THE EXPERIENCES OF WOMEN
War of October 1987
Imperial psychology has over the centuries, developed increasingly subtle and sophisticated means to subjugate and oppress people. But with regard to women, it still employs the most barbaric forms of control and repression - arrogance, dominance, men in battle garb, whether they come with swords or guns, on a horse or in armoured cars. The price of conquest seems heightened by the violation of the women.
Unquestionably, sexual violation is amongst the most traumatic and degrading of experiences. But to restrict oneself to cases of sexual violation would be giving a narrow picture of women's experiences in war. I realised that the totality of women's experience in the war brought out fundamental aspects of this war and the community. Therefore I wanted to hear my sisters tell us their own versions of their travails, tragedies and triumphs
5.2 A village in Central Jaffna:
A Woman's Story
The rich ochre soil contrasted with the shady trees and market gardens dotting our way along the single main road. The morning was still young and fresh, unlike two months ealier, when the sickening smell of death hung like a pall of smoke. This was in the heartland of agricultural Jaffna, where the rich soil is normally extensively cultivated, but now, was almost untended.
One cannot romanticise for long the mornings in rural Jaffna; nor can one forget the "past" as Indian army officials urge us to. The past, was and still is a gruesome reality in these villages. The inert, the gaping caved-in houses, and the burnt out shells of one time houses, all speak of the past. Suddenly shattering the quietness, come the open vehicles of the Indian Army. Flaunting their power and masochism ride the officers in olive green uniforms. Every half mile there is a sentry point. I sailed past one, as one was now used to them in the city. Suddenly I heard the rasping command "Down, down, down, walk". I was pretty careful after that. On the way I met patrols walking along the road like in the early days of the war with all the paraphernalia, including shelling equipment, on their shoulders. Yes, war was here and war is still here. I met the women together and individually, some in their work places some in their houses. They were still picking up pieces of their lives, sorting out the furniture that survived, or sweeping the debris .
The main narrator was a young working mother in whose house everything had been burnt. They were living along the main road in the vicinity of the Amman Kovil in the village of Urelu. From 10 October there was a curfew on, all over the peninsula. On the 11th they saw about forty Tigers, fully armed, moving along the road quietly. The next day, that is 12 October, from the early hours of the morning there started intense shell attacks from the direction of the Palaly army camp. She said that they had to take shelter under the bathroom flat because of the concrete reinforcement its roof had. At about 4:30 a.m., they heard some movement and peeped out to see a large group of Tigers moving in the direction of Urumpirai. Another interviewee said that this group had stopped near their house in the vicinity of Urumpirai Hindu College about, 300 to 400 yards away.
Between 5:45 and 6:00 a.m, an Indian Army convoy was seen in Urelu passing quietly along Palaly Road. She said:
"We heard a noise - may be a motar shell, possibly from the Tigers and then, suddenly, hell was let loose. A fierce battle ensued and firing started all round and went on continuously. I hugged my little one and was immobile. The firing continued without respite till 9 'o clock. Then it started quietening down.
When they looked out, army men were crouched all round. This woman and the family were contemplating moving further into the village. She said: "We saw in the house in front, the mother and her two year old baby girl and thirteen year old daughter lying dead". They had found the husband and the other eleven year old child injured inside the house. The husband told us how, when he had looked out, the army had fired and he had run into the house screaming. His wife and two kids had tried to escape to safety through the back entrance and they were shot in cold blood. She was a mother holding a two year old baby - not a gun. (It was not till the following day that the neighbours were able to take the father and daughter to get medical treatment, despatching them in a cart to Kopay Hospital). The narrator and her family, while moving a little into the interior, had found the bodies of an old lady and her son along the lane opposite their house. The old lady used to look after the temple. They had also found the body of a man, around thirty-five years of age, by the side of the lane.
On the 13th they saw bombers over Urumpirai. Early on the following day, the bombers came to Urelu and started bombing. They said:
"We know of three persons from the same house - the grandmother, mother and a year old son - who died in the bombing. The husband survived.
Later on, the same day, shelling started intensely, and two sisters (around 35 to 45 years old) died as a result. Our narrator continued:
"We could not stand it any longer. We thought of vacating the area completely. We left for the interior, many of us together with our children and some of our elders. We loaded them on bicycles and scooters. Some even walked. However, we had to leave many of our elderly in the houses. They were too feeble to be moved around.
They were confident that their elders would be spared and that they could convince the army of their innocence. However when the residents of this area came back, they could only see the skeletons and decaying bodies of their elders and others who had stayed behind.
One woman found the bodies of her next door neighbours, a shop owner of fifty-two and his twenty year old son, in various stages of decay. She also said:
"In the lane opposite our house we found the skeleton of a girl. We could only identify her from the clothes. We knew the young girl. She had got a place in the university.
The girl, they explained, had come back to collect some things from the house, because they had evacuated in a hurry. She had wanted to get something for her sister who was pregnant. The residents also found other skeletons - of a woman who had come back to get some drugs for her invalid father and of a man - with only their clothes left to identify them. Bottles were scattered around the first skeleton and a shopping bag lay next to it. On the 15th the woman had survived a bombing attack on her house, together with a neighbour who had taken shelter with her. The daughter was hugging the mother when she was shot. The same shot injured the mother, but did not kill her. The mother had stayed in the house for almost 20 days drinking only water, with the corpses of her husband and child rotting away. One woman said:
We were mentally prepared for the Sri Lankan army. They chose an age bracket and it is mostly the men that they gunned down. But the Indian army - we just could not believe it. We thought we could explain. But they just fired! We women are stuck inside the house. Any way how could we go to Nallur when they were shelling along the highways? I have my invalid mother and little son. My husband is not here. How could I go?".
Another woman said:
"How many women and little children died? They could not care less. Anybody, everybody, just a human form, if it moved, they shot it down!".
