Devika Brendon is a Sri Lankan Academic, Teacher, Editor, Reviewer, Blogger and Columnist who writes for Ceylon Today, Sunday Times/Island, Roar, Groundviews and more. She recently interviewed Jessica Palden as the creator of Teardrop on Fire, the extracts of which were published by Groundviews on Friday, November 26, 2021. The full interview was published to Devika’s blog, Sensory Accentuation (sensoryaccentuation.blogspot.com) and can be read in its entirety below. Thank you to Devika for giving our film a platform and engaging in such meaningful dialogue about this topic that is left in the shadows.
Shadow, Tears and Fire
On today, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, I want to take a look at what progress has been made in raising our awareness as a community about the gender based violence (GBV) which women, girls and children experience in this country.
For a year, the ESVN campaign has been raising awareness of the different aspects of what we experience as ‘violence’, via the social media platforms of Facebook and Instagram. We have sought to expand and amplify our understanding of the term, beyond physical assault and battery, which are visible and can be documented via photographs, to verbal abuse, intrusive questioning, objectification, disrespect of personal boundaries, workplace harassment, body shaming, erosion of consent, offensive categorisations and reductive stereotyping. Words lead to actions. And both words and actions are caused by, and affirm, beliefs. If these words and actions, and their damaging impact, are to change, the underlying beliefs must first be challenged and transformed.
The ESVN campaign has showcased numerous instances of harassment of all kinds, via videos, interviews, documentaries, advertisements and news items, including the internalized misogyny of women, which results in them tearing down and disrespecting other women via interviews and social media commentary. The belittling of women in this way normalizes disrespect and devaluation, which results in the creation of a culture which routinely underestimates, degrades and dismisses women. This normalization is itself an act of violence, and it underlies and perpetuates violence.
These issues were at the heart of the discussion during the Q and A I recently conducted with Jessica Palden, who has made a documentary film called ‘Teardrop On Fire’, which explores gender based violence and its impact on Sri Lanka, and which is due to be released in the upcoming months.
The film is based on interviews with people who have directly experienced GBV, and with activists and journalists seeking to highlight the problem as one which must be faced and remedied, if the country is to progress, socially and in terms of people’s feeling of personal safety, well-being and peace of mind.
The term being given, globally, to the rise in domestic violence and abuse during the enforced lockdowns and closures necessitated by the Covid 19 pandemic, is ‘The Shadow Pandemic’. This term refers to the often hidden and far greater impact that domestic violence has had on women, during this global crisis. Societal structures and cultural norms mean that women are often relegated to the domestic sphere, and have had no alternative but to stay domiciled with men who perpetrate violence on them and their children.
If we really want to shatter stereotypes, we need to stop shaming those who speak out against abuse, by forcing them from the outset to self represent as victims of violence, as a result of which they are constructed as ‘weak’. It is the perpetrators of violence who should be confronted with their unacceptable behaviour, and whose damaging actions should be stopped. Silencing victims delays justice.
DB: What are your views on what progress has recently been made in raising public awareness of the extent to which women are subjected to GBV, in every country in the world?
JP: ‘Since the start of the #metoo movement, women all over the world have been coming out publicly and sharing their stories of abuse. As with all social justice movements, the use of social media platforms has been integral in the virality and momentum of these movements.
In the past 5 years that I’ve lived in Sri Lanka, I’ve witnessed first hand the solidarity and uprising happening amongst women, girls and male allies who have started so many initiatives to push back and break the silence. It’s so uplifting and inspiring. Just login to Facebook and Instagram and you’ll see a ton of organizations, groups, NGOs, shelters, task forces, etc who are all doing amazing, trail blazing work in the GBV field.’
DB: Do you feel that the general public are now becoming more aware that verbal, psychological and emotional abuse also constitutes violence? That it is not just defined as physical assault on the body?
JP: ‘Yes, absolutely. There has been a concerted effort to engage therapists, counselors, and psychologists in these discussions, and so much education around the complex cycle of abuse and trauma is being actively disseminated.
Sometimes, though, this information is being consumed by those people who are in it, not necessarily by the people who need to hear it. The ignorant turn a blind eye to topics of abuse, because it would go against their self interest to engage or learn about these topics, because in doing so they would lose their power. The patriarchy doesn’t have empathy.’
DB: Do you include in the term ‘the patriarchy’ women who have internalized misogyny, and withhold empathy and support from women who are targeted by abusers and perpetrators of GBV?
JP: Oh absolutely! Excellent point. Women have internalized misogyny as a survival tactic. It’s how they’ve been able to climb up the ladder of success into the good old boys club.’
