Kamzy in Jaffna
- to make sure that those who aren’t being heard today can raise their voice: Women are not being heard
- unfortunate that there weren’t more female leaders in the LTTE negotiation delegation
- Luckily, during my Sri Lanka-trip I have met many people who choose a vision for the future of Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim societies
This year, I had the honour and privilege to visit several cities in Sri Lanka. I have met many people who strive with all their might to build a better society for themselves, and for the Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim societies. I would like to share with you some of my experiences and offer some reflections now that I am back home in Oslo, Norway.
During this trip, I had the opportunity to meet with and listen to women of various backgrounds, arrange workshops on female empowerment, and exchange ideas with local politicians. Furthermore, I reached out to the local media to raise awareness of the structural and cultural obstacles facing women who work to improve their situation. My position as Deputy Mayor of a cosmopolitan city has given me a voice to address these issues and I do feel responsible to use this privilege to help bring their stories to light.
Many people have approached me to show their support for my activism. People in Norway, in Sri Lanka and in the Tamil diaspora have expressed their support and gratitude. To you, from the bottom of my heart, I extend my heartfelt thanks. Every supporting and comforting word is not just for me; it is also for every girl who wants to raise her voice. You are strengthening democracy.
Highlights of visit
At a meeting in Mullaitivu I met many war widows. They had lost husbands and sons to the war, or to kidnappings in its aftermath. Even during a pitstop in Vavuniya on our way to Mullaitivu, people could tell me stories about disappeared loved ones. This is a responsibility the Sri Lankan government must take.
Despite carrying such heavy burdens, these women came to my workshop to challenge the structural and cultural obstacles they face when they seek to have a say in our society’s political life. These obstacles are not only a consequence of Sinhalese government policies. They are a product of what some believe is the Tamil culture.
In Jaffna, during a plenary session, one woman said she spoke on behalf of all the women when she said that “abortion does not belong in Tamil culture”. But after the session, many women came to me with their own experiences. They told me horrifying stories about young women and girls who had been raped and become pregnant. These women wanted access to legal and safe abortion.
In Batticaloa, the women were even more progressive. They wanted to campaign for birth control. Birth control is legal in Sri Lanka, but doctors inform about it first after a woman has had her first child. There are still cultural barriers. Many women told stories about domestic violence. Sometimes their husbands wanted more children, while the women did not. Their husbands sought to bring their wives to submission using physical force. Should we silence the women sharing their stories? Violence is never an issue to be dealt within the family. If someone abuses anyone, even within the family, we as a society must react and act.
My position as Deputy Mayor of a cosmopolitan city has given me a voice to address these issues and I do feel responsible to use this privilege to help bring their stories to light
I have noticed that some accuse me of promoting “Western culture” when I lend my voice to these women’s concerns. Women’s right to escape the humiliation brought upon them by rapists, their right to reproductive self-determination and their right to forge their own futures, these rights are universal. Tamil, Sinhalese or Muslim women will not sell their rights to gain the condescending recognition of nationalists.
Is it really a waste of time to share our experiences as women in politics and how we can better handle varying issues? Can we not value each other’s stories and learn from them?
In the course of my travels in Sri Lanka, as long as my schedule allowed it, I have tried to meet as many people, media and politicians as possible. When I got the chance to meet with President Maithripala Sirisena, I saw it as an opportunity to tell him about the work I want to do, and to share my perspectives on female rights.
Filling the void in female participation
I understand that Tamil people got angry watching the photo of me meeting the President. I will not defend him for the past, that’s not my job. But, I am a Norwegian local politician. I would be going way past my mandate if I raised issues such as the war or other foreign policy issues on behalf of the government of Norway.
However, I am a woman of Tamil descent who have been given the opportunity to be a representative of people who have chosen to vote for a party that, among other issues, is committed to strengthening women’s rights. In this respect, meeting the President and showing the world that I’m prepared to discuss these matters with anyone who has the power to make progress, I have also been able to lend my voice to Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim women.
After 30 years of war in Sri Lanka, we need to face the future. There was a time when I was member of a Tamil youth organization, danced at every Maaveerar Naal and sang at events to remember and honour those who lost their lives during the war. I don’t regret any of that. But today it is not my job to define what the people of Sri Lanka need, but to make sure that those who aren’t being heard today can raise their voice. And truth be told: Women are not being heard.