It was very clear from these women that there was no attempt to differentiate the militants from the civilians. Though this operation was to disarm the Tigers, any moving form in these villages in those early days of war, was a Tiger for the Indian army, and was destined to be killed. And the ages of the dead ranged from 1 or 2 years to 92 years. In the previous few years, during the military operations of the Sri Lankan security forces, the terror of getting rounded up and taken away, had made men between the ages of 14 and 40 (the targeted age bracket), leave the villages of their birth and flee to countries all round the world as refugees, or join the militant struggle. Furthermore, the 35 years of the state's policy of systematic employment restriction, and economic deprivation and the deliberate non-development of Tamil areas, had sent many young men to the Middle East and other areas in great numbers to do menial jobs. The women were left behind to tend, care and keep life going.
5.3 The case of the Disappeared
From the hopeless tragic finalities of death, we move on to the disappeared cases where hope is the only basis around which life itself is constructed for the affected women -sometimes very nebulous hope. Many of the disappearances were of persons taken into custody in the search and round-up operations of the Indian Army. Some had been taken in when they had left their homes to perform their daily routine jobs. They were taken in from the road side, the market, the bank... While incidents of gross killings were on the decline in Jaffna peninsula, disappearances were on the rise and becoming a confounding problem. The Indian Army occasionally releases lists of the detained but otherwise is lethargic and unhelpful in these cases.
She delivered her baby, their first, a week after her husband was taken in by the I.P.K.F.. The others who were taken in with her husband were released later. She never saw him again after the day of arrest. She was heartbroken for he had gone to the house from the place of refuge solely for her sake, to collect the necessities for her to be hospitalised for the birth. It happened in November, 19 November to be precise. For the subsequent 4 months there was not a single avenue that the woman had left untapped in finding her husband. She had left no stone unturned. She had regularly scanned the lists of the detained that the I.P.K.F. releases for a glimmer of hope. People around her murmured that he is dead... She removed her pottu, the colourful spot worn on the forehead by many Hinduwomen, to signify her loss. But in her heart of hearts and to us, she insisted that he was still alive. She could not accept that he was dead. Would we help?... Do we have hope for her and her infant?
Usha's husband was only 24 years of age. They had married only five nonths previously, and she was four months pregnant. Of course he was a supporter of L.T.T.E.'s, but after the Peace Accord and marriage, he had left politics to settle down to mainstream life. On 27 January, he left his home for the market. That was the last she saw of him. She has several conjectures. Either the I.P.K.F., or even men from the T.E.L.O. might have taken him.
Another lady had this tale to tell. Her husband was 50 years. They had had four daughters. On that unfortunate day, he had gone to Mullaitivu on a business trip and walked into an area that was being evacuated by the I.P.K.F.. The stories that reached her said that a man like her husband was seen to be shot by the army and carried away. This woman, single handedly, had gone to every camp in and around Mullaitivu and Vavuniya. She had gone to the highest officials concerned. They could not tell her whether he was dead or alive. These are but a few of the stories out of a list of more than the 300 disappearances so far in Jaffna peninsula alone. The list is ever increasing.
5.4 Rape and Molestation
"Why me? I ask myself whether by chance, something in me made them think they could do this to me? I feel soild inside myself. I feel small. Two months have gone by, but I think I am feeling worse. I was scared to tell my husband- it was only recently that I wrote to him. I will tell you my story if you say it will help other women".
I had known this woman long ago. She was such a lively, vivacious woman. Her smile and face have remained with me. I could readily recall her maiden name, although we were at that time only acquaintances. I could not accept that such a self-possessed woman could talk so dazedly. She is now a 38 year old professional woman with an 11 year old daughter. Her husband worked abroad. She went on:
"On 12 November, in the morning, three Indian soldiers came to our house at about 8 o'clock. My mother was in the kitchen. Only my daughter and I met them. They merely said: 'Checking,' and started pushing my daughter into a room. I dragged her and shouted ' Amma, Amma, checking, checking' Then the soldiers who were at the sentry point very near our house came running to our house. The soldiers who were inside our house told the others that they were only checking our house and did not stay long thereafter. My gold chain had been stolen. We were scared. I then took my daughter and hid her in a small box-room at the rear of the house and at about 9:30 we saw the same three soldiers come again. This time they had not used the front gate where the sentry point is located, but instead came through another vacant house, jumping over the common parapet wall. Then they locked my parents in one room, took me to a room, showed the gun and raped me, one after the other, all three of them. I did not scream. What if they shot my parents? I can still recollect those beady eyes. I could not handle it. I left the village, and Jaffna, as soon as the first buses started running to Colombo. I started having nightmares. I started seeing their faces and hearing voices. I took my daughter and we went abroad. I even went to a psychiatrist. I could talk to him because he was a total stranger. He gave me drugs. It quietened me, but it has not taken the trauma away. I am becoming worse, much worse. At least I saved my daughter.
Her daughter is well built and sweet for a 11 year old. Yes, she definitely had saved her daughter from the trauma. She continued:
"I have written to my husband and he says not to worry. But you know our men. Do you think he will accept me? I try to go to religious meetings and so on, but I cannot take part. I feel so apart from this world. I feel different."
One had seen the shattered interior of a wounded woman. However much one consoled and advised, it seemed so stupid. When I went home, I felt exhausted, impotent and angry at ourselves, our class, our men and our whole passive, stupid society.
Then there is the story of another young girl. She was only thirteen. Their house had once been a Tiger camp. The Indian army that had come to search, separated the child from the others and raped her. The child and family fled to Colombo. They were a well established middle class family. They were not interested in identification or anything at all. They do not want to hear any more of it and would rather let the trauma be buried in the recesses of their memory.
