May Issue 2012
Book Review: Women in Terrorism
Women In Terrorism: Case of the LTTE is a comprehensive and absorbing read that focuses on the civil war in Sri Lanka and, more specifically, the role of the LTTE ( Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in changing women’s roles in society. It has been written by researcher Tamara Herath, who spent time amongst the Tamils interviewing 15 women — seven women from civil society, seven combatants and one ex-combatant. The women’s insights and experiences are neatly woven into the narrative. However, pseudonyms have been used for them in order to protect their identity.
Herath starts out by delineating her aim, which is to see how “three decades of ethno-nationalistic war in Sri Lanka has contributed to a major social change for Tamil women in Jaffna,” which was the LTTE-controlled area of Sri Lanka. She explains her method of research and how the nature of the research made it difficult for her to remain neutral. Her empathy for her subjects comes through as she portrays, with sensitivity, the appeal of the LTTE for women recruits. Her subjects are very young women and it is difficult not to feel for them or understand their motivation. Herath herself has a dual identity — she is both British and Sinhalese. The former identity made her an outsider and her Sinhalese identity placed her in the opposite camp. She had to overcome these obstacles, including the language barrier, to win the trust of her subjects who were eventually willing to talk to her as they too were looking for a way to make their voices heard after years of suffering.
The story begins from chapter two onwards. There is brief history of Sri Lanka and how different political parties evolved. Sri Lanka has always been an island that celebrates “diversity, tolerance of religion and ethnicity.” The last three decades, however, have seen an “ethnocentric split” between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. The Tamils, who claim to be the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka, are a minority group that make up 10% of the population. They also make up 31% of the student body and hence take up a higher percentage of employment. The Tamils are mostly Hindus, with Christians and Muslims making up the rest. The majority Sinhalese population, comprising mostly Buddhists, are the decision-makers of the country.
Herath explains Tamil nationalism as a backlash against the ethnocentric policies of the state, which included giving Buddhism special status as the state religion. Tamils were tired of the “Gandhi style” methods of the politicians who were fighting for “equal status” for the two languages, Tamil and Sinhalese. It was against this backdrop that the LTTE developed under the leadership of Velupillai Prabhakaran. The LTTE was an armed resistance group seeking self-government in the North and the East of Sri Lanka until its forces were decimated by the Sri Lankan state army in 2009.
Herath writes about the highly structured nature of the LTTE and their use of suicide bombers. Trained by the PLO and RAW to fight a guerilla type war against the Sri Lankan state, the LTTE achieved global recognition after one of its female suicide bombers — Dhanu — assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. LTTE fighters wore vials of cyanide around their necks, which they would swallow rather than be taken alive as prisoners. All this is well known, but Herath shows another side when she describes their relationship with Tamil civic society, who saw the LTTE members as selfless people fighting for their freedom. They were welcomed into households and given food and shelter. Many children grew up seeing the LTTE as honoured guests, who made them feel safe and secure and they aspired to join them. While parents tried to talk their children out of it, circumstances were such that parental advice was not heeded. Displacement and the breakdown of family structures resulted in a lack of respect and regard for elders.
Though the LTTE is famous for its use of women fighters, Herath does not view Prabhakaran as a feminist. She recognises that loss of lives made it necessary for the LTTE to seek other sources of “ human resources,” including children of both genders. To make the LTTE women acceptable to civic society, a strict code of rules was enforced. A family-like unit was created, which transcended caste and class, and which owed loyalty to Prabhakaran above all. Within the “fictional” family unit, romance was initially strictly forbidden. Chastity and purity is highly regarded by Tamil society, giving rise to women combatants known as the “armed virgins.”
War and the LTTE did, however, change the role of women. The combatants wore fatigue pants, as opposed to the traditional sari. Women were not dependent on men. They could walk alone at night. Rape victims, who were seen as outcasts by civic society, were welcomed into the LTTE fold. LTTE women had the right to refuse a marriage proposal and dowry was strictly forbidden. Women from civil society had started to go out on cycles, some times even at night, as result of the loss of men to war. Women were made suicide bombers under the guise of equality. They were given the same rights as men to join the Black Tigers — an elite force that used suicide bombing as a means to fight a large-scale war using as few combatants as possible. This explanation from Arasi, who at age 30, was the oldest and senior-most among the combatant women who were interviewed. It was difficult to get the opinion of the Black Tigers as theirs was a secret organisation. Generally, it is possible to get a suicide bomber’s views if he/she is caught after a failed mission. But it is almost impossible to talk to a Black Tiger as they almost always swallow cyanide in case of a failed mission.
Herath is aware that some of the changes that took place during the civil war would not last in a post-war era, when men’s hegemonic ambitions would, once again, overshadow women’s rights. She also points out that women were not as emancipated or as equal as they thought they were. Decision-making roles still lay with men, even though women made up one-third of the LTTE. And some of the younger women interviewed believed that even those changes in women’s roles that were visible now would probably have taken place anyway, in conjunction with global change. The author believes that some changes were a result of the war and others a direct result of the LTTE’s policies.
Tamara Herath makes a compelling case for the role of the LTTE in changing the role of women, as she also looks into issues of displacement, the war and “changing social roles” in the Jaffna province.
This review was originally published in the May 2012 issue under the headline “Women of War.”