DB: Could you give us some context for the making of your upcoming film ‘Teardrop On Fire’? What is it about? What inspired it?
JP: ‘I have my own personal backstory of abuse. I’m a survivor of domestic intimate partner violence. My abuse happened in Sri Lanka with a Sri Lankan man. So it’s in the Sri Lankan cultural context that I understand abuse. Of course abuse is a universal problem, but how it manifests in every culture is slightly different.
When I started my path to healing, once I had gone ‘no contact’ with my abuser and started therapy, I found that reaching out to other victims and survivors to share my story was incredibly empowering. I felt heard. I felt I mattered and that my story mattered. After being gaslighted for 4 years, and told I was crazy, and ignored by everyone in his family and community anytime I spoke about my abuse, it really wore me down into a shell of my former self. There is so much shame around the topic of abuse. So much silence. No one wants to address it. No one wants to hear about it. I was told countless times by his family members to just smile and be happy. After a beating! With a black eye! To just smile and put on a happy face. The abuse is so normalized. It’s really frightening. I don’t blame his family. They don’t know better. It’s just their reality, their culture. And even my abuser I can’t blame because he too is a victim of the cycle of abuse. Hurt people hurt people. I don’t condone his behavior but I can somehow feel empathy and understand where it stems from. I think there is a huge issue of underlying and untreated mental illness as well, that compounds and complicated the issue.
So I decided to champion the cause, and use the medium of documentary film to help educate and empower women and girls in Sri Lanka to overcome their experiences of trauma and abuse. I thought if I could give a platform for victims and survivors to break their silence, they could feel heard and take that brave first step by sharing their stories. The film is a kind of therapy for me and the subjects. We bonded. We came together in solidarity. It was really moving to witness their courage, and I’m humbled that they trusted me with their experiences.’
DB: This seems as if you had not come up against GBV in the U.S. or elsewhere. Are you saying it’s worse in SL?
JP: ‘No – I never experienced GBV in the U.S. I think we are probably 70 years ahead, in the timeline, than Sri Lanka. We have systems set up here that make it much harder for abusers to go unpunished. For example, if you call the police and report abuse they will respond immediately. They go through training. In Sri Lanka, the police were useless. They laughed at me and drank with my abuser. He had them in his pocket.
I did experience sexual harassment in both India and Sri Lanka on public transport and public spaces. Again, this is something that is so normalized in Southeast Asian cultures.
I don’t want to mislead and make it sound like the US or western countries are superior, GBV absolutely happens in western countries, too. However there is an established infrastructure and laws against it, and the system can work. That’s what needs to change in Sri Lanka. The outdated laws need to be rewritten. Sri Lanka needs to join the 21st century.’
DB: Some people in Sri Lanka are offended when people from other countries come here and use this country as an example of entrenched misogyny. Do you think that being seen as paternalistic or a ‘white saviour’ is unhelpful to your cause?
JP: ‘Of course people will be offended by my POV because I’m a foreign white woman. It comes with the territory. I’ve been accused of having ‘white savior complex’ frequently. I understand this knee jerk reaction. Who am I to preach? Sri Lankans can and should be handling their own issues, and I’m not a missionary. What I am is a documentarian with a personal connection to the issue and the subjects. I am holding up a lens to the stories as they unfold, and filming it. I am coming to this work as an ally in solidarity, giving a platform to the voiceless and marginalized. I’m not using the film to tell my own story. I’m not a subject of the film. I’m directing and producing it.’
DB: What interests me in observing your statements on this issue is that you seem to transcend otherisation and oppositional thinking. Men to you are not by default ‘the enemy.’ The habit and compulsion to do violence is the enemy. What beliefs inform your perspective?
JP: ‘Thank you for asking this question. It’s so vital. There is a misinformed concept that feminism is inherently anti-male. This is not the case! Feminism is a movement that is fighting for equal rights and justice for all humans, regardless of sex, gender, age, race, religion, class, etc. It’s a belief and cause that every being deserves respect, safety, resources, joy, and freedom. It’s an equity-based ideology that isn’t hierarchal but communal. It’s trying to guide societies and civilization to a more enlightened state, where we aren’t competing against each other but uplifting each other. This battle of the sexes is so outdated. We are so much better than that! We have so much potential as human beings.
I think also my Buddhist training and beliefs play a huge part in informing my perspective. I’ve been a student and practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism for over 30 years. The Dharma teaches us to love our enemies, to see them as our teachers. Also, the Bodhisattva vow requires us to have faith in the inherent goodness of all sentient beings and to never give up hope. So this vow is sacred to me. How can I see men as the enemy? In a past lifetime, maybe my abuser was my mother? Who’s to know? Karma is very complicated. In any case, as you said, violence is the enemy. We must tirelessly champion the cause of non-violence and teach it to the new generations. We must help them break the cycle of violence and break generational curses.’
