Addressing bilateral trade With Serophobia & Misogyny
In December 2015, a medical doctor-turned politician and serving MP, Nalinda Jayathissa, demonstrated an appalling level of homophobia and transphobia in an interview with the Daily News. Several commentators and analysts highlighted the ignorance and insensitivity of these assumptions, all the more worrying when they came from a young MP representing a party with a non-negligible support base among educated youth, especially in university student circles. Despite several op-ed columns in Sinhala and English and letters addressed to the party leadership by LGBTQI advocacy groups, the JVP is yet to clarify whether Jayathissa’s views represent the JVP’s official position on LGBTQI rights, or not.
In February 2016, yet another medical doctor-turned MP, this time a supporter of ex-President Rajapaksa, has sought to score points by publicly demonstrating an alarming level of serophobia. The advocacy website Stop Serophobia defines the term ‘serophobia’ as a manifestation of fear and aversion by certain people towards people living with HIV. Although the term is yet to enter leading English language dictionaries such as Oxford, Cambridge and Collins, serophobia is alive and well across the world. It is primarily the result of a lack of awareness about HIV and of the tremendous social stigma attached to people living with HIV. Serophobia is a form of abject discrimination, and most importantly perhaps, one that prevents open, healthy and informative dialogues about HIV and in living, working and interacting with HIV-positive people.
The MP in question, Ramesh Pathirana, published a social media update with a picture carying misogynist connotations, making a highly serophobic comment. A cursory glance at the picture alone suffices to gather the message the MP is trying to convey – a derogatory and pejorative message on (cis and trans) women and sex work. Pictures of this nature are invariably couched in a high doze of misogynist and patriarchal attitudes. Those who post such images on social media never question the socio-economic circumstances that prompt many (cis and trans) women, as well as men to sell sex. It is also ignored that in any society, and especially in the context of South Asian societies, omnipresent class (and caste) factors are at interplay when it comes to people, especially cis and trans women, being dragged into sex work.
That Pathirana demonstrates a high level of misogyny and disrespect for women does not come as a surprise, as he is part of a highly patriarchal political establishment. Cis and trans-misogyny, homophobia and transphobia, an avoidance of a strong discourse on rights and accountability beyond politically advantageous smokescreens, are all part and parcel of that establishment, which need to be fought vigorously. In Pathirana’s case, what is particularly surprising is the level of serophobia which, coming from a qualified medical doctor, implies a record low, an appalling lack of professionalism, and an absolute insult to best practice in the medical profession.
Worst of all, this photograph and its caption are then used to campaign against the proposed Economic and Trade Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) between India and Sri Lanka, appealing, understandably, to a misogynist, xenophobic, serophobic and highly reactionary audience.
The proposed ETCA, which some analysts perceive as somewhat identical to the CEPA that India previously lobbied for Colombo to sign, is shrouded in uncertainties. This agreement, if implemented, risks being of increased benefit to India than to Sri Lanka, and irrespective of whether one is pro or anti-ETCA, there is a clear need to launch a strong and informative public debate – extending on-going discussions in the English language media to a wider domestic public – on the agreement’s pros and cons, on how it affects service sectors and job security as a whole. Most importantly, what is the perceived role of ETCA in the neoliberal agenda of austerity politics that forms the core economic policy of the Wickremesinghe-Sirisena joint government (WSJG)? How would ETCA affect the rights of employees, and the remaining skeletons of a welfarist streak in public service provision?
These are among many difficult and critical questions, which the WSJG is clearly trying to avoid. Apart from random statements by individuals holding ministerial office, WSJG is yet to come clear officially, and explain to the public what ETCA really entails, how it would affect the national economy, and what Colombo’s strategies are in managing potential risks. Given the invariably dictatorial, arrogant and, to drift to a colloquialism, ‘know-all’ attitude of Ranil Wickremesinghe, ETCA’s foremost exponent, the likelihood of such transparency is indeed next to non-existent.
This is where opposition politicians, economists, specialists in international trade, connoisseurs of existing ebbs and flows of Indo-Lanka bilateral trade, all need to work together to exert pressure on WSJG. It goes without saying that this needs to be done with a strong sense of tact, using concrete arguments, to which WSJG would be compelled to respond. Shallow arguments, propagandist postures and fear-mongering tactics risk preventing a serious, informative and consequently, influential public debate. This, needless to reiterate, would be to WSJG’s singular advantage.
Cultivating serophobia amounts to inciting hatred against a community that already suffers tremendous marginalisation and stigma. Using visual imagery carrying misogynist connotations only serves to strengthen repressive, patriarchal and discriminatory attitudes towards women. Such paranoia is no way to deal with an extremely challenging issue of bilateral trade between a small sovereign state and the highly influential regional superpower. Hopes for an engaged and critical opposition reaction appear to be bleak when politicians resort to cheap hate speech on social media. Instead, it is advisable that Pathirana and all opposition MPs work with relevant specialists and practitioners to develop a strong public discussion on ETCA, thereby forcing WSJG to backtrack on austerity politics, inclination to servility in its relationship with the Modi Sarkar, and its ‘we know what’s best’ attitude.