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Tamilnation > Tamilnation Library> Eelam Section > Female Warriors, Martyrs and Suicide Attackers: Women in The LTTE - Dagmar Hellmann-Rajanayagam
TAMIL NATION LIBRARY: Eelam
From the Introduction..,
On 28th November 2007 a Tamil woman handicapped by polio gained access to the vicinity of a minister in the cabinet of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse and Leader of the EPDP (Eelam People's Democratic Party), Douglas Devananda and detonated a bomb she had reportedly hidden in her bra (www.iht 2007, www.spiegel.de). While she and some of her bodyguards died, the minister remained unharmed. This incident was the last in a long list of suicide attacks performed by female members of the LTTE, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Before that, on 25th April 2006, another woman pretending to be pregnant had blown herself up near Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka who was severely injured in the attack (www.bbc.co.uk).
Female suicide bombers have become notorious in several Islamic movements. Women in the LTTE came on the scene earlier (though they were not the first female suicide attackers), and have made their mark equally. The young woman who allegedly assassinated Rajiv Gandhi on 21st May 1991, Dhanu, is the most famous among them. The phenomenon of women suicide bombers has led several authors to lump all movements together and attribute the same or similar motives to all of them (Skaine, 2006: 85; Bloom, 2005: 11/86-88/99; Chenoy, 2002:18/19; Chenoy, 2004: 32/35).
This, however, is a misperception. For one thing, female fighters or female warriors are nothing new in various liberation movements the world over, at least in modern times, e.g. in Latin America, in the Spanish Civil War, the Communist Movement, the Italian Red Brigades in Italy and the Red Army Faction in Germany, and not least Laila Khaled, the PFLP (People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine) member, who became famous in the 1970s.
What is astonishing is that again in modern times this fact should have attracted attention as something out of the ordinary, something not fit for women. Women, as Sandra Whitworth (2006: 125/ 26) and others have pointed out, are considered the opposite of fighters and warriors by nature, a species or group that need special persuasion or inducement to become violent (Coomaraswamy, 2002: 97). Chenoy, (2002: 20) and Mukta (2004: 163-178; de Mel, 2001:209) among others, have argued that this is not the case. Especially in the Indian context, examples of fighting women and warrior goddesses abound (e.g., the Rani of Jhansi or Amba of the Mahabharata, or, nearer to our time, the women of the Indian National Army (Gopinath and Shivadas, 2007; Ward Fay 1991:33). The phenomenon of female suicide attackers, however, is more recent.
In this article, I shall undertake two things. First I will outline the concept of women's nature and roles in traditional and contemporary Tamil society in Sri Lanka. Since I have done this in detail in earlier pieces, I shall keep this short. Second, I shall introduce the LTTE, its history, programme, ideas and way of governing in the areas under its control and mainly outline related developments since 2002, as prior developments have been more extensively documented in Hellmann-Rajanayagam (1994; 2007a). In this context, I will emphasize the LTTE's concept of women and female warriors in greater detail, followed by some case descriptions...
Ideals and Role Models...
Before discussing the question of women's emancipation or 'empowerment' through militancy, it will be instructive to investigate to which ideals or role models the LTTE harks back in its efforts to bring women into the organisation.
For the struggle in general and its support by women classical heroic literature is consciously, albeit, selectively, chosen. The Purananuru (278; 277) furnishes enough blood-soaked examples for this kind of event. But classical literature cannot be used to justify the recruitment of women nor can religious models be applied.
Active combat by women is not sanctioned by tradition and is indeed considered and propagated as something new and somehow a break with the past. Instead, the Indian freedom struggle provides suitable examples to follow. This applies both to the struggle led by Gandhi and the Indian National Congress and - even more - to the movement led by Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army.
