Here, we reach out to people who will reflect on the theme and share their insights as to how it relates to their lives and work.
This month YFN reached out to Nethmini Medawala, who shared her thoughts on the intersection of Feminism and Law, as well as an insight into her experience in the legal field as both an activist and an Attorney-at-Law! Read a short Bio on Nethmini, after the questions!
- What is the interconnectedness you see between feminism and Law? How do feminist scholarship and activism help us frame our understanding of the Legal space?
The initial idea of law and feminism was developed in the mid-1800s where the law was identified as an instrument of male supremacy. Critiquing the existing laws became a key part of the feminist movement at early stages because discriminatory laws, including the inability to vote, prevented women from getting involved in public spaces and having agency. However, with the steady growth of the feminist movement, many pursued higher education and research on gender and contributed to the scholarly discourse. This could also be considered as the initial formulation of what is now known as feminist jurisprudence. The little but significant victories of the early wave of feminism didn’t achieve its true purpose — equality. Everything ultimately is a power struggle. The strong wanting to dominate the weak. It is argued that man-made law does only that. The supposedly weaker sex — women, are controlled and dominated by a system of laws developed in a social structure dominated by men. Even the most gender-neutral laws have a male bias in practice. If societies are to progress, the laws must evolve with the times. If not, either it will hinder the advancement of society or becomes obsolete. The archaic laws that precluded women from accessing what’s rightfully theirs because it is the social norm at the point, still continue to obstruct women and girls and those who may not conform to cisgender norms, to actively participate in society and realize their fullest potential. Feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser argues that there are “gender dimensions” to all struggles for social justice, and “feminists better be in these struggles and bring out those dimensions because certainly nobody else will.”
- How has the Law, as per your opinion, protected and empowered the rights of women and girls nationwide, and do you believe there is room for improvement?
I’d start by saying quite poorly. Have we made progress since the late 1800s? absolutely — in some areas. But some of our Victorian laws still hinder women from being treated as equals. For example, law reforms such as the Amendment made to the Penal Code in 1995 are quite significant. It raised the age of consent to 16 years and sexual harassment was recognized as a crime. The same amendment however criminalized same-sex activities between two consenting women and retained the age of consent at 12, if the girl is the wife of the man. The Domestic Violence Act of 2005 recognized physical as well as emotional abuse committed towards a spouse by the spouse, ex-spouse, or the cohabiting partner. Yet according to the Women’s Wellbeing Survey 2019, 2 in every 5 women (39.8%) have suffered physical, sexual, emotional, and/or economic violence and/or controlling behaviors by a partner. We are a country that to date does not recognize marital rape as a crime. Abortion is still a criminal offense. Female Genital Mutilation is becoming prevalent. Women and Girls get sexually harassed when they go to law enforcement to report rape. Underage girls are trafficked and sold online and sometimes to even government officers and priests. I am not even going to start on discriminatory personal laws, lack of political representation, and economic disparities that exist solely for women. We have a long way to go and every little step we take to make the status quo better for the next generation counts.
- How in your view, can young feminists looking to learn more about the interconnectedness between feminism and Law do so?
It is a very cliché thing to say — but READ. I think the more you read, the more you understand. When I say read, it doesn’t have to only be academic or legal writing. Read about history, movements, philosophies, and women who changed the direction of feminism. These days I am inspired by the writings of Kamla Bhasin, Arundhati Roy, Dr. Malathi de Alwis, and the lives of Sunila Abeysekera, Rajani Thiranagama, and Manouri Muttetuwegama. It is encouraging to read about how the feminist movement sustained during times of uncertainty and didn’t lose hope when progress was slow. Look at feminism and law as two entities that can complement each other. The more progressive our laws are, the more it is better for women. And having a strong feminist movement is conducive for law reforms and the eventual advancement of society.
I’d also share a few books that helped me to understand feminism to the extent I do now. The connection between feminism and law is something I was exposed to when I started reading for my Bachelor’s Degree and I have an experience-based understanding of the area.
a). The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
b). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
c). A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
d). Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis
e). Ain’t I a Woman? by Bell Hooks
- What is your advice for us, in reflecting on this intersection between feminism and Law into our feminist leadership and activism movement?
Becoming a feminist is not difficult. You need little to no understanding of feminism to brand yourself as one. But continuing to be a feminist is. You don’t have to have a larger-than-life presence to inspire another. Living by your principles and practicing what you preach is essential if you want to inspire another generation of young girls and boys to be feminists. Feminists should also have a holistic approach to equality. If we discriminate against people based on their religion, identity, or sexual orientation, then how hypocritical is it of us to fight for gender equality? We should reach out to allies and build partnerships. As much as not all women are feminists, all men aren’t misogynists too. The most fascinating part for me about the early stages of feminism is that how relationships were formed for a common goal. To analyze the law as an instrument of patriarchy and the multitude of approaches followed by women –also the privileged, to lobby for change. Women took to the streets but also pushed the lawmakers. Legal systems should reflect the realities of women and all people who differ from the norms of the law. If it will shake the society and its established practices, let it be so. Change is chaotic.
Nethmini Medawala is an Attorney-at-Law with a Bachelor’s Degree in Law and a Master’s Degree in Human Rights from the University of Colombo. She is currently working as Head of Programmes at Hashtag Generation. Before joining the development sector, she worked for the United Nations and the Government of Sri Lanka on Gender, Human Rights, and Reconciliation.