Women of War: The Female Fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

By Erin Alexander
Cornell International Affairs Review
2014, Vol. 7 No. 2 | pg. 1/2 |

Introduction

Since the start of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 1983, Tamil women have occupied a key role in the conflict. In the struggle for the anticipated state of Tamil Eelam, the socio-cultural role of women underwent, and continues to undergo, a radical transformation.1 As a result of this “gendered reconstruction of womanhood,” women are no longer constrained to the household during times of war, but instead, frequently venture out into the battlefields, sideby- side with their male combatant counterparts.2

Looking back at the 26-year-long battle between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan state, one can see that women do indeed play a vital role in times of violent conflict. The question remains, however, whether the female LTTE combatants have been manipulated into becoming victims of war by the male-dominated insurgency, or whether they have become agents of their own empowerment through their participation in the conflict.

This paper explores the gendered dimensions of ethnic conflict, with a focus on the role that women have played in the LTTE. I analyze the gendered reconstruction of Tamil women in war to determine whether their participation in violence has altered their selfperception and, to a lesser extent, society’s view of female combatants. My analysis is based on many sources that offer first-hand knowledge of, and interviews with, female LTTE fighters. In order to better understand the roots of the conflict between the Tamil and Sinhalese peoples of Sri Lanka, Section II first provides a brief history of the Sri Lankan Civil War, leading up to the rise of the LTTE during the 1983 to 2009 time period. Part III outlines the LTTE’s role in the war, and how it transformed socio-cultural norms in Sri Lanka by mobilizing Tamil women to fight.

Next, Part IV focuses on the subsequent effects that mobilization of female combatants had on society and, more importantly, on the women involved in the conflict. I will examine how female sentiments were manifested in either a positive, self-empowering light, or a negative, victimized manner. Finally, the conclusion of the paper looks at ex-LTTE female fighters in today’s Tamil society. While the recruitment of female combatants by the LTTE has been perceived by many to be an act of victimization by the male leaders of the conflict, I believe that this new role for women serves as a potential means of self-empowerment through defying societal, socio-cultural norms.

Historical Background and the Rise of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

As a consequence of European imperialism and internal ethnic fragmentation, Sri Lanka has experienced a relentless string of conflicts over the reclamation of its land. Since the sixteenth century, Sri Lanka has been an object of European desire and possession. In 1505, the Portuguese colonized the island and divided it into seven warring factions. Nearly a century later, the Dutch arrived and began ruling the Sinhalese and Tamil kingdoms, falling short of capturing the prized Kandyan kingdom (see Appendix A). Upon the British arrival in 1815, the Kingdom of Kandy was finally seized and the island was eventually politically “unified.” However, a truly unified nation was never achieved.3

The very tenets of the women’s front, the female division inside the LTTE, were constructed around gender equality and transforming the gender status quo.

Britain’s preferential treatment of the minority Tamil ethnic group over the larger ethnic Sinhalese population only served to exacerbate existing tensions. Since the beginning of British rule over Sri Lanka in 1815, the Tamils, who made up 22 percent of the Sri Lankan population, had disproportionate access to English education and civil services.4 Despite the post-colonial attempts to address and rectify the disparities among ethnic groups, the psychological legacy of colonial oppression led Tamils to continue viewing themselves as rightful but oppressed occupants of their homeland.

Following Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, the Tamil people started to push for greater autonomy, and the idea of establishing a Tamil Eelam became more and more appealing to them. The newly founded Sinhalese government quickly began disenfranchising the previously politically privileged Tamil people, creating a mode of political representation based on the majority ethnic political parties.5 Sinhalese candidates began running on platforms of “Sinhalese-only,” promising to “restore Buddhism to its proper place in society.”6 These political tactics appealed to the masses, and Sinhalese electoral victories affirmed Tamil perceptions that they were the true minority in the hands of the Sinhala majority.

It quickly became apparent that bureaucratic methods of secession, such as the system of District Development Councils, would not prove acceptable to the Tamils. Resentment intensified, and in 1975 a young, radical Tamil named Veupillai Prabhakaran shot and killed the moderate Tamil mayor of Jaffna. This one action ultimately set in motion what was to follow: the Tamils’ relentless and bloody fight for autonomy – bypassing all means of diplomacy or negotiated settlements.7

Prabhakaran’s assassination of the mayor of Jaffna was only the beginning in his ultimate ambition to achieve a separatist Tamil state. Just one year later, in 1976, Prabhakaran pioneered the use of suicide bombers, disguised in black uniforms with their heads masked and known to many as the “Black Tigers.”8 On July 24, 1983, the Tigers killed thirteen soldiers in a landmine ambush; in turn, the Sinhalese made the Tamil population at large pay for the mistake. A murderous rampage ensued across the southern part of the island as the Sinhalese killed, tortured, and raped thousands of Tamil people.9

Tamilini, a former LTTE front-ranking soldier, recounts, “Tamil women are traditionally shy and timid, lacking self-confidence. But all that changed after [LTTE] women were inducted into the battlefield.”