There is also the incident involving the rape of a 55 year old widow, and a 22 year old woman by two Indian soldiers in a poor Roman Catholic area. It was an afternoon, between 2:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m., on 18 November. The Indian Army was stationed closeby in a church. The older woman was probably seen first by the soldiers and, as she walked into her hut, they followed her and raped her while she was screaming. At that time the younger woman had walked into the back-yard to draw water from the well. On hearing the commotion, she went up to the door and called "Archie, Archie" meaning "Grandmother, grandmother". The door was opened and she was dragged in and raped. The girl being younger was able to free herself. She ran down the road screaming. She was sobbing, as she cried, "They have spoilt me".
As a result, an angry crowd spontaneously gathered. Around 400 people marched shouting to the army camp. The soldiers stood with their guns on the alert. The angry demonstrators continued to push forward. The commanding officer of the camp appeared on the scene, asked the people to stop at a distance and called in three people for an inquiry. They with the girl went up and told the story. The older woman who was lying in pain in the hut was also brought in and an identification parade took place. The two men were identified, and the officer promised that they would be punished adequately after an inquiry.
This is how another woman described her experience:
"It happened in December, long after they had taken our village. Our village had suffered so much death and destruction. One would have hoped that we would have been spared this agony. On 19 December, I went with a 25 year old friend of mine to make some tea for the people who were gathered in our house. We were all mostly displaced people and had moved into houses away from the main road. We were going to the house, a little up the lane. Actually it was my sister-in-law's house. It was 11:30 a.m. and it was only when we were in the proximity of the house that we noticed the soldiers standing at the top of the lane. We could not go back, so we decided to go inside the house. As we entered the house, the soldiers followed us and said that they had come for checking. I said that it was not my house, and that I did not have all the keys. They went on insisting on checking. In the process they separated me from my young friend. They took her into a room. One took me around the house and harassed me to show the rooms. We could not even shout. The dogs started barking fiercely. By this time, the neighbours were aware that we two women were inside and came en masse to the house. The soldiers then left."
Our narrator, a middle aged widow, told us how her companion had been asked to lie on the bed at gun point, and threatened not to make a sound. But the young woman, being a self-possessed working woman, had been able to ward off the assailant and by this time the neighbours had come. But they would not talk to anyone of authority. They were from a middle class background, and were talking of how such things could ruin a young unmarried woman's future. The group of women whom we were talking to, were careful to make the point that nothing untoward had happened, lest this young woman's future should be ruined. Thereafter, the young girl and other girls in the vicinity left for Colombo directly.
This is the story of a girl who was just 18 years old. Her father was a labourer, a cigar roller. Despite this, he had educated his daughter up to the G.C.E. Advanced Level. The incident took place on 23 December. The Indian Army had in the previous days come to their garden to take their chickens. That particular day, two soldiers came, separated the mother from the daughter, held the mother at gun point and both men raped the girl in turn. She was only a young girl and a virgin. Unlike the others, this girl identified the rapists who were punished by the army. The doctor who examined her, remembers this story vividly. He said, "Its so tragic, she was such a dynamic young girl. I admire the courage of the girl."
Another doctor who was consulted in a case of rape told us:
"Those were the early days of the war. They brought a young girl studying in high school. Her parents were farmers and were old. The Indian Army took her for questioning on16 November, because of a photograph. The girl was in the photograph with her class mate, who was the sister of an alleged Tiger. She was taken to the camp and questioned on the whereabouts of this boy and her connection with him. The captain threatened verbally to beat her up and even rape her unless she came out with the truth about the boy and alleged that he was her boyfriend. However, after questioning, they brought her home, and the captain gave her an ultimatum of 24 hours to think about it. After sometime, two soldiers turned up at her place, kept her parents to a side, took her to a room and one of them raped her. She had started bleeding. Then one man said that they would come the next day and warned her not to tell the mother and left. The girl became desperate and jumped into their well. Fortunately she was rescued by the neighbours. While this commotion had been going on, the captain arrived on a patrol or some such thing, and with him were the men as well. The captain, most probably thinking that she had jumped because of his threats, patted her on the head, assuring her that he would not do such a thing to her and asked her to tell him if there were any problems. But at that time she had kept mum, because the rapists were with him."
Later, however, the family took her to this doctor who had urged her to report the incident. And she courageously did so and identified the men.
These were the days of full blown "normalcy" where Indian Army officials were bent on convincing all and sundry that life had almost returned to normal. People were going back to their old villages, repairing shelled houses, and trying to live. The month of January was almost drawing to a close, but we realised that as far as women were concerned, the time factor, or the so called normality, did not bring respite. It seemed that the soldiers were relieving their "battle fatigue" on us.
She was a 22 year old student. Her father was semi-blind. The whole family depend on her brother who had a shop in Chilaw. On 29 January, the father and daughter left their home with prepared food for the mother who had been in the temple since 24 January, for religious observances. When they got near the temple four soldiers inspected their identity cards. One took a long time over hers. When asked for the time, she had said that it was 12:10 p.m.. They asked the father to sit down and for her to walk down the lane leading to the temple. Sensing danger, she started protesting, but she was threatened at gun point and made to walk alone. One of the soldiers stood on guard with the father while the other three walked behind her. When they were near an abandoned hut, she was taken into the bushes. While one stood on guard, the others raped her. After the men had left, the young woman collected her disabled father, went to the temple and joined her mother. Later, she and her father went to the nearest camp and reported the incident. There she was asked to go to a bigger camp. At the larger camp they held an identification parade and she identified the four soldiers. She was advised to treat the matter at a private clinic and report the next day.
We now bring the desperate tale of a young woman who chose not to live through this shame that was brought on her. On 25 January, her body was recovered from the well in her house. Her parents had died during shelling by the Sri Lankan Army in January, 1987. She was 30 years old. On the 24th night, when she was in the house with two other women, Indian soldiers came and knocked. The inmates had not wanted to open, but the insistent knocks had made the now dead girl comment that they might have come only for a search! While the three of them were discussing, the knocks continued unabated. When they opened the door, the woman of 30 ran away fearing danger. The Indian soldiers were there for a few minutes and went away after seeing that the younger woman had run away. None knew her story till her dead body was found. The Judicial Medical Officer who conducted the postmortem, found clear marks of rape (such as laceration of the vagina, and contusion of the labia).
