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Table of contents :
Restitching Identities in Rural Sri Lanka
Chapter 1. Global in the Villages: Politics of Contentment
Chapter 2. Pure Girls! Don’t Open the Door
Chapter 3. Industrious and Obedient Daughters-in-Law
Chapter 4. Superwomen and Lazy Lalies: Villages Adjusting to Successful Former Workers
Chapter 5. Sex in the Village: Subversive Sexualities Abandoned?
Chapter 6. The Strange, the Crazy, and the Stubborn
Chapter 7. I Do Not Want to Be Rich and Lonely: Politics of Contentment
Restitching Identities in Rural Sri Lanka
CON TEMPORARY ETHNOGRAPHY Kirin Narayan and Alma Gottlieb, Series Editors A complete list of books in the series is available from the publisher.
RESTITCHING IDENTITIES IN RURAL SRI LANKA Gender, Neoliberalism, and the Politics of Contentment
U N I V E R S I T Y O F P E N N S Y LVA N I A P R E S S PHIL ADELPHIA
Copyright © 2020 University of Pennsylvania Press All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations used for purposes of review or scholarly citation, none of this book may be reproduced in any form by any means without written permission from the publisher. Published by University of Pennsylvania Press Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104-4112 www.upenn.edu/pennpress Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Hewamanne, Sandya, author. Title: Restitching identities in rural Sri Lanka : gender, neoliberalism, and the politics of contentment / Sandya Hewamanne. Other titles: Contemporary ethnography. Description: 1st edition. | Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press,  | Series: Contemporary ethnography | Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifiers: LCCN 2019054889 | ISBN 978-0-8122-5240-8 (hardcover) Subjects: LCSH: Women migrant labor—Sri Lanka. | Return migrants—Sri Lanka. | Women—Sri Lanka—Economic conditions. | Women—Sri Lanka—Social conditions. | Neoliberalism—Social aspects—Sri Lanka. | Women—Identity. | Sex role—Sri Lanka. | Free trade—Sri Lanka. Classification: LCC HD5856.S72 H48 2020 | DDC 331.4095493—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/201905488
For James and (the late) Judy Brow For all that they are to me.
Chapter 1. Global in the Villages: Politics of Contentment Chapter 2. Pure Girls! Don’t Open the Door
Chapter 3. Industrious and Obedient Daughters-in-Law
Chapter 4. Superwomen and Lazy Lalies: Villages Adjusting to Successful Former Workers 68 Chapter 5. Sex in the Village: Subversive Sexualities Abandoned? Chapter 6. The Strange, the Crazy, and the Stubborn Chapter 7. I Do Not Want to Be Rich and Lonely: Politics of Contentment 146 Conclusion 171 Notes 185 Bibliography Index
Restitching Identities in Rural Sri Lanka
Global in the Villages Politics of Contentment
In my factory I sew bags for SF Fibers, which subcontracts for Chris Global. . . . These bags with the Olympic logo are for the Rio Olympics. . . . This contract is big, so I have subcontracted to a few village women who do parts of the bag in their homes. —Nayana, former FTZ worker Although my factory is made of tar sheets and coconut fronds, and I only have four machines, I am a subcontractor for both Sky Garments and Coles Asia! When I was working at Suishin did you ever think I will run my own factory? —Aruni, former FTZ worker When I went to the Free Trade Zone I only had the clothes on my back. When I left I had money, jewelry, friends, fearlessness. . . . Now I have my own “factory” and I subcontract for the same factory I used to work for. Venura sir even calls me his “best small factory owner.” —Hasini, former FTZ worker
When Hasini said this, she was showing me her workshop, which was thatched with coconut fronds and had been built between her kitchen and the home’s boundary walls. Although it was a temporary hut, it contained
Hasini’s most prized possessions—four industrial sewing machines she had purchased using savings from her Free Trade Zone (FTZ) work. These machines made a tangible difference between her time as a global factory worker and her life as a local entrepreneur or, as she once put it, “village factory owner.” Merely owning sewing machines is not enough to become a successful entrepreneur; one also needs good market connections in Colombo and within the FTZ to ensure subcontracting orders. Hasini and many former workers also showed that monetary success achieved through subcontracting was just one part of becoming socially successful in their respective villages; overall success required combining monetary capital with astute local cultural knowledge to manipulate extant social and symbolic capital. This book explores the ways in which former garment factory workers negotiate social and economic lives once back in their villages. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted over fifteen years, this book explores how former FTZ workers manipulate varied forms of capital—social, cultural, and monetary—to become local entrepreneurs and community leaders, while simultaneously initiating gradual changes in rural social hierarchies and gender norms. Their entrepreneurial activities more often than not link former workers to the cascading system of subcontracting that characterizes global production networks. By going beyond the global factory, this book shows how these workers’ performances of social conformity and disavowal of transgressive FTZ knowledge within their (usually their in-laws’) villages allow them to manipulate limited social, economic, and political spaces and thereby gradually reshape existing gender norms. Indeed, these former workers’ creative manipulation of varied forms of capital allows them to acquire new social status markers, which in turn initiate novel forms of disparities among groups of people within villages in ways that highlight the complex effects of globalization and transnational production on third world women and their communities. While demonstrating how working in FTZs introduces Sri Lankan women to neoliberal ways of fashioning selves and how their village entrepreneurial activities initiate negotiations in kinship and domestic arrangements and community relations, what follows highlights how varied manifestations of neoliberal attitudes within local contexts result in new articulations of what it is to be an entrepreneur as well as a good woman. Thus I focus on how former workers may be decentering neoliberal market relations while using their entrepreneurial and civic activities to reimagine
Global in the Villages 3
social life in ways more satisfying to them and their loved ones—a phenomenon I term the “politics of contentment.” Their entanglement with capitalist market relations does not diminish these robust subversions. These women, while engaging with global and urban markets and obsessing over profit margins, also engage in a complex array of behav iors that are motivated by love, compassion, duty, altruism, and care, which are defined and expressed in the vocabulary of happiness, satisfaction, and other worldly rewards. Feminist political economists have long challenged dominant tropes of capitalism by focusing on lived experiences of economic activity and their potential to reinscribe social worlds in more meaningful ways (Gibson-Graham 2006, 2008, 2014; Bear et al. 2015; Tsing 2015; Fisher 2018). Although not their intention, some writings of feminist political economists resulted in a devaluation of activities and movements within and against capital that certain marginalized groups engaged in. By centering politics of contentment to explain former workers’ use and manipulation of varied forms of capital, I follow Harris (2009), who cautions against blinding ourselves to new political possibilities in situations where both reproduction of neoliberal economic relations and alternatives to them coexist. Most scholarship on female global assembly-line workers does not follow them back to their villages after they leave the factories. Thus an understanding of how former workers may use their new knowledge and savings to negotiate village economic lives is a lacuna in the literature on neoliberalism’s effects on people and communities. By focusing on the village lives of thirty-seven former FTZ workers, I show the particular ways in which these women manipulate FTZ monetary and social capital, together with local social and cultural capital, to initiate a gradual transformation in local gender norms and village hierarchies. In doing so, I demonstrate the long-term impact women’s temporary employment in transnational factories has on individuals, families, and communities, and I comment on the fragmented and uneven manner in which neoliberal ways of thinking and living take root in rural South Asia.
The Free Trade Zone and Changing Selves The first Sri Lankan FTZ was established in Katunayake in 1978, after a new government began pursuing structural adjustment programs. Although thirteen other export processing zones were later established throughout
the country, the FTZ in Katunayake, a town 29 kilometers from Colombo and home to the island’s only international airport, remains the largest and most prominent one. Located northeast of Colombo, the Katunayake FTZ spans more than 190 hectares of flat land. The Board of Investment of Sri Lanka (BOI) oversees this FTZ, along with others. Although the official term is Economic Processing Zone (EPZ), Katunayake is known as an FTZ, and the workers, neighbors, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and state officials all refer to it as such, which is why I use the term in this book. In its attempt to attract foreign investment, Sri Lanka offered numerous incentives—such as duty-free imports of machinery and raw materials, duty-free exports, preferential tax, double taxation relief, unrestricted repatriation of dividends, and up to 100 percent foreign ownership. One major attraction the BOI cited when advertising the FTZ’s prospects was the “availability of a low cost, easily trainable work force,” while foreign factory managers in turn identified Sri Lanka as “a highly favorable place to invest” (Mann 1993: 24). The Katunayake FTZ houses around ninety multinational industries that practice a distinctively late capitalist form of gendered working relations. Garment factories, which make up the majority of industries within the FTZ, recruit large numbers of young rural women from economically and socially marginalized groups to work as machine operators. According to some accounts, the availability of “well-disciplined and obedient women workers who can produce more in a short time” was used as bait to attract investors to Sri Lanka’s FTZs (Dabindu Collective 1997: 17). Most of the female workers are unmarried, young, and relatively well educated. In 2015, just over 80 percent had passed the General Certificate of Education (Ordinary Level) exam, roughly equivalent to earning a high school diploma (Hewamanne 2016). As in other transnational factories around the world (Fernandez-Kelly 1983; Ong 1987; Mills 1999; Pun 2005; Lugo 2008; Chang 2008; Saxena 2014), Katunayake factories demand maximal output for minimal wages in exploitative working conditions. Workers suffer from various ailments due to difficult work and living conditions and are sexually harassed on their way to and from work (Samaraweera 2012; Hewamanne 2016; 2019). There are many legal and practical barriers to organizing trade unions within the FTZ, but NGOs have helped somewhat by providing legal advice and opportunities for workers to get together to share experiences (Hewamanne 2016; Ruwanpura 2011).
Global in the Villages 5
In 2019 the Katunayake FTZ reported having 22,300 female workers in its ninety-two factories and close to 40,000 working for subcontracting factories located around the zone (Board of Investment of Sri Lanka, 2019). Assembly-line workers, most of whom are female, are supervised and managed by men, while the top management positions are usually held by foreign nationals. Unlike in the early days of the FTZ, present-day factories utilize day laborers to perform substantial portions of work. This is mostly present in the Katunayake FTZ, where a group of workers gathers every morning at the FTZ gates to be recruited by labor agencies for day labor at various factories (Dabindu Collective 2017; Hewamanne 2018). Thus the number of female workers within the FTZ on a given day is much more than officially mentioned. The vast majority of these young women are ethnically Sinhala and are Buddhist.1 The locations of the FTZs in Sinhala-majority areas discourage Tamil women from seeking employment. I met only a handful of FTZ workers who belonged to minority communities when I lived in the Katunayake FTZ area in 2000.2 However, and as explained briefly in Chapter 7, labor contractors have been bringing groups of Tamil women to work in the Katunayake FTZ since the island’s civil war ended in May 2009. Most workers continue to migrate from the economically stagnant North Central Province and Southern Province. As of June 2019, the basic salary of an FTZ worker was Rs. 13,500 (about $75) per month, but women can earn about Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 30,000 by working overtime and forgoing allotted annual leave. There are few state- or factory-run hostel facilities for these women. The locals have therefore built rows of rooms for rent, resulting in extremely poor living conditions. The problems associated with boardinghouses exacerbate the stress stemming from arduous working conditions and low salaries to make life in the FTZ difficult (TIE Asia 2003; Dabindu Collective 2017; Hewamanne 2018). While people are aware of such hardships, it is the status of workers as young women living alone and without male protection that receives the most public attention. Popular accounts of widespread premarital sex, rape, prostitution, abortion, and infanticide simultaneously portray these women both as victims of labor and sexual exploitation and as victims of their own supposedly loose morals. Workers are identified in everyday discourses as “garment girls” and “Juki pieces” and are said to be recognizable by their dress, hairstyles, and language. (Juki is the brand name of a Japanese industrial sewing machine used in FTZ garment factories, and “Juki pieces” [Juki
kali] combines the machine’s brand with the Sinhala word used in the factories to refer to the pieces of clothes women workers assemble. The use of this label to objectify workers has lessened considerably in recent years. So many young women congregating in one place is such an unusual phenomenon that people call the FTZ sthri puraya (city of women), prema kalape (love zone), and vesa kalape (whore zone). Their neighbors in the FTZ area talk about them as “ free living women” (meaning without parents and husbands), even blaming them for the destruction of Sinhala culture and customs. Although vilification in the media had lessened, the stigma created in the early days (circa early 1980s) lingers on and the derogatory terms used for the FTZ and its workers persist. The stigma attached to migrating for FTZ work results from an ideal image of the Sinhala-Buddhist woman constructed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This ideal image projects women as passive and subordinate beings who need to be protected within the confines of their homes, and it was constructed primarily in response to colonial discourse on women and culture. As a result, women leaving their parental homes to live alone in urban, modernized spaces arouse intense anxieties about cultural degradation and female morality. These fears also emanate from a discursively constructed rural–urban divide that corresponds to binaries such as traditional– westernized and good–bad. Per this understanding, rural women who have been brought up with a deep sense of shame-fear (lajja-baya) become westernized in urban spaces and consequently become bad or immoral women. According to Gananath Obeyesekere (1984), practices of lajja-baya—to be ashamed to subvert norms of sexual modesty and proper behav ior and to fear the social ridicule that results from such subversion—is instilled into Sinhala children through early childhood training (504–5). When rural women from mostly lower-income and lower-status groups migrated to work in the FTZ (and thus occupied public spaces), it was the effects on women’s lajja-baya that the mostly urban, middle-class commentators focused on. A discursively constructed notion that claims the village as morally superior and the locus of tradition has put another burden on rural women. The belief in superior morals and undisturbed traditions are thus superimposed on women, creating expectations that village women are naïve, innocent (in the sense of being sexually ignorant), and timid and are the unadulterated bearers of Sinhala Buddhist culture.3 Therefore, when these women migrated to the city and started enjoying their time away from patriarchal control, fears about their morality became a major preoccupation
Global in the Villages 7
for urban, middle-class nationalists. Like nationalists in many other postcolonial societies, they too considered any threat to women’s morality a threat against the cultural purity of the nation (Chatterjee 1993; Yuval-Davis 1997; Kandyoti 2000). Consequently, migrating to the city and living away from their families in a stigmatized space affects their reputations and lowers these workers’ value when it comes time to contract marriages (Hewamanne 2016, 2018; 2019). Although the difficulties associated with FTZ work seem to outweigh gains, a stagnant agricultural economy, lack of alternative employment, and quest for urban lifestyles appear to motivate women to migrate. And by working in the FTZ and living with other young women in an urban area, rural women experience social, cultural, emotional, and cognitive changes. They start to enjoy relative freedom of movement and increased decision-making powers. They acquire global knowledge flows on reproductive, labor, and human rights, and the intense socialization process in factories and boardinghouses encourages them to dress, behave, think, and desire in new ways. Furthermore, they develop forms of political and feminist consciousness and absorb particular forms of neoliberal narratives that circulate within the FTZ area. While negotiating difficult lives in transnational factories, they also develop friendships and mentoring relationships with people in the area, NGO staff members, and even local and foreign aid workers and researchers (Hewamanne 2008, 2016). Most workers eagerly attend classes in dance, spoken English, beauty culture, and computers offered by NGOs. Several NGOs in the area also run educational workshops for workers that address how to develop income-generating activities once they return to their villages. Through these classes, and through their mentors (boardinghouse owners, NGO officials, factory officials), women meet small subcontractors in the area and learn about generating income in the global economy. At one such NGO workshop I attended, a husband- and-wife duo discussed how workers could set up “factories” in villages to subcontract for urban subcontractors and volunteered to visit villages to help women streamline production. They later told me that a consortium of several big FTZ factories financed their work as part of their corporate social responsibility activities. Mas Holdings, a major company with several factories at Katunayake and elsewhere, has initiated a program, Women Go Beyond, to provide their workers with multilateral skills like bag and shoe making or bridal dress and cake making. They also train workers in personal finance management
(Mas Holdings n.d.). Given that village women and NGOs consider poor financial management a major reason for the failures associated with microcredit loans in Sri Lanka (Madurawala 2018), such training can influence whether women attain entrepreneurial success or face financial doom. Women who join the FTZ are placed on a labor clock that lasts five to six years. The realization that they would have to return to their villages and most likely be confined to living the life of a village wife (like their mothers) encourages them to learn about post-FTZ income-generating activities, while the knowledges acquired and networks created at training workshops help them connect with the so-called gig economy once back in the villages. According to Todolí-Signes (2017: 194), the gig economy refers to how selfemployed contractors enable “just in time, on demand” ser vices, which consists of outsourcing work performed by traditional employees via open call. Such open calls facilitate unpredictable yet plentiful opportunities for appropriately skilled independent providers, and former FTZ workers, thanks to the knowledge acquired while working in factories, are well positioned to take advantage of such opportunities. In fact, some workers subcontract for small urban subcontractors while at FTZ factories. Only a few find the time and strength to do so, but their extra income and material acquisitions inspire other workers to try to do likewise whenever possible. As noted, while microcredit provided by state and nonstate actors has gotten village women into entrepreneurial activities, the results have been mostly disappointing (Madurawala 2018). However, former FTZ workers’ knowledge, social networks, and savings combined with microcredit allow them to plan, set up, and develop entrepreneurial activities in ways their nonmigrant peers are not equipped to do. The so-called FTZ dowry is a major catalyst for former workers in this regard. As noted, FTZ workers are expected to leave work after five years, and there is a built-in incentive to do so. When a worker produces a marriage certificate within a reasonable time after leaving, she can obtain her accumulated Employee Provident Fund (EPF) and Employee Trust Fund (ETF) money along with a five-year gratuity payment from the factory. This lump sum is what workers refer to as the FTZ dowry. Unlike the dowry a bride’s parents give to the groom’s parents, this money is deposited in a bank account in the worker’s name. Because it is labeled FTZ and is thus directly connected to the women’s labor, their spouses and affines, for the most part, allow them to use the money for the family’s economic advancement in ways the workers deem appropriate. Relatives of the thirty-seven women I followed seemed to agree that the FTZ
Global in the Villages 9
dowry is given by the factory so the former worker may start a business and that family should not make demands on it unless absolutely necessary.4 It is this FTZ monetary capital that women use creatively, together with other forms of capital, to stretch normative boundaries and activate social change. Indeed, when village officers in the thirty-seven villages were asked to put together lists of successful female entrepreneurs, not only did former FTZ workers constitute more than 75 percent of each list, but in twenty-one villages the entire list comprised former FTZ workers. All this necessitates a closer look at how the neoliberal subjectivities created at the FTZ shaped workers’ entrepreneurial efforts and subsequent social changes.
Stitching Identities and Beyond My first book, Stitching Identities, was written after long-term ethnographic fieldwork in Sri Lanka’s Katunayake FTZ in 2000, during which time I worked at an FTZ garment factory and stayed with fifty or sixty workers in a boardinghouse. The book focused on gendered and classed cultural domination and sites of resistance from which FTZ workers expressed critical alternative perspectives and noted how several structural conditions, especially the constrained space for political expression and the temporariness of FTZ employment, hindered worker activities that may have contributed to transformation of existing political, economic, and cultural structures. Yet, I hesitated to dismiss the workers’ oppositional activities—on the shop floor, at boardinghouses, and within a stigmatized FTZ culture—as symptomatic of a transitional phase whereby young village women were allowed space for transgression until they moved on to marriage and motherhood. Whatever the suffering and hardship they went through and however temporary this liberation from village habitus, the struggle for identity, and the resultant “stitching” of many identities in their lives, provided tremendously empowering moments for women.5 Studies on FTZ work contend that employment at transnational factories does not empower women in the long term (Fernandez-Kelly 1983; Pena 1997; Mills 1999; Pun 2005). While I agreed that the economic and social power attained seem to diminish once women stop working, I wondered what happened to the oppositional consciousness, new knowledge, and changed sense of self women workers had acquired in the FTZ once they returned to their villages. How do women respond to the constraints of
village life with their newfound sense of self? What aspects of their acquired knowledge do they share with other village women? Do they go to work in village factories or use their FTZ savings to start home-based income- generating activities? Do they yearn for the colorful, transgressive years they experienced at the FTZ and, if so, how do they manage to keep such memories alive? Are they able to inspire any changes in village social norms or power relations? These are the questions that drove me to extend my research to workers’ post-FTZ lives in villages throughout the country. Stitching Identities mainly focused on how migrant garment factory workers understood and responded to the new cultural discourse they encountered at the FTZ and how they developed a new sense of themselves within and against dominant cultural discourses. The articulation of their new sense of self as industrial workers living in the city juxtaposed with their being young, unmarried daughters from patriarchal villages enabled viable spaces for creativity, tactics, and strategies. These spaces, where the clash of contradictory discourses played a central part in shaping their responses to specific situations, showed how FTZ factory workers combined elements from varied discourses to construct and narrate new identities. In short, they not only refused to uncritically accept identities crafted for them within various dominant discourses, but they also situationally negotiated alternative identities within shifting relations of power. Moving beyond the factory and the FTZ area, this book explores how now-married former garment factory workers negotiate new lives and identities in their husbands’ villages. These are workers who spent many years living in an urban transnational space where evil men and the hedonistic consumer culture are thought to corrupt innocent village women. Although vilified to a certain extent as transgressive, most manage to earn respect and decision-making powers within their families because of their financial contributions. However, after leaving the FTZ and getting married, often through parental arrangements, they find themselves in their in-laws’ villages, where the surveillance mechanisms are even more strict for women who have married into the community. Constrained by rigid social norms and surveillance, these women, who developed an intense oppositional consciousness during their time in the FTZ, engage in disciplining their bodies, speech, and mannerisms. On the surface, the women may appear to have reverted back to their pre-FTZ selves, but a closer look shows that their apparent conformity is part of a complex strategy for rebuilding respectability. This book thus
Global in the Villages 11
investigates how a deliberate display of conformity enables these women to use networks developed in the FTZs along with their savings and village social, cultural, and symbolic capital to generate income and facilitate entry into the village sociopolitical scene. The following sections discuss the sites and methods of research and provide a theoretical framework and flight plan for the chapters to follow.
Research Sites and Methods A number of assumptions, based on stereotypical readings of third world societies, underline transnational production: third world women are docile and will not protest bad conditions, women from patriarchal societies are secondary earners and do not need a full paycheck, and such women will work only till they get married. All these assumptions influenced the par ticular structuring of transnational production across less-developed countries. In Sri Lanka, the last assumption held particular sway as it was the basis for the temporary character of FTZ employment that forced women out of factories after five or six years of work. While at the FTZ, workers became what they called “mod” (modern) women, but this sense was constrained by the realization that they were bound to return to villages. Even when women wanted to keep working, social pressure and the monetary incentive (FTZ dowry) made it difficult to do so. For example, people widely assume that the only reason women continue working is that no man wants to marry them—a powerful psychic pressure that induces women to leave their employment at the expected time. Throughout my field research, I talked to young workers who contemplated their eventual departure from Katunayake with trepidation. Despite being physically tired, feeling disillusioned about FTZ work, and envisioning more restful lives in their native villages, they dreaded exchanging the relative economic freedom, social independence, and consumer culture that the FTZ afforded for villages where surveillance regimes were more strictly enforced. Nearly all these women wished they could settle in Katunayake with their new spouses and continue to work. However, circumstances—such as factory discrimination against married women and mothers, lack of job opportunities for men, men’s economic and familial responsibilities in their native villages, and concerns about the stigma of FTZ work—made it difficult
for many women to achieve this dream. It was this reluctance to return to villages that prompted me to study how they negotiate new lives after leaving the FTZ. Consequently, since 2003 I have been investigating how these former workers reintegrate into their villages as prospective brides, new wives, and young mothers.6 This research was funded by various agencies and was mainly conducted in the summers of 2003 to 2018 and during December and January in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2015. During these times, I stayed in thirty-seven selected workers’ village homes, with visits ranging from one night to two weeks and often including two to six repeat visits. In addition to village visits, I met groups of former workers at the Katunayake bus terminal and participated in numerous pleasure trips with them to different parts of the country. Our meetings in 2003 to 2005 took place mainly as social visits without any research agenda. But this changed as I kept hearing about post-FTZ experiences—frustrations, despair, and triumphs—and started noticing certain patterns. I first got to know thirty-four of these thirty-seven workers while conducting research for Stitching Identities, and I have kept in touch with most of them via letters and telephone. I visited their villages after repeated invitations to do so. These close friendships eased me into research within village settings and allowed me to see how individuals, families, and communities renegotiate relationships and social positions at the village level and how this process is reconfiguring gendered kinship roles and rituals of social conformity. During my stay I collected their narratives and interviewed their relatives, in-laws, and neighbors to see whether and how they use the oppositional consciousness developed in the FTZ to interpret and respond to everyday situations. I participated in village social rituals and ceremonies and the former workers’ gendered social activities and expressive practices (storytelling, joking, singing), which provided impor tant material on how these women recreate their migration experience for younger, nonmigrant women. I paid par ticular attention to these former workers’ involvement in village social and political activities and participated in their monthly meetings and some organized functions. The intention was to learn how they perceive and respond to NGO initiatives and the influence of these initiatives on negotiating new identities. Former workers happily shared photographs, taken at meetings and village functions organized by various committees and associations, and written records of their activities, such as minutes of meetings and newspaper features of village
Global in the Villages 13
functions. Collecting women’s narratives about their pursuits and studying the visual and written records allowed me to see whether these former workers engage in political activities on their own terms. In addition, I interviewed a number of nonmigrant women and their family members in those same villages to discern whether they responded differently to power relations. I was seeking answers to the following research questions: What are the long-term effects of global assembly-line work, and how do they affect changes in family and community power relations and gender norms? What impact do these former FTZ workers have on nonmigrant village women? How do these former workers utilize social spaces or create subversive new spaces? What can we learn about neoliberal subjectivities and their local manifestations by investigating former workers’ recent life trajectories? Throughout the research I took extensive notes and, when given permission (which was almost always), recorded interviews and photographed and videotaped daily life and special events. Most villagers not only gave permission but participated in these activities with enthusiasm. I videotaped five special events in five former workers’ villages, including a healing ritual ceremony, a wedding, and an all-night pirith chanting ceremony—spaces where negotiations of respectability were on display. Juxtaposing my observational data, interview transcripts, and text analysis with the visual record allowed me to better interpret moments when conformity and subversion were tightly intertwined. My earlier FTZ fieldwork and subsequent visits made clear that conventional research methods are inadequate for commenting on women’s lives that are played out within varied, intersecting forms of oppression and marginalization. To discern their tactics when claiming space and voice, we need to pay attention to silences, winks, smiles, gestures, jokes, puns, poetry, journal entries, and especially letters. I was privileged, thanks to the deep and long-term friendships I developed with most of these workers during my previous research, to be able to examine letters they exchanged with their former FTZ friends and NGO officials, and with me. About twelve former workers wrote to each other frequently, and most of the others joined in occasionally. Letter writing continued even after mobile phones became popular, partly because it took a while for many of these women to acquire mobile phones. The letters they wrote to each other were usually kept in decorated shoe boxes or empty candy boxes within their almairahs (wardrobes). This item of furniture is the only one used exclusively by the young
women, who usually brought it as part of their dowry, and it gives them a place to store mementoes of their colorful and vibrant FTZ lives. Most of the women enthusiastically shared their letters and accompanying photos with me while also adding details about events described in the letters. Six of the women shared their journals with me. These contained daily entries; musings on life, loss, and love; and poetry about the trials and travails of daily living. By combining these written expressions with participant observation and interview data, I was able to examine how these former workers utilize the oppositional consciousness and new identities developed in the FTZ once back in their respective villages. I had the unique opportunity of starting ethnographic research among former workers right after they returned from a life-changing experience at the FTZ and then continuing to do so for more than fourteen years as they renegotiated positions within their villages. This long-term involvement was key to my understanding of how former workers disrupt urban, nationalist, and transnational intentions as well as the expectations of village elites through their highly nuanced play of agency, conformity, and resistance. Multisited Research: Advantages and Difficulties
Conducting research in many locations was one of the biggest challenges of this study. FTZ workers came from villages throughout the country (except Northern Province, where the civil war continued until 2009), and they dispersed to various villages throughout the country after leaving the FTZ. Thus to address the research questions I needed to visit villages across the country. None of the villages I visited had more than four former FTZ workers. Two was usually the average. The thirty-seven villages I ended up doing the research in were not chosen according to any representative sampling technique; on the contrary, they were chosen because of the links I had developed with former workers. The particular research methods I favor, such as participant observation of storytelling or joke-telling sessions, pleasure trips, and examination of letters and poetry, necessitated strong friendships with the former workers. Fortuitously, the ones who invited me to spend time with them and their families in villages hailed from or settled in eight of the country’s nine provinces and more or less covered some of the wellknown regional differences within the country. Of these thirty-seven former workers, nine were from Southern Province, eight from North Central Province, five each from Central and North Western Provinces, four from Western Province, two each from Uva and
Global in the Villages 15
Sabaragamuwa Provinces, and two from Eastern Province. I identify villages by the names that villagers use, and these usually coincide with the name of the grama niladari division (village government agent).7 As no official statistics exist on how many workers the respective provinces send to the FTZ, determining regional representativeness is next to impossible. Generally, Sri Lankans attribute certain traits to people from various provinces. Working-class women from North Central Province are said to be good at laboring shoulder to shoulder with men, especially in the agricultural sector. It does appear that women from North Central Province have absorbed mainstream notions of female comportment and manners to a lesser extent than have women in some other provinces. Women from Southern Province are said to be much more attuned to nationalist discourses and mainstream notions of “good woman” ideals, causing them to pay more attention to traditions and morals. Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces are generally thought of as more conservative and backward, especially with regard to women’s conduct. On the other hand, Western and North Western Provinces are generally considered more westernized and modern, although there are considerable differences among districts and between urban centers and interior villages. Uva is one of the most underdeveloped provinces in the country. To gauge the extent to which villages have embraced mainstream notions of womanly behav ior, I interviewed the grama niladaris and Buddhist clergy (in sixteen cases, the chief monks) of the village temple. I was able to talk to respected elderly school teachers in thirteen villages as well. They provided complex and conflict-ridden perspectives on good womanly behav ior and contemporary economic necessities that helped me analyze former workers’ choices and activities within the village. During research, the differences between regional cities and interior villages, where most of the former workers resided, became apparent. At the same time, there were similarities across provinces. These had to do with the nationalist discourses on female conduct and with village women as the locus of traditions that the national media helped promulgate. Television programs, newspapers, and magazines were produced in the nation’s capital and yet were easily available in even the remotest of villages. This exposure to mainstream notions of good womanly behav ior initiated similar expectations of behav ior for young women. At the same time, the media exposed villages to new consumer goods that engendered desires that could be achieved only through increased integration into capitalist market relations.
Depending on the difficulty of reaching a village and by using villagers’ sense of their village status, I categorized twenty-one villages to be remote. In such villages, some houses could be reached only by walking on foot paths. Many residents claimed that a trip to a regional city was a hassle. I categorized all but six villages as largely dependent on agriculture. However, all thirty-seven villages showed varying levels of integration with Colombo and regional cities, and many men and women were working in cities. Seven villages, five in Western Province and one each in North Western and Central Provinces, had more visible connections to Colombo and Kandy. Categorizing any village according to a socioeconomic index was difficult, as different social groups have different living standards. All the villages displayed social hierarchies based on intertwined factors of land ownership, houses, material wealth, and family name. Village categorizations are based on my observations and discussions with village leaders and former workers. In at least thirty villages, people relegated bad behav iors to a section where the “low quality” (pahath pelanthiye/panthiye) or the “poorest of the poor” (antha duppath) live. Each village also had a few families who were identified as elite or aristocratic (walaw) and a number of families considered respectable and wellto-do. Daughters from those families rarely traveled to the FTZ for work. They either stayed home after schooling until a marriage was arranged or found jobs as teachers, nurses, or clerks in reputable establishments. When these women needed to be boarded in cities, they usually stayed with relatives or in respectable private homes with elderly women. A broader section of the villages was identified as middle or lower middle class but upwardly mobile. Whereas eighteen former workers reported that they came from poor families, only three said they had married into poor families. All the others felt that they married up into the middle strata of the villages where they now resided. Their husbands had government jobs, worked overseas or in middle-level business positions, or came from families with land and good reputations. This positioning directly influenced how their FTZ time, return, and public behav ior were perceived and interpreted. As noted, many men in these villages were connected to Colombo and other regional centers through their work, and a number of women had been to the Middle East to work as housemaids. These links to cities have increased continually since independence. The translocal connections that former FTZ workers manipulate, however, represent a particular manifestation of late capitalist economic relations and are open to more contentious
Global in the Villages 17
interpretations. These connections generate conflicting responses among workers’ communities, which are usually reluctant to openly accept the economic necessity of women’s employment and the increasing interconnections between the villages and the city. The struggle between the encroaching market economy and the pressure to hold onto certain values requires women to maneuver respectability, work, and travel in creative ways, necessitating new ethnographic research tools with which to study these spaces. Strengths or Weaknesses: Varied Biases
These thirty-seven women were not selected according to a recognized sampling method. Indeed, one could argue that the women chose me, through invitations to visit, as opposed to my choosing them. Most of these former workers were described in Stitching Identities as the ones who let me join their lunch group, parties, and leisure activities. Most of the others were from Saman’s boardinghouse and shared their rooms, reading groups, and singing sessions with me and took me to the bazaar, temples, and shrines. I became friends with three former workers because of their involvement with an NGO that I too frequented during various research visits. This is definitely a special group of women—a group that took pleasure in teaching me about the FTZ and learning from me about my life in the United States. They are also the most insistent among the numerous FTZ friends that I visited and kept track of my visits back to Sri Lanka via letters, phone calls, and, lately, WhatsApp. It is legitimate to ask whether these women invited me to their homes because they wanted to flaunt their success. This could hardly be the case, considering that they had little to show at the beginning. I acknowledge that studying a particular set of workers produces only partial accounts specific to that group. However, it is impor tant to note the advantages of studying a group of workers who are willing to share their lives with a researcher. These are women who are familiar enough with me to recount details about their sexual experiences, share erotic jokes about Buddha and his disciples, and shoo their husbands away to sleep on the verandah so I could share a room with them and giggle over whispered secrets. Although I am a Sri Lankan woman of their own ethnicity and the same religion of most, and I speak the same language, I was brought up in a Colombo suburb and belong to a middle-class family. When I first started my research in the Katunayake FTZ, the most obvious differences between the workers and myself were my university education and the few years I spent
18 Chapter 1
in the United States. The women treated me with kindness and affection because I was a student (although working toward a PhD) and looked younger than they. However, they also afforded me special considerations and respect, not only because I was a guest among them but also because of my social class. They also treated me as someone who is less worldly because I have had an easier life than they and more or less took it upon themselves to help, support, and protect me. Intimate connections we developed on these bases were evident throughout Stitching Identities. Interestingly, although the workers and I moved through life cycle positioning, starting as unmarried women, moving on to becoming young married women and then, most of us, to becoming mothers, I have experienced little difference in the way they treated me. Even after I got married (perhaps because I do not have children), they all continued the kind and affectionate way they treated me. This affection, though, is still tinged with respect borne of their own pride in having a friend who is from a different social class. Many former workers continue to use the class-specific address form “Sandya miss” when conversing with me, even while their children mostly called me antie (auntie). I have repeatedly asked them to call me Sandya or Sandya akka (elder sister), but my efforts have been in vain, because they seem to be more comfortable using the “miss” address form even while reiterating that they consider me a sister. Even the few workers at Saman’s boarding house who addressed me as Sandya akka started calling me Sandya miss while in the villages, probably because their family members did so. Most former workers combined Sandya miss with other affectionate terms, such as sudhu (fair one), darling, patiyo (little one), raththaran (golden), and, in one case, menika (gem). During my visits to their villages I became quite used to being addressed affectionately: “Sandya miss, what do you think of this, darling?” or “Ane raththaran miss, don’t go to those houses.” My intention here is not to minimize the social class differences between us but to show the complex social relations engendered by this unusually long research collaboration. I do acknowledge that my coming from Colombo in a rented van, bearing gifts for them (and sometimes for their family members), and insisting on paying for room and board made my interactions with them far from equal. Yet, the inevitable struggle to reimburse their families for room and board—which led to my leaving money on tables, running to the van, and locking the doors before someone could run after me to return it—the tears that they and I shed whenever I left for
Global in the Villages 19
Colombo, receiving handwritten greeting notes for my husband in the United States, and discovering later that the van’s trunk and spaces under the seats are stuffed with coconuts, mangoes, and jackfruits for my family all make me continually question the complexities of these relationships. These may not be equal relationships, but they are without a doubt warm, intimate, and affectionate and, I revel in having such wealth.
Neoliberal Subjectivities, Exceptions, and Reconfigurations Neoliberalism represents a set of political economic practices that hold “ human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms” (Harvey 2007: 2) within an environment of strong free market policies and free trade. Neoliberalism also works as a form of governmentality by instilling norms of individual selves as autonomous, selfdirecting agents (Rose 1999; Gunel 2009; Fevre 2016). Thus a neoliberal subject is an individual who relies on cost-benefit analysis and market-based principles and embodies the spirit of entrepreneurship. As Gershon (2018) notes, such individuals are disciplined, risk-taking, and bent on optimizing skills and in short represent a “company of one.” The flexibilization of capital and labor promotes the so-called gig economy, and neoliberal subjects invest in themselves to engage in this economy by becoming self-reliant, risk-taking entrepreneurs. Thus some define neoliberalism as a mode of governing through freedom that gives individuals choice and the responsibility of navigating and enhancing their own social worlds. Although some theorists suggest that neoliberalism has become hegemonic in today’s Western world (Harvey 2007), Ong holds that neoliberalism, rather than being the predominant mode of thinking and practice, is an exception to politics as usual, especially in Asia. According to Ong, in countries like China, Malaysia, and Hong Kong, there are designated zones or dedicated areas that are neoliberal havens, while societies remain largely repressive and run as welfare states (2007: 5). Similarly, Sri Lanka’s former FTZ workers, having returned from an area where market relations and a neoliberal ethos of autonomous, agentive individual flourish, find that they now have to navigate a different set of prescriptions. Rather than completely giving up on neoliberal ethos, they start a delicate process of trade-offs that then reconfigure and rearticulate both a neoliberal ethos and local gender
norms, family and kinship arrangements, and social hierarchies. Thus while neoliberalism manifest in Sri Lanka in the first instance as an exception, its attendant narratives and discourses escape those confines and travel to various corners of the country via former global factory workers. The villages the former workers return to are more or less differently positioned in their experiences of national and colonial history, cultural practices, and socioeconomic standing. Thus former workers have to combine neoliberal entrepreneurial sensibilities, skills, and resources acquired in the FTZ with local resources, such as affinal social networks and cultural knowledge, to ignite economic success. In short, they have to manipulate varied forms of capital at a given moment to best suit the context. This includes performing rituals of social conformity to repair their damaged reputations, which then leads to the support of affinal kin and the community. The latter is a must for a woman, no matter how skilled and thoroughly embodying neoliberal sensibilities, to succeed economically. As I show later, the entrepreneurial success allows women to participate in village social, cultural, and political spaces, initiating changes in gender norms. Mills (2018) asserts that the gendered moral narratives stemming from new patterns of global production in Asia reveal how local ideological support sustains neoliberal models of development and governance. Invoking both Lynch (2007) and Hewamanne (2008), Mills further elaborates how narratives and images of female immorality connected with global production in Sri Lanka to initiate varied moral and material demands that marginalized and gendered groups must carefully navigate daily. Freeman (2014) discusses how upwardly mobile Caribbean middle-class entrepreneurs must walk the tight rope of respectability while engaging with a flexible economy. Women who may get recognized for hard work and creativity can suffer loss of respectability, and Freeman focused on symbolic trade-offs people navigate when availing themselves of flexible economic opportunities. Similarly, Sri Lankan women must maintain a delicate balance of pursuing income-generating activities formerly reserved for men while performing culturally expected “good women” roles. This balancing act reshapes the neoliberal ethos at the same time it initiates changes in the very norms that necessitate the balancing. Thus, how former workers negotiate social economic life in their villages may, in the long run, help erode the gendered moral narratives that support the exploitative global production arrangements in Sri Lanka. Gibson-Graham (2006) advocates for reading economic activities for “difference rather than dominance,” so as not to take neoliberalism as a
Global in the Villages 21
dominant, totalizing regime but rather to look for the failures and weaknesses that give credence to alternatives. Although what I describe in this book does not give evidence to women creating alternative economic paths, it does highlight the weaknesses of neoliberalism as a regulative technology even as it shows the enduring strengths of existing cultural expectations. Most former workers are tightly connected to market-based economies through their entrepreneurial activities, and they astutely manipulate forms of capital, but they do this only as far as extant cultural norms permit. It is precisely this restraint that allows for the simultaneous loosening of restrictions on women’s mobility. How former workers negotiate economic activities and social relationships in villages necessitates reassessing the dominant narratives of how neoliberalism is establishing itself in varied contexts.
Village Social Change An overall question framing this book is whether former workers became neoliberal subjects while at the FTZ and are now the catalyst incorporating villages in capitalist market relations, or whether there is space for an alternative reading of how they utilize forms of capital to engage with the socioeconomic worlds of rural Sri Lanka. The NGO workshops that women attend while in the FTZ instill in them the notion that connecting to the gig economy is the best way to achieve post-FTZ economic success. The NGO workshop agendas get shaped by their international funders’ preferences and typically paint a positive view of microcredit. Although long touted as a way for village women to become entrepreneurs, alternative readings have shown how microcredit leads to new forms of hierarchies and cultures of shame (Karim 2011). Village women in Sri Lanka too have found that not being able to generate enough income to pay back microcredit loans causes borrowers to lose social standing and even, in some instances, commit suicide (Hewamanne 2019). Former workers, however, used FTZ savings to offset short-term losses while utilizing microcredit loans for long-term success. FTZ monetary capital thus plays a major role in the difference between the economic success of former workers and that of other women. Yet, the villages they return to are more or less integrated into the dominant cultural narratives and expect certain behav iors and social conformity from younger women. These expectations mandate that the neoliberal entrepreneurial sensibilities, skills, and resources acquired in the FTZ must get paired with
local resources, such as social networks and cultural knowledge, to ignite success. Former workers thus have to combine varied forms of capital at a given moment to best suit the context. Neoliberalism also means redefining what it is to be a worker. In neoliberal times the worker has become human capital, and any activity that generates salary or income, gives satisfaction, increases one’s status within family and community, and promotes travel and civic engagements is an investment in human capital (Foucault 2008: 226–235). Women are certainly engaging in capital investments that result in enhanced social status. If they have internalized neoliberal attitudes and utilize forms of capital to create profit, does that mean global capitalism is fast encroaching village spaces and the former workers are agents of this capitalist encroachment? A closer look at women’s economic activities presents the potential for a different reading. The ways in which former workers negotiate economic activities and social relationships necessitate reassessing the dominant narratives of neoliberalism encompassing villages in South Asia. Former workers are creative and strategic when operating within local contexts to articulate new mores both individually and in locally meaningful ways. This involves considerations beyond profit maximization and includes an array of decisions and actions based on non-market-related concerns such as love, care, duty, and their own perceptions concerning satisfying domestic and public lives. This is not to say that profits and market share are not impor tant for these former workers—they are, but to the extent that such market-based relations contribute to their quest for satisfying lives. At this moment of intense capitalistic encroachment in Sri Lanka, these women see the prudence in utilizing available avenues to overcome significant gendered, social, and cultural inequalities to somehow acquire their piece of the pie. As noted, I use the term “politics of contentment” to refer to the decisions, actions, and strategies for manipulating available resources to attain happy, content village lives. Contentment implies a sense of satisfaction that precludes the desire to overly compete and acquire wealth. Resisting the conventional understanding of contentment as resigned, controlled, and contained, I highlight the political value of pursuing individual, family, and community contentment. In this I am influenced by Zajac’s work analyzing Shakespeare’s As You Like It, showing how contentment both sustains the individual and peaceably and profitably unites the self and the other to provide a foundation of positive affect that facilitates political achievements (2016).8
Global in the Villages 23
The former workers were unambiguous about what they wanted through their village economic activities: fulfilling and meaningful lives shared with family and community in a dignified manner, which essentially meant not having to worry about profits and markets each and every day. Rather than preoccupying themselves with capital and markets, many seek to adjust, transform, and manipulate forms of capital to achieve contented lives. They also value self-autonomy, human rights, labor rights, and women’s rights, and they consciously and strategically combine rights discourses and cultural expectations to create the lives they are most comfortable with. While journeying toward this goal, former workers change existing gender and behavioral norms and create more meaningful social positions and relationships for themselves and others. Skillfully negotiating opportunities presented by the gig economy while maintaining traditional gender norms requires rearticulating neoliberal attitudes in locally meaningful ways. While such social and economic navigations redefine individual selfunderstanding, the same process redefines nonmigrant and nonentrepreneurial women in corresponding ways. The open market policies Sri Lanka instituted in 1977 transformed the island socioeconomically, but Sri Lankan villages continue to grapple with competing social forces, with neoliberal cultural mores clashing against conventional ways of constructing selves. This struggle between neoliberalism and traditional forces is an evolving process that allows identities to be articulated in myriad ways. As David Harvey explicates, common sense is the set of prescriptions that ensure the reproduction of social meanings given to time and place, the sense as to what should be done at what time and by whom (2007, 214–216). Neoliberal ideologies and women’s particular strategies are changing the extant common sense of rural Sri Lanka, and a new common sense is consequently emerging. Operating within the intersection of these clashing senses, former workers, and other village women, must sift through conflicting expectations and desires to delicately balance expectations associated with both strands. This very same balancing act then contributes to the emerging common sense and more satisfying social relationships. The cascading system of global subcontracting produces invisible armies of home workers throughout the developing world, the vast majority of them women. This system significantly advances the objective of ensuring low manufacturing costs in global production, because home workers typically make low wages, experience unsafe working conditions, and receive no
24 Chapter 1
health and medical benefits or even recognition as wage workers (Sanyal and Bhattacharyya 2009; Mezzadri 2014). Moreover, such workshops, by picking up the overflow the regular workforce cannot handle, fuel an economy that promotes so-called just-in-time production (Barrientos 2013). Obviously, the nature of subcontracting makes work precarious and keeps workers vulnerable to economic and other forms of exploitation. Additionally, the availability of home workers threatens the regular workforces of larger manufacturing plants by providing managers additional avenues for discouraging protests among those seeking better working conditions. However, similarly to Mezzadri and Fan (2018), I hold that informal home work in villages allows women to gain some degree of control over their wage and reproductive labor. Ultimately, the women, by operating home workshops, are exploited by global production networks; yet by being subcontractors who own means of production and employ part-time workers, they simultaneously collaborate with these same global production networks. Only five of the thirty-seven former workers explicitly recognized that their work may be detrimental to the current regular workforce at FTZs. Others seemed bewildered by how processes of dispossession are interconnected through global production networks. This was interesting, given that at least twenty of these thirty-seven former workers were considered politically conscious and rebellious when at the FTZ. At different times, these women demonstrated great solidarity with the regular FTZ workforce and understood that differently positioned workers were being oppressed by forces beyond their control. Their conflicting feelings are reminiscent of what Priti Ramamurthy theorizes as perplexity. Noting that “perplexity is a conceptual platform to think about the experiential contradictions of globalization as a series of processes that often overwhelm subjects,” Ramamurthy says it indexes how people simultaneously experience both joys and aches of global processes in their everyday lives (2008: 525). Most of these women felt that the NGOs and the factories did well to connect them to some of the larger subcontracting operations. This was not surprising considering that some of the training and networking was done within programs that were organized under company corporate social responsibility (CSR) agendas. Workshops were also sponsored by local NGOs with connections to prestigious organizations such as UNICEF, UNIFEM, and the International Labor Organization. Just as in other global capitalist contexts, this field where multiple power sources with varied histories diverge perplexed the former workers (Ramamurthy 2008, 2014).
