By Jude Fernando –
Against Sexism, Racism, Homophobia, Ageism, and Ableism: Sri Lanka Needs a Ministry of Inclusion and Diversity (Part II/V)
“You can’t hate the roots of a tree and not hate the tree.” – Malcolm X
Sri Lanka is a social welfare state with an impressive record of improving basic conditions of human development, high literacy rate, etc. It has also adopted progressive laws and conventions to protect those vulnerable, on par with international standards. What then, explains the country’s slow progress and setbacks in addressing the root causes of prejudice, discrimination and violence resulting from racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and homophobia? Answer to this question is of critical importance for us to think about a coherent idea of multiculturalism appropriate for Sri Lanka and a plan for the proposed Ministry of Inclusion and Diversity.
The scope of social policies since independence has been narrowly defined as their emphasis was limited to provide for the basic needs of the people and to protect the vulnerable, rather than addressing their root causes of inequality, injustice and prejudice in the society. The lack of awareness of the multifaceted issues relating to racism in social policies, perhaps, is the most critical obstacle against multiculturalism. It is also partly responsible for the ethnic riots, civil war, militarization of the society, popular legitimacy of the previous regime, the failures of transitional justice and reconciliation, controversies over the UNHCR’s role in Sri Lanka, and society’s refusal to devolve political power. Society in general does not acknowledge that racism is a serious problem in Sri Lanka; there is no broad based conversation about racism in different ethnic communities. Education and the popular media do not offer any help for society to understand and come to terms with racism, either. Even the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) shy away from using the term. Racism rarely figures as an important factor in policies relating to post-war reconstruction and rehabilitation. It is absent in even the most sophisticated analyses of the ethnic conflicts and policies to address them. Instead, they prefer to use the term ethno-religious nationalism.
In fact, the notion of ethno-religious nationalism, way it is currently used, is misleading because it distracts people from the issue of racism. Ethno-religious nationalism per se, is a neutral concept; there is nothing fundamentally wrong with anyone carrying an ethno-religious identity or actively defending it. The problem is not with nationalism, but when it becomes a source of racism institutionalized in the society, particularly in the public institutions. Ethnoreligious nationalism becomes racialized when it denies equality and justice to those citizens who do not share its worldview and political agendas. In Sri Lanka, ethno-religious nationalism is racialized to the extent that it insults the very teachings and values of the religions that it embodies. The popular argument that racism exists in all communities and in their respective political agendas, is often used as a means of escaping from critical engagement on how the country’s public institutions accommodate and patronize racialized ethno-religious nationalism. Such arguments trivialize the prevalence of racism and become a part of the problem of racism. Two wrongs does not make a right!
Those who blame the extremists for instigating communal violence and publicly carry out propaganda against them, fail to realize that they also share similar ideologies to the extremists. Institutional racism is systemic, and its manifest consequences in different communities vary, both quantitatively and qualitatively. The change in racist-mindsets in every community and at all institutions of society, including the government, has to be led by the state. In absence such political leadership combined with narrowly defined scope of social welfare policies, policy makers are unlikely to have the conviction or feel the urgency of addressing the underlying assumptions and ideological bases of prejudice and discriminatory practices.
Most people haven’t had the opportunity to critically examine how those ideas and assumptions shape their individual and collective identities and practices. Ignorance of these prejudicial and discriminatory practices is widespread. The general public tends to deny their existence and reject personal responsibility, transferring blame to the ‘other’ community. One fundamental obstacle to constructive engagement with these prejudicial practices stems from the fear that they will unmask and emasculate us, revealing to us and the world how our thoughts and actions do not measure up. Fear makes us ashamed, uncomfortable, and defensive, thereby rendering us complicit with, and victims of, the political forces that subsist on discriminatory practices. Another obstacle for critical engagement with these prejudicial practices is the widespread belief that Sri Lankans are a tolerant people. There is a fundamental difference between tolerating differences and tolerating the power inequalities stemming from those differences. Tolerance is not a virtue when it maintains prejudice and inequality.
Two other important beliefs in the society that obstruct effectiveness of the responses to the root causes of prejudice and discrimination are that Sri Lanka is a compassionate society that protects and cares for vulnerable groups (e.g., ‘the aged, the weak and the physically and mentally challenged; and that we are culturally different from other countries, particularly the West. We exaggerate these cultural virtues and rarely examine the underlying assumptions. When these virtues become patronizing and practiced purely for the purpose of earning a better place after death, they fail to (1) challenge the ideologies and practices that make the victims of prejudice vulnerable and (2) foster an empowering environment where all have equal opportunity to pursue their interests. The articulation of cultural differences along the lines of racial and ethno-religious nationalism obstructs self-reflection and learning. These cultural ‘virtues’ are often simply a means through which dominant classes assert and legitimize their power and influence.
