Women’s participation in the LTTE has fascinated academics, journalists, and policy makers for years. In fact, for many people, the LTTE automatically brings to mind images of sari-clad suicide bombers. While the suicide bomber phenomenon garners significant media attention in general, something about a woman blowing herself up seems to kindle new realms of incomprehensibility.
Accordingly, language changes when journalists discuss female suicide bombers. A journalist from Marie Claire described her first impressions of a failed LTTE suicide bomber with language the media rarely employs for men: “with her long black hair neatly pulled back from her chocolate-colored skin, she is shy, soft-spoken — the kind of person you’d trust with your kids.” Like the Marie Claire article, this Al Jazeera story exposes “the softer side” of the potential suicide bomber they profile.
The change in language reflects a larger divide in the way people discuss women’s participation in the conflict. Usually conversations about women in conflict revolve around civilian casualties, loss of homes and property, and sexual violence. My conversations with Tamil women in Sri Lanka have indicated that women’s roles, relationships, and contributions to the LTTE were much more complicated.
In a 2003 interview, the currently imprisoned head of the LTTE’s political wing, Thamilini, explained,
We participate in our liberation struggle on an equal footing with the men….. Any oppression prevailing upon a society will affect its women. In fact, in most cases, they are more affected. This is because in our society the woman bears the greater responsibility for the home and the family... She should defend herself and face the oppression. Neither a father, a son, a relative, nor a husband can protect her. When the army attacks a village it will torture the men and kill them, then the women are molested and killed. If women do not face this who does?…
The necessity to fight has arisen, in order to regain that free and ordinary life….We are fighters, and have to bear that responsibility. However we too have our ordinary lives; our fighters get married, live among ordinary people, dress as others do, but when it comes to our historical responsibility we have to take on a different role. It is wrong to regard us as heartless automatons.
The way a woman should behave and comport herself in society is predetermined and these limits cannot be transgressed… Opinions cannot be expressed in public and injustice must be borne in silence. But this training and knowledge we acquired after joining the movement was totally different. We not only acquired the combativeness required to face an invading army, but also the wisdom to face life itself…
watch the entire interview here:httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wup7PR-o7Ag
Whether this was top-down political pontification or a reality for most women in the LTTE (or in LTTE occupied territory) depends on whom you ask. Some women have told me that during the LTTE occupation they felt equal to men, free from harassment, and invested in their wider struggle. Women in other villages organized for political and social change during the war. These women came together to demand that female soldiers searched female civilians, to fight to get family members out of detention, and to make crucial decisions in their communities. On the other hand, women have told me about fleeing forced recruitment, losing family members, and of hardships under the constant watch of the LTTE.
Women’s experiences before, during, and after LTTE occupation illustrate a common refrain I’ve heard throughout my time in Sri Lanka: contrary to popular images, the end of the war has not automatically translated into direct improvements in anyone’s lives.
Posted By Kerry McBroom
Posted Oct 3rd, 2010