From Cornell International Affairs Review VOL. 7 NO. 2
Women of War: The Female Fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
Who are Female LTTE Combatants? Women as Victims
The emergence of female combatants in the LTTE, however, has also prompted great debate about the victimization of women soldiers. Conservative Tamils who argue against the role of women militants often believe that females who join the fight have been manipulated and are defying Sri Lanka’s socio-cultural norms. Some human rights activists perceive their involvement as a “support service, an instrument in the leadership’s armour”.36 Although many of these opponents provide compelling reasons to sympathize with the female fighters as victims of the LTTE, I believe that many women’s roles as combatants against the oppressive state provided them with the means to actively empower themselves.
During the early stages of the war, it was quite common for the LTTE to target schools and villages in hopes of luring women into joining their cause. A young female soldier at the Methsevana Government Rehabilitation Center for Girls in Nugegoda recalls the LTTE’s manipulative recruitment methods and how she became trapped in a life of fighting. She says:
When I was sixteen the LTTE came to school and showed us war movies. Before that, they showed us karate videos. That’s why I wanted to join for the karate. At first I liked it the training, the uniform, the weapons. I didn’t learn karate but I learned how to shoot, and I enjoyed firing a weapon … After a while, I realized how much I missed my family, and I felt such loneliness, I cried every night. But we couldn’t go home … It was a one-way door; you could go in, but you couldn’t go out.37
As the young combatant’s account exemplifies, the LTTE employed a variety of methods to bring young soldiers into their ranks. A Tamil Catholic priest, Father Sebastian, explains how the LTTE “don’t drag children out of their homes, they don’t coerce them, but they do entice them. They [mostly] join voluntarily.”38
Newspaper and television accounts of young female members of the LTTE depict individuals who are “fanatically devoted to Prabhakaran” and who will “die for their homeland.”39 These young, impressionable girls did not initially see past the initial allure of fighting for their nation. The notion that they might be able to escape their constrained lives and enter an exciting and “cool” adventure appealed to many Tamil women.40 Others were drawn to the fighting because of the more practical reason of the LTTE’s pledge to provide security against the Sri Lankan army.41
Regardless of their reasons for joining, the majority of women did not realize how they would subsequently be bound by their choice to enlist. If they did join, they could not leave; it was a “one-way door,” as those trapped behind it described their situation. These individuals, both women and men alike, renounced their childhood through the very act of joining the LTTE. The LTTE sought to lure young soldiers in, through any means necessary, in order to secure more fighters for the movement.
One might also argue that the LTTE victimized its female soldiers by using them merely as a means to achieve the ultimate goal of an independent homeland. Adamant opponents of the LTTE, such as Radhika Coomaraswamy, have even gone so far as to describe the female soldiers as “cogs in the wheel” of male leadership of the LTTE.42 Critics of LTTE female mobilization see these women as victims of the Prabhakaran’s patriarchal nationalist project as well as the Sri Lankan military’s oppression. Christine Sixta argues that female fighters are caught within the “triple bind of oppression”: simultaneously battling Western oppression, societal [the state’s] oppression, and internal oppression within their own insurgent groups.43 Most notably, as a result of this “patriarchal containment” within their chosen militant groups, women enjoy only “agentive moments in an interregnum where normalcy is suspended and there is license to transform taboo and social convention.”44
These moments exemplify the LTTE’s initial reasons for recruiting female soldiers. Female combatants such as members of the Black Tigers – a largely suicide bombing division of the LTTE – were used as exploitable resources.45 The LTTE profited from the fact that many women such as the infamous Dhanu – the Black Tiger responsible for the death of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991– were willing to sacrifice themselves for the liberation of the Tamil people.46
Despite these arguments critiquing the militarization of females in the LTTE, I believe it is difficult to deny the first-hand accounts of self-empowerment and liberation by female soldiers. Although the LTTE did, at times, utilize deceitful methods of recruitment, those who enlisted were nevertheless motivated by a desire to either help their homeland or better themselves. Some research shows that even in cases of forcible recruitment, levels of participation were better explained by the impact of the Sri Lankan state’s repression on women’s political ideals than by how they were recruited.47 It is true that the LTTE recruited its soldiers with the pragmatic and instrumental aim of strengthening its army and fighting for an autonomous homeland. However, it is also important to note that many of the women who voluntarily or coercively joined the army, were ultimately driven by dual aspirations: to emancipate themselves as women as well as by their hopefulness and determination to secure greater power for the Tamil population as a whole.
