Commemorating Sunila: The Personal is the Political

Since the day we lost our founder, Sunila Abeysekara, in 2013, there has been an endless flow of thought and reflection on her life among all of us. An enormous sense of gratitude for her contribution to the feminist movement and her commitment towards peoples human rights is being epitomised across the world. We have also come to learn that throughout her years she had given so much more to those who were around her. Her work aside Sunila, was a leader, a role model, a mentor, a mother and a friend to everyone and these memories are related fondly by those nearest to her.

This year, the memory of Sunila was remembered in Colombo and it was special one, in every sense of the word. On the 24th of October, 2017, leaders of the global feminist movement, came together to talk about the life and work of Sunila Abeysekara. The event was organised by the Women and Media Collective together with the Urgent Action Fund under the title ‘the personal is the political’; an expression of Sunila’s dynamic personality.

A panel discussion with Charlotte Bunch (USA), Nighat Said Khan (Pakistan), Kamla Bhasin (India), Salara Emmanuel (Sri Lanka) and Sepali Kottegoda (Sri Lanka) which was moderated by Kumudini Samuel (Sri Lanka) and Roshmi Goswami (India) was central to the commemoration.

Co-Founder of Women and Media Collective, Kumudini Samuel moderated the discussion and began with a recollection of of Sunila’s early days of activism  “Her initial work was in theatre, in film and in music. She had this fabulous voice and even then what she did, the plays she performed in, films she sang in, the lyrics and music of songs created was very progressive for the time and still beloved to many.  From theare she moved into women’s politics, her first feminist intervention was possibly at the 1975 May Day rally at which she and Kumari Jayawardena distributed the first Sri Lankan feminist leaflet ‘Kantha Handa, Mai Dina Kalamba’ which was on the commodification and representation of women in the media”,  she said.

“For me, coming from North East of India, there was a specific focus on conflict,to which Sunila brought a very nuanced and sophisticated analysis. it was an analysis of conflict, feminist politics, how to negotiate the human rights system, this is what I learnt from Sunila.  So my entry into the Indian women’s movement was through the South Asian women’s movement, so it is an emotional moment to be here at this point. She [Sunila] was a mentor, a friend, she was someone you could rely on in the toughest of situations and she has been a support across regions, and issues, as an activist working on peace building” said Roshmi Goswami founding member of the North East Network, India.

Describing Sunila as being a global citizen Charlotte Bunch talked about the moment when she met Sunila and other South Asian feminists in Nairobi in 1985 at the World Conference on Women. “They had really extraordinary insights into the world; they embodied the slogan of perseverance. Whatever has happened in their lives and in their countries they have persisted. Feminism has kept growing and these are some of the women who have kept growing with Sunila creating a really amazing South Asian feminist movement.”

“I don’t take credit for inventing the slogan women’s rights are human rights. It’s a slogan that came out of the women’s movement and historically from, many different regions, from women in the Phillipines to women in Argentina, there was an upsurge in the 80’s. If we should lay claim to global concepts, we should no longer be seen as the pocket of women’s issues. It was about how do we claim human rights, the question of environment the question of peace and security, how do we claim development which no one did, how do we claim the feminist perspectives that said we are not just on the side and marginalised. We are at the center of the crisis of human rights. When we look at human rights today, what is at the center of human rights today? Much of it is the role of women, the question of the cultural role of women, how women will or will not be able to control their lives, and what kind of violence will exist against them. It was part of that move to get out of the world conference and women’s organisations onto the global agenda. And Sunila was already there.” said Charlotte.

A feminist who needs no introduction to the South Asian region, Kamla Bhasin, spoke of Sunila from a personal standpoint, about their children and families, while also elaborating on their involvement in building the Sangat network “the entire feminist network misses Sunila. She taught in every single month long Sangat course since 1986 to until the year she left her body. She talked of her political and of her personal life and that was really the most significant. Now I feel a little insecure without her and I miss her. Sunila is the finest example of the personal and the political and the intersectional. Sunila was younger than me in age but in so many things she was my guru and I am proud of her as a South Asian feminist leader. She enriched my personal and my public life in the end purely in the name of personal is the political, I wish to humbly submit that those of us who have terrible problems with the neo-liberal economic paradigm, with the corporate plunder of our resources, with Indian hegemony,  In the choices we make and in the lifestyles that we lead because slogans are not going to get us anywhere. It is our choices and it is our lifestyles. And we need such feminist spaces.”

Sepali Kottegoda, Co-Founder of Women and Media Collective also spoke of her memories with Sunila in relation to discussing the importance of recognising unpaid care work within the economic framework “we had discussions on the relationship of women’s unpaid work in the home, in the paid work in the formal and informal sector, and the relationship between patriarchal and capitalist production, we did not call it unpaid work or unpaid care work or anything like that then, we talked about the double-day, we talked about the cooking, we talked about going out and bringing in an income and the obligations and expectations of women. She led us to sharpen our understanding of women’s subordination in the production of goods and services in the capitalists and economic framework. Against the backdrop of articulation of power of women and men in what we now term gender, although today the word gender is devoid for the most part of that politics. So if they think that a man can cook rice it’s ok and a woman can drive a car it’s ok. When we wanted to celebrate international women’s day, Sunila said that we have to celebrate women’s everyday work. A different focus to what we as women’s rights activists were used to engage in. we did street demonstrations against violence against women, we did demonstrations against militarisation, so celebrating the work of everyday women seemed a bit odd, at least I thought it did. Sunila spoke about the importance of recognising women’s work, across the boundaries of home and the market, across the boundaries of love and economic demands she planted the seeds of inquiry of developing my understanding of the relationship between the wider economy and that of the household. Of the gendered division of labour and power of unequal power within the family and as a root cause of domestic violence against women and of bringing the recognition of women’s unpaid care into the feminist discourse in Sri Lanka.”

Nighat Said Khan, Director and Founder of the Applied Socio-Economic Research (ASR) Resource Centre described to the audience what it means to know Sunila “It was a privilege to know Sunila. She was a friend, a comrade, a colleague and somebody I could be myself with. I continued to be in conversation with her and sort of carrying her within me to discuss politics, the films we watched and books we read. She was always sort of cajoling, laughing with me and at me, singing, arguing, and fighting. She brought the dramatic into my life. I carry a collective memory of her and also a very personal one. Sunila to me was an enigma. She was very located in a clear and lucid politics and an activism that was in constant dialog with her conceptual and theoretical positions. And yet Sunila was very fluid. Just when I thought I understood her she would literally give me the slip, physically and otherwise.”

Talking about Sunila through the songs she sang and loved, Sarala Emmanuel, Executive Director of the Suriya Women’s Development Center, in Batticaloa, presented a story woven by songs sung by Sunila on different occasions. “There wasn’t someone who didn’t embody the personal and the political as much as Sunila did. I am going to tell the story of Sunila’s life through some of her most intimate relationships that surrounded me. And I wanted to share how I learnt that loving itself was political. That is why this is called a love story and I am going to tell a story through her music that that I associated with her, everyone one of us has a song, a song which we remember her by, where we share a deep and intimate or political, emotional connection with her, and these are some of mine.”

From the audience present that day, Sunila’s roommate from ISS, and feminist activist Roxxana Carillo from Peru shared her thoughts, “This is very touching for all of us. There was something that bound us together of being part of that largest movement, you know the ways in which we fight, every single one of us for our countries. I think Sunila represents a lot of those struggles. I just want to thank you for opening your hearts to us, for giving us this space to share these with you and I think we should just celebrate that she was here with us and that she is here in the way in which all of you are gathered together to share your memories, your stories, your laughter, your love for our dear Sunila.”