against each other for the position of Head of the State. In 1956, Vimala Wijewardena was sworn in as the Minister of Health and Education, emerging the first Asian female to obtain a minister post after Independence from colonization. Prior to the Independence, Adeline Molamure was the second Asian female to become a Member of the State council.

So how is it that, Sri Lanka, a South Asian country – a small one at that- supposedly framed and regulated by male dominance, has produced so many female world leaders while the USA, which claims to be a country with gender equality is yet to elect a female President? One fallacious perception is that Sri Lankan women were ‘rescued’ from their grasping female subjugating culture by the European colonizers. After all, the Eurpeans were the more ‘civilized’ bunch who saw all humans as equal, weren’t they? (Save for, of course, that minor detail where they crushed the rest of the world under them. Then again, the rest of the world that wasn’t white, were barbarians and savages.) Basically, all whites were equal, right.

WRONG: This ideology couldn’t be more flawed. If at all, it was the West that objectified females, viewing them as personal chattel, if not as bad omens. Napoleon Bonaparte himself observed that women were ‘nothing but machines for producing children’. I dare not say that the East did NOT have such ludicrous beliefs about women – after all, we HAVE heard gory tales from Japan, China, India and the Middle East, related to female subjection and gender violence. But MY exercise is to show just how woman-empowering a culture Sri Lanka had, way before it even occurred to the Western world to look upon men and women as equal to each other rather than one as the master of the other.

Very few would know that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution actually strives to prove that women were biologically inferior to men. Isn’t the Theory of Evolution about plants, flies and natural selection? Apparently not! In fact, women’s inferiority was a fact taken for granted by scientists in the 19th century. Women’s brains were considered equivalent to those of animals. Darwin’s contemporary researchers suggested that the smaller size of the female brain depended more on her intellectual inferiority than her physical size. They diagnosed that, because of the smaller size, the female cranial capacity was smaller ergo her intelligence too.

The social scientist Gustave Le Bon came up with a pretty fascinating but highly patronizing theory; Women’s brains are closer in size to those of gorillas than to the most developed male brains. This inferiority is so obvious that no one can contest it for a moment; only its degree is worth discussion. . . . Women . . . represent the most inferior forms of human evolution and . . . are closer to children and savages than to an adult, civilized man. They excel in fickleness, inconsistency, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason. Without a doubt there exist some distinguished women, very superior to the average man but they are as exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity, as, for example, of a gorilla with two heads; consequently, we may neglect them entirely.

Le Bon wasn’t the only one to see the intelligent female as an aberration. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche solemnly stated that when a woman becomes a scholar, ‘there is usually something wrong with her sexual organs’. As if she had to have a ‘maleness’ within her, to be intelligent.

Bearing in mind that these were accepted facts as late as the 19th Century, let’s delve into Sri Lanka at the time, and before. Written records prove that as early as the 16th century, the Sri Lankan society was extremely advanced in terms of law, social propriety and of course, gender-equality. Our very own eminent feminist Kumari Jayawardane in her world renowned book ‘Feminism and Nationalism in Third World Countries’, has illustrated effectively how ‘Feminism’ is not a concept introduced by the ‘West’ to the ‘East’ South Asian women had always been aware of their rights, much before the cloistered Western female who was supposed to be ‘only seen and not heard’.

While Sri Lankan poets and singers alike glorified the ‘woman’ and the ‘mother’, poets like Alfred Lord Tennyson’s words were ‘Man for the field, woman for the hearth. Man for the sword and for the needle she; man with the head and woman with the heart, man to command, and woman to obey; all else confusion.

kandyan woman -Knox knox cover

Writers like Robert Knox noticed that Sri Lankan women ranked equal to men. The Sinhala law, Thesawalami law and the Muslim Law were all somewhat women-empowering, but more so, the Sinhala Law. According to the Sinhala Law, a woman could hold property to her name, didn’t have to change her name, could marry whomever she pleased and still retain her property and what’s more, the ‘separation’ regulations for married couples were extremely lenient too. A couple could take a separation from each other if they found that they were no longer compatible.

It’s quite interesting to take a look at the parallel European society. Women were infantilised and considered intellectually equal to children. They had absolutely no say in their marriage, for a woman was merely property – first her father’s, then her husband’s. The European woman’s marriage was an economic transaction from which she could not break through. She had absolutely no means of articulating herself.

Sri Lankan marriages were on the other hand, partnerships; the wife was a companion and not a slave. It is quite amusing to note Charles Darwin’s list of advantages of marriage which included ‘object to be beloved and played with—better than a dog anyhow—Home, and someone to take care of house . . .”

native villagers  A local roadside scene in British Ceylon snapped in 1870-Pic from Lankapura.com

In divorce, too, western women were in a precarious position. A husband needed only to show evidence of his wife’s adultery to obtain a divorce, her property and custody of their children. The wife had to show evidence of other marital shortcomings besides adultery to get a divorce, for example, cruelty, incest, rape or desertion. Then again, beating one’s wife was LEGAL at the time.

This makes it very clear for us to comprehend – Sri Lanka had a far more advanced law for women than in the West. In fact, the Western colonizers started adopting the Sinhala Law, which was why it later became the Kandyan Law, restricting it only to Kandyan women. Of course, I have not touched upon earlier Sri Lankan history where women WERE oppressed, and objectified. But as time went by, at least, the condition DID change, much faster than in Europe.

Back in the day when Europe colonized the rest of the world, they operated under the assumption that their knowledge was a universal knowledge, and the fact that the East was so dissimilar to them in this regard, baffled them to a great extent. The white supremacy viewed Eastern Culture as ‘exotic, backward, and uncivilized’. The West considered it inferior and in need of more civilized a.k.a westernized influence. After all, why were these queer men treating women as their equals? Women were supposed to be only superior servants at the very most. So, they introduced their stringent reforms to the lands they conquered, stigmatizing what used to be the norm in those countries.

Now we see that the tables have turned. Not only did the Europeans invade our country, plunder our wealth, rule the country, but they also deprived us of our own jurisdiction which they stealthily imported to their own country. And now, we see the Western woman absolved of any bindings, while our women are hopelessly chained to patriarchal ideologies that weren’t ours in the first place!

I have heard many say that it is our ‘culture’ for women to genuflect to men, be subservient and docile; for women to occupy the kitchen, and be nothing but nurturers. But the whole point is that this is NOT our culture. Our women were independent, strong and shared an amiable companionship with their husbands and not a bond of servility. Women were in fact, regarded very highly in our society since it was actually woman-oriented.

My standpoint is that the concept of empowering women, which was originally ours, and not a ‘totally western concept’, should be restored in Sri Lanka for all its worth, though a Panglossian view it might be. Our laws were so much more advanced, than those of most the colonizing world. It shouldn’t be a long and tiresome vigil.

If we could do it then, we can do it now.



One must be careful about the generalizations re times past –there is the danger of retrospective romanticism. Certainly the data in Robert Knox’s biography gives one an insight into Sinhala society in Kandyan times. But one must also attend to the disabilities and oppressions of caste. Clearly, too, Knox’s data does not inform us about the position of women in Tamil society in the north nor the very different situation of women under norms of matrilineal inheritance and kinship in the east extending perhaps differently to those Muslim and those Tamil. Insights on some of the issues  vis Sinhala society can be gleaned from the British colonial legislation agaisnt polyandry et cetera in the mid 19th century as reviewed in one chapter in Michael Roberts, Facets of Modern Ceylon history through the Letters of Jeronis Pieris, Colombo, Hansa Publishers, 1978.

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