Female Archaeologists in Sri Lanka

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

“Teach your daughter to use her own sword, so when she is in a battle she wouldn’t have to rely on someone else’s.”

– Zufishan Rahman

The discipline of Archaeology and the sector of Heritage Studies in Sri Lanka has mainly been male-centric and male dominant. There were only a few female scholars in the beginning. However, it seems as if the tables are changing for women in the local heritage sector. Nevertheless, she still has to face double the hardship when moving towards the higher end of the ladder of success if she is to mark her presence in the field. She will have to face many restrictions thrown her way by society and by the field itself. However, there are women scholars in the heritage sector of Sri Lanka who have climbed the highest rung on the ladder but we seldom appreciate and acknowledge them. 

 Last year, as we celebrated International Women’s Day, Ceylon Today Heritage paid tribute to pioneer female archaeologists of the world, whose paths lightened by them we are treading today. This year, we will pay tribute to young and upcoming Sri Lankan female scholars who are in the Heritage Sector, fighting hard to mark their presence, without giving in to any negative impacts and obstacles that come their way. 

There is a slight disadvantage; but…we can 

“There is a slight disadvantage in being a female archaeologist,” said Archaeologist Sandarasee Sudusinghe. “It is that we have to constantly be concerned about our safety as well as our honour. Mostly, people have a stereotypical perspective or rather a misconception about female archaeologists. But we should not let this be a hurdle in our journey; we should not be discouraged.”

 “I do not hesitate to go anywhere in the country for field work or research work as I am  confident that I can face and overcome any hurdle or challenge, holding on to my honour as well as the honour of the profession. I believe I have built up that reputation as a female archaeologist and set my boundaries,” she explained while answering our question about sexual harassment and inappropriate advances of male colleagues. 

 Sudusinghe further said that as many of us still live with the stereotypical ‘Asian Woman’ mindset deeply embedded in our consciousness, we are being held more responsible and tied down to family ties and therefore female archaeologists find it difficult to dedicate time for field work or to be actively involved in research work.

 “However these obstacles do not apply to all women as some cannot be pulled down or defeated by anything.” 

According to Sudusinghe, another trend that can be seen in this discipline is that women give up Archaeology and choose a job that has flexible working hours and easy office work as they give priority to the family.

“But I must say that as long as you have the willpower, there is no work within this discipline a woman cannot take up successfully,” concluded Sudusinghe. 

 Let’s stand up for womanhood…

As this is mainly a male-centric and male dominant field, women fall prey to workplace harassment. In such instances, either women keep quiet, without raising their voices, silently enduring everything out of the fear of losing their degree, job or promotion. In some cases we see that women even give in. This is pathetic. Sometimes female students and scholars fall prey to their male colleagues. As it has become easier for them to climb the ladder with favours or in other words transactions, it seems to be acceptable. If a female scholar disagrees with such transactions, her journey towards success is made extra harder. 

Making things worse, such advances, even sexual advances by males are hardly seen as ‘harassment’. 

Nothing is an obstacle if you have willpower… 

Sharing her views as a fresh and promising Archaeologist, K.L. Yashmi Nayanarashi said that she doesn’t consider being a woman as an obstacle to becoming an archaeologist if there is strong willpower and passion. 

“However as everything in Sri Lanka is politicised, you may experience disheartening situations at times.”

 Talking about sexual harassment, according to Nayanarashi, as long as a woman knows to set up boundaries and be safe, no one can influence or force her in any way. 

 “I make sure that my colleagues know who I am. I will come forward and take action if I encounter such people. We should reveal those who harass women.”

 She further said that it is impossible to change how others think, and how workplace harassment is common in many disciplines; nevertheless as Archaeology is a field based discipline, there are chances for such things happening. 

 “I believe it is also our responsibility to make sure not to entertain such advances and to set boundaries.”

 “A woman is an extraordinarily beautiful creation. No man can reach her strength and willpower. Although a woman may appear to be soft and fragile, her strength is unmatchable. No matter how hard society tries to tear her down, rip her apart, no matter how many obstacles are thrown in front of her, a woman should not feel discouraged. A woman should not step backwards in such instances.” 

