The Sri Lankan Woman: Life in a Paradoxical Society (Pt. 1)

In support of our commitment to social responsibility, we will be sharing various stories and information on our blog that we truly care about. Within our business practices, we educate, employ, and empower women who have survived abuse, and we are committed to diversity, inclusion, and creating true connection. We hope this story connects with you.

In this two-part blog, we provide insight and personal stories of women in Sri Lankan society.

Life in a paradoxical society.

Culture is described as ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society. All of which determine the characteristics of its people, male or female. Yet, within many cultures, there are strong biases towards females. It is pre-programmed into the behavior of people through centuries of cultural evolution. To address these biases, we must understand cultural patterns. This can only be achieved through observing norms and accepted behavioral practices. Recognizing the impact of these cultural patterns is the first step toward positive change.

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, Kuvenia 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, in which a tiny island nation no bigger that the state of California shocked the world — by placing Sirimavo Bandaranaike at its helm.

Chandrika Bandaranaike

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. Instead, his wife and the 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’s a prestigious picture. One we are immensely proud of as a nation. But like any story, there's a flipside to this fairy tale. Yes, the Princess fought valiantly, and the battle was won. But what of 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.

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, even bizarre. 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. It’s 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. Do you hear a hint of sarcasm entering the story? Dealing with this cultural reality has given many Lankan women a passive aggressive tone as a coping mechanism in dealing with suppressed opinions.

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 subjecting to his rule. I see no fault in this hierarchy, except we no longer live in the 19th century. Ironically, this subordination is our Lanka's biggest export, reeling in $7B per year.

Female domestic workers are shipped by the 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.

Most of the time, the choice to seek employment as a domestic worker isn’t a choice, but a fate forced upon them. Despite her lowly standing in society, the female domestic worker is expected to bring home the bacon. Because domestic skills make her a marketable asset, she is packed off to a foreign country where she is a fish out of water and possesses no knowledge of Middle Eastern culture or practices. She is thrown into the deep end and expected not just to survive — but to thrive. Her thriving not only determines her own life span, but the life of her family too. It’s a strange, terrible state of codependency. The alleged weaker sex in a society takes on the burden of supporting said society.

The harrowing stories 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 .She endures the unendurable — with the knowledge that her children will be fed and educated, and may be blessed with a better future. A future, hopefully, far better than her present.

The story of Razana Nafeek was one such story that shook our nation.

Razana was still a minor when her parents forged her passport so that she could travel to the Middle East to 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 — she was young and would have done anything to support her family.

Her only crime? Being young and needing to support her family.

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.

At Alana, we believe in empowering women and promoting awareness.

In alignment with our core values, we strongly believe in empowering women and feel that promoting awareness of the injustices and abuse so many women and girls have faced, and continue to experience, is a critical step in improving the lives on women in girls here, and around the world.

Geetha* was a woman who ventured to the Middle East.

Why? To support her family. She married young. 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; she was forced to work close to 20 hours a day; she was 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's really not up to her. She didn’t have a choice. A wretched example of a life lived solely in service of others.

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 part of 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 Part 2 of The Sri Lankan Woman, Life in a Paradoxical Society, we will explore the lives of Columbite women, including the affecting, personal story of Dilani*.

Alana is here to change these harsh realities, with your support.

Each Alana pant supports women across three transformative social causes.

  • One [EDUCATE] pant sponsors private tutoring for 5 lives in Sri Lanka.
  • One [EMPLOY] pant provides employment and prevents hunger for 4 lives in Sri Lanka.
  • One [EMPOWER] pant  teaches self-defense to 7 lives in Sri Lanka.

*Names have been changed to protect identities as per request.

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