Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Deepavali ~ A day of celebration and joy

The divine spirit does not reside in any, except the joyful ♥ HEART ♥” ~ Talmud Quote

Sculptures are covered with camphor smoke

Deepavali ~ Festival of Lights is celebrated today 26th of October 2011 around the world with great pomp and enthusiasm. People are dressed in new clothes, thronged the temples and visited relatives and friends. Special poojas are performed at the temples.

Early morning view of Manikka Pillaiyaar temple in Bambalapitty

According to the Legends that, Lord Vishnu defeated the demon King Narakasuran, and killed him on this day. Significance of the festival is celebration of the victory of good over evil; the uplifting of spiritual darkness. The most significant spiritual meaning is “the awareness of the inner light”.

Annually this day is celebrated in late October or early November on the new moon. The day is celebrated with sweets and savouries, fire crackers, greetings and lights.

An array of fire crackers on sale in Bambalapitty for the festival

Just married couples celebrated “Thalai Theepavali” (தலைத் தீபாவளி), (first Deepavali celebrated together after marriage) with special gifts from their relatives.

Deepavali symbolises the victory of righteousness, the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil and the renewal of life. It is a day of celebration and joy.

I like to make many fresh flower garlands as the devotees keep coming. I feel blessed when my garlands are placed on gods and goddesses” shares Karuppaiah Selvarajah (31) while being busy in Bambalapitty. Karuppaiah Selvarajah (31)and Karuppaiah Selvaraj (31) are twin brothers who have been garland makers for more than 10 years in Bambalapitty. Their ten fingers move very fast through the white cotton thread to put the fresh flowers on a straight line to make the garlands

Deepavali is predominantly celebrated by the Hindus

An array of beautiful fresh flower garlands in Bambalapitty

Festivals bring joy

The essence of the festival is to rejoice in the ineer light (Athmaa)

Devotees throng the temples to earn eternal blessings

Garland makers in Bambalapitty are busy to meet today's demand

Devotees at Maanikka Pillaiyaar temple in Bambalapitty

"Today's demand for the fresh flower garlands is very high due to the festival. I have been standing for 7 hours to make them quickly" shares Karuppaiah Selvaraj (31)with a smile. Karuppaiah Selvaraj (31) and Karuppaiah Selvarajah (31)are twin brothers who have been garland makers for more than 10 years in Bambalapitty. Their ten fingers move very fast through the white cotton thread to put the fresh flowers on a straight line to make the garlands

Morning rush on a festival day in Bambalapitty

Home made sweets served for Deepavali

Freshly cut banana leaves for sale in Bambalapitty on a festival day

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Folk traditions are "nearly" and "quickly" disappearing from the Tamil community in the North

Ramupillai Murugupillai from Mulliyawalai is always delighted to perform

Tamils from the northern part of Sri Lanka are known for their unique folk art tradition, which has been in existence for many centuries. Famous lullaby (தாலாட்டு) and mourning (ஒப்பாரி ) songs are rarely sung in the north including Jaffna peninsula.Folk tradition is slowly, but steadily disappearing from the Tamil community in the North of Sri Lanka.

I have been a folk singer for four decades. I got displaced from Jaffna to Vanni in 1995. My passion for folk songs and singing continued, despite the difficulties due to the prolonged war. But our wellbeing is neglected” shares with frustration, a folk singer Kamalambikai Kanapathipillai from Mulliyawalai.

Young people are not coming forward to learn folk dance or music.

We are best known for our unique folk music and dance. But, it is quite unfortunate due to three decade of war, our traditional art forms have “nearly died” in Vanni. “Kovalan Kooththu” and “Magudi Aattam” were very famous in Vanni three decades ago, and performed throughout the nights for more than15 hours during temple festivals. Jaffna Music Festival has helped to revive, rejuvenate, resurrect and preserve the unique art form in the past.

