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More women in politics are necessary to challenge patriarchal political culture, Harini Amarasuriya

Harini Amarasuriya is a Member of Parliament (MP) from Sri Lanka representing the National People's Power (NPP) alliance. She is an academician and activist turned politician. She represents the Progressive Women's Collective of NPP.

Women for Politics interviewed Harini last year in the run-up to the Sri Lankan parliament elections. Almost a year later, as a parliamentarian, Harini discusses her experiences as MP and gender equality in Sri Lankan politics.

Welcome back to Women for Politics! Let us start from where we left last year; your entry to the Sri Lankan parliament. What were the key changes that have happened so far?

Harini Amarasuriya: Well, I am not an academician in a university anymore but a full-time politician now, and that is perhaps, the most significant change for me. And I am still getting used to describing myself as a politician.

I am still relatively unknown, so I do not have to worry too much about being recognised, having to have a mask on constantly, which was one of my biggest concerns initially. I am generally a private person, I am not used to being in the public eye, that would change things and make me uncomfortable, so far it has been relatively okay and been able to get about doing things the way I have always done things, and I hope it stays that way.

How often do you come across stereotypes, what have your experiences been? Have you worn a saree to the parliaments yet (since you made a statement on saree earlier)?

Harini Amarasuriya: I have to wear a saree, and the issue of clothing is non-negotiable, and I felt that out of all the issues that I will start picking on in the first year of the parliament, the saree would not be one.

In terms of stereotypes, I think the real battle has been perhaps not to limit myself to speak or comment only on what is considered to be women’s issues. I am trying to avoid being pigeonholed by talking only about women, children or welfare issues or the ‘soft issues’ in general. My party has also been a little helpful. Right from the beginning, an understanding has been reached that I should not pigeonhole myself into such issues. But as soon as I became an MP, I was portrayed as a ‘woman’ in the parliament and was expected to only focus on women-centric issues and not be interested in other topics. Getting rid of this stereotype has been the biggest challenge for me because, at the same time, I want to bring the much needed left-wing feminist perspective into politics.

Apart from colleagues from your party, who do you identify with in the parliament?

Harini Amarasuriya - Not really. I obviously talk to my two colleagues. There are three of us in the parliament from the NPP coalition. Initially, my political conversations were really helpful, showing me the ropes, even literally like the physical space and introducing me to the staff in the parliament, things like that. They were very supportive and I relied on them quite a bit in the early stages.

Others are very civil to each other; nobody is mean to each other despite what you see on television debates. Once you leave the chambers, everyone is polite and friendly. In the committees that we are on, there is lots of collaboration and little hostility. There are certain people I talk to more. I think it's also because of the seating arrangement. We distinguish ourselves from the main opposition, so the chatting happens mainly with the Tamil parties (seated closer) rather than the main opposition.

There are two other university people in the parliament, whom I knew before coming to the parliament. There is some level of familiarity, so I chat with them when I see them. I know a few others, but I don’t identify with most of them.

Women parliamentarians in Sri Lanka came together to support the first woman DIG (Deputy Inspector General of Police). Do you see women parliamentarians coming together in a similar way on issues to support other fellow women politicians too?

Harini Amarasuriya: I think there is potential. There is a women's caucus and a select committee on gender equality which has just met once, but the caucus has met a few more times. Currently, the chair of the committee is also the Minister in charge of the Covid-19 prevention, so she is fully occupied.

While there is potential, there are also limits to the collaboration. Firstly, there is an obvious difference in how we approach gender equality. We all agree that something needs to be done about women’s rights. For issues such as gender-based violence and sexual harassment, there is agreement. But, when it comes to the less obvious areas of work, there are apparent differences in how we approach the issue of gender. For instance, I would have a much more structural analysis of the issue of gender, than others, who are more liberal rights focussed and those who are a bit more charitable and say, ‘we need to help women.’ We even had prepared a workshop, but we postponed it due to the pandemic.

The other problem is that the current parliament is not very conducive for cross-party collaboration. The ruling party has a solid majority, so they don’t have a compulsion to work with the opposition. When the larger political context becomes confrontational, it gets difficult for us to collaborate on women’s issues. I think in a more balanced parliament, there will be more scope for collaboration.

NPP was allotted only one national list seat and they nominated you for that. Would you say your nomination to the parliament had a message to the larger political audience?

Harini Amarasuriya: Yes, I think so. When they spoke to me about nominating me, they gave me two reasons why they felt that I should be the nominee, even though I was not on the list, in terms of the order I was six or seven.

The reasons they gave me were, one that I am not a member of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) (political party in NPP alliance) and that was important in terms of the fact that we contested as an alliance (NPP). And since the two members of the JVP were elected, they felt the third slot should go to someone who would represent the alliance, right, and they said the second reason was the fact that I am a woman. And they felt that would mean something. Probably the first reason was much more important than the second one for the decision on my nomination. The second reason of course helped too.

I think my educational background and that I was in the university system have also defined and impacted my experience which is a typical experience and that means I'm treated a little bit differently. And I'm very, very aware of that. And it's also because of the party that I'm given equal time to speak, there are the three of us and then we divide up the time equally amongst us when we are allocated time in the parliament.

Could you tell us more about the experiences of women in Sri Lankan politics? What are the challenges and opportunities available?

