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Within our business practices, we educate, employ and empower women who have survived abuse. All this while committing to diversity, inclusion and creating true impactful connection.
So we’re bringing you our blog series to hold every word we truly care about. Words which become people, words that embody our nature, words we know you care about too.
In this two-part blog, we provide you with the insights and impactful personal stories of women in Sri Lankan society.
With this first issue, we are honoring Razana* and Geetha*: two Sri Lankan women who ventured into the Middle East to support their families, both facing different destinies.
Culture is described as ideas, customs and social behavior from a particular group of people or society. All of these qualities determine the characteristics of the participant individuals: male or female. Yet, within many cultures, there are strong biases towards females.
These biases are pre-programmed into the behavior of people through centuries of cultural evolution; and to address these biases, we must understand cultural patterns. This can only be achieved through the observation of norms and accepted behavioral practices.
And it is by recognizing the impact of these cultural patterns that we are taking the first step toward positive change.
A Sri Lankan betrayal
The tale of Sri Lanka began over 2,500 years ago, with the betrayal of a woman: her name was Kuvenia, a princess of the Yaksha tribe. She was seduced, betrayed and abandoned by Vijaya, the first King of Lanka.
She provided information that helped him to overthrow the kingdom —and conquer Lanka. After she had risked so much to commit espionage for him, Vijaya banished Kuvenia and her offspring from the kingdom. She, and her children, were discarded. In the opinion of the King of Lanka, Kuvenia had outlived her purpose.
The betrayal is legendary, but it did not keep Sri Lankan women from power indefinitely. Far from it, in fact, centuries later, the country gave the entire world its very first female head of state.
It happened in 1960: a tiny island nation, no bigger than the state of California, greatly impacted the world by placing Sirimavo Bandaranaike at its helm.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike was a woman that had faced great tragedy in her life: months before the election, her husband was assassinated in their own home. He was widely expected to lead the nation of Lanka, but instead, Sirimavo –his wife and mother of their three children– stepped up to the challenge. The nation embraced her as its leader.
Her daughter Chandrika followed her mother’s footsteps, and was elected President in 1994. Chandrika Bandaranaike was one of the first female presidents in the world. This placed Sri Lanka at the foremost of nations with women in seats of power.
We were an example to the world. An island nation was paving the way for women in politics —where just a mere 30 years before that, women suffrage fought an uphill battle for the right to vote.
It is a prestigious picture: one we are immensely proud of as a nation. But like any story, there is a flipside to the fairy tale. Yes, the Princess fought valiantly, and the battle was won.
But what with the war?
This war is the silent war that every Sri Lankan woman fights daily. Some more fiercely than others, others more silently than most —and many without the power to stand for themselves and impact others.
Even though Sri Lanka gave the world its first female Prime Minister and President, the total female representation in parliament today is only 5%. It seems counterintuitive. But even with the election of women in the highest offices, cultural ideas about the ‘place’ of women continue to be sexist [similar to most of the world.]
A Lankan woman is told that politics is a man's job. Rather paradoxical, isn’t it? Have we forgotten where our political prestige is derived from? Enter gender politics and socioeconomic norms —these combined bring culturally-appointed roles for women.
Our culture, like many others, shares double standards. A woman is not considered her man's equal. She is expected to obey her husband and carry his progeny, all while subjected to his rule, and even enduring domestic violence.
Ironically, this subordination is our Lanka's biggest export, reeling in $7B per year.
Women feeling forced to be treated as objects
Female domestic workers are shipped in hordes to the Middle East to cater to an ever-growing demand. In fact, these females are the backbone of our volatile economy. Yet, they are second-hand citizens in the eyes of many: they have no secondary education, no social standing and are subject to the whims and abuses of the men that dominate them, domestic violence once again in the picture.
And because domestic skills make her a marketable asset, she is packed off to a foreign country where she is a fish out of water, possessing no knowledge of Middle Eastern culture or practices. She is thrown into the deep end and expected to not just survive —but to thrive.
Her thriving not only determines her own life span, but the life of her family too. It is a strange, terrible state of codependency. The alleged weaker sex in a society takes on the burden of supporting said society.
Life unworth living?
The harrowing scenarios that these women experience are sometimes difficult to fathom: beaten, burned, and sexually and physically abused by their masters. Many of these women return to Sri Lanka with their own personal horror stories to share. Some even disappear without a trace, and others suffer in silence for the love of their families.
The Sri Lankan woman endures the unendurable –with the knowledge that her children will be fed and educated, and therefore possibly blessed with a better future. A future, hopefully, far better than her present.
The story of Razana Nafeek was one of such stories that shook our nation: Razana was still a minor when her parents forged her passport so that she could travel to the Middle East and seek employment to support her family.
While employed as a domestic worker, a four-month old infant died under her care. A postmortem was never carried out after the death. Razana Nafeek said that a confession was coerced out of her while she was under torture.
The government of Sri Lanka and many human rights groups requested clemency for Razana. despite their efforts, she was sentenced to death and was beheaded in 2013 in Saudi Arabia.
There was no fair trial, no support and no mercy shown in spite of her age. she was simply erased from the world. her only crime? Being young and needing to support her family.
The realities of many
Geetha* was a woman who ventured to the Middle East. the reason? Helping her family. She married young but, unfortunately, her husband couldn’t support her with their growing family. So at the age of 23, she left him and her two young children to seek employment in Kuwait.
Geetha was abused from the start —she was beaten with footwear, forced to work close to 20 hours a day, and sexually abused by the men of the household where she was employed.
When Geetha returned to Lanka, she had changed. She was a shell of her former self —one that traded her dignity and virtue in exchange for money. Did she have an alternative? Could she watch her children starve? Would she do it again?
According to Geetha, it was really not up to her. She didn’t have a choice. A wretched example of a life lived solely in service of others.
A task hard to see through
Sitting down and talking to these women can be a hard task. Understandably, they are hesitant to share such personal and often painful stories. They are afraid of being ridiculed by their community, and, due to the ingrained cultural attitudes present in society, there are often feelings of shame.
This makes it all the more important to ensure these stories are being heard and shared.
At Alana Athletica, we believe in change through impact by empowering women and promoting awareness, and in alignment with our core values, we feel that bringing the stories of injustice and abuse that so many women and girls have faced, and continue to face, is a critical step in improving the lives of women and girls here, and around the world.
Thus far, our trip into Sri Lankan culture has focused on women from lower income families, who have had their fate enforced on them. but this is only a piece in the story of the plight of women here. The flip side takes a turn towards the Colombites** —the privileged 3% of the country, the educated Sri Lankan women with 'options.'
Continuing our story in the second issue of the Sri Lankan woman, we will explore the lives of Colombite women, including the story of Dilani*.
Alana Athletica is here to change these harsh realities with your support. each piece of Alana Athletica’s [impact] activewear collection supports women across three transformative social causes:
One [EDUCATE] garment sponsors private tutoring for 5 lives in Sri Lanka.
One [EMPLOY] garment provides employment and prevents hunger for 4 lives in Sri Lanka.
One [EMPOWER] garment teaches self-defense to 7 lives in Sri Lanka.
Want to change the world? Let’s do it together, one yoga pant at a time.
[*names have been changed to protect identities as requested.]
[**Colombite: an individual hailing from Colombo; the privileged 3% or so of Lankan Society.]