It has long been a mystery to me as to why everyday chauvinistic men who exhibit commonly expected patriarchal prejudices suddenly become feminists over the issue of veil wearing Muslim women. This strange behaviour carries a pattern of commonality.  The men, mainly White, transform instantly before your eyes whenever the topic of the Muslim world or Islam comes up. Their eyes narrow, their voices become more gruff and they come up with the same line, ‘look at how they make their women cover up or look at how they treat their women’.

It does not matter if the topic is something totally unrelated to Muslim feminism, it can even be about Assad’s chemical warfare domestic policy, but the mere mention of anything linked to the Muslims world causes these men to revert to the manly behavior of ‘chivalry’. They take up imaginary cudgels of pro-feminist weaponry and aim fire but with their mouths. These are men, I must tell you, who would not hesitate to judge any woman who is wearing a short skirt, tight trousers or a low cut top or any form of clothing really that they consider to be an invitation of some sort.

After reading Laurie Penny’s article the dark clouds of confusion above my head have disappeared. Men always opt for the easy route. It is in their nature. By using the veil situation to exalt themselves it also allows them to vent their prejudice. Killing two birds with one stone is an easy feat if you don’t have to actually sling a stone. Why get physical when you only need to be verbal, it is much easier?

This thesis can be extrapolated into the issue of domestic violence. Many men will tell you that they will not stand for it if they witness a man hitting a woman. However, many of these same men would look away or be complicit over domestic violence which involves pushing, shoving or mental abuse. By defining domestic violence to mean beating or kicking or slapping absolves men of any further responsibility.

If these men were really aghast over veiled women would they not do something about it? Taking umbrage over veiled women is the perfect low hanging fruit strategy of the patriarchy. To climb the tree to pick the higher hanging fruit which represents everyday sexism would be too much work and would take them out of their comfort zone.

There has been a trajectory of growth within my feminism self since I realised that I was a feminist about 10 years ago. It did not occur to me that I was a feminist because I laboured under the misapprehension that the ideology belonged to white women who were middle class. The theory and practise of feminist mothering is what drew me into the feminist fold and I love it. However, it does open one’s eyes to the entrenched and pervasive chauvinism that exists within society. As a result, I am quite often an angry woman and the anger can last for hours. Being a feminist can be a emotionally painful and isolating experience sometimes but I would still rather be an informed woman than the blinkered one that I was.

Behind the doors of lovely middle class homes often lie little secrets of male dominance. The exterior tells a tale of a happy couple with children living among the normal life of a middle class family. You would not expect to find discord of a serious nature beyond gentle arguments over what to have for dinner or where to holiday next. The reason you would not expect to find trouble is because female violence is (falsely) linked with poverty, the lower classes, shoddy neighbourhoods or with the gender imbalance in third world countries where women do not even have legislative backing to help mitigate the excesses propagated against them. 

The middle class patriarchal system in Western democracies operates in the private sphere and in secrecy, much along the lines of the Harlan Coben novel titled. ‘Tell No One’. If you tell someone they will not believe you anyway, especially if you are the woman of the middle class home. If people by chance do believe you they will excuse your partner’s behaviour. The excuses are made along the lines of, “he is tired from working all week”, “he must be worried about the bills”. The sub-text of all this pathetic excuse making is that people do not want to get involved because it may then reveal the cracks in their own lives. Earthquakes only happen in third world countries, not in the tree lined suburbs of the Western world. 

The woman who is being shoved and pulled roughly starts to wonder whether what she is experiencing is ‘normal’. After all, violence must produce blood to termed as ‘violence’ in the first place? Does it? If no bruises show up is it still violence? Perhaps the definition of violence allows the middle class man to get away completely because there are no bruises and no blood is drawn. He has made his manly point. Is that not his right? After all he is king of the castle.

Such are the ugly secrets that lie behind those lovely curtains or blinds in any street. It is still male domination and is wrong. 

Erik Solheim was a key negotiator representing the Norwegian Government in seeking a peaceful outcome to the Sri Lankan war. Wikipedia describes Mr Solheim as being ‘one of the most recognizable figures in the peace negotiations…’. He was a key figure in brokering the 2002 ceasefire agreement between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE Tamil Tiger leaders; and convinced the LTTE to agree to unconditional peace talks in 2006. He is now the Chair of the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC).  As the Commonwealth Heads of State meet in Sri Lanka it seemed timely to ask Mr Solheim for his views. There can be no moving forward, after all, without an acknowledgement of the past. 

