Stitching Identities in a Free Trade Zone
Gender and Politics in Sri Lanka
2007 | 296 pages | Cloth $59.95 | Paper $24.95
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Introduction
Chapter 2. Nation, Modernity, and Female Morality
Chapter 3. On the Shop Floor
Chapter 4. Loving Daughters and Politically Active Workers
Chapter 5. Politics of Everyday Life
Chapter 6. Performing Disrespectability
Chapter 7. FTZ Clothes and Home Clothes
Chapter 8. Made in Sri Lanka: Globalization and the Politics of Location
Epilogue: Cautious Voices
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
Chapter 1: Introduction
I stood at the edge of the dancing women and peered into the swirling faces and colors in front of me. Twilight was just beginning to fall over the factory grounds and revelers on the dancing floor. Standing at the edge of the steel and tar sheet party tent, looking for a familiar face in the dancing crowd I felt lonely and somewhat scared. There was no need to feel scared. This is the same Suishin garment factory where I roamed almost freely for seven months in 2000 getting to know workers and letting them get to know me. True, their annual Christmas party is of a much greater scale this time with an outdoor stage decorated in red velvet curtains, a better known band, beer and coco-cola fountains for unlimited drinks and several games including a beer drinking competition. But there were familiar sights too, such as women's bright colored, glittery party dresses, gold jewelry, high heels and the animated dancing. All seemed so incongruous in the background of the stark concrete factory structure and the enormous shipping containers, which are placed on the edge of the party grounds in readiness to ship the garments that these women workers produced earlier in the day. I just finished taking a photograph of a young woman in a purple and gold shalwar suit dancing near a corroded shipping container when someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was my dear friend from 2000, Rena.
It was after about an hour of hugging, kissing and exchanging information with old friends and being introduced to numerous new workers that Sanuja came to greet me. He had put on a little weight around the mid section of his body and face. May be it is fitting with his new position as the factory manager. He had come a long way from 2000 when he was the Floor 1 production coordinator. When he took my leave I turned back to Bhagya and Deepika who were being entertained by my husband with tales of my fieldwork woes from those days.
"Things have changed a lot since I was here," I said as a way to turn the conversation away from my fieldwork mistakes.
"Things have not changed as much as you think, miss. When I started sewing here 10 years earlier Sanuja sir was a production assistant. Then he became the floor coordinator and look where he is now. Ane, ten years later we are still sewing in the lines," Bhagya said while gesturing with both hands to imitate "no gains."
"Ane, true, miss. I just received this gold coin as a gift for completing ten years of service here. But my basic salary is Rs. 6,500 ($65)," Deepika agreed while offering the gold coin with Suishin logo for my inspection.
"I am so mad that they have not promoted you to at least an assistant supervisor position," I said while balancing the coin on my palm to ascertain the quality of gold.
"Apoi, miss, even if given we would not have accepted. You know by now that we don't want to shout at our fellow workers. How can we get them to hurry up and produce more when we as workers know that it is absolutely impossible to work faster . . . ," Bhagya said. The last part of her statement was drowned by a loud wail of laughter that emanated from a circle of women jostling by the entrance to the factory building. It was the somewhat chaotic line formed to pose for photographs with Sanuja, the newly appointed factory manager.
"Sanuja sir was talking to miss and some other people. So now the line is really thick. We knew that was going to happen. So we went ahead and got our photos with him early," Bhagya said in her usual leisurely accent. I turned to look at her closely and she looked back at me with her big, drooping eyes, which rarely reflected how she feels. Then her lips curved a bit at the corners and a thin smile lighted her face. Still smiling sweetly she added, "no, truly, I took a photograph with him. Each year I do. At least I can see how he is getting fatter and fatter each year and I am getting thinner and thinner." Bhagya was right. Things have not changed much since I spent seven months at Suishin in 2000.
It is this ambivalent way female migrant workers responded to FTZ factory discipline and capitalist patriarchy that fascinated me in 2000 and prompted me to explore their lives in detail. My quest to learn more about their lives began when I started hanging out with a group of FTZ workers in a boarding house in August 1995 for a short term research project. Four years later, with that many years of graduate school education behind me, I came back in August 1999 to Katunayake for an in-depth study of their lives. I again started hanging out with workers at their boarding houses and eventually started staying at two boarding houses. Five months later I got one of those lucky breaks that rarely occur in fieldwork when a FTZ factory agreed to let me conduct research on their shop floor. In addition to the shop floor my fascination with these workers' lives took me to beaches, musical shows, movie theaters, temples and shops where they spent their leisure time, to their family homes in rural Sri Lankan villages and to volunteer my time at an activist organization striving to improve workers' labor and human rights. This intensive involvement in their lives gave me insights as to how Sri Lankan rural women created a "space to maneuver" within such unfavorable conditions. It also allowed me to see how important identity games are for these workers who are positioned in an awkward intersection of multiple layered marginalization.
