She was the first woman in Sri Lankan politics after Kumari Jayawardena to build an awareness on the role of woman and of her ‘traditional’ position, uniting academic work and politics. She is an anthropologist, and a feminist activist. Her activism and scholarly interests were in understanding militarization, motherhood, and the role of memories in the context of nationalist histories.
In our political spaces, I always cite and discuss her work on the NGO-ization of the political sphere after the 90s in Sri Lanka. Her main thesis on this subject is that the oppositional politics (campaigns) in the early 1980s gradually became dispersed and fragmented, a process she characterizes as a shift from strategies of ‘refusal’ to strategies of ‘request’. Organizations from the South and the North like the Mothers’ Front, that were organized around the mid-1980s in the context of the civil war to counter the militarization and extremist nationalism, diluted to projects and programs focused on ‘women’s empowerment’, ‘gender sensitization’, ‘conflict resolution’, ‘conflict transformation,’ ‘good governance’, ‘documenting human rights abuses’ and campaigns to change legislation to increase women’ political participation and many more. She suggests that while feminism has been institutionalized and professionalized, feminist activism has become a full time job. One can now find employment as a full-time feminist! In other words, it is a story of the ways in which feminist politics has become limited and produced new comfort zones. Their strategies are not forms or non-cooperation anymore, such as strikes, fasts, go-slows and other forms of civil disobedience, but have shifted towards making demands through legal reforms, lobbying, signature campaigns, charters or e-mail petitions. Oppositional politics have turned into forms of ‘virtual resistance’ as Arundathi Roy aptly put it.
She claims that instead of working towards protecting pre-existing framing of the political or pre-constituted identities, their politics has failed to refuse to acknowledge the pre-given framings of the state or the militants, where in fact the very parameters of the political and identities are put into question. In short, no more ‘insurrectionary politics’, rather, they request reforms. She has produced a wealth of research and publications. Therefore she is a star in the academic world, in particular in feminist studies in the South Asian context. I have not seen a thinker like Malathi, who produces brilliant theoretical arguments with researched evidence in less than 20 pages.
Her work with Kumari Jayawardena, ‘Casting Pearls’ is a history of the politics of Sri Lankan women. One of my other favorite articles is ‘Respectability’, ‘Modernity’, and the Policing of ‘Culture’ in Colonial Ceylon (1999)’. Following Gananath Obeysekere and Michael Roberts’ discussion on ‘lajja baya’ in our Sinhala culture that constitutes shaming practices and their understanding of its relations to the forms of domination and subordination within our society, she discusses how the colonial missionary Evangelists disciplined and created obedient Sinhalese and Tamils through practices of ‘respectability’. She argues that indeed these practices to make a ‘respectable woman’ is not only a particular history of women in Sri Lanka, but is simultaneously a regime of power of domination and exploitation.
Malathi was an active member of Women for Peace (1984). She told me that they were criticised and labeled by many from the South as ‘Colombo elite women who seek to divide the country by advocating the devolution of state power as a solution to the ethnic conflict of the island’. When I interviewed her in 2012 on her work and politics for the Ravaya newspaper, I asked her whether her politics was restricted to the Colombo English-speaking crowd only. She said that she engaged in politics to prevent that criticism, and that teaching at Colombo University (Post-Graduate Program) is not only academic but also a political attempt. When she was preparing a syllabus for the Open University courses on feminism, her ambition was to create a more inclusive society.
One of the other frequent places that I met her, except her house, are the places of struggle that we organized – she came to protests that I was part of. She had a brilliant skill of sharing a lot with a few words. When I went to see them – Malathi and her husband, Pradeep Jeganathan our conversations lasted many hours. They were full of witty jokes, criticisms and intelligence that always broadened my thinking.
I don’t have much more to ask from her, though the pain would have been much less if she didn’t leave us so early. When I got to know that she was sick, I felt wretched, my heart broken. Pradeep mentioned that she was preparing for departure from this world. It was not only her – we too were getting ready for her to leave us, little by little.
She collected history through many memories long before we now collect our memories of her. Her more recent edited work with Hasini Haputhanthri, The Archives of Memory: 70 years of Independence (2019) is an example of that. They are not only objects that hold memories of love, heartbreak, and injustices, but also our life itself. She is a history in my memory that I have already collected; her writings and words are blessings for my politics.
She left me many things when she was alive but also when she left, a lesson: that I must surround myself with people who will love me the day I die as much as I loved her. She was such a beautiful human being.
And so I wish you a good journey, my loving Malathi.