MP Harini Amarasuriya discusses gender and harassment, online and offline
PIX BY DAMITH WICKRAMASINGHE
Beyond the screen is a series of interviews featuring women and girls who have been the subject of cyber harassment in Sri Lanka. Over the past year, as worldwide restrictions have pushed more people online, women and girls face a daily tirade of personal abuse, with a rise in online harassment against females, according to UN Women. These interviews are an attempt to shed light towards prioritizing the need to tackle digital abuse, regardless of gender.
“I thought the obvious choice was Bimal,” Harini Amarasuriya recalled. “He was on the list, he was our number one. He was my choice.” The 2020 general election changed academic-turned politician Dr. Harini Amarasuriya’s life in ways she never imagined. A choice had to be made when the National People’s Movement (NPP) only secured three seats in Parliament.
“When the NPP asked me whether I would be willing to be on the national list, my first reaction was no. It seemed like a ridiculous idea. But they were very persuasive. I thought I was just one of 23 names and nothing much is going to happen,” Harini recalled. “But the JVP’s belief was that the seat should go to someone who is not from the JVP, as they contested as a coalition. And then they said it should go to a woman. My heart started sinking.” Harini Amarasuriya was nominated as the NPP’s National List MP in August 2020. It meant that former MP Bimal Rathnayake, who was touted as the popular choice, was unable to enter parliament.
But for Harini, the decision didn’t come easy. Taking up a parliamentary seat meant that she could no longer continue her profession as a senior lecturer at the Department of Sociology of the Open University. “As soon as I said no, it hit me. I rehearsed in my head what I would tell people (about) why I turned it down and it sounded so incredibly selfish. It sounded like I love my job, therefore I can’t. It bothered my conscience,” she said. With only a week to decide between a job she loved and parliamentary membership, Harini decided to compromise.
"My parents came with me for my University admission and we were looking for a place for me to stay. The matron of a boarding house we visited said; I wouldn’t leave my daughter in Delhi and go back to Sri Lanka. You should take her back, don’t leave her here"
Where many aspiring politicians learn to live under the media microscope, Harini’s journey has been somewhat inscrutable. When asked about her childhood, Harini Amarasuriya calls it a very boring one. Hailing from a low-country tea planter’s family, she moved to Colombo with her mother to attend school at Bishop’s College. “Up to about five years I grew up on the estate with my parents off Galle. When I started going to school my mother moved to Colombo and before I started schooling, I spent about a year with my grandparents in Dehiwala. That was the sort of life I spent for 13 years, very normal, very middle class and very average.”
Were you independent as a child, we asked. “My parents and my family would say stubborn. But I prefer the word independent. “We were a very normal family. It was my brother who was supposed to go out and get educated and do all of that. My sister and I were expected to get an education, marry, settle down and have kids. My sister did. And I didn’t quite follow that path,” Harini said.
"“We were a very normal family. It was my brother who was supposed to go out and get educated and do all of that. My sister and I were expected to get an education, marry, settle down and have kids. My sister did. And I didn’t quite follow that path"
Asked if she felt any pressure to play a role that a girl was supposed to, she said it never burdened her. “I mean the expectation that I would have that traditional life was there. But it wasn’t a heavy burden on me. I think from a very early age, I was not following that path and my family figured it out. Having said all of that, I’m also slightly obsessive about my house, keeping it clean, those things probably help. If I was a terrible cook, I would have probably been kicked out of my family,” she laughed.
After spending a year in the United States on a student exchange programme, Harini returned to a troubled homeland, where Advanced Level examinations were delayed due to the ongoing social and political turmoil. Not willing to waste any more time waiting for local university admissions, she decided to pursue a scholarship at the University of New Delhi.
"When you’re called stuff, when filth is posted on your page, you’re taken aback. You wonder, why are they saying these things about you? Then I made it a rule, that I don’t read comments"
It was in Delhi, she realised how violent harassment against women could be. “I think my first real feeling that — sexual harassment can be violent — was when I was in India, where it was much more aggressive,” she recalled. “My parents came with me for my University admission and we were looking for a place for me to stay.
The matron of a boarding house we visited said: I wouldn’t leave my daughter in Delhi and go back to Sri Lanka. You should take her back, don’t leave her here.” Despite the woman’s warning, Harini convinced her parents to let her stay. But it was not without adjustments or strategies.
