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Everyday Resistance

Raksha Vasudevan

2. Theoretical Framework

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1Rather than fitting neatly into any single theory, the vulnerabilities faced by FHHs and their responses to these necessitate an analysis that draws on insights offered by various gender, security, and resistance theories. Diverse perspectives from feminist literature, political science, refugee studies and anthropology are also integrated to form a holistic lens for approaching the research questions.

2.1 Defining “households” from a feminist perspective

  • 1  For a longer discussion of these debates, see Chant (1997) or Ruwanpura and Humphries (2004).

2Several conceptual problems present themselves when considering exactly what a “household” consists of1. For example, should they be defined physically, so as to comprise persons who normally live together in a house, or should a definition also include blood and/or marriage relations that physically live elsewhere but participate financially, either by contributing to or drawing on household assets?

3“Headship” is also a troublesome concept – as Chant (1997) points out: does it refer to the main financial contributor, to the primary caretaker of children, to those performing other household maintenance duties? Also, does it change with time – for example, does it make a difference if a spouse is only away temporarily rather than permanently? In their research on eastern Sri Lanka, Ruwanpura and Humphries (2004) found that a significant minority of the FHHs in their study were married, with the husband remaining in the household. However, these women nonetheless bore primary responsibility for the emotional and financial well-being of the family, thereby substantiating feminist scholars’ claims that the presence of an adult male does not automatically denote headship, and that women often “invisibly” bear the headship burden in various ways. As Ruwanpura and Humphries state, “the struggle to develop a taxonomy that accommodates the many different types of female-headed households while simultaneously recognizing their common denominator, reflects an important general tension in feminist research between an insistence on the varied nature of women’s experience alongside an identification of gender as a meaningful category of analysis” (2004, 176).

  • 2  In their research in eastern Sri Lanka, Amirthalingam and Lakshman (2012) found that any income of (...)

4For the purposes of this ePaper, FHHs were defined to include those women who had primary financial responsibility for themselves, or for themselves and dependents2. This usually encompassed family members who lived under a single roof, with some exceptions (e.g., a child who had migrated elsewhere but was sending remittances back home would be counted as part of the “household”). In this research, the most common routes into female headship were widowhood, the disappearance of husband or desertion/divorce, in that order.

  • 3  Further research should be conducted on this group of women because they tend to be overlooked in (...)

5This study did include a few women whose husbands were either temporarily missing, or were present but with the woman still bearing the primary financial burden of keeping the household together. However, they were not actively sought out and so their representation within the study is not significant3.

2.2 What is “gender analysis”?

6Gender analysis deals fundamentally with questions of identity and power relations. Although it is generally women who have traditionally been marginalized in various spheres, patriarchy is the real focus of gender analysis, and it affects both men and women. As Hoogensen and Rottem (2004) put it, “patriarchy normalizes constructed gender dichotomies. It normalizes practices and relationships so that gender becomes hidden, unessential and irrelevant. Patriarchy is the expression of the dominant masculinism” (164). It is on this model that assumptions about what is good for individuals and states are built.   

7It is important to note that gender analysis yields different results depending on the culture, society, group and time period under study. Hyndman and De Alwis contend that “recognising the multiplicity of power relations that situate individuals and groups within a context of conflict is crucial; one is never just a woman, but is always a woman from somewhere who may belong to or identify with particular social, cultural, and/or political groups” (2004, 539). Thus, although gender may not be the most important factor in determining the social relations of all groups at all times – class, caste, ethnicity, age and a variety of other factors may be equally or more significant – it is nonetheless viewed as a primary, cross-cutting variable in understanding the range and uniqueness of the vulnerabilities that FHHs face, and the resources and strategies that they draw upon in response.

