Why Sunila Abeysekera loved March 8
I visited Sunila around 8th March 2013 to spend some time with her after she'd been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. Sunila was to me, as she was to many of us, the clearest, sharpest light that I'd turn to any time I needed to help understand some knotty aspect of the women's movement. I decided to ask Sunila a few questions about her thoughts of International Women's Day, her own journey in the women's movement, and the place the international women's movement was at. I thought I'd share these recordings with others as a way of remembering her especially on this 20th year past the Beijing World Conference on Women.
- Susanna George, current Chair of the Board of and former Executive Director of Isis International
Excerpts from the full interview
Sunila, why do you love IWD? What's so special about it?
Well, it's great that on March 8 women all around the world celebrate. March 8 is a public holiday in some countries, like in Cuba. It's a universal day. I think everywhere in the world, there are some women in every country who will remember March 8. It's a kind of way to think about the internationalist nature of being part of the women's movement.
Second thing is that every year on March 8 we remember the history and why we celebrate. A history of women workers struggling for rights in the US and socialist women like Clara Zetkin who called for the declaration of March 8 as Women's Day. So it's also a day in which we remember the history of women coming together to struggle for justice and equality.
So I think there's a historical part of it which I really like and the part of it that is about internationally feeling somehow together - this is our day. It's very important.
And do you think this has changed over time?
Compare 1975, which I'm using as a cutoff point because that was the International Year of the Woman, and today, the numbers of women who know about and celebrate March 8 have grown very much.
Now March 8 is mainstreamed to the point that government ministries celebrate it and the UN celebrates it. It's gone beyond something that's only just about a day that is important to the women's movement. It's been completely mainstreamed. So there's a positive and negative to that of course, but certainly a huge difference from 30 or 40 years ago.
What motivated you to start your journey as a feminist?
Part of it is personal and part of it is political which is a really nice thing when you're a feminist.
The personal part of it is growing up to be a young woman in a country like Sri Lanka which had post-colonial discontents and had space for women and yet did not have space for women.
And coming from a family where my parents had never made me feel as if being female, being a woman, being a girl, meant that I couldn't do this or that and going out into a world where I discovered sexism and sexual harassment and misogyny sometimes. It was kind of a gut instinct actually to want to become part of a movement that demanded equality for women.
And the political piece of it is about being young. I was born in 1952 so in 1975 when the UN celebrated the International Year of the Woman I was in my twenties, and we had the first woman prime minister in the world in Sri Lanka and there was some publicity around the International Year of the Woman and the Mexico conference. There was a political and social environment in which talking about women's rights and equality for women became legitimate in some way and became something that governments and the United Nations took seriously.
By 1985 I went to the conference in Nairobi. There was a huge movement in my personal trajectory but also in the trajectory of many women around the world at this time.
When we started off in the second wave we named ourselves hyphenated feminists and since then there's been a huge shift towards a more un-hyphenated feminist definition. What do you think of all of that?
When we began talking about ourselves as feminists in the 1970s and 80s we would define ourselves according to our political positioning on a grid that was about understanding patriarchy as a contributing factor to women's oppression and exploitation. So there were liberal feminists and socialist feminist, and Marxist feminist, and radical feminists, and anarcho-feminists and eco-feminists. We would define ourselves as feminists but also attach ourselves to a political understanding of the world. Not only of ourselves as women, but ourselves as human beings that live in a particular social and political context.
I think today when you have a generic term 'feminist' it indicates that you miss the politics. You miss a political understanding of economics, political structures and social structures. I think when you just say 'feminists', it's sometimes too simplistic and that's why it's so frustrating now. Everybody can be a feminist. Hilary Clinton is a feminist and Mrs Gaddafi is a feminist and I'm a feminist and you're a feminist. You lose the fine distinctions.
So what excited you about the women's movement then? What do you mean when you used the word 'we'?
The 'we' is very important because I'm never a feminist alone. I'm always a feminist in conjunction with other feminists. The 'we' are the women that I've worked with in Sri Lanka. And the 'we' is a global community of feminists with whom I've been engaging with feminist politics for 30 years. I have a strong sense of the 'we', of the collective. That's what I find most exciting about being a feminist. There is a strong community of women from all over the world, who for some bizarre reason somehow come together and have a sense of solidarity, feeling the same about something. There's a strong sense of a 'we', a collective shared identity and shared politics, and I think it's still there.
I can remember feeling so excited in Nairobi. Nairobi was a fascinating experience, because it was the introduction of the DAWN (Development Alternatives for Women in a New Era) to the women's movement. It was the introduction of the women, law and development networks. There was such a seething mass of women from all over the world. So much excitement and so much friendship. That's what I think I carry with me from 1985 through to today. That excitement of feeling a sense solidarity and collective identity.