Little dialogue has occurred on the subtle manifestations of inequality and prejudice in ideals that the society takes for granted as fair and respectable. For example, patriotic references to the nation as ‘mother’, invoke conventional ideals of motherhood, and of women, who need respect and protection (Ramaswamy, S; Jayewardene, K; De Alwis, M ). This feminine image is also closely interwoven with the state’s territorial identity, ethno-religious nationalism, and patriarchal control over the nation. This further entrenches the patriarchal values and heterosexual dominance responsible for men’s control over women’s bodies and lives and gender inequality. For example, the common practice of victim-blaming common in our society is a symptom of deeply-rooted sexism and gender biases that is responsible for emotional and physical violence of women. Such violence is blamed on women as consequences of their revealing dresses and suggestive behavior, rather than blaming those responsible for disrespecting women’s autonomy. Dress codes are indiscriminately often enforced on women (more so on women from less affluent classes) to ensure that their inappropriate dresses will not distract men and make them vulnerable to be objectified. At the core of every incident relating to these discriminatory practices “has a common thread: Putting the onus on young women to prevent from being ogled or objectified, instead of teaching those responsible to learn to respect a woman’s body.”
We err in seeking not only to ‘protect’ the vulnerable but also to ‘shelter’ (read ‘isolate’) them. The prevailing cultural and religious norms about disability and age contribute to social policy priorities that help vulnerable groups by institutionalizing them in special settings rather than by creating an empowering environment in which they can pursue their interests in the same way ‘normal’ people do. For example, ableism – the belief in the inferior value (worth) of people who have developmental, emotional, physical, or psychiatric disabilities, has led to unfriendly building codes and educational institutions unequipped to accommodate these groups. Ageism – prejudice or discrimination on the basis of a person’s age, makes it extremely hard for those women who postpone their education due to domestic duties and become the breadwinner to access formal education. Our attitudes toward age must change since we are fast becoming an aging society increasingly deprived of extended family support and social welfare.
The society in general is oblivious as to how prejudice and discrimination is manifested and reproduced in what we take for granted as entertainment and celebrations. Let me take two examples. First, we rarely think about disparaging and non-disparaging humor beyond their instant entertainment and amusement value. Humor is a highly deceptive medium of communication because the messages it conveys to the receiver is not ‘expected to follow the usual rules of logic and expectations of common sense’ or accepted rules about morality.’ This blinds us to how humor can reinforce racial and sexist stereotypes, socially acceptable conduct, and tolerance of discrimination and prejudice. All too often, those who indulge in humor that reflects prejudice and discrimination are lauded, while those who express dissent are punished and labelled intolerant and anti-social.
Sexist humor, in particular, “trivializes sex discrimination under the veil of benign amusement, thus precluding challenges or opposition that non humorous sexist communication would likely incur” (Crandall and post war, Ferguson and Ford, 2014). By doing so, sexist humor normalizes sexism and creates space for the tolerance of hostility towards, and discrimination against women. Humor, by creating a shared understanding of tolerance, brings it within the ‘shared bounds of social acceptability’, allowing people to be “comfortable with behavioral expressions of sexism without the fear of disapproval of their peers” (Ford, 2014). These consequences extend beyond the moment of humor to all other arenas of life -workplaces, intimate and social relations between people, etc. Hence, such humor is essentially a political and social act that can perpetuates racism and sexism.
In the second example, society celebrated the victory against the LTTE as liberation of the ‘motherland.’ But it is slow to develop sensitivity as to how, during and after the war, stereotypical roles of men and women, and hence, gender hierarchies, have been reinforced within the military, military families, and from there, to the society as a whole. Women are expected to play multiple roles, be tolerant of the hardships of the war, supportive of husbands, and “boost morale, to provide comfort during and after wars, to reproduce the next generation of soldiers, to serve as symbols of a homeland worth risking one’s life for, to replace men when the pool for suitable male recruits is low” (p 44, Enloe, 2000).
Policy makers in general are insensitive to how the war and its aftermath affects men and women differently, and this is reflected in the gender biases in relief and rehabilitation policies. Post-war trauma counselling is unheard of for civilian military spouses. The special needs of those women, who become the sole breadwinners for the family, are generally ignored beyond what their deceased or injured husbands are legally eligible for. State programs that claim to address special needs, rarely take into account the race and ethnicity-based discrimination of minority women, and the political aspirations they share with the rest of their community. Such programs function as a means of furthering ethno-nationalist and national security goals of the state.