2.2.1 (In)security through a gender lens

8“Security” has become a much-contested term in the realm of international relations and domestic politics. It was traditionally conceptualised at the state level as the imperative of a sovereign country to protect its territory and citizens from external threats. However, the concept of “human security,” which holds individuals and groups as its main referents, has emerged in recognition of the fact that the state may pose a threat to its own citizens, and that what may be good for “national security” is not necessarily good for all of those living within national boundaries. This human-centred security perspective is also more in line with a subjective conception of security, which places more weight on individuals’ perceptions of threats and risks. This is in contrast to the idea of objective security, which is thought to be achieved when there is an absence of objective dangers, or “when the dangers posed by manifold threats, challenges, vulnerabilities and risks are avoided, prevented, managed, coped with, mitigated and adapted to” (Brauch 2011, 61).

  • 4  As Blanchard states, “national security discourses are typically part of the elite world of mascul (...)

9In a similar way that a human-centred approach challenges traditional conceptions of security, feminist scholars have begun questioning what security means for women struggling against threats to their personal well-being in the context of patriarchy (Blanchard, 2003). Specifically, they have problematized 1) the alleged irrelevance of women in international security issues and politics, and underlying exclusionary processes4; 2) the ways in which gendered security practices also affect men; and 3) the conception of states as “protectors” of women when they are usually “implicated in the reproduction of hierarchies and in the structural violence against which they claim to offer protection” (Peterson 1992, 51).

10Ultimately, through taking a human-centred, gender-sensitive approach, “security becomes reconstructed on the basis of women’s experiences of violence, interrelating violence on the local, national and international levels, and eradicating structural violence instead of primarily focusing on the direct violence of war” (Hoogensen and Rottem 2004, 167). Although this ePaper tries to address both the objective and subjective dimensions of (in)security in northern Sri Lanka, more weight is naturally placed on the latter dimension given the focus on experiences of (in)security of a particular population (i.e., FHHs).

2.2.2 Gender and security in post-war situations

  • 5  In contrast, Cockburn (2004) argues that distinguishing between peace/war and similarly prewar/pos (...)

11Post-war situations are usually critical moments in determining women’s (in)security going forward, although such periods tend to show strong correlations with the nature of gender relations in the society as it existed prior to the armed conflict (UN, 2002). In many cases, women face both the same violence that they had endured before the conflict started, as well as new forms of aggression created, for example, by different forms of state/armed group control5.

12Pankhurst argues that during these moments “the state becomes instrumental in enforcing controls over women’s sexuality; fails to increase, or prevent a decline in, women’s personal security; imposes legal, or supports social, restrictions on women’s movement, access to housing, jobs, and property (especially land), and marginalized women’s health needs” (2007, 2). Furthermore, women’s needs are often marginalized during these times in decision-making and reconstruction processes (Pankhurst 2007). This is both fuelled and exacerbated by the fact that they usually have lesser access to resources and opportunities for participation in public life than men do, both during and following a conflict (UN 2002).

13On the other hand, it has been argued that the aftermath of conflict can open new spaces for women, by compelling them to take on new, non-traditional roles and tasks. Changes in economic power within households, interactions with different actors (voluntarily or otherwise), changes in their “consciousness” and self-organization (e.g., through the formation of women’s groups) have been observed in some countries. However, the extent to which these changes affect pre-existing gender power structures seems, in most cases, to be limited (UN 2002).

14The Sri Lankan case offers a unique opportunity to analyse the intersections of gender, ethnicity, security and violence both during and following a conflict situation (Jean Wood 2009). Two competing images of women and their roles have emerged: one of the masculinized “woman warrior,” and the other of the “helpless victim” of war and displacement – both of which warrant further analysis. Another unique feature of this conflict was the LTTE’s brutal non-tolerance of sexual harassment of Tamil women both within their own ranks, and in the areas which they controlled. Although they inflicted several forms of harm on civilians (e.g., forced displacement, compulsory taxation), sexual violence was rarely among these. How this legacy of sexual purity and protection continues to shape women’s identities today, in an environment drastically different from that existing under LTTE rule, is explored further on.