They were poor women from rural areas who migrated to do garment work in transnational factories of a global assembly line. Their difficult work routines, sad living conditions, sickness and tears had been examined and written about in detail. When I was with them I often wondered whether anyone noticed the smiles, winks, smirks, gestures, tones of voice, words they chose to speak, sing, joke, parody and the films they saw, songs they sang and dancing they may do. I also wondered whether anyone connected those with the clothes they wore, accessories they craved, colors they chose and the shoes they balanced themselves on. Has anyone thought about why they sometimes spoke with words and other times with symbols and even more times with their silence? I write this book because my answer to most of these questions was "no." I write this book because I want the readers to get a glimpse at a part of these women's lives that has not been told. I want the readers to feel the human spirit that allowed these women to deal with power and violence in the best way they can; through creativity; through everyday poetics and politics and through developing differential consciousness that allowed them identity moves. It is the story of their lives in all its complexity; its vibrancy, its violence, its laughter and the very depths of despair that I present below.
In the Enemy Cam
I first entered Suishin garment factory in January 2000, on a day the government imposed a twenty-four hour curfew over the city of Colombo. Suishin's finance manager had obtained a curfew pass and kindly offered me a ride to the FTZ. It was 4:00 p.m. when the van reached the guard gates at the entrance to the FTZ's barbed wire fence. The van crossed the heavily guarded gates of the Katunayake FTZ and sped along the concrete road dotted on both sides with enormous square structures made with concrete and tar sheetings. There were flower bushes and young trees but the abundance of concrete and the heat generated from that gave one a feeling of being in a desert. Still when the van entered the Suishin factory compound, I heaved an involuntary sigh of relief. Four months of letter writing, telephoning, emailing and meeting middle level managers at various FTZ factories was finally over.
It took me four months to find a garment factory that would permit me to spend as much time as I wanted within its premises. But the process did not exactly end the way I wanted. In the first two months I asked the factories to give me an assembly line job as a machine operator or at least an office job. Many factories did not even respond, whereas managers in several others granted me interviews, interrogated me about my research and then sent me home saying they would let me know when they got approval from their foreign owners. I often did not hear from them or received short sympathetic notes about company rules that did not allow outsiders on the shop floor. It was after such frustrating experiences that I called friends and family seeking help. Several friends offered opportunities to observe the shop floor for a week or two. Many said they could help me find jobs or observing opportunities in non-FTZ garment factories in Katunayake and outlying areas. All these leads, however, quickly fizzled out. Therefore, when Suishin's finance manager, Shanil, one of my sister's friends, said that I could do a few months of participant observation at Suishin I was overjoyed. But the happiness was vitiated by the realization that I was reaching the shop floor through managerial connections, which was not exactly a position that feminist ethnographers would fancy.
My introduction to the shop floor on that first day was quick and short. The factory building was located a few yards away from the single story office building, to which it was joined by a concrete walkway with a roof. Although much larger with many sections, the factory building was single storied and housed seven different assembly lines and the workers' meal hall. Just before 6:00 in the evening Shanil took me across the walkway to the factory for a short tour, and this indicated the daunting task ahead of trying to familiarize myself with the numerous machines and human beings that passed before my eyes. Two days later, a Monday, I was at Suishin by 8:00 a.m. Everybody offered their support and several officers helped in clearing a desk for me so that I could carry out participant observation at the office. Kasun, Suishin's shipping manager, wanted to know whether I needed a computer so he could move one onto my desk. Mr. Perera, the personnel manager, asked me not to bring lunch to work since the factory was going to provide lunch for me. Ando San, Suishin's Japanese managing director, asked whether it was still winter in Texas. It was in this peculiar position through the "enemy camp" that I first entered the lives of Suishin factory workers.
The incessant clash of different noises combining to make one big din attacked my ears as soon as I entered Suishin shop floor for the first time in January 2000. Machines grinded, music played, supervisors shouted and women responded. "You will not notice the noise in a few days. Ears learn to ignore it," Sanuja, the Floor 1 coordinator who accompanied me, said when he noticed how disoriented I was. It was difficult for me to find a place to focus. Each assembly line was busy with producing different garments. Line C looked colorful with pink satin material at each machine as women produced a pink pajama top for a well known company. Line H in the other corner produced the bottom half of the pink pajama. Line E also looked cheerful with lime green pink satin material gleaming in the florescent light at each machine. In contrast women seemed tired and tense. "Satin material is slippery and hard to sew. Girls do not like it when these orders come to their line. They like to sew pants or blouses in cotton or polyester material," Sanuja explained. The two lines producing dress jackets in black and dark blue looked even gloomier with the thick material in murky colors dominating their lines.
When I started work at Suishin I had been staying with FTZ workers in a boarding house for about four months. The first few very difficult days at Suishin I often wondered how women laughed and be gay after such hard work. But then gradually I realized that factory work is also not just about hard work and gloomy lives. It was also a space where women found ways to express their changing senses of selves; be they through everyday resistance to immediate supervisors, connections to big bosses, socialization with peers, attachments to tools of their trade or excelling at what they do. Even their minute maneuverings to subvert rules and finding a moment to tell a joke or perform a prank gave them much satisfaction. I felt that an epistemic violence has been committed on their lives as study after study chose not to focus on the complex and contradictory ways they deal with everyday challenges. It is the overwhelming need that I felt to fill this gap that prompted me to focus on these very contradictions that made them who they are and illuminated us on numerous issues of identity stances and moves.