Harini Amarasuriya: Yes, I think that it's obvious and evident that women politicians are judged much more harshly and differently than men politicians. But, I don’t believe that just because you are a woman, you are naturally going to behave in a particular manner. Behaviour in the parliament is linked to the kind of political context and the political culture of your party. So right now, we have a very aggressively violent political culture. Women are not going to behave differently to that unless they can challenge the system.

I mean, it’s easy for me to do all of those things because I don’t get pulled up by my party and I don’t have to defend the aggressive patriarchal behaviour from my colleagues and that’s why it gets much easier for me. One can’t imagine what it would be like to be a woman in the ruling government. For example, some senior men members behave very violently in that party. They use foul language and often resort to heckling. One also has to defend their party and then it gets tough to go against the party. Whenever my women colleagues and I meet outside, we talk about these things in the caucus. We all agree that this behaviour is incorrect.

We all say things like, “Why don’t the next time someone says something vulgar, let us all get up and leave.” But we never did this because I think it will be complicated for other women to do this even though we all know that it's wrong and we all agree that it’s not how things should be. But it's challenging for women leaders to actually take a stance and remain a part of their party. This is also one of the reasons why we actually need more women in politics. Increasing numbers would help us balance power within the parties, which may also shift towards the right. That will again be good because their men colleagues will not still dominate the women leaders in those parties. This is why I keep on stressing that mine’s a very different experience than the other women leaders.

Sexual harassment is also a part of the political culture in Sri Lanka, and it’s not new. It’s also not unique to Sri Lanka. I believe that these things can only change when there are actually more women in politics. If you want to change the political culture that supports this kind of behaviour, there needs to be a shift in numbers. We also need a much broader push back from society against this kind of behaviour, no matter if a man or a woman does it.

Is there a difference in the experience of women across political parties?

Harini Amarasuriya: I don’t have much experience with political parties, but I am constantly surprised at the hierarchy they have to put up within their parties. There are distances between the party leaders and the ordinary members and I have not experienced these things in quite the same way. When I talk to women in the JVP, their experiences are different. Their experiences are different from what I hear from other women politicians in various parties, where the harassment is at a basic fundamental level, but sadly, it’s all accepted. I am also not saying that it does not happen in the JVP, but if it occurs in the JVP, it gets called out. It does not get swept under the carpet. But largely, it seems pretty normal in the other parties. More than anything else, we have a hierarchy, the kind where women leaders are the backbenchers or even nobody. They also have to bow to their bosses.

On a few occasions, we have seen you take the parliament’s speaker's chair and SL has not had a woman speaker in the parliament. Do you see a significant need for the Sri Lankan government to appoint a woman speaker for the parliament?

Harini Amarasuriya: First of all, the fact that I took the chair was nothing unusual. There’s a system like a chairperson, where about ten-twelve of us are nominated to rotate and chair the sessions when the speaker or the deputy speaker is not around. So we are called upon periodically. It would be great to have a woman speaker, it would be quite a significant thing, but I would just go for a much more non-partisan speaker right now. I can see how bias towards a party affects the functioning of the parliament.

When I speak to my colleagues, they tell me about instances where the speaker does play a significant role in getting things done. So I think it is essential to have a strong speaker who ensures that things happen fairly and democratically within the parliament. Here, I wouldn’t mind if it’s a man or a woman. Just having someone like that is absolutely essential, but we don’t even have anyone like that at the moment.

What’s in store for women whenever National People’s Power (NPP) comes to rule in the future?

Harini Amarasuriya: We might not overturn the scenarios but we do have the manifesto, which spells out quite clearly how we envisage the role of women in politics. We have also started to discuss bringing in more perspectives firmly into the mainstream about what we do. We don’t want to be regarded as the sidekicks or the add-ons. We want our views to be acknowledged by the mainstream, which is a much harder struggle, as it involves ideological shifts and a constant conversation.

The conversations might have started, but by no means it’s a done deal. It's about integrating our perspectives within the mainstream political culture and political ideology. All this is going to be a long term battle for us. We are also confident that we are not going to have the trouble of allocating enough funds. Be it for the women’s ministry or in the social security or the reformist, which I am sure we can get done as and when we come to power. But that’s not where our primary fight is; instead, we struggle to make this topic mainstream.

Suppose young women decide to extend their support to the National People’s Power (NPP). Will they be made to feel empowered by your party?

Harini Amarasuriya: NPP is essentially a political movement; it is not a party. In fact we did not think of contesting elections, it just happened that we did. It was supposed to be a people’s movement. It brought together individuals, groups, organisations and other political parties that shared the same ideology and values. The JVP was always supposed to be the political party doing the mainstream politics, whereas we were the movement. It so happened that NPP contested for elections, and now we are also campaigning. So in that sense, NPP is made up of different organisations, and someone who shares our values and ideologies will find a space with us to engage. There are so many groups within NPP like the women’s movement, the environment movement or the artists. They can contribute to one of the organisations that make up NPP or set up their own thing. So it is a platform for people to come on board, and mainly one needs to share our values and ideologies.

[Additional inputs from Tharaka, Vatsla, Apala, Aleena, Shruti, Ekta, Sanjay and Aarushi]

[All the photographs are taken from her Facebook page]

The previous interview with Dr Harini Amarasuriya which was conducted in the run up to the parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka last year can be found here

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Read previous interviews from our South Asia series here.


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