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  • Writer's pictureDr Chamindra Weerawardhana

The Seetha Arambepola Syndrome: A Sinhala-Buddhist-Feminist Rebuke

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

By Paramie Jayakody, Isurinie Mallawaarachchi and Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana

Colombo Telegraph, 1 July 2020

Taking part in a television show telecast by a privately-owned Sri Lankan TV channel on 23rd of June, 2020, Dr Seetha Kumari Arambepola [hereinafter referred to as Dr SKA], an ENT surgeon, Executive Committee member of the lobbying group Viyath Maga, former governor of the Western Province, high-profile confidante of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime, and SLPP National List nominee at the 2020 general election, made a number of remarks that can only be described as a celebration of an extremely violent and patriarchal set of societal norms, attitudes, and problematic readings of Sri Lankan history.

To begin with a disclaimer, we appreciate the services Dr SKA has rendered to Sri Lanka as a medical professional. We acknowledge certain aspects of her political discourse, which include, for instance, her stated commitment to efficiency in governance, anti-corruption and call for qualified professionals to enter politics. In a political system with next to no meaningful commitment to parity (which makes it extremely challenging for a woman to enter politics unless she is a kinswoman of a powerful cis-male politician) we appreciate Dr SKA’s presence in active politics.

Strictly speaking, the points raised below are by no means intended as a personal attack of any shape or form of Dr SKA. Instead, our sole objective, as Sinhala-Buddhist women and intersectional feminists, is to engage in a policy-and-discourse-based critique of certain aspects in Dr SKA’s political ideology and outlook.

The ideas Dr SKA raises in the above-mentioned TV programme represent an ode to Sri Lankan patriarchy and its archaic [non]value system. In what follows, we opt to critique a number of views she expressed in this TV show. We believe that the positions she upheld are extremely detrimental to the promotion of gender justice in Sri Lanka, and therefore deserve a stern critique.

Patriarchy in Lankan Theravada Buddhism: Not to be adulated

At one point in the aforementioned television programme, Dr SKA maintains that they [women, i.e. Sinhala-Buddhist women] occupy a facilitating role [by definition facilitating the lives and deeds of menfolk]. Elucidating her point further, she further notes at 1:00:56, “මේ රටට දළදා හාමුදුරුවෝ වැඩැම්මෙව්වා. ජය සිරි මහ හාමුදුරුවෝ වඩම්මලා දුන්නා. ඒත් උඩ මලුවට යන්න රණ්ඩු කරන් නෑ අපි කවදාවත්”. Dr SKA consequently justifies practices such as the exclusion of women from supposedly ‘sacred’ places, for example the ‘uda maluwa’ at the Jayasri Maha Bodhi and the first floor inner chamber at the Temple of the Tooth in which the Tooth Relic is conserved. We, as Sinhala Buddhist women, find Dr SKA’s comments to be shockingly problematic. The exclusion of women from spaces of faith on the grounds of a supposed [cis-male-defined] ‘sacredness’ is a deeply exclusionary and discriminatory practice that has no bearing to any aspect of the Buddhist philosophical teachings.

Most laughably, Dr SKA ought to be reminded that certain cis women in positions of power, such as the Queen of England and former Sri Lankan presidents and prime ministers from political dynasties, have been given the privilege of entering these spaces. Therefore, it is not incorrect to assume that these exclusionary policies only apply to, and thereby blatantly discriminate against, ordinary Sinhala-Buddhist women, including venerable bhikkunis. We unequivocally condemn such practices, and call upon the cis male custodians of the Sri Lankan brand of Theravada Buddhism to categorically end such archaic and un-Buddhist inanities.

Despite being a parent and a medical professional herself, Dr SKA has no qualms in adulating the inhuman practice of conferring young underage children to the Buddhist clergy. She cautiously avoids the slightest reference to the many cases of sexual abuse of young monks by older monks in Buddhist temples, and the emotional trauma a young child undergoes when forcibly separated from their parents.

