The Politics of Underwear: Access and Attitudes on Sexuality in Sri Lanka


          Last week, I introduced the topic of reproductive justice in a globalizing world, stressing time and time again the importance of looking at the movement as intersectional with race and nationality. This week, I will be incorporating race by specifically discussing the cultural tensions between white, American women and Sinhalese women in Sri Lanka.

Additionally, last week’s post loosely revolved around themes of sterilization and long-term birth control. However, it is important to keep in mind that the control of pregnancy and birth are not the only facets of the movement. Instead of merely focusing on birth control, conversations about the reproductive justice movement in Sri Lanka will focus on attitudes about sexuality as a whole.


             In a chapter titled The Politics of Underwear in Caitrin Lynch’s Juki Girls, we learn about how globalization and the implementation of export-processing zones comes into conflict with Sri Lankan attitudes on sexuality. The chapter is central to ahinsaka, or “good girls” in Sri Lanka (Lynch 93) — an identifier that is challenged by juki girls, or female workers in EPZs, especially when manufacturing underwear. Lynch claims that in Sri Lanka, the colloquial use of the word underwear is loosely translated to “unmentionables” (Lynch 94). The product is a taboo, and is often made at home rather than purchased (Lynch 94). In connecting to globalization, Lynch claims “the implication was that innocent girls, who should simply be associated with local traditions, were now working in the global capitalist industry. Worse yet, they were sewing immoral products for white women” (Lynch 93).

This is a direct connection for how the influences of powerful nations hinder reproductive justice. Not only has the United States had a hand in implementing the factories that directly conflict with Sri Lankan values, but furthermore, it has served as a place in which the people are a taboo, not just the product. Suddi, or white women, are “hypersexualized figures” in Sri Lanka (Lynch 94). That is, there is a combination of women from a culture with a lack of sexual discourse, combined with both a product and a population that is seen as very sexual.

This conflict of cultures manifests in horrific ways for workers in EPZs. In 2014, one of Sri Lanka’s headline newspapers, ColomboPage, wrote an article on the increase of rape and assault in the country. Often times, sexual assault will occur within the factory, operating on structures of power. One women says “‘I am in search of new work, but I am afraid to take a job at another garment factory. There is no protection for women,’ she said. ‘I was not the first to be raped and I am scared that it will happen again'” (ColumboPage 1). In 2011, the United Nations claimed in a special report that a goal around the world is to “eliminate the exploitation of workers and protect their labour rights through fully enforcing national legislation on labour standards and promoting decent working conditions” (United Nations 6).

However, maybe that is not what Sri Lanka needs. Instead of continuously implementing these factories (and strategies to manage them), superpowers in the United States can stop having underwear produced in Sri Lanka. This is where I recognize my own biases: from a Westernized perspective, my first thought was that Sri Lanka should learn to embrace discussions around sexuality, or at least educate the populous on the idea that “underwear” and “white women” does not necessarily equal “sexuality”. At the same time, though, the Western world seems to generally not care. In my own research, in which I searched “Sri Lanka reproductive health” and “Sri Lanka assault” on BBC, nothing concerning the power dynamics inside and outside the factory appeared. Rather, there was one article on a specific instance of rape and murder (BBC 1).

This goes to suggest that a discourse on sexuality in Sri Lanka cannot be instigated by the Western world, which as a whole, is only doing so for means of production. Instead, I believe that the answer is to fully recognize each factor of the United States’ imposed attitudes of sexuality, whether they are implicit or explicit. It must be looked at an angle in which the reproductive justices of women are more important than manufacturing underwear.

What do you think?


Works Cited

Lynch, Caitrin. Juki Girls, Good Girls. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. 2007. Print.

“Outrage in Sri Lanka over teenager’s rape and murder”. BBC News. British Broadcasting Company, 20 May 2015. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.

“Rapes surge in Sri Lanka amid weak laws”. ColumboPage. ColomboPage, 17 Aug. 2014. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.

United Nations Inter-Agency Network on Women and Gender Equality. Gender Equality and Trade Policy. United Nations, 2011. Web. 26 Mar. 2011.