With that intention I explored four interrelated areas of migrant women workers' lives: (1) Negotiations of identities, resistance, agency and "respectability" as embedded in their everyday expressive practices (personal narratives, jokes, gossip and material display) and in performative acts; (2) Conditions of embodiment as they mediated the opportunity to explore intimate desires and sexuality and responded to varied forms of violence against them; (3) Material conditions of their factory work and life in the FTZ as they affected the possibilities for class and feminist politics; (4) Ways and means of strategically shifting identification in the specific power relations they faced. It is by exploring these areas that I explicate the ways in which migrant women workers negotiate and perform situational identities and move back and forth between identifications as the situation demands.
When Sri Lankan rural women started migrating to urban areas to work in transnational factories, intense anxieties were aroused about female morality and cultural degradation. The dominant Sinhala Buddhist image of the ideal woman constructs women as passive and subordinate beings who should be protected within the confines of their homes, and thus stigmatize women living away from their families. At the urban FTZs, women come into contact with global capitalist patterns of production and consumption as well as global discourses on labor and human rights, Marxism and feminism. My research focused on workers' everyday social interactions and expressive practices at multiple sites, and it enabled me to show the ways workers create and negotiate their identities—resisting, appropriating, transforming and recreating the images constructed for and about them in these varied discourses. In the following chapters I show how women respond to the intense contradictions and ambivalences surrounding their migration and industrial employment by expressing an alternative identity that is in-between the subject positions prescribed by the dominant Sinhala cultural discourses and those propagated in global discourses.
Multiple Sites, Multiple Voices
These findings are based on preliminary research conducted among FTZ workers in 1995, 1997 and 1998 and a year of ethnographic field research conducted in Katunayake during 1999-2000. 2003 and 2004 I visited some of the FTZ workers who left the factory to see how they are dealing with they are negotiating the reintegration to village life. In 2005 summer and winter and 2006 summer I continued the study on former FTZ workers while re-entering Suishin for further research. Some of this material is included as entry pieces to several chapters.
During the 1999-2000 research the field work centered on four intertwined but separate sites, the combination of which allowed me to draw a complex picture of FTZ workers' lives. For much of the research period I conducted participant observation in a transnational garment factory at the Katunayake FTZ and stayed in a local boarding facility with more than fifty workers. I visited several other boarding house clusters in the area and also volunteered my time at the Dabindu Center (a grassroots organization active among FTZ workers). I accompanied several workers to their native villages during four-day vacations. I collected personal narratives, case histories and conducted in-depth interviews with the workers, factory officials, boarding house owners, neighbors, workers' parents, neighboring villagers as well as NGO officials and officers belonging to various state institutions that concern themselves with women, development, industrial labor and foreign investment.
Since identity formation as FTZ workers occurs within existing discourses on women, class, and culture, an examination of these discourses is important to my project. There are numerous speeches and writings by government officials, ministers, social workers, politicians, factory officials and scholars on FTZ working women. I explore how these multiple layers of meaning create subjectivities for workers. Neighbors, boarding house owners, and the mass media also construct images of working women. I examine the way in which FTZ workers were represented in different media—from newspaper reports and mainstream expressive cultural forms such as serialized television dramas to poems and songs. I examine the sources from which these contemporary discourses derive their notions of woman and sexuality and the way they become a part of the "panopticon" surveying women at the intersection of gender, class and sexuality. I trace the constant flow of ideas and images between different discourses and the ways this interchange contributes to tropes of victimhood and moral degeneration.
The major part of the research focused on workers' negotiation of identity in everyday social interactions and expressive genres. Language is a critical locus, both for the reproduction of identities and the production of alternative identities (Kondo 1990). I investigate the FTZ working women's everyday lives and expressive practices at the FTZ area as a space where ongoing negotiations of alternative identities took place. During the FTZ workers' occasional four-day vacations and their two long vacations (Sinhala/Tamil New Year in April and Christmas) I accompanied several workers from different regions of the country to their native villages. This gave me an opportunity to investigate how, away from the anonymity of the FTZ, they re-centered their identity, strategically responding to the tighter patriarchal control and surveillance of village life. I studied the way they performed social rituals of accommodation and subtle forms of resistance. I interviewed family members, village elite, and older women from economically and socially marginalized groups who had not had a chance to find formal employment. Based on these interviews my work explores the way men and women construct their images of the "other" according to their own multiple positionings while reflecting the dominant constructions of women's purity as a symbol of family honor.
My Travels and Travails
My travels, experiences and relationships with migrant FTZ workers were shaped by identification and disidentification that depended on relations of power. At the beginning of my research I was driven by my desire to identify with women workers most of whom were of the same ethnicity, religion, and marital status as myself. I also identified with their oppression and the discipline they endured in industrial patriarchies at the FTZ and in their native villages through my own experiences of discipline and domination in the hierarchical university system and in my middle class home. It took me only a short time, however, to discover that my identity among them was also flexible and situational. My study, therefore, is based on the premise that gender identification obscures different experiences of oppression and the workings of power. It also recognizes that contextual identification helps expose the operation of power and influences effective action. Awareness of feminist theorizing on situated knowledges, multiple standpoints, politics of location and strategic essentialism further propelled me to engage in strategic identification according to the given form of power relations at a specific moment as well as to work towards coalitional politics.