At 27:09 of the aforementioned program, Dr SKA says “මේ සමාජය වෙනම රැක බලාගන්න ඕන තමන්ගේ පුතා සාසනයට දන්දෙන අම්මලාව”. Firstly, the emphasis here is only on the cis male child. There is zero mention of young girls who suffer a similar fate. This statement denotes the shamelessly subordinate position bhikkhunis are relegated to in Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism. Most conspicuously, in an almost 2-hour TV programme, this supposedly pious and deeply patriotic Sinhala-Buddhist woman does not utter a single word about the excruciating challenges faced by Sinhala-Buddhist bhikkunis, as a direct consequence of misogyny in Theravada Buddhism.

At 24:24, Dr SKA notes, “කෙනෙක් හිතන්න පුලුවන් අනේ අපේ දරුවෙක් සාසනයට දුන්නා ම ඒක ද මේ ඒ දුකද අපි ගන්න ඕන? ඒ දුක නෙමේ මට මෙතන කියන්න ඕන පණිවිඩේ, මේ සා වූ කැපවීමක් තමයි, කුඩා දරුවෙක් සාසනයට දීපු දවසේ ඉදලා ඒ සාසනයෙ ගත වෙන ස්වාමීන් වහන්සේ කෙනෙක් සාමණේර කෙනෙක් විදිහට මහා සංඝයාත්වයට යන තෙක් දරන්නේ…” Leaving young children in a temple is a decision many underprivileged people are forced to take due to persistent poverty and financial concerns that prevent them from taking care of their families. A Buddhist approach to issues of this nature, we maintain, would be to take collective steps to support such families and ensure that the children are given the possibility of growing up with their families.

There is a clear need to take prompt steps to end the barbaric practice of letting young children enter the Buddhist clergy. Dr SKA seems to imply that this process is executed purely on the basis of parental choice, with zero regard for the wishes of the children in question. Adopting an attitude that justifies underage children in the Buddhist clergy equals condoning a crime against [Sinhala-Buddhist] children, and an infringement of their fundamental rights. If parents are not legally allowed to sell a child into slavery, if consent from a minor does not stand ground in a court of law, how can we justify this atrocity veiled behind the thin guise of ‘tradition’ and ‘religion’?

Evidently, there is an element of romanticizing done by Dr SKA in her reflection on young underage Buddhist monks; at 24:50 she states her displeasure of people who dare to look at Buddhist monks through critical lens. “තරුණ භික්ෂුවක ගේ චූටි වැරැද්දක් අරගෙන, හරි, සැලැකිය යුතු වැරැද්දක් වුණත් ඒක සමාජගත කරලා, සමාජජාලා ඔස්සේ ඒක ගැන කතා කරලා, ඒ සංඝයා වහන්සේට මිනිස්සුන් ගෙ තියෙන ගෞරවය නැති කරන්න උපරිම දායකත්වය දෙනවා”, clearly suggesting an inclination to uncritically glorify cis male Buddhist clergy. Here, the best we can do is to refer to the words of Lord Buddha himself. In the Kalama Sutra, he advises his followers to always maintain a sound level of critical judgement:

"Of course, you are uncertain, Kalamas. Of course, you are in doubt. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born. So, in this case, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are unskilful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and to suffering' — then you should abandon them”.

As Sinhala-Buddhist women, we find this glorification of Buddhist monks (thereby vindicating them from any form of accountability and giving them carte blanche to act over and above the law of the land) runs against the very grain of Buddhist teachings. In addition, this glorification is unfair to cis male monks, who are being blindly hero-worshipped. Consequently, they are forced to repress themselves in an effort to live up to this unrealistic expectation.

In this election season, we cannot afford to ignore the fact that Dr SKA’s adulation of Buddhist monks (once again, note that there is zero mention of bhikkhunis) caters to the dominant Rajapaksa-SLPP-fuelled discourse of blindfolded patriotism, which conceptualises Buddhist monks as the saviours of the nation. Unfortunately, Dr SKA’s understanding of the role of Sinhala-Buddhist women appears to be somewhat limited to child-bearing, aka giving birth to cis male children, to be conferred to the Theravada Buddhist establishment. We raise the following question: “how does this reading differ from the typical patriarchal narrative that perceives women as mere child-bearing machines?” When SKA, a self-proclaimed Sinhala Buddhist woman, reduces Sinhala-Buddhist cisgender women to mere reproductive vessels, how is she different from a deeply chauvinistic cis man who commands a woman to stay in line?