People are not interested in learning the folk music or dance. The younger generation does not want to take folk art as their career because it does not pay well. Therefore, folk artistes have changed their career over the period of time.

The society does not recognise the existing folk artistes and give them due place. Nobody comes forward to help the folk artistes. And, as a result the younger generation does not get absorbed into the troupe. There is lack of knowledge about our existing unique traditional art forms. Due to war and displacement, we have lost many of our extra ordinary talents and traditional dresses, jewelleries and crowns worn by our folk artistes many generations ago. We do not have a folk art museum to preserve and showcase our specific folk art forms. Currently the older generation has the knowledge about our unique folk art such as Kovalan Kooththu
” says Kanapathipillai Arunthaharan, Senior Lecturer of Department of Tamil at the University of Jaffna.

Kovalan Kooththu is the most difficult folk art form, because the barefoot pushed on the ground with frequent force

A handful of folk artistes including Ramupillai Murugupillai from Mulliyawalai are delighted to be identified as “folk artistes”. They still continue to perform when chances are given.

I began to dance Karagam, when I was 16 year old. I am 78 year old now, still I dance Karagam. It is a duty of all of us to preserve the folk art” says Ramupillai Murugupillai from Mulliyawalai.

The older generation of folk artistes from the North is highly worried that the unique traditional art forms are “nearly” and "quickly" disappearing from the community.

"We have great history of arts, dance and music which are deeply interconnected with our history, culture and religious rituals. We should not lose our tradition and it values. They need to be preserved for many generations” shares Santhirasegaram Sivasithambaram from Mulliyawalai.

Magudi Aattam is hardly known among the people

"It's sad to note that our Tamil folk art traditions which are dying off from the practice. We have to work hard to preserve it from disappearing" says Eroshan Puviraj, Student of Engineering faculty, University of Moratuwa.

The prolonged war has left us with nothing. There is an urgent need to preserve our values, unique tradition and practices from disappearing.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The most pronounced gender disparities exist in our region ~ Pakistan High Commissioner Seema Baloch

South Asian Women in Media ~ Sri Lanka chapter was formed in 2009

SAWM Sri Lanka Chapter has organised a seminar “Women as Partners in South Asian Democracy” to celebrate its second anniversary. The seminar was held on 8th of September 2011 at Hotel Renuka in Colombo.

The following is the speech which was delivered by the Guest of Honour, Her Excellency Seema Baloch, High Commissioner for Pakistan in Sri Lanka. She delivered her speech on the topic of "Women in South Asia, Leaders unEqual".

Guest of Honour, Her Excellency Seema Baloch, High Commissioner for Pakistan in Sri Lanka addressing the gathering at SAWM event in Colombo

The women of South Asia must be proud, because our land can boast of some of the greatest women leaders of our times. Sirimavo Bandaranayake, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhotto, Husina Wajid, Khleda Zia, the most able and dynamic women leaders on the globe were from our soil. But, the women of South Asia, experience some of the gravest injustices done to women. And while we have the greatest women leaders, we remain unequal in our societies.

In our land of many contradictions, a land of many opportunities and many challenges, it gives me great pleasure to share with you some thoughts on women in South Asia. And I will begin at home – my home. Both my grandmothers received only elementary education enabling them to read and write in Urdu and to read the Quran in Arabic. They lived in a world with many children and their household was their entire world. My maternal grandmother had a passion for education and fulfilled her dream by ensuring that her six daughters graduate. Today, women in our family are doctors, lawyers, consultants, business women and diplomats. I am sure you have similar experiences in your families.

And when I look around today at you at my other women colleagues at my friends, it fills me with great joy that in the last 50~70 years the women of South Asia have taken great strides forward. But we are the privileged few. The few who were born into the right household, households with resources. We were fortunate to be born in families who were willing to impart education to girls willing to empower their girls. Some of us have struggled more than others to be here today. And all of us should be rightly proud of what we have achieved.