Global in the Villages 25
These contradictions notwithstanding, the social changes the women initiate through their economic activities keep transforming the rural socioeconomic and cultural landscapes. Former workers are acutely aware of the new spaces, positions, and relationships they are conjuring as they engage in economic activities. They expressed their achievements mostly in the vocabulary of their gendered responsibility for social reproduction. Emphasizing triumphs over uncomfortable realities associated with eroding worker rights not only highlighted the perplexities of globalization but also indexed the politics of contentment. Succeeding in entrepreneurial activities is one way to find meaning and fulfillment, but women were willing to forego such success for things they valued more. Thus politics of contentment also entails taking up work that is not profitable, as well as saying no to lucrative contracts in order to attend family and village festivals, help sick relatives, and attend funerals. It is noteworthy that there were five women who firmly refused to do global subcontracting work because the target production was too stressful. Particularities of how these women negotiate social and economic life in rural Sri Lanka, while in the process rearranging domestic, intimate, and community relationships, forces us to rethink Harvey’s postulation that “neoliberlism has become hegemonic as a mode of discourse” and that it has become part and parcel of the way many of us interpret and understand the world (2007: 3).
Neoliberalism Reaches Villages Acute economic stagnation, poor infrastructure, and limited sociocultural opportunities make many a young person leave villages in search of work. The following chapters traverse former workers’ lives as they return to villages and embark on renegotiating their positions, repairing damaged reputations, and bettering their economic, social, and political positioning within villages. Chapter 2, “Pure Girls! Don’t Open the Door,” sets the background for the ethnographic material by showing how an ideal image of the Sinhala Buddhist woman was constructed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as part of the anticolonial movement. The chapter evaluates contemporary media representations of this ideal image, conflated now with global media flows, to show how they influence current discourses
on the ideal wife and daughter-in-law and shape the ways women negotiate identities and village cultures. Chapter 3, “Industrious and Obedient Daughters-in-Law,” traces the former workers’ linguistic and performative strategies to dispel stereotypes of them as corrupt, street-savvy, transgressive FTZ women. The chapter focuses on how these women consciously discipline their bodies, speech, and mannerisms, showing how such displays of conformity are crucial to engaging in local social, economic, and political spaces formerly dominated by men. Chapter 4, “Superwomen and Lazy Lalies,” focuses on former workers’ social, political, and economic activities and the way they network with the subcontracting gig market, NGOs, and individuals they knew in the FTZ. Showing how they engage with local and translocal NGOs and redefine the good young married woman, the chapter also discusses how former workers and their entrepreneurial activities affect nonmigrant women and influence certain new stereotypes and power struggles. Chapter 5, “Sex in the Village,” analyzes former workers’ narratives on sexualities. While in the FTZ, workers felt subversive for having boyfriends and enjoying intimacy or premarital sex. Now they feel subversive for dreaming of a certain kind of intimacy in their married lives. This chapter addresses how former workers use available means of communication, such as letters and village storytelling sessions, to engage in subversive sexual discourses, even as they encourage younger village women to try out the FTZ. The chapter shows the par ticular ways in which former workers try to influence the rearranging of rural intimate lives. Chapter 6, “The Strange, the Crazy, and the Stubborn,” takes an intimate look at three unmarried women who have taken paths that blatantly stretched the boundaries of normative femininity with varying results. It seeks to understand the extent to which their FTZ experiences influenced them to imagine and try nonnormative lives and what their actions tell us about how social norms change. More importantly, it highlights the aty pical ways some former workers utilize FTZ knowledge and connections to carve out new social positions for rural women. Chapter 7, “I Do Not Want to Be Rich and Lonely,” focuses on politics of contentment and how a new common sense that incorporates both conventional and fresh ways of being is emerging. A short section in this chapter looks at the new dynamics surrounding FTZ work, such as labor contractors, manpower workers, and the arrival of Tamil women workers from
Global in the Villages 27
war-torn areas, to briefly comment on what these transformations may mean for global workers and their subsequent village negotiations. The Conclusion weaves the theoretical and ethnographic material into a discussion of the effects of neoliberalism on Sri Lanka’s villages while summarizing the book’s major findings.
Driving from the Back of the Bus My 2008 book, Stitching Identities, focused on how FTZ workers constructed an identity as modern women with traditional brake pads—women who bought into modern ideas concerning work, independence, and lifestyles but used the awareness of existing social norms to restrain themselves from getting into trouble. The current book focuses on women who willingly take on traditional roles once back in their villages but who through several strategic moves become networking and mobile women—in short, women in traditional roles who use the wings of modern ways to soar high. Stuart Hall noted that identity is like a bus, “not because it takes you to a fixed destination, but because you can only get somewhere—anywhere—by climbing aboard. The whole of you can never be represented by the ticket you carry, but you still have to buy a ticket” (1989, quoted in Pred and Watts 1992). When former workers take on and perform expected behav ior as young daughters-in-law or wives, they are not expressing a wholesale acceptance of the identity position imposed on them at that point. Rather, as Hall states, they are using a ticket to get somewhere that they like. What Hall does not note are the quiet maneuverings that allow women to control the steering wheel without appearing to do so. This book is a tribute to a group of creative and skillful former FTZ workers who daily struggle to create meaningful lives by manipulating what they have available even as they change existing social norms. Thus the book calls into question the reach and power of neoliberal discourses and the tendency to assume that this blanket term can be used to account for and explain every thing (Brown 2005; Kipnis 2007; Klein 2008). While making the case that neoliberalism’s hegemonic status cannot be assumed but must be questioned, the book makes a compelling argument for the need to take politics of location seriously when exploring neoliberalism’s effects.
Pure Girls! Don’t Open the Door
Once upon a time, a couple had a beautiful daughter named Amal Biso (pure girl). Whenever her parents went out, they locked the door and warned Amal Biso to never open it until they returned. One day, while the parents were away, a devil who desired Amal Biso took the form of a handsome man and knocked on the door. The pet parrot shrieked the parents’ admonition, “Amal Biso, don’t open the door,” and she heeded the advice. Three times the devil tried and failed, but the fourth time he came bearing exquisite gifts—colorful gems, clothes, and jewelry. Amal Biso was dazzled and opened the door. And the devil devoured her. The story of Amal Biso has been told millions of times in Sinhala households and schools to caution against the dangers of deceitful strangers bearing gifts. What does this cautionary Sinhala folktale—depicted in story books and children’s TV programs and taught within families and in primary schools and warning against being tempted by material glitter— have to do with former FTZ workers negotiating identities in Sri Lankan villages? A lot.
Girls Who Left Seeking Riches Return “When we were looking for a good girl for Sujith, I specifically asked the matchmaker not to bring photos of garment factory workers. All these bad stories we hear about FTZ workers—miss must have heard these things like wild living [vanachara], getting pregnant, and abortions and even killing babies. I know there are good, innocent garment workers too, but how do we
Pure Girls! Don’t Open the Door 29
know which is which?” Daya, mother of two sons, made these comments during an impromptu interview at the temple. The same concerns were repeated many times when I spoke with former workers’ neighbors who did not have FTZ workers as daughters or in-laws. According to Padmini Weerasekere, secretary of the Katunayake Women’s Center, some of the marriage proposals advertised in weekly newspapers by the parents of prospective grooms specifically state that “garment factory workers need not apply.”1 When I asked one mother why the transgressions in the FTZ matter, as the workers are now back and ready to live in village families, she answered that the stigma of FTZ living sticks to a woman long after she leaves and adversely affects the family’s reputation and, consequently, the prospects of its younger women. Even when their sons ended up marrying former workers, mothers recalled their objections to such marriages. On one occasion, the mother-in-law of a former worker reported that she protested the marriage, but her son insisted on marrying Damayanthi because she was beautiful. Damayanthi, however, informed me that the marriage was arranged through a proposal and her mother-in-law was part of the arrangement, especially in negotiating the dowry. Damayanthi’s husband added that he did not remember his mother protesting and thought she might have been the one who first chose Damayanthi’s profile from several that the matchmaker brought. “She was intent on my marrying a woman with a good dowry,” he laughed. More interestingly, even when their own daughters worked in village garment factories and, in one case, the Koggala FTZ, mothers reiterated the same objections. They held that Katunayake FTZ workers were more corrupt because they lived in Colombo, away from their protective family environments.2 These beliefs raise an intriguing set of questions. Why would these older women vilify younger women who took up FTZ work mostly out of economic necessity? How was the special stigma attached to FTZ work in Colombo constructed? Why would a mother who had chosen for her son a bride with money now claim that she did not want that woman as a daughter-in-law? These conflicted responses to FTZ work and former workers are engendered by a particular clash of historically constructed expectations about women, especially village women, and the current rapid incorporation of villages into broader market relations. Sri Lankan villages are thus grappling with competing social forces, with neoliberal mores clashing against conventional ways of constructing selves and making way for an emerging common sense: the set of prescriptions for what should be done at what
time and by whom. Thus it is impor tant to discuss, at least briefly, how and when the traditional expectations were constructed and disseminated.
Nationalism and the Ideal Woman Sri Lanka has a long colonial history, beginning with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505 and ending with independence from Britain in 1948. The Portuguese (1505–1658) and the Dutch (1658–1796) during their rule exerted control only over the coastal areas. The British conquered the whole island in 1815 and implemented massive changes within the island’s economic, social, and cultural spheres. As in many other formerly colonized societies, gender norms were more rigidly configured in Sri Lanka during the struggle for independence. The Indian anticolonial movement made women the symbol of national identity and bearers of pure, uncolonized traditions in the spiritual, domestic domain. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a parallel movement in Sri Lanka recast Sinhala Buddhist women as emblems of the emerging nation. The nationalist elite of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, influenced by the Orientalist writings that romanticized Sinhala Buddhist villages as self-sufficient, harmonious, and the true locus of indigenous culture, began to reiterate these romantic visions, claiming that the villages uphold authentic Sinhala culture, while the cities have been corrupted by colonialism and westernization. These writings demonstrate a deep desire to shield villages and their women from outside influences (Samaraweera 1978; Kemper 1991; Brow 1999). They influenced the notion that villages, particularly in the interior, escaped westernization and are therefore the strongholds of authentic Sinhala Buddhist culture. This belief and the constructed qualities of the Sinhala Buddhist woman imposed an unfair burden on village women as the bearers and guardians of the nation’s authentic cultural traditions. They were to be pure girls who should not open their doors to outside influences. An analysis of the sociohistorical process through which the image of the ideal Sinhala Buddhist woman was constructed inevitably turns to an exploration of the link between orientalist discourses and the emergence of Sinhala nationalism as a response to colonialism. It is important to briefly explore the way discourses of various agents—missionaries, travelers, educators, scholars, colonial government officials, and local male elites—
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molded the image of middle-class Sinhala Buddhist womanhood to fit the emerging nation state. Marriage and Chastity
Ralph Peiris, in his book Sinhalese Social Organization, claimed that in the Kandyan era a man could offer his wife or daughter to a person of high caste or to an official traveler who stayed overnight in his house (1956).3 This disregard for virtues valued in Victorian England, such as chastity and purity of the marital union, came under harsh criticism by colonial officers. Many nineteenth-century colonial writings on marriage customs, divorce, and women’s status in Sri Lanka were framed using a language of accusation and horror. These writings were colored by the Victorian British ideal of marriage as a sacred lifelong commitment. They were also influenced by the Victorian view of women as mentally and physically inferior to men and the consequent belief that women should be protected and cared for at home. British writers were therefore scandalized by the ease with which Sinhala people could divorce a spouse (Sirr 1850: 164). The British sense of cultural superiority, rooted in racism, initiated a patronizing gaze, and more often than not sweeping generalizations were made about moral laxity based on the fact that Sinhalese found it appropriate to separate from a marriage partner just because one party wished it (Risseeuw 1988: 38).4 The Kandyan law manual, Neethi Nighanduwa, provided necessary provisions for the custody of children and comparable property rights for both parties, in case of divorce. According to Devaraja (1991), the fact that a woman did not sever her emotional and economic ties with her natal family when joining her husband’s home provided Sri Lankan women greater independence. Another aspect of Sinhala life that came under colonial criticism was the low regard given to women’s chastity and fidelity within marriage (Percival 1803; Davy 1821; Sirr 1850). Various British authors (Sirr 1850; Forbes 1841) considered polyandry, as practiced in Kandyan provinces, no second to prostitution, infidelity, and incest. Such marital practices clashed with British ideals of the nuclear family and patrilineal descent and prompted harsh criticism. Loose marriage ties gave women a chance to get away from an unfulfilling marriage without being socially punished and thus provided women with a variety of life choices. They inherited their parents’ property equally with their brothers and did not have to relinquish land at the time of marriage, which meant they could return to their village if necessary and
claim their share. A woman wanting to leave a marriage was entitled to take back her dowry, a provision that her British counterparts did not enjoy. British missionaries and officials considered this state of affairs damaging to the stability of marriage, so in 1859 the authorities issued Ordinance No. 13, which orga nized marriage customs into one cohesive set of rules based on the British understanding of marriage. According to the ordinance, monogamous union was the only legal form of marital relationship. The formal registration of marriages and births was made compulsory. Simple divorce was abolished, and it was decreed that no marriage could be dissolved without court proceedings. The western-educated local elite backed these reforms. British officers, who were exclusively male, did not grasp that equal family land ownership promoted women’s security and equality within the family. They required single ownership of land, and although women were not legally barred from owning land, the single owner was supposed to be a male family member. With time, local male elites internalized these British perceptions, which were clearly advantageous to male family members (Risseeuw 1988). Educating the Goddess of the Home
British observers emphasized that literacy levels were very low, and lowerclass women were illiterate, until Christian women missionaries started schools for women on the island (Cordiner 1807; Selkirk 1844). However, these observations were based on British perceptions of formal education at the time and did not take into account the expertise that had been passed to women for generations in such areas as indigenous medicine, midwifery, astrology, and religious scholarship. The discussions of an appropriate system of education for women were framed around contemporary British ideals of gender roles. Missionary women especially emphasized that the objective of a girl’s education was to teach her good morals and manners so she would be a suitable companion for her husband (Harris 1994: 33). According to Malathi de Alwis, nationalists and British educators concurred on an education curriculum for women (1995: 140). Many housewifery skills, such as needlework, hygiene, and childcare, were taught in school under a home science heading. While educators sought to teach native girls the virtues of femininity and domesticity, nationalists saw this professionalization of domesticity as significant to transforming the Sinhala Buddhist woman into a symbol of national greatness, ensuring proper regeneration of the new nation. After independence, the curriculum that emphasized home
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science for girls was standardized and disseminated throughout public schools (Jayaweera 1990). Producing Docile Bodies and Class Sexualities
Many missionary accounts concentrated on native women’s obstinacy, carelessness, talkativeness, restlessness, and inattentiveness (de Alwis 1997). Missionary women educators in particular sought to convert native women to Christianity and thereby “civilize” them, by which was meant making them docile, obedient, and serene in manner. Focusing on the schedule of the Uduvil Girls’ College in Jaffna, de Alwis describes the special attention paid to teaching needlework to local Tamil girls. She comments that “sewing played a crucial role in the very molding of the Christian women, in the construction of a particular moral demeanor. It was a practice that insisted upon neatness, orderliness, concentration, patience, precision, qualities which [missionary educators] found so wanting in the native women” (1997: 22). The way native men and women clothed themselves “barely covering the upper bodies,” and their habit of letting the children go without any clothes until they were five or six years old disturbed many a writer (Selkirk 1844). According to de Alwis, the emphasis on needlework at Christian girls’ schools was tied to the desire of missionaries to clothe the natives and thereby prevent “impure thoughts” (1997: 29). Orientalist writings in the early British colonial era also alluded to the effeminacy of Sri Lankan men and the nonsexualized nature of Sri Lankan women. According to Forbes, Sri Lankan women are “comparatively inferior in appearance to men” (1841: 298). Knighton (1854: 37–38) was struck by the “lack of femininity” in their dress styles. Missionary educators responded by inculcating new manners and habits in young women that were distinct from men’s, initiating gendered spheres. These educators projected the notion that to be civilized was to be “restrained in all manner and thought,” implying that those who failed to be so restrained were uncivilized, uneducated, unsophisticated, and uncultured. This emphasis on discipline and restraint in the school curriculum, resulting from colonial discourses on marriage and family, went on to produce the appropriate morality and sexuality for educated and civilized people within the emerging local middle class. Elites and the Construction of “New Woman”
The unfavorable and prejudiced writings of various British agents elicited angry reactions from members of the local male elite. This humiliating colonial experience prompted some members of the emergent nationalist
elite to construct a notion of the “new woman,” one who would be educated and accomplished even as she upheld all the spiritual qualities for which Asian women are thought to possess. This process was closely connected to the rising Sinhala Buddhist nationalist consciousness developing in the early part of the twentieth century that held the Sinhala Buddhist woman—rich in spiritual heritage, yet capable of tackling matters in the public sphere—as symbolizing the emerging nation. Nationalist elites adopted Buddhist traditions from ancient texts and reformed them to counteract charges of irrationalism or immorality. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, their efforts incorporated and transformed syncretic and often locally specific cultural ideologies into what became mainstream Sinhala Buddhist ideology. Local patriarchal values and British Victorian ideals were combined with this relatively unified religiocultural formation to construct a sexual division of labor. The nascent middle class, which included not only Buddhists but Hindus and Christians, soon started to project the ideal women as “passive, subordinate and confined to nurturing and servicing roles within and outside the home” (Jayaweera 1990: 8). The influence of Victorian ideals also contributed to new expectations that middle-class women should be protected within the fold of the kin group “exhibiting the same aura of passive ‘feminine’ serenity as women of their class in Britain at the time” (Risseeuw 1988: 52). However, this unified ideology quickly began to spread to other sections of society and eventually affected women of all classes. Ridiculing both men and women for imitating western fashions, nationalist leader Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933) advocated the Indian sari for women and the cloth and banian (short-sleeved raw-cotton shirt) for men. According to Obeyesekere, Dharmapala’s mother was among the first women to follow his advice, and the new dress soon caught on (1979). The same happened when Dharmapala advocated name changes. Deciding that people should first be decolonized within the cultural domain, he wanted Sinhalese to shed their European names and take up “Aryan” Sinhala names. Sinhala names chosen for women were to be emblematic of their role in society. The names denoted softness, comfort, kindness, and sacrificial qualities. Male names, on the other hand, tended to denote ruling, guarding, heroism, and victory. In his writings and speeches, Dharmapala further extoled the virtue of the woman who stands beside her husband in all his endeavors and makes
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his home a happy and comfortable one. Citing Buddhist Pali texts, he dictated that a wife’s duties were to “1. Order her household aright; 2. Be hospitable to kinsmen and friends; 3. Be chaste; 4. Be a thrifty house keeper; 5. Show diligence and skill.” The husband in turn was to “1. Treat his wife with respect; 2. Treat his wife with kindness; 3. Be faithful to her; 4. Cause her to be honored by others; 5. Give her suitable ornaments and clothes” (Guruge 1965: 18). These gendered standards of behav ior, with a masculinized public sphere and a feminized private sphere, were further stabilized by the publication of a general manual of conduct and a special 30-rule manual of conduct for women. The manual for women contained instructions regarding manners as well as efficient conduct of household duties. Dharmapala’s other writings in the magazines Sarasavi Sandarasa and Sinhala Bauddhaya in the 1920s disparaged ballroom dancing; reading erotic novels; going to the movies; playing the piano, tennis, and cards; engaging in running, long jump, high jump, and other exercise; frequenting hotels and beaches; drinking alcohol; smoking; and riding horses and bicycles. Dharmapala’s close associate Piyadasa Sirisena (1875–1946) was also important in creating this ideal. Although he was editor of two nationalist journals, his main influence was through his novels, which extolled the Sinhala Buddhist virtues for both men and women. These novels projected the image of an ideal woman who was chaste, sacrificial, giving—in short, the goddess of the household. This ideal woman also acted against evil outside influences and protected her husband and children from falling prey to temptations—protector of the domestic/spiritual sphere of life. Any threat to her or the young unmarried women of the household was considered detrimental to the honor of the whole extended family. Throughout Sirisena’s novels, good men and women with these idealized, valorized qualities invariably overcome evil, while the bad men and women either perish or eventually embrace Buddhist qualities. It is important to note that Sirisena started serializing his novel Jayatissa and Rosalind: A Happy Marriage in the newspaper as a reaction to Christian missionary Isaac de Silva’s novel Two Families, which portrayed a happy Christian family and an unhappy Buddhist family (Amunugama 1979). De Silva described the Buddhist home as a disorganized, dirty, ugly place where the devil rules and the Buddhist woman’s lazy, uneducated, and unrefined nature was blamed for this. This negative image was compared with the clean, industrious Sinhala Christian woman who learned good housekeeping
from missionary women. Sirisena’s story reversed de Silva’s images and celebrated the virtues of a Buddhist marriage. At the same time, it provided a popular model for the ideal division of labor within the family and further crystallized woman’s role as creator and protector of the domestic sphere and the reproducer of the nation. Contained within the nationalist movement, new ideal gender roles quickly captured the fascination of Sinhala Buddhists at every level. Disseminating the Ideal and FTZ Workers
After independence in 1948, the government helped disseminate these constructed ideals by using the broadcasting and print media—newspapers, journals, novels, and poems—and subsequently promoted them through school curricula. Soon films andsongs followed suit and etched ideal images of the village, women, family, and sexuality in the public psyche. Newspaper articles and advertisements in the postindependence era portrayed a virtuous wife and mother as one who was clean and efficient and who smilingly served the family.5 Women who sacrificed and suffered with cruel husbands and unkind children were also valorized as ideal women who kept families together. These media representations contribute to the ongoing discursive constructions by portraying the image of “innocent village women” who are bound to get corrupted in the city. Many movies in this early era portrayed the good woman as one who was obedient to parents, a virgin at marriage, and an efficient and religious wife and mother after marriage (Jayamanne 1992). Abeyesekera (1989: 52) writes that the good woman in Sinhala cinema is full of “virtues of passivity: patience, self-sacrifice, willing submission to suffering, obedience to patriarchal authority.” Visually, too, she dresses in a “simple manner, is unostentatious, full of gentle smiles and down cast eyes, non aggressive.” The bad woman in contrast is portrayed as westernized, trouser wearing, aggressive, loudmouthed, and of loose moral character (1989: 53; 1998a: 39). In many of these movies the bad woman gets punished through public humiliation, illness, or death. In 1998, covering fifty years of Sri Lankan cinema, Abeyesekera again noted how Sinhala movies continued to portray the village as “good” and the city as “bad” even as they highlighted how city lifestyles intrude on the villages and victimize women (1998a, 1998b). Indeed, many films, such as Kolomba Sanniya (Colombo Craze), Gehenu Lamai (Girls), Kinihiriya Mal (Flowers Under the Anvil), Sulang Kirilli (Wind Bird),
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and Ayoma, feature good, innocent village women coming to the city and getting into trouble. FTZ Workers and the Strug gles for Ideal Womanhood
During the early days of Sri Lankan television (from around 1979 to 2000), Sinhala teledramas reproduced these binaries, especially among Sinhala Buddhist viewers. While teledramas nowadays feature various female characters, they continue to subtly reproduce binaries of good/bad women and corresponding behav ior patterns. While some teledramas indirectly referred to FTZ workers, several others based their plots around the trials of FTZ workers. One entitled Grahanaya (Stranglehold) is based on the story of a migrant garment factory worker who is drugged and raped by the factory owner. Consequently, she enjoys a luxurious life as his mistress until he finds a younger worker. The story ends when she attempts to kill the factory owner and is taken to prison. Throughout, the drama projected an image of the stereotypical innocent migrant worker who gets deceived into sexual activity and then, through her own weak will and poor judgment, gets deeply entangled in disastrous affairs. The teledrama Ira Handa Yata (Under the Moon and the Sun) featured a migrant garment factory worker who gets pregnant by her boyfriend. After they have sex, the man disappears with her gold necklace. An elderly woman I interviewed said this symbolized the “cultural destruction” brought about by the “celluloid culture of the open economy.” Her belief that rural women come to the city looking for gold but lose the most valuable possession they have (their virginity and good name) is a sentiment shared by many. Another teledrama, Ek Mruganganaviyak (A Doe), focused on the central importance of virginity in a young woman’s life. In it, a young middleclass woman is driven away from her home after her parents find out that her boyfriend raped her. She shows much strength of character by finding a garment factory job and living on her own. However, the sense that her life has no value because she has lost her virginity leads to multiple sexual relationships filled with cheating, lying, and insensitivity. Such behav ior inevitably leads to many problems and finally lands her in prison. This portrayal reaffirms the notion that women are uncontrollable and morally irresponsible when not under patriarchal control while also reiterating the assumption that having sexual relationships was among the FTZ workers’ favorite pastime.
Songs and poems also advised women on ideal behav ior and celebrated the “good woman” qualities. For example, one popular song recorded just before independence features a mother using Dharmapala’s dictates to women to advise her daughter, who wholeheartedly agrees. Among other dictums, the mother asks the daughter to never cut her hair short, wear dresses, play tennis, play music, or dance. The daughter responds, “Why do we need such foreign nonsense (rata kolam)?” While today’s songs and poetry do not directly address garment factory workers, many warn women against being seduced by city life and emphasize the virtue of village values. The influence of these discourses is evident in the FTZ workers’ own writings, which have appeared in Dabindu and Niveka, two monthly magazines for FTZ workers, published by NGOs of the same names. In one such poem, appearing in the December 2003 issue of Dabindu, a migrant factory worker understands migration in terms of modern, dangerous city life contaminating the pure, innocent village upbringing: Little sister You came to the city from the village, Why did you change? You cut your hair short Started wearing trousers and short dresses You were the most innocent girl in the village. What happened to you after coming to the city! We can’t correct the city But we can keep in mind to Protect the village [customs]. It is interesting how this poem echoes some of the concerns raised in a poem, also by a woman, published in a 1931 issue of Sinhala Bauddhaya: Declaring it’s for the country and the race Wearing short dresses and cutting her hair Destroying her virtue like shameless western hussies Today’s women destroy Lanka School textbooks were an important aspect in disseminating such constructed values and norms. The stories in textbooks for lower grades especially were peppered with advice about ideal norms of behavior and the consequences of
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breaking these rules (Gunasekera 1994: 18). The textbooks for the Buddhist religion class included constructed values and norms of ideal behav ior, in addition to material on religious texts. Although not compulsory, many Buddhist parents send their children to Sunday school to learn Buddhism and proper comportment (the latter especially targeting girls). Although social class affects the extent to which children are socialized into notions of shame-fear at home, all those attending school and Buddhist Sunday school are taught the same curriculum on proper behav ior befitting Sinhala Buddhist men and women. Swarna Jayaweera contends that the “educational material and ‘hidden curriculum’ reinforce stereotypes and tend to circumscribe the experiences and aspirations of girls” (1990: 8). The limited social roles prescribed for women under Buddhist formulations have influenced development planners since independence (Jayawardena and Jayaweera 1986). As a result, women were overlooked as a potential target group for development programs, until Middle East migration and FTZs opened employment avenues exclusively for unskilled women. Even these avenues, especially FTZ work, were influenced by a patriarchal understanding that considered women nimble fingered and docile and assumed they would leave employment after accumulating their dowry in gold and cash. With Sri Lanka’s postcolonial discourses projecting the village as the nation’s moral locus, even development goals were couched in terms of restoring villages to their lost, golden past (Brow 1999; Woost 1997). Former president Ranasinghe Premadasa initiated the Two Hundred Garment Factory Program (200 GFP) in 1992, and in his speeches he reiterated that village factories established under this program will stop village daughters from migrating to the city and thus save them from the FTZ’s depravities. Because of these speeches and various media reinterpretations, people began to believe that 200 GFP was designed to keep rural women from migrating to cities for employment. On state TV programs, parents praised 200 GFP for providing their daughters employment near their homes as opposed to in the unfamiliar and corrupted city. According to Caitrin Lynch (1999: 68), village factory officials preferred rural workers to those in urban FTZs because the rural workers were under parental control and adhered to cultural norms— they were obedient, shy, respectful, disciplined, and polite. Such officials cited reports of illicit sexual activities among village women in Colombo and reaffirmed the notion that predatory forces in cities lead village girls astray. Even films that depicted FTZ and female workers in a sympathetic light ended up pitting the ideal and pure village against the corrupting city. The
films Kinihiriya Mal, Sulang Kirilli, and Bora Diya Pokuna (Muddy Pond) were all set in the Katunayake FTZ and variously depicted how rural women who migrate to work in urban FTZs fall prey to city temptations and get trapped in disastrous sexual relationships. Both Kinihiriya Mal and Bora Diya Pokuna contrasted the stereotypical licentious FTZ workers with good female colleagues who resisted temptations and were predictably rewarded with comfortable lives once back in their villages. Sulang Kirilli focused singularly on a young FTZ worker who searches for the married lover who impregnated her so she can marry him and keep the baby. The movie ends with her giving birth in a toilet and leaving the baby behind. Although the movie cast a critical eye on militarization, sexual repression, and the inaccessibility of abortions, it also reproduced common stereotypes about workers having premarital sex, getting abortions, and committing infanticide. The media have a profound influence on both city and village people and they frequently cited such stories to explain their views of FTZ work and female morality. Although these previous constructions get reproduced in everyday discourses, it is impor tant to note that women from different regions, generations, and social classes differently negotiate these ideals through varied economic, religious, community, and political activities (Obeyesekere 1981; Brow 1996; Gamburd 2000; Lynch 2007; Hewamanne 2008, 2017; Sirisena 2018). However, it is also apparent that people of all classes subscribe at some level to the ideal of woman as wife, mother, and nurturer of spiritual and domestic spheres. Previous constructions dealing with women and sexuality combine with economic needs and global cultural discourses to influence contemporary village discourses on FTZ employment and women workers. All these discourses shape people’s sense of themselves and beliefs about how best to preserve their communities. My interviews with grama niladaris, Buddhist monks, respected elders, and school teachers revealed how discourses about the ideal woman still influence village elites’ understanding of what constitutes a good woman, success, and development. Prevalence of such ideas in the contemporary understanding of gendered lives indicates the power of mainstream cultural constructions about village life, women, and nation. Personal admiration, allegiances, and practical choices may influence people to be more understanding of transgressions of gender norm and life choices, but when responding to formal interview questions, people felt compelled to voice support for the broader nationalist notions of ideal behavior. As reasonably educated, mostly perceptive and observant people, these grama niladaris, monks, and teachers understood the economic
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needs that drove young women to the FTZs. Although they did not say so directly, they also seemed to understand that being young women, the workers will follow current fashions and get into relationships with young men. However, they seemed to want workers to show that they understand the special duties that come with being village women—as guardians of village traditions and, by extension, the nation’s purity. No one said, “women should at least act as if they haven’t changed,” but I could easily sense that desire. As noted earlier, some of these elites responded and acted differently when facing real-life decisions and choices. For instance, the chief monk of the Atha Wewa village temple, Reverend Sumangala, wanted to make former worker Madhuri (see Chapter 6) a Sunday Dharma school teacher, despite her unusual lifestyle and alcohol use. When the grama niladari objected on the grounds that her behav ior is improper for a woman, the reverend vehemently claimed that Madhuri’s particular life circumstances warranted her alcohol use and that people must learn to adjust Buddhist teachings depending on the context. However, during the formal interview 16 months later, he spoke about unspoiled village cultures and bad outside influences. He thought the customs related to women’s behav ior are ancient and that virginity has been required for unmarried women since the days of Sinhala kings, and he believed that women in the FTZ engage in unBuddhist activities inappropriate for village women. On record, he clearly did not want to stray from normative scripts befitting a monk. Village elites take pride in being the guardians of a constructed legacy that places villages at the apex of pure Sinhala Buddhist culture. As in other societies that lag behind cities and have little to be proud of, such elites harped on the spiritual qualities they upheld at the cost of material wealth. It is to this milieu then women with heightened neoliberal attitudes returned. Before analyzing the clash between these ways of thinking and living, it is important to see how women workers come into contact with, absorb, and internalize neoliberal ethos.
FTZ Producing Neoliberal Attitudes and Subjectivities In 2018 I received an Economic and Social Research Council grant to accelerate the impact of my research among global factory workers. I wanted to conduct three workshops for thirty current workers to discern what they would like to see change immediately, and I proposed to present the workers’
preferences in a separate series of workshops to the BOI and factory management to influence the desired changes. I budgeted Rs. 1,000 each per worker per workshop as an honorarium for participation. My partner organizations (two NGOs working with the Katunayake FTZ workers), however, informed me that the going rate for workers to participate in a workshop is Rs. 1,500 per day and that the boarding owners were usually paid between Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 10,000 for acting as the workers’ agents. The payment for the boarding owners came as a surprise, prompting me to angrily retort that “these people are acting like a mafia.” I was informed that organizations with foreign funding pay Rs. 1,500 per day, and this is what workers now expect. Receiving a monetary payment in addition to transportation and meals to attend workshops is not new. In 2000, I attended a workshop that paid workers Rs. 150 per day. Boardinghouse owners were not paid anything at the time and were not involved in negotiating prices. But by 2018, workers and boardinghouse owners were colluding to ensure workers were paid a high sum even as boarding owners, acting as agents, also benefitted. The standard claim was that weekends were the only time workers had to shop and address other household activities, and therefore the only way to entice them to participate in workshops was by paying them a decent sum. I was also informed that at such events workers expected to be served fried rice and Chinese-style dishes (as opposed to a Sri Lankan–style rice and curry lunch). These requests show how astutely workers calculate the value of their time and hints at the number of educational workshops held by NGOs in the area. As one disgusted NGO staff member said, “nobody can make real work related changes because that would reduce factory profits, so these International NGOs keep pouring money into educational activities for workers.”6 I included this preface to discuss how exactly rural women who come to the FTZ learn, absorb, and internalize a neoliberal ethos, leading to entrepreneurial aspirations, profit calculations, and obsession with self-advancement. First of all, they do not arrive at the FTZ with no understanding or connections to the market economy. Sri Lankan villages had been connected to urban markets for decades before the island’s open economic policies took effect in 1977. The first TV channel was introduced in Sri Lanka in 1979, and as of 2018 there were fifteen local channels in addition to many international stations available with satellite ser vices. Although only a few local channels generate clear reception in the interior and many villagers cannot afford satellite TV packages, people all over are now used to being bombarded about the value
Pure Girls! Don’t Open the Door
of time, money, self-advancement, and entrepreneurship. The advertising and reality shows play a major role in promoting the desire to acquire consumer goods and fueling the need for cash. Monks, teachers, and grama niladaris criticized parents for sending their daughters to the FTZ mainly because they felt the concerned families could do without the women’s salaries. “They want more and more and more. All glittery material things. And they do not stop for a minute to think what migration does to their daughters and to the culture,” one grama niladari complained. It is clear that rural women are already initiated into market-based economies by the time they decide to migrate to the FTZ for work. Local NGOs funded by well-known international donors introduced microcredit programs for village women to start small businesses as early as the 1980s, and this was another development that fanned interest in income generation. The workers I have studied since 2000 were born in the 1980s, and they were well aware of microcredit programs and the attendant social problems, given that most microcredit loans failed to deliver positive results. Both Madurawala (2018) and Financial Times Sri Lanka (2019) have noted that the lack of financial management skills among rural women was a major reason for the failure of microcredit programs in Sri Lanka. The following chapters, however, show how former FTZ workers are much better at managing microcredit and other loans to start and maintain successful businesses. It is important to understand why they do better in this regard than their nonmigrant counterparts. The ample educational opportunities facilitated by NGOs were an important reason that FTZ workers were more adept at money management. Most NGO workshops not only were free but they offered a per diem payment. Some workshops were held in scenic areas, providing workers a free pleasure trip as well. Most of these workshops focused on reproductive health, sexual harassment at work and its prevention, labor laws, and workers’ rights. But almost all workshops included lectures and group activities that focused on leadership development, entrepreneurship, financial planning, self-motivation, organizational skills, and mental and physical health. By 2016 such workshops also addressed how to connect to the gig economy as subcontractors, become producers for local markets, operate small businesses, and manage money. As noted in Chapter 1, a workshop I attended in 2015 included a husband-and-wife team who extolled the benefits of becoming a subcontractor and provided much practical information on how to connect with
various factories. They mentioned that if the workers could do a good job with a small sample order, factories may consider buying them the machines they would need to produce garments, shoes, bags, and other items. The duo promised to visit villages and help workers streamline production if they were to subcontract from home. (Interestingly, subcontracting in Sri Lanka seems to be based on personal connections, as opposed to open calls for contracts.) The organizers of the lecture also discussed how women could obtain Singer industrial sewing machines through a monthly payment scheme designed specifically for FTZ workers returning to their villages. This information sparked much interest, and participants asking many practical questions. One of the organizers from the NGO ran a small subcontracting operation near Katunayake, and she had already bought ten machines for a home subcontracting operation in a village in North Central Province. A former FTZ worker ran this home factory by subcontracting to other village women. The NGO organizer is now training three other workers in her factory to run village subcontracting operations once these workers return to villages. All these instances were presented and discussed as examples of how one could become part of the cascading system of subcontracting in Sri Lanka. Another interesting presentation at this workshop taught workers how to avoid giving in to relatives who were after their monetary capital. Workers were urged to cast aside emotion and be single-minded in their entrepreneurial pursuits. A Buddhist parable was used to highlight how people stray from their goals when distracted by unnecessary desires. A few other workshops I attended between 2013 to 2017 usually included a segment on social and economic empowerment via income-generating activities and offered information on types of work women could pursue, the approximate initial capital needed, and the most appropriate loan schemes. Two workshops in 2017 and 2018 were entirely focused on skills training toward creating a marketable product. Some of the businesses mentioned in the products session were floriculture, horticulture, dairy farming, beekeeping, shoe and handbag manufacturing, beauty culture, crafts, and cake making. More importantly, the workshops included sessions on financial literacy, business ethics, attitude and personality building, business planning, accounting, budgeting, and sales. The 2017 workshop especially focused on market relationships, buyer-seller negotiations, and the importance of identifying and using new market strategies. Both workshops provided information on financial institutions that give microfinance loans, such as Sarvodaya
Pure Girls! Don’t Open the Door 45
Development Bank, Hatton National Bank (HNB Grameen), Commercial Bank, and Lanka Orix Leasing Company (LOLC), along with some discussion of their relative merits. Participants of the 2017 workshop were thrilled to receive information about regional workshops organized by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka on female financial literacy and business start-up. Information on trade fairs, trade meet-ups, and credit camps run by regional Central Bank offices were especially welcomed by the workers. Additionally, several NGOs in the area conducted classes on computer literacy, spoken English, sewing, bag making, bridal dressing, sari embroidery, and artificial flower and jewelry making. These classes usually charged a reasonable fee. The same NGOs held dancing and yoga classes on their premises, and these typically were free. Western dancing classes especially made women feel they were embracing modern ways. Classes lasted between one and four months and varied in attendance. The workers I have talked to in the past few years were enthusiastic and thankful for such free or affordable opportunities around the FTZ. They liked learning new skills and being able to network with fellow workers and NGO staff members. The Katunayake area contains various entrepreneurs with FTZ-related gigs, and they become role models for workers who may be pondering post-FTZ livelihoods. Boardinghouse owners, who are almost always female and are called boarding aunties, are a prime example of people who take up entrepreneurial activities. They manage their female boarders, run small grocery shops, and sometimes provide residents with meals and sew their dresses. People around the area operate bag-hold centers (so workers can leave their bags behind before entering the FTZ); drive auto rickshaws; provide transportation ser vices (including group transportation to villages); sell trinkets, toys, and clothes in and around the bazaar; run pawn shops, record bars, and portrait studios; provide horoscope readings; and manage small money-lending operations. In fact, many engage in multiple economic activities simultaneously and thus provide good examples of how to engage the gig economy. Some boarding aunties take on subcontracting work from mid- and small-scale subcontractors around the FTZ and when pressed for time subcontract to boarding residents. Residents appreciated the opportunity for extra income, especially around April festival time. The use of day labor (commonly referred to as manpower work) in FTZ factories has fueled a different sort of neoliberal attitude among migrant workers. Indeed, some have resigned from their regular FTZ jobs to take up day labor through manpower agencies, as the daily wage is higher. Although working this way makes
their livelihoods precarious, some choose this option to avoid the stress of target production and to enjoy more free time. Others continue with regular FTZ work and augment their incomes by working on weekends or holidays or working night shifts via manpower agencies. Some revealed that workers take drugs (known as K.G. and Babul) to stay awake and have extra energy. According to Malki, a regular FTZ factory worker, a woman who worked three shifts within twenty-four hours could earn around Rs. 3,600 (approximately $23). Were she to take a day off to rest between two twenty-four-hour workdays, she would still make over Rs. 3,000 more in a three-day period. Not everyone can maintain such a schedule or do so for long periods, but workers have witnessed how certain women acquire material success in this way. Even if unwilling to follow suit, many are inspired by such efforts. Not just NGOs but larger companies in global production conduct workshops as part of their CSR policies, a set of international organizational compliance policies, which, thanks to rising consumer concerns, now go beyond legal requirements and include ethical and philanthropic responsibilities as well. CSR policies require corporations to engage in actions that further social good beyond the interests of the firms and what is required by law. Major corporations that have suppliers in developing countries are expected to empower their workers and contribute to their communities (Sheehy 2012). Consequently, CSR policies were implemented in large global factories, along with the Sri Lanka Apparel Manufacturers Association’s Garments Without Guilt certification scheme. These policies led to training and educational programs for workers. Training was provided in job skills, sports, art, and aesthetics. Some factories in the interior of the country began generously contributing to the beautification and maintenance of roads and parks around their factories and community as well as to religious ceremonies. As per NGOs in the area, factories within the Mas Holdings group and companies like FDK and Torroid were most prominent in providing meaningful life skills and education to their workers. Although Goger (2013) argues that attempts to empower Sri Lankan apparel workers through skills upgrading merely give management a tool with which to manufacture consent and manipulate global perceptions, skills training, in fact, helps workers once they leave the factories and return to their villages. The learned capabilities are conducive to entrepreneurial activities that nonmigrant workers lack, and in part they explain the relative success of former FTZ workers who have returned to villages. As noted, factories, especially the
Pure Girls! Don’t Open the Door 47
midsize to small subcontracting factories around the Katunayake FTZ, train and equip their best workers to become village subcontractors. Such subcontracting may disproportionately benefit factories, since they do not have to cover the home workers’ medical, EPF, ETF, and gratuities that the regular workforce is entitled to. However, by being guaranteed specific orders, subcontracting women are connected to relatively stable markets (i.e., factories) that nonmigrants are unfamiliar with. Workers do absorb neoliberal ways of thinking and living and acquire skills and training to advance their aspirations while at the FTZ. And by living on their own in congested boardinghouses and dealing with pleasures and pains stemming from romance, sexual banter, harassment, and violence, these women learn street smarts that are crucial for negotiating contracts and social relations. As Stitching Identities explicated, workers as a group created subversive spaces where new styles, tastes, and leisure activities manifested and new senses of self were articulated. Moving between factories, boardinghouses, and their villages, women workers soon learn to play with available identity positions by performing situational identities to best fit the context. As the following chapters will show, this ability to play with identities help them achieve entrepreneurial success and social leadership positions in the village.
