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Inspiring Thursday: Kumari Jayawardena

Leading feminist figure, activist and academic, Kumari Jayawardena was born in 1931 and raised in Sri Lanka. She decided to continue her higher education in the London School of Economics, in the UK, where she graduated from political science and finished her Ph.D. on the labour movement in Ceylon in 1964.

She went on to teach political science and women´s studies at the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka. She also taught in the Women and Development Masters Course at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, Netherlands. Not only a professor, she also played an active role in women´s research organisation and civil rights movements in Sri Lanka and is still on the Council of the Social scientists´ Association, which she founded in the late seventies with other researchers and scholars to work on ethnic, gender, caste and other issues.

It is during her time teaching in The Hague as a visiting scholar that she wrote her influential book Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, which would then come to be known as one of the “20 most important books of the feminist decade”. She was living in Brussels at the time and used to write her lecture notes on the train to The Hague, preparing course material for her classes. These lecture notes eventually got published in 1982, and after having been edited and republished several times, they have today become a feminist classic and are used in Women´s Studies programs around the world.

The book records the history of women´s rights movements in Asia and in the Middle East from the 19th century to the mid-eighties, and retells long-standing forms of resistance, through stories of women and men who fought for reform, education, suffrage, safety and against colonial powers, poverty and inequality. By focusing on Egypt, Turkey, Iran, India, Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, Korea and the Philippines, where she conducted extensive research, Jayawardena says her book came to be because of the then existing “gap about our part of the world” regarding research.

With her work, Jayawardena wanted to challenge the prevalent idea that feminism was a Western import or a foreign ideology imposed on developing countries and wanted to show that it has a long history in various countries throughout Asia and parts of Africa, that it developed on its own and in its own forms. Moreover, in her words, “to discuss the knowledge and status of women today, it is important to know what they have gained and how”.

Jayawardena has worked her whole life to create a bridge between scholars (in the University of Colombo) and workers (in the community), to bring Sri Lanka´s different ethnic and religious groups together and to connect feminists in South Asia and other parts of the world, and she will continue to do so as long as she can.

By Teresa Iglesias, WAVE Intern

Sources:

“Kumari Jayawardena” Center for Digital Discourse and Culture, www.cddc.vt.edu/feminism/Jayawardena.html.

Rowbotham, Sheila. “Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World by Kumari Jayawardena – Review.” The Guardian, 9 Aug. 2017, www.theguardian.com/books/2017/aug/09/feminism-and-nationalism-in-the-third-world-by-kumari-jayawardena-review.

Srinivasan, Meera. “’There Was a Gap about Our Part of the World’.” The Hindu, 1 Jan. 2017, www.thehindu.com/books/%E2%80%98There-was-a-gap-about-our-part-of-the-world%E2%80%99/article16970546.ece.