Dr. Asha L. Abeyasekera is an International Fellow of Urban Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London (2022). She also served as a senior lecturer — Gender and Women’s Studies — at the Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of Colombo. Read a short bio on Dr. Asha L. Abeyasekera, after the questions!
- As a feminist academic and researcher in Sri Lanka, what specific themes are you focusing on?
I am currently researching two areas that are central to women’s lives and feminist concerns — the concepts of home and homemaking; and how the cultural emotion of laejja-baya shape young people’s lives. Let me talk about the first study, which is looking at how poor working-class women living in wattes in Colombo engage in the labour of homemaking, and negotiate their place in the home.
From the inception of the women’s movement, feminists pointed out that the work women do in the home is taken for granted — it is regarded as a woman’s duty and responsibility — and not accounted for as ‘productive’ labour. What has been less researched is the home as both place and space: a physical place of shelter we inhabit; a space that provides the basic needs of food and clothing; and an emotional space that provides us with a sense of belonging and security. We started our fieldwork in the height of the pandemic — a time when being at home was how we were supposed to stay safe. We discovered how hard women worked to maintain the home as a nurturing space for not only children but others in the family. Women ensure meals are cooked, clothes are washed and ironed, houses are cleaned; they also oversee children’s education and negotiate with neighbours when assistance is needed.
The central paradox is that the home is not always a place of safety, security, or belonging for women. Women endure various forms of domestic violence from husbands, brothers, and fathers, and also in-laws: from physical violence that is injurious and cruel to emotional violence that is controlling and abusive. Men’s alcoholism, gambling, and indebtedness often lead to neglect and abandonment, compelling women to fend for themselves and their children. There are also disputes about ownership of the home with parents, siblings, and in-laws. Single women — widows, divorced, or separated women — are especially vulnerable and live in fear of being thrown out of their homes or of being exploited for their labour in exchange for the ‘privilege’ of having a home. My research, therefore, is focused on dispelling some of the romantic notions of home and highlighting the importance of social security and safety nets for women who cannot always rely on family for survival.
- Could you talk a little bit about how supposed ‘virtues’ such as laejja baya can be a means of social control for women and police the boundaries of acceptable respectable femininity?
I would be hesitant to categorize laejja-baya as a virtue. The cultural emotion of læjja-baya is central to the socialisation of girls in gendered social norms — that is, implicit unwritten rules about how ‘good’ girls should behave. It profoundly shapes women’s sense of self and freedoms. Laejja-baya teaches women to be keenly sensitive to the opinion of others, and inculcates a fear of being shamed and ridiculed for not behaving ‘properly.’ It is a potent instrument of social control. Hence, when girls are told to have laejja-baya, it means conforming to a full spectrum of norms relating to women’s demeanor, decorum, reputation, and sexual propriety.
Laejja-baya teaches girls not to draw attention to themselves. So, even though girls are not meaning to draw attention to themselves by speaking loudly or laughing boisterously or dressing the way they like or openly expressing an emotion like anger or frustration, they are labelled as lacking in laejja-baya when they do. Laejja-baya teaches girls to be restrained, to endure, to be patient; to give full expression to your feelings is to be lacking in respectability.
Girls are also taught that to draw attention to our bodies is to be lacking in sexual propriety. Hence, girls from a very young age are made to feel very self-conscious about their physical bodies. How we sit, walk, cloth ourselves — we are acutely conscious of how others might perceive us as being sexually promiscuous. If a man passes a lewd remark or harasses us, we feel ashamed; it is as if we have done something wrong to elicit that behaviour.
- What does it mean for women in Sri Lanka to challenge these norms of ‘good womanhood’?
My research reveals that girls and women are co-opted (by the insidious way in which patriarchal ideology operates) into demanding this behaviour from each other. Instead of allies, we can be our own worst enemies. Girls live in fear of being shamed by classmates and friends. Mothers and aunts often warn girls about not behaving in a way that brings ‘shame’ to the family. Teachers play a critical role in the socializing process by continuously shaming girls for ‘bad’ behaviour such as loud laughter, for being ‘too forward’, or for being noticed by boys. Part of the reason is that when people in Sri Lanka say they feel ashamed, it is often difficult to differentiate between shame arising from their own transgressions, and shame arising from the ‘bad’ or ‘immoral’ behaviour of someone they know or are associated with. Therefore, women end up policing each other.
I believe the family and schools can do a lot to challenge these norms of ‘good’ behaviour. Sri Lankan families expect girls to do well in life — excel in education, have a career, contribute to society. Alongside these high expectations, parents and teachers, can teach girls to be strong women: to be proud of ourselves, to speak our opinions, express our emotions, own our bodies, and most importantly, not be fearful of ridicule. As girls and women, we can support each other when one of us become the subject of gossip and rumour. Rather then feeling ashamed when we are sexually harassed, we should shame those who demean women.
- Are gender norms and gendered expectations different for women from different socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities, and across the rural-urban divide?
There are differences, but I would like to focus on a similarity — the expectation that all women should get married. My research into the urban poor shows that parents from even the poorest of communities invest in their daughters’ education. Daughters are also encouraged to have career aspirations. Yet, as they get older, parents across the socio-economic spectrum start emphasising the importance of marriage. Young women are told they must ‘settle down.’ Suddenly, and confusingly, marriage becomes the hallmark of success. Money that could be spent on higher education, or helping a woman start her own business, or buy a house is splurged on an elaborate wedding. Because of laejja-baya, young women are pressured into marrying men who show interest in them or their ‘first’ boyfriends before they have time to evaluate the person or consider whether the partnership will work. During my fieldwork I have met many women who excelled in school and feel they could have had better careers or even come out of poverty if only they had not married before they fulfilled their dreams and ambitions.
Dr. Asha L. Abeyasekera is an International Fellow of Urban Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London (2022). She also served as a senior lecturer — Gender and Women’s Studies — at the Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of Colombo. She obtained her PhD in International Development and Anthropology from the University of Bath. Her research interests are ethical self-making; cross-cultural expressions of emotions and wellbeing; and women’s labour and home (un)making. She is the author of Making the Right Choice: Narratives of Marriage in Sri Lanka (2021, Rutgers).