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Postnational Location as Political Practice

Taking postnational location to be a form of political practice, this essay is a response to the emancipatory promise of a postcolonial nationalism turned grotesque and a postcolonial feminism gone awry. It outlines the complexities and tensions that transformed early feminist interventions against militarism and ethnic chauvinism in Sri Lanka, turning them into fragmented projects and programmes on "women's empowerment", "gender sensitisation" and the like.


Postnational Location as Political Practice

Malathi de Alwis

Taking postnational location to be a form of political practice, this essay is a response to the emancipatory promise of a postcolonial nationalism turned grotesque and a postcolonial feminism gone awry. It outlines the complexities and tensions that transformed early feminist interventions against militarism and ethnic chauvinism in Sri Lanka, turning them into fragmented projects and programmes on “women’s empowerment”, “gender sensitisation” and the like.

This is an extension of Mary John’s argument regarding the constitutive role of location, “the site of one’s questions and interventions, the place of accountability” (John 1996: 110).

Malathi De Alwis ( is at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo.

Economic & Political Weekly

march 7, 2009

postnational location is a political practice. It is a response to the emancipatory promise of postcolonial nationalism turned grotesque and post-colonial feminism gone awry. This brief article tries to trace the contours of this political practice through an interrogation of the very terms I mobilise and through a critique of practices in which I have been complicit.

In their path-breaking volume, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, Laclau and Mouffe (1985) have noted that the contemporary agitations of women, along with racial and sexual minorities and other marginal groups, led to a “politicisation of the social” which was more radical than any known in the past for it dissolved the distinction between the private and public – “not in terms of the encroachment on the private by a unified public space, but in terms of a proliferation of radically new and different political spaces” (1985: 181).

This radical refiguring of the “political” (and also the “social”), was further extrapolated in Judith Butler’s suggestion, almost a decade later, that the grounds of politics such as “universality”, “equality”, and “the subject of rights”, have been constructed through “unmarked racial and gender exclusions and by a conflation of politics with public life that renders the private (reproduction, domains of ‘femininity’) prepolitical” (1992: fn1).

While such an argument regarding the “constitutive outside” of politics is not a new one, pace Derrida, Butler seeks to make a critical distinction between the constitution of a political field that “produces and naturalises that constitutive outside and a political field that produces and renders contingent the specific parameters of that political field” (ibid, emphasis author’s). The latter formulation thus enables the conceptualisation of political struggles which put the “parameters of the political itself into question”, an important

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concern for feminists given the gendering of the “political” (ibid).

Sinhala Feminist Movement

In my earlier work on the (southern) Mother’s Front, a grass roots Sinhala women’s organisation protesting the dis

appearance of their male kin, in the late 1980s, I argued that this movement, in spite of its limited agenda, ethnic homogeneity and non-feminist stand point, had continuously put the political into question (de Alwis 2004). These women’s insistence that they were “merely” mothers seeking their children’s return to the family fold and were thus not political posed a conundrum for the Sri Lankan state and forced a re-fashioning of the state’s own counter-rhetoric and practices. Such contingent articulations of maternalised agonism – epitomised in an editorial: “When mothers emerge as a political force it means that our political institutions and society as a whole have reached a critical moment” – were particularly effective, however, because it were Sinhala mothers and Sinhala families who were the “victims” of state atrocities (de Alwis 2000).1

Feminist peace activists have had to contend with this kind of insular, ethnonationalist valourising of Sinhala maternalism on the one hand, and the vilification of any critique of militarism and ethnic chauvinism, and the advocacy of a political solution to the ethnic conflict as being pro-Tiger2 and thus unpatriotic, on the other. Indeed, a significant split within the feminist movement occurred between those who condemned the anti-Tamil riots of 1983 and those who condoned it. Women for Peace, an autonomous, Colombo-based, primarily middle class, multiethnic, multilingual and multireligious group, founded in 1984, thus found itself frequently being labelled “Women for Pieces” – i e, those who seek to divide the country by advocating the devolution of state power.

Despite having to constantly negotiate the minefield of anti-patriotic accusations, Women for Peace’s primary strength lay in its heterogeneity and the willingness of members to accommodate dissent and ideological differences. Every plan of action was a negotiation. The organisation’s loss of direction and eventual disintegration, in the 1990s, I see as symptomatic of


the gradual shift in feminist political practices more generally in Sri Lanka, and I will try to lay some of those out below.