Intersectionality in gender justice: missing the woods for the trees

At 1.02.00, Dr SKA discusses the challenges faced by working class women vis-a-vis women in positions of higher agency:“... හැබැයි මහපාර අතුගානවා උදේ ඉදන් රෑ වෙනකම්. ඇදුම් ටික මහලා යවලා ඒ සම්පත් ගේනවා.පවුලක අනන්ත අප්‍රමාණ දුක් විදිනවා, දුක් විදලා වැඩක් කරන තැනක කාන්තාවකගෙන් කවූරුහරි අහනවද ඔයාට මේක පුලුවන් ද කියලා. හැබැයි එන්නකො ටිකක් උඩට. ආයතනයක ප්‍රධානියා වෙන්න, රටක පාලන තන්ත්‍රයට අතපොවන්න, ඉහළට එනකොට අහනවා අහියෝගය භාර ගන්න පුලුවන් ද…”. Here, Dr SKA may have genuinely intended to highlight the point that women’s capabilities are questioned only when they head towards the higher echelons of the career ladder. However, it is baffling to notice how she disregards the reality that women in blue-collar work are not asked if they can accept challenges, primarily because of their positionality, at the intersections of gender and socio-economic status. Their labour is heavily exploited, most often under the most precarious circumstances.

When a woman in a position of agency refers to women who are less privileged, the least she can do is to uphold a discourse that condemns the mass exploitation of underprivileged women, and highlight the vital importance of struggles to help consolidate their rights and agency. Concerning the second point she raises here - about successful women being asked if they can accept a challenge - she misses the wood for the trees. Not once does she call out the elephant in the room – patriarchal structures that put women in a subordinate position. It is a system that is inevitably inclined to tokenize, and in some cases weaponize, the less than handful of women who, like Dr SKA, make their way to high office in cis-male dominated power structures.

On the same note, citing a popular teledrama telecast almost three decades ago, she lauds the fact that its female protagonist categorically refrains from availing of, or demanding, her rights. Subjugated by her [cis male] husband, the female protagonist finds it beyond challenging to stand up for her rights - a tragedy in itself that Dr SKA idolizes. We maintain that the responsibility and societal duty of a woman in public life in a country like ours is not to celebrate practices and examples that disregard a woman’s erstwhile rights, but to call for, and boldly spearhead, unapologetic initiatives to secure the rights, agency, and power she is routinely, systemically, systematically and ruthlessly denied.

When we connect this to her apparent understanding of the glass ceiling that pervades every facet of a Sri Lankan woman’s life, it is absurd to think that she is oblivious to the predicament of Sri Lankan women. What is shocking is the fact that she keeps taking for granted, and indeed defending, patriarchal social norms which situate women in a resigned, silenced position. The host of this show adopts a disturbingly phallocentric attitude that can only be described as shameless. He applauds Dr SKA in her defence of the patriarchy, with utterly demeaning statements such as, “දැන් ඔබ සමාජයේ කැපී පෙනෙන සමාජ සේවිකාවක්. මෙහෙම කාන්තාවකට සුවිශේෂී ස්වාමි පුරුෂයකු අවශ්‍යය යි, ඇයට නිදහසේ කටයුතු කරන්න අවශ්‍ය නිදහස ලබා දෙන්න” (refer 1:17:50). This leads us to question not only the host's media ethics, but consequently, the ethics of the TV channel itself. In 2020, we simply cannot afford to condone a cis man in a position of power in the media sector who upholds a heavily patriarchal-cum-reactionary political agenda.

We, as Sinhala-Buddhist women and intersectional feminists who firmly believe in gender justice, call for fulsome and holistic gender equality across the length and breadth of Sinhala-Buddhist society. We maintain that it is our responsibility to strongly challenge the Sinhala-Buddhist establishment’s dogmatic and archaic practices, the gender-based discrimination it perpetuates, and the ethnonational supremacism it upholds. We believe in the prospect of an inclusive, dynamic and cosmopolitan brand of Sri Lankan Buddhism, which prizes the fundamental Buddhist principles of equality and justice.

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