The INA is the Indian organisation on which the LTTE consciously wants to model itself, and this applies also to its treatment and employment of women. The INA contained a very active women's regiment, the Rani of Jhansi regiment which was led by Lakshmi Sahgal, n�e Swaminathan, a Tamil doctor from Malaya. She drew numerous Tamil women into the INA, among them Bupalan Rasammah (Gawankar, 2003: 91f; Ward Fay, 1995: 33). This regiment gave women for the first time, according to their own statements, a feeling of being humans and not redundant and superfluous chattels. Similar statements we have from Tamil men from Malaya as well, who gave this as a reason to join the INA: they were for the first time in their lives treated as human beings.
Woman Fighters: Empowerment?....
The significance of female militancy for women's emancipation is fiercely debated. To set the scene for the discussion, I describe here several of my 'encounters with tigresses':
(1) Shortly after the ceasefire agreement in February 2002 I could, after a long interruption, again travel to the Tamil areas. LTTE cadres were conducting me to the town of Mullaittivu when our jeep's axle broke roughly half-way. Until a new vehicle could be organised, I was conveyed (a rather highflown term for a bumpy journey riding pillion on the motorcycle of the camp commander into the interior of scrub jungle) to a women's camp near Utaiyarkadu.
The commander was 28-years old Lt. Col. Bhavaniti. She had fought in the battle of Elephant Pass in 2000 -when the LTTE overran the Sri Lanka army base camp there and reconquered the pass with heavy casualties for the Sinhalese �and in Pallai some months later. She had commanded a battalion of 500 soldiers. She led the Kutti Sri Regiment and had been a member of the LTTE since 1993. She explained that she had sustained hundred casualties, both dead and injured, in the various battles.
In early 2003 the camp had been virtually closed down, only ten fighters were still administering it. Bhavaniti was extremely pleased by my visit and by the interest I took in the camp and in her personal story and insisted that I could not leave before I had had lunch with her. She came across as a very pleasant, self-assured young women with a natural authority.
All women in the camp wore the typical uniform of the tigresses; only one girl was dressed in skirt and blouse on account of a landmine having torn of her calf. She told me that she was 21 years old and had taken part in battles for Elephant and in Chavakaccheri in 2001 (if this was the case, she must have been recruited at an age of 18 or even 17).
Bhavaniti hailed from Chavakaccheri where most of her family still lived. Some of her brothers and sisters had gone to live in Canada and Switzerland. She herself stayed in a pleasantly furnished little bungalow with floor and steps constructed from ammunition boxes on which one could still discern the writing 'Sri Lankan Armed Forces'.
She was happy about the ceasefire, but ready to go into battle again for her leader and the country. Once peace came she would like to study computer science. Would she want to marry? Oh yes, surely, one day, but not yet. The entrance into the camp was strictly controlled not so much for reasons of security, but for those of propriety: only women could enter the sanctum sanctorum, the commander's bungalow.
The young men accompanying me had to wait beyond the fence in the visitors' room which simultaneously functioned as a memorial room for the founder-martyr of the regiment: Kutti Sri.
It was, as one of the SLMM-officers later put it, a rather monastic atmosphere with the commander as the mother Abbess. Not a bad comparison: both the atmosphere of dedication and the segregation of males and females reminded one of monastic conditions. The military training likewise is conducted in a strictly segregated manner, even though the trainers of the women cadres are sometimes still male fighters (Trawick, 1999: 145).
(2) I had later occasion to meet Thamilini, the leader of the women's wing of the LTTE, and her assistants, several times on each of my subsequent visits between 2004 and 2007.
Thamilini is a very bubbly and energetic young lady in her mid-thirties belonging to a Karaiyar family from the Vanni. The Karaiyar are the second-largest caste among the Sri Lankan Tamils, the highest and most numerous caste being the Vellalar.
The Karaiyar are originally fisher people and for centuries furnished the military forces of the Jaffna kings. They have a reputation of pride and ferocity. They do not fit easily in the caste hierarchy of Tamil Sri Lanka, since they consider themselves as standing and acting outside or alongside it (Pfaffenberger, 1982; Hellmann-Rajanayagam, 2007a; 135f; idem, 2004: 105). A large number of them are Catholics.
