Are Women Combatants Widely Accepted in Sri Lanka’s ‘LTTE’ Family?

Get a fascinating look at the socialisation of the LTTE women cadres, which was achieved through ideological indoctrination and training, in this excerpt from the newly-released Women In Terrorism: Case of the LTTE.

When the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) created the revolutionary family, it was required to maintain a respectable and socially accepted format, which was achieved in a number of ways. Firstly, the LTTE adhered to the strict moral code expected by both civic society and the women combatants themselves. Although the LTTE enforced the authority and responsibility of a consanguine family, they also provided opportunities for women combatants to (re)negotiate and challenge their gender roles… Secondly, by using linguistic expressions that suggested familial ties, the male and female combatants avoided any sexual connotations that could be misconstrued when addressing one another. This, in turn, introduced a form of respect that was shown by a consanguine family unit through a trusted and familial set of kin terminology. Lastly, the women were given a sense of belonging to a family through both consanguine and non-consanguine ties, along with a sense of loyalty to the family unit, and especially to its patriarchal head of family, Prabhakaran. The LTTE relied on the loyalties of the combatants to a higher degree, as illustrated by the combatant’s oath, in which they pledged allegiance not just to the LTTE, but also to Prabhakaran directly. As Arasi reveals, ‘The movement has high moral values and is a very sweet family.’

The above statement by Arasi is reflective of the view held by combatant women regarding the LTTE and its re-constructed family unit. The high-moral values were often seen as part of the LTTE’s strength and granted them a great deal of respect from those in civic society, where women’s behaviour was often critically observed. The ‘family’ that was actively promoted within the LTTE reproduces many of the social values of the broader patriarchal society. The gender-based social controls within civic society, which restrain women’s social interaction with men, are seen in an alternative guise that does not necessarily restrict but expect conformity. As Balasingham (Anton Balasingham writing as Adele Ann in 2003) suggests:

The LTTE upheld a rigid code of moral conduct amongst the cadres. Premarital separation between the sexes is a well-entrenched cultural norm amongst the conservative section of the Hindu Jaffna society, and Mr Pirabakaran [Prabhakaran] was sensitive to the importance of this sensibility amongst the Tamil people. He demonstrated considerable political acumen by identifying this socio-cultural factor as critical if he was to continue to enjoy the widespread support of the people that the LTTE did at this stage and sustain the recruitment level into the organisation.

The organisation was aware that women’s acceptance into the LTTE family meant that there must be a way to include them along with the men without being criticised by the civic society as morally decadent. This was an important factor, as the LTTE relied heavily upon the support of the civic community not just for its logistical support but also for new recruits. As Arulvili comments, ‘Just like the normal women we are also working with men in the movement. We are with them together everyday but we don’t think like that. We think we are all brothers and sisters of one family.’

A great emphasis was placed on the kinship aspect of the revolutionary family even though the combatant women saw parallels between themselves and the women working in the greater civic community. The emphasis on the kinship aspects worked to allay the fears derived from the social taboos concerning women’s close association with men. This also distanced the notional view of women who spent time with men as having a bad character, as pointed out by Balasingham:

[a]spersions cast on the moral character of women is a death knell to her maintaining or establishing any kind of credible friendships and respect amongst people in the community. Once a woman is labelled as a ‘bad’ character in the Tamil society she loses her moral authority…[…]… The concept of ‘bad’ character is loosely used and is broad in its application. The social perimeters around which a woman can operate before she is considered as [having a] ‘bad’ character are indeed narrow by western standards. For example, an unmarried girl seen frequently talking to boys runs the risk of being considered a ‘bad’ character. Balasingham (2003: 85)

With a strong understanding of how society constructs women’s character, the women combatants maintained a familial kin identity and an intimacy that was never displayed publicly other than with a well-trained and completely composed interaction between each other. The very nature of being in a terrorist organisation meant that women combatants needed to be both private and secretive, which in turn formed part of the cultural constellation of friendship in the LTTE.

A closer examination of the family unit revealed that, when women from the civic society joined the LTTE movement, they were, in fact, joining a group of people they had already had some contact with over a period of time and have become friendly with, although they may not be friends…All the women combatants in the research knew a number of active combatants in the LTTE prior to their enrolment. The significance of this information is that, when they leave home and take up residence with the LTTE, they are not considered to be amongst ‘complete strangers’ but are with known people whom they are already used to calling Annay (elder brother) or Akka (elder sister). This type of address forms the basis of the LTTE’s (re)construction of a non-caste based family unit, which is reflective of a consanguine family unit using familial references.

From a cultural perspective, it is respectful to refer to one another as elder brother, Annay, and elder sister, Akka, or younger sister, Thangachchi, and younger brother, Thambi. This usage of kin terminology amongst the combatants encouraged both men and women to overlook, to some degree, the power relations that exist between the sexes by focusing directly on the relationship aspects. The relationship aspects create levels of authority that an elder sister (Akka) would gain over a younger sister (Thangachchi) by recreating the natural hierarchy of a family unit…

(Excerpted from Women In Terrorism: Case of the LTTE; by Tamara Herath; Published by: Sage; Pp: 268; Price (Hardback): Rs 595)

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