By Arjuna Seneviratne –
Over the last nine years, as a facilitator, activist and developer working with rural communities in Sri Lanka on systemic environment management, agriculture, fisheries, rural climate response, rural disaster prep and mitigation, aid effectiveness and development sustainability through civil, government, private, media, academic organizations and trade unions, I had, for quite some time, been looking for a rather elusive link. As each year slid into the next, I began to feel the same type of frustration as scientists searching for the missing link between man and African tree frogs whose DNA apparently most closely resemble ours. I also began to lose hope. Until that is, I realized I was searching for the wrong thing in the wrong place.
This particular Dodo I was after is so deeply entrenched as being real in the minds of people that its existence has almost been taken for granted. It’s called masculinity and femininity and their classic associative links to males and females respectively. You see, a whole barrel load of development paraphernalia from funds to expertise to beneficiaries to goals are supposed to even out real or imagined disparities and inequalities and equip human beings to acquit themselves equitably. One of the more vociferously articulated differences was supposed to be those between men and women with women generally assumed to be sitting on the lighter end of the balance due to the said associative links and the power dynamics that supposedly arise from it with men snarling and drooling like tigers over women who were cowering and whimpering like rabbits beneath them.
Now, since its existence is so universally taken for granted I should have at the very least been wading knee deep in the stuff if not actually drowning in it.
However, the fact of the matter is that I walked the length and breadth of rural Sri Lanka over a decade without coming across any evidence of it at all. This, to put it very mildly, was a cause for great concern on my part. That I, and many kindly, well meaning and completely silly donors and experts were fighting a mirage was not only obvious but also the least of my issues. I was more worried that that sort of shadow boxing against an invisible or even unreal opponent could do some serious damage to a very large number of very real human beings completely innocent of the desire for differentiation, contention or outright war over an artificially enforced schism. This Hutu-Tutsi-itis or Blueeye-Greeneye Syndrome or whatever silly else one wishes to call it, was downright dangerous so I explored the actual dynamics of male-female relationships in rural communities in the country to find out how their heads were wired or disengaged with respect to their specific anatomies and the way those anatomies interacted with each other in socially cohesive groups.
Well, simply put, masculinity and femininity, matriarchies and patriarchies as they have been classically defined have little or no meaning in Sri Lanka.
Instead, what we have here are two qualitative factors “pirimikama” (positive attributes associated with the male principle) and “gehanu gathiya” (negative engagement strategies associated with the female principle). Both arise not from cultures or traditions or as resultants of interactive modalities but rather from Buddhist-Hindu karmic theory. Two very important facts that need to be noted here are a) that there is no concept of “gahanukama” (positive attributes associated with the female principle) or “pirimi gathiya” (negative engagement strategies associated with the male principle and b) that “pirimikama” and gehanu gathiya” are used when talking about the characteristics of both males and females with no tying of “pirimikama” to men or “gehanu gathiya” to women.
The conclusion is quite clear: Men and women are just that. Men and women. There are no classic attributes tied into the specific anatomies. The female and male principle as yielded up by karmic theory is applied without favor to both anatomical males and anatomical females with respect to individual occurrences of each entity. I must stress this. The application is individual – not collective. In the minds of rural communities, every human being displays specific trait combinations and the composite determine the personality of the individual, the type of strengths and weaknesses they have, the types of abilities they can use as a community and failings that need to be understood as a community. These types of individual dynamics shape the way in which the community optimizes the use of their individuals for the sustenance of the community which in turn is supposed to sustain the individuals that constitute that community. Rather than blanketing a specific set of SWOT results to an anatomical division, they SWOT the individual against the requisites of the community and the weightage of the composite male-female principles perceived in each individual that the community have to work with.
Does this essentially mean that rural societies are free-for-alls akin to urban communities where anyone can be anything in any situation with respect to anyone? Not at all. While attributes are not specific to gender, responsibilities and roles are and these are classic. The two most important are based on the principles of protection and equity which are the core drivers of social cohabitation in rural communities and they are primarily passive in nature. These have morphed into security and equality for urban communities and are primarily aggressive in nature. The one leverages individual strengths for collective good and the other leverages legislative mechanisms for individual good.
The responsibility of protecting the family socially and economically is assigned to men and the responsibility of protecting and educating the children to young adulthood is assigned to the women. Men earn and women utilize what is earned. Women support men in their livelihoods and men as a group takes communal decisions on advisement from the women as a group. Responsibility of educating young males in livelihoods is for the men and educating young females for marriage is for women. Men do not attempt to look after the young and women never take on the task of protecting other women since both of these are considered beyond the innate skills sets of men and women respectively.
No rocket science here.
It is all pretty common knowledge except for the fact that there is a naiveté amongst urban segregationists who firmly “believe” that it is the men who exclusively control the family purse, that it is men who exclusively determine the course of a community and that inequality is equivalent to inequity. All three are observations that have arisen in the minds of people in the process of urbanization and despite their validity with respect to urban communities they are fallacious when applied to the rural populace.
Seems pretty cool but does this mean that rural populations are a benchmark, a baseline, a valuable real-o-meter to measure sustainability or stability of social groupings?
