Your House is Burning Sister, You Better Pray: The Unholy Union of Patriarchy & Religion in Sri Lanka

Inside a small briefing of UN Ambassadors, alleged War Criminal-turned-Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, Shavendra de Silva, is getting angry. His feet shake as though preparing for battle and his eyes blaze a fury within, growing red as he hears the sordid details of blood spilt on the chain of his command. A white female activist exits quickly as he arrives, covering her face as she goes.

He doesn’t often have to listen to women, and rarely is he forcibly shamed by their words. If he had a choice he would draw a weapon to stop the testimonies of sexual torture from falling on sympathetic ears. A journalist pushes him, “Sir, were you responsible for the execution of those surrendering with white flags at the end of the war, which is a war crime?” The anger boils over – “That is something completely separate!” – emphatically gesturing towards the panel – “This is about women’s issues!”

A perfect representation of The State he represents, religion and nation mix easily in de Silva’s stocky frame, which he places squarely in between things that cannot, should not, mix – politics and women. Hidden under extremist religious nationalism, a deeply entrenched patriarchy can almost go unnoticed.

*** 

 “I wish to tell them, I am ready to marry a Muslim girl for the betterment of national unity. Then I can go to any clash with my Muslim wife, who will have a face covered.”

-- Minister Mervyn on Aluthgama, June 2014

Buddhist Minister Mervyn Silva, addressing the worst anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka in decades – which he minimalizes as “the incident” – is reaching a hand in marriage across the rubble of religious tension. His proposition reveals, beneath the Islamophobic chants that have rocked the country, the clear workings of patriarchy.

Created in 2012 by two monks, Kirama Wimalajothi and Galagoda Gnanasaara, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) outwardly challenges the state to protect the nation, but unlike other radical voices is integrated enough into the state to enjoy immunity. As their xenophobia narrowed in on the country’s 10-15% Muslim minority, they attacked Muslims first through institutional coercion – banning halal certification and storming a law college.

The Aluthgama riots this year were a moment jarring enough to finally attract its very own hashtag, and broad enough to capture the political psyche of a nation. Yet, like most hate that hovers between the lines of government policy, as it bleeds out to the streets, it needs to put a face on the Other before it can cast the first stone – even if that face is covered. In the months preceding Aluthgama, Muslim women endured the repression that would signal not a warning of the violence to come, but a foregone conclusion. 

In Aluthgama’s prequel, as early as 2009, schools had forbidden Muslim students from wearing shalwar khameez and, by 2010, teachers from wearing hijabs (headscarves). The University of Moratuwa last year prohibited three students from wearing niqabs (facial veils), all of whom promptly commenced legal action. One student, Fathima Sahar, born in a Puttalam refugee camp following her family’s eviction from Mannar by the LTTE, writes:

The University […] that is so eager to see our faces did not want to hear our voices, ideas and thoughts. […] In that sense, the way we have been treated is no different to the way many of our sisters in many other contexts are treated. Women and their voices are hardly allowed to be heard but kept muted and suppressed. And in that sense at least, I feel it is my duty to speak up and speak out.

By June 2013, the BBS had called for an outright ban on hijabs and niqabs.

***

“The black abaya and the niqab […] have been creating negative feelings among the majority Sinhalese-Buddhists.”

Statement by the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka (MCSL), July 2014

Fear-mongering is a popular political trick, mostly because it works. Like chemical weapons of war, it finds its way into intimate community spaces, swirling around until the poison is internalized. In response to reports that veil-wearing Muslim women continue to be targeted for BBS violence, the male-dominated MCSL implored Muslim women to stop wearing black abayas and niqabs, and then began discussing the most appropriate color for a dress that could protect both politics and piety. As one local Muslim activist pointed out, “Why are they not talking about issuing thobes (robes for Muslim men, typically white) in rainbow colours?”  

More subtly, the MCSL’s appeal to Muslim women relies on the commonplace and lazy conflation of certain Muslim clothing with Muslim terrorism. The MCSL’s decrying black abayas in the name of majoritarian community policing fails to acknowledge that hostility towards veil-wearing Muslim women is not a compulsory act, but a social violence that can and must be unlearned. Arguably, this emerges from the MCLS’s location in the South, where Muslims are typically highly integrated into majority-Sinhala regions. Here, the collective knowledge of state repression – even access to this information – is highly limited, as compared to Muslims and Tamils in the East or the North, who have long experienced severe GOSL violence. 

The single-minded self-assurance with which the men of the MCSL so quickly turned their attention to ascertaining which colours on women would be least likely to raise BBS ire is a reminder of how often riots are understood to be a man’s world, something outside the purview of women. From the destruction of mosques to the razing of homes, from the mob’s fugitive rule of city streets to the tit for tat of political punditry, this is violence -- and control – writ large and in the language of hyper masculinity. Riots also imply the type of spontaneity that men, that segment of society with open access to the streets, will mobilize around.

But in Aluthgama, as everywhere, the women were present – and exposed to both pain and politics. Their testimony challenges the very framing of the event, revealing a planned politics beneath a “spontaneous” eruption:

“A day before the riots, many cardboard boxes were unloaded from several lorries in the garden of the adjoining the Buddhist temple. When I asked a Sinhala neighbor as to what was in the boxes she said it was for following day’s Pirith ceremony. There had been sharp knives, petrol bombs, clubs and axes used to attack us. Sinhala houses had been told a week before the procession to hoist Buddhist flags on their houses when the procession was taking place. This has been done to identify the Muslim houses.”