I was mostly interviewed by men. And many of them tried to shift the focus to other questions. One of the only interviews that managed to focus on the main objectives of my trip, was by a female journalist. I don’t believe that was a coincidence.
I want more visible female role models. For this reason, I believe it is unfortunate that there weren’t more female leaders in the LTTE negotiation delegation. The reactions in the Tamil diaspora when I have pointed this out have been interesting. I have been met with anger and accused of belittling the accomplishments of brave and strong women within the LTTE or other parts of Tamil society. I merely pointed out another structural injustice.
Some try to argue that these strong women prove that there aren’t any problems. Let them answer these questions: How many organizations exist in the Tamil diaspora? How many of these have a female leader? How many of these have as many female as male board members? How many men have been invited as guests of honor or as speakers at events? How many women? If someone truly believes in Velupaillai Prabhakaran’s words, shouldn’t they also commit to increasing women’s participation in all parts of society, even in leadership roles?
Women Can Do It
I genuinely have great hopes for the Tamil society, and this is why I will keep asking these questions. I came to Norway at age 3. This country has given me so much. I can thank my parents and this democratic and progressive country for everything I am. I want to pay this forward. Through Norwegian People’s Aid I’ve held “Women Can Do It” courses in several countries. These seminars, usually 5 days long, empower women to run for election through different kinds of practices. This time I had a couple of hours with women organizations in Mullaitivu, Jaffna (several women from Kilinochchi came too), Batticaloa and Kaithady.
In these workshops, we shared experiences with the biggest obstacles women face and the best ways to overcome them - both in Sri Lanka and Norway. Why? Because Norway has issues within gender equality too. And I never travel anywhere to “tell” them that Norway is perfect. I want us to learn from each other. The most valuable “thing” we have is not our money, it is our knowledge. That is the one thing that nobody can take away from you. If these workshops don’t seem useful, then what is? Handouts and remittances from the diaspora?
Politics is about what policies and systems we believe create the best societies. If your problem is that I’m arrogant, that you think I shouldn’t drink or stay quiet on topics you’re uncomfortable with, I quote Jon Stewart: “I’m not going to censor myself to comfort your ignorance”.
Unfortunately, I am also forced to speak up against the sexism, social control and harassment that my work has provoked. I am an experienced politician, but I’ve never experienced as much online harassment (and lies) as I have during my ten days in Sri Lanka this year. I met with the president - some people responded by calling me a whore. I gathered the women from my father’s village to encourage them to engage in their local communities and make their voices heard - some Tamil men told me to be ashamed and that I dishonor my father. I was interviewed by a male Sinhalese journalist, some Tamil men chose to give attention, not to my message, but to their compulsion to believe that I might be sleeping with the journalist. I am the editor of my own social media accounts, and I normally delete comments that are libelous or constitute harassment. Some people believe that publicly dishonoring women and harassing them is a form freedom of speech. While it is not, I do not have the time to argue with them or to moderate the deluge of filth they produce. So, I stopped deleting. Their contribution to this discussion of the future of Tamil society will remain in the digital archives in perpetuity.
These people who claim to be proud Tamils, have showed the world that these were the best “arguments” they had. To them I say: In every one of your home towns, there is a young girl growing up, who wants to speak her mind. A girl who wants to grow up to be a resource for her community, who wants to give and not only ask what others are going to do. That little girl sees every word you are writing. You should ask yourself if your words will help or hurt her chances to grow up to be the best resource for her community.
Luckily, during my Sri Lanka-trip I have met many people who choose a vision for the future of Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim societies in which women are empowered to make decisions about their own lives, and who recognize that these rights are universal in nature.
Gender equality is only achieved when women and men have the same rights and opportunities across all sectors of society. This includes economic participation and political decision-making. When the different behaviorus, aspirations and needs of women and men are treated with equal value, then we can truly enjoy gender equality.
All around the world, women are impatiently demanding dignity, opportunity and representation. We strive to make all our communities better. We know this is a good cause and I will continue to fight for gender equality every single day, no matter where I go.
Kamzy addressing a group of women in Jaffna