“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” wrote 14-year-old Sharanya Sekaram in a school essay. Sharanya always knew she was a feminist, and it helped to have a family that encouraged conversations. “I’ve realized this isn’t always a thing for others,” she reflects. “We talked about politics, the world, in the mornings, the BBC and CNN would be the background noise. So it opened my eyes wider to a possibility of what the world needed to be before I fully understood what that meant.”
Growing up, Sharanya wanted to be a journalist and today still finds herself continually working within the media space. We chat about her intriguing background: “I spent a year at the University of Sydney and, on my second week on campus, I joined the Women’s Collective,” she tells me. “It’s a feminist group committed to anti-colonial, anti-capitalist and intersectional feminism. And it was during that time that it kind of clicked that I could do this for the rest of my life. I joined student politics, I was a left activist (still am!), I contested and was the international student officer briefly. It opened up a world for me.” Sharanya finished her LLB in Sri Lanka and joined The Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute after which she joined International Alert Sri Lanka, and, in between, did a couple of things like youth activism. It was through this that she got pulled into full-time gender-related work.
We’re constantly battling the patriarchy, but as Sharanya rightly points out, it doesn’t stand alone. It’s a system that works alongside capitalism and other structures — “If you’re interrogating the patriarchy, you need to also question cast, class, and religion because they’re wound tightly around each other,” she explains. “People assume patriarchy stands alone, but like every schoolyard bully, it has a little gang with it.”
A study conducted by the UNFPA* showed that one-third of unnatural deaths among women and girls in Sri Lanka was because of death by an intimate partner. “The reality is women are dying at the hands of the patriarchy. There’s incest, female genital mutilation, child marriages, rape, sexual assault, acid attacks, unwanted pregnancies and more,” Sharanya ticks off.
Through her activism and her work with Bakamoono, Sharanya has a lot of positive memories to look back on, but when I asked her what the most rewarding part has been about her journey, she tells me it is, without question, other women — the sisterhood and solidarity. “The other is the possibility of a world that many of us don’t even know can exist,” she says. “I work with women and kids, and if a mother has to breastfeed her kid while on a Skype call, it’s not a big deal. Self-care, too, is a part of our work and not an aside to be more productive. When I go for these feminist conventions, it’s such a liberating space. Some may be in pyjamas and others with a full face of make-up, but nobody cares. That’s not the focus. Every day I see women’s groups and feminists building a fresh world. Seeing the possibilities become realities, because they’re putting it down on paper and working hard, is what is rewarding.”
There’s plenty of confusion around the F-Word, ‘feminism’, and their idea of what it is very singular. But they can’t see it’s far more complex. “There’s white feminism that women from South Asia or women of colour will not agree with,” Sharanya explains. “You also have black feminism which we may not fully relate to because we don’t come with that historical background. There’s South Asian feminism, socialist feminism, and more. To truly understand feminism, you must embrace that it is complex and that there are different sub-ideas under it. Even as feminists, not all of us agree on the same things. And that’s not something you should have to apologise for.”
Sharanya wears different hats, but the work she does is the same. When she first started, she tried everything, as you should, but now she’s honing in on what she feels she can make the most impact within. “With women’s rights, people assume that it’s all rights, all the time, everywhere. This is not the case,” she says. “I cover sexual and reproduction health and rights; gender-based violence; storytelling; and the intersection between gender and technology. We need to make the distinction that different people have expertise in subsets of the field. That comes naturally with time. You also learn by just making mistakes.”
Over time, Sharanya learned not to take on everything and that you can’t be working all the time. At a convention recently, she learned something interesting: “You have your non-negotiables and everything else is a negotiation because that’s life,” she explains. “Some of my personal non-negotiables are not working for less than I think I’m worth, not travelling back-to-back because I love my family and I want to see them year-round and aligned ethics with whomever I work with or for. Everything else could be negotiable. And I found that shifts your thinking. Suddenly, you’re not trying to come up with a routine — you make your life work for you.” The bottom line is that you need to figure out what works for you at this point in your life. There’s no specific way to do it—just figure it out as you go.
Photography: Amitha Thennakoon. Hair And Make-Up: Art By Ashradha. Fashion: Sumaiya Shuaibdeen. Beauty: Iman Saleem. Art Direction: Ricardo De Silva. Editor-In-Chief: Shihaam Hassanali
Rukshi wears: Dress, Armani Exchange. Earrings, Mango
Sharanya wears: Top, Sharanya’s Own. Skirt: Lëila available at Raaya Clothing & Accessories. Necklace, Raaya Clothing & Accessories.
Shana wears: Dress, Anuk available at PR. Earrings & Ring, Cher By Chevonne available at PR