Prejudice and discrimination associated with defensive nationalism is rarely subject to critical scrutiny. In fact, it often conceals how, during the war, already existing gender and racial hierarchies exacerbated misogynistic language and cultural norms (Bazz and Stern, 2012). Despite sound laws, there is a high prevalence of gender-based violence. According to Lene K Christiansen, Sri Lanka’s representative for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), it is “high and widespread, cutting across class, race, ethnicity and religion”. Cumulative social institutions and practices that have shaped the individual and collective norms of gender hierarchies, continues to entrench the stigmas and fear that lead to the underreporting of increased gender-based violence.
One common misconception about prejudicial and discriminatory practices that reinforces them is that they are trivial or non-existent in Sri Lanka (e.g., harassment of women is called Eve teasing!). If such practices are acknowledged to exist, Sri Lankans often assume foreigners and their lifestyles, alien to the country’s ‘culture’ and ‘tradition,’ are to blame. Here, we see great hypocrisy. For example, homosexual practices (known in the vernacular languages as gal kapanawa, Kal Varuthu, and Appa gahanawa) are widespread in schools, workplaces, and even religious establishments. It is difficult to believe that any girl or boy could graduate from high school without having at least heard about these practices. Long standing gay and lesbian couples have always existed in Sri Lankan society. Yet while direct attacks on members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community are rare, evidence suggests that homophobia – dislike of or prejudice against homosexual people – negatively impacts the community’s well-being, particularly when they are open about their sexual orientation and come from less privileged social classes.
In general, society’s attitude toward LGBTQ individuals is paternalistic. ‘Normal’ people view them as abnormal and weak and feel sorry for them. Society does not subject its assumptions about the superiority of heterosexuality or homosexuality (heteronormativity) to critical analysis or interrogate the ways these assumptions affect individual and collective identities and relationships. The concern when battling homophobia, however, is not only for the wellbeing of its victims but also its deep connections with the heteronormative patriarchal mindset informing many of the oppressive power relations in society.
Society tends to vilify those vocal about prejudicial and discriminatory practices and accuse them of spreading negative Western influences. Vilification is a form of resistance often stemming from those benefiting from entrenched oppressive power relations grounded in these practices. These vilifications make society members complicit with institutionalized sexism and homophobia and desensitize people to the ongoing struggles against this entrenched prejudice and discrimination. These are not isolated incidents, but an integral part of the construction of the meaning of national identity, national security, and the capitalist economy, which have contributed to inequalities and injustices.
The reason for the low level of politicization of these prejudicial and discriminatory practices in Sri Lanka as compared to that of other liberal democracies, is ignorance, apathy, and a lack of an environment prepared to liberate itself from the power of ideologies and institutions that shape those practices. Society is too comfortable with compensating for these inequities through redistribution, and protection through charitable acts, rather than by addressing their root causes. The education system, the mass media, and religions are not proactive in creating awareness about these root causes and instill a sense of individual and collective responsibility about them. The most disappointing thing in this regard, is the failure of all religions to utilize their capacity and responsibility. In light of these institutional failures, multiculturalism is, therefore, an indispensable intervention if we are to prevent further entrenchment of these ideologies and practices, thereby creating justice and equality-based citizenship and a democratically governed society.
Past efforts that appear to promote multiculturalism were undermined from within. Their focus was narrow, as their primary intention was to address the peacemaking and conflict resolution efforts of the government. Top-down as they are, these efforts did not challenge ethnic nationalism, nationalism, security, and the neoliberal interests of the state that are informed by race and gender based discrimination. These efforts also lacked a long term vision as they were project-driven. The limited availability of domestic funds, scattered among individual organizations that compete for international funds, exacerbated this problem. The state’s opposition to NGOs further undermined the impact of these projects, by placing them under surveillance. It is also doubtful whether these organizations themselves have developed a clear vision of multiculturalism appropriate for Sri Lankan conditions, or for operations within their organizations. The challenge of promoting multiculturalism is, thus, a multilevel task that involves developing a robust vision and institutional infrastructure.
In the next part of this series, I elaborate on a few specific areas that the MID could focus on: language and communication; education and pedagogy; popular cultural events, rituals and archeological sites; and development, race and gender. My purpose is limited to illustrating the necessity and importance of multiculturalism to address the slow progress in addressing the root causes of prejudice and discrimination.
*To be continued….
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