2.3 Defining “vulnerability” and its responses

15Vulnerability theories exist across different disciplines, each with differing views on risks, responses and outcomes (Alwang, Siegel and Jørgensen 2001). Unsurprisingly, economics tends to focus on incomes, with vulnerability commonly conceptualized as the risk probability that a household will fall under a poverty threshold or will experience a loss of certain assets within a given period of time. Risk is managed ex ante (e.g., precautionary savings, purchasing insurance) and ex post (e.g., sales of assets, allocation of assets).

16The sustainable livelihoods literature, which draws on many of Amartya Sen’s concepts, views vulnerability as the probability that “livelihood stress” will occur – i.e., that a loss of livelihood will occur. This could result from external risks, shocks, or stress and/or an internal inability to protect against or cope with such shocks. This literature also distinguishes between “structural vulnerability” and “proximate vulnerability”, with the former encompassing those long-term underlying features that render a household vulnerable (e.g., headship, age, number of sick or elderly dependents), and the latter being those factors which can change over a period of time (e.g., seasonal productivity).

17Sociologists and anthropologists have expanded the discussion on vulnerability beyond physical and financial factors to include social capital and the strength of social relations. The disaster management literature focuses on groups’ exposure to, and ability to cope with environmental hazards and shocks.

  • 6  Amirthalingam and Lakshman (2012) assert that the value of women’s unpaid, non-market work is sign (...)

18All of these vulnerability frameworks offer valuable insights when examining the situation of FHHs in northern Sri Lanka. Drawing from the sustainable livelihoods approach, households headed by women, in a society where males are traditionally responsible for the majority of income-generating activities, are assumed to be structurally vulnerable due to the very fact that females are at their head. The fact that many of them experienced severe emotional and physical trauma during the war, especially during the last and most intense phase in 2009, adds to the structural vulnerability of these households. Single women also face the additional burden of balancing paid work with household responsibilities, including cleaning, cooking, child care, and care for the elderly. In other words, they suffer not only from financial poverty, but also from “time poverty” (Holmes and Jones 2010)6.

19Related to the idea of structural vulnerability, Thomson’s definition of “vulnerable” is also helpful to keep in mind in considering the extent to which FHHs are impacted by state measures: “by vulnerable I mean those individuals who, due to adverse economic, social, and political factors, have no adequate emotional or physical protection from the government, which in turn makes it difficult for them to anticipate, adapt to, resist, and recover from state-led interventions in their daily lives” (2011, 20).

20In this analysis, vulnerabilities have been grouped under the categories of “economic”, “physical” and “psycho-social” to facilitate a more nuanced understanding of each, and to highlight the multiple facets of vulnerability facing FHHs. However, these categories are admittedly arbitrary, and while definitions of vulnerability vary across disciplines, most agree that the multiple dimensions of vulnerability are overlapping and deeply interlinked. Furthermore, as with the concept of security, vulnerability can also either be measured using objective benchmarks (e.g., financial savings, social networks), or it can be based on individuals’ subjective perceptions of their own exposure to different types of risk. This ePaper tries to achieve a balance between both perspectives in discussing the vulnerabilities of FHHs.

2.3.1. Response strategies: beyond livelihoods to everyday politics

21To address the second research question dealing with women’s response strategies, it is necessary to have a sufficiently broad appreciation of the many behaviours, actions, and thought processes that could be considered as “everyday politics.” This awareness is especially important in post-war situations which, as noted before7, can present new opportunities for women in terms of their roles and identities.

22In his study of war-affected eastern Sri Lanka, Korf adapts the sustainable livelihoods approach which views vulnerability as the probability that a loss of livelihood will occur from either external shocks or factors internal to the individuals or communities. Specifically, he views coping strategies as short-term responses to periodic financial stress or sudden political or natural shocks. In the long term, as the environment stabilizes, households tend to employ a new, adapted “portfolio” approach built from elements of the former, pre-shock strategies and more recent short-term coping strategies (Korf 2003).