Challenge of the Returning Amal Biso The movie Gahenu Lamai (Girls), based on the novel by the same name, depicts two village sisters who choose different life paths. In line with other Sinhala movies featuring village women being corrupted in the evil city, this film, too, portrays one sister ruining her life after being enticed by the city. The movie includes a song that plays in the background as the young woman with tearful eyes waits for the lover who impregnated her. The lyrics say, Girls, the outside is beautiful, are you thinking of flying out? Girls who leave their mothers and get out of their villages Looking for glittery things in the city; Will get many beautiful things, But will soon realize that those are illusions that last only for a little time, That is when they come back to the village crying [handa handa eyi]
It is stagnant village economies that drive village women to work within the FTZ, but people assume that such women inevitably become corrupted in the city and on their return to villages corrupt the pure nonmigrant women as well. Unlike Amal Biso or the girl in Gahenu Lamai, most former workers return to villages smiling—with the FTZ dowry and other capital accumulations.7 But they must still convince neighbors they were not corrupted while at the urban FTZ. These workers usually return with forms of capital, skills, and knowledge conducive to entrepreneurship and ideas, attitudes and aspirations many villagers identify as modern, urban, and somewhat westernized. Many in their communities also equate some of these attributes with being corrupted in the city and fear how such women may contaminate their pure village. The folktale merely admonishes women not to open the door. It does not prescribe how to deal with returnees who walked out the door seeking economic betterment. Thus on their return, former workers and their families and communities must participate in a nuanced game of resistance, negotiation, and compromise as they rewrite the rules of what is acceptable. This battle is making way for an emerging common sense. Former workers and their families and communities are thus engaged in a delicate balancing act as they negotiate the intersection of neoliberal ethos and conventional gender norms. The following chapters traverse this negotiation process to show how former workers and their communities reconcile Amal Biso (conventional good girl) expectations with the new set of values the returning young women bring with them.
Industrious and Obedient Daughters-in-Law
“My daughter-in law is one in a million. Her parents have brought her up with good values. Why lie to you? I sometimes wish my daughters were like her. She is obedient, innocent, and industrious. She will raise my son to a better place in life.” So said Wimalawathie, mother-in-law of former FTZ worker Nisha, when I visited her village in Embilipitiya, where Nisha resided with her husband of two years. Wimalawathie’s extensive praise intrigued me, as Nisha had written me in the early days of her marriage, saying she was treading softly around her somewhat imposing mother-inlaw. While all newly married women devise strategies to earn the respect of their in-laws, former FTZ workers find it doubly difficult given the discourses of disrespectability and stigma attached to their prior employment. Many rural households have daughters or nieces who worked in the FTZs, and parents and close relatives generally hold that these women did so to fulfill their duties as good daughters who help the family survive economically. I got quite used to hearing, “My daughter was not like all those other garment girls who behave without any shame-fear.” However, almost all mothers seemed to have qualms about the suitability of an FTZ worker as a good partner for their sons. This chapter explores former workers’ performances of self-discipline and disavowal of transgressive FTZ knowledge, which allow them to utilize the limited social, economic, and political spaces available in villages and thereby gradually reshape local understanding of the good daughter-in-law. Former FTZ workers have spent many years living in an urban transnational space where predatory men and a rampant hedonistic consumer culture are said to corrupt innocent village women. However, after leaving the
FTZ and getting married, often through parental proposals, they find themselves in their in-laws’ villages, where newly married women are placed under stricter surveillance. Constrained by rigid social norms, these women, who developed an intense oppositional consciousness during their time in the FTZ, now engage in disciplining their bodies, speech, and mannerisms. Although at first they come across as having completely retracted into their pre-FTZ selves, this chapter shows that this apparent conformity opens up avenues for economic and social empowerment and enables them to use networks developed within the FTZs to generate income and organize community activities. I explore the attendant new understanding of the ideal newly married woman, who is appropriately disciplined and demure yet who simultaneously engages in local and translocal NGO activities that economically benefit her young family while affording prestige to her extended family. The following discussion focuses on the former workers’ linguistic and performative strategies to dispel stereotypes of the corrupt, street-savvy, transgressive FTZ woman. In the villages, they project an image of industrious, obedient, and loving daughter-in-law, an image that is crucial to engaging in social, economic, and political activities that were formerly dominated by men.
Nisha: The One Who Was in the Mud but Not of the Mud On a separate occasion, Wimalawathie told me that she had her reservations about Nisha. “Women around here told me stories about bad-behaving garment workers, and I have had my doubts. But this girl is like a lotus . . . you know how our Lord Buddha said, the lotus is in the mud but not of the mud? This girl is like that.” When I first visited Nisha’s marital home, I interpreted these comments as attempts to embellish Nisha’s reputation because she is now a family member. However, as time went on, I saw that Wimalawathie and her daughters genuinely admired Nisha. During my visits to former FTZ workers’ marital homes, I found many instances in which an FTZ worker was able to negotiate an identity for herself as a high-achieving, moral, and disciplined woman who works hard for her family. Nisha provided an example of how these women work the village patriarchal systems while negotiating better social positions and identities for themselves, in the process also
Industrious and Obedient Daughters-in-Law 51
managing tensions between individual desires prompted by capitalist modernity and the realities of family life in Sri Lankan villages. Nisha went through her daily chores quickly and cheerfully, mostly because of the new household appliances she brought with her as part of her dowry. She found time to drop by neighboring households to borrow and return things, and she greeted visitors at home with much warmth. She fell to her knees and paid obeisance to her parents-in-law even when she was merely going to the grocery store. When male elders were present, she stood leaning against the wall and conversed respectfully. At dusk, she worked diligently at her gem-cutting machine and attended to the needs of her parents-in-law before going to bed. During many discussions about the FTZ and its current workers, she condemned women who were overly playful and praised women with whom she had worked and resided, saying they never forgot why they had come to the FTZ: to fulfill their duties toward their families. Her in-laws appreciated these comments, especially when neighbors were present, as this put her squarely on the side of the good FTZ girls. Once during a discussion, Nisha, together with many present, condemned women who drank and danced at parties and attended all-night musical shows. She agreed with an elderly man, “Yes uncle, during our factory party, too, women drank beer and danced. It was so shameless I couldn’t even look at it. And some women had the ‘love mania’—couldn’t wait till they find a boyfriend.” Reminiscing about how Nisha herself danced at parties and pined after boys, I asked her that night why she did not remain quiet. Nisha did not mince words in answering: “I thought you would ask about that. This village is a lot different from Colombo, Sandya akke. People are so aware of each other’s businesses and we are responsible for our own and our extended families’ reputation. It was impor tant to not flaunt all the things I did there if I wanted my mother-in-law to like me, and getting her approval was important for me to find the time and support to improve my business.” In fact, it is the work associated with this home business that distinguished Nisha’s life from that of many other newly married rural women of the same economic background. While in the FTZ, she had worked closely with a foreign-funded NGO and attended free workshops on lapidary art. Once back in the village, she obtained several loans and bought a machine, and Nisha arranged with the NGO to cut gems for them at home on a contractual basis. This arrangement required her to travel to Colombo every
two weeks to obtain gems and receive payment for the ones she had completed. The trips made her link between her village and Colombo, and gradually people started depending on her for small tasks, such as filling a prescription or picking up a new clothing item. According to Wimalawathie, Nisha started offering such ser vices to relatives and neighboring women. “I was skeptical in the beginning, but I now see her point. All these women help Nisha and reciprocate in whatever way they can, you know, like giving us a bunch of bananas or a jackfruit or something.” Nisha said she started helping neighboring women out of a sense of charity and to appeal to their generosity of opinion. “I was so scared of rumors. Kasun cannot accompany me because of his job. While I am there, I visit boardinghouses, friends, shopping centers, and such. I do not want these women to say, ‘she is dancing with the devil when she goes to Colombo.’ How could I buy their medicines, baby bottles, ribbons, and buttons if I didn’t visit these places?” She also noted that when she started going to Colombo, she spent an hour at the NGO getting work done and then quickly traveled to her aunt’s house in Kaduwela, to prevent any rumors. However, her mother-in-law gradually learned to trust her, and now Nisha stays a night or two with a friend in the FTZ after finishing all her errands. In the beginning, Wimalawathie objected to Nisha’s daily use of her electric appliances and her use of packaged coconut powder instead of freshly squeezed milk, but as the lapidary work started showing profits, these objections tapered off, allowing Nisha more time for gem cutting. Although it remained unspoken, both women seemed to understand and continually negotiate the challenges and expectations of kinship relations and new economic demands. “Now that my gem-cutting machine is paid off, and my work brings in money, my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law are very helpful and take care of most kitchen work so that I have more time to cut gems.” None of this came easy, Nisha confided: Kasun is their only son and he has an office job. So my mother-in-law was not happy that he wanted to marry me, a former garment worker. Her older daughter also worked in a factory for a few months, years ago. But she still thought I am not worthy of them or that I would shame them or something. She was constantly on my case, checking what I was doing and where I went. Even before I consented to this marriage I knew that as the only son he would be expected to remain in the family house and that I needed to learn to live in peace with
Industrious and Obedient Daughters-in-Law 53
my in-laws. I did not flaunt my new fashion sense or what I learned at the FTZ. The only thing I was adamant about was buying the gemcutting machine and engaging in my craft. In the beginning I would do it only after all of my house work was done. When I talked about the FTZ, I only mentioned how much we suffered at the factories. I always dressed modestly here and did not dance at weddings or even laugh too loudly. None of this was hard, because, for the most part, in my village, too, I did not flaunt new things I learned in the FTZ. Here, I had to be more concerned about how I walked, talked, ate and drank. Although she had earned the respect and admiration of her in-laws, Nisha still tried to be restrained in her actions and assertions. She described how her affinal kin gradually accepted her: “In the beginning I was introduced as ‘our Kasun’s wife.’ Then it became ‘our Nishamani,’ and now it is ‘our Nisha duwa (daughter).’ ” She added that as the address form changed, she found more time to work on her machine and to be less cautious in how she dressed and behaved. Furthermore, she also realized that her in-laws are not so wary about her FTZ past and in fact seemed to appreciate how her FTZ connections made her home business a success. Indeed, Nisha twice heard Wimalawathie conversing with village women and praising FTZ workers in general.
Mayuri: The Importance of Family Support Vijelatha, another mother-in-law, somewhat sheepishly told me how she objected to her son’s marriage to a former garment factory worker. “She had a good dowry, so I agreed to the marriage in the beginning, but then rumors about her former boyfriend and her not being a virgin reached us, and I canceled the wedding plans. But my son insisted on marrying her. I put my foot down and said he is not my son if he does that and forbade him to ever come back.”1 However, the young couple got married and moved into a mud hut he had built on an abandoned plot. Mayuri won her mother-in-law’s heart through a show of fortitude and obedience. Vijelatha recounted her efforts: The first poya day [monthly Buddhist holy day] after their unapproved marriage, I observed sil [the eight precepts of living for the day] at the temple. While I was seated with all these other ladies, this
girl came with a basket of food for my midday meal and paid obeisance at my feet. I was still so angry, I threw the food right in front of her. I am still sad remembering how she cried and collected her dishes and left. All the other women and the chief monk berated me for this action. I never expected Mayuri to come back again with my meal the next poya day. That day when she touched my feet, just out of habit, I said, “May the triple gem bless you.” Anyway, it took me four months to touch the food that she brought for me. She brought it every month. There was a lot of pressure from the other women in my sil group and the chief monk to accept her. And finally I forgave them and invited them to come and live in the house. Later, Mayuri explained why she went through such a show of humility. “If we had to buy land and build a house, we would have never achieved that. Sumith’s family had land, and it was the prudent thing to do. Many people said your mother-in-law will accept you when you have a baby, but I needed a house and some kind of a business going before having babies. Now that we are with the family, they have given us a plot of land and also said we could cut any coconut tree for wood for the house. Even if it is not for that, people need family,” she added, touching her pregnant belly. Vijelatha once told me that Mayuri is like a Sriyakanthawa (goddess of prosperity) for the house. “She is always smiling and humming songs even while cooking and cleaning. She is such a joke-teller. Does all the work around here and then runs to the temple and the school to get her NGO work done. She is the bank manager there, and she just obtained a loan to start a coconut seedlings business,” Vijelatha said. Vijelatha praised Mayuri’s entrepreneurial activities and traditional duties in the same breath, evidence that market-based economies have penetrated the village psyche, albeit without altogether altering conventional expectations. Mayuri traveled to the NGO headquarters in Colombo for bimonthly meetings and once attended a workshop at a mountain resort. A framed photograph of her speaking before a microphone was placed atop the family’s china cabinet. She took microcredit loans from several organizations2 in the village and region, combined them with her own savings, and invested in three income-generating activities. She used her FTZ savings to pay off her loan in installments, an option not available to nonmigrant women. One of her most lucrative economic activities was reloaning her microcredit loans to
Industrious and Obedient Daughters-in-Law 55
other women who had defaulted on their payments. She interpreted this as a social ser vice to women who have no other reliable low-interest options to getting loans. When I asked Mayuri whether she intended to pursue these NGO activities once the baby was born, she hesitated, while Vijelatha said, “Why not? After the baby is a few months old, she can go to meetings and I can look after the baby.” But Mayuri and another young woman present at this conversation talked about subtle power struggles within the village-based committee of the Colombo NGO, and they both agreed that Mayuri would not be able to hold the bank manager position if she absented herself for a few months. During my next visit to her village in 2012, I was overjoyed to observe her at one of the meetings, leading the conversation while breastfeeding her seven-month-old baby. Mayuri missed only two meetings because of the baby and managed to hold on to her position. She had started bringing the baby to the meetings when he was about eight weeks old. Her parents-in-law fully supported this move and helped quash some minor objections from the community. In August 2015, she continued to lead different village forums with her five-month-old daughter at her breast. While taking babies to work is not a new phenomenon, especially for women who work as agricultural laborers, seeing a woman who did not have to work for a living doing so, especially within a voluntary social ser vice (samaja wada) context, was something new for many villagers. Vijelatha, in fact, did much work within the community justifying Mayuri’s actions so that the community would not denigrate her daughter-in-law’s desire to be in the public space when the public expected her to be tethered to the domestic space with her baby. Mayuri’s entrepreneurial aspirations would have failed without her inlaws’ support and their village social capital. When I told Mayuri about tensions between other former workers and their in-laws stemming from the workers’ desire to be mobile and asked her why her parents-in-law were so supportive of her civic activities, she simply said that they are good, wise, and kind people. But Vijelatha had not approved of the marriage and was cruel to Mayuri in the beginning. What changed her from a stereotypical mean mother-in-law to one who is extremely supportive of Mayuri’s social and political activities? This support was directly related to Mayuri’s show of humility at the temple and her continued performance of obedient and industrious daughter-in-law traits. The more she showed adherence to
56 Chapter 3
expected behav ior, the more support she received in stepping outside the mold, showing how the old and the new get intertwined to create new attitudes and practices. Husbands usually allowed their mothers and wives to negotiate household responsibilities and mostly remained detached from how things were run. In almost all cases, fathers-in-law had affectionate and supportive relationships with their daughters-in-law. However, all the women confided that the support of husbands and fathers-in-law depended on their relationships with the mother-in-law; hence it was crucial that one adhered to (at least in words) traditional expectations when trying to carve out a position in village public spaces. Women like Mayuri navigate a reality wherein, on the one hand, marketbased mores and practices are celebrated while, on the other hand, conventional prescriptions for proper behavior still shape their social status. Gaining approval to pursue new activities depended on how skillfully the younger woman maneuvered local cultural expectations and shows how affective and other forms of labor are tightly intertwined in everyday life.
Kumudu: Swimming Upstream I got to know Kumudu at Saman’s boardinghouse, where I stayed during my fieldwork in 2000. She started a relationship with a young man named Manju who was staying in the same boardinghouse, and she took him to visit her family after three weeks of dating him. He was introduced to the family and community as the man she would be marrying soon. Yet, he broke up with her right after they returned from her village. Soon after, in a very public argument at the boardinghouse compound, Saman and Manju both confirmed that the reason Manju started a relationship with Kumudu was because Saman had bet Rs. 1,000 that Manju would not be able to deflower Kumudu. Thus humiliated publicly, Kumudu moved to a different boardinghouse. However, as she had prematurely introduced Manju to her village, it was difficult for her to let go of him easily. She kept coming back to plead with Manju to rekindle their romance by providing domestic and, according to some other residents, even sexual ser vices. Once she confided that her village reputation had been tarnished, it would be hard for her parents to find a “good man” to marry her. Therefore, although she knew he was a scumbag, she was trying to “make him take responsibility for what he did by destroying a girl’s virginity.”
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Having left her in this sad state in 2000, I was pleased to see Kumudu married and living among her husband’s relatives in 2004. In early 2001 Manju vanished without a trace, finally convincing her to let go of her hopes to marry him. Soon after, she met a younger man, almost four years her junior, and married him in 2003. Although they settled among Rasika’s relatives, the in-laws objected to the marriage because of the unconventional age difference and the obvious differences in their appearance (Kumudu was dark-skinned and looked mature for her age, and her husband was fairskinned and looked like a teenager). Overt display of new-bride coyness, extreme obedience and even subservience to her younger husband, and dedication to hard work were the only ways that Kumudu could think of to bridge these gulfs. By all accounts, she did so with great success. As her mother-in-law so aptly put it, “This woman works for him like a slave [dasiyak].” Kumudu waited on her husband diligently, and, in addition to standing near him serving food, washing and ironing his clothes, and shining his shoes, she drew the buckets of water for his toileting needs. Once, when he walked toward the outdoor toilet while Kumudu and I were in deep conversation on the back steps of the kitchen, Kumudu jumped up to run behind him, wrestled the bucket from the protesting man, and ran to the well to fill it up. She brought back two buckets of water, laboring under the weight in each hand. She proceeded to wash the toilet floor with one bucket and placed the other inside. Once he closed the door, she returned halfway to the kitchen and beckoned me to join her. Although we resumed the conversation, she interrupted it twice to ask whether he needed more water. Rasika came out and walked toward the well, and Kumudu excused herself, saying, “I need to take soap, towels, and clothes to him.” She attended to his parents and elderly grandparents, who lived next door, in just the same way. She also feigned ignorance of many fun activities and sexual escapades that people associated with the FTZ and reiterated that, with twelve- to fifteen-hour workdays, she had no time to even breathe. “All I wanted to do was to earn enough to build a house of my own and I was working overtime every day. Back at the boardinghouse, it only took putting my head on the pillow to fall asleep,” she once said, while looking directly at me with a smile. That night she said that while her in-laws did not overtly object to their marriage, she knows that they wonder why she waited so long to get married. “So I do not readily claim all that we did while there. I try to be a ‘good, innocent girl’ for them and my husband, too,” she said. Kumudu seemed to be deeply in love with her husband and, although they married
after a romantic relationship, addressed him as “gentleman” (mahatthaya) and, a few times, even as deiya (god). Although she did not acknowledge this, it seemed that she was trying to compensate for her past transgressions with Manju by being extremely devoted to Rasika. Interestingly, both her mother-in-law and her co-sister (her brother-in-law’s wife), as well as neighboring women, thought this subservience to be somewhat ridicu lous even while they found it endearing. At the end of my interviews with her, Kumari, Rasika’s mother, added, I objected to this marriage in the beginning because our son was very young and he told me that Kumudu was not a virgin. He wanted to forgive her misdeed [waradata samawa] and save her from a life of misery. I ranted a lot but had to give in because he was adamant. But now I am so happy. This must be a habit of the life cycle [samsara pururdda] that they got together. He is treated like a king and is very happy. And Kumudu really saved him when he lost his job in 2005. He started drinking because he did not want to depend on Kumudu for money, being younger than her and all that. Kumudu tried to get him involved in the business, you know, like taking the garments to Katunayake bazaar etc., but he was feeling inferior and bickered all the time. So she contacted some friends from her former boardinghouse and connected him to a business that one of the owner’s sons was doing. It is good for him until he finds another factory job. . . . We cannot be happier with our Kumudu duwa. Kumudu’s co-sister also echoed some of these sentiments but complained about Kumudu’s overly subservient behav ior toward her husband. “It embarrasses me. She has her reasons to be like that and I am sure miss knows about that too. But when she puts such craftiness [mayam] on display, our men also might get ideas. But then I don’t need to act like that. I came here with honor, in a red sari, holding a red bouquet of flowers,” she complained.3 However, she highly admired Kumudu’s business acumen and thought she was lucky to have such a co-sister. All her relatives commented on Kumudu’s generosity and helpfulness toward her nieces and nephews and sympathized about her infertility. Knowing of tensions created in several other former workers’ lives due to infertility, I wondered whether it was her budding business success that helped to push concerns about infertility into the background. The common knowledge of her transgression and her resultant
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show of extreme humility also seemed to have vitiated rumors about bad behav ior. Her in-laws were completely aware of Manju, including the information about the 1,000 rupee bet, which actually caused many among them to lambaste the men involved as villains and sympathize with Kumudu. In 2004, while they still lived in a small room in her in-laws’ house in a village about twenty-five miles from the FTZ, Kumudu started a small business through her FTZ contacts. Using her friendship network to procure for a small fee cut pieces of garments that were thrown out from several factories, Kumudu started to sew children’s clothing. When I visited her again in 2008, her business was thriving, with three sewing machines in a hut attached to the in-laws’ kitchen. Kumudu sewed all day, while her mother-inlaw, co-sister, and an older sister-in-law joined in whenever they could find the time. She also had four village women who regularly dropped by to sew or to take cut pieces to their homes to sew according to designs provided by Kumudu. Whoever finished a garment received a portion of the profits when it was sold. A few months before my visit, she had a batch of labels printed with the brand Rusiru Garments; she wanted to name her first child Rusiru. The labels included a space for the price and the specific name of the garment, a code name chosen by the sewer. “I wanted them to have some feeling of ownership. You remember how we sewed for foreign brand names and felt ignored, like we were wasting our labors. I want everyone to feel attached to these garments so they care about selling them as well. It also helps me to identify sewers when distributing profits,” Kumudu explained. She was acutely aware of good marketing strategies as well. “Since my mother-inlaw’s name is Kumari, she wanted her garments to be named Kumari. I convinced her to use Princess K, which, of course, means Kumari in English. But customers might think that the dress is imported and be willing to pay a bit more,” Kumudu said, while showing me a batch of little girls’ dresses with labels. When I pointed out that princess is spelled incorrectly, with one s missing, she asked for my help in finding attractive English names and their correct spellings. I suggested that she should use Blue Lily as her code name, since that is the English translation for the flower Kumudu.4 She thought about it for a while and said that Blue Lily might not be good for little girls’ dresses. After some discussion, we agreed on Rosebud. A village woman, Nelum, had been adamant that her garments be named Nelum. When I suggested Lotus (the English translation of Nelum), Kumudu objected again, saying that Lotus sounded too much like a garment from Buddhist Sri Lanka
(since lotuses are a common Buddhist aesthetic motif). She was thrilled with the suggestions Tulip and Azalea, and together we convinced Nelum to accept Tulip. With all this business acumen and success, Kumudu still jumped into ser vice mode when Rasika appeared. During my visits in 2013 and 2015, there were many younger women working around the house, and they helped Kumudu with her work while she walked busily about the compound, issuing orders on cooking, cleaning, and sewing and attending to others. Her in-laws and the community seemed to find her subservient-wife performance combined with her business success to be irresistible. Kumudu donated generously to community functions. She did not actively seek village civic leadership, because she was busy with her business, but said proudly that many had asked her to run for office. “I am not an office holder of any society, but even older men listen to my advice on village social activities. Because of my business, now Rasika’s family and I have status in the village,” Kumudu said. Considering that people were aware of her FTZ past, the status Kumudu achieved within her family and community was remarkable. The role that her show of extreme humility played in gaining the support of in-laws and the community is significant here. No one was more aware of it than Kumudu, who said, Even my mother told me to not go to his village. She asked me to go to a remote place where no one knows my history. But I was tired of being poor and a nobody and wanted to be economically successful. For that I needed family and village support. In any case as a woman “who lost her way” [losing her virginity and thus her good name], I had no bargaining power with him. That’s why I decided to jump in the river and swim upstream. I did it well. Now everybody loves me, and I can go anywhere, any time and no one would say she is running around wildly. The reference to jumping in the river and swimming upstream represented her decision to live with affinal kin and win family and community support, with a plan to use that support toward economic empowerment. Although Kumudu did not take up civic leadership, she had a significant role in convincing the village that women could work hard and succeed. She showed that women need to be mobile and active in public spaces if they are to
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succeed in business, and thus she widened the path for future female entrepreneurs.
Kalani: Many Ways to Be Good Not all efforts to conform help former workers achieve support among affinal kin, as for the three women described so far. Kalani, who married her boyfriend of three years and moved to his village in Southern Province, found that disciplining herself and performing social rituals of conformity did not always gain approval and open space for leadership. “The more I showed meekness, the more abuse I received,” she said, explaining that her in-laws attempted to control her soldier-husband’s salary, which he sent her from his camp in the war zone. A few years and two children later, Kalani started fighting back, and virulent verbal battles erupted between her household and the neighboring house, where her husband’s parents lived. Once in a while, the arguments escalated into physical threats and violence (in her words, “minor pushing and pulling”), especially when her brotherin-law became involved. Life was sometimes so unbearable that she took the children and started wandering the roads, causing neighbors and friends to bring her back home. Kalani’s strategy to overcome these difficulties was to work relentlessly toward economic and social success. “Because of my six years in the FTZ, I now possess iron strength, and I know I can clash with anyone and get my way,” she said. Even during the years when she was engaged in verbal battles with her in-laws, she spent her own FTZ savings to cement the outside of her parents-in-law’s one-room house and create separate rooms. She also bought a telephone and a gas stove for the house. By 2008 they had built a new, two-story house near the village temple and enrolled their two daughters in the best girls’ school in their regional city, Kalutara. “But we first started living separately in the cage we built to start a chicken farm,” she said, wiping down the pink-and-white tiled counters of her new kitchen. She attributed their financial success to her husband’s hard work and her frugality, and only after several visits did I find out about all the creative ways she had contributed to their success. She had been loaning small amounts of money at 10 percent interest to village women; based on these earnings alone, after ten years, she was able to loan amounts up to Rs. 15,000 (approximately $100). Village women also pawned
their gold jewelry, and she was able to collect many items that went unredeemed and sell them at a good profit. She traveled to Katunayake to obtain bras and fancy shoes from a manufacturer and then went from house to house selling them at a small profit. Intermittently, she supplied lunch packets to construction parties in nearby towns and made pickles and sweets for local grocery stores. Seven years after her marriage, her father-in-law died. As his children were squabbling about who would pay for what, she took charge and contacted the funeral parlor and got a painter to apply a fresh coat to the house immediately. She rented a tent and extra chairs and hired a cook to supply meals during four days of visitation. “I did not spare any expense. My fatherin-law got a fine funeral that he would never have dreamed of,” Kalani said. She felt that this was a crucial turning point in the relationship with her inlaws, as much of the overt antagonism subsided. Yet, she still did not win their approval or support, and thus Kalani deployed several other culturally appropriate avenues to build a good reputation, the prerequisite to village civic engagement. Proximity of her house to the temple was one such avenue. The first thing I see in the morning is the temple. The first thing I do in the morning is to sweep the temple plaza and clean the flower tables. The monks could see my kitchen and the backyard from their windows, and they know how I work like a slave for my family. When the temple servant [abiththaya] is on vacation, and no one else brings them alms, the chief monk turns to me to cook them something. I am always the first to suggest temple activities and the one to bear the biggest burden in executing them. I know that the chief monk has spoken highly of me on several occasions and advised my mother-in-law to be more appreciative of me. Her connection to the temple and the help she gives to her in-laws, despite the tensions, has earned her much respect through the years. She also managed to put her husband’s position as a sergeant major in the army to good use at a time when civil war was raging and military personnel were considered war heroes. At the time of my visits in 2007 and 2008, she was the chairperson of the village defense committee and had an identity card from the regional police station to check on suspicious people and vehicles. As chairperson, she worked closely with the grama sevaka (village agent) to look after military families and get them welfare (samurdhi) payments. She
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had almost weekly meetings with the government agent, the chief monk, and other village elites to discuss “how to save our village from terrorists and suicide bombs.” They also made arrangements for funerals and support ser vices when soldiers from the area died or were injured in battle. She was also chairperson of the village ladies’ society (kulangana samithi), secretary of the funeral help society, and secretary of the samurdhi society. She had been a teacher at the temple’s Sunday dharma school for ten years and envisioned doing so until her death. Kalani’s account demonstrates the many ways to show conformity. She tried to be the demure, retiring new bride and, when that did not work, found other ways to show her good intentions, for example, through her connection to the temple. Armed with the chief monk’s verbal character certificate and a certificate of marriage to a war hero, she seemed to have conquered all the social and political spaces available in the village. Although one of the neighbors made a point of calling me to her house to confide how Kalani had wandered the streets in temporary insanity at one time, no one could ignore the enormous financial success she and her husband had achieved. Her account demonstrates the necessity of carefully manipulating both monetary and cultural resources for future success.
Fear of the Past Most former FTZ workers said that they feared the villagers might summarily invoke their FTZ past to put them in their place. Three former workers brought up an incident reported in the newspapers a few years ago about an attack on a former FTZ worker by village hooligans. This particular worker had returned to the village because her parents were trying to get her married. While waiting for these arrangements to be made, she went around the village for a few months in tight-fitting jeans she had brought back from the city. The village thugs threw acid at her, disfiguring her face, to teach her a lesson in humility and conformity. “These village people, they can be nice when they want to, but nice can turn to vicious at any time. I tread carefully here, at least until I have two, three children and a good economic foundation. Still, trying in-your-face FTZ mod in these backward [gode] villages will not bring us any power. I try to get my way by putting on the sil redde,” Shanika said, ending the discussion with a laugh. Sil redde is the white shawl worn when observing the eight disciplinary principles on poya days
64 Chapter 3
(monthly Buddhist holy day). The comment is interesting on two levels: putting on the sil redde signifies disciplining mind and body, and according to early nationalist discourses, white signifies purity (de Alwis 1997). Although women like Nisha were able to win admiration for their urban contacts, performance of conformity, and carefully manipulated acts of goodwill to overcome the FTZ stigma, and they seemed beyond reproach, all former workers understood that their FTZ history could be deployed at any time to force them to comply with expectations associated with rural married women. Several former workers sought to have a baby immediately, so as to lessen or eliminate the effects of their pasts. They feigned ignorance about birth control lest their knowledge of such issues compromise the good-girl image they had so painstakingly cultivated. Shanika, who worked closely with the village family health officer to maintain records and familiarize new officers with the village, declined the offer to speak to village women about contraceptives in a more official capacity. She explained that she did not want to give them any reason to bring up her FTZ past and say she was a corrupting influence. Although it is quite acceptable for a nurse or a village health officer to discuss the use of contraceptives with village women, and for women to learn of such issues via magazines and TV programs, former FTZ workers avoid sharing their knowledge of such issues with village women because they fear how this would be interpreted within extant village social norms. Many harbored hopes of putting such knowledge to good use in a few years, when their position was less vulnerable. All workers talked about their FTZ experiences, almost always in a very positive light, when younger, unmarried women visited them in their homes—usually a little after lunch—to help with household chores. While the elderly women slept in the house, these younger women usually sat outside and talked, joked, and sang songs while cleaning rice and cutting vegetables. I was surprised at how all former workers encouraged the nonmigrants to give the FTZ a try. While noting how “some others” might have had trouble, they claimed that their experience was fabulous. Even when I knew otherwise, former workers talked about kind and friendly managers, motherly boardinghouse owners, and caring neighbors. Since most women in the audience, given their economic backgrounds, were bound to end up in FTZs, these reimaginings seemed to be more for the former workers’ own benefit. They provided a nice forum for excluding themselves from “those other people who got corrupted.” I see this as a strategy to open up a restrictive space, so they can work toward their economic and political ideals.
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Even for workers who seem to have made it, like Nisha, strengthening their negotiated positions and widening their narrow avenues represent an everyday struggle that requires creating and maintaining self-narratives that omit anything unacceptable or shameful. Some of the women quite skillfully used media stories of FTZ workers gone bad to further enhance their reputation as good FTZ workers who want to be good wives and mothers. These media stories provide varied ammunition for former FTZ workers and their village audiences in their daily battles to secure good reputations for self and family or village and nation, depending on whom one speaks to.
Sacrificial Mothers/Women and Support Systems Former FTZ workers made it easy for villagers to accept the new image of the entrepreneurial young married woman by articulating it within the rubric of the all-sacrificing mother. Even Nisha, who did not have children when I started this research, continually reiterated that all her efforts were directed toward ensuring a good future for her unborn children. These women also talked about how hardworking their husbands were and how unjustly society had treated them. “Even a cent we could bring to the house eases that poor man’s burden,” Mayuri once said, as her mother-in-law nodded vigorously. Kalani perhaps most strongly couched her actions in sacrificial wife/mother rhetoric. As a soldier’s wife, she already had many media sources to draw from, and draw she did. Kalani equated her few street-wandering incidents with Patachara, who, in Buddhist my thology, lost her husband and her parents and went crazy and said that she did every thing so her family could get back on its feet. This focus on their sacrifices and suffering is similar to Paxtun women’s narratives of suffering. According to Benedicte Grima (2005), the Paxtun women of Afghanistan participate in the tragic aesthetic narratives of suffering and thereby create socially sanctioned actions to promote themselves. Doing so allows them to publicly express the extent of their normative Paxtunness. Similarly, the former workers try to create and perform a certain image of acceptable, newly married woman for the benefit of their new community. Unlike Paxtun women, the former FTZ workers used narratives of sacrifice in a more pragmatic manner and thus moved fluidly between narratives of suffering and celebration, depending on the audience and the context but always with the intention of promoting their own “good woman” image.
Most former workers privately confided that they engaged in NGO and other activities requiring travel for their own pleasure and self-fulfillment as well. While many struggled to verbalize the guilty pleasure they derived from traveling, some were able to see this as briefly recapturing the relative freedom they had experienced in the FTZ. “Believe me, I love my family and my role in this community, but if I have the choice of getting my material through the mail or traveling to get it, I will choose travel,” Nisha said. “Can anyone begrudge me a few days a month on my own?” she added. In a way, their achievements seem to require double duty, as winning approval means being extra diligent in household obligations. On the other hand, economic success also wins these women a supportive female community that eases their home duties. As noted, many high-achieving FTZ workers had groups of young female followers, who visited frequently at midday and did household chores in groups as they shared stories, jokes, and gossip. The more a woman shows allegiance to her role as cook and cleaner, the more help she receives from her in-laws and neighbors. Once, when I was about to leave after a three-day visit, Nisha’s mother-in-law asked her to go to Colombo with me as I was using a hired van. Nisha refused, saying that she had put the curtains to soak and had to get the rice and vegetables prepared for lunch the next day. A little game of persuasion and reluctance ensued, with Wimalawathie offering to do the washing and cooking and Nisha reminding her that the curtains would be too heavy for her arthritic hands, and how waking up at dawn was not good for her sinus problems. Each of these reasons was met with gentle but firm reminders that the older woman had taken care of all these things alone before. Even after getting dressed, Nisha started dragging her feet and said she did not feel right about leaving when Kasun, her husband, was not at home. Wimalawathie, of course, promised to take care of that matter. When the van finally started to move away, both Nisha and I started giggling and continued for what seemed like a long time.
Good Women, Work, and Empowerment Naila Kabeer (2011, 2016) has noted that women’s paid work is instrumental in poverty reduction, human development, and economic growth and that it has the potential to transform their lives. She also holds that these positive outcomes are possible only if paid work empowers women to
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exercise voice and influence in the key domains of their lives. This chapter showed that such empowerment has to be coaxed through a show of conformity and humility in exchange for community acceptance and grudging respect. Studies on returnee migrants focus on how their contributions change rural economies (Margold 2004; Constable 2004; Soco 2008; de Vreyer, Gubert, and Robilliard 2010; Xu 2010). Although giving evidence that migration by itself does not necessarily lead to local economic or social success, such studies do not focus on migrant workers’ varied, nuanced, and often individually executed strategies that underpin local acceptance and entrepreneurial success. This chapter foregrounded the strength and creativity of Sri Lanka’s female FTZ workers and the strategies they utilize to become successful. Sri Lankan villages are in the midst of an intense struggle between an encroaching market economy and the pressure to hold on to traditional values, and this requires women to maneuver respectability, work, and travel in creative ways. In short, former workers manage to minimize objections to the corrupting and individualizing effects of money and economic success by presenting their engagement in work as part of the traditional duty of a woman toward her family while ensuring that some benefits also trickle down to the community. A woman who could engage in income-generating activities without divorcing herself from the responsibilities of a good woman and who could articulate these activities under the rubric of sacrificing wife/ mother earned an acceptable, even envied, position in her village. The way rural women strategize limited resources with a view to entering socialpolitical economic life showcases how marginalized groups manipulate, stretch, and adjust dominant ideals in ways that are meaningful to them. This chapter offered glimpses of the ways in which young Sri Lankan women and their communities attempt to reconcile neoliberal ethos with deeply held notions of the ideal woman. Undoubtedly, this space is filled with tension and open to ever-changing, malleable interpretations of what it is to be a good woman, daughter-in-law, wife, and mother.
Superwomen and Lazy Lalies Villages Adjusting to Successful Former Workers
Discussing her home income-generating activity, Nisha once proudly declared, “I earn almost half the amount Kasun earns through his work.” This fact was not lost on her mother-in-law, Wimalawathie, or the neighbors. “Many women are now jealous of my lalie [daughter-in-law]. They brought in those princesses born of flowers [sheltered rural women who were considered more moral] for their sons. Those women just eat and sleep at home, while my lalie brings money home and also does all the housework,” Wimalawathie once said. The last time I saw her, she confided that she believes her son did some good deed in his previous life and wished for a partner (sahakariyak) who would support him in all of his work. “This girl is a partner in the true sense of the word,” Wimalawathie declared, using the scholarly Sinhala, which is rarely used in everyday conversations. The previous chapter discussed how former-worker daughters-in-law discipline their bodies and language in an extreme display of “ideal woman behav ior” and how this opens up space for them to engage in the economic, social, and political activities of their villages and to connect with the island’s metropolitan centers. In doing so, they have contributed to changing the notion of what it is to be a good daughter-in-law. This chapter explores how former workers negotiate village power relations within different venues to arrange those relationships in a way that is more meaningful for them. It also explores how they change village understanding of what it means to be a good woman and daughter-in-law and how they influence the narrative that depicts former worker entrepreneurs as “superwomen” (daksha,
Superwomen and Lazy Lalies
kadisara) while portraying nonentrepreneurs (the vast majority of whom are nonmigrants) as “lazy lalies” and stay-at-home mothers/wives who are a drain on their families. The chapter also shows how the latter are contrasted with superwoman daughters-in-law who continually cross boundaries to generate money and prestige for their families. By distinguishing former workers’ responses to local power relations and subsequent entrepreneurial success from those of other village women, this chapter further analyzes how the former workers create spaces to enunciate robust alternative perspectives that contribute to restructuring extant hegemonies in postcolonial Sri Lanka. Many studies show how identities created elsewhere get tested once people return home (Gamburd 2008; Long 2004; Tsuda 2000, 2003). While the former workers discussed here are forced to put on the back burner the more glittery aspects of identities they created in the FTZ, their particular life trajectories give them the chance to express some of the attributes of those identities that are best suited to their village context. Former workers’ blending of class-specific village behav ior traits and city know-how initiates a complex process of change to what it means to be a good young married woman in Sri Lankan villages while simultaneously undermining women who cannot live up to the newly defined traits.
Networking Women: Neoliberal Ethos Meets Local Expectations Since 2003 I have participated in more than twenty-five meetings of villagebased NGO groups that comprised former workers. As I noted earlier, many former workers I visited held positions of leadership, while others were vocal members. Even quiet women like Batti, who was one of the quietest workers at Suishin, the factory I worked at while doing fieldwork, continually spoke up, offering suggestions and taking charge once those suggestions were approved. Many nonmigrant women spoke up as well, but often with the discernible difference that they were the ones who brought up concerns about impracticality and the probability of failure. A part of a meeting I attended in 2006 in Kegalle proceeded as follows: Nonmigrant woman 1 (NW 1): On one hand, I really don’t see the point of this NGO. If we have to raise all the funds, organize
all the activities, and volunteer our time and labor,1 why are we even connected to those people in Colombo? [Several women speak up at the same time, most of them agreeing.] NW 2: If they are going to open a toy-making factory or something like what this Samitha suggested last year, we all could have found jobs and earn money. No, they don’t make it easy. Former worker Nalini: But Malika, think about how good it is that we are in charge of our own future and we do not take any Colombo people’s dictates to develop ourselves and the village. NW 1: Developing the village is government’s job. What are we, a bunch of village women, going to do to develop the village? We can only develop our households and that is why we need some kind of a women-only factory to earn a living. [Several agree in unison.] Former worker Mangala: But the idea about saving in our bank is for us to get loans and start our own income-generating activities. Perhaps this akka can open a small factory and employ a few of us. NW 3: This is like waiting for the ocean to dry up so we can fish. When are these things going to happen? By the time we save enough to begin a business we will be old women who cannot work. Has anyone in this village ever succeeded through these pecuniary [sochchan] loans? Nalini: That is the problem. You have no confidence in yourself. We can do every thing that men can do and every thing that urban women do. We just have to have confidence in ourselves. I can give you several examples from neighboring villages of women who have succeeded. My own business was started with a loan from this bank.2 [Several women agree and disagree at the same time.] NW 3 (smirking): This nangi (Nalini) had been to Colombo [to the FTZ] and knows gentlemen there who can help sell your
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products. Poor us, we do not have such help and we would have to eat whatever we produce as no one buys them here. NW 2: Can anyone ever succeed with projects like making milk toffees, coconut seedling, toys? These are jobs one cannot do without men. But our men cannot absent themselves from their regular work to help us. That is why the Colombo NGO or banks should give us big chunks of money without interest so we can get a foothold. Former worker Ruvini: But the thing is, they do not give big chunks of money. So we’ve just got to think about what we can do with what we have. NW 1: These NGOs, I tell you, it is to us Sinhala people that they don’t give big chunks of money. In the north and east they provide money, transport, and marketing support to Tamil women. We don’t demand enough and we do not show our weakness and poverty enough. . . . That is why we do not get good support. Nalini: Now, this akka had forgotten that there is a war going on in those areas. They need a bit more support than us. Never forget how strong we can be when we want to. If our men cannot take us to Colombo, then let’s go with a little boy from the neighborhood. It takes getting lost several times and somehow finding one’s way to lose the fear of Colombo. [Several women speak in unison.] Nonmigrant worker (speaking quietly to her neighbor): Yeah, yeah, we heard that you have gotten lost many times there. Nalini: If it is of help, I will organize a group of us to go to Colombo with me. I will show you how to find other buses and where to get a cup of tea and what kind of people to ask for directions, etc. I will even take you all to Katunayake and introduce you to some of my NGO friends there. In fact, Katunayake may be a good market for food items and women’s clothing, bags, and shoes as there are thousands of women there. This meeting, which was held in Nalini’s village, was typical of such NGO microcredit group meetings. It was typical for former workers to take
charge and also easily take control of leadership positions because of the pessimism nonmigrant younger women generally displayed. However, this does not mean there are no go-getters among the nonmigrant, stay-athome mothers. I have met a couple of such women, and I also met a few who recognized the specific capabilities of former workers and joined mutually beneficial supportive networks. Most nonmigrant women were happy to make use of the few income-generating opportunities subcontracted to them by the former workers. There were also a few nonmigrant women, belonging to various village social strata, who attended meetings and objected to many proposed activities just out of antagonism toward former workers who were in leadership positions. Such women were not hesitant to corner me to make caustic remarks about former workers breaking behavioral norms in the FTZ and how losing shame-fear in the FTZ was helping them to control these village forums. I usually did not share these comments with the former workers unless I was specifically asked to, but many of them seemed to accurately guess what I may have heard when certain women talked to me in private. On one occasion, Nalini laughingly asked me, “Did Anoma tell you that I am a woman without shame-fear and that is why I can shout over all the others and lead this group?” Then she added, “It is funny, she thought since she comes from a ‘hi-fi’ family and has more education than me, the Colombo NGO people would offer the chairmanship to her on a platter. She came to the first meeting in a sari, imagine that! Colombo people liked me from the very beginning, but I had to be elected. I canvassed among other women for myself, telling them of my connections in Colombo and what I can do for them. You don’t get positions because you come from a good family anymore. Our country is more developed [diyunu] than that!” This quote and the preceding section show how different groups of women held contrasting ideas about development, village leadership, ascribed and achieved social status, and democracy. As noted earlier, most nonmigrant women prefer government-led development, male authority, and ascribed social status, whereas most former FTZ workers prefer market-based economic activities, self-help, and achieved status. Neoliberalism supposedly eliminates social ranking rooted in tradition and promotes market-based social hierarchies. This has not happened, especially in the Sri Lankan countryside. Instead, neoliberalism has initiated clashes between old and new ways of thinking about social ranking. This had led to perplexity in that people have to now operate at the intersection of the old
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and the new without specific prescriptions for what is acceptable, good, and commendable.
