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The militarisation of women has been criticised for flying in the face of the tenets of the feminist movement. As an example, these critics would cite the case of the LTTE, where its women cadre still thinks in terms of simplistic notions of gender equality. But as a guerilla outfit that claims the women's liberation movement to be an integral part of its `greater struggle', its real test will be when its separatist struggle ends, says NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAM. An essay in the context of International Women's Day that fell on March 8.

IT was midnight on August 20, 2001. At the Central Camp police station in Amparai, eastern Sri Lanka, policemen had just finished oiling their weapons and cleaning the premises in preparation for an inspection by a senior official the next morning.

But their efforts would not see the light of day. As they toiled, cadres of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) surrounded the police station. The attack was fierce, leaving 15 policemen dead and more than 20 wounded. Many ran away, unable to withstand the ferocity of the attack. The fighting raged till 4.30 a.m. when the Tigers drove away on a tractor-trailer with the weapons they had taken from the armoury.

Later, as the Sri Lankan military counted its losses, it emerged that most of the attackers were fighters from the women's unit of the LTTE. "We wanted to avenge the rape of Koneswary Murugesupillai. We are proud that we were able to destroy the police station where she was raped and killed," said 25-year-old Bhanuka, political leader of the women's wing of the LTTE for eastern Sri Lanka, and a veteran of many battles against the Sri Lankan military. The Hindu met her recently inside LTTE territory in Batticaloa district.

She was referring to the alleged gang-rape and killing of a 37-year-old mother of three in front of her family members at the police station in 1997. The retaliatory attack was carried out on the anniversary of the incident.

Koneswary and Bhanuka represent the two main roles in which LTTE discourse usually depicts Tamil women: they are either victims of oppression by the Sinhala state, or they are fighting against it, wearing a uniform, with a gun in hand and a cyanide capsule around the neck.

Female fighters of the LTTE are cast as a symbol of the emancipated Tamil woman, who has taken her place in the trenches alongside men as an equal in the war for the liberation of the Tamil state. In doing so, it is symbolic of breaking free from oppressive social customs against women in Tamil society.

Since 1983, when the Vituthalai Pulikal Makalir Munani (Women's Front of the Liberation Tigers) was first formed, the LTTE has used this powerful double-liberation ideology to induct women members. In this, it has been more successful than any other militant movement.


LTTE women fighters ... no distinctions.

Bhanuka says she joined the LTTE as a 13-year-old in 1990, not only out of a sense of duty that she had to offer herself to the "freedom struggle", but also attracted by the freedom that it offered her from her environment. She underwent tough military training and was inducted into the battlefield within a year.

Dressed in combat fatigues, her long hair in braids that are tucked in, and her feet in thick boots, the only femininity she betrays is fading silver-coloured varnish on her finger nails. Bhanuka leads 55 women fighters from a house that has been converted into a base camp. She describes the cyanide capsule around her neck as her "ultimate weapon".

"When we were children, we were told by our parents we had to behave differently from boys. We were told only boys rode cycles and played outside. But the LTTE was different. Now we are the same as the men. The LTTE makes no distinction between the sexes," she says. Nearly 4,000 women cadres of the LTTE have been killed since they began taking part in combat from 1985, joining the LTTE pantheon of over 17,000 "heroes" in the nearly two decade-old conflict. Over 100 of the women killed belonged to the dreaded Black Tiger suicide squad.

Female fighters of the LTTE have been in the forefront of several "do or die" operations against the Sri Lankan military, and have been as, if not more efficient than the men. The women undergo the same tough training as men, and like them, are broken up into fighting, intelligence gathering, political and administrative units.

To the LTTE, this is the proof of its contribution in helping the Tamil woman break free of the traditional stereotype of the sheltered, docile house-bound girl, wife and mother and become a woman empowered by the gun and the cyanide capsule.

In her book Women Fighters of Liberation Tigers (1989), Adele Ann, the Australian-born wife of Anton Balasingham, LTTE theoretician, described the decision by a Tamil woman to join the organisation as a message to society "that they are not satisfied with the social status quo; it means they are young women capable of defying authority; it means they are women with independent thoughts; young women prepared to lift up their heads".

The leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran, in an address to women cadres on International Women's Day on March 8, 1996, described the liberation of the Tamil woman as "the fervent child" that was born out of the Tamil "national liberation movement". "The women's liberation movement is forging ahead as an integral part of our greater struggle. For the awakening of the nation and the salvation of the women, the Thamil Eelam revolutionary woman has transformed herself into a tigress! Fierce and fiery, she has taken up arms to fight injustice," he said.

With the passage of another International Women's Day on March 8, Sri Lankan women activists are in no doubt that the LTTE and the armed conflict in north-east Sri Lanka, have, in many ways, changed the ways in which Tamil women are perceived by themselves and by others. But they disagree with the LTTE over its motives for bringing about this change and the manner in which it has been brought about.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, and director of the Colombo-based International Centre of Ethnic Studies, has argued that the induction of women into the LTTE has less to do with women's emancipation than with the organisation's need for a constant supply of cadres. Coomaraswamy questions the militarisation of women, pointing out that it flies in the face of the humanism, non-violence and the "celebration of life over death" that are the foundations of the feminist movement the world-over.

But within the LTTE, women still seem to be thinking along simplistic notions of gender equality. Take Chandranayaki, for instance, who joined the LTTE in 1992 in Mullaithivu, and is now based at Batticaloa. She believes she has blurred the dividing line between male and female by being able to do everything that a male cadre could.

"When I joined, I was told by the seniors it would not be easy. I was told I would have to shoot and kill, climb mountains and trees, swim and walk long distances. I told them I was not afraid of anything. I am equal to any man."

German sociologist Peter Schalk, in an essay on the women fighters of the LTTE, said the LTTE projected the equal possibility of death for men and women in its organisation as "the teacher of equality in life".

Neloufer de Mel, author of a recent book Women and the Nation's Narrative, wonders how empowered the women cadres of the LTTE really are, beyond sharing trenches with men, to shape and direct the policies of an organisation that revolves around a single male leader, and the degree of freedom they enjoy to determine their own personal futures. "There is no evidence yet to show that women are involved in the top decision making processes of the LTTE. They only seem to be following orders given by males," says de Mel.

Women in the LTTE are forced to suppress their femininity and sexuality, which is regarded as a crime and an evil force that could sap their strength. Marriage is not allowed for women cadres up to the age of 25 and for men up to the age of 28.

But women cadres believe all this is necessary in the interests of Tamil "liberation".

According to de Mel, the real test of the LTTE's claim of "female emancipation" will come when the armed struggle ends and peace returns.

Bhanuka and her comrades are emphatic that once the goal of national liberation is achieved, women's liberation would spread out from the LTTE into Tamil society "automatically". But there is nothing automatic about this, says de Mel, pointing out that history is replete with examples of "after the revolution, back to the kitchen". There have been indications that LTTE might be no different.


Bhanu, Chief of the Women's political wing of the LTTE, eastern province.

It has attacked Tamil women who have dared to dissent and think independently, portraying them as "loose" westernised women, who had turned their back on Tamil tradition and culture.

The University Teachers for Human Rights, a Tamil rights group, has documented how Tigers are using their women fighters to oppress Tamil women outside the organisation. According to its report, the UTHR says the LTTE had in its prisons, till 1990, some 200 Tamil women, because they disagreed with it. They had been treated brutally. Recently, the LTTE issued a diktat laying down a dress code for women, asking them to give up western dress and opt for traditional Tamil clothes like the dhavani and the saree. It also prohibited adolescent boys and girls from interacting with each other, warning that this too was against Tamil culture.

Even Adele Balasingham, who has aggressively projected the LTTE as a pro-women organisation, seems unsure of the future of Tamil women.

In an essay on the website eelamweb.com, she concludes by saying that the overall impact made by the fighting girls on Tamil society had yet to be assessed. "It is also too early to predict the future in relation to the position in Tamil society after the war is over," she says.

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