Is there anything that worries you about the women's movement today?
Even to talk about the women's movement today is very frustrating because in the years since the late 1990s there's been so much fragmentation, so much specialisation - which is good. But in our efforts to specialise in one or the other areas we also lost sight of the big picture in some way. So today I encounter so many brilliant women, young women who work on migration issues who don't see the relation between migration and trafficking. I find so many really brilliant women who work on issues of food and poverty who are somehow disconnected from groups that are working on other environmental rights issues. There's a disconnect.
So there's a lot of interesting, innovative, exciting work, but it's in segments, in sectors, and it's fragmented. So for me the big challenge now is to see how can we bring all this brilliance and all this excitement and innovation to develop an understanding of the big picture, and about the world as it now exists because the world is so much crazier than it used to be. More than ever we need to have a political understanding of the broader frameworks.
What about our storming of the UN, what do you think about that?
It had a really huge impact on the women's movement and I think 1993 for me, because I'm also a human rights defender and the World Conference on Women's Rights, and the global campaign to claim women's rights as human rights was really important. From that point onwards, there was a process of UN Conferences.
During that time there were many opportunities for women in the women's movement and for feminists to have an active participation in the formulation of language and policy that would embed women's rights, and commitments and obligations to women's rights in consensus documents that are supposed to be agreed upon by all the states that are members of the UN.
I think there was an interesting potential and the women's movement made really good use of it, but what I see happening now is that the engagement with the UN became and end in itself. We didn't want to be the ones who hang around the Commission on Status of Women or go to Geneva to the Human Rights Council every year. Our aim was to get some strong language into documents that could be used to shape policy and law that would benefit women.
But now I think there is also, perhaps even a generation of women who operate at this global level in some unreal way. You can go to New York and Geneva and do stuff that has nothing to do with what's happening to women back in your own country or in any of the countries that are represented in the UN.
I think many women find the UN processes very frustrating. Women were promised that UN Women would be an entity that would give parity of status to women's affairs within the UN system and it hasn't done that. I think that in itself is an indication of what a low priority women's rights and the advancement has in the global economic and political system. We just don't want to face that reality sometimes. So we continue to go and work the system. Somewhere along the lines in the 2000s we needed to take stock of what we were doing when we were engaging in the UN system.
What trajectory do you see us taking in the future?
There are so many brilliant young and old feminists doing really good work on specific things.
And the challenge is to re-imagine, redevelop, redefine an understanding of patriarchy and misogyny. If you look at the work around violence against women for example, everybody does violence against women work, right? The UN, governments, the EU, all the different UN and global agencies, funders, women's groups, community based groups in small villages in all our countries, but the discussion on misogyny and patriarchy is most often absent from those discussions.
We don't talk enough about the nature of the state and state institutions like the police and judicial system. We don't talk enough about why there is misogyny in the world. Why do people do the most barbaric things to women and get away with it using arguments of culture and religion, and customary practice? What is it that we are so afraid to talk about?
Somehow we have the challenge of bridging that gap between the work that so many people are doing at so many different levels. It's supposed to be about the advancement of women, the elimination of violence against women, about women's rights and equality, but somehow it never addresses root causes. So I would really like to go back to root causes in which patriarchy and misogyny are embedded.
And I think sooner or later we'll go there. Historically these things go in cycles, so we will have a fifth wave of feminism that brings these things together.
What advice do you have for the brave hearted who decide to journey the same journey?
It's really great to be a feminist. So many people are afraid to say 'I'm a feminist'. You have to be brave but it's also so much fun. You can fall in love. You can have such immensely deep and intense friendships with women from around the world. Some of my friendships with feminists are 30-35 years old and we've travelled together. That possibility in and of itself, that potential to feel that sense of a collective spirit, that's very important.
What core values and beliefs have sustained you through the years?
For me the world is divided into two lots of people: the people who believe that the essential capacity human beings is to be evil and cruel and people who believe that our essential capacity is to be good and compassionate. I'm one of the people that believe we have the capacity to be good and that has always sustained me even when people behave in evil and cruel ways.
The other core value is about trusting in friendships. My friends have sustained me all my life and I think that you have to trust people and let go of negativity. Now I'm an old lady so I can sit here with my few grey hairs and talk about it. Sixty years and one of the things that has enabled me to get this far is to not waste your time in hating people or thinking about why people are bad or why do people do awful things. Always try and find something to look at, something nice.
My kids laugh at me. Their childhood memories are of me dragging them out of bed at 2 o'clock in the morning and saying 'Get up! Come look at moon on the the paddy fields!' But that's what sustains me also. Just little things, you know? Fireflies and the moon at night, and the little bit of green on the trees when the spring is on its way. I really find so much joy in the world.
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