Remembering The Feminists of Asia and The Pacific

This is a guest post by Gaayathri Nair. Gaayathri is a feminist, activist and writer. For the last few years she has been stoking her rage fire in regional women’s organisations around Asia. You can find more of her work here. She also tweets as @A_Gaayathri

I am a woman from Asia and the Pacific, having been born in Malaysia and raised in New Zealand; I have always straddled both sides of my vast and awkwardly constructed region. I was struck recently, when over a few beers, a friend asked me to name three feminist icons all of the names I came up with were white women from Europe or North America, and this is true for most of the young Asian feminists I know. As a young woman growing up and coming into my feminist consciousness, feminism and whiteness were all tangled together for me. For a while, being a feminist meant rejecting my Indian identity and accepting a position of ‘honorary whiteness.’ This made me deeply uncomfortable, although for a long time I did not have the anti-racist language to describe how and why this was problematic.

Feminism is not located in whiteness. My region is home to a long history of ‘insistence, resistance, persistence and existence’ by women of colour. However their/our stories of strength and activism are often erased because they run contrary to narratives of the passivity and oppression of women in Asia and The Pacific. If feminism is to be a truly transnational project, our feminist heroes need to be transnational. Understanding the depth of feminist activism that takes place outside of the Global North makes our discourse more robust and allows for a truly contextual analysis of issues.

One of these Asian feminist heroes was Sunila Abeysekara. Sunila passed away recently on September 9th 2013. In the words of Dr. TK Sundari Ravindran, another South Asian activist committed to the rights of women, “she lived her life exactly as she wanted to.” Personally, I never had the opportunity to meet Sunila although she was involved in number of organisations I worked for, but her presence and passion had a powerful impact on both the women’s rights movement in Asia generally, and upon me personally.

Sunila’s journey towards activism was not a linear one. As a young woman in Colombo, she started off in the Arts, known for her beautiful voice and proficiency in different types of traditional dance as well as acting. From here she went on to work as both a film and theatre critic. Sunila maintained an interest in social justice and civil society work as the Sri Lankan government became more repressive, however it was the 1971 youth insurrection that really crystalised her commitment to social justice and human rights. This was an armed insurrection undertaken by communist leaning young people, mostly between 16 and25 years of age. They managed to capture a substantial chunk of the southern province of Sri Lanka. The insurrection brought to the forefront the injustices that were occurring in Sri Lanka and the problems facing poor, rural young people. After the insurrection participants were detained for long periods of time in appalling conditions with few prospects once they were released.

Sunila became engaged in the civil rights movement, helping to document the human rights violations taking place against those that took part in the insurrection. This paved the way for Sunila’s later work, much of which was involved in documenting the human rights violations that took place on both sides of the Sri Lankan civil war through the organisation she founded, INFORM. Her desire to remain neutral and ensure that both sides of the conflict had their stories told had her branded as a traitor to the nation, a status that resulted in threats to her physical safety. In 1987 Sunila witnessed the assassination of her colleague while pregnant with her youngest child. She succumbed to pressure to leave Sri Lanka for her own safety and moved to the Netherlands, where she managed to live for 6 months. After giving birth she returned to Sri Lanka.

Aside from her work documenting human rights violations, Sunila was committed to actively challenging the position of women in Sri Lanka and across South Asia. In her personal life, she was the single mother of 6 children and lived as a challenge to what was considered a ‘good’ South Asian woman. These ideas of what it means to be a ‘good South Asian woman’ are so strongly held, that living differently is in itself a radical act. She understood intimately how the policing of gender and women’s bodies and lives was related to violence. As she said:

“As women’s rights activists, we know very well the extent of discrimination and violence suffered by women who dare to remain unmarried, who do not bear children, who bear children outside of marriage, who seek, obtain and assist in abortions, who take responsibility for families and households in the absence of male family members, who wear their hair short, and who otherwise violate gender norms. Each of these cases involves women who challenge the heteronormative framework that teaches us from a very early age that women should marry men, be faithful, be good housewives, never refuse sex with their husbands, bear children, care for the household, and express a particular model of femininity, with no consideration of the physical, emotional and psychological cost for women.” – [Equal and Indivisible handbook for writing CEDAW Shadow reports, IGLHRC, 2009]”

Sunila founded and was on the board of many organisations aimed at transforming the lives of women in Asia and the Pacific, but that is not her true legacy. What she has gifted me and women like me with is an example of a woman who knew what it was to love and treasure your culture and heritage but to strive to change the parts of it that were and are damaging. I will always remember Sunila as someone who was never afraid to tell the truth, no matter how painful it might be.