23Although this definition is a good starting point, it is limited in its focus on economic survival, thereby ignoring emotional coping processes, among others. It also assumes that households respond to adverse circumstances in completely conscious, rational and apolitical ways. A more holistic definition of coping is provided by Perera, who sees it as:  

the process through which the individual manages the demands of the person-environment relationship that are appraised as stressful, and the emotions they generate’ (Lazarus et al 1984). Therefore, one can say that to cope suggests the ability to handle, tolerate or decrease the impact of a threatening situation on the physical and psychological well-being. These strategies can include activities or thought processes. (1999, 108)

24While this definition addresses the first limitation by taking into account emotional coping mechanisms, it also assumes that individuals consciously manage the multiplicity of response strategies that they employ, and that these are not political choices. To understand how this may not always be the case, the idea of “everyday politics” is useful:  traditionally thought of as being confined to the formal realm of politicians and governments, Kerkvliet suggests instead that politics encompasses all those activities and actors involved in the control, allocation, production, and use of resources. These can include tangible assets such as land or money, or intangible ones, such as education and social prestige. Thus,

Everyday politics involves people embracing, complying with, adjusting, and contesting norms and rules regarding authority over, production of, or allocation of resources and doing so in quiet, mundane, and subtle expressions and acts that are rarely organised or direct. Key to everyday politics’ dierences from ocial and advocacy politics is it involves little or no organisation, is usually low profile and private behaviour, and is done by people who probably do not regard their actions as political. (Kerkvliet 2009, 232)

25Through such behaviours, individuals may consciously or unknowingly contest established orders of domination, and may do so not necessarily to show ideological dissent, but rather as practical responses to immediate concerns in their daily lives. This is closely tied with the sociological idea of resistance, which encompasses both direct opposition (e.g., protests, petitions) but also those everyday actions which hold “potential for subversion and contestation in the interstices of established orders” (Kandiyoti 1998, 141). Common examples include lying, evasion, silence and cheating.

26In her research on the reactions of rural Rwandans to the national unity and reconciliation structures imposed by the state in the aftermath of the genocide, Thomson conceptualizes everyday acts of resistance as “any subtle, indirect, and non-confrontational act that makes daily life more sustainable under a strong and centralized state power” (2011, 446). According to Thomson, such acts are characterized by three qualities: 1) persistence and purpose to accomplish a specific goal, 2) a lack of awareness by the target of the act, and 3) some short or long-term benefit to the resister. She notes that a continuum of such resistance acts exists, and depends largely on the circumstantial limitations and opportunities confronting individuals: for example, the mere attempt to maintain control of resources if state authorities are attempting to confiscate them could be considered an act of everyday resistance.

27Thus, the term “response strategy” is preferred in this ePaper to denote a broad range of short and long-term activities. These go beyond those actions employed solely for purposes of economic survival to also include emotional coping mechanisms and actions of everyday politics.


1  For a longer discussion of these debates, see Chant (1997) or Ruwanpura and Humphries (2004).

2  In their research in eastern Sri Lanka, Amirthalingam and Lakshman (2012) found that any income of households headed by females was usually earned by females.

3  Further research should be conducted on this group of women because they tend to be overlooked in “official” statistics of FHHs, and they face particular challenges: as Ruwanpura and Humphries state, “the presence of a dependent adult male in the household entails additional demands on resources while simultaneously making it more difficult for the de facto female head to tap into support from kin or the state” (2004, 186).

4  As Blanchard states, “national security discourses are typically part of the elite world of masculine high politics. Statesmen, diplomats, and the military conduct the business of states, and too often war, imbuing the relations and processes of the society of nation-states with an atmosphere seemingly devoid of women and an interest in issues of concern to women” (2003, 1289).

5  In contrast, Cockburn (2004) argues that distinguishing between peace/war and similarly prewar/postwar is largely meaningless when using a gender “lens” to analyse violence. According to her, gendered violence flows through all of these stages, albeit to different degrees in different moments, forming what could be conceived of as a “gendered continuum of violence”.

6  Amirthalingam and Lakshman (2012) assert that the value of women’s unpaid, non-market work is significant: while difficult to quantify, they argue that in at least one case, it is worth 6,000 Rs. per year.

7  See section 2.2.2 Gender and security in post-war situations.


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