Although there are many more cases of rape, we have presented only a few sample cases. As one woman activist observed;
"Rape occurred mainly in November and December, when the families were trickling in from the refugee camps to their old homes. Many women were quite isolated, with few neighbours being around. It provided ample opportunity for the soldiers to rape. Many of the women were beaten before being raped.
One of my young friends and her little sister once had to go through an I.P.K.F. checkpoint when they were fleeing from village to village. My friend said angrily how the hands of the soldiers had invaded the privacy of their bodies, pawing and feeling them all over. The worst was when after a long silence, her little sister had asked her "Akka1 - what did the soldiers do to us - is that what they call rape?" In sharp contrast to the sad plight of this sheltered innocence was our encounter with the Indian Army authorities with their utter callousness and contempt for our women. "I am only trying to explain to this young lady," an Indian Army official once said in the midst of discussions, "that stories are grossly exaggerated. Yesterday we went to investigate a case of alleged rape. Ultimately it turned out to be only molestation.
Our anger is at our own impotence and powerlessness. We feel that our physical selves, and our womanness are under the control of these marauders, who take what they want at their will and pleasure. But for these men of authority, it is only a matter of mere definitions.
Another time - in the face of mounting evidence - this same official was forced to take a more conciliatory tone:
"I agree that rape is a heinous crime. But my dear, all wars have them. There are psychological reasons for them such as battle fatigue."
A screaming rocket burst into my head. I thought to myself, yes it is part of all wars; but still, we women cannot swallow it. Our bodies are ours. You cannot relieve yourselves on us.
The Indian Army made it clear to the community that they were ready to act on any case of violation with severity. Once rape was established, the Indian Army did take punitive measures against offenders . But its attitude was one of splitting hairs on the evidence and thereby, perhaps unintentionally, discouraging complainants. It was not ready to consider the threat to life and limb that might have been used to suppress evidence. For example, an incident connected with the rape on 18 November, concerning which people had gone on a delegation to an army camp, is an eye opener. The commanding officer of the camp had not only held an identification parade, but had also taken the particulars of the young men of the neighbourhood who were in the forefront of the delegation. A few days later some "rounds" were made in the vicinity of the house of one of these young men. He was taken into custody and beaten very badly. While beating him they were alluding to the rape saying that it was the Tigers who had raped, and that the people had put the blame on the I.P.K.F.. He was later released as he was innocent. Such incidents lead victims to believe that the I.P.K.F. does not respond kindly to protests against rape and that threats and beatings are used to suppress evidence.
The Indian Army stands further exposed by their response to the rape of the 22 year old student mentioned earlier. She had identified the rapists at the army camp and she was asked to come the next day. When she reported the next day with both her parents, they were all sent to the Ariyali camp in a truck and were told that higher officials would see them. They waited the whole day and eventually became so angry that they refused to eat anything. At midnight a soldier came and said that the commander wanted to see the girl alone. The mother got very angry and both the mother and daughter started raising their voices in protest. Then the man put his finger on his lips and left the room quickly. The mother fearing further forceful encroachment, spent the night just outside the room. The following morning the family wished to go, but were asked to wait again. Realising the fatality as much as the futility of waiting, the young woman, with some resourcefulness, said that her mother was ill (she had a bad leg) and that they had to admit her at the hospital. The army suggested their own hospital. The family was so adamant, that the army asked the father to wait in the camp while the mother and daughter went to Jaffna Hospital. The daughter was asked to return after admitting her mother. However she got herself admitted as well. She later learnt that the father walked out of the camp once she and her mother had left for the hospital.
An officer once protested:
"We are not checking women deliberately. You see, one day, when one of our officers was going on an open vehicle, there were two young women on the road side. One waved while the other raised her skirt and fired an automatic gun at our officer and a jawan. Don't you think we have to check women? It is women who are carrying weapons strapped to their thighs and in their blouses."
Hundreds of women at sentry points were being given total body checks by men. Searching for weapons became an open licence to paw a whole population of women. One adolescent was bitterly crying at one check point - they had even made her show the sanitary towel she had on. Moreover, even the Indian press, including the woman reporter Anita Pratap, dismissed rape as rumour and called it a well orchestrated smear campaign against the I.P.K.F.. In January, the Indian Army with great fanfare brought women of the C.R.P.F. to do the checking of women. But this was a farce, because when impromptu checks and searches occur, they do not occur in areas where women check points are conveniently placed. Moreover, at Elephant Pass, a C.R.P.F. male officer was known to be inside the enclosure observing the women being checked.
Furthermore, like rape, many cases of molestation occurred during the so called house to house searches. At the Manipay Hindu College refugee camp in late November, the Indian Army separated the men from the women and proceeded to molest the girls. The women screamed together and prevented further such activity.
At Passaiyoor in December, in a routine house to house search by the Indian Army, they raised the skirts of the women in a house. The women went on an angry delegation to the commanding officer of the area, complained, and demanded decency and dignity. There was an identification parade and the women identified the soldiers concerned. After that it was arranged that search operations should be carried out only with a civilian observer present. The molested women in this instance, were generally from a working class background, particularly from the fishing community, and were far less likely to take any slight to their womanhood and dignity with demureness. At Lawton Road, Manipay, in December, molestation occurred, as a result of which one woman was left with a split upper lip when she resisted. Another escaped the worst only by screaming out loudly.
