Women in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)
Abstract: The literature on women in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)
suggests that the group embraces feminism and is an “equal opportunity” terrorist
group. In reality, women’s role in the LTTE conforms to the gender norms of terrorist
organizations. The existing canon on women in terrorism, and specifically the LTTE,
requires a critical review and comprehensive analysis to understand women’s role in
political violence. The research presented in this article will address the three key areas
in which women are commonly misrepresented (recruiting, equality, and women’s rights),
and will compare the LTTE to other terrorist groups in order to create a framework for
understanding the roles and experiences of women in terrorism.
Key words: women; terrorism; LTTE; gender; Sri Lanka; Tamil Tigers
Jessica Davis is a freelance writer and researcher. She has worked for the Canadian
Department of National Defence and holds a Master’s degree from the Royal Military
College of Canada. She has published several articles on women in terrorism and is
currently writing a book on women in terrorism and insurgency.
Women’s involvement in political violence, and specifically terrorism, has received little
scholarly attention. When women are mentioned in the literature, it is usually for their
shock value (Ness 2005a, 349). Despite social norms that suggest that women rarely
perpetrate political violence, women have served as leaders and chief ideologues in
terrorist organizations such as the Weather Underground, Italy’s Red Brigade and
Germany’s Red Army Faction (Nacos 2005, 436).
It is tempting to portray the participation of women in the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as an advance for feminism, women’s rights and equality; however,
the inclusion of women in the group is based on strategic and tactical necessity. The
LTTE is frequently described as an “equal opportunity” terrorist organization because it
permits women to become fully engaged in the struggle. It is less frequently-recognized
that women’s participation in the LTTE is limited to segregated “women’s units,” low-
level leadership roles and suicide bombings (Chalk 1999). In its rhetoric, the leadership
of the LTTE espouses women’s rights and equality between the sexes. In practice, there is
little, if any, advancement of women’s rights within the organization, and even less so in
Tamil society. Further, a reductive view is frequently taken of women’s recruitment into
the LTTE. Women who join the organization are represented either as dupes or
enthusiastic volunteers, greatly oversimplifying the recruiting process. The research
presented in this article will address three key areas of misrepresentation of women’s
involvement in the LTTE (recruitment, equality and women’s rights) and will discuss the
role of women in the LTTE in comparison with other terrorist groups.
Women in Terrorism: An Overview
According to some reports, thirty-four per cent of terrorist attacks since 1985 have been
carried out by women (Bloom 2005c) and more than thirty per cent of international
terrorists are thought to be female (Nacos 2005, 436). The Female Terrorist Attack
compiled for this research suggests that women have participated in significantly
fewer terrorist attacks than those figures suggest. However, the actual participation of
women in terrorist groups (and not just attacks) may in fact be closer to the reported
amount, since it is virtually impossible to determine the make-up of most terrorist groups.
(figure 1) One theme is unanimous in the literature: women’s participation in terrorist
organizations is increasing, and women are conducting more high-profile attacks than
Women’s involvement in terrorism began with secular organizations (Bloom
2005c), but religious groups have begun to employ women with increasing regularity.
Nationalist and left-wing groups have tended to employ women more extensively than
other groups because they are more ideologically suited to accept women in non-
traditional roles (Ness 2005b, 355). Nevertheless, contextual pressures have forced
hitherto conservative and traditional terrorist organizations to include women in an effort
to evade law enforcement and expand their recruiting base (Ness 2005b, 357). Of the
cases studied in the preparation of this article, 66.7 per cent of the incidents were
perpetrated by nationalist groups, 13.9 per cent by left-wing groups, 1.5 per cent by right-
wing groups, and 17.8 per cent by religious groups.
