Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Birds of Freedom? Perspectives on Female Emancipation and Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Birds of Freedom? Perspectives on Female Emancipation and Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

Article excerpt

Abstract

Over the last decade, females have been an integral part of fighting forces in both international conflicts and in armed struggle in at least 38 intemal conflicts. While some scholars argue that recent wars have thrust women into new roles, enabling them to transform their social situations, identities and destinies, others question whether females achieve 'emancipation' through active participation in warfare. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka that has been engaged in conflict with the Sri Lankan government since 1983, and actively recruits female cadres, provides an interesting context to explore issues of female empowerment in the context of armed struggle. Drawing from interviews with four Sri Lankans living in Canada, this paper traces the perceived extent of female emancipation within the LTTE. While the participation of females in unconventional military roles represents a drastic change in behaviour expected of Tamil women, the militant movement appears to reinforce existing patterns of gender constructions, ultimately impeding the attainment of meaningful empowerment for females.

Keywords: Sri Lanka, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Women's Emancipation

Introduction: Armed Conflict, Gender, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

War has typically been perceived as the purview of men. Although there has been extensive literature addressing political violence and armed conflict--both analytical and operational--past scholarship has tended to be largely gender-blind, with women and girls' participation in conflict, whether active or passive, simply not identified. More recently, however, scholarly and policy literature has begun to address issues related to gender and war. Yet promoting a misleading binary, males have tended to be portrayed as the agents of conflict, while females have been identified as the victims, particularly of sexual abuse and forced abduction (Nordstrom, 1997). What is generally overlooked in such dichotomous representations is not only the reality of male wartime victimization, but also the active and critical roles that females take on in situations of conflict (Denov & Maclure, 2006; Keairns, 2003; McKay & Mazurana, 2004; Veale, 2003). Over the last decade, it has been estimated that females have been part of fighting forces in both international conflicts and in armed struggle in at least 38 internal conflicts. These international and civil conflicts include Angola, Burundi, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Guatemala, Lebanon, Liberia, Macedonia, Nepal, Peru, Philippines, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Zimbabwe and others (Mazurana et al, 2002). While the proportion of females in fighting forces varies according to geographic region, it generally ranges from 10% to one third of all combatants (Bouta, 2005).

Women and girls are involved in myriad aspects of armed conflict as perpetrators, actors, porters, commanders, domestic servants, spies, bodyguards, human shields, and sex slaves (Veale & Stavrou, 2003; Fox, 2004; Zedalis, 2004). Their roles are multidimensional, fluid, often contradictory, and may vary according to age, physical strength, and the circumstances of the armed group (Denov & Maclure, in press). Research has continued to demonstrate the ways in which the militarization of women and girls' lives fuels and supports conflict because their productive and reproductive labour is key to the functioning of fighting forces (Honwana, 2006; Denov & Maclure, 2006; McKay & Mazurana, 2004). Moreover, in some cases, nationalist armies have actively recruited women, in an effort to enhance their legitimacy or add symbolic power to their war efforts (Bouta, 2005).

For females, the implications and consequences of being participants in armed conflict vary from context to context and are indeed influenced by factors such as race, religion, caste, class, ethnicity, location, political affiliation and a variety of intersecting factors (Rajasingham-Senanayake, 2004). …

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