Ever since I met these women, across several trips to various parts of the country, I knew I wanted to write a piece that celebrated the differences in their lives as well as the similarities in their hearts. This meme doing the rounds on the internet was quickly picked up by Sri Lankans who asked for suggestions to create a local version of it and the response, while mostly hilarious, was pessimistic – ‘we just don’t have women of that calibre in this country’.
Maybe not in terms of money, fame, international celebrity or global icons but to write off the everyday Sri Lankan woman from being a strong contender in the search for a role model is an absolute shame. Today marks the International Day of for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. While these women might not portray that issue directly, I believe their resilience is a lesson to all.
Jaffna, Northern Province
She has a strong face. That’s what people say, in that traditional Asian way of judging someone’s characteristics by closely inspecting their facial features. One doesn’t have to look far to tell that she has a fire for justice burning inside her, her voice raised in the discussion. A majority of the other women in the group remain silent, ‘but that’s normal for women of this area’ we are told, but she is unreserved in her questioning. Her pen moves as fast as lightning as she records the words that fly around, in quiet comprehension digesting all the information given to her. Her strong face mirrors a strong heart.
When all is finished, she gets up to leave; I, who did not see her enter, am curious. She walks with a limp, a very obvious one owing to deformities in her foot. ‘She was one of them’, someone whispers in my ear and as she walks up to bid us goodbye, I am humbled. As everyone else leaves, she hangs back to speak to us, there are things she wishes to say that she can’t in the presence of too many.
How the army are regularly at her house, doing checks and raids at all odd hours, creeping up on her now-normal life. How she still feels as if someone is watching her as she goes about her daily routine, unsure of when someone will want to question her about a past she wants to forget. These situations don’t help her search for peace and confidence, preying on the horrors of her past even as she strives to build her future.
Batticaloa, Eastern Province
She is loud and welcoming, the bright colours of her shalwar brighter in the midday sun. Pottering about her small kitchen to prepare fried snacks and a cool, sweet drink for us – mostly strangers she has never met before. She plies us with more food, a beaming smile on her face, making sure that we’re fuelled for a long journey ahead.
Usually working a long way from home, she is a journalist who seeks out the stories that no one else is willing to tell. About troubles faced by women close to her and the small community she lives in.
Her voice is loud, louder and she exclaims in desperation at the way it has been ignored. With the mind of an activist, she hasn’t hesitated in being critical of the way things are run in their village. On the far coast where the sun beats down, water is scarce and even more so for small villages that have no sway over the powers that be that decide their fate. So when precious water is diverted to please tourists at hotels and her village suffers, she takes it up with those responsible, calling them out for their inefficiencies in a manner so uncomfortable that they cut off the water supply to her village altogether.
Narrating this story in an almost cheeky voice, she tells us then how she made an even louder noise till her people were finally, finally supplied with the water they needed. But she says she won’t keep quiet, not till the young women in her community are no longer subject to child abuse and forced marriages, causes that she feels very strongly about.
[She took down our phone numbers and 3 weeks later, I received a message from her, wishing me for the Sinhala-Tamil new year. I knew I wouldn’t forget her but it made my day that she remembered me.]
Badulla, Uva Province
She has kind eyes. They seem to sparkle in the mid-morning sun as she nods her head, when I ask her if she has a few moments to talk. She asks where I’m from; when I say Colombo, her face brightens. Her son has a job there, she tells me, sewing uniforms for police officers. Her daughter, now married and with a young child, lives on a house a few hills over – she points it out to me across the rolling fields of green.
The new year has come and passed, but most are still revelling in the time off they have from work so those who remain like her have to pick up the slack. In the days of the festival, she says she was at her happiest. Why? Because for those fleeting few days, her whole family returned to her little house to celebrate and take comfort in each other’s company – her daughter, her family and her son on leave from his work in Colombo.
Her fingers haven’t stopped moving the whole time that she spoke to me. Never did she cease her routine to ponder the answer or reflect on her memories. As much as that happiness warms her heart in the cold mountain air, she knows her duty and responsibility to her family – consistent hard work, even in the difficult days, that will pay off.
Colombo, Western Province
She smiles through her pain. If you’re in touch with local issues, especially over the last few months and years, you will know her face. The woman who not only held her ground when her husband mysteriously vanished in what seems like a strange form of politics but lead the search for him, tirelessly calling for justice in his name and the many others who suffered the same. In a post-conflict society and political history such as ours, she is not alone in this search. Now known in powerful offices as the face of one movement against injustice, she hasn’t deterred from her conviction that the truth has to be known.
Her voice carries a power that her kind face may not immediately signal, her thoughtful responses rational and logical – she has clearly moved past the overly-emotional and the steadiness in her claims are exemplary.
When we’re finished, she bids us goodbye with a smile, a genuine smile that shows in her eyes that are, subtly but surely, filled with tears. She regards the posters around her home, drawn by those who have been moved by her fighting spirit, and the large monochrome photo of him as he seems to casually look back at her.
I hope this shows the Sri Lankan woman for what she is; headstrong, resilient, independent, protective and with a fierce love for her family. Mother, fighter, activist – these are all but labels for the woman with strength coursing through her veins, exuding in even the small things she does. Not all their stories make the headlines of global, let alone local news, but they are nothing short of role models, successfully refuting all stereotypes of submissive, dependent Asian women.
[Ideally, this would have been a piece on women from all corners of the country and it pains me that I don’t have a story from the Southern province to add to this little ‘map’ of sorts. Maybe I’ve been too occupied with the beach views and the escapism that coast offers to stop and speak to the forces behind the region – a mistake I need to correct.]