By Cayathri Divakalala –
Around 5pm on 17 October 2013, within the Jaffna municipality, one of our friends (a male youth resident of Jaffna) came to our home (a few friends were gathered there) looking very disturbed. We were surprised to see him again, as he was with us since afternoon and had just left a little while ago. After seating himself on a chair, he spoke, “A female dead body, without cloths, has been found near Naachimar Amma Kovil. I saw it. The sight of it made me sick. There were a few other people looking at it. Chiiiii (he sighed)”. It took a good minute for all of us to comprehend and the first among us to speak. We began to question our friend who brought the news – “has the police arrived? Is she totally naked? Could it be rape and murder? Can you recognise her face”? Indeed, he did not have clear answers. He kept repeating, “I don’t think the police have arrived. Someone was calling the police”. Another male friend asked, “shall we go and make sure that the police arrive”. Five of us (two women and three men), went to the location. The body was found because of the bad odour emanating from it, as it had started decomposing. Because of this, within an hour of it being found, there were about 100 people, mostly men and small boys, trying to view the woman’s dead body. All were intrigued to see the cloth-less female body – despite the fact that it was brutality violated.
I first saw the bottom part of her dead body. Her legs were spread wide apart. The right leg was bent and looked badly hurt. Significant signs of being broken. Her skirt was not covering what it usually covers. It was rolled up to her stomach. There were no panties on the body. Her external genitals were disfigured. They were brutally violated. Her head was damaged to an extent that nobody could identify her from her face. A few in the crowd said, “Acid must have been used to destroy her face”. Apparently, she was murdered about 3-4 days back.
The location where the dead body was found raises many questions. For instance, why one of the famous Hindu temples on the very popular K.K.S Road (Kangkesanthurai Road), was it because the abusers/rapists/murderers wanted to show that no matter what they do, they cannot be caught or punished, or even the audacity to throw the body in a sacred place according to one of the main religious beliefs in the district/country, and the challenge to the rule of law (perhaps the absence of it) in the country. While I recognise such complexities and the need to critically unfold these questions, I’d rather like remain focused and limit the scope of this reflective article.
It was disturbing to see that for many it was just another “interesting” sight. Almost all of them took photos of the ruthlessly violated female body. Some recorded videos of the sight. Most of them did not want to leave the sight. I wondered, what for? Not all of them were part of the media. Perhaps, they wanted to inform many more through different forms of social media. One could hope that they needed visuals of such brutality in order to raise awareness and stop such unpleasant experiences in the future. However, that hope was instantly shattered when, more disturbingly, many started to criticise “women” in general for having triggered such an extent of violence against themselves by not being “proper” women. I’m not going into the details of explaining the expression “proper” women. Sadly, our society is still blaming women for having invited the violence that they are subjected to. Time after time, women are the subject of unhealthy criticisms and any illness of our societies. Female bodies are repeatedly violated. Yet again, they are to be blamed. When do we change?
There are many issues to be addressed in the post-war context of Sri Lanka. For instance, access to justice, reconciliation, peacebuilding, sex work, different forms of discriminations, militarisation, poverty, being subjected to violence due to apparent vulnerabilities, challenges faced by ex-militants and female headed households, political knowledge and representation, and gender based violence. The list could go on. We must not forget that our societies have to deal with the scars of more than three decades long violent conflict, discriminations, and destructions of lives, properties, and resources. Learning/s from other parts of the world that had/have similar contexts clearly depicts that it is not easy. Civic driven actions or the contribution of an active (inclusive) civil society becomes essential. The way in which, as citizens we demand the state to be accountable and responsible in the wellbeing of all its’ citizens without any discriminatory treatment and/or practice, we, the civil society and the members of all societies, have the equal amount of responsibility to build a healthy, equal, and violence free societies.