Q:  Given that you worked so hard to bring peace to Sri Lanka it must follow that you are now distressed by the plight of the Tamils there who do not seem able to live peacefully. Looking back do you think that anything could have been done differently during the war years?

A: With the benefit of hindsight a lot could have been handled differently during the peace process. I will cover that in my upcoming book, written jointly with Vidar Helgesen and Mark Salter. There were two main reasons why the peace process after many successes ultimately did not bring peace. The lack of cooperation within the Singhala elite, i.e. between UNP and SLFP. And the fact that the LTTE-leadership while accepting federalism in principle did not dare embrace this as the solution.The Tamil struggle for legitimate rights is not over. It will continue as long as there is no Tamil self-rule in the northeast and as long as Tamils are treated as second class citizens in their own land. The struggle must be fought with nonviolent methods. The international community should support this. 

Q: In the latter part of the war Tamils were waiting for a ‘big ship’ to arrive which was thought would rescue them. You have spoken about a plan that was afoot to send a big ship to the north or east of Sri Lanka. Could this possibly be what the war victims are referring to? If so, what went wrong?

A: When the outcome of the armed conflict was clear to everyone, we tried to convince Prabhakaran to accept an organized end to the war. In this scenario the LTTE would hand in weapons while all cadres would be registered by the UN or one of the main powers, possibly India or the US. In such a plan a ship would probably have been used. It would have been very difficult to harm anyone after procedures involving global powers.This never went from idea to reality because LTTE rejected this idea. It would have saved tens of thousands of lives. It is important to add that LTTE’s lack of regard for the life of the civilians as well as of the cadres, can not in any way be used as an excuse for the deliberate shelling of civilians by Sri Lankan armed forces. Nor can it explain why many Tamils were killed after handing themselves over to the Sri Lankan forces, think of Nadesen, Puleedevan or the son of Prabhakaran as examples. And obviously – use of rape is a war crime, which cannot been excused pointing to LTTE intransigence. 

Q:  Tamils who fled Sri Lanka tell me that they have no faith in the UN’s ability to intervene in conflict situations nor do they believe that others countries are interested in humanitarian issues. I think this is an important angle to explore given that intra-country wars are escalating. What do you think ought to be the entry level of intervention by other countries and the UN?

A: Secretary general Ban has taken the unprecedented step to apologize for the behaviour of the UN in the last phase of the war. That will not bring dead people back to life, but it is an important step in the process of dealing with war crimes as well as preparing UN better for future conflicts.I encourage everyone to read the Petrie report, commissioned by Ban Ki-Moon and written by Charles Petrie. The report is chillingly clear on what happened in Sri Lanka. It shows how the UN was bullied around by the Sri Lanka government.

Q: Tamil asylum seekers are constantly being turned away by other countries. They suffer in their own country and in other countries. What do you think the future holds for them?

A: All countries must make a much stronger effort to really look into these applications on a case by case basis. There are many Tamils (as well as also some Singhalese and Muslims) who are under threat in Sri Lanka and therefore should be given asylum abroad.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives based in Sri Lanka has released a report titled ‘Sri Lanka’s Harassed Civil Society’ and while its’ findings about the instability of civilians’ lives may be widely known already the report stands out because of the specific threats identified.

The first threat is listed as being ‘Harassment and intimidation’ and, basically, it details how the government views the democratic activity of civilians who seek human rights as being evidence of subversive activity. This seems to constitute reason enough for the harassment and intimidation which then ensues. As recent as August 2013 a group of environmental protesters in Weliweriya were shot at. Journalists who exercise freedom of speech live in danger.

The second threat, ‘Interference in CSO (civil society organisations) activies’, is about how civil society activists find it difficult to carry out their work without the express permission of the Presidential Task Force. Various red tape measures exist in an attempt to carry out extensive surveillance of CSO activities. This makes it hard for CSOs to advocate and employ strategies that would deal with infringements of civilian rights. This threat further highlights how recourse to the legal system is not an easily available option because the judiciary is not seen as being independent.

Lastly, the threat of ‘Constraints on CSOs ability to work with international partners’ demonstrates how CSOs can be left with very little financial means because of the country’s mistrust of foreign aid. Accepting foreign aid from some countries is seen as being the equivalent of dancing with the enemy unless the money is given by a country that does not rate human rights as being a concern.

The report concludes by stating that the Commonwealth ought to be raising concerns over these threats given CHOGM’s  commitment to human rights: “If the Commonwealth is indeed committed to supporting a vibrant and free civil society as a fundamental value, one of the most obvious positive outcomes from this CHOGM should be a serious commitment by the Sri Lankan Government to improve the enabling environment for civil society.”