Uncritical notions of "native" anthropologists can also make researchers blind to class, caste and other power differences. As Kirin Narayan writes (1993), every author is at least minimally bicultural and therefore, it is only by situating ourselves as subjects, simultaneously touched by life experiences and swayed by professional concerns, that we can acknowledge the "hybrid and positioned nature of our identities" (672). While at one level my experiences as a Sinhala speaking Sri Lankan woman allowed me to identify with the FTZ women workers, at another level my different life experiences set me apart from them. This complex and shifting character of my positionality provided for a more dynamic understanding of the research relationships formed during the research period. My constant entrances, departures and returns shaped my relationships with the women workers at these different sites. This required continual reconstruction of my identity according to the specific power relations we confronted.
I did not try to hide my background during the research and the workers recognized me as someone from a middle class family who had a university education. Despite my fears, workers welcomed me and from the first day onward assumed that I was on their side even though I clearly had good relations with the factory managers and boarding house owners. On a general level they understood my need to have such good relations and typically were not wary of me; they confided in me and made me a special partner in some of their daily struggles. In such moments they resolved contradictions presented due to my class background by assuming the roles of educator and guide to a world that they had the courage and wherewithal to master and I was struggling to negotiate. There were tense moments when they did not know where to place me but these situations resolved quickly and my position as a dear friend among them was restored. Those tense situations notwithstanding I was fortunate enough to enjoy a general sense of acceptance, kindness and affection at all the spaces in which I associated them.
It is also interesting how I was addressed differently at each site according to where I stood on the network of power. At the factory, the workers always called me "Sandya miss," despite my repeatedly asking them to use my first name. They sometimes paired this with common endearments such as "sudhu" (fair one) or "darling." I got quite used to requests such as "Sandya miss, come here for a minute darling." At the factory I made some very close friends, whom I still visit and correspond via mail. They still insist on addressing me as miss while repeatedly affirming in conversations and in letters that I am like a sister to them. Perhaps it was not surprising considering the many markers that noted our difference within the factory. As I was helping with Line C work on a volunteer basis I did not have to report to work at a certain time even though I tried to be there on time. I was also allowed to rest on a sick room bed if I felt tired. The most notable detail which marked our difference was my frequent time-outs when I sat at Sanuja's table located by Line C to write field notes. Both the workers and supervisors used this time to make comments about their fears and anxieties about what I might be writing consequently providing even more fodder for my purposes. While one of workers' major concerns was obtaining leave I was allowed to be absent for work if I wanted. However, it was rarely that I missed work at Suishin. Even when I was in Colombo on university business or for a family matter I somehow traveled back to Katunayake for few hours at the factory. These afternoon travels allowed me to observe over time work into the night and notice the different dynamics as tiring workers became more vocal and combative. It was at these times I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt for my ability to break free when I needed to. Perhaps it was the memory of those privileges that still prevent my factory friends from calling me by any other name but class and gender specific title "miss."
In contrast, the workers I got to know at boarding houses easily started calling me Sandya akka (elder sister) after a few visits. In the same way the boarding house friends felt it more when I took breaks to visit my family home or to spend more time with my colleagues at the University of Colombo. They would call my home and urge me to come back as they are planning to cook a special dish or go see a movie that I should not miss. My family members got used to their calls and it was not uncommon for my mother or my cousin to call me to the phone by somewhat sarcastically noting that "one of your FTZ sisters is on the phone."
It is the fluctuating nature of each of our identifications as women that led me to focus on the importance of coalitional politics and strategic essentialism. According to Bernice Reagon Johnson (1983), political coalition is the only way to find cross-cultural commonalties of struggle. A political coalition requires one to have the wisdom to know when to engage and when to withdraw, when to break out and when to consolidate (explicated in Martin and Mohanty 1986:192). Gayatri Spivak calls for strategic essentialism, in which one takes women as a universal category in order to advance feminist political agenda. According to Spivak (1988), between imperialism and patriarchy there is hardly any space that the "third world gendered subaltern subject" can speak. However, without falling into the common trap of political silence, she stresses the need for representation as long as subaltern women lack the language and technologies to represent themselves. Her call for learning to "speak to" rather than "speaking for" the subaltern is of great significance for feminist political projects.
My work and relationships among the FTZ workers were informed by these perspectives. The politics of location and engagement, in particular, is an important part of my commitment to feminist research and struggle. Although I was unable to initiate any political activities with the FTZ workers during 2000, I was part of day-to-day struggles as well as several political actions taken by the NGOs with which I associated. The form and intensity of alliances that women workers sought varied depending power relations they faced at the time. They struggled over labor issues, against sexual exploitation as well as social, cultural constraints and media representations. The dynamics of shifting alliances informs my current political and educational activist work among them as well as for them through NGOs.
Free Trade Zone, Migrant Workers and Dominant Values
Sri Lanka set up its first FTZ in Katunayake (near the capital city, Colombo) in 1978 as a part of the structural adjustment policies adopted in 1977. Establishing FTZs in Katunayake, and later in Biyagama and Koggala, fulfilled a campaign promise by the United National Party (UNP), which attained power in 1977 by pledging to initiate free market and open economic policies. Located about 29 km north east of Colombo and opposite the country's only international airport, the Katunayake FTZ spans over 190 hectares of flat land. The Board of Investment of Sri Lanka (BOI) oversees this FTZ along with the others that were later established. In its attempt to attract foreign investment, Sri Lanka offered numerous incentives—such as duty free imports of machinery and raw materials, duty free exports, preferential tax, double taxation relief, unrestricted repatriation of dividends and up to 100 percent foreign ownership. One major attraction cited by the BOI in its advertising pamphlets is the "availability of a low cost, easily trainable work force." In interviews with foreign factory managers they identified Sri Lanka as "a highly favorable place to invest" (Mann 1993:24).