Quite a number of the female fighters are, by their own statements, Karaiyar from very humble backgrounds (Kalaivilly, 2004). At the time of the first interview Thamilini had just finished a very active military career and had got involved in politics to the extent that she supported the election campaign of the female candidates of the TNA, the Tamil National Alliance, especially Pathmini Sithamparanathan.
She also supported or was a member in several women's organisations and NGOs. She has, however, not left the LTTE yet. At the last meeting she stated matter-of-factly that she would probably have to take part in military operations again soon.
In Thamilini's view the war has provided a significant change of roles for women, this could, however, not be considered final. The gains of the war would have to be cemented in peace negotiations - if ever they would be resumed � through a new definition of the role of women and in legislation.
A most interesting development in this regard was the close contacts and cooperation of the LTTE women's wing with the Social Scientists' Association in Colombo and one of its fellows, Kumari Jayewardene. These contacts were kept up long after the ceasefire had been suspended and many other contacts had broken down. Thamilini emphasised that she we was less interested in the abolition of dowry, but in its correct, i.e. traditional interpretation according to the Tecavalamai, whose regulations have been outlined above (Thamilini, 2004, 2004a, 2007).
(3) LTTE-women, who have left active service may remain in the movement or return to civil life. In the former case they may become members of the politbureau like Thamilini, work in the Peace Secretariat, like Selvy, its Human Rights spokeswoman, the PDS, like Gita, or the TRO, as principals of LTTE-children's homes, like Jayanani or, as was the case especially after the Tsunami, they work as doctors in the Tilipan Primary Health Centres and other health institutions with limited means but great dedication.
40% of Tamil Eelam Police personnel are women, and many health, education and administrative institutions are led and run by former LTTE women with great efficiency.
LTTE women are marked off from the remainder of the female population not only by their dress and hair style, but much more by their demeanour and comportment. They spread an aura of determination and self-assurance which is not commonly shown by women in Sri Lanka publicly.
Margaret Trawick (1999; 151), whose study is one of the first and most comprehensive ones about women members of the LTTE claims that the women fighters still follow old role patterns in interactions with men as well as with others of their own sex.
Only during active fights, which for them are a necessary task to be fulfilled as well as possible including the annihilation of the adversary, she says, they become different personalities (Trawick, 1999: 155).
While it is true that frequently traditional patterns of interaction are still enacted, especially in encounters with superiors, the self-confidence and self-assurance of LTTE women in all areas of daily life is visible: they would, e.g. never hesitate to move anywhere alone even at night, something unthinkable for even the most confident Tamil woman in Jaffna and Killinochi.
While men would not dare to trifle with these women, they are nothing like their description in the Sinhalese media: dour, humourless fighting robots, but rather pleasant-spoken, merry and friendly young women, who treat the inquisitive visitor with great kindliness and courteous firmness.
Autonomy Through Militancy?....
Can membership in a militant group at all have an emancipatory effect? The segregated training and fighting situation of the LTTE's regiments and the participation of women in suicide attacks have attracted reproaches that the LTTE's concern for women's liberation were dishonest and superficial and that it tried to recruit women merely since there were, for various reasons, not enough young men to join.
Besides, sexual segregation and forced recruitment were no means to overcome women's disadvantages (Coomaraswamy, 2005). It is not quite easy to follow these arguments if one at the same time considers another one often voiced (frequently by precisely the same commentators) that describes the LTTE as one of the most forceful and most committed militant movements existing. A movement that is able to generate a willingness for struggle and sacrifice to such an extent as the LTTE, without the prospects of future rewards or a glorious hereafter, would be hard put to it to use unlimited coercion to recruit new blood.
A more grievous accusation has been that recruitment into militant organisations in order to exert violence cannot be a true move in the direction of women's liberation (de Cataldo-Neuburger/Valentini, 1996: 1-2).
