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THE role of women in Sri Lankan society is a topic that has been debated and fought over for several centuries. During the British colonial period, for example, a significant strand of nationalist, anticolonial agitation centered on the role and status of Ceylonese women, both within and outside the home. As I have argued elsewhere pace Chatterjee (see de Alwis, 1998b; Chatterjee 1989), it was bourgeois Ceylonese women’s bodies, beliefs, and behavior that were produced as the repositories as well as signifiers of Ceylonese “culture” and “tradition” in the face of the onslaught of colonialism and modernity (which worked hand in glove) upon Ceylonese society. The education of women, their employment outside the home, their agitation for political rights, their assumption of political office, etc., have been perceived as potential threats to women’s “traditional” roles and status within Ceylonese society at various moments in Ceylonese history. Notions of “tradition” and “modernity,” “statis” and “change” were thus not only intimately intertwined with conceptions of Tamil and Sinhala “womanhood” but co-constitutive of each other (de Alwis, 1998a). While the formulation and content of many of these debates and discourses on the role of women may have differed significantly at various historical moments, and due to different political , economic, or social catalysts, I wish to argue that the primary premise of such debates and discourses have not changed; Sri Lankan women, be they Sinhala, Tamil, or Muslim, continue to be constructed as the reproducers, nurturers, and disseminators of SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 69, No. 3 (Fall 2002) The Changing Role of Women in Sri Lankan Society BY MALATHI DE ALWIS “tradition,” “culture,” “community,” and “nation.” In this paper, I want to think about how such discourses have been reiterated as well as resisted, during the past two decades. While my primary focus will be the mobilization of such discourses in the context of ethnic and antistate violence, I wish to preface such an analysis with a brief discussion of the discourses that have been engendered by two important shifts in the local economy that are largely dependent on the sweat and tears of women: the increasing reliance on garment and labor exports for the earning of foreign exchange. Garment Girls in the Corrupt(ing) City The establishment of Free Trade Zones (FTZ) under the structural readjustment programs initiated by the United National Party (UNP) government, in the late 1970s, resulted in a vast influx of young women to Colombo in search of employment. These women, who were predominantly young, single, and Sinhalese, constituted the main workforce in the many garment factories set up in the FTZs as well as outside them. The exploitative terms of employment, hazardous working conditions, sexual harassment these women faced soon began to be highlighted by feminist groups,1 who were then summarily banned from entering the FTZs (which had also banned the formation of trade unions). Feminist support for the series of strikes organized by the Polytex garment workers in the early 1980s was one such example of cross-class solidarity between women workers and middle-class activists (Abeyesekera , 1990). By the late 1980s, public concern regarding the exploitation of these women workers by foreign and local capitalists began to be superimposed by moralistic discourses that sought to censure the “decadent” and “loose” practices of “innocent village damsels” from “traditional” homes who had become dou676 SOCIAL RESEARCH bly susceptible to the corruptions of the big city due to the absence of parental supervision and domestic stability. A lifestyle marked by the purchase and adornment of fancy clothes, jewelry, and makeup, along with a shift toward “provocative” and “unrespectable” behavior leading to unwholesome sexual liaisons, unwanted pregnancies, and unsanitary abortions, was posited as having become the norm among these women.2 Such discourses portray these peasant women as having been jackknifed from “primitivity” to “moral decadence” in the same way that bourgeois women were perceived to have been transformed several decades previously. Ironically, the women garment workers are perceived to have been corrupted because of too little education, unlike the bourgeois women who had become corrupted because they were too educated in Western ways.3 This idea is also premised on a particular conception of the “village...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 675-691
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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