Some SL women who inspire others | Sunday Observer

Some SL women who inspire others

8 March, 2020

Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day celebrated globally under the theme #Eachfor Equal .

The Sunday Observer spoke to some Sri Lankan women regarded as role models, about their views on equality and other issues concerning women. 

Goolbai Gunasekera

Q:You are an eminent and much respected educationist and author. What do you feel about education for women then and now?

A: Education for Sri Lankan children (both girls and boys) has been good even in the olden days when much of the teaching was done in temples. Today, there are equal opportunities for both girls and boys but we lag behind in certain areas. Technology for one thing and access to English which is a world language, is limited.

Q: Are you satisfied with the educational opportunities available to Sri Lankan women now?

A: Yes. The present government is focusing on technological studies among other things.

This is very essential and I am glad that this government has understood the value of this important field of study.

As President Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself holds a Master’s Degree from a prestigious College in India it is not surprising that under his leadership there is focus on technological studies.

Q: With your experience as a teacher and a Principal how do you rate Sri Lankan mothers’ upbringing of their children?

A: On the whole, Sri Lankan mothers have a balanced outlook about their children. The children are mostly well behaved but of course, there are exceptions. Asian children are more controllable in the classrooms than their Western counterparts we are told.

I think parenting in Sri Lanka is good although several foreign principals have said that often girls fare better in their studies than boys as Asian mothers tend to spoil their sons.

Goolbai Gunasekara was the Founder Principal of Asian international School and was a teacher for over 50 years. She is also an author of several popular books .

Her last book was titled “It’s The PRINCIPAL Of It,” and she is currently working on its sequel titled “THE ‘PRINCIPAL’ FACTOR” Goolbai is also a columnist handling the education page for the LMD magazine and the humour page for Living magazine.


Yolanda Aluwihare

Q: You have been a pioneer in the local batik and fashion industry. What was the involvement of women in the industry then?

A: I started my career as a hobby in the early 70s. During that time there were only two women in the industry, Ena de Silva and myself. As such my entry into the world of fashion was easy.

Q: How have women become empowered through the fashion industry throughout the years?

A: The fashion industry has gone from strength to strength over the years. There are many fashion designing schools today all over the world. It is truly an amazing career for women. Designing can be very therapeutic and rewarding as one often deals with beautiful colours and silhouettes. The designers are able to provide job opportunities to people in all walks of life thus giving them the much needed income. Designers also bring in foreign revenue through exports to various countries. Women in the fashion industry are thus empowered to make a difference not only in terms of revenue but also as a platform to change the way a woman looks and feels about herself.

Q: How have you been empowered by your foray into the fashion industry? How do you see the girl and the woman in today’s context?

A: I was only 17 years when I married and started a family. I was a bored housewife then and started creating batiks as a hobby in the early 70s. I never dreamt of starting a business. The girl in the 70s was naïve and very shy, and unaware of her creative ability. As the business grew my confidence in the Yoland brand and my abilities also grew. My exposure in the international fashion arena gave validation not only to my brand but to me as a fashion designer.

Yolanda Aluwihare is an award winning fashion designer who has received much international acclaim. She was also a pioneer in the Sri Lankan batik industry.


Malathi de Alwis

Q: You have been an advocate for women and their rights for many years. Could you briefly tell us about the history of women’s activism in Sri Lanka?

A: . Women activists and scholars have been at the forefront of a variety of initiatives to protest, analyse and redress patriarchal domination as well as religious, class, caste and ethnic oppression of women and other marginalized groups such as the LGBTQI communities. The three decades of civil war we have lived through along with violent youth uprisings, suicide bombings and major ‘natural’ disasters such as the tsunami have greatly challenged and often overwhelmed our activist agendas. We have had to fight oppressive patriarchal and capitalist structures while simultaneously seeking to heal the emotional scars of a significant population that have witnessed a myriad atrocities, and are struggling to support family members who are either physically or mentally wounded.

Q: Domestic violence is rampant in Sri Lanka. What are the major causes for it and what remedial measures (other than legal) can be taken against the perpetrators?

A: I think it is crucial that we think of a variety of alternatives to combat domestic violence. It is primarily a display of power and aggression against those who are vulnerable and less powerful be it economically, socially or psychologically. Sri Lankan women are not adequately respected by their male relatives be it fathers, brothers, husbands or sons. They are often perceived as the property of the patriarchs in the family. Our dowry system also enables such thinking as it leads to the commodification, barter, and exchange of women.