Women are motivated to join terrorist organizations for many of the same reasons
as men, such as belief in the organization or cause, personal vendettas, or because they
are coerced (Cook 2005, 377; Bloom 2005b; Hoogensen 2005, 119). Media reports often
personalize the motives of women terrorists; they are described as being the victims of
rape or unable to bear children, making the idea that women can commit acts of violence
Both secular and religious terrorist organizations redraw the behaviour
of women who commit violence by rationalizing female behavior as a “desperate
measure,” by finding historical examples to support the behavior, and by attributing to the
political actor traditional “feminine” values such as beauty, piety or brilliance (Ness
This article will argue that, despite its progressive propaganda, the LTTE very
much fits the stereotype of terrorist organizations in its employment of women. Although
the LTTE cadres are composed of a significant number of women, the gender norms of
Tamil society remain firm within the group, and there is little if any equality or
advancement of women’s rights for the female Tigers.
Origins of the Conflict
Originally a colony of Portugal and the Netherlands, Sri Lanka became a British colony
in 1815, during which time the roots of the current conflict developed. The Portuguese
and the Dutch encouraged religious intolerance by favouring certain groups, and
alternating their preference (Bloom 2005a, 48). For example, sometimes certain religious
groups were favoured, while at other times ethnic or linguistic cleavages were exploited.
During British colonial rule, religion and caste were de-emphasized and ethnic lines were
re-drawn along linguistic boundaries (Winslow and Woost 2004, 4). Tamil-speakers were
considered a different ethnic group from those who spoke Sinhala, whereas previously
the idea of ethnicity had been more malleable (Bloom 2005a, 47).
Under colonial rule, the Tamil minority in the north-east of the country benefited
from extensive missionary activity resulting in considerably better schooling for the
residents. On the whole, Tamils spoke more English than the Sinhalese, and therefore
dominated in areas such as medicine, engineering, law and civil administration. By the
1940s, the polarization between those who were educated in English and those who were
not became much more pronounced. English became a major economic enabler, and
ethnic identity based on language quickly became an important aspect of pre-
independence politics (Hettige 2004, 119).
In 1948, Sri Lanka negotiated its independence from Britain. The Sinhalese
majority dominated subsequent elections and the resulting government. The newly
empowered Sinhalese slowly restricted the basic civil rights of the Tamils in retribution
for the perceived favoritism which the latter had enjoyed under the British (Reuter 2004,
158). One example of discrimination against the Tamils lay in the state-regulated
economy, which favored the advancement of the Sinhalese. In particular, during 1956-77,
extensive job opportunities were created for the Sinhala people, while this period marked
a time of significant economic decline for the Tamils, who did not enjoy enough political
patronage to influence or benefit from the state-run economy (Gunasinghe 2004, 103 and
105). Accordingly, the Tamil minority, which had previously been economically mobile,
quickly became marginalized in the face of growing state support for the Sinhalese.
The elections of 1956 marked the first major increase in ethnic violence, which
had been intermittent since independence. The candidate who went on to win the
elections, S.W.R. de A. Bandaranaike, outraged the Tamil community by running on a
pro-Sinhalese language platform and, once elected, he introduced a bill to make Sinhala
the only official language of Sri Lanka (Gunasinghe 2004, 105; Winslow and Woost
2004, 6). The Sinhala-only movement had the effect of facilitating ethnocracy,
marginalizing the island’s minorities and undermining confidence in the state’s
institutions, and it provoked riots by the Tamil community. In 1972 Mrs. Sirimavo
Bandaranaike, who had assumed office in 1959 following her husband’s assassination,
led the re-writing of the constitution to give the Sinhalese language and the Buddhist
religion official primacy in the state. Following this change, university admission policies
were restructured to give precedence to students who took their exams in Sinhala, thus
drastically reducing the educational opportunities for Tamil-speakers (Winslow and
Woost 2004, 6). In addition to establishing Sri Lanka as a Sinhalese state, the new
constitution also disenfranchised Tamils from government and other positions of
authority, drastically reducing the proportion of new staff from the Tamil community
recruited to government positions, from forty-one per cent in 1949 to only seven per cent
by 1963 (Bloom 2005a, 50).
