Sri Lanka: women in conflict

What happened to the aspirations of Tamil women in the national liberation struggle which lasted nearly 30 years? Rahila Gupta covered the conflict in the mid-80s, and reflects on the situation today when the war appears to be decisively over, but the post-war reality remains as harrowing as ever, particularly for women.

Rahila Gupta
7 March 2014
Women holding a banner

On 8th March 2014, Sri Lankan Tamil women will form a contingent to join the million women rise march in central London with a banner declaring, ‘Raped, Abused, Widowed and Forgotten: Tamil Women in Sri Lanka Still in Tears’. What happened to the aspirations of Tamil women in the national liberation struggle which lasted nearly 30 years? I covered the beginnings of this conflict for Outwrite, a feminist anti-racist newspaper in the mid-80s, and it is particularly poignant to return to this issue when the war appears to be decisively over but the post-war situation remains as harrowing as ever, particularly for women.

As with all ex-colonies of Britain, Sri Lanka was left a divided society at independence in 1948. The minority Tamils had been given preference in educational opportunities and jobs under the British, sowing discontent among the majority Sinhala community who after independence sought to establish their hegemony through a number of discriminatory policies such as replacing English with Sinhala as the official language. This prevented Tamils from getting jobs in government or having to resign because they lacked fluency in Sinhala. Admission of Tamil students to universities was restricted in favour of Sinhalese students by raising the qualifying marks needed by Tamil students. Numerous pogroms against the Tamil community took place in the 50s and 70s. The elected representatives of the Tamil community were ineffective in preventing the onslaught against the community. Unemployed, educated and disaffected young men in the North and East of SL came together to form a militant organisation in the 70s which eventually came to be known as the LTTE (Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam) or Tamil Tigers for short. Their key demand was for an independent homeland for Tamils: Eelam.  It all kicked off in 1983, when the Tigers carried out an attack on the Sri Lankan army, killing 13 soldiers. Mobs orchestrated by the government took their revenge by going on the rampage against the Tamil community. The fighting continued until 2009 when the government cornered the Tigers and approximately 300,000 refugees in a ‘no-fire zone’ which was nonetheless bombarded by planes, killing 40,000 people in the final five months of the conflict according to the UN.

Against the background of this very complex and prolonged war, I want to explore the ways in which women were able to exercise agency in roles which are both prescribed and proscribed by patriarchy: women as political agents; as active participants in the war; and as survivors during the war and afterwards. Unlike other South Asian countries, literacy rates for women in SL are extremely high at around 90 per cent and they were not generally subject to some of the more extreme oppressions such as dowry deaths, infanticide, or seclusion of women although FGM is practised within its small Muslim community.

Again and again in conflict situations and not just in Sri Lanka, we see women lead on peace initiatives – a political role which is accepted and even encouraged by wider society because essentialised narratives of gender associate women with mothering, nurturing, caring and peace. However, a tipping point is reached beyond which the dominant national narrative, which sustains the war, is undermined and the safe ‘prescribed’ role for women becomes subversive and intolerable. Take Women for Peace, a mainly Sinhalese initiative, which was active in the mid-80s: as mothers who had lost their sons, they reached out to Tamil women, for example, the Mothers’ Front of Jaffna, who had also lost their sons (in those days any male from the ages of 14 to 25 would be rounded up by the army as potential terrorists, more recently it was the Tigers who were forcibly abducting children and turning them into fighters). Both groups campaigned against a military solution. As mothers grieving for lost sons, they were given a certain amount of latitude. However, when their campaign strayed into critiques of militarization, rapes by the army, detention without trial and when they hosted joint workshops with Tamil women, they came under attack for being unpatriotic, pro-Tiger and therefore pro-terrorist. They also faced the more familiar gender based slurs of being whisky drinking lesbians who were embezzling foreign aid.

The Mothers’ Front in Jaffna faced similar hostility.  The battlefront was mainly in the North, the change in their material circumstances had shaken conservative social mores. For example, there was little public transport available, so women started riding motorbikes, sometimes 3 women on one, throwing pamphlets as they whizzed by. In response, an anonymous pamphlet was put out called the 10 Commandments for Women which included strictures like, don’t cut your hair, don’t wear short dresses, don’t ride bikes, don’t go out with men who are not your husbands and so on. Incidentally, the Tamil community in the north was much more conservative than the mixed, cosmopolitan society down South; a phenomenon that is seen all over the world and is common to minority communities in Britain – a community under siege, discriminated against, closes in on itself and preserves its traditions in aspic. But the liberation struggle had thrown all this up in the air. Tamil women started to question the four virtues by which they had to live – acham (fear especially of unknown men), madam (honesty), nanam (bashfulness especially in sexual matters) and payirpu (subordination to men). Tamil feminists also started asking, Why is it that the militant boy who gets injured is a hero and the girl who gets raped is expected to commit suicide?

