An Interview with Dr. Sandya Hewamanne based on her Keynote address, COVID 19 Pandemic and Global Production Networks: (Gains) and Losses at WCWS 2021
Keynote Speech : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vI1u_XhSDHA
Diana J. Fox (DF) : Hello Sandya, thank you for following up with me to respond to questions from the audience! Your presentation inspired a number of interesting questions from the audience, which I pose to you below. We are happy for the opportunity to share your responses, as well as the link to your talk, for those who missed it or who wish to refresh themselves and think more deeply about your research. Let’s begin:
DJF: How are you defining “economic success”?
SH: For the research, book and the keynote; very much on these women’s and their neighbors’ definition of what constitutes economic success. For most of them this meant a crude assessment of how they have moved from where they were to now. As one woman said, “those days we were lucky to even have coconut sambol and rice, now we eat seer fish, chicken and egg.” Not having any debt, buying land/property, and displaying outward signs of economic success such as changed consumption patterns also factored into this.
DJF: What are the cost-benefit parameters that you and the women employ to define their reduction in exploitation?
SH: I have not used a set of rigid cost-benefit parameters in my analysis. As an Anthropologist I do not use static scales/models. What I did was to show how there can be positive developments
 Dr. Sandya Hewamanne is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Essex, U.K.
 Dr. Diana J. Fox is the co-conference Chair for the 7WCWS, Professor of Anthropology, Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, USA.
within very exploitative economic arrangements, as generally understood by the villagers (success), and myself (exploitation).
The last part of the question is not very clear to me. If you meant ‘minimization of their own exploitation,’ I can respond by saying that the women and the villagers I interviewed were not very clear about the exploitation. What they have is an understanding that they are continually being short-changed by the global powers and national political leaders. They would not explicitly deny/minimize that they are hard-working individuals who do not see comparable gains and that people elsewhere are benefitting more from their labor. But women are happy and proud that they have achieved certain consumption levels and economic security and that this success is allowing them to become village leaders. In other words, claiming a ‘piece of the pie’ within an exploitative capitalist model. The changes in normative gender roles is a bonus that then open more doors for them.
DJF: How does this move to market-based valuation of labor affect culture and promote cultural convergence?
SH: The book and the first part of the keynote were squarely about this clash of competing ethos. The former workers are introduced and supported to absorb neoliberal ethos in the Free Trade Zones (FTZs) and they develop certain aspirational capital within the ultimate gig economy of global subcontracting. But when they return to their villages these ethos clash with already existing ways of being in the world and produce new prescriptions for social cultural lives. That includes cost-benefit analysis which are not altogether market-based such as working for your next life (temple social service). Although temple service and giving up profitable orders to look after sick relatives could result in delayed economic gain, they are not understood or defined within neoliberal models of profit maximization. Therefore, my research does not show that the valuation of labor in the rural areas have become completely market-based. Rather it shows the strength of the existing social norms and ways of being in the world, as they tame neoliberal ethos and mold it into something that is locally meaningful. So, the book (as the keynote stressed) shows that neoliberalism is not hegemonic and can manifest in the Global South only as long as it morphs into a locally meaningful set of ideas, actions and responses.
DJF: Why would outsourcing care work be considered a benefit?
Individually, for the women who gets to outsource their own social reproductive activities, it is certainly beneficial, as it frees her time to engage in her entrepreneurial activities and community leadership. As I noted, this creates newer forms of hierarchies among women. If it was older women (mothers-in law) vs younger (Daughters-in law) earlier, now it is the more successful home entrepreneurs vs. women who do not have the forms of capital that the former have. This is not an ideal situation. However, the younger women or the ones without any means of capital, accumulate some capital via minor forms of social networking and the constant knowledge work that the former workers engage in. Other than that, I do not see any long term or collective benefit to this.
DJF: Has the “ideal” view of the entrepreneurial woman subject you shared been absorbed by other women and does it shape broader perceptions of gender norms (e.g. masculinity, women’s relationships with other women? Gender diversity?).
In fact, the villages have been bombarded with ideas on neoliberal development models with rural women at its helm for quite some time before my research started. The success of the former workers as home workshop owners helped galvanize a view that had been already in the making for a while. Grameen model of rural development had been introduced to the countryside for decades as well. So, the other women have more or less absorbed the view and obviously media constructs, advertising by financial institutions (almost pressured by micro-credit agents of these institutions), tangible results shown by mostly former workers, all help in this regard. As the keynote highlighted, the gender norms are changing due to the success of some women entrepreneurs and the way they then leverage the success to become community leaders. However, when women without the forms of capital that the former global workers manipulate, fail in their entrepreneurial activities, the onlookers (especially male family members) focus on their femininity as the reason and do not see the unsustainability of micro-finance model. So, there are in fact two parallel dynamics where some women are considered to be skillful, talented and with leadership qualities; while others are considered as lazy and/or too shy/backward to run a business. Obviously, this creates interesting and at times oppressive micro-hierarchies among village women.
