Much after it met its end at the hands of the Sri Lankan military, the LTTE continues to hold fascination not just for a gaggle of believers scattered across the globe who believe it is still alive and ready to avenge its battlefield humiliation, but also researchers, writers and scholars, so much so that even research conducted nearly a decade ago in the LTTE's heyday is providing fresh grist for the mill. And why not? Much before the era of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, here was a group that was dispatching suicide bombers on their macabre missions, and driving explosives-laden trucks into hotels and military camps. Of course there was a crucial difference. Unlike Al Qaeda, whose ambitions are global, the Tigers had the much smaller aim of a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka, and their terrorist activities were accordingly restricted to Sri Lanka and southern India.
Within the LTTE, the women Tigers have justifiably held special sway over women's studies departments. No other militant group in the world mobilised women in the way that the LTTE did. Feminists remain divided over whether this was patriarchy at its most efficient in the way that it used women, or if it was the height of women's empowerment. Tamara Herath, a legal professional who works in the United Kingdom, goes back and forth between the two, in an effort at understanding all sides.
Her book, Women in Terrorism, is a case study of the LTTE through interviews with seven women combatants and five non-combatant Tamil women carried out in 2002 and 2003. She says her purpose for conducting the research was to give voice to the “other” that is often ignored by “masculine oriented data gathering”.
Herath, a Sri Lankan of Sinhalese ethnicity, is acutely conscious that she is an “outsider” who has been allowed privileged access to her subjects by “the Gatekeeper” — but according to her, in her interviews it helped that she played down her southern Sri Lankan roots and projected her British side. That it was something of an adventure for the author is evident in the title of the first chapter: “Entering a Tiger's Lair”, which captures Herath's anxieties of being in a place without knowing the local language, with limited phone connectivity and lots of landmines.
IDEA OF SACRIFICE
The most interesting part of the book is the chapter on the women suicide bombers. It is here that Herath seems most undecided if she sees them as empowered agents or manipulated as cannon fodder by a group that was steeped in patriarchy (some feminists would even consider the goal of establishing a nation-state as a manifestation of that patriarchy). But her argument that sexually violated women stand the risk of being brainwashed into carrying out extreme acts of violence is an incautious generalisation made without the proviso of a context. If she were right, there would be an army of women suicide bombers in Delhi, South Asia's rape capital. A more valid observation is that the recent focus on suicide bombers in the Islamic world has led to the association of the phenomenon with religion, much to the detriment of a study of other culturally dictated motivational factors that drive a suicide bomber. Religion was not the driving force for the Black Tigers; their motivation came entirely through the idea of sacrifice for Tamil Eelam; and in a patriarchy, women are conditioned to sacrifice.
While Herath talks about such “altruistic suicide” in the service of the Tamil nation, she fails to discuss that this is not just an individual case of suicide as in the case of the act of self-immolation, which is frequent in India as a ritualistic act of protest, but is actually a case of a person taking her own life in order to kill others – other scholars have struggled to figure out how women, whose bodies nurture life and give birth, can glorify death in this way, and if this is a feminist milestone or not. To this, perhaps there can be no more clear-headed answer than the one provided by Radhika Coomarswamy in her invaluable Rajini Thiranagama memorial lecture (Tiger Women and the Question of Women's Emancipation) back in 1996. She argued that “unless feminism is linked to humanism, to non-violence, to hybridity and a celebration of life over death, it will not provide society the alternatives that we so desperately seek”. She posited that true liberation for Tamils would come perhaps when the LTTE “acquired the feminine attributes of gentleness, compassion and tolerance”, and not when it brainwashed women into its “masculine world-view of authority, hierarchy and aggression.”
Herath, while being aware of these arguments, does not seem to make them emphatically enough, perhaps burdened by the need to remain an “objective” ethnographer.
WOMEN IN TERRORISM — Case of the LTTE: Tamara Herath; Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B 1/I-1, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road,New Delhi-110044. Rs. 595.
- The Hindu