Her friends in Delhi advised her on how to cover most of her body. “You wear long kurtas, no short tops. It’s a bit different now of course. But those are the kind of things you picked up. It seemed like something that every woman had to know. This is what happens to women. A girl must know!”
"If I’m standing with you, abusing you verbally, I have to respond to your reactions. If I see the distress in your face, it’s human for me to step back. But in your safe space, not seeing the impact on the other person, you can just take off."
How were you taught to deal with it? I ask. Harini simply replies, “We weren’t. I don’t think anybody told us how to deal with it. Unlike now, public transport was what we used. Most of us used school buses. So you experience these things. There are strategies you use. You have a sense that older men are probably more lecherous than younger men. So you don’t sit next to an older man. You’d sit next to a woman. It’s sort of second nature. I remember teachers used to warn us because those who would expose themselves used to lurk around schools all the time. So we were told to be careful. You don’t walk around alone. If something like that happens, don’t look, turn the other way,” Harini recollected.
Harini is fortunate to never feel limited as a female in her career as a student, or as an academic, she revealed. “That was partly because I was single; I didn’t have pressure from home. My family circumstances were different. My experiences were different. Now that I think I know it’s not like that for everybody. That can be really visible in our structure. It’s not always that there are rules that stop you, but life’s circumstances. If we are offered a position of responsibility, we would think a lot more. Can I manage it with my family, kids… All of these things, men wouldn’t think twice about . Nobody asks men how they balance life,” she explained.
Becoming a politician has introduced her to a new form of harassment, which takes place behind a screen. It was not that Harini didn’t face much of cyber harassment while she was campaigning for the NPP. “I wasn’t really a known figure for people to attack. Once I became a public persona and publicly more active on social media, then the online stuff started,” she said.
“When you’re called stuff, when filth is posted on your page, you’re taken aback. You wonder, why are they saying these things about you? Then I made it a rule, that I won’t read comments. I don’t want to engage with that. If there is some persistent person I block it, or report it. I never engage with that kind of comment or abuse. I just ignore it,” Harini said, elaborating on how she chooses to filter the negatives on social media.
"The decision didn’t come easy. Taking up a parliamentary seat meant that she could no longer continue her profession as a senior lecturer as the Department of Sociology of the Open University"
But sometimes, that’s not enough. For people like Harini, online manipulative content can get crafty. “As soon as I was nominated, there was a campaign saying that I said I’m not going to use the car permit. I’ve never talked about a car permit. But it went viral. Newspapers picked up on it and reported it. Print media started reporting on it based on what they saw on social media,” she exclaimed.
On one occasion social media posts claimed that the new NPP MP wants the national cricket team to be drafted on an ethnic quota system. On another occasion a manipulated post circulating on social media carried a complaint about the food served in parliament. “It said that I had complained about the chicken,” she chuckled. “But there were slightly cleverer ones too. They looked like things I might have said. For example something like the Muslim burial issue. They’d take an issue I have openly been critical about and take it a step further. They would say things like Harini has sent a letter to the UNHRC about it. Which given my position, I could have, but I didn’t. For a lot of us in the NPP and JVP, that happens. They take something we say and take it a bit further, so that people are left wondering. It’s quite possible that we might have said it,” she adds.
"Where many aspiring politicians learn to live under the media microscope, Harini’s journey has been somewhat inscrutable. When asked about her childhood, Harini Amarasuriya calls it a very boring one"
Harini finds it unlikely that any of these forms of online manipulations would recede in future. “If by any chance they see me as a threat, I would be targeted much more. I don’t think it’s just unorganized also. It’s deliberate. It’s planned. For instance this ridiculous story about Bimal and his wife’s BMW. I mean I wish she had a BMW, it would have made our lives also much easier. I work very closely with her and we could have all swung around in the BMW.”
“It’s a price we have to pay for social media. Bullying becomes much easier. If I’m standing with you, abusing you verbally, I have to respond to your reactions. If I see the distress in your face, it’s human for me to step back. But in your safe space, not seeing the impact on the other person, you can just take off. Social media culture makes bullying more possible. I don’t think it will change unless societal attitudes also change about how we treat each other. Social media is reflective of our society, and it provides a platform in which we can do this anonymously and very easily. It’s not as if these attitudes and feelings are not present in society.”
"Social media culture makes bullying more possible. I don’t think it will change unless societal attitudes also change about how we treat each other. Social media is reflective of our society"