Kuvenies, Sheilas and a P.S. to that Gender Gap


A strong woman from Neeliyamoddai village in Vavuniya who is rebuilding her life after being displaced by the conflict. Photograph ©Chulie de Silva

I had written this piece about Closing the Gender Gap in the “End Poverty in South Asia” blog after seeing that the Annual Global Gender Gap Index gave a higher rank to Sri Lanka that Australia. In that post I raised the question whether we Sri Lankan women were better than the Sheila’s ( Aussie slang for the ladies) in Oz and caused an  interesting debate.

Pala  (from Oz I presume),  gave an emphatic NO and said “There is no comparison between the women in the workforce in Sri Lanka and Oz. The majority of women in the work force in SL are in poverty based jobs -plucking tea, working in garment factories and living away from home or literally in slavery in the Middle East. My heart bleeds for these sisters. Global Gender Gap Index fails to see these glaring inequalities which even Blind Freddie can see.” Fair enough….

Sujata pointed out in the direction of the Lanka Women and the Political Representation  for Women site and said that “empowerment of two Bandaranyakes does not in any way reflect the political empowerment of women in Sri Lanka.”

While it is apparent now that we shouldn’t go into an euphoric state about the status of us women in Lanka, for me the issues are still of discrimination, the stereotyping, the need not to rock the boat and be that  good little girl. Good behavioue was rewarded with love, and if deemed bad you sat in the corner alone ostracized.

Just think, gender didn’t exist for three billion years when we were all single cell creatures. Then came the  XX and the XY sex choromosmes, and a  host of complication not entirely  algebraic .

Being a woman I muse about our lot. Etched in my mind is my favourite play of Henry Jayasena — Kuveni. the legendary iridescent foremother of Sri Lanka. Her story takes us back some 25 or so centuries.   Kuveni was Sri Lanka’s first queen of the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka and was indeed a woman in control of her tribe.   the first power woman?  However, history branded her as a “she devil” who bewitched the Indian Prince Vijaya, who landed in Sri Lanka,. Vijaya apparently saw this beauty weaving and was mesmerized by her.  (Incidentally, Vijaya, the Son of King Sinhabahu was banished from India as a problematic prodigal son).  

Kuveni was in turn supposed to have been “tamed” by the prodigal Vijaya, and they had ruled the country as partners.  But in this story as old as time, Kuveni was thrown out of the palace with her two children when Vijaya replaced her with a princess from India.  Legend says Kuveni,  banished from the palace went  back to her own people, who killed her as a traitor. She had the last word or words — a legendary lasting curse on the island. So according to legend she was powerful enough to leave a casting spell that has lasted and been effective for  25 centuries or more but she was not powerful enough to save herself.

Kuveni’s story resonated with the sensitive playwriter Jayasena was who saw her beauty, the wronged mother, the  wife , and cleverly juxtaposed her  through the ages  as the wronged woman betrayed by her husband.  As she was so are we . Embedded in all of us are hopes, desires, curses, condemnations, peace, love, beauty, power and freedom.

The question for me is do we stay swathed in curses, forever saddled by karmic genes, stuck in roles imposed on us? Or can we women break free from the age old moulds we have been cast into , be strong enough to shape our lives and be the persons we’ve always wanted to be?

No truth the eye can see

In a world that darkness fills

Unreal was the past –

Can the future bring truths at last?

In the darkness that prevails

The eye can only see

Dreams and drifting delusions

Caught in the net of illusion

Our eyes are tricked by its veils

Which mould only magical visions.

 (Translation by Lakshmi de Silva from the play  Kuveni by Henry Jayasena)

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6 thoughts on “Kuvenies, Sheilas and a P.S. to that Gender Gap

  1. So according to you or the history books you have read “Vijaya apparently saw this beauty weaving and was mesmerized by her. (Incidentally, Vijaya, the Son of King Sinhabahu was banished from India as a problematic prodigal son).

    Kuveni was in turn supposed to have been “tamed” by the prodigal Vijaya, and they had ruled the country as partners.”. So, are we Sinhalese bastards born out of wed lock? There is an interesting point for SL to resolve in the 21st century = If the woman does not marry the father her children are branded bastards. No longer in Oz.

    • Yes, one more to add to the list that Sri Lanka has to resolve.

      A bastard according to the Oxford dictionary is an unathorized hybrid. Unauthorized by society then and by law now? Then Vijaya’s father Sinhabahu was too. But then “royal blood” or ova and sperm more precisely even diluted seems not to have had problems.

      History they say was written by men (some say Buddhist priests who were the scribes) while women were in the kitchen with their “handimita (the length of a spoon handle) brains” :-))

  2. ON BASTARDS

    vijaya was a rotter all right.

    But the sinhalese are NOT bastards – the buddhist establishment goes to a lot of trouble to establish this.

    this is also the official reason given for throwing out kuveni — because she did not have the caste credentials acceptable to Indian royalty.

    so the sinhalese ( at least the royal vijayan line) come from the ‘ technically’ correct marriage between vijaya and a princess from madurai.

    the proper royal lineage and caste were matched to make sure the new line, in the new land (sri lanka), was perfectly legit.

    the buddhist establishment maintains, for good measure, that indian princesses, were given to each and every one of vijaya’s followers as well – so no loopholes there

    kuveni’s illegitimate children from vijaya became jungle dwellers

    to this day, the sinhalese retain this distinction in lineage.

    on the branding of bastards though – even today, if the birth certificate does not have a fathers name the child is branded as a bastard because they check the birth certificate for various official purposes – including putting a child into school. in sri lankan it is also very common for people to ask you ‘who is your father’ and ‘what does he do?’

    so, yes, there is a lot to change for gender equality

  3. Kuveni was just sitting there minding her own business when this random guy with half a head of hair shows up…
    Why she even bothered with such an obvious loser is beyond me!!

  4. Thanks Dilshani for setting the record straight. Aravinda — couldn’t agree with you more but then I was minding my own business and reading a book on the beach in Hikkaduwa when this dude from Arachchikande turned up. …he did have a full head of hair then. … rest is history Lol :0))

  5. From my experience living in SL I would have to agree with Pala when discussing the non-professional jobs for females. The professional women I came in contact with had the freedom to chose their careers and make choices in their personal life much like those in the U.S. and Europe.
    So there lots of room for closing the gender gap.

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