The Katunayake FTZ houses around a hundred multinational industries that practice a distinctively late capitalist form of gendered working relations. Garment factories, which comprise the majority of all the industries within the FTZ, recruit large numbers of young rural women from economically and socially marginalized groups to work as machine operators (Dabindu 1997:17). In 1986 between 85-90 percent of these women were unmarried, young, and well-educated, often with 8-12 years of schooling (Rosa 1990). In 1995 more than 70 percent of the workers had attended school up to grade 10 (Fine and Howard 1995). The vast majority of these young women are Sinhala in ethnicity and Buddhist by religion. I only met a handful of FTZ workers belonging to minority communities. When asked for a plausible reason, a BOI official speculated that Hindu and Muslim parents were reluctant to send their female children to live alone in the city. However, the protracted civil war between the Sinhala dominated government and the Tamil militants and the resultant tensions between the two ethnic communities seem a major reason for this imbalance. The location of the FTZs in Sinhala majority areas discourages Tamil women from seeking employment suggesting that the Sinhala dominated government designed the FTZs to provide jobs for Sinhala women from the south who will ultimately help Sinhala politicians win elections.
However, there are very few state or factory run hostel facilities even for Sinhala women who flock to the FTZ each year. People living in the area have rented hastily-built rows of rooms to these young women resulting in extremely poor living conditions. When coupled with physically and mentally arduous working conditions, the problems associated with these makeshift boarding facilities make life in the FTZ difficult (Voice of Women 1982; Dabindu 1989,1997; Fedric Ebert Stiftung 1997, Hewamanne and Brow 1999).
It is, however, their status as young women living alone and without male protection that receives the most public attention. Popular accounts of widespread pre-marital sex, rape, prostitution, abortion and infanticide simultaneously portray these women both as victims of labor and sexual exploitation and as victims of their own loose morals. Workers are identified in everyday discourses as "garment girls" and "juki pieces" and are said to be recognizable by their dress, hair styles and language. So many young women congregating in one place is such an unusual phenomenon that people call the FTZ Sthri Puraya (city of women), Prema Kalape (love zone) and Vesa Kalape (whore zone). Their neighbors in the FTZ area liken the "free living women" (ayale yana) amidst them to a great (cultural) disaster (maha vinasayak).
The reasons for such fear derive from an ideal image of the Sinhala-Buddhist woman that was constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Primarily constructed as a response to colonial discourses on women and culture, this ideal projects women as passive and subordinate beings who should be protected within the confines of their homes. As a result, women leaving their parental homes to live alone in urban, modernized spaces arouse intense anxieties about cultural degradation and female morality. These fears also emanates from a discursively constructed rural/urban divide that corresponds to binaries such as traditional/westernized and good/bad. According to this understanding rural women who have been brought up with a deep sense of shame-fear (lajja-baya) become westernized in urban spaces and consequently become bad/immoral women.
According to Gananath Obeyesekere (1984), practices of lajja-baya—to be ashamed to subvert norms of sexual modesty and proper behavior and to fear the social ridicule that results from such subversion—is instilled into Sinhala children through early childhood training (504-5). When rural women from mostly lower income/status groups migrated to work in the FTZ (and started to occupy public spaces), it was the effects on women's lajja-baya that the mostly urban, middle class commentators focused. Many commented on the lajja nethi kama (shamelessness) or lajja-baya nethi kama (without shame-fear) in FTZ workers' behavior and identified them as symptomatic of the decline of dominant Sinhala Buddhist culture.
A discursively constructed notion that claims the village is morally superior and the locus of tradition has put another burden on rural women. The belief in superior morals and undisturbed traditions is superimposed on women, creating expectations that village women are naïve, innocent (in the sense of sexually ignorant) and timid and are the unadulterated bearers of Sinhala Buddhist culture. Therefore, when these women migrated to the city and started enjoying their time away from patriarchal control, fears about their morality became a major preoccupation for urban, middle class nationalists. Like nationalists in many other postcolonial societies, they considered any threat to women's morality as a threat against the cultural purity and survival of the nation (Chatterjee 1993; McClintoch 1995).
This focus on migrant women's morality and the subsequent exaggerated reports and rumors of their sexual misadventures further stigmatizes them (Hettiarachchi 1991:56-59; Sirikatha 10/30/1995). Their reputations are tarnished by speculations about their "respectability." Protestant Buddhist traditions and discipline construct "decent and correct" manners and morals, as well as a proper attitude towards sexuality, for middle class women. Although the socio-economic circumstances of lower class/caste women are not conducive to following these rules, in rhetorical and written expressions all Sinhala Buddhist women are measured by this unitary notion of respectability. FTZ garment factory workers, who were rural women now living in the city away from their villages and freely moving around, came under harsh criticism, and their conduct became the space where deep anxieties and ambivalences over notions of development, modernity and sexuality were played out.