13 comments for “Remembering The Feminists of Asia and The Pacific

  1. pheenobarbidoll
    October 24, 2013 at 11:01 am


  2. moviemaedchen
    October 24, 2013 at 11:16 am

    Excellent article – thank you.

  3. Asleif
    October 24, 2013 at 11:29 am

    Great post. Sunila’s story is very inspirational, on multiple levels.

  4. Willemina
    October 24, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    Awesome guest post!

  5. Drahill
    October 24, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    I can remember reading about Sunila before. I admired her for her insistence on remaining neutral in such a charged conflict and demanding equal accountability from both sides – something that sadly, isn’t so common anymore.

  6. Patu
    October 24, 2013 at 6:12 pm

    This was a super interesting read. As a kiwi, it’s true that most ‘feminist icons’ I can think of off the top of my head are American. There are a few historical NZers (Kate Sheppard) or women who I’ve met personally (Dame Margaret Sparrow) but they are all Pakeha.

    I should make more of an effort to seek out Maori and Pasifika feminism.

  7. EG
    October 24, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    Thank you so much for this article! Really informative and cool.

  8. N45
    October 24, 2013 at 8:28 pm

    Yeah nah. The term “AsianPacific” is not relevant in the pacific, this post you’ve made is totally American. Asians & Pacific islanders are not a group, Asians are colonizers here & you can fuck off colonizing my history & calling it decolonization.

  9. N45
    October 24, 2013 at 8:32 pm

    Seriously, it is just ridiculous. My ancestors are not symbols for you to use for your agenda, Maori & Polynesian history does not belong to the people who colonized us stole our land now want to steal our history of resistance to you. Don’t bother reply I’m out.

  10. Yasmin
    October 24, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    Thank you for this post! I really hope we (in the Asia-Pacific region) spend more time thinking about, celebrating and learning from women in our communities who continue to do such important work! – I too really need to spend more time learning about local feminists!

  11. October 25, 2013 at 4:14 am

    Rita Banerjee (50 Million Missing Campaign) and Neha DIXIT are two immense feminist icons and I refer to them constantly

  12. hamoboy
    October 26, 2013 at 4:27 am

    Delurking after over a year of just passively reading, because this might be the first post I’ve read on here where I have some skin in the game, and another more prolific commenter has not said something that I would otherwise say.

    While I was gratified to read more about feminists in Asia, and I agree that so many feminist icons happen to be White and Western, which leaves those of us who are neither to search harder for feminist icons we can identify with easier, I am left confused at the mention of “Pacific” next to the word “Asia”. What about this post had anything to do with feminism in the Pacific, or even Pasifika people at all?

    The gist of this post seems to be about how bad it is that Western and White feminists tend to overtake the conversation and talk over Asian feminists and their perspective, yet the author shoehorns in Pacific peoples when there really is nothing to do with us in the post. From my perspective, as a Pasifika person interested and invested in learning about feminism, it’s swapping white people talking over Pasifika perspectives to having an Asian person talking over Pasifika perspectives. From my perspective, nothing has changed, this is not an improvement. Could you maybe not do that?

  13. October 30, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    Hi Hamoboy,

    Thank you very much for you feedback. The reason that I included ‘The Pacific’ in the title and beginning of the piece was because of my experience growing up in New Zealand which I know is not the same as being a Pasifika person. I was utilising the political construct of the Asia-pacific region, however clearly this has lead to issues. I will endeavour to be more precise with my language in the future.

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