Do you think it strange to treat a majority like a minority group?

In Sri Lanka, we often discuss majorities and minorities – and the recently concluded race for

president drove the topic to a feverish peak. There is no Sri Lankan who isn’t painfully aware of

which of the two sides they belong to. The majority, because it attaches itself to shame. And

because of the fear it causes to be a minority. But this isn’t a piece about politics. This is about

women. And mothers.

Women are the majority gender in Sri Lanka and continue to be treated like second-class

citizens, at home or anywhere else in the country. The idea that the woman must be last to eat

at the table of food she prepared has embedded itself by tugging at our conscience – we are

told that we are bad mothers and wives if we eat before feeding the people we are responsible

for nourishing.

Systemically women are expected to carry their fathers’ and husbands’ surnames. Only women

are offered leave at the birth of a child because we have already assumed childcare to be a

woman’s job. A couple of years ago we revisited a woman’s right to purchase alcohol. In this

way, the state and the system feed into the idea that we are not equal on an official level too. I

can point out several other peculiar examples, but that would require a book-full of writing. And

I think you get the gist.

When a woman becomes a mother, things get more complicated. Sri Lankans seems to have

little racial or ethnic divide when it comes to how we view the role of the mother. Everyone

seems to have the same, strange ideas surrounding the image of motherhood and we put

special focus on women who follow these ideas. This means mothers who don’t fit into these

stereotypes are often vilified. We view women who live alone or unmarried mothers through

narrow viewpoints, assuming them to be ‘loose’ because we have already assumed that the

only way a woman can leave her parents’ home is to step into her husband’s. In the same way,

we believe that only married women should be mothers. While we don’t go about with such

judgmental views in our day to day lives, this kind of thinking isn’t unfamiliar to us as Sri

Lankans and even those of us living in Colombo who would like to believe that we are above

such things.

The last national census in 2012 didn’t even take the North and East into consideration and still

recorded a staggering 23% of single parent households in the country. I’d wager that a

comprehensive picture of the entire nation will increase that percentage significantly. And yet,

no system has been put in place to support single parent families at the state level in the same

way that it is done elsewhere in the world. Birth certificates of children whose parents are

unmarried make it a point to say so, hindering the child’s possibility of getting into ‘respectable’

schools, punishing both the mother for not being in line with society’s expectations of

motherhood and the child of an education.

Like I said, we don’t go about the everyday with such judgmental viewpoints, but we also

don’t think about it enough to contribute to changing these overarching national stereotypes

we place on women and mothers.

We have stepped into a new era of leadership in our country and irrespective of who holds the

seat of power, the actual power lies with us. So, while we have the right to demand better jobs,

a better economy and development in the country, we must also make it our job to ensure that

women are seen with far more dignity that they have been for so long now.


A Column by Natalie Soysa