I say this because when you look beyond at women in South Asia, there still is a long way to go, to empower them to be even as unequal as we are.

The most pronounced gender disparities exist in our region. For decades women, in South Asia have lacked behind men, either treated as commodities or second class citizens. Patriarchal social values are deeply rooted. These values continue to define gender relations within households and across society, resulting in the disempowerment of women in many areas of their lives. Women representation in the economic and political spheres remains very low. Violence against women (VAW) and trafficking in women are of deep concern. Inadequate access to economic opportunities, to education, to the political domain push them into a vicious cycle of subjugation and deprivation.

When Amartya Sen, the nobel prize winning development economist spoke about gender disparities in South Asia, he recounted an experience he had in Cambridge. The river had iced over. A friend asked him to walk across. He refused. His friend did attempt to cross over and fell in. He was rescued because in some places in that sheet of ice there were holes. His friend was pulled out of that hole. Amartya Sen uses this as a metaphor for gender disparities in South Asia. Like the sheet of ice gender disparities are widespread and pervasive. There are however, some openings. Some women can and do use them to rise up through them but the majority are under the sheet of icy discrimination.

On the one hand traditions, patriarchal societies, interpretation of religious beliefs, dis~empower women socially, economically politically. A girl grows up knowing she is a second class citizen in her own home and in her own country. Parents’ preference is for boys, the bread earners who will also bring a dowry in marriage.

On the other hand, girls and women are not provided equal opportunities in access to education, access to employment, access to credit, and access to the political domains. More importantly, there is inadequate national legislation to protect the rights of women. Politics is considered a male domain. Politics is considered dirty. Politics is considered the domain of political families and dynastic control is considered normal.

Yet there are women who have emerged through these holes in the ice. All around me in Sri Lanka I see women entrepreneurs who have shined – ODEL, Barefoot are known as tourist favourites. They belong to women. Lever Brothers in Pakistan is headed by a woman, Pepsi’s head worldwide is an Indian woman. We have nine women Ambassadors in Colombo including from the countries China and the USA. This is no mean achievement for women at the beginning of the 21st century.

The Solution

Martin Luther King knew and advocated that “social reform does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability”. There must be a conscious effort by the individuals and a some of individuals to change their status in life, to push through the glass ceiling, to create new holes in that layer of ice, to pull women out of the icy waters and give them a life of their own. We need to create more spaces and expand existing ones for women to be individuals in their own right, to be empowered socially, economically, politically. We need new breakthroughs everyday in every field.

How can we create these breakthroughs? In my view, there are two areas which can be pivotal in creating these breakthroughs, in creating an environment which eventually empowers women, which equips them to fight and to overcome the social and economic injustices and inequalities:~


Pakistan makes an excellent case study.

The Speaker of our National Assembly is a woman, as is our Foreign Minister. The President of our Supreme Court Bar Council is a woman and we have a strong presence of women in media as political analysts and TV anchors.

How have these women excelled despite the odds? They have excelled because each one of them has made a conscious effort to make a place for themselves. Undoubtedly, these women have worked hard to be where they are but political will has been equally critical for carving out spaces, for them.

Women politicians can be instrumental in introducing legislation for women to protect them, within societies, within families from violence, from trafficking from economic and social exploitation. Women legislators can be instrumental in helping women to enter new areas of employment.

In Pakistan, the system of the reserved seats for women in legislative assemblies has existed in one form or the other since its creation.

Of the 342 seats in the National Assembly, women have 22% of those seats (as compared to 5.8% in Sri Lanka). In the upper house or Senate, women make up 17% of the parliamentary seats.

In local government presently 33% seats are reserved for women and a total of 36,191 women have been elected to local councils. Pakistan has a higher representation of women in its parliament compared to the UK, the USA, India and many other countries.

