Tamil Women: Into Public Space

by N.Malathy, TamilTigerWomen.com, July 15, 2015

The political struggle of the Eelam Tamils began even before the end of colonialism in 1948. Over the following decades, this struggle gradually unified the Eelam Tamils who were fragmented until then. There is no evidence that women took part in this struggle until after the 1970’s.

Another struggle took centre stage in the Tamil homeland during the 1960’s spearheaded by the Community Party. This struggle against “untouchability” peaked in 1967 in what is known as the “October Revolution”. Obscured in the documentation of this revolt is one report involving a woman. In this incident a woman named Sellakili was apparently on the search warrant of the police for throwing a grenade[1]. Could she be the first armed militant Eelam Tamil woman in contemporary times?

A women's body in Vanni

A women’s group in Vanni

Parallel to the struggle against “untouchability”, the impetus for an armed political struggle against the Sri Lankan government had been building up, throughout the 60’s. The introduction of the 1970 university entrance scheme which required higher performance from areas with higher educational facilities was the initial impetus for the Tamil youth, in particular the Jaffna youth to seriously consider armed struggle. These youths were the worst effected by this scheme. They formed the Tamil Students Union (TSU) in 1970. The aim of this body was armed militancy. The young Tamil women, even though they too were affected by this university entrance scheme, did not have any active role in this group that was espousing militant politics. This is an indication of the conservative Jaffna society that promoted education and work for the young women but maintained strict societal codes that otherwise kept them in the private space.

The TSU proved to be an important body mainly because many of the future male leaders of the various Tamil armed movements started their militant activities in this body. Two persons among them was Pon Sivakumaaran and Pirabaaharan. Pon Sivakumaaran acted without a formal group and in 1974 became the first militant to take his own life by biting the cyanide capsule to avoid being in the police custody. Two young women, Valli and Atputham, who were friends of Pon Sivakumaaran’s sister had joined him as assistants to his militant acts. These two women appears to be the first Eelam Tamil women to participate in the Tamil Eelam armed struggle for independence. Thus as early as 1973 the spirit of armed militancy had begun the process of crossing the gender boundary in Tamil Eelam.

With the dissolution of the TSU of the 1970, a new group of young men came together to form the Tamil Youth Union (TYU) in 1973 also with the intention of armed militancy. Pushparaaja a key player of this body had published its history in his memoirs in 2006[2]. Uma Maheswaran who was to later lead one of the five main armed groups was active in TYU but operated mostly from Colombo. TYU had many female members. Notable were Urmila, Pushparaaja’s sister Pushparaani, Kalyani and several others noted in Pushparaaja’s memoirs. Many in this group, including Pushparaja, were disillusioned that this group was coming under too much influence of the moderate leadership of the Tamil political party, TULF. They left the TULF to form the more militant Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TLO) in 1975. According to Pushparaaja and also Pushparaani who also published her own brief memoirs in 2012 women were active in the TLO, though there is no documentation suggesting that women in TLO handled arms.

Urmila, Sivakumaaran’s helpers, Pushparaani and several other women who were involved with TLO can be considered the pioneers of female participation in Eelam Tamil armed militancy. Although none of them is known to have used arms themselves. Within two years of its formation the TLO itself was disbanded due to arrests and exile of its members.

The early 80’s saw the solidification many Tamil armed groups including, Kuttimani’s group as Tamil Eelam Liberation Organizatio (TELO), the formation of Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) due to split in the Tamil Tigers and the formation of the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) due to split in the EROS. These are the five armed groups that dominated the Tamil political scene during the 80’s. During this phase, especially after the 1983 pogrom, young women began enlisting in all five groups in substantial numbers. Tamil Tigers was a late comer in enlisting women. Eventually their role in Tamil Tigers grew. Besides the July 1983 outrage which pushed many of the women into armed militancy, there were many other push factors, the ongoing and pervasive Sri Lankan military sexual violence was one of them.

The Tamil independence struggle, briefly outlined above, provided many types of catalyst for social reconstruction. The practice of caste system and the position of women in the society saw the most noticeable changes. The struggle provided different paths for the women to burst into the public sphere. Paths that would have been hard to walk in the absence of the atmosphere of an intense struggle. The women who came out in the public space fell into two broad categories: by far the largest section were those women who took part in the armed struggle of the various groups. The other group of women became disillusioned with the military focused struggle of the Tamil Tigers and became anti-war campaigners.

By the time the IPKF, the very large contingent of Indian military, landed in the Tamil homeland in 1987, the Tamil Tigers were dominating the scene after having virtually destroyed or absorbed the other groups. Women in the Tamil Tigers had already taken part in combat roles and this continued when the war started between the Tamil Tigers and the IPKF. Sexual violence by the IPKF became rampant in the Tamil homeland. These crimes by the IPKF became the strongest push factor for women to join the Tamil Tigers in even greater numbers. When the Indian military departed from the homeland the vacuum was seized by the Tamil Tigers and for the first time sufficient space became available for the state building project. Women too, who had already entered the public space, now had greater freedom to act in this public space. Women could do things that they could not do before and demonstrate their abilities in the public sphere. Drive against the practice of dowry giving through law as well as through theatre and the recruitment of large number of women into the police force gave the emerging de-facto state a strongly pro-woman character. In 1996, the Tamil Tigers were evicted from Jaffna by the Sri Lankan military. The Tamil Tigers now set up Kilinochchi as their administrative centre and continued the de-facto state building project amid constant military battles with the Sri Lankan military.

The women in this defacto-state: the Tamil Tiger women, civilians employed by the Tamil Tigers, and self employed women interacted closely in a manner that did not exist outside Vanni. Through this close interaction they managed to create a network to pick out the women who needed a helping hand. Be it in the spheres of economic assistance, domestic violence, child educational negligence or housing need, they were on the lookout. There were established channels and institutions to which they could turn in order to bring this to the attention of those who can help. Because of these available mechanisms, women did not hesitate to be watch-full and they did not turn their face the other way as women must do in most parts of the world. This culture more or less permeated the entire female population. That was the unique feminism – elimination of destitution through universal women’s action.

Sustaining this female culture was several Tamil Tiger institutions of health, welfare, banking-development, police, law and media. They all had more than fifty percent female representation. Some of them were run solely by women, both LTTE and civilian. The extensive and intensive women’s network in Vanni drew even the poorest of women in, bringing to them the awareness of the women’s work in the public domain. It encouraged women to enter the work force as self employed often in traditional areas such as small scale retailing, farming and sewing but also into small boat fishing, mechanics and driving. Though their ventures were small scale their participation in large numbers promised greater things to come.

[1] “இலங்கையில் சாதியமும் அதற்கெதிரான போராட்டங்களும்”, வெகுஜனன்-இராவணன், சவு த் விசன், தமிழ் நாடு, page 173

[2] “ஈழப்போராட்டத்தில் எனது சாட்சியம்”, சி. புஸ்பராஜா, அடையாளம் வெளியீடு, தமிழ்நாடு

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