We do not say that the Indian Army does not take any preventive measures. But the measures taken are very slow in forthcoming and the army goes to great lengths to exonerate the alleged rapist and build alibis. Little is done to alleviate the sufferings of the victims and their families. Even as we are writing, information about cases of rape and molestation trickle in from all over. As women, we feel the helpless anger of our victimised sisters, and the pain and agony of smashed and stigmatised lives. The cumulative effect of all this was a fear ridden and restricted lifestyle for women. Women who stay at home are very fearful of impromptu house to house searches. So they cook early and gather in one house or keep all the windows, doors and gates shut. It has been a common sight in Tamil areas, especially in Jaffna, for women to be mobile on bicycles - women in saris, taking children to school and going to work, and young daughters with mothers on their bicycle carriers. A woman said:
"We used to do many things. Especially after the operations by the Sri Lankan Army, we women had to shoulder more tasks and protect our men or send them away."
The Sri Lankan Army had targeted a 14 to 40 year old age group for their definition of a Tamil terrorist and used to round up villages to arrest males from this age group. Thus life for the most able bodied section of the community became precarious. Many young men left, leaving behind the women, children, and the old to keep life going in their homeland. She continued,
"But now, with all these incidents of molestation, and rape, we cannot go anywhere without a male escort and most of the time we are forced to remain inside."
Though the situation in general is easing now, the ongoing incidence of sexual violence against women gives impetus to the return of narrow values. An older woman asked:
"Why cannot these women be inside their homes ? Look at these young girls, laughing and talking. With all this happening, they still parade around! They are deliberately inviting attention."
Reflecting on the new surge of conservatism brought about by the presence of the I.P.K.F., a younger woman said:
"Actually we should not bring up our girls timid any more - but I do agree we should not tempt these men."
As if to echo this, I wish to relate an interesting anecdote. Girls from a village close to the university said that the Indian Army had given a note to their school which the teacher read out. It said: "Girls should wear sarees, and should not go around on cycles. The tragedy of all this is summed up by the young woman who said in a funny, poignant way:
"At the checkpoint even if army men just brush or even make a comment, the old ladies of the village would gather and gossip - 'Poor girl she has been spoilt, how will they get her married off.' To avoid all this I shut myself inside the house."
Caught in such a situation, without a strong women's leadership in the movements, or grass roots organisations, the community of women had no path to organise along and come together so as to raise their voices against such gross evils as sexual violence by the Indian Army. Thus the community has left it to be handled spontaneously. And we find two clear streams of action emanating.
First, the middle class families in cases of rape and molestation have always tried to hide it. They were not willing to expose the culprits because they existed as individualized families and feared the censure of the society around them. The only events that have been brought out have been ones where the victims were ordinary people. The middle classes after having all the advantages of education, and being able to have some kind of a privileged relationship with the Indian Army, did not bring out the issues. Nor did they organise protests, but instead they continued to side step the problem. They did not think in terms of justice being done to the individual or community. This portrays the anaemic character of our middle classes in whom the community had reposed its power but who continually fail the people.
Secondly, this type of handling, of the victimisation of women, individualized the burden of the act carried by the woman, thereby internalizing the pain and trauma and creating far reaching damage to the inner life of a woman. The society stands apart and the most it does is to indulge in sympathetic gossip. Depersonalizing the woman in such acts of violence could be achieved through the collective consciousness. The community of women supporting the victim and letting the trauma drain out, is like opening out an abscess and letting the puss drain out. As a young woman of twenty enlightened me:
"Why can they not treat it as a wound sister and let it heal? The soldiers destroy once. But the village destroys us a thousand times."
Neither have we built structures for women to come together and act (despite the high flown revolutionary language floated around by the women in the liberation movements). Nor have we as a class, had the courage at the point of crisis to come together. The onus of carrying the burden of victimization has fallen on the shoulders of the women of the labouring population and on individual women of this class - a duty which they have courageously under-taken. These fragments of conversation add to what we have personally experienced as women in the aftermath of the war. It shows the community of women made to give up a life-style of relative freedom. It shows the community denuded of power and internal strength, and having to resort to the most restrictive of existing social norms. Those who have taken the brunt are the most vulnerable section - the women - making them totally powerless and condemning them to a cloistered existence. Furthermore, no serious attempts were made at community level to bring about an awareness of the problems arising from the Indian patronage of liberation movements. In fact it is the liberation movements that led us into such a physically interlocked relationship with India. In actual practice, all movements drifted to a position of existing with Indian patronage. Therefore it is not surprising that most of the women had a simple faith in India before the present history ravaged their psyche. Many women we met told us that they could not believe that the Indian Army could commit such base acts. These women, like their men, believed not only that India came as a friend, but also in the so called Indian respect and esteem for women.
Saku was only 25, a mother of two children. She was still suckling her little baby. She was taken in for questioning. Though her husband was also with her, only she was taken in and she had to leave her baby behind. Her family brought the baby to the camp the next day. She was allowed to keep it. She was questioned on the whereabouts of a Tiger member. They alluded to him as her paramour and the baby as his. They had put her in a pit and filled the pit up to the armpit with soil and a soldier jumped on it asking for information. She felt tightening and constriction on her body and chest. She told her story. She had only cooked some meals for the Tigers. Later they pulled her out. She was released 5 days later.
Sumathy is 24 years old and was taken in for questioning on 10 January. She was blindfolded and beaten with a thorny stick at the time of her arrest. She was taken to the camp in the area. They gagged her and beat her with S-Lon pipes which are made out of plastic for piping water. The pipe was loaded with sand. They said that they had full information about her and that she must tell the truth. They beat her for 3 days like this on and off. Her knees were swollen as a result.
The commanding officer, when interrogating Sumathy, beat her with a cane between her shoulder blades. She said that she had only cooked a few meals for the L.T.T.E. and only knew two of them. She was interrogated and beaten the first three days. She was then put in a large room with two others, a 45 year old woman and a young woman, maybe of Sumathy's age. She refused most of the food as the pain was unbearable and she did not want to eat their food. She was released 5 days later.