The riots began at dusk on June 15, 2014, spreading through Aluthgama, Dharga Town, Karunasenapura, and Ambepitiya areas. With the men at mosque attending to their Maghrib sunset prayers, it was women who were at home when the mobs arrived. Trapped, it was women who became witness to the unfolding riots. But this violence had far more sophisticated honing techniques to identify its targets than black abayas:

“Around 7.30 p.m. my brother got a call saying that there was tension in Dharga Town and they warned us to be careful. My brother was very worried and we decided that we should try and save our lives. So we left the CCTV camera on in our house and went to our relatives. I called our neighbors and friends and told them about the warning we received. Around 8.30 p.m. I called my brother but couldn’t get through. Then I called a friend of my brother and he told me, “Your house is burning, sister, you better pray.’ I heard this and fainted. He said that they called the fire brigade and they have said that they would only come around 9.30 p.m. I called 119 and there was no answer. Everything has happened according to their plan. The next day my mother and I went to see our house. It was completely burned and there were people standing around and looking at it. The police came and chased us all away.”

 

 

By 8.30PM that night, Muslim homes had been burned to the ground and three people had been killed. While “women’s issues” will not enter the new battleground in Parliament, men on both sides of the religious divide have the same answer to the wrong question: persuading Muslim women to dress differently in order to appease BBS’s xenophobia protects not women, but the BBS’s chauvinist nationalist project. The MCSL’s distancing itself from some of the country’s most marginalized Muslim women aligns neatly with BBS logic that the protections of citizenship in Sri Lanka are to be extended only through the dictates of majoritarian rule.

The BBS justifies its fixation with Muslim women’s clothing by claiming that the visibility of veils in the island’s body politic signals a Saudi-imported Muslim takeover of the Sri Lanka. Thus, the BBS also highlights human rights abuses of Sri Lankan migrant workers in Saudi Arabia as symptomatic of Muslim barbarism. Yet the migrant workers in Saudi Arabia are in fact themselves often Muslim, a contradiction ignored by BBS in their efforts to banish Muslims from claims of authentic Sri Lankan citizenship. This collapsing of veils and foreignness, explicitly stated by the BBS and implicitly reiterated by the conciliatory MCLS, entrenches the fearsome Otherness of Muslim women in Sri Lanka.

In Sri Lanka, existing outside the porous borders of even a constructed nation denies you the rights and protections of the State. Whether through indifference or complicity, the security apparatus of the regime welcomes the BBS into its fold. Who, then, protects Muslim women?

***

 “Look at those Muslim women. They cover their bodies, some cover their heads, some even cover their eyes. Our women – look at them. The arms are out, the legs are out. As a Buddhist, when the arms start waving, you feel like approaching her. When you do something, and she doesn’t like –there you go –the police file a case for sexual assault. What’s the cause for the sexual assault? The short dress she was wearing.”

– Minister Mervyn, 2012

In 2004, the Eastern Women’s Coalition adopted the idea of clothes as bearing witness to violence. Abayas and shalwar kameez that women were wearing when raped were hung up on a clothesline in Gandhi Square in the Eastern province of Batticaloa. A silent statement to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrators -- and away from the battered and bruised fabric flapping in the wind.

Ten years later, the women of Aluthgama, too, turned a site of vulnerability into a source of strength. As the riots began, the women cast boiling water, chili powder, and stones at their attackers – an explosion of resistance from inside the home. Whatever the colour of their clothing, these women were their own protection.

Ultimately, it would be on the testimony of these women that investigators and local journalists would rely. And it is Muslim women, as one activist reports, who are now demanding litigation and official investigations into the riots, determined to prevent the violence from reoccurring.  

 

Like the sharp edges of the riots, the challenges these women face in coming forward with their testimonies are manifold: they worry about the safety of their children; they worry about their families having become so integrated in the majority-Sinhala communities of Sri Lanka’s south that they have nowhere else to go; they worry about state surveillance; and they worry about being interrogated by the same police who stood by as the mobs rampaged through their homes and lives.

 

 

In the formal halls of the Sri Lankan Government, women are regularly objectified, asked to visit male colleagues private quarters, and laughed at by members of the Ruling Family – all of which has been excused as a unique brand of island humor that does not bow to the “Western” norms of political correctness. However, the masculine attitudes of a militarized regime have and will have a far more devastating impact than hurt feelings. It both increases the likelihood of violence against women, and leads to an almost decriminalisation of rape in Sri Lanka, where patriarchy protects itself – above all else. 

Back in New York, General de Silva’s angry rebuttal to accusations of rape is, “Militaries don’t do these types of things.” As a matter of fact, they do. New research explores the possibility that state forces use sexual violence far more than militias as a weapon of war. In this space, he is positioned opposite women who are, distinctly, political. Pushing past his overt chauvinism, he is politely, patiently, challenged. “These two issues are not distinct. Sexual violence, sir, is a war crime.”

 With or without rape, political violence will always be gender-based – experienced and felt in distinct ways. Explosions of extremism in Sri Lanka are often understood in the tale of two nationalisms, with the impact similarly seen as splattered across ethnic and religious collectives. The women of Aluthgama scrub hard to wash the blood and dirt that stains their clothing…but the color will never be the same. On an island where extremism is normalized – will it be an overlooked radical patriarchy that pushes women into a space of extreme marginalization? This is the extreme we rarely worry about, and the only one where anything is possible.

 

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