Back to Main Page History Briefing Statements Bulletins Reports Special Reports Publications Links


Memorial speech delivered by Rohini Hensman

12th October 1990

I should begin by explaining that I never actually met Rajani. I missed her when she visited Britain last year, and at that time thought there would surely be other opportunities to meet her, either in Sri Lanka, India or Britain. So it was a great shock to hear shortly afterwards that she had been killed. I felt both grief and anger that someone who had so much potential to contribute to Tamil thought and culture, Sri Lankan thought and culture, and world thought and culture, should have been cut off prematurely by such a brutal and senseless act. I still feel today that it is an enormous loss to all of us, I still feel angry about the cowardly way in which she was murdered. While we mourn her death, we cannot fail to condemn those who inflicted it.

However, Rajani is not completely lost to us. Those of us who were lucky enough to know her personally have memories of her; all of us have her writings and what we know of her life. We have the power, if we wish, to keep her spirit alive in our own activity; and I think it is crucially important that we do so, not only for Rajani’s sake but also for the sake of the movement to which she dedicated her life.

I want to talk about one aspect of her work which I feel is especially important, and that is her work in the women’s liberation movement. As someone who has been active in the feminist movement in India, I know the kind of misconceptions that many people have about the movement, which Rajani too must have had to contend with. For example, that it is a movement which is important only for women. It is not: it is equally important for children and men, and I would like to explain why I feel, from my own experience, that no movement for self-determination or social liberation can be successful unless it incorporates the kind of feminism which Rajani stood for.

Some time ago, I read somewhere a man asking whether the emancipation of women would lead to more women participating in the armed struggle. This is a very common view, but it is completely wrong. Feminism aims for relationships of equality and mutual respect between women and men, but this does not mean that we want women to be the same as what men are today. For example, in most societies of the world, virtually all the caring work – for sick or disabled people, elderly people, and especially for children – is done by women. This is often thought to be a ‘natural’ division of labour, but there is nothing innate about it. You don’t need to have your own child in order to care for a child; in fact, in our South Asian societies, you often see little girls looking after smaller children. Caring, like any other occupation, involves the learning of skills and acquiring of conditioned reflexes which change you as a person. If you’ve ever cared for a small child or a very sick person, you will know how precious the life of the person you are caring for becomes to you, how sensitive you become to the other person’s pain, almost to the point of feeling it in your own body. And these are not responses which can easily be switched on and off; as I said, they are more like conditioned reflexes which are incorporated into your nervous system and become part of you. This is a biological feature, but a neurophysiological one acquired in your lifetime rather than a genetic one you are born with. In other words, a carer is a certain type of person, with certain responses that have become ingrained. I cannot conceive of the possibility that anyone who has been a long-term carer could become a torturer or killer – or, for that matter, a rapist, since rape too involves the deliberate infliction of injury on another person – unless that person undergoes a violent process whereby his or her whole personality is changed. And I think this explains why so few women are torturers or killers. It is not a genetic difference which prevents them, as we know from the few cases where women have actually entered these male professions. Nor is there anything genetic preventing men from being carers, as we know from the few cases where they have taken to it like ducks to water.It is the social training and acquired instincts of women that prevent them from torturing and killing. As feminists, we want an equal sharing of caring work between men and women; and I am sure that if this occurs, the recruiting-ground for torturers and killers will shrink rapidly. So equality between women and men will mean that in this respect men will become more like women, not the other way around.

So now we have a society in which the female half has this invaluable resource, the capacity for sustaining life and relieving pain. You would expect that this outlook would express itself in society to the same extent as the opposite tendency. But this is not the case: militarism and violence always seem to win out. Why is this? Because the same division of labour which makes women carers, also confines them largely to the domestic sphere and keeps them out of public life. So they have the resource, but they can’t use it except in a very narrow sphere. One reason is simply lack of time. Even if they go out to work, the burden of domestic responsibilities is so heavy that they have no time to participate in public life and put forward their own point of view. Secondly, there are all kinds of social sanctions against women who don’t accept confinement to the sphere to which they have been allotted by society: gossip, slander, ostracism and so forth. In extreme cases, sexual violence is used to ‘keep them in their place’. In India, we have come across many instances where rape is used as a political weapon against women activists. And fear of sexual violence may sometimes be an effective deterrent where other sanctions fail. Finally, there are the ingrained habits of women themselves. Along with the skills of caring, we acquire the habits of deference, passivity and silence, and thus we never get a chance to acquire skills of expression and organisation in a wider context. So we find ourselves at a loss in public life, unable to achieve very much even on the rare occasions when the opportunity arises. In this respect, women really do need to become more like men, to learn how to project the outlook acquired in their caring work outward, into the whole of society. Rajani showed us in practice that this is possible, even in a highly conservative, male-dominated society, and set an example for all women to follow.

I’m sure that all of us here have at one time or another heard a parent say threateningly to a child, ‘You do such-and-such because I say so,’ and seen disobedience punished with a slap or something worse, or have been in a household where whatever the male head says is law. But what do you think must be the effect on children if they grow up in such a context? They become used to authoritarianism from the very beginning: to a set-up where the power of male over female, adult over child, stronger over weaker, is taken for granted, where arbitrary demands are backed up by violence. They see a hierarchy where you have to obey those who are above you but can demand obedience from those who are below, and they come to accept this as natural because they have never experienced anything else. So it is hardly surprising that when they grow up, they find no difficulty in accepting an authoritarian, hierarchical society where the head of state occupies a position analogous to the head of the family. And even if they object to the particular government in power and want to change it, their alternative will tend to have the same authoritarian, hierarchical structure, because from their earliest childhood they have come to see the world as being organised on this model. I think this is the tragedy of Sri Lanka today. But the hierarchical, authoritarian family which breeds these hierarchical, authoritarian individuals and attitudes is precisely one of the main targets of the feminist movement, which also challenges social and political authoritarianism. Rajani was killed because not enough people joined her in challenging the numerous authoritarian forces active in Sri Lanka. We may not be able to match her courage, but we can follow her example by collectively challenging authoritarianism in the family and in the country.

Finally, we have found in India that revivalist, communal movements are always extremely authoritarian and patriarchal; there seems to be a link between intolerance and hatred of those with ethnic or religious differences, and an authoritarian outlook which is oppressive to women. So the women’s movement has also had to combat revivalist movements which are responsible for communal tension and violence.

What I’m trying to say is this: the feminism that I’m talking about and which Rajani represented has to be an essential part of any movement for social justice or peace. It is not an optional extra or something which comes ‘afterwards’ – after self-determination, or liberation, or anything else. The struggle for women’s liberation has to be an integral part of the overall movement, and if it is not, then there is something wrong with that movement. This is why, in addition to commemorating Rajani and celebrating her life, we must also continue her work. We cannot let it stop.


Home | History | Briefings | Statements | Bulletins | Reports | Special Reports | Publications | Links
Copyright © UTHR 2001