Once when she was in the detention camp, she saw a young man, tied upside down, having his testicles pulled. The torturers were at the same time, pulling him up and down, by a leg that was tied with a rope to the ceiling. He was screaming: "Only yesterday I told you, only yesterday I told you..."
When one meets Suseela, one knows how she survived - through sheer determination. Being from a poor family, Suseela was only 14 when she was married to a mentally sub-normal man from a rich family. She said:
"Sister, life - happiness - had no meaning to me. Of course his family were kind to me. They gave me jewellery and built a small house for us. I lent the jewellery to my family to make a living. I had no life of my own. My husband would leave me and go to his parents' house to sleep. All the while I would stay alone and scared. I would cook food, but he would eat at a shop or go to his mother's house and eat. So eventually I stopped cooking."
She continued vehemently and half angrily:
"I want to fill my life. I want to do social service. I want to be of service to others. That is how I started helping the people in the village and then the Tigers. I want to do something. Sister, after all these happenings, though people are grateful, they are scared to associate with me, especially to send their daughters with me. They are sometimes sarcastic about my life and make snide comments about my stay in the army camp. Even when I come to see you, they say that I have gone to meet the Tigers. After all this, the barren life and the pain, I have no more tears sister."
She pleaded with me to find something useful for her to do for the community. I was very affected by the energy - the spirit - of this young woman.
And one realised how inordinate power could accumulate in the hands of leaders - women like Sumathy would do anything in the name of the common good and are ready to be led.
5.6 Tamil Women and the
National Liberation Struggle
A common view is often expressed regarding Sri Lankan Tamil women, that they have a certain degree of freedom compared to women in some South Asian societies. These sweeping generalisations point to facts ranging from socio-anthropological observations such as that the Sri Lankan Tamil society is matrilocal or matrilinear. Many women are educated, and have accessibility to professional education and status. They are mobile, dress freely and often act as bread winners. One has to examine these generalizations deeper to understand the real nature of women's position in Tamil society.
The evolution of relative freedom for women in our society in comparison to other South Asian societies, is a part of the over all evolution of society. Our country, unlike many other South Asian nations, is fairly well penetrated by capitalist relations. This is primarily a historical development that occurred because of integration with the world capitalist system. During colonial rule, the plantations became the main economic activity of the island. The middle classes were integrated into servicing this colonial economy and administration. This pattern continued into neocolonial times with some qualifications, furthering the integration into the world economy. Examples are the dependence on tourism, and the development of the Free trade Zone. Therefore what is fairly apparent is that, although there was no rooted capitalist mode of production, the society had well established capitalist relations.
This had removed some of the restrictions of feudal society. Moreover, the fact that education became the greatest employment asset and its widespread availability, made women struggle to become educated, take up careers and professions and move into public life. As a result, these struggles have resulted in the accommodation of women in spheres outside the family.
However, these improved standards in practical life are a facade. The inferior status of women was exemplified by lower pay for women's work, dowry payment by women to men of similar status and profession, and by restrictive cultural, and social practices. All these ramifications of patriarchy and the oppression of women in the economy and ideology, remained fully entrenched. Though colonial capitalist penetration and subsequent reforms had broken up the old feudalism, the remnants of feudal structures now take up a distorted form. A classic example is the dowry system amongst the Tamils. In feudal times, the dowry was a method of preserving family wealth. It was the means by which the ruling class consolidated its wealth and economic power. While one expects the development of capitalist relations to dismantle dowry system, the contrary is true in present day Jaffna society. The dowry system is embellished further, and made into a market economy relationship. For example, if a family has a male who is a professional, such as a doctor, engineer, accountant, or executive, they would be able to sell this person as a husband to a wealthy mans daughter, and get money in the form of a "donation". This so called donation to the man's family, at today's rates, runs into several lakhs of rupees1. The bias towards "educated" persons is historical. Since colonial times, education had meant upward mobility, social status and accretion of wealth, either in this country or more importantly, abroad. Since feudal times, the person has hardly mattered. It was kin based family interests that dominated. Another phenomenon that is observable in Jaffna society is that despite the acceptance of the market economy, it has not moved forward ideologically. Since many of its feudal values and relationships are based on patronage, the hierarchical order has remained. The middle classes of Jaffna have advanced without a rooted economic base. Their mobility had depended on salaried, service orientated professions where they are always subordinate, and given restricted powers. Their momentum for advancement and self-expression, was constrained at one point or the other. From this circumscribed position, the search for and preservation of identity became primary. They could only seek their identity, through power as a community, as families, as males, and as heads of families, by preserving or "pickling" the inner core of life. Thus their society seemed to be living a split life. Puritanism and repression in private life seemed effectively to co-exist with materialism and integration in public, and economic life. However, after a decade-long history of the freedom struggle, and with major liberation movements even boasting of armed women's sections, one would have expected tangible cracks in the ideology of Tamil society and some liberating experience for the women.
5.7 Women's Organisations
The women's section in our liberation movements seem to have produced minimal impact on the outside community. They did not conscientise women in the community regarding women's issues springing from the consciousness of our concrete conditions. They did not become catalysts for change as a section in the leadership movement, pushing forward women's grass roots organisations.
