The sexist backlash over the decision of four female celebrities to run for political office at the upcoming elections is as depressing as it is predictable.
Former Miss Sri Lanka and popular model Gayesha Perera, singer Ginger (Judith White), actress Ruwanthi Mangala and Malsha Kumaratunga, daughter of Minister Jeevan Kumaratunga have all announced that they are to run as candidates in this year’s provincial council elections. But the response has not been positive.
Amidst a variety of media commentary (and comment thread outrage), it was the intervention of the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) that was perhaps most notable. In a statement published last week they bemoaned the fact that “the two main political parties are neglecting experienced local politicians…and filling their nomination lists with ‘sex symbols.’”
On the one hand, CaFFE make a good point when they say that “Sri Lankan politics have a dearth of strong female politicians” and bemoan the difficulties faced by experienced and active women attempting to break into that closed patriarchal shop. Their assertion that nominating female celebrities as candidates “have ensured that this will continue into the foreseeable future” is less convincing however.
There are a number of ways to show this – but the first would seem to be a recognition that the very language CaFFE are using is redolent of precisely the sexist culture they would claim to be against. Sri Lanka has huge systemic, structural and socio-cultural barriers that stop women entering politics, and as Kusan Perera points out in the Colombo Telegraph, the way that these 4 women have been dismissed as “sex symbols” is itself symbolic of many of the problems that women face.
The validity of the candidature of four people, in other words, has been immediately ridiculed on the basis of their gender. And for further evidence of how entrenched sexism is in the political system, look no further than the embarrassing (and appalling) range of comments made by the Minister for Women’s Affairs and Child Development, or the treatment meted out in parliament to Rosy Senanayake.
Sri Lanka has a problem with sexism, and Sri Lankan politics even more so – that much is not news. But the attitudinal problems faced by women both in politics and beyond is just the tip of the iceberg. We could talk about everyday sexism, about the level of sexual and physical violence Sri Lankan women face, or the huge numbers of households that are female led after the civil war and the issues they face. All these things are important issues when discussing sexism in Sri Lanka, but the more important issue is the way that political structures are set up to exclude women.
There are systemic problems in Sri Lanka that continue to make it practically impossible for women to win seats, be it cultural, religious, inner party politics and access to finance, or overall access to networks etc. that would allow them to establish themselves as credible politicians. Parties have quotas for women representatives, but hardly any fulfil it, plus as it is a quota for ‘women and youth’ the required level can be achieved by having a suitable number of young men in the party.
Female representation in elected bodies in Sri Lanka stands at around 5%, and mocking and patronising those women brave enough to put themselves forward (celebrity or otherwise) does not seem like the best way to help improve that situation. The fact that such popular figures could actually act as role models for future generations of female politicians also doesn’t seem to have occurred.
Of course the aim is to have the best possible candidates involved in any election – but the CaFFE and broader media response seems to suggest that simply because it is women being discussed, they are automatically to be labelled in terms of their looks and sex appeal, with no chance that they could be intelligent, informed and capable people.
The candidate lists at these and other elections are filled with cronies and family members of existing politicians, whilst ministerial positions are seemingly created and filled to prop up political support rather than because of any qualifications or talent. Political nepotism and corruption are real problems that need to be tackled, but appeals to populist sexism are not going to help.
This is not to suggest that the 4 candidates in question are necessarily any good. They may be terrible. But to dismiss them straight away purely on the basis of their sex is not only fundamentally wrong, it is also a clear sign as to why female participation in Sri Lankan politics remains such an important issue, and one that needs to be urgently addressed.
For an interview with all the candidates discussed here, see the Daily Mirror.