This argument proceeds from the above-mentioned assumption that women are by nature peaceful and virtually born for mediation, peace-building and healing. Within the specific context of Sri Lankan Tamil women Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake (2001: 117/121-124) and Adele Balasingham (1998: 279) have, from widely diverging perspectives, shown that many of the women joining the LTTE feel autonomous and able to decide about their destiny for themselves for the first time in their lives. They retain this feeling and this attitude on their return to civil life. We earlier mentioned the same happening in the INA, when many Tamils felt for the first time acknowledged and treated as humans by a movement considered fascist and treasonable by the British.
A New Image of Woman?....
Susanne Schr�ter has recently outlined the reasons why Muslim women might become suicide attackers (Schr�ter 2008, forthcoming). These reasons turn on social marginalisation and oppression or on perceived sexual�shame and guilt as well as increasingly religious motivations. The latter is in contrast to the women, like Laila Khaled who played a prominent role in the militant Palestine movement in the 70s, and who were secular and autonomous.
Secular and autonomous is also a fitting description of Tamil Tigresses (whether they are religious in private life or not): The LTTE does not recruit women to expiate some alleged disgrace, but to fight for the motherland. Suicide attacks are incidental, not, as in Islamic movements, an end in themselves.
Tigresses do precisely not become Satis by other means. Even if sometimes their reasons for joining armed struggle derive from a difficult or broken family situation, they are not triggered by banishment from the family due to some alleged misdemeanour or wrong-doing. Surviving women fighters return to civil life, become professionals, marry and have children. But: they mostly choose their husbands themselves instead of bowing down to their parents' wishes.
Some, like Thamilini and Bhavaniti, reject marriage for the time being, even though, as Kumari jayawardene emphasises, familial pressure to marry is often very strong even for women Tigers: they have more important things to do and the taste of freedom is addictive. Participation in armed struggle involves overwhelmingly an element of voluntariness, much less despair about the hopelessness of personal circumstances.
To put it briefly, Tamil women join the Tigers not to die, but to fight. Death is taken into account, but is not necessarily anticipated. This is a decisive difference to the situation of Muslim women (de Mel, 2001: 220; Schr�ter, 2008; Victor, 2003).
The problem for female LTTE-fighters lies elsewhere.
It is twofold: on the one side a clear awareness of a tradition and social ideology disadvantageous to women that has been exacerbated by British legislation of the late 19th century. LTTE women want to re-establish freedoms granted them in pre-colonial times. On the other side-and Thamilini thinks this is far more serious�we see that female LTTE members are not really acknowledged as role models for most Tamil women in Sri Lanka: they are being admired, but they are not emulated. They seem to be predestined to do things for women that other women are not able or not prepared to achieve. Thamilini put it pithily: most women still cling to the KKK-ideal. [Note: A derogatory term employed by the feminist movement in Germany during the 70s and 80s: Kinder, Kuche, Kirche = Children, Kitchen, Church. Thamilini has visited Germany several times and discussed with women's groups, so the term was familar to her.] She used it with considerable amusement. Moreover, there are reports that many families do not like to marry their sons to female Tigers (which is not really to be wondered at!).
Tigresses act, like the goddess, outside of a social structure handed down for centuries and thus, cannot be role models. Many women feel uncomfortable in the presence of tigresses, maybe because they feel inadequate themselves (or because they do not consider them real women?). Or it might be because many female fighters, like male ones belong in the Karaiyar caste.
On the other hand some Tigresses seem to nurse slight contempt for the KKK-women who are trapped in out-dated ideas and anxieties. Yet these attitudes, Thamilini thinks, are the ones most difficult to overcome. The Tigresses thus perceive the problems of transition from a war to a peace culture very acutely, but they are still in the process of envisaging how to achieve this transition in a manner that is just and satisfactory for women.
So we come around again to the persistent question whether membership in radical groups can be liberating or not. It is impossible to decide on this question generally and finally, and the debate will probably rage for a long time to come. At the end, however, a somewhat uncomfortable observation: even in Germany, the rethinking of customary female roles only really began with 68ers' movement and the establishment of the violent Baader-Meinhof-group. Is then, to misquote Herodot battle really the matter of all things?