 Nayanarashi further said that, as we live in a society in which the blame is always put upon the woman, even though she is not to be blamed, it is a sad situation.

“As I said women also should be responsible in making sure they are not victims of such people. A woman should not let the people around her tarnish the honour of womanhood,” she concluded.  

“The biggest barrier for women is the thought that they can’t have it all.”

– Cathy Engelbert, CEO Deloitte

Sri Lankan women are the country’s legacy bearers…

The Director General of Archaeology, Senior Professor Anura Manatunge joined with us to share his views on this. He being a lecturer in Archaeology for more than three decades said that, although there are a notable number of female students who study archaeology as a subject in the university, only a very few go far in their careers as Archaeologists. 

 “Talking about the heritage of Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan women carry the legacy of our culture and our past. The most precious and sacred objects we culturally possess were brought to us by women; they are the Sri Maha Bodhi tree and the Tooth Relic gifted to us by Bhikkhuni Arhat Sanghamitta and Princess Hemamala.  The world’s first lady Prime Minister was a Sri Lankan woman. Sri Lankan women are known to be smart, brave and choose challenges. They excel in many disciplines. However, unfortunately, we see a low number of women who are involved in the heritage sector. We can identify two main reasons for this.”

Archaeology is not only field work, it has more aspects…

“One reason is that in the past archaeological work was mainly confined to only field work. Archaeology, Geography and Geology were subjects like that. Women were reluctant to take up such subjects back then. As many Sri Lankan women were used to household jobs and jobs with more flexible working times, women were reluctant to take up archaeology as a career. This was because of the misconception that women cannot work in harsh environments such as the jungle. This is wrong; women are capable of and are successful in doing fieldwork in Archaeology.” 

 According to the DG the second reason is the outdated conception that Archaeology is all about field work. 

“There is so much work women can do in this discipline, apart from fieldwork. Archaeology is not all or only about fieldwork. There is research, lab work, library research, writing and publication and educating the public. These are the works of an Archaeologist. We used to think that Archaeology was all about doing adventurous discoveries in the jungle,” explained the DG. 

The Department practices gender equality…

Answering a question about how the Department of Archaeology will encourage our female archaeologists, the DG said that the Department is not at all gender biased in any work they do. They practice gender equality in every possible way. “We do not differentiate when recruiting employees.”

 “We are implementing policies and a work environment where women feel safe and welcomed; because a woman is a mother, a sister and a daughter. In all of our office documents we use the term mahathmiya and mahathmaya, instead of mahathmaya and mahathmiya; this is to prioritise and honour women.”

Although many university students study Archaeology as a subject at the university many of them opt for other jobs or choose family care after marriage. One reason for this is as the DG explained that the attitude is that Archaeology is all about a field-subject. Therefore, once field work is no more, scholars think their career in Archaeology or Heritage Studies is over. 

We need to conduct research 

Things are changing now. It is high time that female Archaeologists choose to challenge and work hard to mark their signature in the field and make us feel their presence. We also need to find out and research why female representation in the field of Archaeology is so very low. Such research has been done in the U.S. and some European countries. 

Changing attitudes…

If a woman who is qualified as an Archaeologist chooses family care over a career as an Archaeologist; it is a personal choice. But, women being persuaded or pressured to leave the field due to other reasons we have mentioned here is pathetic. They are avoidable if necessary policies are implemented and also of course with an attitude change in society. It is also crucial to redefine the role of an Archaeologist not confining it only to field work. 

Let’s take the lead…

As we celebrate womanhood this month, let us hope we will one day be fortunate enough to witness a female Director General of Archaeology and female Archaeologists/ Historians holding high positions in the discipline. Let us encourage our female scholars in the discipline of Heritage Studies and make sure they are safe, secure and empowered in this male-dominant, male-centric discipline.

“The thing women have yet to learn is nobody gives you power. You just take it.

– Roseanne Barr

Uncategorized, Female archaeologists, Feminist approach to archaeology, Sri Lankan female archaeologists, Women in archaeology