Sunday I received this sms from Dilshani, a young free-lance reporter at the Times. It said –read “zipper men” story in financial times today. come to Katunayake. She must have read my mind. I have never been to women’s events in Sri Lanka or anywhere but lately I’ve been thinking I should. By 4:30 in the afternoon that I was on my way to Katuanyake with a group from the Women and Media Centre in Rajagiriya. We were going there, optimistically, to ‘take back the night’ from zipper-men and other harassers in the streets of free-trade zones.
Zipper men are not new. When I was in school many years ago we had these guys lurking on the road leading to the school. What makes these new zipper men stories different is the whole cultural phenomenon that it represents. Garment workers in the free trade zone are going home after a long day in the factory. As Sharmala Daluwatte put so well in her speech before the march, these garment workers are part of a new holy triad of Lakshmis-migrant workers, tea pickers and garment workers-that we should worship. Instead they are harassed in their own communities.
The march was really well organized. Unfortunately there did not seem to be much media coverage. The street drama was really good. Apparently ‘Mahasona’ and ‘Reeri Yaka’, the traditional yakkas (devils) are running scared of the new devils on the streets. After some pep talk we were given lighted torches and the march proceeded with three abreast. They expected 400 people but the participation would have been double that or more. We covered the major streets and several side streets of Avariwatte. People from Colombo were only a handful. Local participation was huge and prominent. Slogans were fiery but they were not anti-men, reflecting the complexity of the situation.

The Avariwatte free-trade zone area that we were in is densely packed with garment workers, shop keepers, three-wheel drivers and many who lived off the garment economy. There were a few cute couples doubled-up on bicycles but everywhere else men and women were clustered separately in small groups. I did not see any public places where men and women could interact. Every inch of space was taken up by boarding houses or other structures. Even if there were venues, how would these young or not-so-young men and women interact? Transplanted from their villages, are there new norms of behavior for these men and women? Are we seeing the consequences of a lack of norms? Sandya Hewmanne in “Performing ‘Dis-respectability’: New Tastes, Cultural Practices, and Identity Performances by Sri Lanka’s Free Trade Zone Garment-Factory Workers, Cultural Dynamics, Vol. 15, No. 1, 71-101 (2003)” looks at the new norms of culture that these women have defined for them selves.

This article describes and analyzes how female garment-factory workers in Sri Lanka’s Free Trade Zones collectively express their difference from dominant classes and males and articulate their identities as a gendered group of migrant industrial workers by cultivating different tastes and by engaging in oppositional cultural practices. In the urban, modernized, and globalized areas of the FTZs, women develop unique tastes in the realms of music, dance, film, reading material, styles of dress, speech, and mannerisms. By performing subcultural styles that are subversive critiques of dominant values in public spaces, they pose a conscious challenge to the continued economic, social, and cultural domination they endure. But while workers’ participation in a stigmatized culture is explicitly transgressive and critical at some levels, their demonstrated acquiescence to different hegemonic influences marks the inseparability of resistance and accommodation.

What do these developments mean for relationships? (I have reached my limit here with google and can go no further.) At the end of the day these women will have to define those norms for themselves, I suppose, but, they could use a little help like economic growth that bring decent jobs for their men. As for me, gender dimensions are sure to be in my own work in the future.