The paradox of Sri Lanka’s elite political women

Harshana Rambukwella is Director, Postgraduate Institute of English, Open University of Sri Lanka. He received his PhD from the University of Hong Kong, where he is Honorary Assistant Professor at the School of English. He is an alumnus of the School of Criticism and Theory, Cornell University and has been an IASH Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. Harshana’s research interests are in postcolonial literatures, and the intersections between literary history and nationalist discourse in Sri Lanka. Harshana’s work has appeared in journals such as the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Journal of Asian Studies and boundary 2.

Dr Kanchana N. Ruwanpura is a Reader in Development Geography at the Institute of Geography, University of Edinburgh and Co-Director at the Centre for South Asian Studies.  She has her PhD from Newnham College, University of Cambridge and was previously a Humboldt Fellow at the University of Munich. The ESRC, British Academy, UNICEF have funded Kanchana’s research, and currently, she is working on a grant funded by the ERC.  She has published widely on themes around feminist politics, ethnicity, labour and development.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike
Courtesy: Dr Harshana Rambukwella

In the UK, Sri Lanka is usually synonymous with cricket – particularly a brash and colourful South Asian version of the game. For those from an older generation, Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was known then, was an exotic tropical isle, which produced high quality tea. However, rarely talked about nowadays, the world’s first woman Prime Minister, Mrs. Sirimivo Bandaranaike, was elected in Sri Lanka in 1960s. Her election occurred during the heyday of the non-aligned movement (NAM), a geo-political bloc of ‘neutral’ nations from the global South, where she was also a key foundational player.

Sirimavo Dias Ratwatte Bandaranaike was a formidable woman. The scion of a powerful aristocratic family and the widow of one of Sri Lanka’s most controversial and charismatic post-colonial leaders, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, Mrs B or Sirimavo, as she was popularly known, was a housewife who transformed into a career politician following her husband’s assassination in 1959. She held the premiership of the country on three separate occasions from 1960-65, 1970-77 and 1994-2000, in addition to being the leader of one Sri Lanka’s main political parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). No mean feat for a woman who was dubbed the ‘weeping widow’ by the press when she first ran for office.

Dynastic political succession in South Asia is nothing unusual. Yet how did a woman, whom her cousin Paul Deraniyagala (quoted in a memoir of the Bandaranaike family by Yasmine Gooneratne) described as having “presided over nothing fiercer than the kitchen fire” come to win the confidence of her almost exclusively male political peers? Moreover, how did she gain the confidence of the electorate on three separate occasions in a society, where, despite women’s high educational attainment, men tend to call the shots?

In The Nation and its Fragments, Partha Chatterjee outlines the creation of a ‘new woman’ under anti-colonial nationalism. In this period, the private/domestic sphere of life is cast as the repository of ‘authentic’ national identity, which is also seen as culturally, morally and spiritually superior, to the West. Within this private-public split the woman is conceived as the bearer of nationalist authenticity. This is not, however, the traditional stay-at-home woman – instead, a new bourgeois woman educated and ‘cultured’ but with an inner core of tradition having the freedom to move in the public sphere of life. This may offer a partial explanation for why the men of the SLFP were comfortable with Mrs B. A quote from Mrs. B published in the biography by Maureen Seneviratne explains the point:

The women of Sri Lanka have never been chattels, never been in enforced servitude to the male sex. Whatever ‘servitude’ we render, is voluntarily undertaken, because there is a deep rooted respect for the dual and different roles of father and mother in our society. According to Buddhist tradition, the family is a sacred unit and due all honour, and neither man nor woman are considered superior on to the other.

By the 1960s when Mrs. B first entered politics, Ceylon was a model of transition from colonial to democratic rule. Health and education indicators for both men and women were high, Ceylon had enjoyed universal adult franchise since 1931 – many years before its neighbours and many countries worldwide – and there was active voter participation at regular democratically held elections.

Though on the surface things looked well, a closer look reveals a different story. At the time Mrs. B came to power, ethnic tensions, stoked by her seemingly liberal and cosmopolitan husband, had set Sri Lanka on a tragic historical trajectory leading to a 30-year civil war. Women’s position in society was equally tenuous. As feminist scholar Kumari Jayawardena notes in Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, while Sri Lanka never registered the abhorrent practices of sati or child marriage of its near neighbours in South Asia and had impressive gender social indicators, it did not imply that the shackles of patriarchy were absent in Sri Lanka. It simply manifested in subtle and less insidious ways.

