Gender and Identity

Is Feminism an Alienating Concept in Sri Lanka?

Natalie Soysa

I spent the longest time, thinking I wasn’t a feminist. 

This is not a conclusion that I came into on my own – it was a reactive statement because I saw feminists as alienating; using language I didn’t care about, nor understand. No one had actually explained it to me and I was left to my own devices and unlearning to come to where I am today. 

So, what was it that I was missing? The message. It was meant for me and I was getting it. 

Many Lankans are not well-versed in, nor care about the lingo or concepts that feminism and feminist theory have offered. And this is a mentality that similarly occurs around other subject matter as well. In today’s trying times especially, the priorities are different. Needing food on the table and escaping the healthcare crisis is of utmost importance, so how do we expect people to get on board with something that has little to do with these needs? 

TOO MANY ASSUMPTIONS

I believe that there is something deeply mismatched or missing in the way feminist campaigning happens in Sri Lanka. It often feels like a localized adaptation of feminisms from other parts of the world instead of relating to local culture. And Sri Lanka maybe not be ready for it. There also seem to be an assumption that the public are aware of what terminology like patriarchy or toxic masculinity is and how it operates.

For another, the messaging is often created by those with an academic understanding of feminism and comes again with the further assumption that their logic and line of thinking is shared by others on the island. It is not. Audiences who do understand or relate to such content, let it pass. And then the point of all the great work and strides being made to change the country’s gendered status quo: wasted. 

There is also an existing and presumed bias on the part of the public that haven’t been considered when planning the communications. There are ranging attitudes towards feminism here, some see feminists as man haters, others laugh and even make fun of feminists. Many ignore or walk away from feminist dialogues – because they see no interest in what and how it’s being preached. Combatting these barriers and biases is as important as the rest of the messaging. 

LACKING IN HUMAN INSIGHT 

Understanding who your audience is a key component of good communications. If you are unable to delve into who you are talking to and thereby be able relate to them, it is yet another exercise in the message going missing. 

In Sri Lanka we do know women are treated unfairly. Issues with unfair wage gaps, rape, abortion, care work, abuse – none of this is lost on the populace. But the general response has always been apathetic. When we do speak up or join hands in masses, it is often over a patriarchal male politician. It happens less for women and girls, simply on the basis that there are the ‘weaker’ sex, which in turn leads to the dismissing of their voices. Women in turn have learned to live within this life context. This is not to say that there are no exceptions. Recent images of young environmentalist Bhaghya Abeyratne being supported pro-bono by a team of male lawyers was heartening. The issue is, we don’t see enough of this.  

We acknowledge the problem but we don’t actively help resolve it. Island mentality tends to make us sit back and accept life as it is, no matter how unfair the concept. “This is how things are”, we say and follow up with a “what to do?”. Feminist messaging tends to ignore this very deeply rooted aspect of the Sri Lankan psyche and opt to message anyway, making the effectiveness of the message get lost. 

FEMINISM IN THE DIGITAL AGE

The digital age is an age of conversation starters; it has evolved our idea of communication from being an impersonal, one-way newspaper or television ad into an interactive, personalized, two-way dialogue. But feminist campaigners in Sri Lanka seem to missing out on this paradigm shift as well. Having attractive designs on social media with statements like “Down the Patriarchy” just don’t cut it. They make no sense to many people and they don’t inspire dialogue. 

The real audiences receiving and understanding the power of feminist messaging here would probably be other feminists. And if preaching to the choir is the way to go, then such groups are either not interested in reaching out to new audiences – or maybe don’t have the resources to communicate effectively. If this is the case, there is an urgent need for resources in this area; an education that comes from outside the non-profit arena. 

One solution would be to lean towards commercial communications experts. For-profit brands have been able to successfully reach intersectional audiences effectively by knowing which tools, mediums and tone of voice to use in their marketing communications. The need within feminist campaigning – reaching audiences – is no different. The country has many seasoned marcom experts in this regard. While an entirely commercial route is probably not the answer either, being able to find a balance within the two areas might prove to be a game-changer for feminist groups in the country. 

The point here is to get the message across in a way than an intersection of Sri Lankans finally stand up and pay attention. 

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The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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