Disseminating New Ideologies, Managing Reputations I attended a meeting of a mutual-help society (anyonyadara samithi) held at a temple in another village in Central Province where former worker Piyumi resided. This meeting was very different from the meeting discussed above in that mutual-help societies existed in villages even before independence, and both men and women participated in them. Even more important, the chief monk of the temple, prominent schoolteachers, and the elderly from elite families attended, along with a sprinkling of younger people. This particular meeting was chaired by a younger monk who was the second in charge of the temple. Piyumi had been quite disturbed by a domestic abuse incident that had taken place just a week before my visit and told me that she was going to raise the issue at the temple. She had been married and living in her husband’s village for only fourteen months and had been attending society meetings since moving to her new residence. Knowing how rebellious, boisterous, and street-smart Piyumi had been at the FTZ (engaging in a street fight and staying up all night with a heavy stick [kithul polla] to guard her favorite NGO officer, Neetha, who was being harassed by an older woman), I was expecting a showdown and to eventually be asked to leave the temple. We went to the temple with time enough to leisurely conduct Buddhist worship activities and to visit the chief monk who was resting in an easy chair outside his residence. He inquired after Piyumi’s in-laws and about Piyumi’s pregnancy before blessing her with a short healing chant (seth pirith). About 20 people were gathered around the temple hall by the time we reached it, and Piyumi immediately started working her charm, calling people mama (uncle), nanda (auntie), akka, aiya, or sir and madam. When it came time to discuss new business, Piyumi stood up and eloquently described how a newly married woman was beaten publicly by her intoxicated husband because she tried to go back to her parents’ house. Her husband had intercepted her at the bus stop and brought her back to the house, beating her on the way. Her cries were heard by many, yet no one intervened. After that, Piyumi suggested that there is much alcoholism and violence against women in the village and that there should be a separate
organization to deal with such violence and provide a safe environment and relief for women who are affected. She then offered to consult a Colombo NGO about opening a village branch. There were many appreciative murmurings when Piyumi was talking about alcoholism and violence, but the idea of a village NGO did not go over so well. There was a brief silence, save for some whisperings among the members, before one older gentleman stood up. “This child brought up a very important issue. I heard about this incident as well. Alcoholism has been a cancer that is destroying Sinhala villages for some time now. We need to do something to bring these wayward men to the temple. But this idea of a[n] NGO catering for abused women is not a good thing. Village women have to live within village culture. These foreign ideas do not serve our women well. They do not work in poor, Buddhist villages. What will this NGO do? Encourage village women to leave all men who berate them or beat them, like urban women do? We will then end up with a bunch of women without husbands who have no means to eat.” Three other men spoke up, reiterating and agreeing with the first speaker, before Piyumi stood up again. “The NGO could be about alcoholism and cater to men, too. It could be educational. This Dharmaratne sir [pointing to the first speaker] and the reverend sir [chief monk] could be the educators who speak to men about not beating their women. It could sponsor free classes for young women in sewing and flower making so they are not so dependent on their husbands for money. This Chandralatha Menike madam [retired principal of the village school] could be in charge of that. We could also bring speakers from Colombo and educate both women and men about violence against women.” Piyumi sat down, with what I thought was an affected difficulty, accentuating her newly pregnant status. These comments went over better with the group, prompting Chandralatha Menike, a heavyset older woman, to speak in support of Piyumi’s idea. While many speakers in general agreed with the basic idea, many had concerns about a Colombo NGO bringing in foreign ideas about women’s freedom. As it was getting late, the monk dispersed the meeting after promising to urgently pick this question up during the next month’s meeting. There were several smaller groups that hung around for a few more minutes, and some of these people praised Piyumi for bringing up the issue. We started walking back with five men, including Mr. Dharmaratne, and Piyumi presented her concerns as very much aligned with protecting the “pure, Buddhist image of our village.” She said, in a voice that sounded as if she were about to cry, “Sir, think about it a little. How embarrassing is it that
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in a good Buddhist village like ours, a woman who came from another village is taken down the road while being beaten in public. What would her parents think about us if we don’t do anything but let her get beaten every day?” All of the men agreed, and a conversation ensued about what they could do. By the time we stopped at Piyumi’s house, the consensus was that the five men would meet at the temple the next day and talk with the chief monk about how to proceed. That night I asked Piyumi whether she felt angry that the men left her out after she brought the issue to their attention. She said, “No! Because they will decide to do what they normally do. They would ask the guy to come to the temple and the chief monk will give him a sermon. The man will worship the monk and will promise in the name of his mother and unborn children that he will never do it again. And he will mean it, too. But sooner or later it will happen again. That’s when I will strike again at the mutualhelp society. I am from a village like this, too, so I know how things work in villages. I will have to bide my time till the same thing happens at least three or four more times or an incident results in a big tragedy. But I will open an NGO branch to provide a safe place sooner or later. I will then invite you to come and give a talk, although I don’t think what you have to tell would make sense to them. I will get that girl [the one who was publicly beaten] and other women like her to come and talk to village men.” I found Piyumi’s dealings with the village people to be interesting for many reasons. Her agitation about the domestic abuse case exceeded the concerns of many other village women—who were appalled but who understood the incident as a part of that par ticu lar woman’s fate. Piyumi worked closely with two FTZ NGOs and was personally close to one NGO official who was an ardent feminist. Her first reaction was to think about opening an NGO and educating women to not tolerate such mistreatment. Her first comment, while polite and contained, was also determined and assertive. When she realized that nobody was on her side, she instantly changed direction to include education and lessons against alcoholism, which are topics that many villagers can readily agree on. She also mentioned village elites’ names and suggested that the village people would lead any NGO branch. I also found fascinating the way she put to good use words such as “our village” and “us” and the idea of safeguarding Buddhist values and the village reputation. These narrative tools covered her own newcomer status and preempted any objections about an “outsider” bringing in bad influences.
76 Chapter 4
While the NGO Piyumi contacted had not been able to create a branch in the village as of the end of 2011 (in part because of financial issues facing the NGO), the process she had set in motion at that meeting was having an effect. Piyumi reported that an informal group of men and women have kept an eye on several families where domestic abuse may take place, making visits whenever they hear of an incident. A few women have approached Piyumi asking for help. She in turn has learned to trust some elderly people and has sought their advice before making any moves. Piyumi has found jobs in the FTZ and in nearby cities for some of the women, including the woman who was publicly beaten. While this woman ended up leaving her husband, a couple of other women found more power within the household through employment and remained married. In 2014 Piyumi was busy with two toddlers and said she did not have much time to do village organizing work anymore. She was separated from her husband, had moved to her own village in 2017, and was in training with a midlevel urban subcontractor to start what she called a “ little garment factory” in the village. The reason for the separation was domestic abuse. Village folk genuinely sympathize with women who leave marriages because of physical abuse and thus Piyumi was not shunned for doing so. She hopes to employ around twenty women in her subcontracting business after she completes the training course at the factory and looks forward to participating in village social and political activities once her eldest son completes his grade 5 scholarship exam. As many studies have shown, empowerment is a process that gets constantly redefined contextually (Leve 2009; Sharma 2008). Kabeer (1999) defines empowerment as the ability to make strategic choices and to have voice and influence in one’s own life. Kabeer also notes that empowerment cannot have one strict definition, and this fuzziness calls for creative analyses if we are to better understand how women in developing countries experience empowerment. She thus contends that empowerment can be measured only against previous disempowerment and, consequently, needs to be understood as a process rather than an end in itself. Piyumi’s post-FTZ life trajectory speaks of many empowering moments in which she made astute choices and gained influence in managing her own life. Nilu and Kanthi: Two Entrepreneurial Women
Nilu’s mother-in-law, Kanthi, once recounted how Nilu brought prestige to her family through her kindness and sharpness of mind. According to the story, Nilu and Kanthi heard a neighbor wailing and went to inquire. The
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young woman, Renuka, had just received a telegram saying her father was dying in the Nagoda hospital. Her husband was not in town, and there was no one suitable to accompany her to the hospital, a trip that required four bus transfers. While others present seemed a bit daunted by the task, Nilu offered to accompany her, even though she herself did not know how to get to Nagoda. Nilu and her married sister-in-law accompanied the crying woman to the hospital, spent the night there, and returned the next day. After the crisis passed, Renuka’s family rewarded them with profuse gratitude and agricultural produce. “To this day, when they have a bunch of coconuts or bananas, the first and best portion comes to our house,” Kanthi said with obvious delight. I also noted that Renuka is Nilu’s biggest fan, visiting her often, helping with household chores, and listening to every word Nilu utters with obvious fascination. After the trip to Nagoda proceeded without incident, Nilu became a sort of go-to person among women when it came to city-related matters. She obviously found a great deal of happiness in being a link to the city and went to much trouble to find information through her FTZ network, often consulting line supervisors by telephone, to help village women. She once joked, “I am like the women’s affairs minister for this village.” Through her contacts, she was able to secure FTZ factory jobs and place two village women in her old boardinghouse. “Other women I know charge money for these ser vices, but I do it using my own money for phone calls, et cetera, to help poor women find a means of livelihood. If they have food in their stomachs and clothes on their backs, those are the rewards I want,” she once said, standing by the dinner table where many of her in-laws were seated. Everyone murmured appreciative comments. Her grandfather-in-law summed up the general sentiment: “These are very meritorious deeds. Their good effects will fall on your life and your children’s lives for many births to come.” Nilu, who was serving food, suddenly put the bowl of lentil curry on the table and hurried away, apparently to wipe tears from her eyes. Everyone present took the opportunity to comment on her sensitive, kind, and humble nature. In Nilu’s case, what seems to have helped most was her show of humility, despite her apparent power in networking with Colombo and the FTZ. While demonstrating her wider knowledge and propensity to take the initiative in appropriate ways, she built a strong, supportive women’s network that facilitated her entry into the limited social and political life of the village. At the time of my research, she was the secretary of the local branch of Sarvodaya and head of the food committee at the local temple. In addition,
she engaged in a variety of economic activities, including a successful small business of sewing cloth bags that she sold to several merchants at the Katunayake bazaar and in Petta, Colombo’s commercial hub. Nilu also learned to make small purses for women through an NGOsponsored class while at the FTZ. She used pink and blue charmeuse satin cloth from a shop in Colombo and made a few small purses, which to her surprise were a hit among village women. She gave some out for free in the beginning but then started selling them for Rs. 100. A merchant at the bazaar bought purses made by Nilu, her female relatives, and friends, in addition to their standard bag order. She sold the purses to him for Rs. 200 and knew that he resold them for Rs. 500. She was not entirely bitter about it because this was not her major income-generating activity, and she was happy that what started out as a pastime was bringing in some money. Nilu and Kanthi both expressed their frustration about not being able to find a woman among their friends who wanted to take the purses to the nearby fair and sell them for a profit. “I would have liked a village woman or even a man to earn some extra few rupees instead of that rich merchant in Katunayake, but I tell you, Sandya miss, women here will preserve their respect even if they go hungry for seven years! This woman I talked to has enough to eat, but she does not have any spending money as her husband gives all his earnings to his mother. She still said, ‘Ane Nilu Akke, if I sell things at the fair, people will call me a watti amma [basket trader]. Give me some sewing work that I can do at home with my own machine.’ How can one help develop people with such attitudes,” Nilu complained. “Now this child and I go to Katunayake by bus, carry ing heavy canvas bags that each contain one hundred cloth bags. Does anyone call us watti ammas? Do we care even if they did? This is nothing but plain and simple laziness, miss. Does not want to carry a load; does not want to sit out in the sun; does not want to deal with people—plain and simple laziness,” Kanthi said in an agitated voice, and I was certain that were it not for my presence in the verandah, she would have spat out in disgust. Nilu earlier shared with me that Kanthi’s acceptance and support did not come easy. According to Nilu, it took about a year of her performing humility and obedience as well as strategically using her EPF money to improve the ancestral house to win Kanthi’s support. By the time I met her, Kanthi was highly supportive of Nilu and her business ventures, and she surprised me often with her own innovative ideas about what other village women could do to earn an income from home. Together, they
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proved to be a formidable pair in coming up with ideas and plans that they then single-mindedly executed. Nilu astutely observed that she was very lucky to have such a supportive mother-in-law, without whose help she would not have achieved half of what she had. Kanthi, for her part, seemed to have found a new life as an entrepreneurial woman, after spending more than thirty years as a stay-at-home mother. Nilu’s monetary capital and NGO contacts had apparently given Kanthi the confidence that she lacked to venture into a small business. By not only accepting her but also joining hands with her daughter-in-law, Kanthi helped to set in motion a business that was already bringing in extra money to the household—enough to buy certain consumer goods that were changing their status in the community’s eyes. In 2017 Kanthi very proudly proclaimed that she and Nilu donated the second highest amount for the building of the temple alms hall. She also said that the rumor was that members of a traditionally respectable family, which gave Rs.1000 less than them, told the chief monk that Nilu’s family’s money is dirty because it was earned by selling the women of the family (wikunan kala), and the monk advised them to not demean hardworking women who are an inspiration to all village women. “Selling the women of the family” on one level means that money was being earned by female family members while men idle around. But it also refers to women who make a living by selling their bodies. In any case, use of the phrase shows that some people continue to consider FTZ work and mobile women as a problem. The chief monk’s admonishment shows that the villages are changing, and the guardians of morals in villages, such as monks, are starting to see female urban connections and travel as a necessity for working women. Jayani
Jayani resided in her husband’s village but lived in her own newly built home. She spent most of her FTZ savings on her wedding and to send her husband to a job in Bahrain within nine months of their wedding. What was left, together with the money her husband sent, allowed Jayani to finish part of a new house and move in with one of her aunts. Jayani and her husband had delayed having children, and she had much time to devote to village community organizing. She represented her in-laws at the kulangana samithi and the funeral help society. And she was quite active in the local branch of a Colombo NGO. She also performed the “good, uncorrupted FTZ girl” for her community and said she already felt accepted by
the community within two years of her marriage. When I inquired via letter about microcredit opportunities in the village, Jayani explained that the loans were for small amounts and one therefore needed to combine them with other savings in order to be successful. Her goal was to pay off the loans quickly so she could obtain additional loans. She further stated, “The microcredit loans are helpful only to a certain extent. I have obtained all the loans I can from SEDEC and the other one [bank]. The highest they give is Rs. 20,000. I got it three times. Twice I relent the money to several other women who cannot get loans as they are still paying off old loans. I tell this only to you, Sandya Miss, I, of course, charged a little interest, too. We have to live, right?” Every time I visited her, Jayani kept saying she did not work and yet proudly noted how she herself had bought the household furniture, appliances, and wall decorations. While she did not spell it out, it was obvious that she earned money through relending her microcredit loans. Village women had engaged in small-scale moneylending long before FTZs appeared in Sri Lanka. However, the par ticu lar trajectory of Jayani’s moneylending activities is connected to transnational flows at several levels. Her work at a transnational factory allowed her to have substantial savings that she used wisely to send her husband to a better-paying job in a Middle Eastern country. Her money, combined with his remittances, enabled Jayani to save enough at the microcredit group bank and also to obtain and repay loans from private banks, whether she used them for incomegenerating activity or not. She did reloan money obtained from several microcredit schemes that were specifically designed for women to start small businesses. In 2018 she was monthly paying back loans she obtained from HNB Grameen, SANASA, and the Commercial Bank of Sri Lanka, which she managed to double via the interest she charged (10 to 15 percent) for relending. While I do not see her microcredit relending as a positive activity, Jayani’s situation illustrates the differences between former workers and nonmigrant stay-at-home wives/mothers. On a subsequent visit to Jayani’s village,3 I attended one of the CBO (community-based organization of a Colombo NGO) meetings and spent some time talking to five nonmigrant women who were members of the CBO. All of them complained that saving enough to obtain a loan was very difficult. Two claimed that they obtained loans only because their husbands used a separate small loan to fulfill the
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savings requirements. Both are having trouble repaying the loans because they could not use them effectively to earn income. Two others obtained loans to improve their husbands’ businesses and ended up with nothing. The general mood was pessimistic, with women feeling that they could not save enough to obtain a first loan and that they had to have better support to deal with the inevitable setbacks that occur when starting new business ventures. Subhani, a nonmigrant woman, noted that while microcredit loan schemes are well-intentioned, “this is not a good model. This gives you a push and then abandons you when you need more support. I can tell this to you without shame, that there are many women in this village who get beaten by their husbands because of these loans.” Another woman present said, “Why lie to you? I am one of those women who got beaten by my husband because I used Rs. 20,000 to start a business that went nowhere. I paid back about Rs.12,000 by selling the tools and materials I bought, but now he has to pay the rest. And we were poor to begin with.” Similar stories were recounted at several meetings I attended in other districts. While I found a few nonmigrant women who managed to maintain small businesses using microcredit loans, they almost always reported combining other capital sources such as parts of their dowries, husbands’ loans, or money obtained by selling land or jewelry. Obviously, there were only a few who had other sources of capital. By obtaining loans that were insufficient to sustain a profitable business, many reported feeling that they had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Many said they will keep being members of microcredit groups so they could get loans when money is urgently needed (i.e., sickness, funerals, weddings, puberty ceremonies). How these four former workers used the forums and resources available in their villages and combined them with know-how and savings acquired at the urban FTZ to start and sustain profitable businesses starkly contrasts with the stories of most nonmigrant women who had the same aspirations but were discouraged by the lack of resources, connections to urban markets, and supportive translocal networks. A substantial number of nonmigrant women also expressed a certain fear and suspicion of urban spaces, especially Colombo. While sometimes expressed snidely, in reference to successful former workers who had experienced the “evil and corrupt city,” much of this sentiment appears to stem from years of social-cultural conditioning about the city as an evil and scary place that ought to be visited only
when accompanied by male family members. All in all, microcredit opportunities seem to favor FTZ workers, whose FTZ experiences and savings help them to make good use of those opportunities and as a result influence village power struggles in varied ways.
Lazy Lalies and Superwomen During interviews and conversations, I was surprised by how many nonmigrant, nonworking women had to ask their husbands or relatives for money, often very small amounts. This was true even for those who brought substantial amounts as dowry, since in most instances their husbands had used these monies to purchase property and vehicles or invest in small businesses. Sri Lankan rural people do not have joint accounts or joint credit cards, which means that nonworking women must plead with and beg from their husbands. This makes such women powerless and marginal within their marital and family relationships. When women with so-called FTZ dowries arrive on this village scene, interesting comparisons, anxieties, jealousies, and social changes follow. When former workers use forms of capital acquired in the FTZ to become successful entrepreneurs in villages, those women who avoided the FTZ or who remained sheltered, signaling their conformity to conventional “good woman ideals” and believing themselves more respectable, began to feel devalued. Nonmigrant village women represent a classic example of living at the intersection of old and emerging common sense. They and their families have, for varied reasons, embraced traditional female ideals with the expectation of achieving higher status within their villages. However, with villages increasingly adopting market-based economic relations and new consumer cultures, families now would like to see these same women generating income that would allow the families to acquire material status markers. Most such women fail in these efforts because of limited capital or lack of market connections, and the result has been a narrative about lazy daughters-in-law who are unwilling or unable to generate income, while former workers who manipulate forms of FTZ capital and combine it with village social capital to become successful entrepreneurs are viewed as superwomen who improve family fortunes even as they excel as housewives and mothers. The following section narrates the experiences of a few nonmigrant women to illustrate their par ticu lar positioning within
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Sri Lankan villages and how this affect new perspectives on young married women.
Nonmigrant Women and Self-Employment Efforts Most newly married, nonmigrant women did not try to engage in incomegenerating activities. Most of the nonmigrant women I talked to were married to military men, businessmen, teachers, hospital workers, or lower-level city workers, who generally owned small plots of arable land. Their work provided just enough to eke out a respectable living without falling into substantial debt.4 Agricultural work typically requires the involvement, however devalued, of wives, but cultivating rice as a family enterprise is a dying trade, and many landowners now use hired labor. Therefore, many nonmigrant married women found it difficult to contribute to the family economy in substantial ways. And yet the nonmigrant women I talked to expressed varying levels of desire to engage in meaningful economic activity. These women found that they were not able to start sustainable incomegenerating activities without the kind of networking that Nilu or Nalini were exposed to within the FTZ. The only activities that they could think of, and in some cases had tried and failed at, were growing flowers or opening a small grocery store, preschool, or beauty salon, only to quickly realize that a village does not need more than two or three grocery stores, preschools, or beauty salons. After failing or being discouraged by others’ failures, some of the nonmigrant women began to defend the “respectable, good woman” who is demure and domestic. As Samitha said, “a woman’s job is to make life at home good for her husband and children, not to run around cities with all sorts of people. Although we are poor, we remain respectable and dignified, unlike those hussies [nattukkariyo].” Showing her own ambivalent feelings, a few years later she expressed her regret at not being able to start some kind of business. The economic success of many former workers and their ability to efficiently perform domestic chores thanks to electric appliances and supportive female relatives have initiated a counternarrative about lazy lalies who are a drain on young families. As Wimalawathie, praising how quickly Nisha gets the household work done, said, “I once visited a house, and one of those lazy girls [nonmigrant, stay-at-home daughters-in-law] took close to one hour to get a cup of tea prepared. Her mother-in-law was very ashamed. I was thinking, once a lazy girl, always a lazy girl,” implying that women who never left the
village for FTZ work were lazy to begin with. While I certainly met young nonmigrant women who seemed lazy, many seemed frustrated with the lack of opportunities for work in their villages. They had young children at home and found amassing the capital to start a business difficult. Some had helped with family enterprises or agricultural ventures but did not get any direct payment or credit for their work. When tempers flared, many had to bear caustic remarks about lazy people, who were merely one more mouth to feed in the household. Sriyalatha, the mother-in-law of newly married Dinesha, once proclaimed loudly, “I want my Suneth [her second son] to marry an FTZ worker. They are the ones with money and things these days,” making Dinesha tear up. Manjula’s case perhaps illustrates nonmigrant women’s dilemma best. She had a two-year-old son, and when I visited her in 2007, I found that she had been far from lazy. Her garden was full of colorful anthuriums, orchids, and roses. When I chose some plants and insisted on paying, she accepted the money with both hands and kissed the notes, saying that this was the first time someone had paid for her flowers. Selling flowers requires connections in Colombo, which Manjula and her family could not develop, and I was one of her very few customers over the last few years. Manjula shared her life story with me and said that she had to tolerate her in-laws’ constant jibes about not being able to help her husband monetarily. In fact, her mother-in-law once told me that raising children these days is not the chore it was in the past and women should therefore find ways to help their men succeed. When I asked if she managed to do so, she became defensive and said that times have changed and many women are now able to run a house and be self-employed as well. She added, “there are such talented women in this village—if this girl wants to learn from them.” Right after my discussion with her mother-in-law, Manjula confided that she had badly wanted to work in the FTZ when she was young, but her lower-middle-class parents dissuaded her, claiming that her future inlaws would not respect her if she did. Manjula found it ironic that her in-laws now wanted her to learn from former FTZ workers.
Rupika: Tired of Failure “I came first in every thing I did in school and later in my English class and flower-making class. I learned to sew on my own by following the weekly lessons in Tharuni [a magazine]. I made my own bridal bouquet
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and hand-decorated my own bridal sari,” Rupika told me while showing off many specimens of her artwork. She lived in a rented house in Deniyaya with her schoolteacher husband and their infant son. Both their mothers lived with them to help out and keep company. She came from a village near the city of Matara in the island’s south and her husband hailed from Kosgoda of the same province. But he had been teaching in Deniyaya for three years and they lived in a house about a mile from Nilu’s home. Both her mother and her mother-in-law needed monthly medical care, and the cost of medicine and transportation was becoming a significant burden on Rupika’s husband. “I came with a good dowry and no one really says bad things about my not bringing any money home. He and his mother appreciate my being a housewife and a good mother. But we would like to eventually build a nice house with many amenities close to Matara and also acquire nice things like a bigger TV and a fridge with a separate freezer compartment and all that. It is also nice to buy a car one day. When we have another child this motorcycle is not enough for us. In any case, it is not safe for children. So I want to work. Especially with both mothers at home, I can easily leave the baby and go to work. But it has to be a respectable position like teaching or nursing,” she declared while walking with me to show off the fruit and nut trees at the back of their rented house. During my second visit, she said that she has some training in Montessori teaching and thought that she would be the ideal first choice for the local preschool sponsored by a well-known NGO. “Oh, no, it has to be the Miss Know-It-All—your good friend Nilu. She is the chairperson of the CBO, so she pulled strings and took it herself, to stop me from getting it. Within two months she passed it off to one of her friends, whose only experience was slaving at an FTZ garment factory,” Rupika complained with an exaggerated look of disgust on her face. When I returned home, Kanthi asked me whether Rupika complained about Nilu and then launched into a lighthearted tirade against the former by claiming that Rupika would not pick up a gem even if she kicked it by accident. Nilu joined in and asked whether I had seen the beautiful fruit trees behind her house. “The cloves [karabu nati—Syzygium aromaticum] of that tree are enough to keep a small family going, but she leaves those under the tree for village boys to pick. They have the best goraka tree [Malabar tamarind—Garcinia cambogia] in the village and those jackfruit trees explode with fruit when in season. Yet all three women keep looking at them
and whining about not having money,” Nilu laughed. “If our child [Nilu] had so many jackfruit trees she would have found a way to dry those and sell when jackfruit is not in season,” Kanthi continued. Nilu said that she would have liked to start a joint business with Rupika but Rupika seems to look down on her for being an FTZ worker. “We volunteer together at the temple dharma school and talk. And I secretly laugh at her dreams of getting a teaching or nursing job.” Making fun of Rupika and her two “hoity-toity” (mannakkara) moms became a running joke throughout my visits to Nilu’s house. I finally decided to help Rupika think about ways of finding an income-generating activity. The conversation proceeded as follows: SH: Do you think you can perhaps make artificial flowers for girls’ dresses and headbands, or sew baby dresses at home to sell in the city? Rupika: Who would take them to the city? Poor people in the village cannot buy the high-quality products I would make. SH: How about selling those karabu nati and jackfruits. Most of them are just wasting away, no? Rupika: Who’s going to pick those? And in any case, who would buy those here? Everyone has a jackfruit tree in their garden. SH: You can contract a village man to pick the fruits and take them to the Deniyaya fair! Rupika: Who’s going to deal with payments and profits and stuff? Sarath will not want me to be dealing with village men. People will say that the teacher’s wife has become a mudalali. SH: One of the mothers can do it and you can just supervise. Rupika: Miss, I know you are meaning well. But I don’t need to work like Nilu does. We have a certain status to maintain. I won’t do any work that comes my way. I will wait till the right thing comes along. SH: Oh! Okay. While walking back to Nilu’s house, I could not help thinking that Rupika was a lazy, arrogant woman. I did not see her during my next visit. But in 2014, Nilu informed me that Rupika and her family would be moving out in a couple of weeks. Nilu, Kanthi, and I visited her house together to bid
Superwomen and Lazy Lalies
farewell. Rupika’s husband, Sarath, had been transferred to a remote village in North Central Province, a politically motivated transfer that was considered a punishment. While he would be residing in the teacher’s quarters there, Rupika, her son, and her mother would move back to the latter’s house in Matara. Sarath’s mother had decided to go back to her village in Kosgoda. The discussion moved to the costs of maintaining three households with one salary, and Rupika’s mother said that she hoped this time Rupika’s home income-generating activities would be successful. The ensuing discussion showed that Rupika had tried her hand at many income-generating activities before moving to Deniyaya. She did make flowers at home, and she sewed children’s dresses. She also learned to create batiks. But she could not contract shops in the areas tourists frequent to sell the batiks, and her husband showed no interest in helping. He, however, indulged her when she needed seed money for her projects. She opened a preschool in a hut built behind her house, but the most students she had was three and within one month the school had to close. “ There were too many preschools in that village. Since she likes to do something useful, I helped get these started. But I know they are not sustainable in these villages. You need contacts in Colombo and men who have the free time to travel and maintain those contacts,” Sarath said with a condescending smile. Although my earlier visits suggested Rupika was lazy and arrogant, this conversation revealed that her apathy and use of discourses surrounding good womanly behav ior and respectability were a defensive mechanism against further failure. She lacked contacts and a supportive family network, as Nilu had. Her husband’s derision and lack of practical help exacerbated the situation. Not asking for help from what she considered a lowly FTZ worker, like Nilu, seemed to be a last attempt, self-defeating as it was, to keep some dignity intact. When I related both of these stories to members of several Colombo NGOs, they scoffed and said that women should be able to get monetary help through the NGO banks and other microfinance opportunities available in their villages. In fact, all the villages I visited had several NGO branches providing microcredit opportunities to women, and many nonmigrant women were members. However, as shown earlier in the chapter, former FTZ workers usually dominated when it came to holding “powerful” positions, such as chairperson, bank manager, or preschool teacher. Most of
the success stories associated with these microcredit loans also concerned former FTZ workers. A major reason was that the husbands of nonmigrant women had poor confidence in their wives’ ability to pay back a loan. Manjula was thus prevented from investing in her flower business and instead obtained small loans for her family needs, which her husband paid off when he had the money. In a way, monetary assistance alone would not have helped Manjula, Rupika, or women like them who did not have direct contacts with urban NGOs. This disparity in how some women were able to manipulate urban contacts and microcredit opportunities creates resentment, often expressed through caustic remarks about economically unsuccessful daughters-in-law. While Rupika was lucky enough not to be denigrated by her own family, she had become a laughingstock to a couple of former workers who lived in the same village and to the younger women who visited these former workers to chat and gossip. As with any other group, there were lazy nonmigrant women who were not adept at their everyday domestic chores, let alone at activities to earn extra income. But most women wanted to work yet seemed scared and overwhelmed by the thought of engaging in business. They were also conditioned to think that they could not ever succeed in the business world without male support. Many had small vegetable beds in their backyards and contributed to daily household consumption. But this did not improve their decision-making powers within the family or enhance their status within the community. Most nonmigrant women I studied married into households with decent living standards—the reason these households sought nonworking, sheltered women in the first place. But neighboring women who were able to use home businesses to afford accoutrements advertised on television as part of an increasingly consumerist culture have created new perceptions of what younger women should contribute to the family economy. Consequently, many of their in-laws (and sometimes even their own families) seem to think that these women, were they more industrious, could help acquire such consumer goods for their own households as well. The problem was that they had been brought up and trained to think that a good daughter-in-law is a wife and mother who is obedient, frugal, and religious and who behaves nonconspicuously. None of these internalized attributes help them succeed in competitive market-based economic activities. With changing village economic dynamics, they are suddenly finding themselves in a quandary.
Superwomen and Lazy Lalies
I interviewed eleven husbands of nonmigrant women. Interestingly, none blamed their wives for business failures, noting that it was hard for them to succeed without market connections and male support. At least six of them sounded sexist in saying that they knew their wives were bound to fail (or would fail had they tried) without kinsmen who could help them. Only one admitted that his inability to support her because of his own work and the unwillingness of his family to help were the main reasons his wife could not get a business off the ground. “My younger brother loafs around the village all day. He could have helped Renu in getting the children’s clothes that she sewed to Colombo. No, he thinks that it is stupid to sew clothes at home when there are many that come from foreign countries. My mother is no different. How can that poor woman succeed if none is willing to help?” Mohan complained. “Saddest thing is that they laugh at her for not being successful like this or that neighborhood woman who succeeded with everyone’s help,” he further added. These narratives show that the differences between the women, in most cases, do not result from lack of aspiration, motivation, or hard work. Many village women, irrespective of FTZ experience, have tried their hand at entrepreneurship but failed due to several other reasons. Thus the economic ambitions and spirit of enterprise demonstrated by former workers do not depend solely on their migration to the FTZ and consequent absorption of neoliberal ideas. Rather, a work ethic and a spirit that already exist among the working-class village women gets burnished during the FTZ years, better preparing former workers to make use of interesting new economic opportunities. It is also impor tant to note that there were seven within the group of thirty-seven former workers who did not engage in income-generating activities. Two of the seven networked with Katunayake FTZ contacts that brought them prestige. Four of the seven were vocal members of village NGO branches. According to them and my estimates concerning lifestyles, incomes, housing arrangements, and spending practices, eleven of the thirty-seven families could have enjoyed reasonably comfortable living standards without the former-worker daughters-in-law engaging in any income-generating activities. However, seven of these eleven former workers either engaged in some kind of home business or engaged in networking for village women. Both activities required them to travel, and there was some resentment about this among a few of the well-to-do families. But there was also a subtle, mostly
unspoken admiration of former workers’ home businesses, their networking, and the economic support they provided poorer women.
Counter Discourses and Responses While people worried about neighbors being jealous of them, there was also anxiety that unreasonable vile talk could lead to accusations of jealousy, a non-Buddhist trait. Several nonmigrant married women who tried to speak derogatorily about successful former workers were stopped by their own relatives, who warned that such talk would brand them as jealous people. Such warnings did not, however, entirely prevent nonmigrant women from trying to associate the former workers among them with the raunchy FTZ stories they had heard. Samudra, a nonmigrant woman, once told me, “You seem to be talking to all the good, talented FTZ workers. There are totally lowly creatures out there who had danced the devil while at the FTZ, and are now also dancing the devil in the villages.” She went on to talk about former workers who came home with pregnant bellies, who are “living in sin” with married men, who are engaging in incest and lesbianism. I checked with Sujatha, who was from the same village, and she could think of only one former worker who may be “living in sin.” Later, Samudra clarified that some of those things happened elsewhere and that she had heard about it from reliable sources. “Your friend is a good girl, no question about that. But she worked and lived with such lowly people,” Samudra smirked. Samudra was married to a police officer and on one occasion he too joined in to share stories of “former workers who are a bane to society.” One story was about a police raid on a Katunayake abortion clinic where they found “nearly 100 garment workers” who were there to have abortions.5 During my visits to villages, I have met former workers who have fallen on hard times because of their husbands’ alcoholism, the resultant domestic abuse, and both their husbands’ and their own extramarital affairs. However, I never encountered or was made aware of any instances of incest or lesbianism. While this in no way suggests incest and lesbianism are nonexistent in these villages, the claims made in this regard show how nonmigrant village women easily drew from discourses of stigma surrounding FTZ work to put down women who were hard at work performing “good married woman” roles while also engaging in successful enterprises.
Superwomen and Lazy Lalies
Dinithi was one woman in the group of thirty-seven former workers who had fallen on hard times. “I am not ashamed to tell you miss, the reason that I cannot visit my friends the way I want to is because I can’t afford the bus fare. My husband is a soldier. So he gets a steady income. But he only looks after his needs. He only gives me money for bare necessities. If I try to talk to him, he starts berating me and even says that, unlike other men, he was stupid enough to have gotten burdened with an FTZ worker. Look, miss, how unfair it is to say that. Isn’t he the one who pursued me with love letters and gifts?” Dinithi said this with a defiant tone that nevertheless lacked the spirit she showed during labor struggles and crisis situations at the FTZ. Most of these problems were related to her husband’s excessive drinking and profligate friends, she further complained. By 2010, she had three children and, while she was not able to get a business going, had acquired much cultural capital by steadfastly standing by her soldier husband when he was seriously injured during the final phase of the war. He had three emergency surgeries and three reconstructive surgeries. With the help of his family and the village network, she took care of his needs, according to the chief monk of the village, “as befits a war hero.” He was still on leave and had given up alcohol thanks to the enforced abstinence of his convalescence, and they seemed much happier as a family. Dinithi was bubbling with ideas about how to earn an income to supplement her husband’s government salary, expand the house, and acquire many consumer goods she had long craved. Although things were looking up for her, Dinithi’s case shows that a husband’s alcoholism, domestic abuse, and blatant insensitivity can derail former workers who are other wise more than capable of achieving economic, social, and political success in villages. Even the economically and socially successful former FTZ workers said that they feared the villagers might at any time invoke their FTZ past to put them in their place. Nilu confessed to being scared of her own “man-like” behav ior in traveling to Nagoda with Renuka. “When we were at the hospital, at about 2:00 a.m., I wanted to go to the rest room. I woke my sisterin-law and, despite her complaints, made her stand outside the restroom. If she woke up when I was in the restroom, she could always bring up my FTZ past and say that I might have gone with a hospital worker or something. Although she eloped with her current husband a few years after her first marriage, she would not hesitate to point her finger at me,” Nilu said. Nalini also said that she always takes her mother-in-law to Colombo with her so she could attest to her “good” behav ior if there ever were any
suspicions. “Although I helped them by subcontracting my work, if there is any rumor, some of the [nonmigrant] village women you talked to would be the first ones to say ‘once a bad girl, always a bad girl,’ Nalini said. As described in the previous chapter, most former workers articulated their involvement with economic, social, and political activities under the sacrificial mother/wife rubric, effectively minimizing the possibility of detractors denigrating them as women who were corrupted by their FTZ interlude. However, that very possibility always loomed in the psyche of the former workers and the villagers.
The Ideal Daughter-in-Law in Narrative and Practice As noted earlier, many village men and some women were connected to Colombo or regional cities through work, and these links to cities have increased continually since independence. The translocal connections that former FTZ workers manipulate, however, represent a particular manifestation of late capitalist economic relations, via the cascading system of subcontracting, and are hence open to more contentious interpretations than previous links. These connections generate conflicting responses among workers’ communities. The combination of FTZ savings, know-how, and networking opportunities with performances of “good woman behav ior” seems to be working its magic in villages where people are increasingly fascinated with urban lifestyles, new consumption practices, and global cultural flows. And yet many older women with grown sons, when asked what is most impor tant to them in a daughter-in-law, first said that she had to be a virtuous young woman who was brought up with shame-fear and lived a sheltered life in her parents’ house.
Sex in the Village Subversive Sexualities Abandoned?
Neoliberal discourses emphasizing autonomy, self-reliance, capacity building, and individual choice circulate globally through media. This chapter focuses on how aspects of the neoliberal ethos—individual choice, personal satisfaction, and companionate marriage—that circulated through NGO workshops, readings, and visual media when the women were at the FTZ are rearticulated in village contexts. Studies show that ideas about love, romance, intimacy, and married life change when economic systems change, suggesting that economic systems facilitate the development of par tic u lar emotional lifestyles that are germane to each system. Scholars in many disciplines have long noted the connections between capitalism and an increased focus on emotional life and conjugality (Illouz 1997; Yan 2003; Hoodfar 1997; Rebhun 2002; Kelsky 2006). Fascinating studies explicate how U.S. capitalism controls workers by shaping new hierarchies of emotional well-being via industries of self-help and therapy (Illouz 2007, 2008). Increased commodification of romance in capital ist societies results in the proliferation of specific vocabularies and images of love and authorizes “what is truly romantic.” Eva Illouz’s work on capitalism and romance demonstrates how dating and marriage rituals are shaped by and, in turn, shape leisure activities and consumption and how people experience their love lives by comparing them with romantic utopias depicted in the media.
The past decade has produced several studies about how ideals of companionate marriage have spread across the world and how people negotiate their everyday lives in relation to such ideals (Hirsch and Wardlow 2006; Smith 2006). Many such studies focus on how ideals of romance and marriage are presented as part of the modern self. This more individualized self not only loves a certain way but acquires and exchanges certain commodities that reflect a specific style and taste and also has a network of relationships not based on kinship. There are also studies on how societies creatively appropriate and rework stereotypes to best suit the needs at the time (Smith 2006; Larkin 1997). Sri Lanka’s former FTZ workers similarly are trying to balance neoliberal economic mores with ideal-woman expectations even as they grapple with the new ideals of romance and companionate marriage their rural communities will tolerate. This struggle between competing prescriptions of behav ior is slowly changing perspectives on emotions and practices in the realms of love, romance, and marriage in the island’s villages. After discussing two forms of reading material and movies that produce and circulate global models of love and marriage, including those from nonWestern countries such as neighboring India, I move on to discuss former FTZ workers’ married lives in villages and how they manifest the intense competition between newly acquired and already established notions of love and married life and the frustrations, anxieties, and exciting subversive moments that stem from this competition. One evening in summer 2005, Vinitha and I were sitting on the floor and sorting through some old FTZ photos and letters from her FTZ friends, when I asked if she missed reading materials such as Priyadari. At first she said she missed reading and discussing the material in the magazine as part of a group but did not care much for reading the magazine by herself. This was hardly surprising as Priyadari, the most popu lar magazine among FTZ workers at the time, was widely considered to be pornographic (asabya). The magazine carried sexually explicit stories and specifically targeted FTZ workers and working-class males, including lower-ranked military personnel. Readers were encouraged to send in their own sexual stories, and many FTZ workers did. They considered this magazine to be useful for acquiring sexual knowledge and expressing their own turbulent sexual lives, which were complicated by the clash between traditional notions of purity, virginity, and honor and new realities encountered in and around the FTZ.
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Two days later, Vinitha revealed that she missed reading Priyadari and learning about “real Sri Lankan life.” She had not been able to obtain copies since leaving the FTZ, and although she apparently had a loving and respectful relationship with her husband, she did not ask him to purchase copies for her. “He knows that we read those sorts of things in the boardinghouses. But that was then. Now I have to maintain respectability,” she said. Although Vinitha was one of the FTZ workers lucky enough to remain with her family and build a small house near her parents’ home, she still felt as if her in-laws, living nearly one hundred miles away in another province, were watching her. She did not want to be known as the woman who read such magazines, especially when there were many other magazines that taught many good things. Even when they were living in the FTZ, conflicts about respectable choices were generated by various forms of fantasies that were produced for FTZ workers. In 2002, Divine Flower Publishers launched several publications that catered to FTZ workers, and their stories promoted opposing views to those of Priyadari. The women depicted in the new publications resisted male advances and sexual urges, saving themselves for “good, moral” men with whom they go to temples and engage in charity. This new model for “good romance” was presented as part of modernity and encouraged women to adopt certain consumption practices and leisure activities. Interviews indicated that a personal rivalry between the owners of Pleasure Publishers, which published Priyadari, and an editor had caused the latter to found Divine Flower Publishers, which then promoted an alternative viewpoint for “ideal romance.” Evidently various capitalist interests seek to shape women’s desires and resistance to dominant cultural notions of sex and romance, and women workers negotiate these conflicting ideals in various ways. Both magazines offered scripts of sex, romance, and marriage, and workers readily consumed both sets of images—one portraying a bad modern girl and the other a good modern girl. Although these images inform their perceptions of themselves, the workers understood that they were being sold fantasies and hence both sets of images were reinterpreted and reworked and differently affected workers’ decision making within the FTZ and, later, within their villages. The two magazines offered consumable packages of behav ior that were produced differently. What could be called “bad modern girl” publications elicit contributions from readers, while “good modern girl” publications use the editors’ own serialized novels to try to conscript
working-class women into proper womanhood by adjusting content to suit par ticu lar economic realities. Women felt the difference in content represented real ity versus fantasy. Any hopes Divine Flower Publishers had to bring the pornography-reading wayward daughters of the FTZ back to the fold did not go as planned, because workers continue to read both magazines. Similarly, the workers used the two types of magazines in villages to manage reputations and to encourage younger women to try the FTZ.
