By Nirmala Rajasingam –
I write to express my concern and bewilderment over Dr. Murali Vallipuranathan’s recent pronouncements on the legalisation of polygamy in Sri Lanka, in a bid to arrest the dangerous decline in Tamil population numbers. Such suggestions, to be expected from the lunatic fringes of Tamil nationalism, or the Bodu Bala Sena in the South, are especially worrying when coming from a respected health professional working in mainstream academia.
It is often the trope of extremist nationalism and its advocates to draw the demographic and ideological boundaries of the nation on the bodies of their women, thereby claiming control of their sexuality, and reproductive rights and choices. Dr. Vallipuranathan, whose recent comments fall directly in line with the above, laments the decreasing numbers of the Tamil community, and in doing so ostensibly raises the attendant concerns of keeping the ‘nation’ pure, of keeping its women’s sexuality contained, to eliminate the possibility for the transgression of miscegenation. The sexual, procreative energies of ‘our women’ are only to be harnessed in the service of ‘our nation’; this is obvious to Tamil women, beset by the predatory gaze of the Sri Lankan armed forces on the one hand, and, on the other, the disciplining Tamil male gaze, which constantly supervises, circumscribes, and exhorts the woman not to be the agent of cultural degeneration. Much has been said about how ‘cultural degeneration’ within Tamil society has been precipitated by the Tamil woman since the end of the war, and this endorsement of polygamy perhaps laughable and far-fetched at face value, is in reality a foil for all of these concerns.
With regard to the Kilinochchi incidents, where allegedly several women were administered contraceptive hormonal implants without their informed consent, who is it that is accountable for these procedures? Is it only the Sinhala Buddhist state? Or can the responsibility also perhaps lie with those Tamil health professionals who may not think much of poor Tamil women? Would they be able to pull this off on a middle-class professional Tamil woman in Jaffna? And would it not be just as easy to impose these implants on poor rural Sinhala women in Moneragala or Mahiyangana just as in Kilinochchi? To attribute the motivations that undergirded these incidents solely to the issue of ethnicity is to misunderstand the multiplicity of processes at work here. There are criss-crossing patterns of oppression that function together to disempower women at the bottom of society. Caste, class and gender act with equal force.
Equally worrying is Dr. Vallipuranathan’s use of a scurrilous Islamophobic Youtube video, which makes many unsubstantiated claims about the rise of the Muslim population in the world. He later admits in his response to Dr. Kalaichelvan that the Youtube video is an ‘exaggeration’. If so, why use it? Is this not an incitement against Muslims in Sri Lanka, especially at a time when racist groups like the BBS are attacking the Muslim community precisely on these grounds? One has to seriously question the honesty of Dr.Vallipuranathan’s intentions here. Does Dr.Vallipuranathan claim that Muslims because of their ethnicity or faith are somehow more predisposed to procreate and increase their numbers dramatically over others. Class is the most important factor in determining population numbers than ethnicity or faith. Dramatic population decreases are largely due to economic mobility and social wellbeing.
Here again Tamil nationalism’s majoritarian thinking stands exposed. If the Muslims were the second minority and now they are going to pip the Tamils in population numbers, so what? Someone has to be the smaller minority. It was far from okay for the Tamils when the Muslims were the smaller minority and Tamils were a slightly larger community. And if now the Tamils are going to be marginally smaller – what is the fear? This fear arises from the logic of numbers and the superiority Tamil nationalists accord to numbers. How is this different from the Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian thinking? Dr. Vallipuranathan seems to make the tacit admission that in the eyes of Tamil nationalists Muslims being the smallest group can somehow be deemed the lesser beings entitled to ‘less’, commensurate with their numbers. Is this what stokes the fear in his heart if the Tamils were to shrink as a community?
After all, for a long time Tamil nationalist discourse defined Muslims as being part of the category of ‘Tamil Speaking Peoples’, only, at least until the LTTE began massacring and evicting them. After that this line became untenable. It is now not possible to not accept the Muslims as a separate ‘nation’, but the majoritarian mindset has not changed and therefore the fear over the increase of Muslim numbers.
Apart from the question of reductive nationalism and the location of women within the ‘nation’ and their reproductive rights many women’s rights activists are opposed to the indiscriminate and mass use of hormonal implants for reasons other than what Dr.Vallipuranathan identifies, i.e. population control. The hormonal implants are dispensed to women in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in population control programmes where the woman has no informed choice. When I was in Sri Lanka last year, I discovered and was rather concerned that women NGOs and doctors alike were rather unperturbed about the increasing use of hormonal implants such as Jadelle. The anecdotal information I received was very clear that Jadelle was being used across the country, in the South also, not just in the North. It is possible that incidents like the one in Kilinochchi occur in other parts of the country as well and go unreported.
The use of hormonal implants is on the increase all over the world especially in the global south despite serious complaints about side effects by women. Implants like Jadelle require a medical procedure to insert and remove and users are stuck with it for 5 years. These implants are known to cause a whole range of side effects and serious detriment to women’s health both short term and long term. The implants are developed by big pharmaceuticals and peddled by international family planning INGOs with the backing of governments, to poor women in the global South. The use of implants more than any other contraceptive device takes away the individual woman’s choice, agency, the control of her own body, her sexuality, her own impetus to procreate or not. They are designed this way because they are easy to administer in mass birth control programmes. Women, especially poor women are considered incapable of using other birth control methods which require daily attention and care; poverty and illiteracy are used as reasons to peddle the hormonal implants to poor women.
Apart from the issue of interfering with women’s reproductive rights, the introduction of hormonal implants are part of the plethora of questionable devices both micro and macro, that are deployed, on women in the global South, linking ‘development,’ ‘poverty alleviation’ and population control as inextricable processes. Dr.Vallipuranathan, recognises the indiscriminate nature of the dispensation of Jadelle but is opposed to it because he believes it is issued to Tamil women to suppress population growth amongst Tamils. He does not appear to be concerned with any of the other harms women’s rights activists are concerned about.