Source: 50 Years in Cartoons. 1998. The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. Courtesy: Lakehouse Newspapers Limited
Source: 50 Years in Cartoons. 1998. The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.
Courtesy: Lakehouse Newspapers Limited

Sexist attacks and the caricaturing of the world’s first female prime minister were quite common. Ranasinghe Premadasa, a member of the opposition UNP at the time, said that the PM’s seat in parliament would have to be purified once a month – stigmatizing menstruation. Her portrayal and lampooning in the media reflected how the world’s first prime minster was considered a danger to the establishment, as this cartoon – one of many in the media – suggests. [1]

Yet, despite daringly and boldly taking on the mantle as head of state, she was hardly the agent of change that feminists would have wanted the world’s first women prime minister to be. This would matter for decades to come in Sri Lanka itself and continues to reverberate. This remarkable record and the possibilities it may have opened up but never did are reflected in Sri Lanka’s contemporary politics. It meant that while a few women politicians would enter parliament, none would go onto lead the country again until nearly three decades later (1994). Yet this too by no quirk was Mrs. B’s daughter.



Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge
Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge.
Courtesy: Colombo

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, often referred to as CBK, while on the one hand an upshot of dynastic political families in South Asia, was on the other hand, a politician of her own making. Her husband, like her father, was assassinated in 1988. Unlike her mother though, Chandrika was not necessarily seen as a ‘weeping widow’. When she swept into power as Executive President in 1994, at the relatively young age of 49, she had taken control of an emasculated SLFP and led it to a historic victory campaigning on a platform of human rights and restoration of democratic values. She also resisted muscular majoritarian Sinhala nationalism, which her mother was complicit in nurturing, and at least in her first term, tried to make peace with the estranged Tamil minority.

While both these women were symbolically powerful avatars for the women’s movement in Sri Lanka and feminist politics in general, the danger they posed to the establishment was always curtailed by their own lack of feminist consciousness. Consequently, despite being a forerunner to produce potentially dangerous women, when it comes to women’s representation in Sri Lanka’s parliamentary system, it lags behind our South Asian neighbours. At a woeful 5% of women parliamentarians, it is bottom of the pile in South Asia compared to 34% in Nepal, and is surpassed, sometimes by miles, by Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India.


Rosy Senanayake
Rosy Senanayake
Courtesy: Colombo

Shirin Rai argues that women’s representation in parliament is key for a representative democracy, and where India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have adopted a quota system, its women constituents have benefitted despite the challenges that women politicians face. Yet, to its shame, Sri Lankan politicians and political class skirt around and evade the dire need for this. The upshot is that in the contemporary juncture, Sri Lankan parliamentarians continue to think it acceptable to make sexist and sexual remarks about the limited number of woman peers in parliament. When Mrs. Rosy Senanayake, an MP, faced sexual harassment in parliament, she appropriately tore apart her harasser, given her streak of strong feminist consciousness. It was moreover an incident that garnered worldwide attention including in The Guardian.

In contrast to the two women leaders that Sri Lanka has produced, Rosy Senanyake, was in the forefront of agitating for numerous women’s causes, including for a quota system and for greater women’s representation in parliament. In many ways Rosy was the dangerous woman who was sorely needed to challenge the patriarchal status quo in the Sri Lankan parliament, and she was someone whom Sri Lanka’s women’s movement and Sri Lankan feminists respected.

Unfortunately, and perhaps because she had the potential to be a dangerous woman and disrupt the patriarchal political system, she was ousted from parliament at the elections in late 2015. The birthplace of the world first symbolic dangerous woman is then yet to produce a dangerous woman of the kind that Nicola Sturgeon calls for: “When we are ‘dangerous’ we can change the world and our place in it.”


[1] The cartoon shows Mrs B and her daughter, Chandrika who became Sri Lanka’s fourth Executive President at the helm and the man in the backseat is Anura, the prodigal son. It parodies men who ‘hang on to women’s skirts’ (in this instance the ‘sareepota’ or fall of the saree) to gain power. At the same time it questions women’s ability to lead – the car is on a narrow, precipitous road leading to an inevitable fall.