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka provided the
catalyst for a reform of the state-run economy, ushering in an era of open economic
policies. These new economic policies allowed large numbers of Tamils to become
upwardly mobile once again, renewing the sense of injustice in the Sinhalese community
that was so prevalent during and following the colonial period (DeVotta 2004, 151).
In 1979, the government passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to counter
growing terrorist activity, specifically by the LTTE, which had begun to organize in 1970.
The PTA permitted the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) and police to hold prisoners
incommunicado for up to eighteen months without trial. The PTA was also made
retroactive, and the police and army interpreted this law as “carte blanche” to arrest
without warrants, to search and seize and to place people in long-term detention (Bloom
2005a, 51-2). The PTA resulted in a spiral of brutality and violence and sparked new
protests from the Tamil community.
In 1983, political and ideological factors contributed to the intensification of
ethnic conflict. The government failed to address the secessionist demands of the island’s
separatist Tamil groups and a breakdown in law and order followed. Paramilitary groups
were introduced by the government in an effort to quell the ethnic tensions and operated
with impunity against striking workers, political dissenters, dissident intellectuals and
even against judges of the supreme court (Gunasinghe 2004, 99).
In what became known as “Black July,” anti-Tamil riots marked the climax of
institutional breakdown caused by the impact of Sri Lanka’s post-independence policies
on language, religion, education, employment and resource allocation (DeVotta 2004,
151). On 24
July 1983, massive anti-Tamil riots spread through Sri Lanka. The riots were
sparked after the LTTE ambushed thirteen Sinhalese soldiers at Tinneveli in the Jaffna
district, allegedly in retaliation for the murder of Charles Anthony, a high-ranking LTTE
member (Bloom 2005a, 52). The government was unable to restore order for about a
week, and during this time between 400 and 2000 Tamils died, and almost a million were
displaced (Stack-O’Connor 2007, 44), homes were burned, factories were destroyed and
widespread looting, pillaging and rape was reported (Bloom 2005a, 53). By many
accounts, the riots were extremely well organized. Some reports suggest that rioters were
openly transported in government vehicles and used electoral registration forms to pick
their targets (DeVotta 2004, 152).
The riots had a significant impact on many aspects of life in Sri Lanka, but their
most dramatic impact was on the LTTE. By forcing thousands of Tamils from their
homes, the riots had the unintended consequence of creating a massive recruiting pool for
the LTTE. Prior to the 1983 pogrom, the LTTE had approximately 600 members;
afterwards, their ranks swelled to approximately 10,000 (Bloom 2005a, 53). Young men
from all over the country flocked to the group to fight in the conflict that would become a
As can been seen from this brief summary of key events, there is no single cause
of the conflict in Sri Lanka; instead, there are many factors that accumulated and served
as catalysts for the civil war. Essentially, the conflict in Sri Lanka stems from linguistic
divisions solidified and exploited during colonial rule, the subsequent reprisals by the
Sinhalese majority, the resulting ethnocracy and institutional decay and the empowerment
of the LTTE.
The LTTE: A Nationalist Terrorist Insurgency
Only recently has the LTTE been included on terrorist watch lists in many western
Indeed, in a survey of New York Times articles about the Sri Lankan civil war,
terms such as Tamils, guerrillas, rebels, separatists and insurgents are used to describe the
anti-government forces, while the only mention of “terrorism” or “terrorist” is in
reference to the tactics employed. An exploration of the terms guerrilla, insurgent, and
terrorist is worthwhile in order to clarify what type of organization the LTTE is, and to
differentiate between a group’s ideology and tactics.
According to Bruce Hoffman, the term guerrilla
is taken to refer to a numerically larger group of armed individuals, who
operate as a military unit, attack enemy military forces, and seize and hold
territory…while also exercising some form of sovereignty or control over
a defined geographical area and its population [Hoffman 2006, 35].