I did not see any progress toward more open attitudes, action toward gender diversity. However, this group of female community leaders could be a very powerful entry point toward thought-change processes in villages. Potential gold mine for transnational feminist activist organizations to reach Sri Lankan villages. Hopefully it will then create ground rules that can be used within other Global South contexts.
DFJ: Are feminists both within Sri Lanka and others studying the phenomenon, challenging the notion of “the entrepreneurial woman subject”? How do the women critically evaluate their own self-concepts vis-à-vis wider cultural values about gender?
Yes, there are several studies that are challenging the notion of “the entrepreneurial woman subject,” in the Global South. My own work critiques the neoliberal development models which operate on precarious work opportunities that ultimately benefit western corporations while at the same time noting how Sri Lanka’s former global workers re-imagine western constructs of ‘the entrepreneurial woman subject’ to collectively create an alternative to the model that is locally meaningful. This very process includes a fascinating critique of existing gender norms which manifest as an intersectional understanding of oppression and exploitation. The women I studied see themselves as marginalized women from rural areas and understand their oppression as based not only on their gender but their wider social class and regional positioning. Therefore, they tend to understand collective action, politics, and development, as family units and communities.
DJF: How do your views toward gender shape your perception and normative assessment of gender?
It is very difficult to prevent one’s own views from shaping assessments and conclusions. I have of course tried my very best to be self-reflective about my own western intellectual perspectives on gender, and to privilege the local understanding. Sri Lankan villagers displayed a deeply binary understanding of gender. Sri Lanka is a small country with a highly literate population who read/watch television. Furthermore, the country has a state led national curriculum, national newspapers and television channels. So the mainstream gender norms, created in the contexts of colonialism and anti colonial movement, have taken deep root within even remote areas. They did not talk at all about gender spectrum. Any alternatives to the norm was understood within the binary model at best; within the tropes of spirit possession or insanity at worst. Chapter 6 of the book (The Strange, the Crazy and the Stubborn) discussed some of these complexities.
DJF: You closed with the following two questions that left us eager to learn your responses!
How can we champion local, homegrown entrepreneurial groups? (and I will add—entrepreneurial groups that are not rooted in a neoliberal notion of an economic subject suspended out of the web of holistic, nurturing relationships that encourage growth of human potentials?).
SH: It is intriguing you added what’s in the parenthesis. This is my analysis of the politics of contentment. The groups of women I studied are not only economically successful but are engaging in their own form of critique that challenges the cost-benefit analysis of neoliberal development models. And it includes love, care, duty and many other locally meaningful, holistic actions and connections. Perhaps my use of the term entrepreneurs was counter productive as the audience seemed to have focused on the word rather than how the talk (i.e. women I studied) went beyond the western/neoliberal understanding of an entrepreneur.
As noted earlier as well, I think this group of women are a golden opportunity for transnational feminist networks to reach marginalized communities in Sri Lanka. I am studying their national organization as a grassroots economic justice movement (in the process rethinking what grassroots means) through two research grants from GCRF and ISRF. This research, I believe, would provide ways to re-think micro-finance and the government led interventions into rural development.
DJF: What mechanisms should government take in terms of law/intervention, to support locally grown economic and social movements? (and I will add—social movements typically push governments but a civic culture of organizing, freedom to assemble, free expression of ideas are clear a) prerequisites or outcomes of organizing. Where is Sri Lanka in this vision and is it an ethnocentric one or one based on universal principles of human rights?).
SH: I am reluctant (at least as yet) to suggest ways government should legalize or intervene to support these locally grown economic, social movements. Such interventions may change the grassroots character of movements. Especially in the South Asian contexts the danger of the movements being taken over by men and elite, and even minor politicians is very high. I have seen this happen in Sri Lanka before; how women were pushed away from organizations that they formed as these organizations gain wider support and international funding.
Sri Lanka’s general culture of collective organizing, free expression, and freedom to assemble is good compared to many other countries in the Global South but had seen its ebb and flow with different regimes. Especially an organization of women entrepreneurs would receive much support (in the context of neoliberal promotion), but it would certainly get politicized.
I do not think it is ethnocentric to figure out where Sri Lanka is with regard to these universal principles of human rights. The trick is to not expect countries like Sri Lanka to follow the same models as western countries in achieving these rights. More and more in-depth ethnographic research is needed to figure out what the people at the ground level want and to make sure that the elite at the government level hear what the people want (another way for transnational feminist networks to intervene).
DJF: Thank you for your valuable responses!