Violence against women is not novel in Sri Lanka. It is not a new threat to our societies. However, what is actually unprecedented are the forms of violence, extent of brutality showed in each case of violence, and the sheer tolerance and justification of this kind of violence. According to my knowledge and experience, since 1980s, activists have fought at multiple platforms to address the issues related to violence against women. There have been several campaigns and development programmes that ranged between awareness creation to ending violence against women (like the WeCan campaign). It is very sad that despite all efforts invested by many actors, both state and non-state, women are still subjected to violence. It appears to have become a norm. The Jaffna experience shows that even the basic sensitization on the issues of violence against women has not reached people of all walks of life.
Yet another attempt to address the injustice experienced by Logarani Markandu (42 year old unmarried female who was residing at a convent in Columbuthurai, Jaffna), the victim who was murdered, a group of us (most of us had witnessed her dead body) women and men (mostly youth), decided to show our respects to Logarani and condemn such incidents in our societies. Overnight, we mobilized to express our concerns at the same place where Logarani’s body was found. We were certain that the medium that we choose to express has some unique and novel aspects that strongly convey our messages. We also wanted to attract the attention of as many people as possible and hoped that our efforts are continued, not only by us, but it becomes a social movement until the very end, when every woman/girl in our societies move around without fear of violence- both in public and private spheres.
On 18.10.2013, we expressed our concerns between 8-11am and 4-6pm at the same location, Naachimar Amman Kovil. Somewhere between 200-250 people participated in the protest. We gladly noted that above 60% of the participants were men. Some of them also emphasized that men’s participation is vital in such instances and otherwise we cannot make a meaningful change in our societies. We wrote a poem for Logarani’s loss in Tamil. The salient message of the poem was that we no longer tolerate such violence in our societies. The same poem was written on a torn light coloured long skirt in black ink. Along with the skirt, we hung a couple of white long underskirts that were stained, and a torn dress. Until the end of the protest we took turns to hold these pieces of clothing symbolizing the gravity of the situation to condemn violence targeted against women. At the end, we hung these garments of clothing on a piece of rope like we usually hang our dirty and/or washed clothes. The poem for Logarani was also written on four different large notebooks where protestors either signed or wrote their bit condemning these acts of violence, along with their signatures. A few of us went to the hospital and helped the relatives (uncle, cousin sister, and two aunts) to get her dead body cleared after the post-mortem. They wished to take her directly to the cemetery. We followed them to the cemetery and took part in burying Logarani. There was no funeral held for her. Mostly women carried her coffin. We also read our poem to her before cremation.
We did not have any name associated with us. To anyone, especially the media, who was curious about our affiliations, we, the organizers, identified us as female and male Jaffna residents who strongly oppose any form of violence, and who hope for a future without any such acts. A couple of people asked me, having assumed that a woman with very short hair, and no jewellery has to be from Colombo (the capital city), “did you come last night from Colombo?” I had not met them before; neither did they introduce themselves as being acquainted with me. However, the imagination that people within Jaffna, regardless of how they choose to dress and live life, would still want to raise their voices against such instances of brutality is non-existent. It is alarming that the space for civic driven engagements is shrinking and the very civilians are ignorant and/or failure to accept forms of resistance initiated by concerned citizens in the absence of any kind of association with an organization/political party.
It was interesting, indeed, to observe how people who did not participate perceived our protest. Some thought that we were from a church based organization, as we held candles in our hands. A few associated everyone who participated as belonging to a certain organization and/or a political party that was present there. Such associations were easily made, despite our efforts to be clear in our standpoint. Perhaps, it is easy to be “outsiders” and be critical (unhealthy) of anything that happens around us. Indeed, it is always difficult to protest and show resistance without having to be identified/labelled.
However, we will not stop. We sincerely hope to take this further. We will surely follow her case to see how far the justice will be reached. At 3pm tomorrow (24.10.2013; a week since Logarani’s violated body was found), near the Semmani cemetery, where Logarani was buried along with many other women who lost their lives to violence, including Krishanthi Kumaraswamy, we will be expressing our concerns. Theirs and our voices will never be silenced!