Indeed, the LTTE provides training for its cadre and often attacks enemy military forces.
The LTTE has gradually gained control of the Jaffna peninsula and much of the east coast
of Sri Lanka. In the areas which it controls, the LTTE not only maintains military
dominance but has also established a parallel civilian government (Winslow and Woost
2004, 7). Further, the 1983 riots generated a groundswell of support for the movement
outside Sri Lanka, creating a diaspora in several countries (DeVotta 2004, 156) which
provided (and continues to provide) financial, logistical and moral support for the
Hoffman defines insurgents as follows:
Insurgents share some of the characteristics of guerrillas, but
their strategy and operations transcend hit-and-run attacks to embrace
what in the past has variously been called “revolutionary guerrilla
warfare,” “modern revolutionary warfare,” or “people’s war” but today is
commonly termed “insurgency”. …insurgencies typically involve
coordinated informational approaches (e.g., propaganda) and
psychological warfare efforts designed to mobilize popular support in a
struggle against an established national government, imperialist power, or
foreign occupying force [Hoffman 2006, 35].
The LTTE originally used Marxist rhetoric to justify the need for Eelam (a separate Tamil
homeland), but now the LTTE tends to refer to Tamil nationalism and socialism when
discussing the future of the Tamil state (DeVotta 2004, 170). In many ways, the
sophistication of the LTTE’s operations, particularly its propaganda and fundraising
efforts, suggests a level of organization beyond that traditionally associated with guerrilla
Guerrillas and insurgents often employ the same tactics as terrorists (Hoffman
2006, 35), but they differ ideologically. Traditionally, terrorists
do not function in the open as armed units, generally do not attempt to
seize or hold territory, deliberately avoid engaging enemy military forces
in combat, are constrained numerically and logistically from undertaking
concerted mass political mobilization efforts, and exercise no direct
control or governance over the population at either the local or national
level [Hoffman 2006, 35].
In many ways, the LTTE does not fit the traditional definition of a terrorist group. The
LTTE has been known to openly engage the Sri Lankan military when it is to their
advantage, and often operates in small groups. They currently control a portion of the
island of Sri Lanka and frequently undertake mass political mobilization efforts. The
LTTE also exercises significant control over the lives of the Tamils living in their area of
occupation. However, in other, more important ways, the LTTE does fit the definition of a
Hoffman elaborates on terrorism as being “ineluctably political in its motives”:
terrorism is designed to have far-reaching political and psychological impacts
primary goal is to terrorize. Indeed, terrorism makes as much use of the threat of violence
as it does of violence itself (Hoffman 2006, 32 and 40). According to the U.S. State
The term "terrorism" means premeditated, politically motivated violence
perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or
clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience [U.S.
Department of State 2000].
The LTTE’s suicide missions, frequently targeting military or political objectives but
often involving civilians, achieve both a military and psychological aim. They are
certainly premeditated and politically motivated, and, as will be seen, serve to influence
audiences at home and abroad. For example, in 1995 a female suicide bomber detonated
the explosives she was wearing near the Slave Island Railway station in Colombo, killing
fifteen children, one police officer and one soldier in the blast (Spur Online). This
incident sent the clear message that terrorism could strike anyone, at any time, anywhere.
It is important to note that identifying the LTTE as a terrorist group has political
ramifications, but it is equally important to recognize its tactic of employing suicide
terrorism as inciting terror. According to Walter Lacquer,
…the term “terrorism” (like “guerrilla”) has been used in so many
different senses as to become almost meaningless, covering almost any,
and not necessarily political, act of violence [Lacquer 1977, 6].
That being said, the LTTE has perpetrated incidents that demonstrate that it has the
qualities of both a guerrilla organization and an insurgency, and that it uses terrorism as a
tactic in its struggle for a separate Tamil state, which can be succinctly described as a
nationalist terrorist insurgency.