The killings were perhaps the worst ever anti-Tamil riots to date. Evidence shows that government ministers disclosed private voter registration to their “thug groups” in order to intimidate and, in some cases, assault Tamil residents; such instances pointed to the government’s involvement with and support of these events.10 When the government finally addressed the media regarding the mass killings, they blamed the fighting on the “cumulative indignation of the Sinhalese people.”11

This gross lack of concern and subsequential absence of remedying action convinced even the previously moderate Tamil people that, perhaps, the LTTE were right to be fighting for a separate homeland—independent from what they increasingly perceived as an unresponsive and corrupt Sri Lankan government. It was in this state of civil war that women had the choice to either be actively involved in the conflict, or risk becoming passive subjects of the war’s violence.

Female Mobilization

From the outset of the formation of the LTTE, women contributed greatly to the military struggle against the Sri Lankan state and became involved in the “very instrument of militancy used to attain the political cause of liberation.”12 Social dynamics rooted in the state’s repression of the Tamils attracted a significant number of Tamil women to the LTTE movement. The very tenets of the Women’s Front, the all-female division inside the LTTE, were constructed around the concept of gender equality and the transformation of the gender status quo.

Parade

The LTTE’s female wing marching in a parade, showing the active female participation in the war as combatants.

The aims of the Women’s Front were to “(i) secure the right of self-determination of ‘Tamililam’ and establish an independent democratic state of Tamililam; (ii.) abolish oppressive caste discrimination and division and feudal customs such as the dowry system; (iii.) eliminate all discrimination, secure social, political, and economic equality.”13 The LTTE’s proposal of these doctrines spoke to Tamil women and their desire for a more equal society, in which they could achieve everything that their male counterparts could attain.

Similarly, the LTTE’s propaganda appealed to the women who wished to simultaneously better their Tamil nation and to empower themselves. Posters depicting dynamic, militarized female bodies proclaimed, “Woman you light the flames of liberation! We are calling upon you. Pick up the torch of liberation and struggle for with each heartbeat, our nation is taking form–Tamil Eelam!”14

The LTTE propagated equal rights for women from the very start of their campaign, declaring that it was the only way to ensure female emancipation, while simultaneously working towards an autonomous homeland.15 The LTTE propaganda of “Tamil Liberation,” for example, enabled the construction of female militants who could fight for their nation and for themselves.16 Thus, the LTTE’s various recruitment tactics all sought to mobilize the female Tamil population in hopes of reaching their ultimate goal of autonomy.

Women in Tamil Society and the LTTE

Militarization subsequently shaped the identity of these “female fighters” in their own eyes as well as in those of the society. The LTTE’s recruitment of women impelled the subsequent reconstruction of the Tamil woman from the “traditional ideal of the auspicious, fecund wife to the androgynous Armed Virgin.”17 Prior to the LTTE’s recruitment of female soldiers, women were often confined to the domestic sphere; they were “generally respected, but simultaneously ambivalent, and [given a] somewhat restricted status.”18

The traditional Tamil woman is circumscribed by the “social expectations and cultural conventions of addaccam (modesty and silence) and odduccam (poise and restraint).” Her mobility is monitored and controlled in public spaces and she is constantly under the scrutiny of the male population.19 In fact, when Tamil men were interviewed regarding the gender norms of Sri Lanka, they all acknowledged a woman’s “lack of freedom and power.”20 Traditional constructions of gender identity were incredibly entrenched in Tamil society and in the “general socialization processes.” It appears as though the war has been the only means of transforming these fundamental traditions.

From the movement’s inception in 1983, the LTTE has drawn tens of thousands of women into its ranks, transforming the concept of the ideal tamil woman into one who is militarized, independent, and empowered.

Numerous first-hand accounts from female LTTE soldiers emphasize the sociocultural transformation that has stemmed from the war. Tamilini, a former LTTE frontranking soldier, recounts: “Tamil women are traditionally shy and timid, lacking selfconfidence. But all that changed after [LTTE] women were inducted into the battlefield.”21 The previously omnipresent notion that femininity is directly connected with passivity, indecision, softness, and emotionality, while masculinity is associated with aggression, independence, rationality, and activity, is no longer accepted by the majority of Tamil society.22 The civil war has changed these norms for many Tamils, and women have started to embrace their new identity. For many of the female soldiers, their experiences of femininity were forever forever transformed.

The following section explains how the changes came about. I classify these transformative experiences in two overarching categories: empowerment and victimization. However, it is important to recognize the spectrum within the classification that inherently exists for female combatants. While it is difficult to characterize an individual as being either a victim or an active agent, I speak to the degree of victimization and empowerment as perceived by the combatants themselves.

