Kumari Jayawardena

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Kumari Jayawardena at home in Colombo, 2018.

Kumari Jayawardena (Sinhala: කුමාරි ජයවර්ධන; born 1931) is a leading feminist figure and academic in Sri Lanka. Her work is part of the canon of third-world feminism which conceptualizes feminist philosophies that are indigenous and unique to non-Western societies and nations rather than mere offshoots of Western feminism.

Jayawardena is the author of several books, including Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, for which she was selected for the Feminist Fortnight award in the United Kingdom in 1986 and was cited by Ms. Magazine in 1992 as writing one of the "20 most important books of the feminist decades" (1970–1990).[1] This text is widely used in Women's Studies programs around the world and still remains relevant in today's world.

In Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, Jayawardena reconstructs the history of women's rights movements in Asia and the Middle East from the 19th century to the 1980s, focusing on Egypt, Turkey, Iran, India, Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, Korea and the Philippines. Her research states that feminism was not a foreign ideology imposed on Third World countries, but instead, developed on its own in Asia and the Middle East as women struggled for equal rights and against the subordination of women in the home and in society in general.[2]

Academic Background[edit]

Jayawardena was born and had her secondary education in Sri Lanka and later decided to enter the London School of Economics in 1952. She graduated with a degree in political science in 1955 and then qualified as a barrister from Lincoln's Inn, London in 1958. She also obtained the Certificat d'Etudes Politiques from Institut d'etudes politiques de Paris in Paris (best known as Sciences Po) in 1956. In 1964 she received a Ph.D. for a thesis on the labour movement in Ceylon, from the London School of Economics.

Jayawardena taught political science at the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka from 1969 to 1985, when she retired as associate professor. She also taught in the Women and Development Masters Course at the Institute of Social Studies in the Hague, Netherlands from 1980 to 1982, and was an affiliated fellow of the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College from 1987 to 1988. She currently teaches in the Masters Programme in Women's Studies at the Colombo University and is a senior fellow of the university's Graduate Studies Institute.

She plays an active role in women's research organizations and civil rights movements in Sri Lanka, and is the Secretary of the Social Scientists' Association, a group of concerned scholars working on ethnic, gender, caste and other issues[3] which she helped set up in the 70s with other academics and researchers. At 86 years old, Jayawardena still continues to make connections between the world of academia and her community, the different ethnic and religoujs groups in Sri Lanka, and feminists in South Asia and the world.[4]


Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World first started as a bunch of lecture notes jotted down on the journey between The Hague, where Jayawardena worked at the time, and her then home in Brussels during the early 1980s. Using her lecture notes, she was preparing materials for a course on women and development that later would became one of the known books in the feminist movement. Originally published in 1982, it later became the Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World and was republished with a foreword by Rafia Zakaria[5]. Jayawardena provides an inside look to the feminist movements in Asia especially women fighting against colonial powers. She follows the stories of female warriors in China and Korea as well as the stories of men who "questioned women's restricted lives," like Ibn Rushd and Li Ruzhen.[4] Jayawardena wanted to address the "gap about [her] part of the world" and felt that in order to "discuss the knowledge and status of women today, it is important to know what they have gained and how."[6]

There were two goals to writing this book. One was to challenge the concept that feminist ideology was imported from the West which is an argument used by conservative groups in the non-western world to reject the concept and delegitimize women’s struggles. Jayawardena argues that feminism has had a “long history” in the countries of Asia and Africa. The second goal is to challenge the belief that women are liberated just because they have access to education and professional development. There is still lack of political and economic equality for women. Jayawardena asserts that having women leaders does not mean that the patriarchy has been done away with or that women are not oppressed within these roles.

Jayawardena also addresses the intersection of nationalism and women in this book. For Jayawardena, nationalism means the fight against imperial powers and this includes women who participated in the national liberation movement. Women all over the world, especially in the third world, were empowered through nationalistic movements that helped them earn their freedom from the colonial powers.[4] However, Jayawardena looks at how these movements “co-opt women in a second class way” and still subjugates them while profiting off their labor and/or contributions[7].

Another popular book of Jayawardena's is The White Woman's Other Burden which analyzes the actions of white women who challenged the gender roles set by the British occupation of South Asia. Jayawardena specifically looks at the work of Katherine Mayo, Helena Blavatsky, Annie Besant, Madeleine Slade, Mirra Richard, and the countless others who fought for equality for all women during colonialism[8]. Also, Jayawardena has had her books and articles translated into Sinhala and Tamil.

Books [9][edit]

Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World (1986)

From Nobodies to Somebodies: The Rise of the Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka (1998)

The White Woman's Other Burden: Western Women and South Asia During British Rule (1995)

Ethnic and Class Conflict in Sri Lanka: The Emergence of Sinhala-Buddhist Consciousness 1883-1983 (1985)

The Rise of the Labor Movement in Ceylon (1972)

Edited Books[edit]

Embodied Violence Communalising Women's Sexuality in South Asia (1998)

  • (Co-edited with Malathi de Alwis)

Selected Articles[edit]

"Annie Besant's Many Lives," Frontline (17 Oct 1997).

"The Women's Movement in Sri Lanka 1985-1995, A Glance Back Over Ten Years." (CENWOR, 1995).

"Sinhala Buddhism and the "Daughters of the Soil"," Pravada 1 (May 1992).

"Some Thoughts on the Left and the 'Woman Question' in South Asia," in Promissory Notes. Ed. S. Kruks, R. Rapp and M. Young. (Monthly Review Press, 1989).

"The National Question and the Left Movement in Sri Lanka," in Facets of Ethnicity. Ed. C. Abeysekera and N. Gunasinghe. (SSA, 1987).

"Feminist Consciousness in the Decade 1975-85," in UN Decades for Women -- Progress and Achievements of Women in Sri Lanka. CENWOR, 1986.

"Bhikkus in Revolt," Lanka Guardian (May-July 1979).

"The Origins of the Left Movement in Sri Lanka," Modern Ceylon Studies 2 (1971): 195-221.

"Economic and Political Factors in the 1915 Riots," Journal of Asian Studies 29 (Feb 1970).

"Pioneer Rebels among the Colombo Working Class," Young Socialist (Nov 1968).




See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Kumari Jayawardena: Biographical Information". Center for Digital Discourse and Culture @ Virginia Tech. Retrieved 8 January 2011.
  2. ^ Padmini Swaminathan (20 May 2008). "Book Review: Reinventing feminism". The Hindu. Retrieved 8 January 2011.
  3. ^ Associated Press (17 October 2000). "Marriage, widowhood often lead women to power in South Asia". Philippine Daily Inquirer. Retrieved 8 January 2011.
  4. ^ a b c Rowbotham, Sheila (9 August 2017). "Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World by Kumari Jayawardena – review". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 15 March 2019.
  5. ^ Rowbotham, Sheila (9 August 2017). "Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World by Kumari Jayawardena – review". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 15 March 2019.
  6. ^ Srinivasan, Meera (1 January 2017). "'There was a gap about our part of the world'". The Hindu. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 15 March 2019.
  7. ^ Srinivasan, Meera (1 January 2017). "'There was a gap about our part of the world'". The Hindu. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 15 March 2019.
  8. ^ "Kumari Jayawardena". www.cddc.vt.edu. Retrieved 15 March 2019.
  9. ^ "Kumari Jayawardena". www.cddc.vt.edu. Retrieved 15 March 2019.