Changing Phase

Many early feminist interventions against militarism and ethnic chauvinism3 which were launched as long term, oppositional campaigns have gradually become dispersed, diluted and fragmented into projects and programmes. Now they have focused on “women’s empowerment”, “gender sensitisation”, “mainstreaming gender”, “violence against women”, “good governance”, and “conflict resolution”, documenting human rights abuses, campaigns to change legislation on domestic violence and increase women’s political participation, and most recently, tsunami relief and rehabilitation. Today, there exists no autonomous feminist peace movement in the country, and the voices of feminist peace activists are rarely heard nationally. This does not mean that feminists are not involved in anti-war activism but rather, that it is no longer the primary and sole focus of feminist organisations. And this, in a country that has been at war for over 25 years!

One of the central reasons for this lack of visibility and voice, I would argue, is the complexity of the political and social situation within which feminists in Sri Lanka live and work; they are simultaneously stretched in so many different directions resulting in a general exhaustion within the movement. It is the same pool of feminists who march on the streets calling for peace talks, protest rapes at checkpoints, the conscription of child soldiers and the proliferation of nuclear weapons in south Asia, agitate for better legislation against domestic violence and the removal of punitive legislation against gays and lesbians, campaign for women’s political representation in Parliament, and most recently, highlight the harassment of women tsunami survivors in refugee camps and lobby for more equitable gender representation in state-supported tsunami relief and rehabilitation networks and mechanisms. This has led to decrease of energies and the dissipation and non-sustenance, over the long term, of many protest campaigns.

Another reason, I suggest, is the institutionalisation and professionalisation of feminism. With the flooding of international humanitarian and development aid to Sri Lanka, one can now find employment as a full-time feminist. Obviously, this has lent a certain stability to feminists’ lives, made their work more efficient and enabled them to concentrate fully on their activist work. One could also argue that the institutionalisation of feminism supported by a continuous source of funding has enabled the sustainability of feminist organisations.

However, my worry is that it can also produce new “comfort zones” and sometimes the need to sustain such institutions becomes the primary concern of feminist activists at the cost of the activism that they may have originally sustained. This was sadly the case with Women for Peace, which, in its last few years, struggled to maintain its small office and staff, with the international funds it received, to the detriment of its anti-militarist campaigns. In such a context then, the very appellation of “activism” – actions that are produced within particular ideological framings, oppositional practices that place one “at risk” – to such practices, becomes moot. Nivedita Menon, who remarks on a similar trend in India in the 1990s where very few of the autonomous women’s groups of the 1980s remain non-funded, puts it even more starkly: “feminism need not be a political practice any longer, it can be a profession” (Menon 2004: 219-20).

Nine-to-Five Feminists

The most obvious fallout of the professionalisation of feminism is the now too well known ilk of temporary, careerist, “nineto-five feminists”.4 But, as Menon warns us, the implications of professionalisation are far deeper than the production and promotion of activists who have no clear feminist perspective:

The compulsions of taking up and ‘successfully’ completing specific projects has meant that there is hardly any fresh thinking on what constitutes ‘feminism’…It is as if we know what ‘feminism’ is, and only need to apply it unproblematically to specific instances” (ibid: 220).

Such a “codification” of “feminism” has also circumscribed our ability to conceptualise and participate in political struggles which seek to question the very parameters of the political. This is particularly clear when one reflects on the strategies of

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protest that feminist peace activists have mobilised in Sri Lanka, this past decade. I have sought to characterise this as a shift from strategies of “refusal” to strategies of “request”.5 Strategies of refusal would include forms of non-cooperation which encompass the more risk-prone, vulnerable terrains of strikes, fasts, go-slows and other forms of civil disobedience, while strategies of request would include making demands through legal reforms, lobbying, signature campaigns, charters, or email petitions and other forms of “virtual resistance” to use a term coined by Arundhati Roy (quoted in Chaudhuri 2007).6 Such a formulation is underwritten by the distinction Etienne Balibar (1994) draws between insurrectionary politics and constitutional politics. In other words, an insurrectionary or oppositional political project/practice would be distinct from a democratic project/practice which is reformist, regulatory or philanthropic, i e, indistinguishable from projects of governance.

This, of course, is not to deny the fact that there have been many instances in the political history of Sri Lanka, where people who made requests to the state or militant groups for the restitution of their rights have been arrested, disappeared or killed. What I wish to reiterate rather is that there is a crucial political7 distinction to be made here between making requests of or demands from the state/militants which acquiesces to a pre-existing framing of the political and the defending of pre-constituted identities, to refusing to acknowledge the pre-given framings of the state or the militants; where, in fact, the very parameters of the political are put into question and thus made contingent, where identities are constituted processually (Butler 1992: fn 1, Mouffe 1999).