What is the Norm and how are Women Defying it? Women as Agents of Self-Empowerment

From the movement’s inception in 1983, the LTTE drew tens of thousands of women into its ranks, transforming traditional concepts of the ideal Tamil woman into one who is militarized, independent, and empowered. Drawing parallels between these ideas, I argue that Tamil women who empowered themselves through “gaining control or authority over some aspects of their lives in society” often did so by means of militarization.23 The LTTE’s creation of the word Ah-lu-mai (empowerment) speaks to this very connection. Prior to this, there was no definition of empowerment in the Tamil language that related specifically to the recognition of the power that women have over their own lives. Ah-lu-mai, is thus, a reflection of the Tamil women’s newly recognized “governance, authority, and leadership” roles.24

For some female fighters, violence was a means of survival, a means of “communicating resistance and the integrity of a struggle for selfdetermination to the Sri Lankan army”.25 When Yamuna Sangarasivam asked Kala, a 23-yearold women cadre, why she joined the LTTE movement, she said:

When we see our sisters, and mothers raped by the [Sri Lankan] army, when we see our brothers taken away, beaten, and killed, when we watch our homes burn up in flames in the aftermath of aerial bombardments, what are we to do? Where do we go to hide, to live? I decided that I was not going to let that happen to me. I was not going to be raped and killed in the hands of the [Sri Lankan] army. I saw the courage of other girls who were joining the movement and decided that this was really the only way to survive.26

Many women like Kala joined to preempt rape by Sinhalese or Indian soldiers at the start of the war in the 1980’s. Others joined because they had been personally victimized by the Sri Lankan army.27 After just a few years, it became clear that women could indeed achieve emancipation by mobilizing themselves in support of the liberation organization. “They gained confidence, courage, determination, and in turn, are transformed from vulnerable targets into true revolutionaries”.28 These women’s livelihoods and very survival might have been in jeopardy without the self-confidence and skills that the LTTE provided them with.

Other women joined the movement in hopes of enacting societal change and eliminating the traditional gendered division in society. Rajini Thiranagama, a deceased Tamil feminist and human rights activist, wrote:

Women have come out strong during the war … they have stood out as individuals or as small groups exposing atrocities and violations of dignity. …Women who in the midst of war pleaded and argued with the militants for their families and the whole nations … women’s history does have a triumph. There is powerlessness, disappointment, and disillusion, but also hope.29

Groups such as the Women’s Military Wing and Birds of Paradise accounted for 30% of the militants in the LTTE in the beginning of 1990, and aimed to break free of conservative gender roles and resist state oppression.30 Just as Thiranagama had anticipated, periods of conflict such as the Sri Lankan Civil War “open up spaces of agency for women to cross private/public barriers and to assume new roles thereby shifting cultural norms to allow for the mobilization of female fighters”.31 Thus, the war provided some women – who previously may not have had the opportunity to escape the private sphere – with the chance to not only change their own lives, but also to alter societal gender norms.

Refugees

Refugees who were displaced by the bombings of the government. The suffering of these women and their children led some to join the ranks to the tamil tigers.

The following vivid account of LTTE female cadres effectively describes how the LTTE’s mobilization of female soldiers inspired the empowerment of countless women. Thiranagama observes:

One cannot but be inspired when one sees the women of the LTTE in the night with their AKs slung over the shoulder ... One cannot but admire the dedication and toughness of their training … One could see the nationalist fervor and the romantic vision of women in arms defending the nation (De Mel, 206).32

These women become agents of their own destinies through the militarization of their bodies and corresponding transformation of their identities.

Finally, some women cited the realization of an autonomous state of Tamil Eelam and the liberation of the Tamil people as their primary motivation for joining the LTTE movement. At the same time, many still also attained personal liberation through their active participation in the conflict. In Margaret Trawick’s interview with Sita, a “Tamil Tigress,” the anthropologist learns that for Sita – and many other female LTTE combatants – “it is enough to fight for liberation (vidutalai) and happiness of the people for the people”.33 As a result of Sita’s “absolute” attainment of personal liberation, she says that her mind and heart have also changed.

She declares: “I have become even more ready to die. I see the suffering of the people and I have no fear about fighting and dying for them.”34 Women like Sita yearn for the life of a fighter, and the honor earned by fighting for the people and her homeland (eelam). In addition to the privileged degree of physical power and mobility that she gained from training with the LTTE, she was “liberated from the helpless rage expressed in the laments of so many traditional Tamil women.”35

Sita proved to the LTTE that she loves Tamil Eelam and is willing to die for her homeland; it is through this self-sacrifice that Sita, along with many others, achieved her own self-empowerment.

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