If one looks at first-hand accounts by female soldiers, it is clear that these women envisioned a Tamil emancipation – in addition to their own liberation – when first joining the LTTE. For example, in her personal diary, Dhanu conveys her duty as a Tamil individual to liberate her people. She writes: “the most important liberation struggle was the struggle for Eelam and the liberation of the Tamil people.”48 Thus, the LTTE’s fight against the state symbolizes more than just self-empowerment for those women engaging in combat: it is a chance to emancipate all Sri Lankan Tamils.
Those who argue that women such as Dhanu were merely a means to an end for the LTTE fail to acknowledge the personal benefits that the LTTE enabled many of its militants to gain. Most importantly, females fighting in the public sphere were able to attain a sense of liberation that might have otherwise been impossible to achieve in the domestic sphere. For many women, this liberation came in the form of emancipation, and extended freedom and mobility in their everyday lives. The LTTE’s construction of new gender roles for the women provided them with the opportunity to envision identities beyond their domestic duties, and to actively contribute to the fight for a homeland.
The “conservative feminised ideal is now a public figure engaged in masculine activities and repudiating patriarchal norms of womanhood.”49 These women yearned for the life of a fighter, in order to break through the deeply-rooted hierarchical gendered structure of society. Tamilini, head of the women’s political wing in the Sri Lankan postconflict processes, proclaimed: “Now there is acceptance of the LTTE women as equal within the movement.”50 It is clear that many women also greatly benefited from the LTTE’s services, such as military and leadership training. Such training and fighting in the battlefield provided numerous women with the strength and self-empowerment to defend their equality and fight for their homeland.
Additionally, joining the LTTE provided women with the practical skills and means needed to protect themselves. Balasingham writes: “Young women demanded their right to self-defense and their right to exercise their patriotic sentiments.”51 The LTTE leadership expressed its commitment to the emancipation and equality of women and welcomed such demands by expanding its military program for female combatants. Margaret Trawick’s research on why girls joined the LTTE revealed the shared belief that they were safest in the company of their LTTE brethren.
One female combatant, Nalini, stated: “there is no fear in the jungle.”52 The LTTE protected her from the Sri Lankan army while in the jungle and provided women like her with the necessary means to defend themselves – namely, AK- 47s and T56s. Without the LTTE, these women might be living in constant fear, and their lives would likely be severely limited by the conflict. Instead, they became active agents of their own survival, strength, and empowerment.
Although the Sri Lankan Civil War has left thousands of Tamil women in a position of helplessness and vulnerability at the hands of the state, there are many others who grew stronger and more empowered as a result of their participation in the violent and decadeslong conflict. Today, in post-war Sri Lanka, this newfound sense of inner strength and empowerment has radically shifted the way that many Tamil women approach everyday life and societal issues. As militarization post- 2009 reaches extreme levels, many Tamil women face a “desperate lack of security” and continue to “live in fear of violence” from the state (International Crisis Group, i).53
Although many ex-female combatants continue to face economic constraints, limited mobility, and imminent displacement by the state, their experience in the war led to the reconstruction of gender identities and subsequent empowerment. These women were, in turn, able to cultivate high levels of commitment to a violent resistance movement and a nationalist cause.54 The issue remains, however, that enduring militarization under the Sri Lankan government continues to dictate what avenues are available to them and whether or not they will ever feel secure again.
Considering how recent this phenomenon of post-war militarization policy is, there is still a considerable amount of research needed to fully grasp the social and psychological impact of state militarization. On the one hand, Tamil activists have used this militarization in instrumental ways to further delegitimize the Sri Lankan state. Political analysts, on the other hand, continue to monitor the state’s activity in the northern and eastern Tamil provinces, in hopes of preventing the recurrence of violent conflict.55
Until the state acknowledges the oppressed situation of these ex-combatant Tamil women and takes action to address it, there will always be a “latent potential for a resurgence in violent forms of resistance – particularly amongst Tamil women.”56 These female fighters’ experiences fighting in the Civil War enabled may to attain personal liberation and continues to fuel their desire to liberate the Tamil people.