The presence of women in the national legislative bodies has resulted in the passage of important bills for women:~

The Women Protection Bill 2006

Protection Against harassment of women at workplace Bill 2009 ~ January 2010

This combination of institutional reform enabling legislation and a conscious effort of the individual can and does have positive results.

Let me share with you some of my own experience: Women were not allowed in the Foreign Service of Pakistan till 1973. Administrative reforms by the then Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto created the space for women. Now Pakistan has 13 women Ambassadors present in all continents of the world. We learnt the hard way; we had no role models to follow. But we learnt to make a place for ourselves, sometimes by being firm and assertive and sometimes by being flexible. We were new in an entirely male domain and we were being watched. That was 1977. But even today every day poses a new challenge, and every challenge requires a different response.

The choice is, should we cede to what is expected of a woman in our “cultural norms”, or should we push the boundary or should we break the boundary. Recently Iftars for Muslim community were held in Colombo. At a number of these events separate tables were laid for women in the dining area – mostly in a remote and almost hidden corner of the room. Since I am the only woman Ambassador from a Muslim country, there was an attempt to lead me to those tables. Out of politeness and respect I am sure. Quietly but firmly I would head to the table with my other Ambassador colleagues soon, the message became clear. I must be treated like other Ambassadors ~ no more, no less.

In addition to political reforms, and personal determination, the role of the media is equally critical as it influences perceptions of women.

When I look at newspapers in our countries, I ask where are the women. I find them mostly in advertisements or in the social pages. The professional women, the business women, the rural women are almost invisible. The media unfortunately plays a negative role by projecting stereotype roles for women.

Contemporary advertisements continue to show women either in traditional roles of the devoted wife and mother, the subservient daughter or daughter in law or a showpiece, an icon of glamour. Whether it is an advertisement for a pain killer or a car, a woman’s presence in the sequence is considered essential for the product to “sell”. This depiction as a commercial commodity is degrading.

Indecent posters and hoardings displayed everywhere are crude reminders of distorted images and attitudes towards women. And the media influences the perception of its readers and its viewers. It perpetuates inequalities into the home. It reinforces biases in development plans. It ignores the economic contribution and participation of women especially the rural women.

A woman who is raped makes sensational news, but is there any follow~up in the media to ensure that she gets justice? The media needs to fight for the just cause of women.

The Media needs to highlight the positives. Let us not stereotype ourselves because every time we do that we get caught in this vicious cycle of disempowerment. Let us focus on what women have achieved, big or small. We need to inspire other women; we need to motivate other women. We need to set examples and create spaces for our daughters and our new generations.


When will we the women of South Asia truly be more equal? I am sure that is a question on your minds. It surely is on mine.

And my honest answer is I do not know. I do know that it will happen. I do know it will happen when women will push the boundaries to enter into politics in their own right as individuals, when more girls are educated, when there are more economic opportunities open to women, when there is adequate legislation for women by women.

I am sure that it will happen and when it does, the women of South Asia will fare well because the women of South Asia, as they push their boundaries will also retain their value systems to uphold the family, to be the pillars on which their households stand firm, to be the ones who nurture and raise their families to be rooted in our soil and yet fly with the modern age.

It is a tough call, but a call that we are capable of fulfilling. To quote Paulo Coelho“a warrior knows that war is made of many battles; he goes on.....”.

And so must we, the women of South Asia go on to be more equal. And we too need to go on through each battle with courage, with determination and with our eyes on our goals.

Above all, we the women of South Asia must not loose hope because from this land of many contradictions related to our gender, I am confident we will emerge stronger, wiser and more confident to become excellent role models for our future generations.

To the women I say ~ break through that sheet of ice.
To the men I say – Help us to make more holes in that sheet of ice.

Audience at the event

Professor.Savitri Goonesekere , Former Vice Chancellor University of Colombo Guest of Honour and Her Excellency Seema Baloch, High Commissioner for Pakistan in Sri Lanka at the SAWM event in Colombo

Audience at the event