By increasingly mobilising strategies of request, feminist peace activists in Sri Lanka have primarily shifted to appealing to and making requests/demands of the state. Not that I wish to posit that there is only one way to agitate for one’s rights8 or that one should not grab any space or platform that one can find, but what I am vehemently against is the presentation of one set of practices as the norm or best solution to the problem so that radical, socialist as well as liberal feminists start mobilising the same strategies. This coalescing of

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strategies – signature campaigns, petitions, charters, etc – I suggest, is strongly influenced by a common funding source that supports most of these feminist organisations, be they radical, socialist or liberal, international donors such as Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and Hivos the Dutch agency who are seen as being especially “gender sensitive” funders and thus their liberal agendas being less open to questioning.9

It is also worth considering how influential the processes adopted by the UN have been to circumscribing feminist practices this way. Since 1975, meetings in Mexico, Nairobi, Beijing and post-Beijing, a great deal of local feminists’ energies have gone into disseminating information about these meetings nationally and petitioning governments and holding them accountable to international charters, plans of action, etc, that are promulgated at these meetings. Here, I want to distinguish between the political efficacy of internationalising issues, for which the UN is undoubtedly a crucial and powerful platform, from what happens after that within the UN framework – the bureaucratisation of initiatives and the frequent disjunctures that arise between international and national agendas.10

Not surprisingly, this kind of critique, albeit a self-critique, of feminist peace activism is rarely appreciated as it is often perceived as a form of disloyalty and breaking of ranks especially in today’s context, both nationally and globally, of knee-jerk non-governmental organisation bashing – the discrediting of such organisations merely on the grounds of their being foreign-funded and thus presumed to be anti-national and pushing “western” agendas. However, my concern is that feminists are losing their critical and/or radical edge, in this shift to professio nalisation, to political initiatives that are driven by compulsions of funding.

One could also argue that my definition of the political, which is primarily formulated in oppositional terms, as taking risks, as seeking to put into question the very parameters of the political, is too narrow or too radical or too utopian. But is it so? Constantly questioning what is political about our practices, consistently seeking to push those boundaries, seems

Economic & Political Weekly

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particularly imperative in an era where the “field of emancipatory possibility”, to use David Kennedy’s apt phrase, is dominated by human rights discourses: “alternatives can now only be thought, perhaps unhelpfully, as negations of what human rights asserts – passion to its reason, local to its global, etc” (quoted in Menon 2004: 224).11

Menon seeks to push further Kennedy’s critique of such universal discourses by arguing that human rights discourses may have reached their limits, at this historical juncture, like many legal campaigns initiated by feminists in India, which she explores in her recent volume (ibid: 225). Menon’s central argument here is that while pursuing the strategy of law reform may offer some temporary and short-term redress – dealing with discriminatory legislation for example – we cannot think of the law as a “subversive site”.12 The questioning of the political here, in Menon’s conceptualisation, thus involves a moving away from legal and state-centred conceptions of political practice. Rather, she urges us to think of “new forms of political engagement that are located in realms we have not seriously engaged with” (ibid: 239).

The notion of political that Menon mobilises here is indebted to the now well known post-colonial distinction that Partha Chatterjee (1997) draws between “civil society” and “political society” which I will not rehearse here. Suffice it to say, that when Menon speaks of the political, it is in reference to potentialities “to subvert, to destabilise, not just dominant values and structures, but ourselves” (ibid); it is a “realm of struggles” to produce an alternative to the “common sense of civil society” (ibid: 217). Indeed, according to Menon, it is because we are primarily caught up with the “common sense of civil society” (which is steeped in constitutionalism and marked by modernity), that we are unable to conceptualise or recognise emancipatory alternatives within political society whose democratic aspirations often violate institutional norms of liberal civil society (ibid: 217).

Such initiatives, Menon further notes, may not necessarily conform to our understanding of what is “progressive” or “emancipatory” – they could be struggles of squatters on government land seeking

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to claim residence rights or the decision of a village panchayat to kill a woman accused of adultery (ibid: 218). However, what is important here, posits Menon, is that

any project of radical democratic transformation would have to engage and collide with the ideas, beliefs and practices in this sphere…Feminist politics then, will have to surrender its reliance on the certainties offered by civil society, and acknowledge the uncertainties and unpredictability of attempts to wage a struggle in political society (ibid: 218-19, emphasis author’s).

This is a very provocative and radical rendering of the political and opens up an entirely new terrain for discussion. However, I am concerned that this challenge posed for us by both Chatterjee and Menon is nevertheless dependent upon a sociological category – an entity called “political society”. Should we not be seeking the constitution of political subjectivities through political practices, not social groups? Does not such a formulation fall back on a priori notions of social identity and rule out contingent articulations? Would it not be more radical to strive towards a constant destabilising and contesting of the political for which Butler seeks to argue, as delineated at the beginning of this paper? Is this not where the emancipatory potential of any society lies?