Education on Good Romance and Good Marriage It was in 2004 that I first heard FTZ workers had a new set of favorite magazines. The women I got to know said they loved the serialized romances in Sandarajini and Bhavana, both published by Divine Flower, and related their stories with enthusiasm. In contrast to the stories in Priyadari, these serialized novels presented what I call “good romance.” For instance, in a 2001 Priyadari issue an FTZ worker noted how she took revenge on her unfaithful boyfriend: “After that, I decided to sleep with the first man who invited me to do so. When Ajith asked me to go to a room with him, I happily agreed.” A serialized novel in a 2006 issue of Bhavana described a couple’s physical intimacy: “He kissed her forehead, and they hung on to each other for a minute or so. And then he distanced her lovingly and said, ‘Little sister, you should go now. Mother must be waiting for you. It is not good to go home too late.’ Her heart swelled with much pride and love for him that tears filled her eyes. He too looked at her with tear-filled eyes as she moved toward the bus stand.” A story in a 2006 Priyadari issue recounted how a factory owner’s son had sex with the story’s author and two other garment workers on the same day. In contrast, a 2006 Sandarajini story depicted a couple going to the temple and giving a weak old beggar a bath and washing his clothes. Sandarajini projects ideal romance as a compromise between arranged marriage and romantic love. While falling in love is celebrated as the most pure and authentic emotional experience, the ensuing relationships are shaped through self-control, extreme sacrifices, and long commitment to the partner over family and community objections. Attaining parental blessings through hardship is celebrated as the ultimate joy of romantic
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love. Many Sandarajini stories depict married protagonists leading blissful domestic lives. The stories educate FTZ workers on ideal relationships leading to ideal marriages in which couples exchange loving endearments, share household duties, and practice good citizenship. This education also encourages workers to desire new patterns of consumption and leisure activities that go along with companionate marriage ideals. In several serialized novels, the female protagonists express their desire to get pregnant and, wearing a “preggie” gown, walk hand-in-hand with their husbands. Walking every evening for exercise and as part of a bonding experience is not part of Sri Lankan married life, especially for working-class couples, whose work and living arrangements do not facilitate such interaction during the day. These stories nevertheless encourage workers to desire such activity as part of good, companionate marriage. Although women foregrounded their love for Divine Flower magazines, I noticed that Priyadari magazines were also lying about in inconspicuous places. Eventually, workers started opening up and said they liked to read both types of magazines. Clearly, they now did not read Priyadari as openly as they had earlier. Sandarajani and Bhavana, which were supposedly promoting a cleaner image, had sparked conflicts and struggles over individual performances of respectability. Notwithstanding their actual preference, when asked by outsiders, the women were compelled to note the “good romance” magazines as their favorite reading material in order to manage their already precarious reputations. When I presented the same questions in 2013, workers again mentioned Divine Flower publications first, then slowly opened up about Priyadari. The government proscribed Priyadari in 2006, but it soon reappeared as A to Z. In 2006, during a discussion with about fifteen workers, Mala explained her attachment to both types of magazines: “Priyadari stories are realistic. That is what happens within most relationships. Sandarajini stories are like dreams. They are beautiful and after you read a story you can dream about such good things happening to you. But many of us know that they are just fantasies.” Chandrani said, “I think both magazines are good for us. Priyadari shows us how it is, and Sandarajini shows us how it should be. We could learn from both.” Nimali noted, “Sandarajini stories make us sad as we know those ideals are not for us. But Priyadari stories make us feel better because we have not changed as much as the writers of those stories.” However circuitously expressed, the women seemed to take advantage of both
types of magazines to articulate their diverse positions in relation to gendered sexual regimes. They could use Sandarajini to tell outsiders that they were reading “silly yet decent and acceptable” magazines. They could use the Priyadari sexual stories to indicate they were not as “morally debased” as the anonymous women who authored them.
NGOs and Production of Images Jyoti Puri (1999) has discussed how romance novels published by Mills and Boons influence middle-class Indian female readers’ expectations of marital sex and gender roles. Serialized novels by Divine Flower Publications somewhat similarly affected working-class readers’ expectations of emotional and sexual intimacy. NGO-organized workshops on reproductive rights and sexual health included sessions on personal autonomy and freedom to choose and, in the process, imparted certain images of ideal marital relationships. Since NGO agendas are invariably connected to the values of international donors who fund their activities, the images presented in these workshops were intimately connected to global notions of companionate marriage. According to Hirsch and Wardlow (2006: 4–5), companionate marriage is a marital ideal foregrounding emotional intimacy and outward expressions of love. Here the conjugal partnership trumps other family ties, with the main aim being individual satisfaction rather than social reproduction. This kind of union is supposed to be founded on romantic love. Images of love and conjugality that flowed via Indian media influenced the women as well. Workers loved the Sinhala-dubbed mega television soaps imported from India, in which exaggerated forms of ideal female conduct in marital relationships and its contrast are depicted. They also found Bollywood movies that present particular combinations of western and traditional ideals of romances and family lives to be desirable. NGO workshops mocked these alternative visions and urged workers to adopt the global visions of intimacy, autonomy, and personal choice within relationships as befits modern women (Hewamanne 2012). All these new influences jostled against village expectations shaped by religious education and school texts. The following section discusses how former workers appropriate, accommodate, and recreate these varied and
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complex influences as they seek to generate desired changes within their own relationships.
From Romance to Marriage The economic transformation of Sri Lanka is similar to the economic changes that influenced companionate marriage ideals in the Western world. The changing economic context coupled with global and regional media flows force communities to change lifestyles, although the speed with which this happens varies and the changes taking place do not always materialize in ways NGOs, magazines, or movies imagine they would. Now embroiled in negotiating new identities in their in-laws’ villages, former workers realize that they were right to suspect the Sandarajini notion of ideal married life. Seeking daily to repair their damaged reputations, and surrounded by many enforcers of village moral codes, they have mostly lost hope in finding individual marital bliss. As Nilmini, a former worker who married her boyfriend and now lives in his parents’ home in a southern village, put it, “We could not wait to get married so that we could have sex without fear, but now that we are married and living here, we both feel like we had better chances of having sex in Katunayake.” As married women with little children, most former FTZ workers realize that finding women’s community across generations is more impor tant for survival than pursuing the ideals propagated by Divine Flower Publications. As Vasanthi said, “People tolerate about one year of intimacy between newlywed couples. Once you have children or after about a year, intimacy is frowned upon, and you yourself feel ashamed to show affection in public.” Where they live and their economic status also affect the levels of intimacy within marital relationships. Sujatha explained that, after two years of marriage, physical, emotional, and even verbal intimacy occurred only at night in the bedroom: “My mother-in-law specifically said that, since his little sister is in the house, we should behave properly.” We had this discussion right after her husband announced that he was going to a friend’s house to help all night with a wedding that was to be held the next day. Sujatha confided that her husband sleeps on the verandah several days a week, claiming the bedroom is too hot, merely to show that they are not too interested in sex. Village demands for same-sex sociability and everyday rules of
shame-fear transform the intimacies during courtship to generate other forms of bonding. For instance, Sujatha confided that once or twice a month she and her husband walked at dusk to a well, located a few miles away and reputed to have the most refreshing water, because this allowed them to enjoy a few hours of intimacy without family members tagging along. Purna claimed that she liked the image of marriage that Sandarajini presented and thought she could achieve something similar as they lived away from her in-laws. However, economic burdens have transformed her husband from a loving boyfriend to a short-tempered, sleep-deprived man whose expressions of love are now limited to quick sexual intercourse a couple of nights a week. Once, when she complained that he didn’t love her anymore, he curtly asked, “What do you want me to do? Dance around trees singing I love you?” Although she laughed when relating this obvious reference to the romantic love depicted in Bollywood movies, Purna admitted that at the time she cried for hours. She now seems to reimagine married life in a Sri Lankan village: “He is a good guy. Works very hard to provide for us and is generous to my family as well. That is what love is.” Referring to the many other former workers who live with their in-laws, Purna claimed, “I have it better than many others. You were also present when Nilmini shared that they have to be careful not to make any sound when making love in the bedroom lest others would hear through the thin walls. I at least don’t have to worry about such things.” During this par ticular conversation, Nilmini also said that she and her husband felt reluctant to lock their bedroom door as that suggested something secretive was going on. They therefore usually kept an eye on the door while making love. As these narratives show, fantasies of companionate marriage that were spawned within the FTZ have confronted rigid cultural norms and harsh economic realities in villages, giving way to newer articulations. Subversive Sexualities Abandoned?
I was disheartened to hear of social restrictions and seemingly very-lowintensity sexual lives. It appeared that the women had exchanged their vibrant FTZ lives for the security of marriage and motherhood. I wondered when a former worker would open up about her steamy sexual experiences with her husband or risky sexual transgressions with another man. Instead, I kept hearing about frustrated young married men and women who found it difficult to engage in sexual activities, either because of village social etiquette or economic burdens that adversely affected sexual and emotional
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energies. The women seemed resigned to sexless lives and mostly unexpressed love and kindness. I was feeling almost as much despair as these former workers when I started examining their letters to me and to each other in 2005 to see how they now remembered and described their FTZ time. While each letter had themes and purposes other than sharing knowledge of sexual transgressions or frustrations, many contained clues as to what the women were thinking and wanted to continue exploring. This insight led to my reexamining some of the storytelling sessions I attended for more clues. From summer 2005 onward, I paid special attention to discussions of sexual activities, hidden in metaphors and double entendre, during midafternoon storytelling sessions. These discussions were even more powerful because the audience of younger nonmigrant women seemed utterly fascinated by the vivid descriptions of FTZ experiences that included varied transgressions. The following sections analyze how former workers participated in subversive sexual communication, through letters written to other former workers and storytelling sessions with younger village women, to highlight that, notwithstanding their performances as good daughter-in-law/wife/ mother, they have not abandoned oppositional consciousness and continue to express their wishes and desires in the sexual realm. Letters: Secret Lives of Good Daughters-in-Law
As noted, Sujatha and her husband walked to a well far from their home once or twice a month to spend a few hours together. While she said the intimacy of the walk was her favorite part, Sujatha also mentioned that they had sex several times in an abandoned hut in the wooded area behind the well. “There is something about having sex outdoors. You should try it,” she said. While she did not write about this experience in letters to her friends, she liberally gossiped about their other friends’ sexual lives. She was especially interested in knowing Vasanthi’s particular experiences right after her husband returned from Italy: He must have been so impatient. Who can blame him? It was more than three years. He must have pounced on you the moment you two were alone. Has he learned new stuff in Italy? Do tell us if that’s the case. But I am sure that rather than learning from Italians, Krishan aiya had taught them a thing or two as well. Did he bring a blue film [pornographic DVD] as he promised? Were you able to see it? What
is it about? Cannot wait till I see you again to hear about all these things. With the help of all this and gods’ blessings I hope you will get pregnant this time. Your loving friend Sujatha At the time, none of these women had seen a pornographic movie but they knew such DVDs were widely available (thanks to TV programs condemning the proliferation of pornography). Vasanthi later acknowledged that Krishan brought a DVD but that she was only able to see parts of it at a friend’s house. Krishan keeps it under lock and key to prevent his mother or siblings finding it, although she confided that they sometimes talked about the visuals as part of foreplay. Among in-laws and neighbors these former workers claimed not to have taken part in the more vibrant aspects of FTZ life, yet their letters liberally reminisced about rebellious and transgressive experiences. I wondered about the psychic effects such denials had on the former workers and expected to read about mental breakdowns, sudden flare-ups, and threats of suicide similar to what I witnessed at FTZ boardinghouses (Hewamanne 2010). Close to ten years later, I read about only one suicide attempt and there were no reports of mental health issues. Writing letters to each other and expressing what they really thought or desired was one way these women dealt with the suppression of the selves created during their FTZ years. Intentionally or not, letter writing had become a therapeutic exercise for most of them. Scholarship on women’s letter writing notes that it emancipates and empowers the writers (Dublin 1981; Daybell 2001; Douglas 2009). These works point to the contradictions in the Western world with increasing social, economic, political opportunities for women and the gendered limitations in self-expression. In Sri Lanka, too, women opened up the suppressed aspects of their selves, within the safe and secretive space of a letter, to others who have experienced the same things and, therefore, intimately understood the need to empathize and reciprocate. Only sixteen of the thirty-seven workers wrote frequently to each other, and they happily shared these letters with me, largely because of the seemingly innocuous content. The letters were mostly about the well-being of the recipient and her family, advice and blessings during challenging times, and gossip. While discussing such topics, however, most former workers digressed to reminisce about the FTZ—much of it focusing on transgressive acts. For example, Sujatha wrote to Vasanthi,
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My mother-in-law said it is good for men to eat ash plantain curry if the couple is having trouble conceiving and suggested you should cook more ash plantains when Krishan comes back [from Italy]. When she said that I had to laugh because I was thinking about how we mostly ate ash plantains in the boarding houses because potatoes were expensive. No wonder girls got pregnant and made those doctors [roadside abortion clinics]1 wealthy! Discussing Madhuri’s suicide attempt, Siri complained to Vasanthi: This was unbelievable. For a lost necklace? True, we saw many suicide attempts at boarding houses; but those girls had good reasons— they lost virginity, got pregnant, got raped—but this was so trivial. In a letter to Vasanthi, Shanika wondered about a way to help my research: Sandya miss asked about homosexual activities among the girls when we were there. I need to ask you before I write to her. Do you remember that boarding house near the public bathing well? There were about 15 women and some of them wore sarongs [men’s clothing] and some acted like couples. I mean I haven’t ever seen them like that. But that’s what everybody said. Remember when we went to the police station once, the inspector shouted at us saying we all are like those women who behaved so shamelessly. We didn’t even know what he was talking about until someone told us about this boarding house. What do you remember about them? Have you seen them wearing sarongs? Sandya miss must have asked you too. Tell her only if you have actually seen them. Dinithi once wrote to Sujatha, When we were at the FTZ we could not wait for our annual parties, trips and weddings to drink beer. I thought it was the most fashionable thing that I ever did. I was so proud about learning to slowly sip beer and I loved to take photographs with beer bottles and glasses. When we sat around an umbrella [awning], with different kinds of bites—cutlets and dev illed cashews—and drank beer it felt like fi nally I was living like the “high class.” But Sujatha,
arrack (local alcoholic brew) is horrible. When he drinks I don’t want to be around him because the smell is awful. But that’s when he wants me the most. It is hard to refuse without getting into a fight and you know how those end [getting beaten up]. I now hate all sorts of alcohol. Besides discussing general transgressive acts, women occasionally inquired about individual transgressive acts. In response to Vasanthi’s news about accidentally bumping into Ando San, the Japanese factory manager, at a fancy grocery store, her good friend Rena asked, Have you seen Nishan sir since you left the factory? Do you write to him? Those were the days. . . . I used to be so jealous that all these sirs liked you; especially Nishan sir. Remember how he used to come by our Line and take photos of you? It was hard to tell he was married and the father of two the way he behaved, like a young, fun-loving boy. . . . You were always so lucky, everybody liked you. All of the letter writers kept the letters and photographs they received from FTZ friends and family members securely in empty shoe boxes or chocolate tins. Considering that they take much care to appear to be innocent young women brought up with shame-fear, it seems risky to keep letters with carefree comments on their FTZ experiences. All of the women, however, kept their letter boxes in the almirah (wardrobe) in their bedroom. An almirah and a dressing table are essential items of a dowry, and all parents tried to provide their daughters with these two items at marriage, especially since they were mainly for women’s personal use. All thirty-five married former workers brought an almirah and a dressing table along with money, land, and other household items to their marriage. While the dressing-table mirror was occasionally used by other family members, the almirah stayed under the woman’s control in the bedroom. Most kept it locked and confided that neither their in-laws nor their husbands sought to go over its contents. Besides the letters, clothes, and jewelry, albums with photos taken while at the FTZ were kept in almirahs. It appears that this culturally accepted personal furniture item provided the space for workers to store things of sentimental value and engage in transgressive communication. A few of them said that they sometimes read the letters when they felt sad, lonely, or trapped in boring village lives.
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In their letters, these workers also talked about the joys and pains of their current lives. Most of the time, in response to one woman’s sad experience, several others recounted similar personal experiences to comfort the writer. Responding to Dinithi’s complaint about her drunkard husband and forced sexual activities, Sujatha wrote about her frustrations at not being able to have sex as they would like to and asked Dinithi to be patient and make the best of the situation. She also wrote, “for god’s sake try not to get pregnant.” Vinitha wrote to Chamila, who was refusing to get married, Marriage can be such a good thing. Every thing about it, even the physical pleasure, is just wonderful. You need to try it out at least once. Dying as a virgin would be such a waste. If you really do not want to marry, then be happy with a man [have sex] at least once. Shanika once wrote a hasty letter to Vasanthi asking her to intervene on my behalf: That stupid woman Kushani had told Sandya miss to be like a prostitute in bed to keep her husband interested. That woman is raving mad. What is good for her is not good for women like Sandya miss. If you are writing to Sandya miss, advise her not to be too forward. We have to let the men teach us things even when we already know, so they won’t think that we danced the devil before getting married. If that woman [Kushani] is near me I will beat her with a broom for trying to mislead that innocent Sandya miss. Some of the writers shared how they resorted to creative means to overcome village surveillance and a culture that frowned on public displays of affection. Nisha wrote to Vinitha about how her home business is helping her in this direction: I also live with my in-laws and the house is crowded. We don’t feel that good about being happy [having sex] while hearing his mother chant pirith [Buddhist prayers] or his father coughs through the night. But when I go to Colombo [for business needs], Kasun travels separately for a day and we have a good time in a hotel room. It is like a little honeymoon every two to three months or so. My mother-in-law is very
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good to me now and she won’t say anything if she knew. But we decided to keep it our little secret. The secrecy makes it more special, I think. Many happy letters were sent among the women when Vasanthi first broke the news about Pushla’s disgraceful departure from Suishin. Pushla was their line supervisor when they worked in the FTZ. All of the writers celebrated the news by reminiscing about the way Pushla had been mean to them, especially noting that while they left the factory honorably, Pushla was forced to resign because of an extramarital affair with a technical officer. The occasion also started a conversation about what one could possibly gain from such affairs and the possibility of getting into the same situation themselves. Purna wrote to Vasanthi, It makes me very angry sometimes that he does not have time to take me to the movies or to say I love you. When he did not bring a gift for my birthday this year, I said to myself, I am going to find someone who treats me better. But then I realized that other village men are like that too. It is only in Sandarajini stories that men and women hold hands and call each other Sudhu, Sudhu [Fair One]! Who has time for those things? Priyadari is not much better either. Those stories made us think that sex is everywhere, and men cannot wait to pounce on a woman and that sex is so wonderful. Remember the women who wrote about how their men asked them whether they are satisfied before they seek to get satisfied. I don’t know about you, but my man has never asked me that. Vasanthi wrote two letters to Purna addressing the situation: It is good that you realized that these magazine stories are fairy tales. We are Buddhists and we know that good looks and wealth only bring temporary happiness that end in suffering. When Krishan was in Italy I could have gone the wrong way many times. But I was true to him because if we give such pain to a man in this life, the men in our next ten lives will give us the exact same pain. We should not give into temporary urges. We need to think about long-term consequences.
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At one point, Dinithi and Shanika both wrote to Vasanthi complaining of Amila’s letters, which they described as lists of all the good things in her married life. Shanika wrote, We all know that she married a gem businessman and that was like winning the lottery for her. But she doesn’t have to boast so much. Her last letter was all about how they bought a new car and how they went to Nuwara Eliya [a hill country vacation destination], stayed in a fancy hotel, and how he bought her five saris for her birthday. I showed her letter to Ranjan and he said, only a man who has a small thing [genitals] has to buy his woman five saris for one birthday. I am still laughing at that. Really, what is the point of all that wealth if he cannot satisfy her? We may not have a nice new car, but my man makes me happy in bed. These letters were evidently therapeutic, because they enabled the former workers to pour their hearts out without having to resort to face-to-face conversations about uncomfortable topics. Yet it was obvious that not having easily usable everyday words for genitals and sexual activities hindered this communication. For example, Shanika used the word ekak (thing) to refer to male genitals. Other terms are the highly scholarly shishnaya or lingaya or the highly obscene paiya. None of these words can be used in a letter, and the word ekak only barely conveyed the intended meaning. Everyday words for sexual intercourse were even harder to find. Many talked about sexual activity without using words that explicitly referred to sex, instead using phrases such as “going to bed” (andata yanawa) or “being happy with a man” (sathutu wenanwa). The other available words would have been either too scholarly or too obscene to use in a letter between friends. Perhaps much more direct communication about sexual activities would have taken place if vernacular Sinhala contained mundane vocabulary to discuss sex. Storytelling Sessions
Verbal subversions in the forms of jokes, parody songs, stories, and satire have been widely used by powerless sections of society, including women, to express social criticism and temporarily escape mundane drudgery (Limon 1989; Spier 1998; Schauwecker 2003; Goldstein 2003; Bryant 2006; Delap
2010). Former workers used these verbal arts when relating stories in their village homes, and their accounts contained subversive elements that enunciated desires and discontents. Most former workers (twenty-five out of thirty-seven) I visited had younger nonmigrant women dropping by to help with household chores and to engage in storytelling and joke-telling sessions.2 These sessions could start with just two visitors, although I have seen two former workers holding court with as many as eight or nine nonmigrant women. After the usual pleasantries and exchange of village gossip, a visitor would prompt the former worker to talk about her experiences in the FTZ by alluding to an incident that had been shared a while back. This usually got the former worker going until it was time to end the session, normally around 4:30 or 5:00, when women had to prepare the evening meal. Each storytelling group had developed a life of its own by the time I joined in. Unspoken guidelines about what would and would not be discussed had more or less been solidified. My participation affected these rules in many ways as former workers focused more on FTZ stories so I could join in as well. Both the former workers and the nonmigrant women were curious about how American women would respond to particular situations. Conversations easily moved on to sexual matters when someone brought up a celebrity’s sexual transgression or gossip about a village woman. There was much laughter, blushing, and embarrassment when the stories and jokes that especially pertained to sex were shared. Former workers brought up their own experiences, what they had heard from others, and stories they had read in Priyadari, and they imparted advice to the mainly nonmigrant, mostly unmarried younger women. Nonmigrant women also contributed jokes and puns they had heard in school and tuition classes. It is important to note that sexual joking did not dominate the discussions. Conversations moved back and forth between social and political issues, individual crises, and village gossip. In all of this, the former workers took on adviser/teacher roles and did their best to disseminate some of the knowledge they had acquired while at the FTZ. Subversive or Everyday Sexualities?
I was seated under a guava tree behind the kitchen of Jayani’s house with six other village women when Jayani related a story she read in Priyadari. The story was about a grade 8 female student who made an appointment to see her boyfriend, who was in grade 11. The boy asked the girl to tell her mother that she needed to go to the toilet at 9:00 p.m. The family did not have elec-
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tricity at that time and the toilet was some way away from the house. Therefore, the mother took a flashlight and came near the toilet with the girl. The girl went inside the toilet and quickly started kissing the boy who was already inside. The mother realized that something was going on and shouted, “Who is dancing the ghost in toilets?” and the boy ran away. Jayani related this story to admonish a young woman, who showed extreme embarrassment at the earlier sexual joke, to demonstrate that some village girls are not as innocent as people think. This story, “Something That Happened to Me,” was written by the young schoolgirl, now a married woman in her early twenties, for the Priyadari Feature Page. According to the story, she got a beating and the boy was sent to a relative’s house in Ampara, effectively ending the budding romance. “I loved Priyadari for these kinds of stories, because they tell it as it is. No pseudovirtuousness stories [boru sil katha] in that magazine. I don’t know why Priyadari is not available in villages. Girls like you can learn a lot from those stories,” Jayani said. At least two of the girls reminded her that she had promised to bring them a copy or two but kept postponing it. Another young woman asked whether her husband could bring blue films home as they now have a new DVD player. “This is a way to get my poor man killed in those Arab countries. I think one can obtain all kinds of blue films in Colombo. There is a place in Fort, but I hear they only sell such things to men. So this nangi should find a modern man who would buy those things for you,” Jayani playfully challenged the girl who asked for a DVD. In fact, there was much curiosity in these storytelling groups about pornographic films, interchangeably referred to as blue films in English or asabya chithrapati in Sinhala. Many younger women seemed to have the idea that the former workers had seen porn movies since they had lived in Colombo. The former workers denied having seen such films, but this did not stop the younger women from sometimes begging them to share stories from such movies. In one such instance, Vinitha retorted, “Ah, yes, in one of the Priyadari stories, a man visited a friend’s house in Dehigama [a village close to Vinitha’s] and, since the friends were not home, spent the night at the neighbor’s house. The woman there was alone and she put a blue film in the DVD player, saying her husband brought it. And we all know what happened next. I am still looking for this woman so I can see one as well.” A few former workers discussed porn movies with their husbands but felt that their husbands were also not privy to the underground networks
that facilitated such visual material. Even if they found such DVDs, they knew it would be impossible to enjoy them as only a handful of them owned DVD players. Even the few families that owned them kept the machines in the living room so everyone in the household could watch a movie together. None of the former workers or their families owned computers. By 2018 most of them had data plans on their phones. But not many women were interested in wasting their data plans on downloading data-eating movies. The curiosity and rare stories about pornographic movies in the villages hint at the desire for new ways of sexual expression and experimentation, which is kept under wraps. With the village elites still tightly holding on to constructed notions of the village as the locus of authentic, pure culture, it does not seem likely that these needs will be seriously addressed in the near future. While former workers could not help alleviate their younger friends’ curiosity about pornographic movies, they shared their own or friends’ experiences so as to educate these mostly unmarried women on what to expect in married life. Nilmini once advised a group of workers not to fall for the kind of love they see on TV or in the movies. “Those work while you are girlfriendboyfriend. But marriage is lot of work. Sometimes whether you like it or not you have to help with men’s needs. And that work [sex, E wade] is not always fun, I can tell you that much,” she declared. “Is that true that it [eka, penis] is like an iron bar?” asked Devika, Nilmini’s young sister-in-law. This elicited much laughter as Nilmini said that she was not about to discuss her husband’s “that thing” [araka] in front of his sister. But this led to a discussion on a popular story about a famous architect in Sri Lanka (using his actual last name). According to the story, he was so well endowed that several women died during intercourse. In fact, this person’s last name was used especially by boys to refer to large male genitals. The story was told with much enthusiasm by a younger woman, leading to more questions about relative sizes and the fit between couples who were of drastically different weights. Nilmini, in almost a whisper, told them about natural and artificial lubrication and foreplay. As I am married, they directed some questions to me as well, but Nilmini quickly intervened saying, “Ane, ane, don’t corrupt her. She doesn’t know these things.” Later I wondered why Nilmini would not let me share sexual knowledge with her village friends. Although I was older than them, most workers treated me as a younger and less mature woman while we were at the FTZ, but things had changed since then with both them and me having being married for quite some time. In
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fact, most former workers had no qualms about discussing sexual fantasies and frustrations with me when we were alone. Perhaps what Nilmini feared was my inability to know the delicate balance between what should and should not be shared in the village. Blabbering unrestrained about all I know about western sexual practices would damage not just my reputation as a good, educated, urban woman but Nilmini’s reputation as well. Another theme that made way for discussions of a sexual nature was husbands and boyfriends. Most younger women had experiences with what they called love but merely had to do with boys writing letters, following them, and sending candy and other gifts through mutual friends or young children in the village. Some of these activities led to romantic relationships and some quickly fizzled out. Women swapped stories about men being fainthearted and joked about how some did not seem to have any guts. Once, a storytelling session at Dinithi’s house was buzzing with the news of a newly married young woman who was sent back to her parental home because she was not able to prove her virginity. After condemning the groom’s family for being backward, Dinithi nevertheless shared that although their marriage followed a long romance, her husband had switched on the lights right after their first sexual intercourse to look for signs of her virginity. Dinithi referred to a common Sinhala saying, “Even if loved as much as our own lives, women cannot be trusted,” but changed the words to “Even if loved as much as our own lives, men do not trust.” Agreeing with Dinithi, a younger woman added that in her school a boy was said to have asked his girlfriend to show him her chest, which had burn scars from a childhood accident. “The girl was ready to give even her life for him and he needed to see how bad the scars were before going any further. How shallow can one get?” she asked. The discussion moved to lighthearted banter when a younger woman asked Dinithi to tell me whether she got to “stand on her toes” during her honeymoon. “Oh, all the time when he is drunk,” answered Dinithi before explaining that the woman was alluding to a Priyadari story she shared with them, in which the writer had her first sexual intercourse while standing in a wooded area behind her parents’ house, and all she remembered was all of a sudden standing on her toes! Some of the Priyadari stories in fact suggested that there are many sexual transgressions in villages that are committed in secrecy (Hewamanne 2006), and several times former workers astutely criticized their communities for turning a blind eye to village transgressions and targeting FTZ workers for generalized condemnation.
Once Shanika shared a story about one of her friends to show how women often have to tolerate a lot. According to the story, her friend realized that her new husband did not brush his teeth or bathe on a regular basis. She was physically repulsed and cringed at the thought of sleeping with him on days he refused to take a bath. However, after a big, showy wedding, she could not go back to her parents citing low hygiene standards and she ended up getting pregnant. She started keeping the child in the room to discourage the husband’s advances on days he did not bathe. In several other storytelling sessions at different former workers’ villages, I heard them sharing stories in which women reported to being coerced to have sex right after a surgery and on days they were having their period. These were mostly related as cautionary tales to prepare the younger women for the harsh realities of married life. However, they also shared fun and light aspects of married sexual activities. Once Shanika shared how her husband promised that they would have sex in every room of their own house as soon as it was finished. They had only three rooms of the house done by that time and a blushing Shanika acknowledged that they kept the promise. This led to a very lighthearted moment as women jumped up making noises of fake disgust at the thought of Shanika and her husband having sex against the half-raised walls of the remaining rooms, on which we sat. When one leaned against the nam-nam tree (Cynometra cauliflora) by the wall, Shanika nodded—“there, too”— making the younger woman jump up and scream. Songs
Sometimes the groups broke out singing, especially when engaged in a mindless and tiresome activity such as cleaning green leaves or sifting through rice for stones. Often the women sang popular songs about love, separation, and reunions but changed or added lyrics to make fun of a woman and her love story. Sometimes the singing and memories of the FTZ got entangled and the former workers shared the songs they sang during pleasure trips or at boardinghouse gatherings. During those FTZ activities, too, workers started with popular, mainstream songs, but as the evening progressed—some of the women tipsy from beer by then—they changed the lyrics of popular songs to sexualized language that made fun of rules and those enforcing rules. For example, in 2010 Nilmini recalled a song they sang during an FTZ road trip that I too went on and started to sing it, only to have the younger women pick up the raucous tune. This prompted Nilmini to hush them even as she continued to sing:
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We will bring Anura sir Will show the maligawa (temple of tooth relic/vagina) Lalai, lilai, la— We will bring Weere uncle Will show Anti’s [auntie’s] araka (that thing/vagina) Lalai, lilai, la— We will bring Sandya akka Will show Saman’s sthupe (Buddhist pagoda/penis) Lalai, lilai, la— The singing women rhythmically pointed their hands in my direction while singing the last verse, the same way as they had during the trip to Buddhist temples at Varana and Atthanagalle in 2000. On that occasion the names included in the verses changed several times as women dancing in the aisle of the van used the song to make fun of people who held power over their lives—factory bosses, boardinghouse owners, and even the researcher. While Nilmini and I conversed about the way garment workers used Buddhist sacred places as symbols of sexual organs and functions, the younger women picked up the song with their own additions, which likewise included people who held power over their lives—parents, teachers, an elite woman who was putting on airs, the monk who is second in command of the temple (podi sadhu), and, in a show of solidarity, Nilmini’s mother-inlaw. The reference to her mother-in-law, who was taking a nap a few yards away inside the house, in relation to a wandering village man who was an exhibitionist made Nilmini put a stop to the revelry, at which point one young woman said, “But Nilmini akke, that would stop nanda [auntie] from being jealous of you two holding hands and stuff.” On another occasion, Mayuri noted how the FTZ workers changed the words of a popular song that referred to a woman asking the man to go to a temple and worship Buddha. She said they replaced all the verbs with a word considered the most vulgar when referring to sexual intercourse. Then she sang a few verses to jolt the others’ memories of the song that was popular among the workers. The first time, the singer asked “shall we go darling?” (yamudha raththaran), but the phrase was changed to “shall we go to a dark place darling?”; thereafter “shall we go darling?” was changed to “shall we fuck darling?” Several times Mayuri said, “This Sandya miss was there, too.” But, as far as I could remember, it was a group of young men who did that to embarrass the female workers in the bus. I did not try to correct Mayuri
as I was not sure of her intentions in attributing ownership of the lyrics to the workers. It could have just been a lapse in her memory, or her comment could be an indication of how she now sees her FTZ interlude—a place where they had agency to explore new things, to transgress, and to get back at people who imposed overly repressive sexual mores on them. It is also possible that this is how she wanted the younger women to envision the FTZ, as it was abundantly obvious that she wanted them to experience FTZ life as it was, in her own words, “a great place to see the world and learn things.” It was interesting that at least two young women claimed to have heard this song being similarly modified by boys in school. This prompted another young woman, a schoolgirl, to confide that the boys who sat in the row behind her at the dharma school changed Pali3 verses and poetry (gatha) to sexualized verses. The one she shared was a conversation between Buddha and his closest disciple, the monk Ananda, at the bathing well. The boys had used Pali-sounding words to come up with new verses that, when reversed, said Buddha had asked Ananda to wash the soap off of his butt and penis. I have heard many jokes about Buddhist monks but was surprised to hear Buddha himself being referred to in this fashion. When I expressed my surprise, Mayuri and the young village women spoke over each other to tell me that there are many such jokes. In fact, by relating this experience at other such gatherings in different villages I was able to learn that a few such jokes circulated around all of these villages. Men were said to be the ones who created and disseminated such verses, poems, and couplets. As Nisha explained, “Pali verses are hard to memorize and teachers punish if one cannot recite them properly. So frustrated boys come up with these alterations to make the lessons fun.” The boys may indeed be the authors of such jokes, but the girls were obviously privy to them as well. It is the prevalence of transgressive sexual discourse among village women that makes me question whether such discourses within storytelling sessions represent a new and subversive element or if they are a continuation of everyday sexualized discourses in female-only settings. Obviously, the village women did not need the former workers to transport such jokes from Colombo. They already possessed such knowledge but perhaps felt afraid to share it lest they be branded bad women. Knowing how sexual knowledge and the willingness to share such knowledge could undermine reputations, former workers made conscious efforts to limit who participated in storytelling sessions. Not only were those who were reluctant to share stories ridiculed for fake virtuousness, but the willingness to share risqué experiences ap-
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peared to be a precondition for being included in the group. As Nilu once noted, “There are a few who sometimes drop by; when they are around, we only talk about village gossip. I have a great group of little sisters who contribute as many jokes and gossip as they can get from me.”4 While sexualized discourses are not exclusive to the FTZ, what is new and subversive is the way the women incorporate Priyadari into their discourse. Although, as noted, most stories in Priyadari are written by FTZ workers or their jilted lovers, the former workers presented them as if they were mostly written by village women like themselves and insisted that they ought to acknowledge that village women are not as “innocent and pure” as media and schoolteachers portray them to be. None of the former workers confided that they did so intentionally to minimize the stigma they felt about being former FTZ workers, or to deter nonmigrant women from thinking they were better than the former workers. I witnessed a few friendly debates in which some younger nonmigrant women used nationalist discourses to argue that village people are more virtuous than those in westernized cities, only to be shown other wise by former workers who highlighted many examples of village men and women behaving shamelessly. By the time I joined the sessions, though, most groups had sifted out the women who rigidly held on to those ideas, and younger nonmigrant women were, for the most part, equally eager to share their knowledge. Therefore, it appears that a partial function of these group sessions was to help village women overcome fear of talking about sex. The sessions may even be designed, given that the former workers’ narratives exonerate the majority of FTZ workers from wrongdoing, to provide the nonmigrant younger women ammunition with which to argue with their elders about the positive side of FTZ work. More important, these sessions provided a space to openly share knowledge about subjects that the unmarried women were expected to be unaware of. The infusion of jokes, fun, and laughter reinscribe sexual activity in younger women’s minds as a pleasurable pursuit, in contrast to an act to be ashamed of and secretive about. Dissemination of Reproductive Health Knowledge
All the former workers I studied had attended at least one reproductive health seminar while at the FTZ. They had also learned much on the topic thanks to discussions within boarding houses and factory lunch groups. Most of them, unfortunately, found it difficult to talk to their husbands about contraceptives at the beginning of their marriages and ended up
having babies rather soon. However, they confessed to feeling liberated after having the first baby and started using contraceptives themselves and talking about them to their close female friends in the villages. Six former workers said that they had discussed contraceptive methods with younger women, although none of the younger ones had solicited such knowledge. “You and I both witnessed the terrible abortions that took place around the FTZ because women did not use contraceptives. So when girls tell me about their boyfriends, I just cannot keep silent about these things. All of them wiggle in embarrassment and swear up and down that they have not done anything more than holding hands and do not intend to go any further. So I tell them, ‘not because they happen, but just in case, keep these things in mind,’ and then I explain about the pill and condoms,” Jayani told me. Nilu and Nisha both claimed that they had brought back free informational brochures from FTZ reproductive health seminars to give away should the need arise. “Sometimes these young girls are so stupid and they live in fairy worlds. These days schools have people coming and talking to them about contraceptives [Sri Lanka Family Planning Association Educational outreach programs] but they don’t pay attention because they do not think that they will have sex before marriage. They cannot even imagine that their boyfriends consider them in a sexualized way. But hormones don’t think about customs. If the occasion comes up, even the nicest couples fall for these urges. I try to tell them the FTZ stories of buses breaking down, trips ending up in abandoned huts, and the women ending up with [pregnant] bellies, to get them prepared,” Nisha said. “My mother-in-law warned against my talking to young women, saying that their parents would say that I am corrupting their daughters. But this is something I have got to do and even if one girl takes precautions because of my words I will be happy,” she added. Shanika befriended the family health worker who visited during her pregnancy and started helping out by familiarizing the health worker with problematic families in the village, keeping records, and accompanying her whenever she could get away from her own household duties. During these activities she befriended many married women who were of childbearing age. One of these women approached Shanika seeking information about where to get an abortion done secretly. This was the woman’s sixth pregnancy and Shanika wanted badly to help. But she was afraid that doing so could undermine the good former-worker daughter-in-law image she had so carefully cultivated, so Shanika decided to help circuitously. She told the woman that she had heard there are many abortion clinics in Colombo even
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though she did not know of any. But she thought a certain NGO officer might know of these places and provided the name and address of an NGO in Katunayake. Although she was not informed of what happened, two years later the woman still had only five children. Several other former workers noted that they would not talk to the younger women about contraceptives unless specifically asked about it because they did not want to risk their carefully built good, young married woman image. According to Dinithi, many young women come to her when they need help concerning their relationships. Although Dinithi herself was in an abusive relationship until 2008, she had managed to develop a reputation as someone with knowledge about matters regarding relationships, intimacy, and marriage. While there are many reasons for her acquiring such a reputation, including her eloquence and spirited attitude during adversity, the most important perhaps was the way she won over her in-laws, to the extent that they all took her side whenever her husband mistreated her. She was also considered to be a good woman for being patient with a war hero and not leaving her abusive husband. Interestingly, the group of women who visited her included married women. According to Dinithi, several such women approached her asking advice concerning their marital woes. After exhausting her common-sense wisdom, Dinithi started regularly telephoning an NGO officer who was trained in counseling and then related the officer’s advice to the village women. By 2010 she had lost contact with this NGO officer but felt confident enough to use the knowledge she had gathered to advise village women. “Of course, I cannot advise poor women to leave their husbands knowing there is no other place for them to go. As you know, I myself did not leave Kapila when he used to beat me. So I mostly ask them to be strong and take care of their health and use religion and meditation to deal with situations,” Dinithi said, adding that this was more or less what the NGO counselor had advised. Talking openly about knowledge acquired in the FTZ could arouse suspicions, and villagers could question why there were so many educational programs about reproductive technology for unmarried FTZ workers. While each worker approached the dilemma in her own par ticular way, it was difficult to ignore the potential for dissemination of reproductive knowledge via returning FTZ migrants. If the Sri Lanka Family Planning Association makes an effort to get village elite women, former workers, and the village health officers together for educational efforts, the former workers could become change agents without jeopardizing their reputations. As
Purna once said, “Really, you only need one or two camp days to figure out every thing you need to know about contraceptives and STDs. But NGOs keep spending money on all sorts of workshops in the FTZ while the real need is in these villages.” At least seventeen former workers and a number of nonmigrant women noted that the real need is to get men involved in reproductive health educational programs. Shanika agreed and also said that the village health officer works only with married women or women who are already pregnant. “Village girls are very savvy these days and they learn about contraceptives in schools and from TV and magazines. What they need is practical knowledge about when and how these unprotected moments occur and how to avoid such traps and to say no if they do not want to have sex. If we [former workers] don’t know those things, then no one knows,” Shanika said laughing.
Subversive Sexual Discourses and Reputations Although many women were deeply frustrated with lackluster sexual and emotional intimacy resulting from village sensibilities and economic and living arrangements, they did not clamor for a western-style companionate marriage in which couples lived as isolated units, preferring the conjugal partnership over family and other social ties. On the contrary, most women wanted to live close to one or both sets of parents and amid abundant samesex sociability. Yet most yearned for increased emotional intimacy and outward displays of affection. Thus what most workers desired was a new set of prescriptions for what is acceptable for younger married couples within the conventional extended family and compound living. Apparently, neoliberal discourses on autonomy, freedom, and rights are being adjusted to represent something practical and more meaningful for women in rural Sri Lanka. Although neoliberal reforms provide political and economic conditions that spur people to seek alternative family and kin arrangements, many developing societies do not wholly embrace western ideas. Similarly, ideas from the western world concerning love, intimacy, and sexuality that the workers absorbed while in the FTZ get reworked within varied village contexts into newer articulations that all actors with multiple agendas can agree on. The next chapter further illustrates the importance of common agreement by focusing on three women who sought to overtly stretch the normative gendered codes of behav ior.
The Strange, the Crazy, and the Stubborn
What happens when women are not ready to compromise or perform conformity? Would they be able to negotiate new positions for themselves within village contexts and become path breakers for younger village women? How would this affect village common sense, that is, the acceptable rules for behav ior? Strange, crazy, stubborn: these were the words used most frequently to describe women, former workers included, who overtly violated normative gendered behavioral codes. In this chapter I take an intimate look at three women who blatantly flout gender norms in their quest to negotiate desired positions. I attempt to answer why Kushani paid an international matchmaker to find her a Swiss or German husband even while hoping a village man would want her; why Madhuri became an unmarried farmer; and why Chamila asked prospective grooms to tell her the most feminist act they had ever performed, resulting in her remaining unmarried. More important, the following sections elucidate how such acts stretched the boundaries of hegemonies. They also demonstrate how intense violations of normative femininity carve out new paths for younger generations amidst other intense social and cultural changes that are occurring in the villages.