A Brief History of the LTTE
Tamil armed groups first appeared in Sri Lanka in the 1970s. The majority of these
groups wanted independence from Sri Lanka (Eelam), or at least some form of separate
political representation. These groups included the People’s Liberation Organization of
Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), Eelam
Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS), Eelam People’s Revolutionary
Liberation Front (EPRLF) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE
had its origins in the Tamils’ Student Federation, formed in 1970 by a group of Tamil
youths. Under the leadership of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Federation became the LTTE
in 1976 (DeVotta 2004, 168-9).
Most of these Tamil armed groups were strengthened by the diaspora following
the 1983 riots, but none so much as the LTTE. Prabhakaran decided that a united front
against the Sri Lankan government was required, and on 29 April 1986 the LTTE overran
TELO’s camps and killed 200 TELO fighters, including its entire leadership (Reuter
2004, 159). The LTTE did not stop with the elimination of its Tamil rivals; over the
course of the next fifteen years the LTTE eliminated political adversaries, moderate
politicians, members of the military and police force and members of government both
within and outside the Tamil community (Bloom 2005a, 59). Continuing its policy of
political consolidation, the LTTE dispatched a female suicide bomber in 2004 to
assassinate top moderate Tamil leader Douglas Devananda (WomenWarPeace.Org)
Although the mission failed to kill Devananda, it successfully conveyed the message that
the only solution that the LTTE was willing to accept was one in which their demands
were met, solidifying the LTTE as the central force fighting for Eelam (DeVotta 2004,
Since its inception, the goals and demands of the LTTE have been relatively
constant. Their principal demands remain: that the Tamils of Sri Lanka be recognized as a
distinct nation; that the northeast of the island be recognized as their historic homeland;
that they be allowed the right of self-determination; and that all Tamils be granted Sri
Lankan citizenship (DeVotta 2004, 171). To achieve these goals, the LTTE have
developed a sophisticated information strategy that focuses on fostering support for the
movement. In terms of propaganda and publicity, the LTTE relies heavily on the internet.
One of the ways the LTTE promotes their message is through Tamil-friendly websites,
hosted outside Sri Lanka. The LTTE’s propaganda efforts are focused on promoting the
need for a Tamil homeland and fuelling support for the movement.
During the 1990s, the LTTE collected approximately eighty million dollars per
year from support groups (DeVotta 2004, 172), and some reports have suggested that the
LTTE extorts money from the diaspora by threatening their family and friends in Sri
Lanka. Until recently, the LTTE has managed to localize the response to their nationalist
terrorist insurgency (Dolamore 2003, 100). External sources of funding have become
increasingly difficult to obtain since the LTTE has been classified by most countries as a
terrorist organization, resulting in legal and financial limits being placed on the
contributions of the diaspora in North America, Australia and Europe.
must now come from inside the LTTE-controlled areas, the LTTE relies on taxation,
extortion, tolls and transport levies to raise money (Bloom 2005a, 46).
The LTTE has an extremely centralized command structure led by V.
Prabhakaran, who alone decides tactics, operations and strategy, particularly for suicide
attacks (Reuter 2004, 157). Accordingly, observers of the LTTE believe that it is a cult of
personality, devoid of political platform or ideology (Stack-O’Connor 2007, 46). The
LTTE is divided into major groups for air, sea and land operations,
and each branch of
service is further divided by gender. Most of the female cadres are under the operational
control of the respective wing/group leader, but under the administrative control of the
women’s wing (Gunawardena 2006, 81). Women in the LTTE rarely become active in the
operational leadership of the organization; instead, they fill administrative and political
Suicide bombing first emerged as a tactic in the LTTE at a time when several
militant groups were competing for leadership in the Tamil community (Bloom 2005a,
45). The Black Tigers, the LTTE’s suicide cadre, are recruited principally because they
are disciplined, skilled and battle-tested (DeVotta 2004, 175). Prabhakaran habitually
hand-picks members of the LTTE to join the Black Tigers, and frequently chooses
There are strategic and tactical advantages to the use of women to carry out terrorist
acts. From a strategic perspective, female terrorists tend to generate a greater response
from society, both domestically and internationally. Tactically speaking, women terrorists
are able to gain access to some areas more easily than their male colleagues because
women have an element of invisibility (Bloom 2005b), although the Sri Lankan security
forces are adapting (Gunawardena 2006, 87). Within the LTTE, women are frequently
employed in attacks on “high value” targets such as politicians and military officers. For
example, in 1998 a female suicide bomber killed one of Sri Lanka’s top military
commanders, Brigadier Larry Wijeyaratne (MIPT; South Asian Terrorism Portal). Women
perpetrated the 1999 suicide bombing which targeted the head of the terrorism
investigative unit (MIPT; Spur Online) as well as a similar attack in 2006 which was
aimed at the commander of the Sri Lankan army (Gunawardena 2006; Bomb targets Sri
Lanka army chief 2006).