In our struggle there was a breakthrough in the community when the Mothers' Front was formed. During the time of enormous crisis in the mid-1980s, when the mass arrests of youth were a fact of life, it was fashioned along the lines of the Plaza de Mayo mothers. The mothers of the disappeared, together with other women in the community, formed a militant "Mothers' Front". During the period 1984-85, the front mobilised mass rallies, and picketed public officials demanding the removal of military occupation and protesting against arrests. Not only the spirit, but also the enormous numbers that they were able to mobilise, spoke loudly of the high point to which such mass organisations, especially of women, can rise. The front consisted of women from all classes. It had central and village level organisations. However, in later years, with the increasing hegemony of L.T.T.E. and the suppression of all democratic organisations through pressure to toe the line, the front, pushed into political conformism, lost its wide appeal and militancy. It became another Y.W.C.A.. Thereafter, its central structure confined its activity to mere charity work. This underscored the reality that a progressive consciousness would not be allowed to develop at the community level. The lack of clarity in the women's sections of liberation movements, made them unable to give any direction towards a broad front. This weakness was only too apparent during the October war and its aftermath. At this time, when urgent and pressing issues like rape, molestation, loss of life, and loss of breadwinner needed organized protest, the existing women's structures, be it the Mothers' Front or others, did not take any initiative. They who should have come out in the open, rallying around the issues of human rights violations and sexual abuse, were immobile and quiet. They did not demonstrate to the I.P.K.F. or India that they would not leave unexposed the grossest violation of women, and their suffering. In essence they did not show the forces that rule our destiny that women are a force to contend with.
However, the Jaffna Mothers Front did decide to fast, to push for negotiations between India and the L.T.T.E.. It is admirable that they showed their solidarity with their sisters in Batticaloa. However one becomes skeptical when one looks at the cause for which they were fasting. We knew from the past that India, the L.T.T.E. and the genocidal Sri Lankan government would negotiate. We had learnt during the years of the civil war and the October war, that neither the Sri Lankan nor the Indian government cared for the interests of the Tamil people. Moreover, even for the Tigers the lives of the people were subordinate to the narrow interests of their movement, as their conduct during the October war showed.
These developments leave the Tamils in a dangerous situation that is subject to further manipulation by foreign influences. Although many Tamils have been killed by militants in the past, accused of being agents of the C.I.A., Mossad and so on, we have failed to see the big holes in our unprincipled politics through which these influences can enter, in ostensibly benevolent roles - as arms donors and even peace makers. Thus when a women's organisation like the Mothers' Front, with the largest following, can only put forward dramatic postures patronisingly assigned to it, it loses its vitality as a force. If only it can be fully rooted amongst ordinary suffering women, mobilise their militant strength and articulate their sufferings and aspirations, can it win esteem and ensure that it is a force to be reckoned with. Sadly the Jaffna Mothers' Front's inarticulate acceptance of women's sufferings at the hands of the I.P.K.F., and, earlier, the L.T.T.E's inwardly directed violence, leaves them in a wasteland, only to be used as a tool by one force and disregarded and bullied by the other.
5.8 Women and Arms
This is not a comprehensive analysis. Nor is it an adequate one. However, we are trying to bring in a few strands of thought that could only be filled out by women's own experience within armed liberation movements. Whatever the experience - positive or negative - one cannot deny that this is a sweeping phase in the life of the whole community of women.
One cannot but be inspired when one sees the women of the L.T.T.E., two by two, in the night, with their A.K.s slung over the shoulder, patrolling the entrances to Jaffna city. One cannot but admire the dedication and toughness of their training, seen in the video films put out by the L.T.T.E.. One could see the nationalist fervour and the romantic vision of women in arms defending the nation. This becomes a great draw for other women to join the militant movements. Our social set up, its restriction on creative expressions for women and the evils of the dowry system, are some of the social factors that led to their initial recruitment. Moreover, the political climate created by the struggle in the past decade, and the increasing loss of men to state terrorism and the world at large as refugees and emigrants, are some of the contributory factors necessitating women's recruitment. However, it would be an over-statement to say that it is the climate of "liberation", the kind of literature that is available, the knowledge of the experience of women in other struggles from far flung corners of the world, or the rebelliousness against being kept out of the centre of the struggle, that was drawing the fertile minds of young women to active participation.
Since the mid-1980s, women were being recruited into the movements - mostly into the P.L.O.T.E. and the E.P.R.L.F. which had sizable numbers, and fewer into the L.T.T.E.. Later on, however, there was a rapid growth in the number of women in the L.T.T.E. as well. The L.T.T.E.'s women's section was called the "Birds of Freedom." The recruitment spur came after the Vadamaratchi operations of the Sri Lankan Army and the massive arrests of men that followed. The L.T.T.E. specifically targeted women; younger women who were already knocking at the door to be included in the struggle were eagerly accepted.
Though all these brought winds of change, the impact on the community was nebulous. At times it even makes a negative impression. Episodes like the finding of the bodies of some women of the P.L.O.T.E. cadre at Maniam Thottam, made the community angry and blame the women.
Unlike in the other groups, however, in the E.P.R.L.F., women were taking a more assertive role and putting forward clear, honest political positions in times of crisis. For instance, after the massacre of the T.E.L.O. cadre by the L.T.T.E., the E.P.R.L.F. was the sole movement in the E.N.L.F. (the United Front of the E.P.R.L.F., the E.R.O.S., the T.E.L.O. and the L.T.T.E.) that protested and organised demonstrations and other protests. This campaign was led by their women members. This position contrasts with that of the other members of the E.N.L.F., such as the E.R.O.S. who tactically decided to keep quiet and co-exist with the L.T.T.E.. Later when the E.P.R.L.F. was crushed by the L.T.T.E., many E.P.R.L.F. women were beaten-up by the L.T.T.E.. One prominent member of the L.T.T.E. had said while beating some women:
"What, liberation for you all. Go and wait in the kitchen. That is the correct place for you."
This attitude must have percolated down to the women in the L.T.T.E.. For example, in discussions, women of the L.T.T.E. have said that women should not stray too far away from the roles set by the society and that women had taken arms too early. Coming from a group whose total axis is militaristic, this comment seems surprising. Looking at militaristic movements, brotherhood among males appears paramount to them. Macho pride is one of the impetuses for heroism. This passive stand taken by (or pushed on) the women of the L.T.T.E. is not surprising, especially when we look at the L.T.T.E.'s history. Women at one time were considered evil by the L.T.T.E. and they were said to make men loose their sense of purpose, on account of which men in the movements were prohibited from having relationships with women.