In the FTZ rural women encountered new global cultural flows and acquired new knowledges. As they migrated from rural agricultural communities and became subject to the discipline of capitalist industrial production, young women underwent a change in their cognitive, social, emotional and moral dispositions. It is this change that was resented by the family members, neighbors, factory managers, government and NGO officials with whom I talked. This resentment also figured heavily in the speeches of politicians. While parents and neighbors focused on the economic benefits of FTZ employment, politicians and officials representing a variety of institutions couched such benefits in terms of development, progress and modernity. They all, however, mused over the cost in moral and cultural terms and expressed hopes for development and modernity with moral reins intact. I discuss these ambivalent desires as well as the hegemonic cultural formulations that initiated such contradictory desires and meanings in Chapter 2.
The major focus of this work, however, is the way migrant FTZ garment factory workers themselves understood and responded to the new cultural discourses they encountered at the FTZ and how they also developed a new sense of themselves within and against the dominant cultural discourses. The articulation of their new sense of self as industrial workers living in the city with the apparently incompatible position of being the young unmarried daughters of patriarchal villages enabled viable spaces for creativity, tactics and strategies. These spaces, where the clash of contradictory discourses played a central part in shaping the women's responses to specific situations, figure prominently in the following six chapters. The chapters show the way garment factory workers creatively combined elements from varied discourses narratively to construct new identities. Refusing to accept identities crafted for them within various dominant discourses, they situationally negotiated alternative identities within shifting relations of power.
The focus on identity formation in this study is twofold. First, it traces the ways in which the new cultural world that women workers encounter in the FTZ influences new individual identities; second, it describes the ways in which migrant workers create an overarching identity for themselves as a gendered group of migrant industrial workers who are different both from other women and from male industrial workers. In fact, this work is concerned with the links between the construction of difference and identity. It analyzes interconnected aspects of gender, sexuality, taste and class that construct the FTZ workers as different. The gender and class stigma attached to their particular way of life plays a major part in creating difference and subsequent formation of a new group identity. The study weaves through the formation of work identities, class relations and feminist consciousness at a transnational FTZ garment factory; processes of migrant women becoming desiring subjects; and the violence that follows their refusal of embodying lajja-baya and the creation of a gendered, class culture within and against the dominant culture. After mapping this complex picture of women's social worlds in the FTZ, the study moves to sketch the way the workers reconcile their newly fashioned identities with already constructed identities imposed on them in their native villages.
Identity, Subjectivity and Consciousness
Two reasons influenced me to title this work Stitching Identities. The first was to acknowledge the extent to which Dorinne Kondo's excellent work on women workers crafting selves at a Japanese confectionary has inspired my work. The second was to evoke Stuart Hall's notion of identity as a suturing (stitching) of the subject into discursively constructed subject positions (2000:6).
As people encounter multiple cultural discourses they are confronted with numerous contradictory but possible identities that they could choose to adopt at any given time. According to Stuart Hall (1996), "the very process of identification, through which we project ourselves into our cultural identities, has become more open-ended, variable and problematic" (598). From this perspective, the sense of a coherent, unified identity is a fantasy, and the only reason for its existence is the human capacity to construct a coherent identity narrative for themselves. It is in these narratives that people combine elements from the dominant cultural world they inhabit and other extant systems of meaning. My work focuses on multiple and situational identities and the narrative construction of the self within shifting fields of power relations.
According to Foucault, subjectivities are produced as an effect through and within discourses (1973; 1978; 1979). It is the power of knowledge that ties an individual subject to his or her own identity by conscience and self knowledge. Individual subjectivities are shaped considerably by the numerous discourses that construct positions for them. Foucault's notion of subjectification, in which individuals uncritically accept the subjectivities to which they are being summoned, has been critiqued by several scholars (McNay 1994; Hall 2000). Foucault's discursively constructed subjects are docile bodies, and he neglects the psychological mechanisms through which individuals might resist the interpellation. This work attempts to avoid this weakness by focusing on agency, strategy and intentionality in migrant FTZ workers' actions as they negotiate varied discursive constructions, at different times, and analyzing how they sometimes simultaneously accept, transform, resist and reject them.
Hall (1995) writes that identity is the meeting point between ideological discourses, which attempt to interpellate us as social subjects, and psychological processes, which produce us as subjects who can speak (65). According to Hall, identities should be understood as points of suture or points of temporary attachment to already constructed positions. But effective suturing requires not only that the subject is "hailed" but also that the subject maneuvers through other potential positions and chooses and invests in the position (2000: 6). My work traverses through such processes of suturing among FTZ garment factory workers that result in situational identification with certain constructed positions such as "migrant garment girl" or "innocent village girl." My account, however, also notes the specific ways in which workers act within such positions, highlighting the experiences that fall outside the domain of the docile subject. Focusing on the situational and moving nature of their celebration and performance of identities, it also highlights the importance of analyzing the shifting matrices of power in each instance.
