A Legacy of Driving Feminist Consciousness: Dr. Kumari Jayawardena

Everystory Sri Lanka presents the first thirty stories from our ongoing work to create a compendium of Sri Lankan women’s stories — featuring those whose lives, work, and experiences have shaped and are shaped by Sri Lanka’s social, political, and cultural contexts.

From the Stories of Sri Lankan Women Archive — Dr. Kumari Jayawardena

Illustration by Devni Jay- nomadicartisan.sl@gmail.com

Feminism and decolonial discussions hold no weight if Dr. Kumari Jayawardena’s work isn’t referenced. Dr. Kumari — as students and academics know her best — and her work are vital foundations and embodiments of the topic from a South Asian and Global South lens. Building on her father’s knowledge, influence, and interest in politics through Dr. Kumari’s parents, who had a political background. Dr. Kumari’s father was involved in progressive Sri Lankan politics as early as the 1930s, and her maternal grandmother was part of the Suffragette Movement in England. Her tertiary education in political science and industrial relations in England was the beginning of Dr. Kumari’s conceptualisation of feminism and identity politics and what that meant to the Sri Lankan individual. Her works were focused within the South Asian context, a remarkable standard to begin with for Sri Lankan academia, politics, culture, and feminism, all of which took off in the 1960s.

One of Dr. Kumari’s most famous works — arguably a cornerstone in her career and feminist academia — is ‘Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World’ (1986). This book, edited by her, is a guide to women’s movements and activists in countries spanning India, Egypt, Iran, Japan, and Sri Lanka, worlds that are often understudied and under-theorised on a global scale. Before this, however, Dr. Kumari and other distinguished Sri Lankan scholars founded the Social Scientists’ Association in the ’70s. She is still involved in the SSA as the Secretary. ‘We [still] take up various causes [on] anything that comes up politically by mak[ing] statements …’ she explained when asked about the SSA’s current work. She also mentioned the association’s role in publishing Sri Lankan and South Asian works on their platform. Her book ‘From Nobodies to Somebodies: The Rise of the Colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka’ (1996) is a detailed exploration of ethnicity, gender, and caste behind a colonial and emerging capitalist backdrop: two intersections that stand as relevant analysts in our current economic climate. ‘It is still heavily in demand even today,’ Dr. Kumari says as an afterthought when expressing the impacts of such work.

When discussing her early work, Dr. Kumari spoke fondly of particular places, such as the headquarters of the SSA in Suleiman Terrace and her home in Colpetty, where she worked with other established and emerging academics and scholars. She worked extensively with Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy and Dr. Malathi De Alwis in constructing research and beginning movements, whose works with Dr. Kumari were fertile grounds for their later research. Her home also served as a ‘meeting place’ for intellectuals and academics, a space to voice impending social and political issues and influence fellow activists in the work they did or would later carry out. Not only was this a blessing for Sri Lankan academia and activism, but it was an entirely new network of female scholars whose solidarity and working relationships were empowering in themselves. This is evident through Dr. Kumari’s memories of those ‘those days’ and her colleagues many years later. She further recollects working with Neloufer De Mel, Neluka Silva, Radhika Coomaraswamy, Suriya Wickramasinghe, Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake, Malathi De Alwis, and Maithree Wickramasinghe among others. Some of them ‘obviously influenced their husbands’ in politics, she says laughingly.

Dr. Kumari expressed that her late husband, who she was married to for forty years, was the ‘biggest support’ in her work. He inspired her as an academic, and as a teacher. Their joint liberal and radical politics changed how the world and South Asians perceived the genres of feminisms, colonisation, and capitalism outside the Western World. Dr. Pradeep Jayawardena was a well-known economist in his line of work in Sri Lanka, and Dr. Kumari’s establishment through her husband and their marriage is a notable factor. ‘My husband had a job in Belgium — [around the same time] my mother passed away there — and I held a job at the Institute of Social Studies in Holland where I taught Women and Development Studies in English.’ Here, she pauses, smiles, and says, ‘I traveled back and forth [between Holland and Belgium], but no, it wasn’t a long commute.’

