Stitching Identities in a Free Trade Zone: Gender and Politics in Sri Lanka

Stitching Identities in a Free Trade Zone: Gender and Politics in Sri Lanka

Stitching Identities in a Free Trade Zone: Gender and Politics in Sri Lanka

Stitching Identities in a Free Trade Zone: Gender and Politics in Sri Lanka


Anthropologist Sandya Hewamanne spent time in a Sri Lankan free trade zone (FTZ) working and living among the workers to learn about their lives. "They were poor women from rural areas," Hewamanne writes, "who migrated to do garment work in transnational factories of a global assembly line. Their difficult work routines and sad living conditions have been examined in detail. When I was with them I often wondered whether anyone noticed the smiles, winks, smirks, gestures, tones of voice, the movies they saw, or the songs they sang." Hewamanne deftly weaves theories of identity, globalization, and cultural politics throughout her detailed accounts of the workers' efforts to negotiate ever shifting roles and expectations of gender, class, and sexuality.

By analyzing how these workers claim political subjectivity, Hewamanne's Stitching Identities in a Free Trade Zone challenges conventional notions about women at the bottom of the global economy. The book offers a fascinating journey through the vibrant subaltern universe of Sri Lankan female migrant workers, from the FTZ factory shop floor to boarding houses, from urban movie theaters to temples and beaches and back to their native rural villages. Stitching Identities in a Free Trade Zone captures the spirit with which women confront power and violence through everyday poetics and politics, exploring how female workers construct themselves as different while investigating this difference as the space where deep anxieties and ambivalences over notions of nation, modernity, and globalization get played out.


December 2005

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 the revelers on the dance 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 was the same Suishin garment factory where I had roamed almost freely for seven months in 2000, getting to know workers and letting them get to know me. True, their annual Christmas party was of a much grander scale this time, with an outdoor stage decorated in red velvet curtains, a better-known band, beer and Coca-Cola fountains for unlimited drinks, and several games, including a beerdrinking competition. But there were familiar sights too, such as the women’s brightly colored, glittery party dresses, gold jewelry, and 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 were placed on the edge of the party grounds in readiness to ship the garments that these women workers produced earlier in the day. I had 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 midsection of his body and in his face. Maybe it befit 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 his 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.

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