Finding Feminism

Photographer: Chanel Irvine

Truth be told, prior to attending ANU, I had but a vague awareness of feminism as a concept. It was nothing more than an elusive notion skirting around the edges of my daily consciousness and looking back now, I am ashamed of my ignorance, and of my disinterest. You see, I had neither the privilege of exemption nor the luxury of immunity to excuse my obliviousness. I do recall oftentimes feeling a sense of discontentedness at the outlooks to which I was expected to conform, and an uncertain resentment at the feeling of being limited, but these were norms of the society I saw and the only way of life I knew. I am enraged now when I think of my docile persuasion and my easy sufferance.

In the island nation of Sri Lanka where I’m from, people take pride in patriarchy, their conservative morality and their double standards, and the sexual prudery that they impose on women in the name of culture. This, albeit very briefly, sums up the extent of gender imbalance in the country’s social sphere. Economically, women make a highly visible and crucial contribution across varying sectors, and by some accounts, have even won equal pay. However, even where equal pay is won, the struggle still continues for adequate remuneration, better working conditions and acknowledgement. There is also a clear lack of government support and welfare to working women who are additionally held responsible for childcare and managing a household.

Since its independence as a colony, Sri Lanka has exhibited a surprisingly political progressive viewpoint in electing the first female prime minister in the world, as well as a female president. However, the level of political participation by women in male-dominated central and local governments tends to be low. Where education and schooling is concerned, retention rates tend to lower for women because men are expected to function as breadwinners and the prospects of women are typically associated to the domestic sphere.

Inequality also plagues Sri Lanka in the form of gender-based violence, which includes sexual assault and torture. Statistics compiled by a branch of the UN last year reported that at least 60 per cent of women in Sri Lanka experience domestic violence. Now, while the necessary legislation to protect women from such acts of violence do exist, the acts themselves are hardly ever reported or discussed – instead they are silently borne or fervently denied. It is also commonplace for women in Sri Lanka to be routinely subject to physical and verbal harassment on the streets and on public transport – I doubt there is a single woman in the country who hasn’t experienced this. These experiences are exacerbated by the fact that women are never encouraged to confront or report these occurrences, but instead condescendingly advised “to keep safe” and “not go places unaccompanied”.

This culture of silence is responsible for the country’s present-day statistics on sexual assault. It was recently reported by the police department that a woman is raped once every four hours – and reading this headline left me shaking. However, rape in Sri Lanka is widely underreported owing to a fear of inaction and being ostracised from a society that has long-perpetuated a culture of victim blaming and male-impunity.

I cannot claim, at any point, to have been entirely unaware of these facts, only foolishly acquiescent. I was, however, unaware of the urgency and the vigour of the collective global outcry for gender equality, and totally unprepared for how much it resonated with me. My interest in the movement began in my very first semester at ANU, and today I am a proud feminist. Feminism forms a fundamental part of my sense of self, the principles and beliefs I stand for and, I hope, will be a part of the impact I have on the world in time yet to come. It has also been a point of solidarity within many of the friendships that I have formed since coming to Australia, and I am constantly inspired by the strength of support and sisterhood.

Being at ANU and seeing the feminist movement within the university has encouraged me to also look outward at the world, past and present, and (excuse the cliché) broaden my horizons. This wakefulness and this curiosity have not only enriched my education and my experiences at ANU in a way I could never have expected, but it’s also equipped me with a sense of resolve and purpose that I found echoed Rupi Kaur’s ‘legacy’.

i stand

on the sacrifices

of a million women before me

thinking

what can i do

to make this mountain taller

so the women after me

can see farther

Note: while I credit my personal awakening and feminism to my time at ANU, this is not to say that feminism does not exist in Sri Lanka. In fact, the movement is active in calling for improved women’s rights – despite my lack of contact with it. However, its influence has a sadly-limited reach, it is notably absent from mainstream issues of interest, and it faces a disturbing sense of apathy and disinterest from the general populace.