Kushani In late 2000 Kushani mailed me a letter: My Dearest Sandya Miss,
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I wish you let us know about your wedding day before it happened. I had so much advice to give you. You know me: I am not one to be coy about these things. But we used to talk about how you have no playfulness [dangalilla] and always acted like a nun [upasika]. Our men like to marry such women but then they get upset when things don’t go right in the bedroom. Let me tell you miss, one has to be like a prostitute [ganikawak] in every way to keep a man interested. She then went on to explain other issues such as how to enjoy sexual pleasures and ended the letter with a blessing, wishing that unlike her I would be lucky enough to enjoy a long, happy married life. She had very good reasons for wishing that no one would experience her life. Kushani figured heavily in my earlier book, Stitching Identities, because she differed from other workers in many ways. She was in her thirties at that time and was thus nearly ten years older than the other workers in the factory. She lacked physical characteristics that the workers considered to be “beautiful” and was, in fact, branded fat. This made it difficult for her to make friends or generate followers, although she took every leadership opportunity that came her way. She hired vans for trips, initiated donation lists for weddings and funerals, and performed difficult labor-intensive activities, such as buying and transporting heavy gifts for parties. Others appreciated her contributions but soon forgot her labors and ignored her during the revelries. They typically did not include her in their close friendship groups within and outside the factory. For these reasons, she vigorously sought my friendship during my time at Suishin. She also accurately assumed that having resided in a Western country, I would better understand her life choices. Her explanation for why she started factory work just two years before she met me was somewhat sketchy, and the details changed from day to day. According to her, she was working as a merchandiser in South Korea and came back because her parents insisted that she return and get married. The human resources manager had already promised that she would be given a merchandiser position as soon as a vacancy occurred. Her fellow line workers laughed at these claims behind her back and pointed to her frequent “damaged” sewing as proof of her lies about working in a Korean factory. They suggested that she might have been married or living with someone and that the relationship had come apart, forcing her into factory work. Yet, I did not doubt her stories regarding her love life. She introduced me to two of her boyfriends, both married to other women, in 2000 and said,
The Strange, the Crazy, and the Stubborn
“At my age it is hard for me to find unmarried men. I know I am playing with fire. But while they last, these relationships sustain me. My sisters and former friends are now married and have their own lives. I feel lonely and these relationships are the only bright spots in my life.” She also revealed stories of a string of boyfriends and the trials and travails of being an older FTZ girlfriend. “I have had several love affairs and nothing worked out. After a few months of seeing someone, I fall in love with these good-fornothing bastards and spend all my salary buying them clothes and jewelry. And then they leave me for younger, better-looking women. At this age, all the men I meet are either younger to me or already married. They befriend me only for temporary pleasure,” she once said. She alluded to sexual relations through the phrase “playing with fire” and did not directly divulge her sexual knowledge until she sent me the letter above quoted. After I returned to the United States, she remained among my most active letter-writing FTZ friends. In late 2000 she sent me a letter with a photograph of herself on crutches and with a cast on her left leg. Her then boyfriend, a married man, was taking her home on his motorcycle when it hit a tree, injuring both of them. The accident happened very close to her village home, and her neighbors gathered to help the victims. By the time she came back from the hospital, the whole village was aware of her affair with a married man. She could not go to the factory for three months and, although the managers were very kind at first, Suishin soon laid her off with two months’ salary as compensation. After about a year of silence, she again picked up letter writing—this time to gush about her plans to pay an international matchmaker, who had promised to make an alliance with a Swiss, a German, or an Italian man. The payment asked was Rs. 40,000 (approximately US$ 400 at the time) and they were still negotiating. Forty thousand rupees was close to all of the money she received from the factory, including her disability compensation. While her gutsy move fascinated me, I worried about the legitimacy of the broker and the pitfalls that a woman who does not speak English would face in an international marriage. I mentioned my concerns when I next met with her at a Katunayake bus terminal tea shop in 2002, and Kushani opened up about what she called “her past mistakes.” I would like it if someone, anyone from my village or anywhere in Sri Lanka, would marry me. But my reputation is tarnished. I think people knew I was no angel even before the accident, but they did
not have proof. The accident provided it and they thereafter considered all rumors to be automatically true. It is not like I am the only one who gets into these scrapes in the villages. You can write a whole book about what is going on here. But married or unmarried they do things quietly. It was my bad luck [karume] that the accident happened. As Nangi1 knows, men from Western countries do not care that much about virginity and one’s past life. Also at my age, I know only an old white man would like me. I am fine with that. All my life I suffered. If an old man can give me a good life I will forever love him. She later added that she is learning English with the help of a few books to facilitate communication with foreigners. “My name is Kushani, my village is Natthandiya, my favorite book is Gam Peraliya,” she laboriously uttered in English as a demonstration of her new skills. During 2002 and 2003 we met a few times in groups and I visited her family home once. Each time she spoke about the prospect of going abroad and getting married as if it was just about to happen. In November 2002, she gave me a big hug and held on for a while because she had been told that a foreign man would be brought to her any day and that she needed to be prepared to leave with him immediately if he liked her. I have never seen her wear such a big, bright smile as at that moment. When I visited her house in December 2003, she was still hopeful but the big smile was gone. I returned to the United States in July 2004 and got embroiled in several early-career concerns; I failed to follow up when Kushani did not write or respond to my mass-mailed greeting cards. I could not meet her during my 2005 visit and assumed that she had finally settled into village life. In late 2006 Vasanthi informed me that she had heard Kushani had gone missing from her home. I visited her village in summer 2007 to find out what had happened. According to Kushani’s mother, she left one day with a large bag of clothes, saying that an Italian gentleman had come to Katunayake airport and that she had been asked to go there. She worshipped her mother at her feet and promised to send her a ticket to come to Italy as soon as she got settled there. After a few months without a postcard or a letter, her mother started looking for the matchmaker but could not find him. Family members made a complaint at the police station but the officers did not take it seriously. One cop even asked them to be happy as their daughter had apparently eloped with someone. Kushani’s siblings, who are scattered throughout the
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country, also believed this even as they worried about not receiving any communication. The villagers seemed to be kind and very sympathetic, especially toward her mother, who said that many people were on the lookout for the matchmaker. During that visit I spent three days in Kushani’s village and talked to many people who came to her home and during my visits to the temple. “This is what we teach kids every day; if you do something bad it comes back to you someday, somehow. You can celebrate for a while until the results of your own deeds catch up with you,” Somapala, an elderly man, told me after inquiring whether I had heard anything about Kushani. In fact, many villagers and even Kushani’s mother use this cultural logic of karma to make sense of Kushani’s disappearance. Her mother and several siblings with whom I communicated via phone alluded to bad deeds done in Kushani’s past life, while many neighbors talked about bad deeds she had done in this life, indicating that her sexual transgression resulted in her current misfortune. No one explicitly mentioned her sexual transgressions but offered knowing looks and hand gestures that were intelligible to those familiar with Kushani’s background. Sometimes these conversations extended to blaming the open market economy and the FTZs for moral transgressions. Many villagers also said that Kushani was strange even as a child and behaved differently. By the time of my second visit in summer 2009, even her mother and sisters had taken up this narrative of Kushani’s “strangeness.” Mundane life struggles have also taken over: for instance, her mother suffered a stroke, forcing her to move in with another daughter about seventy miles away. Her siblings seem to be annoyed by my continued interest and phone calls. As her eldest brother told me, “Miss, listen, her life choices led her through the wrong path. We continually pray that she should be happy and safe wherever she is. You should do the same.” After fuming for a few days about this callous attitude toward their sister’s fate and feeling generally hopeless about the low value the government, state institutions, the elite, and even their own families place on working women, I gradually came to understand the family’s apathy as the only way they can cope with their own grief. However, the use of the logic of karma and the constructions of “strangeness” continued to worry me. While I did not directly observe such moments, I could imagine how this incident would be retold many a time to teach young girls the perils of transgressing and being overly different from others. Even as my heart wept silently for Kushani, I cannot help but wonder how things might have turned out if Kushani had been successful—if she had come home one day in a big car, with her loving foreign husband in tow,
bearing valuable gifts for all! Would people still harp on the transgressions that drove her to seek a foreign husband in the first place? The more likely scenario may be that most villagers would overlook her past transgressions and instead consider her a successful former FTZ worker whose gutsy attitude allowed her to overcome various hurdles. Kushani’s move to contract with an international matchmaker was her last attempt to negotiate the possibility of marriage. “I could easily find some good-for-nothing man to live together in a hovel somewhere. But I want to make something more out of my life,” Kushani once confided. Arjun Appadurai notes that labor relations within globalized industrial environments enable emancipatory politics. Globalization encourages people to consider migration, resist state violence, seek social redress, and design new forms of civic association and collaboration, often across national boundaries (2000: 6). Rather than living her life in defeat as “damaged goods,” Kushani took a gamble to improve her life and negotiate a respectable position by using her FTZ earnings in an unusual way. The movie Kinihiriya Mal is about an FTZ factory worker who is lured into working in a massage parlor and then gets sucked into the luxurious life of a masseuse/call girl. The protagonist builds a new house in the village for her family, helps her community, and makes huge donations to the temple, and she is honored by the village as a philanthropist. However, the moment her work as a masseur is revealed, the village turns against her, stoning her family house and killing her father. A person who enjoys illbegotten wealth and then suffers the consequences is a common motif in Sinhala aesthetic expressions. Kushani’s story gives those in her village a real-life example of why one should abide by the dominant moral codes. All through her life Kushani tried to better her lot and improve her family’s standing in the village. It was only when she became a pariah within her community that she sought to marry a foreign man. When a villager noted how “people who jump too high end up falling down badly,” I could not help but recall Kushani at the Katunayake tea shop saying, “I would like it if someone, anyone, from my village or anywhere in Sri Lanka would marry me.” Yet, I was not able to convince anyone that all she wanted to do was to conform in both conventional and newer ways. Postscript, 2018
In late 2010 Vasanthi called to inform me that there was a rumor that Kushani had visited her mother in her sister’s village. This made us all happy and
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I tried not to dwell too much on the fact that this is just a rumor. By 2018 her mother had passed away and because of frequently changing mobile phone numbers, I have lost contact with her siblings. As I write this in June 2019 I am reminded that I have not even thought of Kushani in about a year, while a single teardrop falls down my cheek.
Madhuri: It Is Not so Hard to Be a [Single Female] Farmer Anymore Miss, the newest news is from our friend in Polonnaruwa. Siri wrote to me that Madhuri tried to commit suicide. She drank pesticide, but thankfully in front of others, so she was saved. But isn’t this surprising? Madhuri of all people!!! Shame on all of us. . . . Did you ever think she would do this, the way she was at the factory? Your dearest sister, Vasanthi Although this news shocked me when I first read the letter, I remembered that Madhuri never ceased to surprise, fascinate, and delight me during the time I worked at Suishin. She too, like Kushani, failed to get branded as an “innocent, beautiful young girl” and seemingly did not care about how she looked. She hailed from a small village in Polonnaruwa, in North Central Province. She displayed some masculine behav ior in that she walked with exaggerated arm movements and enjoyed using words such as ado (Hey, you!), machang (buddy), and malli (little bro). She was one of the few workers who could use these words in semiantagonistic arguments with Pushla, the line supervisor, and Sanka, the line coordinator, and get away with it. She wore big T-shirts over skirts or culottes and rubber bathroom slippers to work. Though she did not use any makeup, she enjoyed wearing her gold necklace and two rings to work. She was a good, skilled worker and she liked to walk around the assembly line attending to problems. She also did not take any unfair treatment without resorting to a verbal battle, nor did anyone try to treat her badly. When I started fieldwork at Suishin, she was having a romantic relationship with a soldier. They had met only twice but were writing to each other almost every week and enjoyed talking over the phone whenever he got a chance to call. Madhuri was one of the workers who was called to the human
resources office to answer her boyfriend’s calls, a rare privilege allowed only to girlfriends of military men at the height of the civil war. Five months into my time there, her boyfriend stopped calling. This coincided with a massive LTTE attack on one of the major army camps in the north that resulted in an unprecedented number of military casualties. Madhuri was heartbroken and tried to locate him using the addresses for his parents and army camp that he had provided. While the first address was defunct, the army camp reported that there was no soldier by that name at the camp. Toward the end of my fieldwork I spent ten days in her boardinghouse, a little out-of-the-way place located inside a coconut estate. It was during this time that Madhuri and I shared intimate details of our lives, and she confessed to feeling sad for not being a success in attracting men. “It was like this all through high school—no one, just no one, approached me. Now I am hardened. So when this man approached me at one of the musical shows, I was very happy,” she said. “Anyway, I am not like those other immature, crybaby [lamaka tintin] girls. I know how to take care of myself. I am a girl from Polonnaruwa,” she continued.2 At the end of my fieldwork, she again surprised me by openly sobbing at an impromptu farewell party the workers had organized. Madhuri wrote to me a couple of times detailing her trials in her village home. After working for six years, she left the factory in 2003, with no plans for the future other than a general understanding that her family would arrange a marriage for her. Her mother, a retired schoolteacher, was a wellrespected individual in the village, and her late father also came from a good family with land. They were doing well by village standards. Her older sister got married early and lived in Anuradhapura. Madhuri expected some tensions with her sister-in-law but never thought her own brother would try to swindle her FTZ savings. When I visited her in Polonnaruwa for the first time in May 2004, Madhuri and her mother were living in a small hut that had been hurriedly built on one of their uncultivated pieces of land. Just a few weeks earlier, she was adamant that I stay at her house when I visited instead of wasting money at a guest house. In the meantime, tensions between Madhuri and her brother escalated and Madhuri decided to leave her house—her mother accompanied her, not only because it was proper that Madhuri have someone with her, but also because she supported her “just anger.” According to the mother, “He is my son, but his greed has clouded his love for his own sister. He obstructed all efforts to get Madhuri married, giving this or that reason.
The Strange, the Crazy, and the Stubborn
In the beginning I did not realize why he was saying ‘wait till the paddy season is over; wait till this baby is born; wait till this and that responsibility is taken care of.’ ” A month before my visit the mother decided to put her foot down and approached a local matchmaker and family friends to look for a match for Madhuri. This led to a two-day-long verbal battle during which both her brother and her sister-in-law accused Madhuri of bad behav ior and unattractive looks. “He said that to give an ugly woman with a damaged reputation like me in marriage he would have to give almost all of his land, his land, as dowry. Both said that it would be wiser for me to stay home, help around the house, and live a leisurely life according to the dharma,” an agitated Madhuri added. “The moment he brought land into the fight I knew he had no love for me and I did not want to live with them anymore. I packed my clothes and came to this land thinking I will build a house myself. My wonderful [rattharan] Amma also packed a bag and came after me while shouting to neighbors asking them to come to the land as well,” Madhuri, intermittently sobbing by this time, said. She and her mother both shed tears, apparently due to a mixture of anger against the brother and a certain triumphant feeling about fighting a good battle for justice. They stayed with neighbors, most of whom were relatives, for a couple of days, and the community built a small, wattle-and-daub house for them. Two of them went back to the house with some neighbors in tow to retrieve kitchen utensils and electric appliances that were bought with Madhuri’s money. A few days later, the mother went, together with the grama niladari, to retrieve her valuables, such as land deeds and jewelry. Since the land on which the family house—a nice one with old-fashioned architecture and décor—stood is in her name, Madhuri’s mother went there once or twice a week to pick fruit, peppercorns, or betel leaves. A few days before my visit, her son asked for her forgiveness and asked them to come back. “He is thoroughly ashamed. Everyone, including the chief monk, berated him,” her mother said with a proud smile. The next day, while we were alone together, Madhuri said that her mother would go back in a month or so as she loved her two grandchildren. I will not go back. It is a matter of time before this erupts again. Then I will not have this much support from the village, and I cannot put Amma through all this again. I am planning to use my EPF and gratuity payments to build a house on this land. I am happy that this
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happened. I feel like I have a plan now. It is no fun waiting for a man to marry you because he likes your money and land, and then to know that your brother does not want that because he wants all that for himself. My mom’s cousin did not marry. The parents died, the siblings forgot her, and she is sent from one relative’s house to the other, whenever there is lot of work, like a wedding or a new baby. You know about me; I am not one to live eating others’ leftovers [indul kala]. At that time, she only expressed her plans to build a house. Familiar with her strong will and capabilities, and getting to know her equally strong mother, I felt good about her chances for success. Considering all this conflict in her life, I did not expect her to write letters to me. A year later she sent a Wesak 3 greeting card with a few lines: “We built a house. I am now cultivating two pieces of land. Those [FTZ] days are like a dream now. May Buddha bless you!” This card did not contain anything new for me. Siri, who lived in a nearby village, had written about Madhuri’s unconventional life in one of her letters: She has become a farmer. I am not talking about paying other people to work for her. She does most of the work with some paid labor. I was surprised, sad, and proud all at the same time when I visited her. She was tilling the land with a long mammoty [garden hoe]. She looks so dark now and even more rough [karadatu] than those days. She is so determined, though, to be more successful than all the other farmers. She wants to be like the characters in Madol Duwa [a story dealing with two boys who resort to a life of farming on an island] and that Jonathan Swift story and build a life out of nothing and make everyone jealous. I don’t know how practical these dreams are, but I also felt like leaving every thing and joining her. But, miss, we have to be practical, Madol Duwa and Swift are about men and they are fairy tales. . . . She had bought a cell phone and asked me to send the number and asked you to call her. Although I was able to talk to her only once before I received Vasanthi’s letter (and only for a short time because of bad cell phone reception in interior villages), I was very happy that she was carving out a unique position for herself within the village—a modern farmer with a cell phone and who
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knew what else! Hence, I was doubly shocked and immensely curious to know what had transpired that made her attempt suicide, an act that FTZ workers denigrated and associated with uneducated village people (Hewamanne 2010). After repeated tries, I was able to talk to her over the phone for a few minutes and she sheepishly said that she felt very unhappy when she found out that her gold necklace had disappeared. “Every thing that had ever gone wrong in my life came tumbling down on me and I just had to scream at the world. I am very ashamed at what I did. I feel like I lost every thing again because of my stupid act,” she continued. That time the phone connection allowed me to comfort and encourage her. I promised to visit her the next time I was in Sri Lanka on the condition that she provided a meal made entirely out of her farm produce.4 Little did I know how inspiring these last words had been to her! My next two visits to Sri Lanka were mostly spent on long-scheduled trips to other villages and I could visit Madhuri only once for afternoon tea. However, I was able to talk to her several times over the phone during both trips to Sri Lanka. She had built a small but comfortable two-bedroom house and she and the neighbors were soon able to tame the wild growth around the house into a small garden with flower bushes and a small Buddha shrine. By early 2005 she had acquired electricity, which she felt was an immediate need as she and her mother lived in the house alone. However, they generally felt safe and, on most days, one of the teenage boys in the neighborhood slept in their house. Because of their neighbors’ free labor and skilled ser vices, and the wood from their own land, the house was built cheaply and Madhuri still had enough left over from her FTZ earnings to spend on her farm. Her mother’s government teacher’s pension, however, was the major source of stable income for them in 2006. Their land contained many fruit- and nut-bearing trees and they earned a small sum by selling their products. Her brother relinquished two pieces of land to her without a word in protest, but she expected protests if she asked for more. She did not feel that she could maintain more than two acres at that time but hoped to wrest control of one piece of paddy land to be cultivated entirely with hired labor. In 2008 I spent four days in Madhuri’s home, and she provided some unforgettable experiences in addition to research data. She delivered on her promise of a meal made almost entirely from her own farm produce (the rice came from her mother’s fields), with eggs and meat from the chickens she had acquired since I had said that I would come for a long visit. I arrived
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right after lunch, and at about 4:00 p.m. Madhuri and her mother started cooking the meal. She walked with me to the little chicken coop in the back of the property, picked a bird, put it on a block of wood, asked me to close my eyes, and cut its neck with a big knife (manna). This was to be one of the lesser surprises of my visit. We spent the next day at her properties admiring her crops while her mother and a village girl brought us lunch in a reed basket, water in a clay pot, and tea in a blackened kettle. Although it was extremely hot, sitting under the shade of a great old tree and enjoying the warm breeze while watching the two women bring us lunch, I felt like I was living in a teledrama or a movie that I had seen on agricultural societies. But then Amma brought me back to reality by taking out lunch packets wrapped in plastic and placed within plastic containers for easy eating. She also unwrapped a white napkin to reveal a spoon—a sweet gesture taking into consideration my Colombo upbringing—which I put back in the basket with thanks. She apologized for not bringing bottled water, which in fact I had seen in their house, saying Madhuri thought that I would like to experience this meal as an “authentic, traditional” field meal. I was almost reduced to tears in appreciation even as I wondered how ideas about “authenticity” and “traditions” get reworked within different contexts. It was the next adventure that really put notions of traditions to task. Traditions, if there were any left after the colonial encounter, have been irrevocably contaminated by Madhuri’s creative combining of her FTZ and village cultural capital. She had arranged an overnight adventure for me, which we, in fact, had to curtail because of Amma’s last-minute protests as well as my own weakheartedness. Four of her friends (distant relatives), younger men who also farmed, and the two of us had a great time talking, joking, and singing at the field hut on one of the young men’s land. There was delicious deviled wild boar and deer meat together with cutlets that were left over from the substantial dinner to accompany the three bottles of arrack (local alcoholic brew) and two bottles of soda. The young men seemed not at all surprised when Madhuri guzzled arrack down without mixing in soda. Madhuri continued to apologize for not been able to procure whisky for me because she remembered from our FTZ days that I disliked beer. She pointed out several times that this is good arrack made by the State Distilleries Corporation and not by some shady company. In fact my reluctance to drink stemmed from my general dislike for hard liquor and beer and not from a particular dislike for the local brew. Several
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times I was tempted to try the brew just to dissipate any display of good girl versus bad girl behav ior. On the other hand, Madhuri did not seem to be in any need of a boost. They had done this kind of socializing together before. The men all called her akka (elder sister) and did not seem to be flirting with her. While they seemed comfortable enough to swap sexually charged jokes, the respect they showed her was obvious. When at times the conversation moved to farming matters and gossip about other farmers, the men showed equal or more respect toward Madhuri’s opinions. They also talked laughingly about the early days of Madhuri’s farming life when people thought a quick marriage would cure her craziness. “The first two years were the hardest. Because everyone was waiting to see when I would get tired of farming and go back to our family house,” Madhuri, a little tipsy by then, stated. Neighbors all thought that we should go back once aiya [elder brother] and nena [sister-in-law] asked forgiveness from Amma on their knees. They both ask for my forgiveness as well and promised that they would arrange a marriage for me soon. Amma wanted us to go back, but I said no. I knew that aiya had done that under pressure from the village people. I also knew that if I go back and get into the same position again I won’t have much sympathy from the village. When I confided in Amma, may she become a future Buddha,5 she agreed and said she also won’t go back because people would help more if she stayed with me. The basic structure of the new house was done in about two months and a support network was in place by that time to ensure our safety, you know like sending children to sleep in. I worked with men shoulder to shoulder. My palms got blistered, then they burst and bled. But I knew if I kept working they will harden and would not hurt anymore. Sure enough, the sharp pains stopped, and I started liking hard work and seeing and touching the products of my labor. And they belonged to me, and I loved that feeling. While she was talking, she offered her palms for me to inspect her hardened blisters (karagata), simultaneously inspecting my softer palms and offering them in turn for the young men to inspect. “Hands that have never seen hard work,” one man said, while Madhuri picked up her story again. A few days after we started living in the new house I took a long mammoty [usually used by men], and I did that deliberately, to one
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of the lands and started tilling. I made one soil bed [patthiya] and sprinkled seeds. I have lived among farmers all my life and helped in the fields many times. Amma had done a lot of farm work, too. Next day she came to the land with a mammoty. Together we made four beds to start with. By that time people began dropping by and giving advice and helping with physical labor. I also hired people to do harder work like fencing. Soon the people started talking to Amma about my “craziness” and asked her to get me in marriage soon. Although women work with their families all the time, two women trying to farm alone was too much for them. They suggested that instead of an office employee, Amma choose a hardworking man from a landless family to marry me and take care of the farm. In the beginning we both thought that it was a good idea. But then my plants started flowering and I got obsessed with bitter gourds, snake gourds, ladies’ fingers. . . . I did not want to share. Madhuri had seen how women lose control of their land and money upon marriage and had heard from several former FTZ worker friends about how their husbands wasted their FTZ savings on projects they did not approve of. She therefore refused to get married and worked even harder to expand the cultivated area. Both her brother and her sister pleaded with their mother not to support her “crazy” agenda, even going so far as to suggest that they consult a ritual specialist to cure Madhuri. However, Madhuri’s mother chose to support her while giving her permission to choose and marry anyone she wanted to. “I remember those days; people blaming your mother saying that you are walking around cradling eggplants and snake gourds and the mother is not doing anything to get that girl married,” one young man interjected, making way for many jokes that Freud would have approved of. “Merits be to my wonderful mother, that she proved everyone who called me ‘crazy’ wrong by standing by me. She was the assistant principal of the village school when she retired. Villagers pay attention to her opinions and choices. If she had consulted a ritual specialist and sponsored a ‘devildancing ceremony’ to drive away the ‘devil’ who had gotten into me, then that would have been the stamp of ‘craziness,’ ” Madhuri added. “I, for one, thought this akka is a woman worthy of worship,” one young man said to me while folding his hands in the direction of Madhuri. The other three agreed in more jovial ways with one remarking, “What devil would be brave
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enough to get into our Madhuri akka. When she takes the manne [big knife], they will run for their life.” The men agreed that there are still people who think Madhuri is crazy and a wild woman. But according to them, they are now more jealous than concerned. Although I enjoyed the conversation, I was getting extremely anxious about the pitch-black darkness, of a kind that I have never experienced before, gathering around our field hut, threatening to overcome us the moment the kerosene lamp died down. When the few house lights in the distance went off around 10:00 p.m., I was glad that Amma vetoed an overnight sojourn and wanted us back by midnight. I started getting increasingly fidgety about insects, snakes, and other creepy-crawlies. It took the others a while to realize that I jumped a little every time I heard what they called “normal sounds of these areas,” such as screeching birds, animal steps, and a noise that I was sure was an elephant breaking branches nearby. The trip back to the house was one I would like to forget. Even with four flashlights and a dying kerosene lamp, I could see very little and screamed several times at imaginary snakes. Another Freudian joke, about why a married woman was so afraid of snakes, was quietly uttered before being hurriedly squelched by Madhuri. The next day I asked Madhuri when the crazy rumors stopped. “I cannot really tell. Not that I cared about what was being said behind me. But one day I went to the village center and realized that I did not receive any strange looks or friendly teasing about my wedding day. People seemed to be mostly asking about the crop, the market prices, elephant attacks, and such. It felt good.” I asked her whether she first felt this change before or after her suicide attempt. Madhuri thought for a while and said it was after the incident. Jeanne Marecek had noted that Sri Lankan young women use suicide attempts as a means of negotiating and managing respectability and threats to their reputations (2006). I could not help but wonder whether Madhuri’s suicide attempt was an unconscious attempt to ameliorate her village situation. She was facing accusations of craziness because of nonnormative behavioral traits such as fearlessness, ambition, independence, leadership, and a penchant for excelling at physically arduous work. Was her suicide attempt an unconscious way for her to mediate these accusations of extremity with an act considered to be something that women do because of their weak and overly sensitive nature? Marecek further notes that Sri Lankan suicides are dialogic in that people try to speak what is normally “unutterable.” In fact, most of the time, psychic turmoil is not clearly readable to the
actors themselves and manifests as bodily sufferings (Marecek 2006; Marrow 2012), and people who belong to the same emotional community understand and respond in culturally acceptable ways. Is the general acceptance of her chosen position in life, the community’s response to her show of vulnerability and fragility, appropriate for a younger female among them? While I am not trying to disregard the physical and emotional hardships of an enterprise of carving out a different role that may have led to this psychic breakdown, I cannot ignore the many references Madhuri made about garnering practical community support for her endeavors. She most definitely was not trying to live outside the community but instead trying to ensure her right to be different within the community. In 2010 when, dressed in a large pair of shorts, she rode her little C90 motorcycle to the village center, with me riding in the back, she was received almost like a minor celebrity, with people calling out from storefronts to inquire about Amma or market prices for vegetables. While everyone inquired after my comforts, at times I felt somewhat invisible in their enthusiasm to talk to her. As we went from shop to shop a few men followed us talking about agricultural produce and market prices. Later, when we were at the tea shop, several men stood around the storefront talking to her comfortably. The owner’s wife brought some sweets we had not ordered and said to me, “this nangi (Madhuri) will never go without a little treat in this shop.” Something had definitely changed from the days of the “crazy” rumors. When I tried to discuss the matter, Madhuri preempted much talk by matterof-factly responding, “The darker and uglier I became, the more people let me alone.” I knew her well enough not to protest with claims to the contrary but mumbled something about the beauty of hardworking hands. Studies note how menopause lessens the scrutiny and surveillance of women and allows them to strive for more respectable positions within their communities. At thirty-four, Madhuri was not a menopausal woman but was also not a young, attractive woman who would have posed a threat to the village social order. Her formerly strange, crazy, and stubborn behav ior traits had by then crystallized as traits of an independent, fearless woman with steel determination, an example of strong women of North Central Province. She played the role with such finesse that it still makes me smile whenever I relive the memories of my visits with her. Madhuri took me to visit the families of her young male friends so I could talk to their parents and any other elders who were pre sent. At Namal’s house, Madhuri sat me down and went to the garden with Namal,
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allowing me the privacy to talk. Soon another young man joined them and she started fiddling with a fence stick. Asking someone to bring a digging tool (gal inna), she started digging a hole while the men did her other biddings. The older couple immediately started commenting on this scene, making me wonder whether Madhuri had deliberately created this scene to help me gain good research material. “She is so much her father’s daughter. He was just like that, wherever he went he had to attend to work. Even drank tea leaning against his mammoty,” Namal’s mother said while looking on at the group in the front yard. “Her mother was no second when younger. Iskole hamine (school lady) worked shoulder to shoulder with the men during school vacations. When she got down to the paddy field, all the little ones, running around the field, also got down to help. She also got Madhuri and her siblings to work. Boys were made to help with the food distribution and girls learned physical labor. These kids all grew up together. She was in higher grades than them, but my boy and other village boys respect her much.” While it was obvious that they thought highly of her, both of Namal’s parents also made nods to mainstream ideas about womanly behav ior and the ideals of marriage. Although they themselves pointed out how she developed a love for farming as a child, right in front of them, in the village fields, both claimed that the FTZ had changed Madhuri. They also thought it was a shame that she did not get married and thought she would regret her decision when her mother died. After these nods, and when I shut down my notebook, they continued talking about Madhuri affectionately. Madhuri chose to sit outside with the men to drink her tea, and the older couple commented on how she had always been more comfortable with men. “She had girlfriends back then but they are now all married. This girl hangs out with men. She loves her nieces and nephews and buys them gifts but I have never seen her carry ing them. Iskole hamine once told me that one reason Madhuri left for the FTZ was because she did not want to help out with her brother’s children,” Namal’s mother said without any detectable traces of accusation. Many villagers I met during 2008 and longer trips in 2010, 2013, and 2016 shared versions of this same story of acceptance. Their body language and how they interacted with her showed widespread acceptance. They did not know any other woman who freely chose to run a farm herself and succeeded. I knew it would be too much to expect that resistance to this new position was absent. Yet, during the first part of my conversation with the
chief monk of the village temple, with the grama niladari in attendance, I felt that the rosy picture was going to be completed. In his forties or early fifties, the chief monk sported graying stubble on his chin and continually chewed betel leaves as he spoke. He was full of praise for Madhuri’s hard work. “She has shown that a woman can do any work that a man can and is a fine example for any lazy person out there, man or woman. ‘Strength of your hands’ is what will make you overcome any difficulty. She is very lucky she has the protection of a good woman such as Iskole hamine. I was in fact thinking of getting Madhuri to teach our dharma school on Sundays. She could have been a good role model to teach our kids how to be strong and independent but still be a good woman. But of course the principal of the primary [school], and even this gentleman objected to that,” the monk said, waving an accusatory hand toward the grama niladari. Embarrassed, for he had been singing Madhuri’s praises during our walk to the temple, the grama niladari mumbled that the rumors about her alcohol guzzling made him disagree with the choice. The chief monk surprised me with his agitated voice when he shot back at the grama niladari: “People like you and I can talk about refraining from alcohol, because, for me, all I do as work is to sweep the temple garden. You have seen the way she clashes with drought-hardened earth day after day, under the fiery sun. Are you going to begrudge her drinking a little alcohol to soothe her body pains? Virtuousness of your grandmother’s cloth, I say!!” He quickly composed himself and continued: Miss has to forgive me that I lost my temper. But it makes me angry that people cannot understand how to adjust Buddha’s teachings to living conditions. Now her mother is a big lay supporter of this temple. But Madhuri goes to a forest temple where meditating monks reside about fifteen miles away. Why? Because those monks don’t care about the character of people who bring alms. Of course, this is a village temple and we have to care about people’s moral behav ior, too. But has she danced the devil on streets under the influence of liquor? Has she ever fooled around with anyone? Gotten into any trouble because of drinking? No. She is much more virtuous than many who do these things underneath their sil redde. I knew by this time that I would be BFF—best follower forever—of this monk. During our walk back from the temple, the grama niladari tried to
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justify his actions. “How can I agree to a woman who drinks alcohol teaching our kids the fifth precept [refrain from drinking]? They will learn to drink from elsewhere, but I cannot agree to it because the dharma school gets some government support with textbooks and such. Believe me when I say, I do understand why she does it.” He, in fact, seemed very sincere with this last pronouncement. I was, however, intrigued by his claim that the government would have objected to this on moral grounds when there are countless male schoolteachers who drink and still teach Buddhism in schools. Madhuri, in any case, had other plans for her spare time. She was obsessed with Colombo vegetable-market prices, which were announced every day after the evening news on the radio. She listened carefully, took notes and daily spent some time blaming the intermediate traders for cheating them out of a good profit. This is where her FTZ knowledge came into overt play. She repeated, almost every day, how the clothes they sew were sold at a steep price while they were paid a pittance. She connected that to what was happening in the vegetable market. “We could not afford to buy vegetables when we were in Katunayake. But the farmers don’t see the money. They are in debt even before their crop ripens,” Madhuri said, alluding to the unfortunate stories of farmers who have to promise their entire crop for a pittance because of loans taken to tide them over until their crop is ready, leading to a vicious cycle. We discussed what we could do to change the situation and allow the producers to make a higher profit. Madhuri was thoroughly disillusioned with the government departments and politicians and said that they only had band-aid solutions and not one of them could comprehend the bigger picture and therefore render a long-lasting solution. I asked around and realized that this was an area where I had no contacts to initiate help. She once got me to edit a petition she wrote to the minister for agricultural affairs explaining the situation and offering her own plans. She received an acknowledgment letter about four months later but nothing else. Madhuri thought about buying a lorry by pooling resources with her farmer buddies to take their crops to the Dambulla vegetable market (a hub for selling produce to the Colombo market), thereby circumventing the village-level intermediaries, but she was hesitant because of tensions that can come with joint projects. Overall, Madhuri managed to combine her FTZ capital (savings) with village capital (land, community support) to create her own position as a successful single, female farmer. She overcame challenges and managed to
change how people thought of her—from crazy to someone they admired for her determination. Her actions made people of her village remember that although newspapers and TV harp about how serene and comely Sri Lankan women are, women from North Central Province are a tough and strong bunch. School education about mainstream culture, hopes of office jobs, and comfortable lives depicted on TV may have made younger generations softer, but Madhuri’s strength, determination, and wherewithal made the community remember strong women of yesteryear and vocalize pride in such women. So, rather than stepping out of the bounds of mainstream gender norms, what she had done was to demonstrate that some villages have never been fully incorporated into mainstream normativity. At the outset her FTZ experience did not seem to matter much. Yet, her FTZ savings and the added strength of having some experience in the city are two reasons that her efforts succeeded. She will continue to face struggles and resistance, but Madhuri had definitely carved out a role that another woman could try to occupy with more ease. However, it is important to remember that half of Madhuri’s success was due to the support of her equally strong mother, whose respectable position in the community came from her connection to a mainstream culture-disseminating institution. The chances that someone else lacking her mother’s moral strength and financial support could succeed in similar circumstances are remote. Yet, a woman trying to do this may not have to go through the early psychic trials that Madhuri went through. Postscript, 2018
Through accidental word slips in 2013, I gathered that Madhuri was thinking of joining the local political scene to influence the next elected MP to do something about the low vegetable market prices. Although this seems to be a logical next step for a go-getter like her, I have ambivalent feelings about it. Sri Lanka’s political scene is very much based on performances of conformity to mainstream Sinhala Buddhist ideals and I wondered what it would do to the position she so painstakingly carved out for herself as an alternative to normative femininity. Would she be forced to perform a reformed self who finally realized the “right path”? If she refuses to do that, would the attacks on her character and speculations about her sexuality drive her to extreme acts like her suicide attempt? More impor tant, would any existing political party want her, a woman so overtly flouting gender norms, that she becomes more of a liability than an asset during campaigns?
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In 2015 Madhuri canvassed tirelessly for Maithripala Sirisena to defeat president Mahinda Rajapaksha in the presidential election. Since Sirisena hailed from Polonaruwa and was from an agricultural background, Madhuri firmly believed that he would prioritize farmers’ problems. Unfortunately, in 2018, she was thoroughly disillusioned with Sirisena and party politics. When offered the chance she refused to run for the local council within the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, a leftist party) ballot. She had become prosperous by 2019 and now owns a bigger house, two vehicles, and more land.
Chamila: What Is the Most Feminist Thing You Have Ever Done? Chamila was a bit different from Kushani and Madhuri in that she commuted to work in the FTZ from her home in a village about three hours away. She got onto her book-hire van at 5:00 a.m. to be at work at 8:00, and she returned home around 8:00 p.m., claiming to have gotten most of her sleep in the van. While we talked, she was not someone I could have called a close friend from my days at Suishin. She was somewhat quiet on the line. It was after I left for the United States that she let me know through a couple of letters how my presence at Suishin had affected her life. From the day you left, Pushla, Sanka, and even Sanuja sir [supervisors and a manager] were after us to find faults. We were moved to different lines, sent to repair damages and all these bad things. So after Niluka had this big verbal battle with Sanka and Pushla we decided to resign. Niluka, myself, Madhu, Chandani, Dammi, altogether seven of us. . . . When we came to get our back pay the managers begged us to come back to work and promised to make things easy for us. . . . When the Suishin van came to transport us to the factory, we told the driver how we have been unfairly treated by people in power. We told him all what we had in our hearts and refused to go back to work. She further expressed her political and feminist consciousness during many meetings in Katunayake and at her home, even as she operated as a conduit for communication with other workers. When I picked up my research
again in 2003, Chamila enthusiastically agreed to meet me at the bus terminal. She was overjoyed to be seeing me again and helped relocate most of the Line C friends who had by now scattered throughout the country—most of them living in different villages with their husbands. I visited her home several times while dropping her off; it was during these times that I got to know her better. Many people on Line C thought she was fair and beautiful. However, since Vasanthi had won the Miss Suishin title the year before, she outshined Chamila in many ways. Workers thought Vasanthi won the title because she was slimmer and therefore looked taller. Chamila said the reason was that it was not just a beauty contest but a dancing contest, too. While she did not dance, because she was not brought up that way, Vasanthi jumped in and danced. “So the judges saw her more and of course Nishan sir was one of the judges and, as miss can figure, I had no chance there,” she said. Later, when I was alone with her, she further confided that she was more rebellious and fought more for workers’ rights than Vasanthi, but everyone including myself only had eyes for Vasanthi. “You can ask people like Chandani and Dammi who had seats near me, I never let an incident go without letting them [supervisors] know what I thought. But you never noticed me,” she said unhappily. Although she later became one of my closest collaborators, I am not sure whether she has completely forgiven me. She is quick to take offense and pout till the guilty person placates her with a big gesture. According to Chamila, many men pursued her while she was working. A technician at the factory (officer level) pursued her with gifts and letters for months. “I would scold him, asking never to come after me. I even said, thu! thu! [spitting sounds], but he would still come back.” She accompanied me on visits to the homes of Geethi, Vasanthi, and Sujatha and repeated the stories to get confirmation from them. She did not like her next job after Suishin and could not make many friends because there were only ten women workers among 300 men. She left the factory in 2002, and in 2010 her parents were still trying to arrange a marriage for her. After joining a couple of road trips I had organized to get former workers together, Chamila got quite friendly with my husband and enjoyed talking to us about life in the United States and married life in general. After one such trip in 2004, she declared that she would never get married unless she could find a good partnership like mine. She later elaborated, explaining how she liked the way my husband responded to all the mishaps that occurred during the trip with humor and calmness, and the way he paid attention to
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every thing I wanted. “He even carried your ladies’ handbag part of the way,” she said. “I want someone like that. Someone who treats women as equals and respects and honors them.” This led to a discussion on feminism and their perceptions of Western-style marriage. Several other workers present also agreed that they would like such equality within marriage, yet as far as I know, Chamila was the only one who acted, quite dramatically in fact, on her pronouncement. According to her letters, she asked several prospective bridegrooms her parents brought to their house to say the most feminist thing they had ever done. “They did not even know the word, Miss. It was hilarious. I recommend asking this question to any woman who wants to dissuade suitors. Because they just don’t like to be asked such things.” Her parents were not amused and complained to me several times about how Chamila was building a reputation for being a hardheaded woman with too-modern ideas. Fortunately, they had not figured out how much I had unwittingly influenced her in forming these new ideas. “She is born pretty due to good deeds in her last life, but she is trying to squander her chances of marriage by acting like this. Even a couple of months ago a father [of a young man] sent a letter scolding us for making them waste their time on such a hardheaded girl. They said if her ways are not corrected she will damage her younger sister’s chances as well,” her mother complained. On another occasion, the mother shared her frustrations with me again by mentioning how Chamila had never had a boyfriend. She is not like other FTZ workers who went places with boys. Went to the factory, worked well, came home to us every day. She had always been a good girl. Teachers loved her and some used to jokingly say that they want her as a daughter-in-law when she grows up. Miss can see that she is very pretty with her fair skin and long hair. She could have found a good gentleman if she does not ask these crazy questions. . . . I have to now bring prospective grooms from faraway places, but even the two matchmakers are getting annoyed with her. Can you please try to talk some sense into her and tell her that it is good to get married before her good looks fade away.6 Chamila’s sister, although she did not speak English, worked as a teaching assistant at a small international school owned by their uncle. Certain contradictions within the family made determining their class position hard.
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Chamila’s father owned a grocery store and a small parcel of cultivated land. The family considered themselves to be middle class and also thought they were more modern than most other villagers because they had well-to-do relatives in the city. Some of these relatives, like the uncle who owned an international school, maintained urban, middle-class lifestyles, while both of Chamila’s parents dressed, spoke, and behaved like people from a village. They were held in high regard by their neighbors as a good, virtuous, Buddhist family that kept close contact with the temple and whose daughters were brought up with shame-fear. The family did not need the daughters’ financial support, and they used their earnings to acquire what they considered to be symbols of an urban, modern lifestyle, such as items of home decoration. The girls differed from each other in the way they dressed, Chamila wearing skirts and blouses like most other village women and Ruwani wearing jeans and tops she bought in Colombo shops. Their neighbors talked very appreciatively of both girls, and one woman, a close friend of Chamila’s mother, said that she still found it hard to believe that Chamila was being so stubborn about finding a man with particular traits. “The way she was as a child, and even when she was working in the FTZ, it was like she did not know how to count to ten. The other day someone said that the FTZ changed her into this woman with crazy ideas, but I told them how the FTZ could not have changed her when she always came home to her parents,” Mallika said. She added that the excessive love and lax rules of Chamila’s parents were to blame for this unruliness. Another family friend agreed and admonished Chamila to see that good men are not born. “They have to be made into good husbands by us through a slow series of tactics.” All the neighborhood women I talked to mentioned how the two sisters were still two of the best girls in the village. “Pretty, obedient, educated, did their jobs well, and very helpful to their parents. Both have their own savings and the parents will give them things, too. But what man wants to marry a woman who asks whether he would carry her handbag if need be? My nephew said the other day that he wouldn’t mind doing that if his wife is sick or tired, but if she asked as a condition of marriage he would have said ‘no.’ I haven’t ever heard of a woman who asks such questions. I think this is her way to ensure she never marries and gets to stay as her parents’ loving daughter,” one woman said. Ruwani agreed that it was a good idea to sort these things out before getting married, but she would find out such things through spending time with the man, as she intended to marry only for
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romantic love. “These are hard questions to answer if you have not been thinking about them,” she said. What made her act this way? Is it because she detested marriage and was using this as a way to discourage her parents? The very first reason, of course, as she explains, is “my need to ensure a good marital relationship for myself.” While I am not trying to deemphasize her fascination with my life and her efforts to perform some of the ideals I hold dear in circumstances that are not conducive to them, I also see a variety of factors that resulted in the situation. She was the elder daughter of doting parents who trusted and respected their daughters enough to let them enjoy some freedom before marriage. Both daughters participated in family decision making, and their parents listened carefully to their opinions. Chamila especially was used to taking charge and forging ahead with her plans, sometimes without even consulting her parents. Throughout her life, she had been praised as a beautiful girl and she displayed some arrogance on this account. Although Chamila never divulged this, I was able to discern that she had feelings for Sanuja, then production coordinator and now the factory manager at Suishin. I am not sure whether she herself was aware of her feelings, as exploring any such feelings was forbidden to her because a friend had claimed him first. Chamila considered Shyami from Line E to be her best friend at the factory. Shyami was the first Miss Suishin, and she and Sanuja had had a romantic relationship for a few months. But because of differences in social class, they put an end to it. Although desired by many others, Shyami still loved Sanuja and had vowed never to marry anyone else. Chamila repeatedly brought Shyami’s love story to our conversations and told me why Shyami loved him: “Those beautiful eyes! You can gaze into them for days. What a beautiful man he is! So Shyami cannot think about anyone else.” Many Suishin workers were enthralled by Shyami’s love story and it was therefore hard for me to decide what was behind Chamila’s fascination. That was only until Bhagya confided that Chamila had been in an emotional relationship (not yet spoken of) with a boy from her school. He had died in a tragic car accident the same day he was coming to declare his love for Chamila, and Chamila once said he looked just like Sanuja. Despite all of these reasons, and her successful avoidance of marriage, she had managed to not incur the wrath of her community. She was considered stubborn, but not was not ostracized. In fact, she had become very active in her village temple and other social activities and was certainly carving out a space for herself in the village. She spent most of her day at the
grocery store, helping her father, talking to customers, and, as her sister jokingly said, collecting and disseminating gossip. She still traveled to Katunayake periodically to meet friends and buy things and had connected several young women with Suishin and her former book-hire van. Her family’s standing in the village, her established good-girl image that was untarnished because she had not boarded while working at the FTZ (instead practically sleeping in a van during the hours she was not at work), and the individualistic consequences of her actions, done in a private space, seemed to have prevented her feminist questioning from leading to allegations of crazyness. In 2010 Chamila and her mother made a Buddhist pilgrimage to India, and this had cemented her standing in the community as a good young Buddhist. Ruwani had had a romantic relationship for five years before her parents gave their consent for the couple to get married. The parents did not think her boyfriend was a suitable match, because of caste concerns, but did not want to end up with two unmarried daughters. Ruwani got married in 2011. Chamila’s actions did not discourage or encourage other young women to act in certain ways, as Kushani’s and Madhuri’s had. But it opened up a space within the family for Ruwani to marry someone she chose. The parents had advised their neighbors to agree to their daughters’ romantic relationships, telling them that they did not want the others to go through the same sadness of daughters not getting married. Postscript, 2018
In 2018, Chamila was still unmarried and living at home. Her parents are reconciled to this and seem to be happy that their daughter is home. Chamila is now running a business of sending village people on pilgrimage to India through a company in Colombo. She is also running a small moneylending operation in connection with her business of Indian pilgrimage.
