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Mar 28, 2021

Surviving War and Victimhood: Women and Tamil Nationalism

A review of Meena Kandasamy’s 'The Orders Were to Rape You: Tamil Tigresses in the Tamil Eelam Struggle'.
Women with children walk near barbed wire at an internally displaced camp set up for Tamils who escaped the war zone, in Vavuniya, about 254 km north of Colombo, April 4, 2009. Photo: Reuters/ Stringer

Meena Kandasamy’s The Orders Were to Rape You: Tamil Tigresses in the Tamil Eelam Struggle contains three narratives; that of the author, the story of ‘a Tamil Tiger’s wife’, and that of a LTTE woman combatant. It concludes with ‘poetry by female guerrillas, resistance fighters, and militants’.

Kandasamy identifies strongly with the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils, that much is clear. Because of this she wants to express her solidarity with the women about whom she writes and amplify their voices. I explore how successfully she does this. My analysis will be through the lens of my experiences as a Tamil woman in Sri Lanka whose life was shaped by the war and who works with those that grapple with the aftermath of it and the yet unresolved causes of the war.

Women inside and outside the Tamil nation

The narratives of the ‘Tamil Tiger’s wife’ and the woman combatant are the most powerful part of the book. They are gut wrenching, as the suffering and pain of the women is palpable. This is due not only to the brutality they have survived but also the sparse and direct manner in which Kandasamy presents their voices, which command and demand the reader’s attention. They create empathy and outrage and thereby make the reader naturally call for justice for these women.

The book is not only about Tamil women and the sexual violence they experienced. It is also about the author’s relationship with Tamil nationalism, and her experiences documenting the women’s stories. Though the title appears to focus on women combatants, at times, the voice and experience of the author take precedence over that of the women. Whenever this happens, the stories of the women are filtered through the author’s positive perceptions of Tamil nationalism and militancy, which obliterate the contradictions and nuance in the women’s stories. For instance, Kandasamy says of women combatants, ‘‘After the war, they were unwelcome in other people’s homes’. Yet, she does not pause to wonder why.

The Orders Were to Rape You: Tamil Tigresses in the Tamil Eelam Struggle
Meena Kandasamy
Navayana, 2021

The three narratives are presented within the framework of Tamil nationalism, with no acknowledgement that nationalism is a gendered project. This leads to disconcerting silences and absences in the book. It is silent on the creation of insiders and outsiders, and patriots and traitors by Tamil nationalism. It is silent on the often-devastating consequences of this for the Tamil community, and especially for those who were placed, sometimes forcibly, outside the Tamil nation, such as those who were engaged in activities that challenged the nationalist discourse, in particular the LTTE’s militant form of nationalism. The most striking absence is the lack of acknowledgment by the author that a space outside the Tamil nation, to which some were labelled traitors and relegated, and some chose to occupy, even existed.

Perhaps, due to the somewhat one-dimensional view of Tamil nationalism adopted in the book, women’s emancipation is equated mainly, if not solely, with their participation in the armed struggle. The reality however is that several historical moments spurred Tamil women’s activism and participation in the Tamil struggle. Tamil women’s participation in the struggle for the rights of the community did not begin nor end with the militancy. For instance, during the 1970s and 1980s, the political activism of young women, which was sometimes, but not always, linked to the militancy, challenged traditional understandings of the conservative nature of Tamil society. Today, Tamil women lead protests against military acquisition of land and demands for justice for the disappeared.

The danger in linking women’s liberation to militancy is that it ties liberation largely to violence. Hence, ultimately, women’s liberation is mediated through a patriarchal structure, the militancy. Relying on militancy as a form of liberation validates the patriarchal limits of liberation set out by the militant movement.