Whilst these peace initiatives took women into a public sphere which had been more or less closed to them and attracted the venom of conservative sections of society, there was also, in my opinion, a valid political critique to be made of the equivalence implied in the reaching out to each other when in actual fact there was no level playing field. When the mainly Sinhalese Women for Peace published a pamphlet in the mid-80s carrying accounts of a Tamil woman and a Sinhalese woman mourning the loss of their sons, it equated the suffering of both sides and diminished the political context that one community had to take to arms to protect itself against a brutal and racist state. The Sinhalese women supported a federal solution with greater autonomy for the Tamils, they saw it as an ethnic question and not a national one. For the Tamil women, nothing less than an independent homeland would protect them. The underlying politics seemed irreconcilable.*

The Tamil Tigers erupted from this society, producing pamphlets on their vision of a utopian independent state run along secular Marxist lines. In November 1983, they released a pamphlet, ‘Women and revolution’ written by Adele, the Australian wife of their chief ideologue Anton Balasingham and leader of the Women’s Wing of the Tigers. It encouraged women to join the national liberation struggle by looking at the role of women in liberation struggles in Palestine, South Africa, Eritrea and Nicaragua. It advocated ’participating in the struggle for national freedom [because] women free themselves from the constraints of social oppression, replacing traditional norms and values with revolutionary conceptions of women’s place in society.’  At Outwrite, we critiqued these high sounding ideals because in the early days, women were playing the traditional roles of nursing, cooking and acting as couriers for the struggle. To make matters worse, the Tigers put up posters asking women to have more children i.e. cannon fodder for the movement. The women put out a counter leaflet refusing to co-operate with the demand. This was in the 80s.

However, in the 90s, women became active in combat in fairly large numbers. The first group of women were trained for combat in 1985 in India and their presence as fighters really grew in the 90s. The naval force, the Sea Tigers was predominantly made up of women and the Black Tigers, the suicide squad had a large female presence. In fact, the daring suicide bombing which killed Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian PM in 1991, was carried out by a woman. Loss of men was an important reason for the Tigers to recruit women. According to Miranda Alison who interviewed women Tigers in 2002, their motivation in joining included the killing of a loved one, displacement, the suffering of the community, nationalist sentiment, the desire for a homeland in which they would not be discriminated against on ethnic and gender lines,  breaking of gender  taboos, escaping traditional constraints, gaining equality by joining the militants, anger at rapes carried out by IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) and the Sri Lankan army, but also the search for protection from rape that they felt they would be accorded by the Tigers. “Driving tanks for the Tigers when they weren’t even allowed to ride bikes as kids” was part of the liberation that the women delighted in.

Although forcible child recruitment, murder, ethnic cleansing and the brutality of the Tigers towards traitors and rival groups are well-documented, what is also well-documented is that women did not generally face sexual violence from their fellow Tigers. According to Elizabeth Woods, ethnic cleansing is “a classic setting for widespread rape.” Although the Tigers forcibly displaced 75,000 Muslims from northern Sri Lanka, there were no reports of sexualised violence. From a feminist point of view, when all of us are working to bring about a society where sexual violence will be eliminated, this is extremely interesting. For women to feel safer in a ‘proscribed’ role than the ‘prescribed’ says a lot about the presumed safety of remaining within socially prescribed roles..

Elizabeth Woods believes that it could be attributed to the Tigers’  ‘deep political training’ and that it is possible to train soldiers to abide by anti-rape policies just as they are trained to fire guns. Jo Becker, a child soldier expert at Human Rights Watch, was also surprised by the lack of sexualised violence in the Tiger ranks. She says, “Although girls recruited as child soldiers in other conflicts have routinely reported rape or being forced to become a wife/sexual slave to a military commander, the Tamil Tigers were remarkably disciplined in prohibiting even consensual sexual activity between their cadres.” Another researcher found that when a group of Tigers gangraped a 13 year old girl, their hands were tied and they were dragged behind a tractor, crying out for water as they died.

In the short-term, the effectiveness of resolving violence with violence may achieve its goal, but what kind of values are being promoted in the long term. Feminist critiques have focussed on the militant and militarist nature of the LTTE as being inherently anti-feminist and have argued that so many years of armed conflict cannot be seen as a project of empowerment. And yet, we must acknowledge the high levels of participation by women in a variety of roles in the struggle. Alison was struck by the confidence and poise of the Tiger women she interviewed, as compared to women in the general populace.

We cannot judge whether this empowerment would have been sustained in the new nation because “Sri Lanka is lauded as the first country to eradicate terrorism on its own soil”. We have seen with other liberation struggles like that in Zimbabwe or the Indian Independence movement that women’s entry into the public sphere proved to be temporary.

The war may have ended but the violence continues. There has been no systematic disarmament and reports of violence in private and public spheres are endemic. There has been an explosion of domestic violence. Women reported that levels of domestic violence used to be lower in Tiger-controlled areas because the Tigers had a de facto justice system to deal with domestic violence. “At the first complaint of domestic violence the abuser is given a warning, at the second he is fined, and at the third he may be put in an LTTE prison.” Tamil women are once again vulnerable to rape by the Sri Lankan army which has moved into the north to carry out ‘reconstruction’. There are 90,000 widows under the age of 40 and although women have been flexible in stepping out of their ‘prescribed’ roles of housework and childcare into male jobs such as fishing, mechanics and cement making, unemployment levels are double that of men. The stigma of widowhood is strong in Hindu culture which has resulted in forced marriages at a scale which was previously non-existent. Survival in this devastated community has also led to an increase in sex work and trafficking to the Middle-East as maids. There are also reports that some Tiger women have joined the SL army, stationed as civil affairs co-ordinators in the Tamil majority areas and are welcomed by the Tamil communities who feel safer in their presence.

There are many issues raised here which need further interrogation. When we talk of equality for women in a liberation struggle, it begs the question: is it liberating for a woman to pick up a gun? That begs a further question: if it is a war of liberation rather than aggression fought in the belief that it will deliver a nation where women can live as equals and if taking up arms is the only way left, then is it justified? Do peace initiatives across historical divides necessarily mean further compromise for the unequal partner? If sexualised violence is absent from some conflicts, or fighting forces, what lessons can be learnt so that rape is no longer a regular feature of war?

This article is based on a talk by the author, ‘Women in Conflict’ given at King’s College, University of Cambridge for International Women’s Day.

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