By Aruni Samarakoon
Modern university education was introduced to Ceylon by the British colonizers in 1921 with the establishment of Ceylon University College, which eventually became the public university system where scholars and scholars could explore universal knowledge. In 1947, the very first university, the University of Ceylon, was established. Later, the University of Ceylon Act No. 01 of 1972 was to establish the institutional framework for universities, which further reflected and entrenched colonial and patriarchal values in the university curricula and administrative system. The academic culture originally shaped by elite English-speaking white men was transferred and dynamically transformed by “indigenous” intellectuals, drawn from the lower middle class and rural peasantry.
Today, these “native” scholars, both Sinhalese and Tamil, many of whom have foreign postgraduate degrees, constitute the dominant group that determines the scope of the teaching and learning culture in Sri Lanka’s universities. Lanka. More than 70 years after independence from British rule, feminist thought has been largely absent from teaching and learning in our universities, except in one section of the social sciences and humanities curricula.
To what extent are Sri Lankan universities leading, or at least supporting, the teaching and learning of feminism? This article explores the challenges of teaching and learning about feminism in Sri Lankan universities. It begins with a brief introduction to feminist thought and is followed by a presentation of empirical data, from 2019, collected through ethnographic research, conducted at three universities in Sri Lanka, under two themes: Challenges of presentation of feminism as “new knowledge” and “new practices”; and hear the “voice” of feminist scholars.
What is feminism?
Feminism is a terminology derived from the French language; it means the subordination of women because of their sexuality; subordination of women to the politics of patriarchy. Feminist schools have aligned themselves with the main political currents such as liberalism, which suggests reforms and socialism, proposing radical changes to the patriarchal structure, to end the subordination of women in the economic, political and social spheres.
The goal of first-wave feminism was to promote gender inclusion in politics, demanding women’s suffrage and representation in government institutions. However, the dimension of gender inclusion in liberal feminist discourse has been criticized for not representing the political aspirations of working-class women and women from non-white communities and immigrant women. Evidence to support this claim is that Emmeline Pankhurst’s (1858-1928) “Deeds not Words” campaign for suffrage did not include the voices of working class women, immigrant women and non-white women in the UK.
Criticism of liberal feminism prompted a new school of thought, second wave feminism, which grew out of the theory of socialism. Second-wave feminists proposed sweeping changes to the prevailing patriarchal structure that objectified women as sex objects and demanded equal pay for women’s work and women’s reproductive rights. Third-wave feminism is an extension of second-wave feminism, though it foregrounds the personal narratives and intersecting forms of oppression that structure women’s subordination. It emphasizes everyday politics. This is a fundamental reading of feminist schools, and more recent feminist literature, emerging from the Global South, delves into other aspects such as the representation of women’s voices.
Feminism as “new knowledge” and “new practices”
Feminism aims to end repression; stereotypes; hierarchies and foster new knowledge and practices. However, Sri Lankan academics have failed to draw on feminist thinking to deconstruct “hierarchies and stereotypes” in universities. For example, a senior colleague stereotyped feminism as “power against man” and as “anti-man discourse”. One department of a humanities and social sciences faculty even removed the gender studies module from the undergraduate curriculum because it has no “market value”. Sri Lankan public universities are more open to marketable undergraduate courses due to the impact of neoliberal policies, which place more “value” on STEM education.
How has feminist literature been used in teaching and learning in Sri Lankan universities? Who has the power to access this knowledge? Empirical evidence shows that the reading of feminist literature and theories is confined to a “particular circle” in universities, who are fluent in English. Therefore, discussions of feminism in universities are limited to this “particular circle”. One of the undergraduates, in my research sample, said that “discussions about feminism take place when academics have tea in the faculty hall of the university.” This conversation indicates that discussions of feminism are confined to a particular class, mainly the middle class, who can speak English, the colonial language. The class factor in this scenario has placed limits on undergraduate students who engage in discussions of feminism.
Are there spaces outside the classroom for students to discuss feminism? The University Grants Commission has issued guidelines to establish a “Center for Gender Equity and Equality” in every university in the country. These centers could have provided a space to discuss feminism, although they currently operate on corners with little interaction with undergraduate students. “I never found the Center for Gender Equity and Equality at the University. What is this center for and who runs it? was a response from an undergraduate student at a university in the nation’s capital. The undergraduate students in my sample did not know how to find the centers physically at the universities and had difficulty contacting the person(s) in charge of the centres. In my opinion, these centers could follow the basic principles of feminism, such as political sensitization of undergraduate students to end the subordination of women and produce new knowledge on women’s rights.
Hear the voice of feminists
I never underestimate the historic contribution of feminist scholars in our universities to ending the subordination of women; deletions; stereotyping of women as “objects”. These scholars have raised their voices, calling for a new culture of equality and freedom in universities. I remember a female senior professor, political science, at the University of Peradeniya, sharing her story of being suppressed by male peers in her department. These learned women have long fought against a rigid patriarchal system.
Some senior feminist scholars have experienced verbal and sexual harassment from their peers, who were cronies of senior university administration. These scholars have yet to receive justice and their “Her + Stories” are not discussed or considered part of the history of Sri Lankan universities. Why were these stories hidden?
Feminist scholars I have encountered in my ethnographic research have asked me why women had to wear six-foot-long sarees to work and how this attire was crucial to professionalism. A senior colleague, who wore T-shirts and denim pants to attend undergraduate lectures, caused an uproar at a Southern university. Imposing a dress code is symbolic of power and, in the case of women, it is symbolic of the power of the Patriarchy.
These voices also highlighted the need for “freedom of speech”, which is limited in universities due to hierarchies of rank, age, ethnicity, caste, class and gender. I would say that these hierarchies had a huge impact on the critical thinking of newly recruited academics. The latter tend to try to please their superiors rather than critically evaluate the policies of our universities. Unfortunately, these new recruits are gradually becoming carriers of these hierarchies.
In conclusion, I affirm that “my hope is necessary but not sufficient” as Paulo Freire mentions in his Pedagogy of Hope (1999). Kuppi is one of the spaces where I hope to have the voice of feminist scholars heard and heard. I will discuss this issue in more detail, in my next Kuppi article.
(Aruni Samarakoon teaches in the Department of Public Policy at Ruhuna University)
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy set on the fringes of the amphitheater that simultaneously parodies, subverts and reaffirms social hierarchies