For example, Kandasamy states she was inspired by the courage of women militants and describes her perception of them thus, ‘young girls like me were carrying AK47s and killing the enemy’ and ‘Tamil girls just shot the fuck out of anyone who snatched their rights’. Yet, she views the woman who married a LTTE cadre mainly through the lens of the woman’s relationship to her husband. She is referred to throughout the book as the ‘Tamil Tiger’s wife’.

The ‘ambivalent empowerment’ of women combatants

Meena Kandasamy. Courtesy: Juggernaut

Meena Kandasamy. Courtesy: Juggernaut

Kandasamy rightly observes that ‘women raped as a weapon of war are potent tools for political mobilisation and grandstanding oratory, but in everyday life, they are viewed with derision, suspicion, shame’. The words of the woman combatant that, ‘corpse in a wake is looked upon with more respect…A corpse is superior, to them, to a raped woman like me. That was the cost of war, that women were paying’ show that militancy effected no fundamental change within the Tamil community on issues of gender equality. An interrogation of the gendered nature of Tamil nationalism and the militancy would have revealed that the ‘respect’ shown towards women LTTE cadres was mainly because they carried weapons and were in a position of power. Once they became detainees and ‘normal’ citizens their social status within the community diminished.

Towards the end of the book Kandasamy does acknowledge that,

‘Meeting a female Tiger in the flesh broke my own naïve carnivalisation of war. When I encountered these women personally, the image I had constructed of female militancy shattered. Nothing had prepared me to brace for the reality that these powerful women would be so vulnerable.’

Despite this, she does not explore the reasons for this and thereafter speaks only of human rights violations by the state, as if only those violations adversely impact the lives of former women combatants. The reality is more complex and different; Tamil society too does not always treat women combatants with empathy or respect. This in turn sometimes exacerbates the impact of state violations.

It cannot be denied that in the Tamil community the nationalist struggle was instrumental in bringing women into the public sphere, in sometimes blurring the boundaries between the public and private spheres, and in politicising the private sphere, and thereby mobilising women to support the nationalist struggle. However, while women played an active role in the nationalist struggle, they were not always successful in exercising agency and capturing power to create space for their voices to be heard. This is because, generally, the space given to women seems to have been determined by the strategic needs of the organisation rather than a commitment to women’s empowerment.

Victims or survivors?: Our responsibility to do no harm

In Sri Lanka, as in other armed conflicts, women have often been portrayed only as victims. This is more so in the case of Tamil women, who at times have been used as propaganda tools by both the Sri Lankan state and Tamil nationalism.

The dominant narrative in post-war Sri Lanka, for a long time, was that of a woman without agency, with the primary focus on her sexuality and reproductive functions, or as a misguided and misled terrorist who has to be rescued or shown the ‘correct’ path. It is disappointing that Kandasamy reproduces this trope. She says of the ‘Tamil Tiger’s wife’, ‘I am thrown into disbelief. I had read her as a victim, as someone who suffered’ but once again, Kandasamy does not delve into the reasons she viewed her only as a victim.

The most disturbing element in the book is the scant regard and respect given to the ‘Tamil Tiger’s wife’s reluctance and initial refusal to speak with Kandasamy. Kandasamy says the ‘Tamil Tiger’s wife’

‘is initially reluctant to share her story, for fear of being identified and incriminated…she is not obliged to share anything. Her past, her trauma is her own. I am torn as I try to make her speak. Why should one woman ask another to remember, recollect and narrate the very things she barely wants to forget? Those around her intercede, appeal on my behalf.  She listens to a man who goes by the name of Master… Eventually, she agrees to speak.’

Kandasamy is correct. The ‘Tamil Tiger’s wife’ ‘is not obliged to share anything’. Then why does Kandasamy ‘try to make her speak’? The two non-negotiable rules that underpin the ethical framework that governs working with vulnerable persons/groups such as victims of violence, are respecting their choice and doing no harm. Both these ethical rules have been breached in this instance.