Contrary to our expectations, even the women's section of the E.P.R.L.F. failed to make any impression despite their militancy and remained abstract and isolated from the community. It is fairly evident that it would be utopian to expect the women's sections to forge ahead with clarity, given the level of their political consciousness and taking into consideration the objective reality of our society, the nationalist struggle and the short history of the women's sections. That is, the women's sections of none of the movements were able to grasp the fundamentals of our concrete conditions, formulate a theoretical framework and define practical tasks. This cannot be blamed on the women themselves. Even if they had striven to achieve high ends, their expression would have been curtailed, disregarded and even trampled upon. Because our society is hierarchically organised and seeped in the ideology of male dominance, the woman's position is shaped in every aspect - personal relationships, property exchanges, work practices, and social and cultural norms - by a girdle of patriarchy. If in a society like this, the dominant ideology under which the struggle is organised is itself an even more narrow, revivalistic and romantic one, well sprinkled with images of male heroes and male valour, and if nationalism is a type of aggressive patriotism, then a concept of women's liberation would be working against the inner core of such a struggle.
In such a situation, a call to arms for women had been based on images of mythified "brave and valiant mothers" who justified such male pride and went for wars or sent their sons, lovers and husbands to the war fronts. Therefore the armed women's sections developed either in terms of "use" as in the case of the L.T.T.E. or in a mechanical fashion, as a graft of an idea borrowed from other liberation struggles as with the E.P.R.L.F.. Thus the passive stand by the L.T.T.E. women can be understood, as the movement approved of them exactly as their society did. The fact that the E.P.R.L.F., possessing an advanced consciousness, was unable to transplant it in the community, is a general phenomenon in all E.P.R.L.F. activities - in the armed struggle, the mobilisation of people and the construction of people's structures, among others. In every major aspect, the E.P.R.L.F. exhibited estrangement between its theory and practice. Therefore neither our material reality nor our history had the basis to support a fully blown women's section in the armed movements. It is tragic that these women's sections themselves did not make any attempt to grasp their reality; an analysis of the position of women, the crucial social issues confronting them in Tamil society and women's history, would have enlightened them and cleared the way to laying down the fundamental tasks and priorities.
Apart from initial documents from all movements calling women to arms, there were no explorations into the theory and practice of the women's question with regard to Tamil society. This was very clear as we further went into discussion with some of the "Birds of Freedom". They confessed to much confusion within the movement regarding the women's question. But they ultimately ended the argument with an expression of faith in their leader's ability to solve all problems. That is why a saddened woman activist told them: "Please remember, a woman's role is greater than just being a machine that carries arms."
Looking at the composition of the armed women cadre, the majority were found to be from poor backgrounds, a small proportion from the middle classes and a few with university backgrounds. The middle class girls were found, especially in the case of the L.T.T.E., to be in the student political wing. For the women from the poor background, theirs was a task with a sense of purpose, a way in which they could lay their life down for something greater than a life of abject poverty and lifelong labour. Those who came from the middle classes to the L.T.T.E., especially those who joined the S.A.L.T., their student wing, were mostly city schoolgirls with a narrow vision, who were guided only by sentiments of patriotism. They held romantic and idealized images of the L.T.T.E., its heroes and leader.
The influence of these women's sections on the community of women was not only marginal, but at times it also reinforced old prejudices. It seems such a tragedy that young women who went with dedication and determination, were much maligned by society. When the L.T.T.E. was withdrawing during the October war, the opinions of the community turned venomously against women. As one older woman said:
"The Tigers were all right till these women joined them. They have spoilt the movement and the boys' dedication."
For them all the grave mistakes of the Tigers could be easily pinned on to the small group of women who had no power at all within the movement. Another professional woman said in a scathing tone:
"Those days when we asked these women why they joined the movement, they said that it was for the sake of our land. Now where is the land? Why could these women not have kept quiet? They are the ones who give all the encouragement to the men."
Such hard and cruel words coming from women themselves, show the deep seated ramifications of women's oppression. These as well as the commonly heard insinuation that women themselves invite molestation and rape, show the trap that women have set for themselves. Wherever a woman is, not only is she oppressed and made to play a subdued and nonassertive role (being allowed to be assertive only within the ambit of male dominance), she is also destined to take up set roles - playing to perfection the emotional and sensitive roles, at once, of daughter, lover, wife and mother, and providing a stable base for the man and the family to stand on.
This lot gives her her paramount credibility. This is her identity. Moreover, the society has evolved historically in such a way that she herself is made to shape her belief and propagate and maintain her own oppression from generation to generation within the family structure. However, it is not an easy task to ascertain the extent of the permeation of women's oppression in our own Tamil society and construct a proper strategy and tactics to counter it. That women of this nation made an attempt at it and took the first courageous steps is the positive gain of this era, although there is great bitterness surrounding this period. There might be many consequences emanating from it. Many women might be frustrated, bitter and angry and some might reconcile themselves with mainstream life. A few might continue the old way in subordinate and peripheral positions in the movements. But it would be a positive result if a few of those who come out, with richness of experience and self-criticism, become a catalyst for the further advancement of the position of women in this land.
Even in the community, women have come out strong during this war. In many instances of confrontation with the Indian Army, they have stood out as individuals or as small groups, exposing the atrocities and violations of dignity. A Brigadier has his collection of anecdotes of sharp tongued Jaffna women. On the other hand it was mainly women who, in the midst of war, pleaded and argued with the Tigers for life for their families and the whole nation. Again it is women who have braved the guns and sat in a fast to save others in Batticaloa.
Thus when one appraises the political bleakness that confronts this community and this land, the women's history does have a triumph. There is powerlessness, disappointment and disillusionment, but also hope. We have done it... a little bit... [Top]Next||Previous||contents
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