1 Similar kinds of protest – against the disappearance and arbitrary arrest of young Tamil men – which were organised by the Mother’s Fronts in the north and east of the island, in the 1980s, did not engender extensive media coverage and sympathy, as did the Southern Mothers’ Fronts protests.

2 The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who are fighting for a separate state in the north and east of the island are commonly referred as Tigers.

3 For an analysis of some of these early interventions, see Jayawardena 1995 and Jayawardena and de Alwis 2002.

4 This very apt term was used to describe professional feminists by a “women’s movement veteran” in a personal communication to Nivedita Menon (Menon 2004: 242, fn31).

5 I am grateful to Pradeep Jeganathan for providing me with this useful shorthand.

6 The two extremes of these two axes of course are participating in armed struggle and joining the government bureaucracy, of which feminists in Sri Lanka have done both.

7 I am primarily referring here to its dimension of antagonism which is indebted to the work of Carl Schmitt and those who continue to further complicate his arguments.

8 A rights-based approach, of course, has its own limits which I will briefly address but for a complicated and nuanced critique of such an approach, see Brown 1995.

9 The limited, social reformist agenda is exemplified in the catch words that I listed above: “good governance”, “mainstreaming gender”, etc. Even


the term “civil society” thus takes on a particular References Archana Parasher (ed.), Engendering the Law:

valence in such a context. See below for a brief discussion of this in terms of the work of Chatterjee (1997) and Menon (2004). Arundhati Roy goes one further by noting that even mass demonstrations are now funded: “Meetings against SEZs [are] sponsored by the biggest promoters of SEZs Awards and grants for environmental activissm and community action [are] given by corporations responsible for devastating whole eco systems” (quoted Chaudhuri 2007).

10 For an innovative argument regarding the production of “subalterns” within the UN system, see Spivak 2003.

11 This is particularly ironic given the early 1990s battle “won” by liberal feminists to link women’s rights with human rights.

12 This itself is an exciting and provocative argument which unfortunately I cannot pursue here. Nandita Haksar, another Indian feminist foregrounds the contradictory relationship between law and feminist politics even more harshly when she posits that feminists’/human rights activists’ continual recourse to the law is “a substitute for the other harder option of building a movement for an alternative vision” (Haksar 1999: 76, also quoted in Menon 2004: 6).


Balibar, Etienne (1994): “The ‘Rights of Man’ and ‘Rights of the Citizen’: The Modern Dialectic of Equality and Freedom” in Masses, Classes, Ideas (New York and London: Routledge).

Brown, Wendy (1995): States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (New Jersey: Princeton University Press).

Butler, Judith (1992): “Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of ‘Postmodernism’” in Judith Butler and Joan Scott (ed.), Feminists Theorise the Political (New York and London: Routledge), pp 3-21.

Chatterjee, Partha (1997): “Beyond the Nation? Or Within?”, Economic & Political Weekly, 4-11 January.

Chaudhuri, Shoma (2007): “India is Colonising Itself: Interview with Arundhati Roy”, re-published in Daily Mirror, 4 April.

de Alwis, Malathi (2000) “The ‘Language of the Organs’: The Political Purchase of Tears in Sri Lanka” in Wendy Hesford and Wendy Kozol (ed.), Haunting Violations: Feminist Criticisms & the Crisis of the ‘Real’ (Champagne: University of Illinois Press).

– (2004): “Feminism” in David Nugent and Joan Vincent (ed.), A Companion to the Anthropology of Politics (Oxford: Blackwell).

Haksar, Nandita (1999): “Human Rights Layering: A Feminist Perspective” in Amita Dhanda and





Essays in Honour of Lotika Sarkar, (Lucknow: Eastern Book Company).

Jayawardena, Kumari (1995): “The Women’s Movement in Sri Lanka 1985-1995” in Facets of Change: Women in Sri Lanka, 1986-95 (Colombo: CENWOR), pp 245-77.

Jayawardena, Kumari and Malathi de Alwis (2002): “The Contingent Politics of the Women’s Movement in Sri Lanka After Independence” in Swarna Jayaweera (ed.), Women in Post-Independence Sri Lanka (Delhi: Sage), pp 245-80.

John, Mary E (1996): Discrepant Dislocations: Feminism, Theory and Postcolonial Histories (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Laclau, Ernesto and Mouffe, Chantal (1985): Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso).

Menon, Nivedita (2004): Recovering Subversion: Feminist Politics Beyond the Law (Delhi: Permanent Black/ Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press).

Mouffe, C (1999): “Antagonisms: Case Studies”, http:// (last accessed October 2008).

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (2003): “Righting Wrongs” in Nicholas Owen (ed.), Human Rights, Human Wrongs (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp 168-227.








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