Until we change how we as a society perceive women and treat women, both publicly and privately, we will not be able to eradicate DV. No doubt, changing perceptions of society is a major, long-term undertaking but we can take small steps towards that by writing textbooks, producing advertisements, tele dramas, films etc., that don’t stereotype and caricature women, and most importantly, by teaching our children through our own everyday actions, how to treat girls and women with respect, to think of them as our equals, and to value their opinions and ideas.

Malathi de Alwis is a Socio-Cultural Anthropologist and a feminist and environmental activist. She teaches in the Women and Gender Studies Program, Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of Colombo.


Swarna Mallawarachchi

Q: When you entered the field of acting in 1968 what kind of status did an actress have? Did she have equal status as the actor?

A: When I started acting I came in with a group of people who were very much out-of-the box and forward thinking, such as, Prof. Siri Gunasinghe, D. B. Nihalsinghe and Vasantha Obeysekera. I would call them an independent group.

My first film Sath Samudura was done with them and I did not face any discrimination. Neither did I face any discrimination in my subsequent films such as, Hantane Kathawa (directed by Sugathapala Senarath Yapa.) Ahasgawuwa (by Dhramasena Pathiraja) Tunman Handiya (by Mahagamasekera), Mathara Achchi (by Sathischandra) among them. Later on I heard that there was gender bias in the film industry but personally, I have not faced any discrimination throughout my career.

I must also state here that the late Gamini Fonseka fought tirelessly to make life better for the actors and actresses, and gain due respect in society. Unfortunately, not many people seem to remember this.

Q: Do you think the film industry in Sri Lanka highlights women’s issues enough?

A: Not really. It does not cover them enough.There are directors who would like to make very strong films about women, but there are obstacles such as Censor Board issues, and the long wait for the release. Therefore, sadly, women’s issues are not discussed enough in Sri Lankan films at present.

From the end of late 1960 to 1990 directors like Dharmasiri Bandaranaike, Vasantha Obeysekera, Sumithra Peiris, Parakrama Niriella, Prasanna Vithanage and Asoka Handagama did produce films highlighting women’s issues. Making a film is a most expensive art and if you can’t get it released early, it becomes a huge problem for the investors.

Q: Screen violence against women: do you feel this has an impact on real life?

A. Yes. Most certainly. In 2005, I was the Goodwill Ambassador for ‘violence against women’ for UNHCR.

The film Dadayama(1984) was a groundbreaking one in this sense. Rathmali Kekulawela, the heroine (played by me) goes after the man who betrayed her till the end. I feel this has had a great impact on our women who hitherto had been rather passive and lukewarm about injustices meted out to them. They have now become much more proactive in fighting injustice.

Q: What has acting given you to enhance your life as a woman?

A: Acting has brought me recognition, regard and love, the love of my fans. Everywhere I go their love encompasses me.

I played my roles in the films with utmost honesty. I received the love and respect of the audience always.

From the beginning of my career it has contributed to make me what I am today.

Swarna Mallawarachchi is a leading award winning actress. Her fims include box office hits like Sath Samudura, Dadayama and Tunman Handiya.

Sumithra Rahubadda

Q: How much do you highlight women’s issues in your writing?

A: When I write a novel, a short story, a poem or script I do not think about or consciously highlight women’s issues. It is natural for truth to come out in a writer’s creation. In all my books the problems faced by women who are more than 50 per cent of the country’s population were portrayed naturally.

Q: Do you feel that your writing has had an effect on the status of women with regard to gender bias and equality?

A: When I write a novel I do a great deal of research. When you do research you can understand the problems of the Sri Lankan women. They are victims of poverty, discrimination and cultural and social bias. Some are prisoners in their own households. My opinion is that we have to empower women, so the characters in my novels are women who inspire the empowerment of other women, the community and society.

Q: How do you perceive the activism on various issues concerning women? Is it an effective lobby or does it need strengthening?

A: If we consider the global context by placing gender equality and women’s rights as the core function of activism the efforts of various movements in the field have been successful in advancing the cause of gender equality. However, there is still a long way to go. Now, our Government is giving serious consideration to issues concerning women. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs fosters public awareness of violence against women, opens centres for needy women and works against gender inequality and violence against women.

Sumithra Rahubadda is regarded as one of Lanka’s best women writers. Among her novels are Bumuthurunu and Itipahan. The later was converted into a very popular tele drama.