Hall asserts that identities are sliding" and "fictional" (1995: 65)—sliding because they are assumed after the fact and fictional because personal identities are narratives that "we tell ourselves about ourselves." Situational identification can be used as a strategic tool by developing differential consciousness, which enables individuals to re-center subjectivities according to shifting fields of power. According to Chela Sandoval (1991), differential consciousness enables movement between and among positions and in that sense operates like the "clutch of an automobile: the mechanism that permits the driver to select, engage and disengage gears in a system for the transmission of power" (14). Although articulated as an oppositional stance for the feminists of color against the hegemonic feminist praxis, Sandoval's conceptualization of differential consciousness has had far reaching effects on later theorizing on the formation of differential identity within complex networks of power. What this theorization calls for is a "tactical subjectivity with the capacity to re-center depending upon the kinds of oppression to be confronted" (14). The differential mode of oppositional consciousness depends upon an ability to read power relations and consciously choosing the most suited position to challenge that power relation.
Sandoval's conceptualization of tactical subjectivity (shifting/sliding identity) is used in my work to theorize the way FTZ working women develop oppositional consciousness through living in the FTZ and the way this consciousness facilitates movement among identity stances. However, Sandoval's notion of self conscious subjects who can freely choose to break away from ideological subjugation or discursive constructions poses certain problems. This formulation allows much space for agency and resistance within different relations of power. The problem is that we may lose sight of how not just relations but structures of power impose identities upon the social subject. This includes two things: that the so-called shifting of gears between identities may be imposed by social structures and institutions; and that the internalized doxic common-sense could also constrain agency. The power of the subject to shift gears to another identity may be extremely limited, curtailed and constrained, again both by social and psychological structures and institutions. FTZ workers certainly excel in identity games for the duration of their employment but when the very structure of this employment forces them out of their jobs after a few years there is only an extremely slim chance for them to do anything other than go back and re-assume their identities as village daughters. So, while I agree that identities are dynamic and that they shift due to one's own agency, I also hold that they are shifted for us, that there may be serious obstacles to holding onto a favorite identification and that some identities may be less dynamic and have a greater propensity towards fixity than others. Therefore, while focusing on differential consciousness, de-centered subjectivity and agency, I also pay attention to the way identities and subjectivities are constituted for us above and beyond our limited social agency.
Subject positions are discursively created slots that individuals can assume for themselves as best suits their situation. At times individuals can carve out unconventional positions for themselves. Usually the carved out positions are somewhat ambiguous and therefore are allowed to exist together with positions accorded by the social, cultural structures. New and shifting positions, which contain an explicit oppositional character, often entail a social cost to the individuals who carve out or assume such positions. In this study I focus on the way FTZ garment factory workers manipulate different conventional subject positions at the work place, boarding houses and in their narratives. They creatively maneuver among conventional subject positions and newly crafted, often oppositional positions within constantly changing matrices of power in order to negotiate situational identities.
My work concerns itself not only with the way workers develop oppositional consciousness within the FTZ but also with the multiple and contradictory consciousness that they grapple with daily. As Gramsci (1971) theorized, the everyday consciousness of the masses, or common sense, is typically incoherent, disjointed and contradictory. It is modified and transformed over time by the different philosophical currents that enter into everyday lives (362). By focusing on the plurality of identities enabled by the multiplicity of consciousness, I trace the ways in which FTZ garment factory workers move between identity stances depending on the ideological current that achieve primacy in a given moment. Women workers expressed class and feminist consciousness at one moment, yet at the next moment expressed duty and obligations to "fatherly managers" and performed nurturing roles towards male supervisors. It is in narratives about themselves that people resolve contradictions and construct a coherent identity. I focus on their narratives to show the way FTZ workers emerge as "self controlled, talented women" who enjoy the perks of modernity while at the same time maneuvering the brake pads of Protestant Buddhist moral standards.
Road Trips and Road Maps
We will bring Anura sir //
Will show the maligawa (temple of tooth relic/ vagina) //
Lalai, lilai, la —-
We will bring Weere uncle //
Will show Anti's that thing //
Lalai, lilai, la —-
We will bring Sandya akka //
Will show Saman's sthupe (Buddhist pagoda/ penis) //
Lalai, lilai, la —-
The dancing women rhythmically pointed their hands in my direction while singing that last verse. I was seated near the front of the van that the women at Saman's boarding house hired to go visit Buddhist temples at Varana and Atthanagalle. Women dancing in the middle isle of the van enormously enjoyed their song parodies to make fun of people who held power over their lives, factory bosses, boarding owners and even the researcher. I was also fascinated by how frequently they used Buddhist sacred places as symbols for sexual organs and functions. The very same women who engaged in these extreme transgression displayed deep devotion while they worshipped and meditated at the temples we visited. Then again they picked up transgressive song parodies and jokes with sexual innuendos during their return journey.
This is not the only occasion that Sri Lanka's Katunayake FTZ factory workers transgressed dominant cultural values. It would not have been surprising for them to, individually, in narratives assertions, show allegiance to dominant cultural values even while engaging in clearly transgressive behavior such as singing those verses. It is this complexity I try to capture in the following chapters.