Emphatically no. No on two counts. One, it is just one system and not the only system. Two, that system, like all systems fails as well under specific circumstances.
That the rural system, which has withstood centuries of internal and external impacts and upheavals, is under serious threat, shuddering and breaking apart at its seams is a fact. Climate, energy, food and money crises and their packaged outcomes – conflict and war have had rather charming impacts of the stability of these communities. None of these were of their making. Like gender segregation, all of that can also be laid squarely on the shoulders of urbanites that haven’t lifted a finger to plant a cucumber or catch a mackerel but have eaten their way through almost all of that which was produced by rurals and pastorals. Be that as it may, restabilizing it would require using its own system of checks and balances – not external interventions. The core silliness is to attempt to apply the rules of one social system or order to right the wrongs of another system. This where this imposition of alien ideas such as masculinity or a femininity to Sri Lankan rural cultures fails and fails miserably.
Where then lies the problem with rural communities? While there are many issues that are internal (such as migration, loss of resources, destabilized environments, loss of livelihood options etc.) and external (war, consumerism, development initiatives, resource capture etc.) arising out of the multiple crises that cause those communities to destabilize, going by the testimony of the Afghan woman in my previous post, chief among them is the weakening of the ability of men to fulfill their roles and responsibilities.
Clearly, there is recognition amongst women in rural communities of the mediocrity of their men these days. Maybe it’s gambling, non-traditional enforcement of monogamy, alcoholism… whatever… but the lessening of the man has put a lot of unfair and uncalled for pressure on the woman. Additionally, and dangerously, when a woman steps into the shoes of a man who is weak it makes that same man react in accordance with his frailty, spitting and foaming at the mouth, kicking and screaming, condemning, judging, manipulating, subjugating, raping, murdering, revealing his inadequacies in naked, inglorious silhouette for the world to see and condemn. However, it must be noted that the fact that this occurs, at least for rurals and pastorals in Sri Lanka results less in a sense of emancipation and more in a sense of tragedy. It is not a situation that calls for women to overtake men but one that calls for both sorrow for their lot and shame for the lot of their men. For these people, a weak man is not to be condemned, ignored or marginalized but rather, to be worried over … and over… and over. Reading between the lines of that brutally honest Afghan woman warrior, the reversal of this tragic situation is laid squarely on the shoulders of men. If they are strong in their maleness the women can be equally strong in their femaleness resulting in resilient, united, strengthened, sustained societies.
That, is a tough ask for both men and women given the spectrum of issues that assail them these days in rural Sri Lanka. However, it is when it is darkest that there arises the highest qualities of human beings amongst such societies. For example, it is when such a resurgence or re-enabling of a man is impossible to engineer that there rises in Sri Lankan rural communities the “dhiriya katha” (courageous woman) who takes on a large number of the attributes of “pirimikama” because the men have been overtaken by “gehanu gathi”. Or, it is when the entire system is compromised that there rises the “yugapurusha” (the man of the era). This particular phenomenon is highly lauded in rural communities and the “diriya katha” is awarded the same level of recognition as a “yugapurusha” and both of these have historically led their communities. That leadership is vested in them for the qualities they depict and the enabling energy they bring towards stabilizing their communities and ensuring its protection and equitable interrelationships – not for the type of anatomy they possess.
Again, there is nothing very special here. Everyone knows all of this. The danger lies in the fact that such dynamics are in the process of being forgotten to the detriment of the country as a whole.
In a recent news item the Speaker, Chamal Rajapaksa stated the following to the women’s parliamentary group: “Women taking the lead sometimes obstruct work in progress. This is not something I am saying. When women take the lead there is a tendency to not listen to anyone else. It is like this in a lot of places. It becomes difficult to work. If a woman is in charge of a District Secretariat or Divisional Secretariat or any other high office, they have a tendency to exert their authority over that place. So because of that, sometimes justice is not done”.
What the Honorable speaker says it correct. Over the last nine years, I’ve seen examples of this nauseating condition in many females hailing from all sorts of social settings from urban to rural and all sorts of institutions from international donor agencies, academic institutions, CSOs, PSOs, TUs etc. and their chief victims have been other women. However, I have seen it more these days among men in high office in all institutions both state and otherwise. One doesn’t need to be the coming genius of the 21st century to clearly understand that the men in positions of power in Sri Lanka these days obstruct work in progress, do not listen to anyone, exert their authority over a place and make it difficult to work. Also, their chief victims are women as well. While it is convenient and fallacious to attribute such mindsets exclusively to women, what the Honorable speaker should remember is that in Sri Lanka, there are many “pirimi” (men) with “gehanu gathi” controlling many of the socio-economic aspects of the nation and the reduction of the potency of Sri Lankan society as a whole could very well be tagged to this state of the collective national psyche.
*This post is somewhat of an anecdotal exposition of continuing research into gender relationships in Sri Lanka. I need to also thank my wife, Manju Dharmasiri, who earns four times as much as I do and is the chief breadwinner of the family who contributed invaluable insights into gender realities in Sri Lanka and whose insistence on not taking high office in her workplace and her rationale for it that started this line of inquiry on my part