In my work with individuals affected by violence, war and human rights violations, there have been instances when those who have agreed to speak have then refused. There were those who chose to share only a part of their story. At no point did I try to coax, convince or even request them to reconsider. I did not do so because it would have been disrespectful of their choice to be silent. A choice that would have been governed by their fears, insecurities and sometimes sheer exhaustion of repeating and re-living their pain. Doing no harm is not only about physical harm. It is also about doing no emotional harm. Not placing the person under stress. Not bothering them with constant requests to share their story. Not forcing them to re-live their pain.

Also read: Graphic Violence: An Innovative Way of Representing the War in Sri Lanka

From working with the conflict affected, I know these women should not be viewed as passive victims waiting for others to ‘recover’ their stories. I know these women have faced unimaginable challenges and have a nuanced understanding of the truth they have to share and truth they have to hide in order to navigate their lives, both within the private and public spheres. We have to respect that.

Allyship: Moving beyond the performative

Allies, such as Kandasamy, are integral to the success of any struggle for justice and peace. However, those who are allies, those who wish to be allies, and those who claim to be allies should be aware that moving beyond performative allyship means being mindful not to appropriate the voices of the affected. It means standing by them, helping them be heard and amplifying their voices.

Given the relationship between the Tamils in India and Tamils in Sri Lanka, perhaps it is not surprising that even the most well-meaning Indian Tamil writer who wants to be an ally can be unaware of, as Sharanya Mannivannan describes it, ‘their (Indian Tamils’) appropriative relationship to, and unthinking claim over, Ilankai Tamils’. By being unaware, the writer unwittingly reproduces the appropriative relationship.

Kandasamy’s intention to capture and amplify the voices and experiences of these women seems genuine. But the absence of acute awareness, at every instance, of the possibility of reproducing an appropriative relationship, has led to the erasure of the complex and contradictory nature of the lived realities of Tamils, Tamil women and Tamil women combatants. This renders the portrayal of their experiences one-dimensional.

A Tamil woman sits on the ground in the Manik Farm refugee camp located on the outskirts of northern Sri Lankan town of Vavuniya, May 26, 2009. Photo: Reuters/David Gray

Kandasamy is aware of the role identity, positionality and privilege play in gaining space to share lived experiences. She narrates an incident where a ‘senior Tigress, very influential in the political department, was dying of cancer’ and a journalist who  ‘felt that her thoughts and experiences should be recorded on tape, made into a film and shared with the world’ reached out to Kandasamy to inquire if she knew any white film makers. Kandasamy says she asked him, ‘Why white?…with trepidation. He replied, “So that it appears like a balanced account”. That is what whiteness means. An automatic stamp of neutrality, balance, sound political judgment. The whiteness of the artist enriches the subject’ says Kandasamy. She does not however apply her awareness of positionality and privilege vis-à-vis a ‘white’ person, to her relationship with Sri Lankan Tamil women.

The book does present the voices of two women whose lives were shaped and brutalised by the war in Sri Lanka, but it adds little to the continuing fractious and challenging, but much needed discourse within the Tamil community about the evolving nature of Tamil nationalism, the role of women within it, and the impact of the Tamil militancy on the community.

I end with a poem by Sivaramani, which is an expression of the emotions experienced dealing with the promises, disappointments, contradictions and complexities of the Tamil armed struggle.

Our Liberation 

What shall we gain comrades?
What shall we gain?
We stand having lost all joy and youth
We come burdened with
trepidation and poverty
What shall we gain?

You called it liberation
You called it independence
You said it was our race
You said it was our soil

Countries have been liberated
and gained independence
Nevertheless in many countries
the people have been beggared
Comrades will we also be
beggared when we achieve our
liberation tomorrow?

We have lost everything
However, we do not want
freedom only for a few
We do not want freedom with
We shall achieve liberation only after
we shackle the animals
amongst ourselves

– Sivaramani

Ambika Satkunanathan is a fellow at the Open Society Foundations and was a Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka from 2015-2020.

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