Pushback and criticisms were — and still are — inevitable when heavily researched works as radical as these were published, but Dr. Kumari seems to pay no heed to these conservative approaches and attitudes. From the time she began her career to now, only four more women have been appointed as members of Parliament in Sri Lankan politics, so she does not undermine the struggles in activism: ‘the only way in for women is through the National List, and it is very hard to have men voting for women,’ she says. Nevertheless, after leaving a trailblazing mark in her academia and theories, she urges young people to ‘keep working hard, stay active and be political on various issues’ that underpins our everyday lives. Suppose one is conflicted or neutral on political ideologies as a result of their privilege. In that case, Dr. Kumari’s work stands as a true reminder that being political is not only always relevant, but it is also profoundly intrinsic to the ever-changing consciousness between generations in the way we view these issues and our capabilities in inculcating change.

Dr. Kumari’s more inconspicuous works are as exciting and unique. In her collaborations with other women writers and scholars, she cultivated various topics, including aiming to foster reconciliation during the civil war (her essays are included in ‘Hybrid Island’ [2002]), women in politics (‘Casting Pearls’ [2002]), the relationships between colonial powers and natives (‘Erasure of the Euro-Asian’ [2007]) among many others. She even delved into fiction when she was encouraged by her school teachers to write a Sinhala column on a ‘naughty boy called Banda’ during her early years. She looks back on these lesser-serious works with great warmth and vigour after a successful, plentiful, and imaginably tiresome career.

The urgency of continuing political and activist work on the infrastructure that Dr. Kumari has built is more important than ever, especially when Sri Lanka faces rippling ethnic and neocolonial issues similar to just a few decades ago. She has also been vocal on the complexity of social and political issues and that combating them is more profound than superficial representation. In a conversation with The Hindu, Dr. Kumari stated, ‘you can have a queen; you can have all sorts of situations where it looks like a woman is at the top. But that doesn’t mean that patriarchy has gone, or that women are not oppressed in terms of wages, employment, society, customs, superstitions.

Dr. Kumari’s resilient work and radical spirit continue to capture many of today’s attention, inspiration, and attitudes in whatever field they work in, and significantly between generations. Since politics influences, our everyday actions, lifestyles, and fundamental rights, Dr. Kumari Jayawardena’s work has the undeniable ability to remain untarnished if placed in a time capsule.

(Sakina Aliakbar holds a Master of Creative Writing, Publishing & Editing from Melbourne, Australia. She writes for film and prose in fiction, non-fiction, and creative non-fiction across various genres on culture, identity, and sexuality. She is currently based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.)

(Seravi Harris has worked as a Junior Programme Manager and Intern with Everystory Sri Lanka for two summers now. She hopes to study literature and history at university after she graduates from school and is interested in exploring the field of counter terrorism and human rights development later on.)

Reference links and further reading

‘Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World,’ Kumari Jayawardena. London: Zed Books, 1886.

‘From Nobodies to Somebodies: the rise of the colonial bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka’, Kumari Jayawardena. Colombo: Social Scientists Association, 1998.

‘Hybrid Island: culture crossings and intervention of identity in Sri Lanka,’ ed. Neluka Silva. London: Zed Books, 2002.

‘Casting Pearls: the women’s franchise movement in Sri Lanka,’ Kumari Jayawardena and Malathi de Alwis. Colombo: Social Scientists Association, 2001.

‘Erasure of the Euro-Asian,’ Kumari Jayawardena. Colombo: Social Scientists Association, 2007.

‘In Conversation with Kumari Jayawardena’, The Hindu, 2017. https://www.thehindu.com/books/%E2%80%98There-was-a-gap-about-our-part-of-the-world%E2%80%99/article16970546.ece

‘Celebrating the Work of Kumari Jayawardena’, Kalpana Kannabiran. Council for Social Development Hyderabad, year unknown. https://www.academia.edu/6254505/Celebrating_the_Work_of_Kumari_Jayawardena

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Everystory Sri Lanka

Everystory Sri Lanka

Everystory Sri Lanka (formed in 2018) is a collective of young Sri Lankan feminists identifying as a storytelling collective.