Women Making Meaning All three women discussed in this chapter flouted boundaries of normative femininity and received varied initial responses from their communities that changed depending on the success or failure of the women’s actions, which were in some ways related to their experiences at the FTZ. Young, unmarried women going against the expected behav ior of their position
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takes others by surprise, leading to anxieties about how established gender norms will be affected. All three cases show that overt rebels have to be ready to take community displeasure, ridicule, and ostracism. Sometimes such actions end up carving out new paths for other women to follow, and other times they end up reinforcing existing norms. In that sense, these three women’s lives show, again, the malleable character of dominant norms and how adherence to mainstream norms is in fact more fragmented than appears on the surface. Their lives also show that neoliberalism is not the only factor shaping new ways of living for women. The following chapter extends this idea by focusing on moments when former workers say no to neoliberal ethics and embrace other values that facilitate shaping their lives most meaningfully for them.
I Do Not Want to Be Rich and Lonely Politics of Contentment
I have refused subcontracting for Sky Garments, Global Lanka, and Nipon IX Industries. I refused Sky Garment contracts three times. Who wants the stress of target production when you have families and little kids to worry about? I could have been a millionaire if I took up those orders. I would rather be happy with my family than rich and unhappy. —Kamani, former worker who does business exclusively with local markets What’s the point in becoming a lonely rich woman? If I sometimes have to say “no” to a lucrative order to attend to my sick motherin-law, then that’s fine. It is not always about profit. —Mayuri, former worker
Nearly all workers, at different times, have said something similar. Family sickness, death, children’s crucial exams, and even village festivals were mentioned as reasons for saying no to lucrative subcontracts or taking a few months off from entrepreneurial activities. While not stated, the goodwill generated by doing so was important and beneficial. Sri Lankan village women find it difficult to operate businesses in a purely market-based, profit-oriented fashion, which in turn points to how neoliberal discourses get shaped according to local cultural contexts and manifest only as a particularly contextual version.
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Gibson-Graham notes that theorizing of economic activity must go beyond the centrality of capital and look at how people create meaningful lives (2006; 2008). Gibson-Graham also notes the difficulties of resisting powerful discourses such as capital but calls for a “reframing that allows for a much wider range of social relations to be seen to bear on economic practices including, to name just some, trust, care, sharing, reciprocity, cooperation, coercion, bondage, thrift, guilt, love, equity, self-exploitation, solidarity, distributive justice, stewardship, spiritual connection, and environmental and social justice” (2014: 147). Former workers are not creating alternatives to capital and market-based economic activities. For them capital and markets represent avenues to peaceful, content village lives and thus do not take primacy over other social relations. I define and label the ways in which former workers engage capital to create meaningful social worlds as a politics of contentment. The social relations they navigate through sharing, reciprocity, cooperation, love, and altruism have an impact on economic activities and provide a distinctive flavor to the economic lives of contemporary Sri Lankan villages. Although not creating alternatives to neoliberal values, their practices set in motion powerful socioeconomic and cultural changes. Thus it becomes important to figure out what contentment is for Sri Lankan village women at this juncture in history. While contentment is first and foremost a personal experience, it is shaped within community and a broader cultural understanding of what constitutes a content young married woman in a Sri Lankan village. The previous chapters showed how women are eager to engage in economic activities and thereby raise their village social standing. However, most do not want to achieve their goals by going against community rules and behavioral prescriptions. Instead, they perform conformity and garner community sympathy and approval, thereby widening the spaces for economic and social success. Their politics of contentment puts securing peaceful and harmonious lives for them and their families ahead of profit motives. These choices sometimes lead to deeper precarity, but the women expect, confront, and respond to that precarity in locally meaningful ways that provide interesting commentary on how gender arrangements are made, represented, and lived in everyday life. Writing about how a group of Nicaraguan women turned down a lucrative deal with the Fair Trade Association because they disagreed with certain conditions, Fisher (2018) postulates that the women’s group chose dignity over profits. Sri Lankan women’s choices are minor in scale and concern balancing
work, family, and community responsibilities. Yet, by choosing to pursue meaningful economic activities and contented lives without being consumed by profit maximization, Sri Lankan village women also make a powerful statement against the primacy of capital.
I Will Not Leash Myself Again “I escaped one leash [bandanaya] and I am not about to leash myself again,” said Kamani when explaining why she would not under any circumstances do subcontracting work for Katunayake factories or subcontract for village women who had taken up larger subcontracting orders. Noting how her company drove workers crazy despite its worker-friendly policy pronouncements, she said, Target production was the worst thing I endured during my time at the FTZ. I hated the traffic lights—every machine had three lights set up like traffic lights in green, yellow, and red. If you are meeting the target you have a green light, if you are falling behind, it automatically turns yellow. This was the worst thing, because you know you are dangerously close to getting a red. You try to work faster and that results in mistakes and damages and you inevitably get the red light. Then your machine would be stopped and one of the “timestudy” officers would come and stand very, very close over your shoulder to see why you are slower than the others. This happened to me several times and every time I started shaking and shivering. Tears came in a continuous flow and all this made my work even slower. There were times when they had to completely shut down my machine, and I would lose half my wages for the day. Which caused me to come to work the next day determined to work myself to death so I could avoid the embarrassment and stress of getting a red light. Kamani said all this in 2017 when discussing stress related to target production at her former FTZ factory (one of the biggest in Katunayake). Another former worker, Ramya, shared how factory managers made the workers compete with each other by placing before each line large white boards that indicated their progress. Toy racing cars in various colors represented the lines, and the cars were moved around based on line productivity. “When I
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first joined, this was fun and you wanted to somehow win and it made us all work like crazy,” said Ramya. “After a few weeks we got tired of supervisors who pointed at the cars to taunt the lines that were behind. The system also caused workers to blame each other for losing the race. I used to be so anxious I had nightmares about meeting targets. There were times I woke up drenched in sweat because in my dreams I have been frantically peddling the machine to meet an impossible target. That’s why I couldn’t wait to get out of the factory.” Anxiety stemming from meeting targets was something many workers talked about both while working at and after leaving the FTZ. Thamara was one such worker who detested being tethered to her machine. “It was so hard to get leave. They did not care that we were human beings with families who fall sick, get married, and reach puberty. Funerals were the only events that guaranteed leave. But are two days enough if your father dies? Wouldn’t one want to spend some time huddling together with siblings during such situations? And what about the seventh day and three months rituals?” she asked. She had lost three factory jobs because she had put family, community, and cultural celebrations ahead of her job. She had no regrets, saying, I don’t want to go back to those times. My friend Kumi does subcontracting for a Katunayake factory. The pieces (to sew) are sent to Kumi via the 2:45 p.m. Katunayake-Madawachchiya bus, which only reaches the town at 6:00 p.m. Kumi needs to finish every thing, which is always a lot, in time to put it on the next morning 7:00 a.m. bus to Katunayake. Of course, this means all night work. She has about ten village women who subcontract for her, but she still has to put in at least ten hours of work all through the night. Really, what life can you have with that kind of schedule? The women concerned agreed that producing exclusively for local and urban markets made economic success difficult. Additionally, they agreed that such markets can be even more unpredictable and precarious than global subcontracting. Three of the four women who refused subcontracting have maintained up to three small businesses to respond to this unpredictability. They all agreed that it was a conscious choice on their part. “I was offered subcontracting from X factory several times. I said ‘no.’ It’s just too stressful. I have a family to look after, and these days I want to focus on my children more and I am only looking for slow progress for my business. I am not
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looking to be rich. Just want to support the household so we can eat good food and give the children what they need in school,” Aruni said. Although their businesses generate only modest incomes, four of these women have gained much respect in their villages for their commitment to family and community while still generating an income.
Subcontracting Women and Profit Motives The other twenty eight women gladly participated in global subcontracting, as doing so was much more lucrative than producing for local markets. Despite the stress associated with just-in-time production, workers mainly considered subcontracting to be worry-free since contracts were ensured, and the larger subcontractor bore all risks. Big contracts were challenging, causing these women to work through the night, but such large contracts were infrequent, and the women were usually given two or three days to fill an order. Nine former workers had regular subcontracts from Katunayake, and they therefore subcontracted their orders to a group of village women they had trained. This system came with some risks, as their reputations now rested with how the other women performed. The need to round up these subcontractors at short notice also generated anxieties, leading to practices somewhat similar to those of their former factories, such as simple incentives of chocolates or inciting competition by offering three wrapped gifts to the quickest workers. Thomas Lemke notes that neoliberalism is a political process that attempts to convince that competition and market forces are the basis of social relations (2002). All of the women I spoke with, except one, said that they would not hesitate to say no to lucrative contracts if families needed their full attention and ser vices. Even the one who stood out pointed to nonmonetary reasons for her loyalty to the factory that gave her subcontracts. Sithumi worked at this same factory for seven years before getting married and setting up a workshop in her husband’s village. Geeth sir, who was one of her managers at the factory, was instrumental in arranging for Sithumi to get subcontracts from her former employer. She gleefully mentioned how Geeth sir and his family came in his car during the April New Year with gifts for all in her family and for her subcontractors. She said she would never let Geeth sir down unless she was on her deathbed. Since much subcontracting involving former workers is based on
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personal contacts with factory managers, the loyalty Sithumi displayed is not surprising. Others, however, put family, community celebrations, and religious activities before such loyalty. Nisha, for instance, said she never considered economic costs when it came to doing work for the temple. Here Nisha was influenced by the need to acquire merit per Buddhist teachings. She once said, “The time I spent organizing those temple activities, I could have run a huge gem cutting factory and become rich.” Then she added, “But we need to collect some things for where we are going (next life), don’t we?” Clearly, her sense of what it was to be a good Buddhist woman and human being dictated her preferences in this instance. She, like most other former workers, found meaning and happiness in being considered a good woman and a good human being. Perceptions of what it is to be good were being shaped by both the neoliberal ethos and the Buddhist ethos. Rather than being all-consumed by self-interest and calculated benefits, former workers showed that their concerns extended to others, including animals and the environment. For instance, Nilu was devastated when her husband and father-in-law chopped down a jackfruit tree so their property could enjoy more sunlight. Tears coursed down her cheeks when she confronted her husband, asking why they cut a fruit-giving tree for no reason. “It is true we have enough jackfruit, the neighbors have enough, and the fruits just ripen and fall. But at least the crows would eat it. And it provided so much shade! What a crime!” She ranted this way on and off the whole day, surprising me with the intensity of her feelings. She had calmed down the following day and when I asked what she would do with the cut-down tree, Nilu said she would wait till it dried up and then break the branches and make bundles of wood (dara miti) for village women to use as firewood. Some days later when her husband tried to sell the wood to a carpenter, she objected, saying poor women who could not afford cooking gas stood to gain more from the dry wood. It was clearly a value assessment, but one that did not include direct self-interest. My field notes highlight several instances when former workers expressed environmental and ecological concerns, although this line of inquiry was not one I pursued actively. Like many village women, these entrepreneurial women collected and stored coconut shells, husks, and fronds in their backyards. All the former workers had gas stoves and tiled roofs, so they gave these items to poorer people to use for cooking or thatching roofs. When her husband angrily proposed burning a large pile of collected coconut shells and fronds that was not being picked up, Indu laboriously moved the coconut
shells and fronds to the side of the road so passersby could take them. According to neoliberal rationality, there is no activity or relationship that cannot be transformed into a commodity. However, it is hard to see how Indu would profit from her action, given that the beneficiaries would not know who left the items by the roadside. Many former workers, similar to other village women, collected empty plastic cans, ice cream cartons, broken buckets, basins, and chairs in their backyards to give away, thus recycling them. Showing their allegiance to subjugated rural knowledges, they too used old tea leaves, eggshells, and kitchen refuse as fertilizer for plants, and they used various herbs and leaves as medicine. Although they had the capacity to purchase necessary condiments, medicines, and vegetables and acknowledged that doing so is more cost-effective than growing, pickling, and drying things in their gardens—especially when they could channel that energy toward an incomegenerating activity—many clearly enjoyed growing some of their food and medicinal plants. Nilu spent about two days per month picking goraka (Garcinia cambogia) and drying it in the sun despite protests from family members. Vasanthi used reusable cloth diapers for her baby despite loud protests from her husband Krishan, who considered himself a world traveler (cosmopolitan) because he had been to Italy, and he wanted Vasanthi to use Pampers. She, however, firmly believed that her way was good for the baby and the environment even though washing cloth diapers was time-consuming. These concerns and voluntary, non-profit-oriented activities show that neoliberal subjectivities are not fully coherent and coexist with many other ideological strains that compete for dominance. Their perception of contentedness included their loyalty, kindness, and generosity toward their husbands and in-laws as well. When former workers decide to perform social norms associated with their social identity, they first consider what is most important to them and their lived environment. All mentioned that conjugal happiness and being successful parents and entrepreneurs was more impor tant than changing behavioral norms, even if the latter is what “Colombo women would want us to do,” said Nilu, who added, “My husband does not always ask me about my opinion regarding his land or business, just as I do not inform him of what I cook for supper. We both know that we have to coexist and we need each other. We also know that we need our [extended] families and their help. We all have to work together to raise ourselves and it does not matter whose name goes as the household head in the census list.” Although not as articulate as Nilu,
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several other women also noted that their struggle is not to be more empowered as individual women but to develop themselves as a family. At least five confided that they give husbands and fathers-in-law a leading role by asking their opinions even when they have already decided what to do. Most said if asked they would name their husband or father-in-law as the head of the household. This was reiterated by seventeen women who made the most money in their homes. Yet five among them believed it was their voice that was the most powerful when making decisions. They talked of their husbands as overworked, underpaid, bullied, or marginalized individuals, and they used kind and somewhat diminutive maternalistic terms such as ahinsaka kolla (innocent boy), duppath manussaya (poor dear), asaranaya (helpless man), patiya (cub, child), and higanna (beggar) when discussing them. Just like when they performed social conformity, there was an element of self-interest in using these linguistic strategies. It did help in their daily social relations with their husbands to show this extreme concern and maternalistic love, even while linguistically placing them in somewhat junior positions. I hesitate to dismiss this as a mere crafty calculation as they interchangeably used such terms with aiya (elder brother, a common address form for husbands until they become parents), thaththa or appapchchi (dad), and mahatthaya (gentleman), which conferred more authority. Even these linguistic tools with regard to spousal address forms are part and parcel of their politics of contentment, enabling peaceful lives and future political changes. Considering that most NGO workshops offered sessions on individual and women’s rights, one would expect the workers to be concerned about getting due recognition for their labors and striving for equal partnerships in the modern sense. That they accept a more old-fashioned understanding of coexistence shows that neoliberal discourses are absorbed only as far as they help shape a meaningful, contented life. This understanding calls for recognizing locally grounded, meaningful empowerment instead of measuring women of the global south against Western notions of agency and autonomy.
Whither Workers’ Rights Whether these women are fully pledged neoliberal subjects or not, they all have apparently become entrepreneurs with varied levels of connections to global production. Although they themselves work the machines, they are
also, however minimally, owners of the means of production and they employ others to work for them. My earlier research showed how workers become politically conscious after a few years at the FTZ and engage in varied struggles for worker rights. Now that they are both workers and owners, how do they understand and respond to struggles for worker rights, especially within global production? The practice of subcontracting and the move away from labor contracts is another form of subjectification in that it “encourages workers to see themselves not as ‘workers’ in a political sense, who have something to gain through solidarity and collective organization, but as ‘companies of one’ ” (Read 2009: 30). As noted earlier, many subcontracting women and their neighbors called the home workshops their “factory.” Many former workers showed business acumen akin to any other business owner in managing their contracts, time, and employees. The cascading system of global subcontracting produces home workers, mostly women, throughout the developing world. Obviously, the nature of subcontracting makes work precarious and workers vulnerable to economic and other forms of exploitation. Additionally, the availability of home workers threatens the regular workforces of larger manufacturing plants by providing managers additional avenues to discourage protests among those seeking better working conditions. Ultimately, the women, by operating home workshops, are exploited by global production networks, yet by being subcontractors who own means of production and employ part-time workers, they simultaneously collaborate with these same global production networks. Only five of the thirty-seven former workers explicitly recognized that their work may be detrimental to the current regular workforce at FTZs. Others seemed bewildered by how processes of dispossession are interconnected through global production networks. This was interesting, given that at least twenty of these thirty-seven former workers were considered politically conscious and rebellious when at the FTZ. Many astutely pointed out how regular workers do not have much to lose in any case, and they rightly noted that the increasing use of daily hired labor within the FTZ was what mainly threatened the stability of the regular workforce. “Now many factories use close to 50 percent manpower workers. How can we be a problem, when workers are asked to resign and come every day to work as manpower workers by their own factories?” Amaya asked. Eleven workers said the only reason many regular workers are still under stable labor contracts with fac-
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tories is because of their lust for the FTZ dowry and that they themselves are dreaming of opening “factories” in their villages to do subcontracting. “Village subcontracting is the only good thing that comes out of FTZ work,” Mayuri stated with conviction. Not only did these women have a difficult time understanding how their entrepreneurial activities might be harming the regular workforce within the FTZ, but they also praised the factories and the NGOs for connecting them to some of the larger subcontracting operations. This perplexity is not surprising considering that some of the training and networking was done within programs that were organized under company CSR agendas. Workshops were funded by prestigious organizations such as UNIFEM, the International Labour Organization, and Christian Women Workers. Just as in other global capitalist contexts, this field saturated with multiple power sources perplexed the former workers (Ramamurti 2008, 2014; Tsing 2011; Mills 2005). At different times, the same women demonstrated great solidarity with the regular FTZ workforce and understood that differently positioned workers were being oppressed by forces beyond their control. Interestingly, many workers held Americans responsible for the adverse economic and social changes surrounding them and the resultant hardships. As Nalika noted, “America excels in stomping on already fallen people. That’s why they are rich and we are still struggling to stand up.” Some of the community members and leaders also blamed America for globalization, economic hardships, and cultural changes. While America hardly fully represents neoliberalism, in many ways they could not have been closer to the target in their criticism. Especially noteworthy are my interviews conducted after the May 2011 FTZ worker struggle against the government’s proposed pension scheme for workers. The government proposed to bundle EPF, ETF. and gratuity payments into a pension scheme, which workers would be allowed to access only after they turned 55. Workers protested, marching in their thousands on Katunayake’s streets, prompting brutal police suppression and leading to one death and the hospitalization of hundreds of women workers. Their major slogan was “Don’t kill our dowries.” The workers definitely understood the importance of getting their EPF and gratuities when they left the FTZ after five or six years of employment, especially in a country where inflation is consistently high.
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From within their villages, former workers expressed overwhelming support for the striking workers, noting that these payments were among the few good things about FTZ work. Nayana, who on several occasions denied that home workshops like hers may be destabilizing the regular workforce at the country’s FTZs, could hardly contain her outrage when the government and police brutally suppressed the protest. She pushed back tears while bashing the parties involved in the suppression. “They did it to us then and they are doing it now. We, the small people, can never win,” she moaned. Many former workers were ecstatic when the protests forced the government to retract the pension scheme bill. This general antigovernment and antipolitician stance, even while at times exhibiting reverence for these same institutions, is not peculiar to former workers. Sri Lankan rural people can be said to be among the most politicized in South Asia, and they are adept at seeing behind promises, yet holding on to them in the absence of alternative paths. Relying more on their own hard labor, skills, and maneuvering capabilities has not made the former workers less discerning of agents and institutions—which are responsible for their predicaments—or less critical of the state, politicians, and world organizations (identified mostly as American led). Noting that “perplexity is a conceptual platform to think about the experiential contradictions of globalization as a series of processes that often overwhelm subjects,” Ramammurti says it indexes how people simultaneously experience both the joys and the aches of global processes in their everyday lives (2008: 525). Notwithstanding their perplexity in understanding their own positioning within the global capital ist hierarchy, most former workers were adept at discerning everyday oppressions and engaging in critiques and protests in small ways. For instance, their subversive sexual discourses that were noted in Chapter 5 clearly articulate their critique of dominant cultural discourses that do not allow them sexual freedom. When former workers forced younger women to see that sexual transgressions were as prevalent in villages as they were in cities—and thus that there is no reason to think one becomes corrupted when living in cities—they were providing an astute social critique of the dominant cultural mores and official narratives of the so-called pure and uncorrupted villages. Not having the same clear, critical views as a formally trained scholar does not mitigate the fact that former workers are clearly transforming the village understanding of gendered division of labor and behavioral
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norms and are cognizant of the effects of their own carefully thoughtout actions.
Neoliberal Villages? Whether people like it or not, mobile, entrepreneurial women are becoming more and more common in villages. However, former workers do not freely impart newly absorbed neoliberal discourses on freedom, autonomy, profit motive, and competition, instead choosing to carefully negotiate existing common sense with their entrepreneurial aspirations. How do the communities respond to, confront, or resist the neoliberal onslaught and how have former workers negotiated neoliberal aspirations within local contexts? I interviewed the grama niladaris and Buddhist monks in all thirtyseven villages. In nineteen villages, I also interviewed respected elderly people and schoolteachers. The latter normally have considerable moral leadership within villages. The respectability of their employment allows women who were teachers to enter the public domain later in their lives. Seven of the thirteen retired teachers I talked to were women, and they are now considered pillars of the community. The grama niladaris recommended them as village leaders I should talk to. I wanted to see how the village elite understood women’s work in urban FTZs, their subsequent return, and their effect on village norms and power relations. Questions were open-ended and generally consisted of objectfeedback techniques: I would show a newspaper clipping or photograph or bring up a scene from a movie or teledrama to elicit responses. The questions asked about their understanding of the par ticular village’s social, cultural, and economic standing in the broader context of Sri Lankan society; their perceptions of young women working in the Katunayake FTZ; the expressed aversion to former workers as daughters-in-law; and their perceptions of the former workers in their village and how they contribute to the current dynamics of their villages. I was intrigued by the number of times the phrase “water tank, Buddhist pagoda, village, and temple” (wavai, dagabai, gamai, pansali) came up in the responses. The interviewees noted that Sinhala villages are integrally connected to the Buddhist temple, and the water tank (reservoir) and the dagaba (pagoda) are visual icons of Sinhala villages. Although only nine of
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the villages I visited had functioning tanks, five others being connected to irrigation systems in other villages, those I questioned still held that a water tank should be a natural part of an agricultural village. Many also recognized the irony as they spoke, leading to discussions of how village decay started with colonialism and corrupt local politicians. As one chief monk declared, “We do not have a wava [tank]—that is the problem. No wava means no paddy cultivation. That is the death of self-sufficiency, as no rice of your own means that those villages become dependent on other sources. That is what the white man wanted.” After a lengthy monologue on how the colonizers broke the backbone of Sinhala people by robbing them of their self-sufficiency, the chief monk deftly connected his response to my next question to the same dependency created during colonial times. “That is the reason why today’s parents have to send their girls to Colombo FTZs—to bring back money. Without outside money, no one can survive. People with small plots especially need other sources of income. Really, we cannot blame these girls for going to these factories. The village needs the money, but then in the long run, it destroys village values,” he said. He was not the only one to connect FTZ work with the decay of pristine village qualities, especially the conduct of women. The grama niladaris, in par ticular, used vocabulary very similar to mainstream representations of villages. While many, including monks, were quick to note that men had connections to regional cities and Colombo even before independence, most also saw a difference between men and women’s migration. “When women go out, it is much more dangerous than with men. There are customs and norms about women’s behav ior. City women are already corrupted, and if village women also go on that road, there will be no culture left for Sinhala people. It would be a worse problem than the Tigers [LTTE],” said the chief monk of the Narangalla Old Royal Temple in Southern Province. This interview was conducted in 2008, when the civil war was at its height, and he continued, “Now, see the Tigers—they have rules and regulations for their women. They have figured it out. If women take up outside customs [para sirith], that nation is already defeated.” The same concerns expressed in the early twentieth century about unspoiled villages and the need to preserve authentic culture, which were expressed by nationalists such as Dharmapala, and about women’s special role in preserving that culture, are now being reiterated in association with somewhat dissimilar situations. Although not many I spoke with expressed these notions quite so directly, they seem to underlie most village people’s concerns about women’s migration.
I Do Not Want to Be Rich and Lonely
A retired school teacher commented about one of the current FTZ workers in Vinitha’s village, saying, “That girl was one of the most charming [seedevi] in the school, and I thought wherever she would go, she would never change. But within a year at Katunayake, she cut her hair short. The other day I saw her wearing one of those halfway trousers [three-quarter length]. I have nothing against trousers. Trousers cover legs and is a modest dress. But we are village people. She should respect village customs, or people will laugh at her.” Concern about hairstyles and trousers seem to apply only to middleclass or upwardly mobile working-class women in the villages. When I mentioned that I had seen two other young women wearing pants on my way to her house, the teacher busied herself trying to find out who they were by inquiring about their height, weight, and facial features. Then she said, “Well, those two sisters will end up in Colombo in any case. They are boarded at Musaeus College in Colombo and are here at their father’s estate on vacation. There is a difference between what they do and what Mihiri is doing. Mihiri is a village girl, and she will marry a village boy, and she will raise village children. It is her duty to keep her ruralness [game kama].” In fact, Mihiri was from a lower-middle-class family that, like most others positioned the same way, hitched its hopes of social mobility to the children’s employment and marriages. The retired teacher was alluding to the threat of urban contamination through returnee migrants marrying into village families. A recurrent theme in elite and other village people’s discourse was that village people must be simple and not follow every new trend that flows from urban areas. Still, this understanding was inflected with a subtle social class difference that let some women get away with certain transgressions. For example, poor married women migrating to Middle Eastern countries to work as housemaids because their husbands either abandoned them or were not able to provide for them was not considered as dangerous as unmarried daughters living away from their parents in urban FTZs (Gamburd 2000; Hewamanne 2002). As one retired teacher noted, “Those women are already down in the dumps by marrying men without worth [kamakata nathi]. They go to Middle Eastern countries, and whether they have been good there or not, they come back to those same families. These young girls [FTZ workers] are different. They come back with money, so they are attractive to other families as daughters-in-law. They need to be good, or the contamination [kilutu] will spread.” The grama niladari of the same village, who was present at this interview, agreed: “Those families [of women who go to work in the Middle
East] are already living low lives with drinking, quarreling, wife beating, and even sexual liaisons. Women’s Middle Eastern employment saves them and their children. Sometimes the families break up, and children go on the wrong path because of mother’s absence, but most times the families raise themselves up because of the remittances. I, for one, am very happy that they have that option to remedy a bad situation.” He said only a few young women were from families destitute enough to justify migrating to the FTZ. “Only a handful of families in this village would have had to send their girls to the FTZ to survive, but almost all of them could do with extra money and girls earning their own dowry. So many families choose to allow their girls to go. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that they should not reach for more material wealth, but it would be nice if they think about the consequences as well.” This interview stretched for more than two hours, with both the retired teacher and the grama niladari providing examples of girls who had to go to the FTZ to help their families put food on the table and others who chose to go for extra money and independence. The examples they cited were from a cluster of grama niladari divisions in Southern Province, rather than exclusively the one we were in. More or less the same distinction between married Middle Eastern migrants and unmarried FTZ workers was made during interviews in six other villages. Perplexity marks how village elites feel about young women’s migration. However, both the former workers and the community are attracted to what each brings to the table and are on a quest to negotiate the best position for themselves and the community. It is through this quest that common sense gets rearticulated and allows women increasingly more space to engage in meaningful economic and social activities. When Neither Conformity nor Success Works
Mostly positive portrayals do not mean that all former FTZ workers always manage to strategize their urban NGO contacts into successful incomegenerating schemes. Sometimes women find that no amount of discipline and conformity can overcome deeper concerns about religion, nation, and corrupting urban influences. Anusha had to abandon her successful business of raising pigs for meat, when neighbors expressed concerns that she was bringing un-Buddhist activities to “a pure and moral Buddhist village.” Anusha married her boyfriend and moved in with his impoverished parents in a village off of Kegalle. She soon won the admiration not just of her affinal
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kin but also of the community. “They adored me. And I was always helping people. I felt that no one thought badly of me due to my time at the FTZ anymore. I was forgetting that life and all I wanted was to be ‘someone’ in this village, and be happy,” she once said. After her first baby, with the help of her Katunayake contacts, she started a small pig farm to raise piglets in her compound for a major meat company in Negombo. The company delivered the piglets to the village and picked them up when they were of age. Anusha was enormously successful, earning Rs. 20,000 net profit with the first batch. By this time, she and her husband were becoming aware of community displeasure, yet when the opportunity arose to raise forty piglets the next year, she took on the challenge. This was when the community protests became somewhat official, with the grama niladari and the chief monk of the village temple raising concerns about a business of raising animals for slaughter. Some people spoke directly to her in-laws, saying that “Anusha has been corrupted in the FTZ and now she is bringing all these bad influences to this pure, Buddhist village.” Anusha had many young women friends who visited her often to help with housework or chat. Some of them started reporting how they were being pressured not to visit Anusha lest they get “corrupted” by her: “It is like, suddenly, they all remembered that I had an FTZ past and that I am now not ashamed to do bad things due to my time at the FTZ,” she said. “Some people were saying that I converted to Christianity while at Colombo [Katunayake] and that I come from a very low family and my parents brewed moonshine and we all drank it together: all sorts of nasty lies.” Anusha was agitated when she discussed what had transpired. Ultimately, the mean looks and talk behind their backs were too much for her parents-in-law and they pleaded with Anusha to abandon the business; she soon gave in. As another villager, a middle-aged man, had been raising pigs for village consumption on a very small scale (two or three at a time) for years, the antagonism against Anusha’s larger business seems to point toward anxieties over the capitalist market’s deeper penetration and how women’s involvement in market-based economic activities might change gender roles. The village protest occurred from late 2007 through 2008, a time during which the civil war was raging in the north and east and nationalist discourse on pure Sinhala Buddhist traditions was at its peak. All this resulted in Anusha losing her painstakingly created good, industrious, former-worker daughterin-law position. In 2009 she was slowly making progress toward regaining that position. For example, she contributed much labor to the 2009 May
celebrations of the civil war’s end and the Wesak and Poson Poya day celebrations at the village temple. Her family sponsored a monthly temple offering (Buddha puja) in 2010, and the photographic narrative shows Anusha in the forefront, dressed in a long white dress, taking the biggest flower tray around for other devotees to touch. In 2014 she wrote in a letter that things were much better now that her home business is making stuffed teddy bears! In another case, a woman achieved the approval of her mother-in-law only to be thwarted in her attempts at economic success by her jealous husband. In the early days of marriage, Sakuntala worked very hard to earn the approval and admiration of her in-laws. She spoke softly, dressed modestly, and was timid and obedient. Gradually, she felt that her in-laws had forgotten her FTZ past and, especially after the first baby, that she had more freedom to make friends and engage in village community activities. Sakuntala had learned to embroider and paint saris in an FTZ class sponsored by an NGO and painted a sari for a schoolteacher friend. The latter urged Sakuntala to sell her creations in Colombo, and Sakuntala contacted an NGO she knew from the FTZ time, which helped her to obtain a modest contract with a Colombo sari shop. Both her mother-in-law and her sister-in-law helped her get the first batch out. Her father-in-law accompanied her when she took the saris to Colombo. A few months later, the sari shop placed a larger order and both Sakuntala and her mother-in-law immediately started working on some saris. But, after a few arguments, her husband forbade her to go to Colombo alone (her father-in-law could not accompany her indefinitely because of his job), effectively ending her budding business efforts. When I asked why he did that, Jagath laughingly said he did not want a businessman (mudalali) for a wife. But, during a separate conversation, he brought up a few examples of women changing their dispositions after economic success. These changes included not fulfilling domestic duties, being assertive, and not being respectful. His own mother later berated him, saying that it was very depressing that Jagath did not trust a good woman like Sakuntala. “There are bad FTZ workers, I agree. But Sakuntala is a virtuous girl who worships Buddha every day, and she is a good wife and a good daughter to us. It is the bad luck of all of us that my son cannot see it,” Chithra said. Sakuntala’s case demonstrates the uneven way the neoliberal ethos is taking root in rural areas. When men or older women in their families are worried about women not fulfilling their traditional duties, women have to choose between pursuing economic aspirations or enjoying harmonious social relationships.
I Do Not Want to Be Rich and Lonely
As the above case highlights, spousal, affinal kin, and community support are crucial in shaping women’s market-based economic activities. Sometimes the sudden collapse of NGO programs that helped the workers’ village entrepreneurial activities thwarts their current and future plans, almost throwing them back to the economically depressed position they were in when they had started. I saw this happen to two women while I was conducting research. Establishing a sympathetic and supportive kin and community network is vital when preparing for such ups and downs. Perhaps because of their mostly Buddhist upbringing (teachings of transience), they expected these eventualities and tried consciously to project an image of nonarrogance and humility in the face of even incredible economic success. This image then helped achieve more kin and community support and admiration, further opening the space to maneuver for economic, social, and political advancement. Five of the thirty-seven former workers had settled in their own villages with their spouses. With the ready support of their own mothers and relatives, these women had more space for economic success and an easier time in the beginning. Two of these women were among the most successful former workers, showing how a dependable support base, which one can expect natal villages to provide, can be important for women seeking to become entrepreneurs. Two of these five women, however, did not seek entrepreneurial opportunities, and their own relatives sometimes criticized them for being lazy. Such criticism highlights how idiosyncratic traits matter and how families and communities now want to see younger women take advantage of opportunities, such as microcredit loans, provided they reconcile marketbased influences with ideal-woman expectations. New Realities, New Responses, and the Future
The women I focused on worked in factories in the late 1990s until 2008. Several dynamics with regard to FTZ work have seen major changes in the eleven years since. The last few years especially have seen global garment factories experiencing labor shortages, particularly at the machine operator level (Madurawala 2018). The increasing use of just-in-time production strategies within current global production networks (Barrientos 2013) have put tremendous pressure on FTZ factories to find capable workers to supplement their regular workforce at short notice, resulting in the increased use of labor contractors to procure, monitor, and maintain worker groups. The Garments Without Guilt initiative that sought to brand Sri Lankan apparel
production as ethical (Saxena 2014; Goger 2013; Hewamanne forthcoming) is one factor contributing to the rise of labor contractors. The ethical codes required factories to meet certain standards with regard to their regular workforce, leading factories to reduce the regular workforce and rely more on casual workers. Labor shortages that resulted from continuing low wages also meant factories have to rely on contractors to supply workers (Seneviratne 2017). Dabindu Collective (2017) reports that factories are encouraging daily hired labor to the extent of asking regular workers to quit and return to work as day laborers. Such moves allow management to simultaneously address labor shortages and satisfy ethical codes without jeopardizing profit margins. Those of us researching garment factories hardly referred to labor contractors before 2010. While one could debate whether labor contractors were present before then, there is no gainsaying that their presence has become commonplace since then. In addition to what is noted above, village parents and young women found the ser vices of labor contractors valuable for several reasons. I have noted how the social independence enjoyed by the previous generation of women workers led to transgressions and stigma surrounding FTZ work. Labor contractors exploited the resultant moral panic by promising the parents that they would provide paternalistic care and protection while their daughters were in the FTZ (Hewamanne forthcoming). Some young women now working in the FTZ likely are there only because their parents trust the labor contractors who recruited them. Many women appreciate the contractors’ ser vice in facilitating their mobility. Some factories contributed by providing factoryowned or contracted hostels or boarding houses for new workers. While claiming they were protecting the young women from predatory men and the temptations of city life, their actions also ensured the factories would have a ready supply of workers. This coalition of astute labor contractors, parents, and management benefits all in some ways while constraining the space for the workers to engage in subversive politics. While the arrangement is a partial solution for the acute labor shortages that factories currently experience, it also addresses the moral panic that was aroused when an earlier generation of young women flocked to the FTZ for work. Parents appreciate the paternalistic care that the contractors promise, while the certification of living and working in the FTZ under the care of a locally respected labor contractor minimizes the stigma of FTZ work and boosts women’s chances of contracting a better marriage after leaving the FTZ.
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This noted, the par ticular structure of casual hiring in Sri Lanka results in unrecognized forms of social and cultural constraints that eventually deprive contracted laborers of the opportunities to develop skills, resources, and networks that other workers utilize to become entrepreneurs on returning to their villages (Hewamanne 2019). While the contracted workers are privileged to have good boardinghouse rooms, the amenities come at the expense of enjoying the FTZ the way their predecessors did. While boardinghouse owners tried to contain these predecessors, poor facilities pushed them into the public spaces surrounding the FTZ, where they astutely negotiated the pleasures and pains of relative independence. These experiences in turn conditioned the women’s aspirations and allowed them to acquire skills and build social networks that were crucial to their post-FTZ entrepreneurial activities (Hewamanne 2017a). Overtly patriarchal control that these contract workers experience robs them of the chance to develop new senses of self as women and wage workers. Although most of them also work five or six years in FTZ factories, they are likely to return home not much changed from their earlier selves and most likely are unable to shape life on their own terms. So once again divergent patriarchal forces collaborate to contain young women trying to attain social independence and forms of empowerment. Entry of Tamil Workers
After the war ended in 2009, the then government encouraged the business community associated with global factories to hire from the wartorn northeast. But the protracted civil war had prevented most Tamil youth in these areas from traveling to and experiencing life in the south, including the capital city, Colombo. The vast majority of Tamils in the northeast do not speak Sinhala, the dominant language of the island. Neither do they speak English, which can operate as a link language. The nearly three decades of war led to enormous anger and distrust with the Sinhala community. Thus Tamil families are reluctant to send their daughters to work and live in the predominantly Sinhala FTZ area. In this context, labor contractors became indispensable for Tamil women seeking global assembly-line work. Labor contracting associated with Tamil workers has some similarities to the practices of the south noted earlier. Tamil women are also recruited by factory owners or labor contractors from villages with which they themselves have intimate connections. At initial meetings, recruiters make
promises, similar to those Sinhala contractors make, to protect young women and provide them with comfortable and safe lodgings. Enlisted workers and their families are then taken to visit the factories, and more assurances as to their safety are given. After the women come to Katunayake, they are placed in a government-run model hostel or boardinghouses built or renovated just for Tamil workers that the factories have directly contracted. To further alleviate worker anx ieties, the factories make special arrangements: some factory supervisors learn the Tamil language so they can communicate better with workers, labor contractors are allowed to monitor working conditions, and worker grievances are promptly addressed. Interviews with Tamil and Sinhala workers suggest that factory management is serious about sticking to such promises. Some Sinhala workers feel Tamil worker grievances are given precedence over their own. For instance, Sinhala workers pointed to stools that a factory had provided Tamil workers and claimed that they had been requesting the same amenity for 30 years without success. Many reputed FTZ factories consider the employment of Tamil workers to be their contribution to postwar reconstruction and reconciliation efforts, and this attitude may contribute to Tamil worker requests being treated more positively. Tamil workers are placed in factory-owned hostels or contracted boardinghouses. Transportation is provided not only to and from work but to church and the bazaar. It is hard to fault institutions providing special security to Tamil women who do not speak much Sinhala, but it is also hard to ignore the similarities to labor camps. These women forego the chance to enjoy leisure activities in the FTZ area, associate with young men, and develop a greater understanding of the island’s dominant culture. Interviews with Tamil women made clear that they long to learn Sinhala and English and to take computer, beauty culture, embroidery, and dancing classes. Although factories provided facilities where workers could watch television, organized parties and road trips, and arranged for occasional NGO educational workshops, the interviews revealed that Tamil women are yearning to experience life independently. Labor contracting ensures Tamil workers enjoy protected and comfortable working and living conditions under benign patriarchal care. If the Sinhala contracted workers discussed previously are controlled and constrained and unable to enjoy the FTZ on their own, these Tamil workers are controlled to the point of being imprisoned within protective care. Some parents send brothers or male cousins with their daughters for added security.
I Do Not Want to Be Rich and Lonely
As men do not get factory accommodation, such pairs are placed in contracted boardinghouses—in separate rooms—where female residents must adhere to strict disciplinary measures. Male relatives usually did not interfere with the rules, instead choosing to remain largely confined to the boardinghouse compound. Although there is some minor resistance to these constraints, the Tamil workers seem to stay with their original contractors and remain under their protective care. Manpower Workers
The manpower work scenario is conspicuously played out on a daily basis at the entrance to the Katunayake FTZ, where women gather under a banyan tree and wait for contractors to sign them up. Contractors are told how many day laborers a factory needs, and they then pick the requisite number of women, who receive a receipt with the name of the agency and the promised wage for the day. Most of these so-called agencies are staffed by a single individual. Most claimed to be registered with the labor department per the legal requirement (Hewamanne, forthcoming). Dabindu Collective (2017: 26) notes that workers prefer manpower work to being part of the regular workforce. The workers I interviewed also said they preferred daily hired labor through manpower agencies. The flexibility to work on the days they choose and relief from the stress of meeting targets on a daily basis were the two main reasons for their preference. Many of these women had previously worked as full-time employees, so they were well qualified to compare the pros and cons associated with manpower work. “When I was working full time I was like a cow tethered to a pole—cannot attend a wedding, go to a temple on Poya Day [a Buddhist holiday], or even go to the doctors without getting scolded and having my salary cut,” one worker said. They all noted that they get paid more per day than full-time workers. As noted earlier, full-time workers receive EPF and ETF savings when they leave the factory, but manpower workers appear to value the higher daily pay than the lump sum given to full-time workers when they leave work. A number of women said the daily wage and the factory’s reputation were important when deciding where to work. Some were adamant that they would not work for certain factories, while others said they usually waited to see whether their preferred factories were hiring before signing on to work for others. Factories, too, had favorites among the workers, because the more familiar a worker is with a factory, the more efficient she is going to
be. Dabindu Collective (2017) notes that while full-time workers want to leave after five to six years of work to obtain their FTZ savings, most manpower workers seem to want to keep working indefinitely. The manpower option allows women to remain in the FTZ area and also avoid having to marry soon after leaving work in order to obtain their EPF/ETF savings (because women who do not present a marriage certificate within three months of leaving the factory other wise usually have to wait till they are 55 to collect EPF and ETF monies). Thus manpower work allows women agency to live their lives without being dictated to by BOI stipulations and factory regulations. As noted, many manpower workers engaged in other income-generating activities that ranged from dressmaking to catering and even to part-time sex work. Several part-time sex workers said they needed the manpower work to maintain their reputations as factory workers in their villages (Hewamanne 2020). Although the BOI chairman made headlines in 2015 by claiming that he would ban manpower agents (Berenger 2015), as of 2019 such a policy is still to be implemented. Several factory managers and BOI officials claimed in 2017 that banning manpower work is not feasible as it is a preferred form of work for some workers, and even university students now engage in it to finance their education (Dabindu Collective 2017). It is important to consider the context in which these women prefer manpower work. Global assembly-line work is characterized by stressful, backbreaking, target-oriented production systems that force overtime and weekend work. In the context of stressful, target-oriented production systems, manpower work allows women to refuse being enslaved by factory production regimes. The phase-out of the international quota system known as the Multi Fiber Agreement (MFA) and the suspension of the Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus privileges1 were expected to adversely affect global production in Sri Lanka’s FTZs. The industry responded creatively, especially to the first threat to end the MFA, by initiating the Garments Without Guilt campaign to attract investors and orders by branding Sri Lanka’s apparel manufacturing as ethical. This strategy led to increased manpower workers and a subsequent increase in the precarity of work. Intensification of labor contracting practices was part of the industry’s somewhat misplaced response to the ethical production requirements. Annelies Goger (2014) has argued that Garments Without Guilt was created both to address local concerns that employment in garment factories was morally compromising young village women and to help producers maintain their market share, especially
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after the ending of the MFA. Factory management seem to consider the hostel and other facilities provided for workers brought in by labor contractors as part of fulfilling their responsibility to improve workers’ living and working conditions per ethical-production expectations. This concern about protecting women’s reputations by providing safe hostels with matrons in charge did not bode well for women enjoying independent lives and developing new senses of self. How these three scenarios—labor contracting, manpower workers, and Tamil workers—affect the formation of neoliberal attitudes and the kind of local negotiations I described earlier in the book should start revealing itself in about ten years. It is, however, safe to assume that the narrative of those negotiations would be different from what I have seen in the last fourteen years. Amid labor contractors and manpower workers, FTZ factories continue to automate and streamline production. When queried about labor shortages experienced by the key apparel operators in the country, Sri Lanka Apparel Exporters Association Chairman Saif Jafferjee said that apparel manufacturers are looking toward automation. A leading global production business leader, Anil Hirdaramani, agreed that the future of the apparel industry lies in technology and robotics (Samath 2015). Although automation is not yet a major threat, many large factories have started streamlining production, leading to new practices such as the “standing worker” and “dancing girl” models. The first is meant to improve productivity, since standing machines take less space and make workers acutely aware of their activity.2 The dancing girl model seeks to train all workers to perform all functions on an assembly line (i.e., cutting, sewing, overlock machine operation, fuselingand finishing). This model would allow factories to hire fewer workers, but at the expense of increasing worker responsibilities and physical activity. While the training gives them multiple skills, it promotes more onerous work routines, forcing workers to “dance,” that is, move, from machine to machine and section to section (Gupte 2018). Although CSR policies ensure that the regular work force gets stipulated minimum wages, breaks, and other benefits, the stress stemming from target production continues to be a fact of life for factory workers. The major factories have good health centers and allow workers access to a doctor, but it is common to hear of women fainting while at work. Although the minimum wage has been raised over the years, it has hardly kept pace with inflation, making the raises meaningless. The stigma attached to FTZ work is indirectly related to the low salaries workers receive. Without a meaningful
increase in wages, neither stigma nor violence against FTZ workers is going to change for the better.3 What all this means is that notwithstanding discourses about CSR compliance, little meaningful change has taken place to confront the social and cultural problems resulting from global assemblyline work (Hewamanne 2017a; De Neve and Prentice 2017). Undoubtedly this is a complicated social and economic space where many forces both local and global clash and vie for primacy. In this context, that former workers can create meaningful economic lives for themselves in their villages speaks to their indomitable spirit and shows that even the most rigid social structures reveal loopholes that those with a nuanced understanding of their surroundings can make use of—a message that goes beyond positive ramifications of global production lines in the global south.
