Maternalist politics in Sri Lanka: A historical anthropology of its conditions of possibility

de Alwis, Malathi Nalika

     Between June 1990 and May 1993 there emerged in southern Sri Lanka a significant and unprecedented political movement: The Mothers' Front. With an estimated membership of over 25,000 grassroots women protesting the "disappearances" of approximately 60,000 male affines and/or relatives, the Mothers' Front was an extraordinary political organisation. It was not only the single largest women's protest movement of its time, but arguably one of the most effective in the modern history of Sri Lanka. My dissertation is an exploration of what enabled its emergence, i.e., its conditions of possibility.
     My dissertation bridges two intellectual/political traditions that frame my work--feminism and anthropology. Sri Lankan feminist debates in which I had and continue to have a stake, provide the framework for the apprehension of my central problem--the emergence of maternalist politics in Sri Lanka, in general, and the formation of the Mothers' Front, in particular. Having located my problem in relation to such a feminist project, I then attempt to provide a historical anthropology of the cultural categories that enable the emergence of an organisation such as the Mothers' Front. My interrogation of the categories of 'respectability,' 'domesticity,' and 'suffering,' illuminate the gendered, bourgeois, and racialised norms against which Ceylonese/Sri Lankan women, at different moments in history, have struggled. In conclusion, I evaluate the contingent efficacy of the politics of the Mothers' Front, marking, within the analytical frame I have constructed, both the possibilities enabled by and the limits that circumscribe, its political space.

Cohn, Bernard, Comaroff, Jean