All the chapters traverse borderlands—the critical spaces created when disparate discourses clash in a contested domain—and analyze moments of transgression as they are expressed and performed in multiple but intertwined sites. Chapter 2, which discusses discourses on women, morality and FTZ workers, is followed by chapters that trace FTZ workers' lives and the way they negotiate identities at different sites. These chapters, covering factory work, boarding house living, public recreational activities and the return journeys to villages, demonstrate how these sites are not isolated entities but ones that are deeply affected by the surrounding world. Women's experiences and responses in each of these sites were highly influenced by their experiences at other sites, and thus the chapters represent the complex interweaving of different social worlds in their everyday lives.
In chapter 2, titled "Nation, Modernity and Female Morality," I analyze the construction of an ideal image of the Sinhala Buddhist woman during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and its influence on contemporary discourses. Examining contemporary media representations (newspapers, television and movies) I show the way contemporary discourses on female morality, national culture, development and modernity have been variably influenced by earlier discursive formations and the way they present migrant FTZ factory workers with deeply ambiguous situations.
Chapter 3, titled "Rebellious Daughters and Indispensable Workers," traces the ways in which FTZ garment factory workers respond to such ambiguous situations and negotiate situational identities on the shop floor. Everyday social interactions and expressive practices are spaces where ongoing negotiations of alternative identities take place. Analyzing such spaces on the shop floor I demonstrate the way workers create and negotiate their identities—resisting, appropriating, transforming and recreating the images constructed for and about them in varied discourses.
Chapter 4, titled "Loving Daughters and Politically Active Workers," analyzes workers' political activities (collective and otherwise) that create the conditions of possibility for transformational politics. While the everyday acts of resistance discussed in Chapter 3 go on to create an oppositional culture on the shop floor, the activities analyzed in this chapter contribute towards building solidarity and alliances around specific situations or sequences of events. These political activities consist of culturally meaningful responses to specific situations at the work place that facilitate the development of oppositional political consciousness. By analyzing such practices I assert that class interests and solidarity are an integral part of cultural struggles and negotiations at Sri Lanka's FTZ factories.
Chapter 5, titled "Politics and Violence of Everyday Life," discusses the way the boarding houses are organized around patriarchal values and the way the workers create and negotiate new positions within and against these forces. By examining the workers' narratives of changing values, violence in their daily lives and everyday cultural struggles, I demonstrate how the FTZ area provides a transformative space for the workers and aids in the process of women becoming desiring subjects who nevertheless strategically move back and forth between subversion of cultural codes and an expressed loyalty to existing discursive constructions on women's lives.
Chapter 6, titled "A Culture of their Own: Creating Cultures/Expressing Identities," highlights the way the workers created alternative cultural practices as a critique of existing socioeconomic inequalities. By creating new preferences in clothing, body adornment, language and mannerism as well as different tastes in reading matter, music, film, dance forms and religious practices, they perform a different life style and a specific identity as migrant industrial workers. The chapter shows while FTZ workers' participation in stigmatized cultural practices was explicitly transgressive and critical at some levels, their demonstrated acquiescence to different hegemonic influences marks the inseparability of resistance and accommodation.
Chapter 7, titled "Juki Garments and Home Clothes," focuses on the situational nature of women's identity as migrant industrial workers by showing how women resorted to a conscious process that visually narrated a different self to the curious onlookers in their home villages. When they periodically visit their homes they took off their "FTZ clothing" and put on "village clothing." Women's changing narratives (through visuals, gestures, prosody, expressions, etc.) marked their response to social, cultural codes that sought to constrain them. Women protested against this suppression in their own locally relevant ways by smuggling "FTZ styles and knowledges" to younger village women. Manipulating differences in clothing and demeanor within the two different geographical spaces of the FTZ and their villages, women workers manage to move among a multitude of possible identities.
The epilogue contains details of several women's post-FTZ lives. They left the FTZ soon after I finished my research, and were either living in their husbands' villages or living with their parents hoping to get married. In 2003-2004 I spent eight months collecting narratives of past FTZ workers to see how they negotiated their lives within increasingly globalizing Sri Lankan villages and thus spent time talking to them, their husbands, and their new relatives. The epilogue shows how even though they were forced to select appropriate spaces (women's story telling sessions) and appropriate audiences (younger women) to raise their voice even cautiously; that they were not totally silenced. I assert, therefore, that FTZ employment could not be considered as a transitional space that had no effect on existing structures once the workers left the FTZ.
Needle Work and Respectable Women
Christian missionaries and educators in colonial times laid heavy emphasis on teaching needle work to native girls and considered it crucial in constructing a particular moral demeanor and codes of decorum appropriate for women they sought to convert. Sewing was a practice that insisted upon neatness, concentration, patience and precision, qualities which colonial writers found so lacking in native women. Needle work at that time was considered central to molding respectable, decent, and moral women. Ironically, migrating to engage in the same profession brings stigma upon today's young women. Although the association with modernity and the resultant nondomestic spaces daily threaten workers' reputations, they keep one foot firmly planted within domestic spaces such as boarding houses and village homes even while resisting codes of behavior associated with shame-fear. It is again through "needle work"—stitching, unstitching and restitching their selves to suitable subject positions—that they stretch and modify dominant notions of respectability, domesticity and religiosity to accommodate themselves.
In this sense my work is not only about identity but also about gendered discipline and sites of resistance from which FTZ workers express critical alternative perspectives and note how the intersection between global cultural flows and nationalist ideals of female morality and respectability shape new mechanisms of challenge and contestation.