In 2018, a teledrama called Koombiyo (Ants) shown on the ITN Sri Lanka channel became tremendously popular and won awards for best teledrama and most popular teledrama. The story was about a young university dropout who combined English speaking, computer literacy, social media, wit, charm, and business acumen to become a successful entrepreneur. The drama presented social commentary on unemployment among university students and how the education system failed to prepare students to deal with present-day socioeconomic realities. However, what really interested people was how the protagonist used personal skills and barely legal strategies to make a profit. The character differed from how villains had hitherto been portrayed, for here was an English-speaking, educated, likeable, and good-looking crook. When accepting the award for most popular actor, the actor who played the lead role noted that people had voted for an antihero for the very first time. Astute social commentators, however, observed how his character, Jehan, celebrated the antihero to the point of transforming perceptions regarding the characteristics of a hero (Kumarasinghe 2018). A society that celebrates the barely legal business practices of the likes of Jehan puts pressure on educated and unemployed youth to cease criticizing extant socioeconomic arrangements and instead create opportunities using individual social, technological, and economic skills. Indeed, as I write this in June 2019, Sri Lankan social media sites are full of posts and memes ridiculing the island’s university students for protesting unfair policies and longing for government jobs. Those posts uncritically celebrate business leaders lacking higher degrees and urge university students to follow them in starting small businesses and develop them into big corporations. University
students typically want government or private sector jobs that ensure stable incomes and pensions. They have also long protested privatization of state institutions and, more recently, the spread of private higher education institutions. But the social media criticism of their protests suggests society at large now expects such students to be less dependent on the state for employment and instead experiment with the burgeoning gig economy. As these conflicts go on, successive governments keep privatizing ser vices and curtailing pensions and other social benefits, furthering the precarity of formerly stable livelihoods. The increasing precarity pushes people, young and old alike, to cast their dice in the gig economy.
In the FTZ: We Will Show You How to Become an Ant Urban communities have been gradually changing attitudes about education, business, and income generation, and in this context women living in villages too are realizing the importance of entrepreneurship. Most such women find themselves helpless as they look on while opportunities that were previously possible through education are eroding. Although there are new support schemes such as Enterprise Lanka, which promises government-backed small loans for small and medium enterprises (Daily News 2019)), the women find themselves lacking the freedom, autonomy, know-how, and self-confidence needed to shape their own financial futures. This is not so for those who have navigated the FTZ and acquired knowledge and networks. Recently, an advertisement posted around the Katunayake and Biyagama FTZs, which was later circulated via social media sites, asked, “Are you dreaming of starting a business of your own?” It went on to inquire: “What kind of business should it be? When should it be started? Do you have enough money and skills for it? Do you have the market orders for your products?” It thereafter proclaimed that the advertising organization (connected to an NGO of the same name) was prepared to help in all such matters and invited workers to “Come and join with us.” While such direct advertising is rare, many organizations in and around the FTZs act as connecting agents for workers and global production– related gigs. To a lesser extent, workers themselves are able to independently make connections with urban markets thanks to their proximity to and association with such markets at the FTZ. As noted, many NGOs and govern-
ment agencies around the Katunayake FTZ conduct workshops or short courses on financial management, marketing, and developing specific skills, including computer literacy and English speaking. These workshops and classes directly deal with the sort of personal development required for entrepreneurial success. Even yoga classes are promoted through claims of improved health and beauty, requirements for succeeding in today’s world. This was in part how the FTZ provided a pathway for village women to gain skills that equipped them to succeed in entrepreneurial activities. In June 2018 social media spaces frequented by Sri Lankans were abuzz with numerous posts, comments, and critiques referring to a mega birthday party thrown by a well-known bridal dresser, Chandimal. The theme of the party was “royalty,” and there were competitions for sexiest dress and sexiest dancer. YouTube clips of the latter competition show D-list film stars dancing with their dresses hiked high and the MC commenting lewdly on their bodies. While the party garnered highly critical comments, the more astute pointed out that many reality dance competitions on private TV channels in Sri Lanka today also encourage sexy dressing and erotic dancing. Such real ity shows and commercially inspired mega birthday parties take place even as politicians and religious leaders praise ancient Sinhala Buddhist customs and vow to uphold them against corrupting global influences. Most famously, the current president, Maithripala Sirisena, made headlines in 2015 when he pointedly criticized a young woman who threw a bra on to the stage at an Enrique Iglesias concert in Colombo. Calling the woman’s act “most uncivilized,” he said the promoters of such shows should be whipped with poisonous stingray tails because they are destroying the country’s culture in return for rupees and cents (Daily Mirror, 2015). Such contradictions and social turmoil stem from neoliberalism clashing with deeply held notions of what is good and bad. This conflict is taking place throughout the global south, and the previous chapters of this book narrated geographically and culturally specific examples of this global phenomenon.
Manipulating Capital, Finding Meaning This book set out to respond to the question of how a neoliberal ethos manifests in villages and to define former workers’ diverse roles in these manifestations, focusing on how former workers navigate village social and
economic lives amid competing local values and global cultural flows. The daily process by which these women attempt to gradually vitiate the stigma associated with FTZ work and negotiate better positions within their new families and communities shows how their performances of self-discipline and disavowal of transgressive knowledge allow them to make use of the limited social, economic, and political spaces available. That then gradually reshapes local understandings about the good daughter-in-law. Thus, overall the book argues that the creative manipulation of varied forms of capital—symbolic, social, and monetary—by these women is a major reason behind new social status markers and the novel forms of disparity among groups of people within villages. Despite claims to the contrary, transnational production by itself does not engender changes in village hierarchies; instead, it joins a host of conducive conditions—kindness and support of affines, individual capacity for hard work, postmarital residence, creative self-presentation, and especially women’s nuanced understanding of manipulable sources of capital—to initiate change within villages. As former workers occupy the intersection of neoliberal ethos and mainstream cultural expectations and deal with daily challenges of being good women and entrepreneurs, they shape context-specific mechanisms to contest gendered constraints within Sri Lanka’s villages. Marked distinction between former workers’ responses to local power relations and those of other village women further highlighted how former workers create spaces to enunciate critical perspectives that restructure extant hegemonies in postcolonial Sri Lanka. This elaborates how a neoliberal ethos escapes areas of neoliberal exception such as FTZs and flows to different parts of the country via former global factory workers. The most interesting was the way neoliberal discourses go through a process of adjustment within Sri Lanka’s countryside and are rearticulated in locally meaningful ways. Within this process, former workers’ specific choices, actions, and strategies make up a politics of contentment, rather than a quest to become fully pledged neoliberal subjects. Thus neoliberalism is yet to become predominant in the Sri Lankan countryside, for while former workers display neoliberal ways of thinking and living, they also fashion their lives by combining elements of traditional and new cultural norms with their own idiosyncratic traits to find fulfilling lives. This book therefore is a narrative of context-specific rearticulations of a neoliberal ethos by returning workers
who are seeking to build meaningful social and economic lives for themselves in villages.
The Double Burden of Amal Bisos The discursively constructed notions about the village being the locus of Sinhala Buddhist culture and women being the guardians of its authenticity was popularized in the early twentieth century and was consolidated by the time Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948. Newspapers, magazines, songs, novels, teledramas, and even reinterpreted folktales reiterated this notion. While newspapers, magazines, and television programs were produced in the nation’s capital, they were available in even the remotest of villages. Thanks to a system of free education instituted even before independence, Sri Lanka has long enjoyed high literacy rates for both men and women, which made disseminating ideas easier. While only areas around the capitol city were initially exposed to television, which was made available in 1979, much of the country could access the main government channel by as early as 1982. And like other media before it, television reiterated and perpetuated gendered behavioral expectations, designed to protect Sinhala culture for future generations. The main burden fell to villages, and village women were indispensable foot soldiers. They would be Amal Bisos (pure girls) who, as in the folktale, would not open their doors to strangers (new, outside influences). In short, young women were expected to be “uncolonizable,” while men were given license to explore new knowledge and opportunities.1 The Sinhala idiom “boys can go anywhere, come back, take a bath and be cleansed of all dirt; girls, once sullied, would be so for life,” perfectly expressed the gendered constraints placed on women. The folktale about Amal Biso alludes to a long-ago time, but a popular song from the past decade reinterprets and reconnects the story to new outside influences that threaten the country’s culture. The song is sung from the perspective of a man worried about his wife and children left alone in the village while he works in a foreign country (deepankare). The song starts with him saying, “my Amal Biso, don’t open the door, be very careful.” Then he tells her of his worries about the white gentlemen who come bearing gifts from Europe (Eroppe) and give her soft looks. He asks her to act as if she has not seen them. He warns her about well-dressed white women who would try to peek into their house and advises her to keep the little ones close to
her and be cautious of such intruders. The man repeats his admonition about not opening the door to strangers. The use of the folktale to discuss contemporary concerns of tourism-related sex work and to critique unregulated foreign charity work and foreign adoptions reinforces the burdens faced by women (who are expected to protect households from nefarious influences and protect their male kin’s honor). Migrating for work was hardly a new phenomenon when village women began moving to the FTZs. Village men have long been connected to Colombo and other regional centers through work. Women in government ser vice were sometimes transferred away from home, and men and women had begun going to work in the Middle East by the time FTZs began operating. These other instances, however, lacked the constructed baggage associated with FTZ work. The only other group that experienced stigma for working away from home was women who went to the Middle East to work as housemaids. But even here the dynamics were different because the vast majority of Middle Eastern migrants were married women who were facing dire economic circumstances. Their migration was considered a last attempt on the part of mothers determined to ensure their kids ate and went to school (Gamburd 2000; Hewamanne 2002). FTZ work, in contrast, created an ambiguous space because the migrants were usually unmarried women. If reports of sexual liberties within the urban FTZ fanned moral anxieties when village women went to work there, their return generated more fears since these returnees had the capacity to “contaminate” other families through marriage alliances. While many village families desired the dowries that former FTZ workers brought with them, they worried about women who may have gotten overly corrupted in the city. Hence the need for the returnees to initiate corresponding performances of conformity. Such performances create space for former workers to engage in translocal connections that further enhance their economic status. Yet, these connections inspired more contention than similar connections developed by men. Depending on the situation and audience, people expressed contradictory opinions about FTZ work, returning migrants, and their economic endeavors, and this made it difficult for the community to reach any consensus. This ambiguity allowed former workers to create and present their individual FTZ experiences and post-FTZ endeavors in the most appropriate light. Doing so was doubly burdensome, because the women who went to work in the FTZ had to connect with the market economy while being “uncolonizable.” Unlike Amal Biso in the folktale, these women could not
afford to stay indoors and avoid the temptations lurking outside. They had to go out the door, move to the city, and work in the FTZ to help keep their home fires going.2 Having come back stigmatized, they are nevertheless expected to take on the role of Amal Bisos who studiously safeguard Sinhala Buddhist culture. Becoming economically successful women while also meeting village expectations of good wives, mothers, and daughters-in-law is what leads to positive interpretations and subsequent entry to village civic leadership. The delicate dance they engage in gradually changes what it is to be good young married woman and perceptions of what women are capable of achieving.
“Good Daughter-in-Law” as a Ticket to Get Somewhere In Chapter 1, I pointed to Stuart Hall’s contention that identity is like a bus because the only way to get anywhere was by climbing aboard and purchasing a ticket. I particularly like this description not only because of its connection to movement but also because it seems to more or less capture what former workers are engaged in, consciously or not. As Hall notes, the ticket can never wholly represent a person, but everyone still has to buy a ticket if they want to go anywhere (quoted in Pred and Watts 1992). Likewise, former workers taking on and performing expected behav ior for young daughters-in-law or wives does not represent a wholesale acceptance of the identity position imposed on them at that point. Rather it gives them a ticket to get on the bus and move toward a place that they desire. In the FTZ they constructed an identity as modern women with traditional brake pads—women who bought into modern ideas on work, independence, and lifestyles but who used their awareness of existing social norms to restrain themselves from getting into trouble. In the villages they take on traditional roles but through strategic moves become networking and translocally mobile women—in short, women in traditional roles who use neoliberal, transnational wings. Their interlude at the urban FTZ did not allow direct changes in gender roles, but it set in motion a long-term process of change within these roles. This process is clearer when compared to the position of nonmigrant village women who are occupying gender roles similar to those of the former workers. Nonmigrant women do not have the capital—monetary, social, or knowledge—that former workers have and, in most cases, have not
had opportunities to develop abilities to astutely utilize capital even when they have it. They enjoyed respectability for being sheltered women and therefore did not have to perform extreme forms of conformity to be accepted within their new communities. But this very respectability often hindered them from attaining decision-making powers within their families and communities. Although they stressed that respectability is more important than material wealth, many nonmigrant women, in varied contexts, intentionally and unintentionally, agreed that FTZ work experience gives some women great talent for getting things done. This was not always expressed in a positive or complimentary way—for example, several noted how former workers are wily and seem to know how to behave in varied ways at varied times to gain approval. Nonmigrant women’s family members also underlined their relatives’ sheltered, good daughter-in-law character yet could not help but admire certain former workers who seemed to be leading their new families toward prosperity and prestige. In this context, the characteristics of the good daughter-in-law are changing to favor women who are able to manipulate all available resources to give their families a competitive edge in the changing village economic circumstances while upholding, even if on the surface, the requirements of respectability. Thus these women take the wheel of the bus without appearing to do so. Not only do they use the label of daughterin-law as a ticket to get on the bus, but some of them have been able to take the whole bus—their community—toward new destinations.
Politics of Contentment Feminist political economists such as Gibson-Graham (2006, 2008, 2014), Bear et al. (2015), and Fisher (2018) have called for approaches that do not take capital as the predominant trope of social and economic lives. They challenge the primacy of capitalism and instead focus on lived experiences of economic lives and the ways people strive to create more meaningful social worlds via economic activities. Studies by Kipnis (2007), Harris (2009), Brodkin (2014), He and Xue (2014), and Fisher (2018) further show that it is possible for communities to work against the primacy of capital and create meaningful lives. Gibson-Graham, Cameron, and Healy (2013) also encourage scholars to focus on how individuals and communities take economic matters into their own hands to help create worlds that are socially and
environmentally just. Former workers and their communities are also grappling with negotiating meaningful lives in locally specific ways. However, it is also very difficult for these women and their communities to escape the allure of money. It is the desire for monetary capital that takes women to FTZs. But it is the other forms of capital acquired while at the FTZ that allow women to shape their domestic, marital, and community positionings. Obviously market relations are impor tant, but former workers also decenter neoliberal market relations while using their entrepreneurial and civic activities to reimagine social life in ways more satisfying to them and their loved ones. Chapter 7 noted some specific moments when former workers decided against capital and profit in favor of satisfying social relations and community lives. Those decisions were made after carefully considering social, economic, and cultural contexts and positions and were designed to help them achieve peaceful, meaningful lives as female members of their village communities. It is these considerations and resultant decisions and practices that I call the politics of contentment. Former workers’ insistence on “developing as a family” and “doing/giving something for the community” was part and parcel of their politics of contentment. While this insistence already had local cultural roots, how former workers engaged in such politics was shaped by a particular combination of existing notions of social ser vice and social mobility as well as neoliberal discourses. They had more capital and more market opportunities via subcontracts from FTZ factories. But while some women altogether refused to take up these subcontracts, others selectively took orders that allowed them a more relaxed pace of work. Their decisions were made situationally, depending on the opportunity at hand, and led to a delicate dance of balancing economic opportunities with satisfying and peaceful family and community lives. As a result, almost all the women I studied approached their quest for social mobility as a family project, where protecting all family members’ dignity (conventionally understood) was impor tant. Most women therefore walked a tightrope of being income earners (sometimes the highest income earner in the family) and decision makers without overtly breaking conventional notions of male authority. Most women nominated the husband or father-in-law as the household head or highest income earner when in actuality it was they who ran the show. These practices generally received very positive responses from family and the community, further opening up spaces for women to work toward their own goals of social and economic success.
Their practices are reminiscent of Sheba George’s ethnography, When Women Come First, which shows that Indian nurses who are the main earners of their households in the United States allow men to take moral leadership within the family, church, and cultural activities (2005). Obviously, some of those decisions and practices were against the discourses on individual freedoms and equality that proliferated alongside neoliberal economic restructuring. Most former workers were aware of discourses on women’s empowerment through NGO educational programs at the FTZ, but they found the Western-centric notions of empowerment presented to them at these programs to be both unattainable and undesirable. They instead tried to find empowerment within family and community constraints while giving primacy to creating harmonious social relationships. A few seemed to suggest that doing so was a way to resist the middle and upper classes in their villages and the city. Dinithi said, “People who want us to leave our husbands the moment they misbehave are the first to laugh at us when we take their advice and fall from frying pan into the fire. . . . It’s better to change them and change with them.” In the absence of social security mechanisms to support single mothers, and without serious changes in education, economy, and culture, what Dinithi expressed was a locally formed notion of marital relationships—one that entailed a different way of understanding respectful relations and dealing with life’s difficulties by strategically combining patience, communication, and extended family support. Contrary to popular ideas about working-class marital relations, most men and women I studied have peaceful and harmonious relationships where each partner’s contributions are valued. Men typically expressed their appreciation via unspoken cues, while women used exaggerated spoken strategies. Their understanding of feminism was somewhat rudimentary, but most of them expressed a range of feelings including anger and resentment toward what they thought was upper-class feminist prescriptions for family lives. Evidently, the class- and gender-specific prescriptions for behav ior embedded within neoliberal discourses have a harder time than entrepreneurial spirit in penetrating these women’s lives.
Entrepreneurship, Success, and Critical Potential Like a flower that blossoms at dawn She wakes up, washes her face and sweeps the garden
After worshipping parents and the Buddha shrine She goes to the well for water Her actions are diligent like the Fire dancing in the hearth She protects the Ariya Sinhala customs At every context Engaging in religious activities She shines like a moon over the village She cultivates flower gardens Weaves coconut fronds and knits laces She grinds the paddy Cuts the wood And cooks for the family This song from the 1961 movie Kurulubadde describes the female protagonist. More than fifty years later, I was struck by the similarity between the characteristics that defined a “good village woman” and some of the daily activities of successful former FTZ workers such as Nisha, Nilu, and Nalini. This does not mean that life has not changed for women who have experienced a few years at the FTZ, or that there are no differences between a diligent nonmigrant woman and a former worker. The display of these expected characteristics affords these women a supportive community of female kin who ease their household activities. At the same time, the projected image of the “goddess of the household” earns them the respect needed to move forward with their other plans. All this leads to changes in the perception of women who are worthy of respect. A woman who has been to a stigmatized space but still is a good village woman, even if only in performance, and develops her family through her hard work, receives respect and initiates changes in the understanding of what is a good woman. Moreover, by raising children who grow up with working, traveling, and decision-making village mothers, these women contribute to a long-term process of changing gendered social norms and discipline. In light of the effect these women are having on village social structures, their FTZ employment cannot be considered a mere transitional phase in their lives. Yet, their quest to achieve middle-class status, which they discarded while in the FTZ, indicates a weakening of the subversive tendencies they displayed as workers. For instance, in 2000 one of the former workers featured in this book told me that “they say our tastes and fashions are third
class. So what? That is my class and I am happy with it.” This very same worker has now completely given up on the glittery clothing and flashy styles of the FTZ and instead wears long pastel-colored dresses and saris, which she says is essential if one wants to be considered respectable in the village. On the other hand, this same woman told me that she “transgresses while using the sil redde”—the shawl worn when observing eight principles of virtuous living on Poya days—which nicely illuminates the critical potential of the politics of contentment. Nothing diminishes the changes these women engender for social norms, especially with regard to what it is to be a good daughter-in-law and young wife and mother at the same time as educating us on the many ways we can contest and challenge oppressive structures. It is, at times, difficult to differentiate conformity and contestation in their activities, as both eventually stretch existing hegemonies. Most important, these are not silent women. They speak in many ways—for instance, by manipulating different forms of capital—and expect to be heard. The communities are listening and paying earnest attention. Although acting individually, former workers are still speaking as a group—of the skills, agency, and strength that took them to the FTZ in the first place. It is this group voice that is making some mothers say they want skillful and diligent former workers as daughters-in law. That they add something like “finding a good [moral] former worker is the key” in almost the same breath illuminates the perplexity engendered by neoliberal developments and women’s participation in transnational production.
Is Neoliberalism Hegemonic? David Harvey argued that “Neoliberalism has, in short, become hegemonic as a mode of discourse” and that it has become “incorporated into the common-sense way many of us interpret, live in, and understand the world” (2007: 3). In this short section I explore the extent to which neoliberalism is hegemonic in the Sri Lankan countryside. The neoliberal subject is motivated by self-interest, economic gain, and competition. Neoliberalism also means a redefinition of what it is to be a worker. All of the former workers I have come to know invested in themselves and used inherent or acquired skills and talents to manipulate other forms of capital and work so as to gain more income, status, and upward mobility, in short, to become entrepreneurs of their own female selves. In
the process, they inspired others to emulate them, notwithstanding some dispersed social resistance to their activities. It does appear that the women have become neoliberal subjects and now inspire others to be like them. Yet, their everyday activities show how they resist neoliberal subjectivities in myriad little ways, readjusting in the process the meta narratives about neoliberal subjects. I will reiterate some specifics to show how the notions of neoliberal subjectivities of Harvey, Foucault, and Brown are not exactly what gets articulated in rural Sri Lanka, stressing again the importance of studying the politics of location in understanding contemporary social, economic, and political subjectivities. For one thing, the competition does not extend to all spheres and does not seem to be always based on self-interest. While their economic activities lead toward improved social status, aspiration for upward mobility is sought on behalf of their immediate and extended families as well, hence the meticulous attention paid to performing social conformity, to the extent of deliberately taking steps backward at times from maximizing one’s economic gains. Even if all former workers displayed what David Brooks calls “fire in the belly” or aspirational capital (2005), the former workers calculated their moves by reigning in their enthusiasm when initially married. While many older women of their own social class responded to subsequent economic activities quite positively, both men of their own social class and people of higher social classes sometimes disapproved of these women’s economic and social advancement. Their responses are based on prescriptions of socioeconomic activities that are different from neoliberal ones—as with, for instance, Jagath’s resistance to Sakuntala’s sari business (Chapter 7). The Sri Lankan countryside is definitely struggling through competing social forces, where existing common sense is mingling with neoliberal mores and, in the process, shaping into a new common sense. Sri Lankan villages are not giving into market relations without a fight. If transnational production mobilized male instead of female labor, then men’s influence in instilling a neoliberal ethos in their villages would have been different and perhaps easier. Female migration is more fraught and provokes moral anx ieties that then affect the potential of returnees in shaping new ways of thinking and living. Rather than being a hegemony, neoliberalism is engaged in an intense process of competition with earlier parameters of what constituted being “good.” Within this process, both sets of par ameters are evolving and
adjusting, providing myriad ways of articulating subjectivities and identities. This articulation is, of course, shaped by gender and social class positioning. Female entrepreneurs who engage in market relations without giving up conventional roles are in fact rewriting the books on both who is an entrepreneur and who is a good wife and mother in Sri Lanka’s countryside. The question, however, remains—are they neoliberal subjects? According to Foucault, neoliberal political power lies not in sovereign power or disciplinary institutions but in a new mode of governmentality—a mentality through which people govern themselves. Neoliberal governmentality operates at the level of motivations, aspirations, investments, and competitions. Although it does not directly subjugate or discipline, given that it seemingly provides freedom to choose, it saturates the field of possible action, making its power more intense at the same time as it becomes invisible (2008). Former workers’ entrepreneurial activities show that they pursue capital and market relations to the extent of their own parameters of what would allow them meaningful social lives. Thus they have not become neoliberal subjects in the ways that Foucault or David Harvey have imagined. Although they calculate economic benefits and invest in themselves, they also critique market forces, accept the primacy of state power, and engage in uncalculated, noneconomically beneficial acts. So they are not only subjects of neoliberal ways of thinking and living but also subjects of cultural norms and traditional institutions. Both ideologies provide former workers with ample opportunity to fashion their own identities by combining elements of competing truth regimes. Rather than becoming a hegemony, the neoliberal ethos has been added to the few major ideological and political possibilities available for rural women to draw from in seeking meaningful lives. They are thus neither fully neoliberal subjects nor the kinds of women their mothers have been. They are mixing, matching, performing, and balancing all these strains as they do the dance of life. What their stories tell us is not the hegemony of neoliberalism but the strength and durability of its competitors.
Chapter 1 1. The majority of Sri Lankans are Sinhala (74.9 percent); Sri Lankan Tamils comprise 11.2 percent, Indian Tamils 4.1 percent, and Sri Lanka Muslims 9.3 percent. Of the total population, 70.1 percent are Buddhists, 12.6 percent are Hindu, 9.7 percent are followers of Islam, and 7.6 percent belong to Roman Catholic and other Christian denominations (Department of Census and Statistics, Sri Lanka 2012). 2. The protracted civil war between the Sinhala majority government and the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Elam (LTTE) from 1983 to 2009 and the resultant mistrust and enmities between the ethnic communities seem to be a major reason for this imbalance. 3. The corresponding Sinhala term for “innocent” is ahinsaka, which, in fact, means “harmless.” However, when used in the context of a young woman’s reputation, it means lacking knowledge of sexual matters. 4. Many, however, have used various sums from the dowry for family celebrations, emergencies, or improvements to common property as gestures of good will. 5. According to Bourdieu (1977: 72–95), habitus is a system of lasting transposable dispositions that integrates past experiences to become present nature. It produces thoughts, expressions, actions, and practices that are common to all within the same habitus. 6. Homosexual relationships are very rarely open in rural Sri Lanka, and all thirty-seven women I studied as well as all the other former workers I spoke to in villages were in heterosexual relationships or have separated or divorced from male partners. 7. The grama niladari is the lowest-ranking government-paid official within the administration. This position is responsible for applying government regulations at the village level. 8. Politics of contentment is different from politics of happiness, which is a body of work that focuses on state policies concerning welfare and quality of life (Cole 2006; Bok 2010).
Chapter 2 1. Slaves of Free Trade Zone: Camp Sri Lanka. San Francisco: Labor Video Project, 2000. 2. It is very common for Katunayake to be equated with Colombo, the island’s business capital, especially when talking about the FTZ. 3. However, there are also accounts of men committing physical violence against women because of alleged licentious behav ior. According to Sirr, a woman could be killed because of a low-caste liaison. But Harris (1994) holds that this latter custom declined long before the British arrived.
186 Notes to Pages 31–80 4. There are some accounts that contradict these dominant views, such as the works by Hugh Boyd (1800) and Frederick Jobson (1862). 5. Nowadays it is common to see women in western attire touting commercial products on television. At the same time, however, an image of the beautiful, sari-clad wife and mother serving the family with various commercial products is also prevalent. The reality music and dance shows on Sri Lanka’s various TV channels present an image of extremely westernized and sexualized women wearing short and tight attire and dealing with men in a flirtatious manner. However, current and former workers and villagers consider such behav ior fantasies that provide an escape from everyday life. 6. This same staff member criticized several other NGOs for accepting subcontracts from national research agencies and journalists to get survey forms filled by workers, more often than not doing so unethically by getting all the forms filled by workers who come for a workshop or whom they find at a single boardinghouse. 7. According to several former workers, gaining acceptance may be easier if they come back destitute, publicly regretting going to the FTZ and begging the community’s forgiveness. This is not surprising given the many stories, poems, and songs that powerfully depict similar scenarios. For instance, one popu lar song is about a woman who dropped the leaves she had picked to seek after the glittering city lights. The woman sings about how she got lost there (maga waradila) and, in the last two lines, implores her mother to open the door to her “ little beggar” (podi higannita). These last lines powerfully manifest the triumph of the village, family, and community over city attractions but also generate sympathy for the defeated, regretful, immature woman and call for the community to magnanimously forgive and accept.
Chapter 3 1. Vijelatha’s concerns about Mayuri’s reputation (charithe) and that Mayuri had previously had a boyfriend were interest ing, as one of her own daughters had eloped a year earlier and Vijelatha had forgiven her and resumed good relations with her family in no time, perhaps showing the bargaining power of the groom’s side in a patriarchal society. 2. These microcredit programs are run by local branch offices associated with international aid organizations or by private banks including Ceylinco, Commercial, HNB Grameen, Samurdi, LOLC, and Sanasa. 3. An honor accorded to women who prove their virginity during first intercourse after marriage. 4. Blue Lily is what her given name translates to and is not the translation of the pseudonym Kumudu. There are four common Sinhala names that translate as Blue Lily, so this information is not revealing.
Chapter 4 1. The NGO followed a strict participatory development model, which many, including Nalini, found too restrictive and discouraging. 2. Nalini ran a successful business of making traditional sweetmeats for several Colombo and Kegalle shops and employed three village women to help her. She had combined the CBO loan with part of her FTZ savings to start on a larger scale. 3. The village will remain unnamed to protect Jayani’s privacy. I also avoided noting the name of the closest city so as to prevent anyone guessing where this unethical use of microcredit loans occurred.
Notes to Pages 83–175 187 4. I selected these nonmigrant women because their socioeconomic backgrounds were similar to those of the former workers I studied in the same villages. 5. This clearly is an exaggeration, as my own research at afew abortion clinics showed that the average number of abortions performed was one a day (Hewamanne 2010).
Chapter 5 1. Abortion is illegal in Sri Lanka. According to the penal code of Sri Lanka, an abortion can be only performed to save the life of the woman (Section 303). An abortion carried out for any other reason would result in imprisonment or fine or both for the woman and the person who performed the abortion. However, many unsafe abortions are done in illegal roadside clinics. The Katunayake FTZ area contains several such clinics (Hewamanne 2006, 2020b). 2. Seven others noted that some younger women dropped by to help and chat, but they did not seem to have a regular following among these women. 3. The Buddhist texts are written in Pali, an ancient Indian language. 4. Scholarship on group therapy shows that it is impor tant to create a group narrative by getting all participants to take risks and share stories. This ensures confidentiality, trust, and cohesion of the group, allowing for more meaningful therapeutic experiences (Travaglini, Treadwell, and Reisch 2012).
Chapter 6 1. This was the first time she addressed me as nangi (little sister). She still used “miss” when addressing me in writing. 2. Women from this dry-zone district are commonly believed to be tougher because of the general hardship of life as well as their significant participation in agricultural work. 3. A festival in the month of May celebrating Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death. 4. This is a common conversational tool in Sri Lanka and is not a binding agreement. 5. A common linguistic strategy to show gratitude by wishing the very best a Buddhist can hope for. 6. After careful consideration I decided not to talk to Chamila about this.
Chapter 7 1. Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus is a Eu ropean Commission special incentive arrangement for selected developing countries that ensures the reduction or removal of tariffs when importing goods to Eu ropean countries. These privileges were stopped in 2010 in reaction to the weak human rights record of the then government but were reinstated in 2017 after the new government elected in 2015 worked toward improving good governance practices. 2. After a year of trying, Lihiniya Garments was forced to abandon the model because workers complained of leg pain and distress, resulting in high worker turnover. 3. However, several workers and NGO officers noted that increasing wages would be a mixed blessing for female workers. Increased wages would attract men to the FTZ factories, undercutting one of the few employment opportunities available to poor rural women.
Conclusion 1. I apply the term “uncolonizable woman” in the same way Usha Zacharias (2001) utilized it, to discuss how Indian middle-class women’s entry into the public sphere was facilitated
Notes to Page 177
using a narrative of spiritual, desexualized women who were immune to western influences and resistant to that which threatened tradition. 2. Interestingly, in one version, arguably the oldest, Amal Biso goes to the dev il’s house to get fire to rekindle the home fire that had burned out. That is when the devil gets her scent and then follows her home. The resemblance to the narratives of village women going to FTZs, and the stigmatizing narratives that accompany returning workers, is uncanny.
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Affines/ affinal 8, 20, 53, 60, 61, 160, 163, 174 Automation 169 Capital 2, 9, 21, 44, 79, 179; aspirational 183; cultural capital 3, 91, 130; social capital 3, 55, 82; symbolic 2, 11 Capitalism 3, 22, 93, 178, 189, 193–194; alternatives to capital 147 Common sense: David Harvey’s definition 23; emerging common sense 23, 29, 48, 82; village common sense 119; existing common sense 23, 153, 157; rearticulation of common sense 160, 182; new common sense 23–26, 183 “Company of One,” 19, 154–155; Jason Read on 154–155 Conformity, many ways of showing 61–63 Construction of ideal image of Sinhala Buddhist woman 30–37; marriage and chastity 31–32; education 32–33; producing docile bodies and class sexualities 33–34; elites in constructing the New Woman 34–36; Anagarika Dharmapala 34–35; Piyadasa Sirisena 35–36; disseminating the ideal 36–37; changes to ideal image 41–47 (women becoming neoliberal subjects) Corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies 169–170 Counter discourses on successful former workers 90–92 Critical potential of entrepreneurial success 180–182 Dabindu 4–5, 38, 164, 167–168 Dancing girl model, 169
Daughters-in-law (lalie) 26–29, 49–50, 55–56, 68–69, 82–83, 88–89, 92, 101, 141, 157, 159, 161, 174, 177–178; lazy lalies 26, 68–92, 82–83; diligent/talented/skillful lalies 51, 57, 66, 68–92 Daughter-in-law and mother-in-law as entrepreneurial partners 76–79 Disciplining bodies, speech, mannerisms/ performing conformity 49–67 Dissemination of reproductive health knowledge 115–118 Divine Flower Publishers and Sandarajini and Bhavana magazines 96–98 Domestic arrangements 1, 2, 56, 162 Education on good romance and good marriage 96–98 Empowerment 9, 44, 50, 60, 66–73, 76, 165; Naila Kabeer on empowerment 66–67, 76, 90 Enterprise Lanka 172 Entrepreneurs/ entrepreneurship 2, 9, 19–21, 43, 45, 48, 61–68, 82, 89, 152–153, 156, 163–165, 174, 172, 180, 182–184, 193 Environmental concerns 151–152 Failure, entrepreneurial: noneconomic concerns as cause 160–163 Father-in-law 56, 62, 77, 151, 153, 162, 179 Fear of the FTZ past haunting them 63–65 Feminist: 3, 14, 75, 119, 139, 141, 144, 178–180, 189, 192, 195 Feminist political economists 3, 178 Finding meaning via manipulating capital 173–177
Former FTZ workers: disseminating neoliberal ethos in villages 73–76; managing reputations while engaging in economic, social, political activities in the villages 73–92; stretching the boundaries of normative femininity 119–145; transnational marriage brokering, Kushani 119–125; single woman farmer, Madhuri 125–139; seeking a feminist partner, Chamila 139–144 Foucault, Michel: on neoliberalism 22, 184 Free trade zone (FTZ): and changing selves 3–9 FTZ dowry (and dowry) 8, 9, 11, 29, 32, 39, 48, 51, 53, 82, 85, 104, 127, 155, 160 FTZ workers’ struggles for ideal womanhood 37–41 Garments without Guilt 163–164, 168 Gershon, Ilana, on “Company of One” 19 Gibson-Graham, J. K.: on feminist political economy 3–20, 147, 178, 191; on reading against the dominance of capitalism 20–21, 147–148 Gig economy 8, 19, 21, 23, 43, 45, 172, 182, 196 Global production 2, 20, 23, 24, 46, 154, 163, 168, 169, 170, 172; global factories 2, 20, 41, 165, 174 Good modern girl vs. bad modern girl images 95–98 Governmentality 19–20, 150, 154–155, 184; Thomas Lemke on neoliberal social relation 150 Grama niladari 15, 40–41, 43, 127, 136, 159–161, 185 Grima, Benedicte: on Paxtun women’s narratives of suffering 65 Hall, Stuart: on identity like a bus, 27, 177–178 Harvey, David: on common sense 23; on neoliberalism 19–23, 182–184 How to become a neoliberal subject 172–173 Ideal image of Sinhala Buddhist woman 25 Identities 9, 10, 12, 14, 23, 26, 47, 50, 69, 120, 184
Illouz, Eva, on commodification of romantic love 93–94 Industrious and obedient daughters-in-law 49–67 Karim, Laria, on micro credit leading to new power hierarchies 21 Kinship relations 2,12, 20, 52, 94 Koombio (tele drama) 171–172 Labor contractors (casual hiring/day labor), 163–170 Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) 126–158, 185 Lynch, Caitrin: on Sri Lanka’s global factory workers 20, 39–40 Manipulating capital 50–67; importance of manipulating monetary capital (Nisha) 50–53; importance of family support (Mayuri) 53–56; importance of obedience, loyalty, hard work (Kumudu) 56–61; manipulating several sources of capital (Kalani) 61–63 Manpower workers 167–170 Marecek, Jeanne: on suicide in Sri Lanka 133–134 Microcredit/finance 8, 21, 43–44, 54–55, 72, 80–82, 87–88, 163, 186 Mills, Mary Beth, on gendered moral narratives of global production 20 Mother-in-law 29,49, 51–57, 59, 62, 65–66, 68, 76, 79, 84–85, 91, 103, 105, 113, 116, 146, 162 Multi-sited research: advantages and difficulties 14–17; varied biases 17–19 Neoliberalism: 3, 19–27, 72, 145–150, 182–184, 190–195; attitudes 2, 22–23, 41, 45, 169; ethos 19–20, 41–48, 67–69, 93, 151, 162, 173–174, 183, 192; subjects 19–21, 153, 174, 182–184; FTZ and the neoliberal subjectivities 41–47; ways of thinking 3, 47, 174, 184; whether hegemonic 182–184 Neoliberal subjectivities, exceptions and reconfigurations 19–21 Neoliberal village (how village elite see the new changes) 157–160 Networking women 69–73
Index NGO workshops on good relationships 98–99 Nonmigrant women 82–92; reasons for differences in entrepreneurial success (Manjula) 83–84; failures and responses (Rupika) 84–87 Ong, Aihwa: on neoliberalism as an exception 19–24 Path-breaking women 119–145 Per formances: of conformity reshaping the local understanding of good daughter-inlaw 49–67; of self-discipline 49, 174 Performing: expected behav ior 177; social conformity 20, 61, 78, 183, 184; disrespectability 192; good woman 20, 90; identities 47 Pleasure publishers and Priyadari magazine 94–95 and 96–98, 146–148, 151 Politics of contentment 1, 3, 22–26, 146–147, 153, 174, 178–179, 182, 185, 197 Postwar reconstruction strategy 165 Precarious 24, 46, 97, 149, 154; precarity 5, 168, 172 Problems with micro credit loans, 79–82 Producing neoliberal attitudes and subjectivities at the FTZ 56–64 Pure girls: Amal Biso 28–30, 183; returning Amal Bisos 47–48, 175–177 Ramamurti, Priti, on perplexity 24–25 Research methods and research sites 11–17 Researcher’s influence on former workers, 139–144
Restrictive marital sex in villages 99–101 Returning/returnee (workers) 48, 67, 159, 174, 176, 183, 188 Sex in the village/ subversive sexualities 93–118 Social conformity, 2, 138, 184; good woman behav ior 92; respectability 97 Stitching Identities 9–12, 17, 18, 27, 47, 120 Stress and anx ieties of global production 148–150 Subcontracting 1–8, 23–26, 43–47, 76, 92, 146–155, 182; subcontracting women going against profit motive 150–157 Subversive sexualities, 100–118 Subversive sexual communication: letters 101–107; story telling 107–112; songs 112–115 Suicide 21, 102–103, 125, 129, 133–138; in villages, 125–138 Superwomen and lazy daughters-in-law (lalies) 68–92 Tamil workers at global factories 165–167 Villages: adjusting to successful former workers 68–92; sexualities 108–118; subcontracting and workers’ rights 153–157 Vocabulary of sacrificial mothers 65–67 Zajac, Paul, on politics of contentment 22
I would like to express my deep gratitude to the thirty-seven former workers for supporting me through this long-term research project. Without their hospitality, conversations, correspondence, and connections, the research experience would not have been fulfilling and this book would not be a reality. I would also like to thank their families and communities for being open to my presence and responsive to my questions. During the research I talked to numerous other former workers and nonmigrant women and they enriched this ethnography as well. Jayanthi and Chamila of SAFE and Dabindu, respectively, have been with me from day one and still provide all the support they can muster without expecting anything in return. I thank James Brow, Kamala Visweswaran, Pauline Turner Strong, Kamran Ali, Kirin Narayan, Gananath Obeyesekere, and Siri Hettige for intellectual inspiration through the years. Michele Gamburd’s insightful feedback on an earlier version made this book infinitely better. Thanks to Alma Gottlieb for feedback on the final manuscript. Jenny Huberman, Bambi Chapin, Caitrin Lynch, Jody Miller, and Catherine Harnois have always been there when I needed extra sets of eyes on my writings. Catherine is my walking and cooking buddy in Winston-Salem, and our time together always leave me intellectually invigorated. To them and to our dear neighbors at Wickersham Lane, Rais and Kulsum, I extend a big thank you. My friends and colleagues at the University of Essex—Carlos, Linsey, Robin, Anna, Isabel, Neli, Darren, and Maitrayee—provide laughter, support, and community, making for an extraordinarily fun and interesting academic working environment. Thank you “my dears” for being who you are! Mentors Joan Busfield and Colin Samson and the incomparable Jane Harper of the Sociology office also make work life easier.
The Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Social Science Research Council (United States), the American Institute of Sri Lankan Studies, and the British Academy funded different parts of this research. I am deeply grateful to these organizations for research grants. A writing fellowship at the National Humanities Center (United States) helped me get the first few chapters drafted in a wonderful year-long writing retreat. Some case studies and data appeared in Identities (2017), Third World Quarterly (2018), and Third World Quarterly (2019). I am grateful for Amma, Punchi amma, Manel akka, all my siblings, inlaws, and nieces and nephews (especially Minadi) for enveloping me with love and for being there for me. Special thanks to Galkisse akka, Nimal Aiya, the Kotte family, and Abeysekere bappa for support when I most needed. My cousins Anuradha and Prabath malli have always stepped up to the plate when I needed help. Most of all, I am grateful for Neil and Sadie for lighting up my life.