DB: At a time when the country seeks to increase its visibility as a tourist magnet, after the disruptions of the pandemic, do you think that speaking up about systemic violence against women in SL is going to be seen as undermining?
JP: ‘Of course there will be those who use this argument to silence the cause. Of course profit trumps social justice. That’s the challenge of the cause. That’s the crux of the battle. The end goal is to stem the tide against this undermining belief that immediate profits are more important than human rights and safety. I wish that the government of every country could understand that publicly endorsing and ensuring the safety of its citizens and tourists would lead to much bigger longterm returns. How is tourism going to flourish if female tourists and investors are being raped, harassed, beaten and abused? By confronting the issue it can be solved. Burying one’s head in the sand and ignoring it will only compound and perpetuate the problem.’
DB: GBV has increased during the pandemic, as so many women found themselves locked in with abusive partners and situations without any alternative. The ‘shadow pandemic’ as it is called, showed that women suffered more domestic violence than ever before due to lockdowns and workplace closures. How do you see this picture changing as lockdown restrictions lift?
JP: ‘I hope that women who have been trapped with their abusers are able to leave their violent situations and seek refuge in shelters or safe homes. I hope they are able to find training, education and meaningful work to gain financial independence.’
DB: What is the role of women’s and children’s shelters and safe houses in a culture like Sri Lanka?
JP: ‘The shelters and safe houses are essential spaces for women and children to escape their abusive environments. They are absolutely essential. Unfortunately, the village/tribal mentality is very strong, and the abusers usually have the family and village wrapped around their fingers, so it’s extremely difficult for an abused woman to stay in her home or village and get free of the cycle of violence. The prevailing culture is very traditional and seeks to keep the family unit or marriage together at all costs. There is so much shame around divorce. A woman is expected to tolerate so much, even abuse, to keep up appearances and keep the marriage intact.
Shelters provide a safe haven where she can go ‘no contact’ and start to rebuild herself and have hope for a future without violence.’
DB: What sort of education is required before the momentum starts to build for a more equal status for women in Sri Lanka? Is it an impossible dream? Or an achievable goal?
JP: ‘It’s an achievable dream. We have to keep the faith and envision it. We must believe in evolution. Change is inevitable. Nothing stays the same forever. If we can imagine it, see it, believe it and speak truth to power then yes, a better future is on its way for sure. I’ve witnessed so much positive change in my short time in Sri Lanka. It’s happening. The younger generation is online and educating themselves, having difficult conversations, pushing the envelope and shifting the culture. The change is here. And I’m excited to be documenting it. This is the perfect time to be making this film.’
DB: How can we assist in transforming the society we live in? What are the forces and cultural beliefs that stand in the way?
JP: ‘We can assist by engaging in the hard conversations. We can begin at home. We can start in our own families and communities. We can stand up and speak out against violence. I really admire Milani Salpitikorala of CPF (Child Protection Force). She’s going out into remote areas with her team and educating and empowering communities and villages to stand up and speak out when they see GBV happening. She’s putting the power directly into the people’s hands. I am hoping to document Milani’s work in the film, shooting her work in the field.
I addressed the cultural beliefs that stand in the way earlier about the taboo around divorce. There are so many other cultural beliefs that are hugely contributing factors to perpetuating violence against women and children. For example, the cult of virginity. The objectification of women. The strict traditional gender roles. The cultural mindset that sees and perpetuates women as second class citizens.’
DB: Until women are seen and respected as having worth, dignity, and an individual destiny of our own, separate from our reproductive capacity, no legislation will be able to remedy the wrongs women are subjected to in a patriarchal society. How can respect for women be enabled and modelled in the systems of justice and governance in the country? And at a local and domestic level?
JP: ‘Here in the U.S., we are suffering at the resurgence of fundamentalist Christian influences in our government as we witness our rights to abortion in some states being taken away. We are regressing and losing so much progress due to this. The political power of the patriarchy is so damaging.
At the local and domestic level, I see programs like what Milani at CPF is doing to be an excellent model. Outreach, education, task forces, initiatives that educate and empower at the grassroots level is the answer.’
Progress is definitely being made. But in summary, societal change must come from individual and community transformation of awareness, and a national and global realization that a truly prosperous society is one in which all of its citizens are empowered to participate, contribute and live their lives without fear or stigma.