Women in the LTTE have received significantly more attention than women in
other terrorist groups, likely because of their perceived larger numbers and greater
visibility. In order to fully understand the role that women play in the LTTE, the next
section will discuss the realities of women in the organization and will address some
common misperceptions about their roles.
Recruiting, Coercion and Motivation: The Complexities of Membership in the
Women are frequently presented as either the victims of the LTTE or as willing
volunteers of the organization. This reductive view is neither comprehensive nor
functional; within the LTTE, women are both. Women join the LTTE for a variety of
reasons, such as support for the cause, coercion from the LTTE and societal inequalities.
Regardless of their motives for joining, however, the LTTE aims to reframe women’s
participation in the organization to make their sacrifice more palatable for traditionally
patriarchal Tamil society.
Early LTTE recruitment campaigns which were aimed at women borrowed
images from militant groups worldwide and combined the role of mother with that of
warrior, featuring a woman with a baby in one hand and in the other, a weapon, usually a
grenade or rifle. Using these images helped to serve as a transitional mechanism for both
society and women by marrying traditional with non-traditional gender roles. Images and
themes used in public relations campaigns have interwoven this idea so tightly as to
suggest that as soon as the immediate threat recedes, the woman in the picture will put
down the rifle and keep the baby, re-establishing traditional roles (De Mel 2001, 215).
The first women to join the LTTE were primarily from rural backgrounds and
from areas that had suffered the most during the war with the government of Sri Lanka,
with the exception of the student wing of the movement, which typically attracted
middle-class women (Gonsalves 2007, 20). These women are reported to have cited
ideological, nationalist and personal (but not specifically feminist) motives for joining the
movement (Gunawardena 2006, 83). Women’s involvement in the LTTE has much less to
do with feminism and equality than the leadership of the movement would like the
international community to believe.
The leader of the LTTE and feminists within the organization argue regularly that
feminism and equality for women are core ideas for the LTTE. The 1991 manifesto of the
Women’s Front of the LTTE addresses the demands for gender equality. According to the
document, the LTTE gives priority to:
Secure the right of self-determination of the people of Tamililam and
establish an independent democratic state of Tamililam…dismantling of
the caste and dowry systems, equal opportunities in employment,
dispensation to control their own lives, legal protection against sexual
harassment, rape and domestic violence [De Mel 2001, 208].
It is clear, however, from statements produced by the LTTE, by its establishment as a
predominantly (if not exclusively) male force, and from the 1991 manifesto itself that the
quest for Eelam, not the emancipation of women, has primacy for the LTTE.
The strategic, operational and tactical advantages of employing women in combat
roles were quickly realized by the LTTE leadership. After suffering major loses in the war
against the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF), women fighters were soon recruited into
all of the operational groups of the Tamil Tigers (Gunawardena 2006, 83). Consequently,
the real reasons for the incorporation of women into the LTTE are: an insufficiency of
young men to fill combat roles since the population of the Tamil controlled areas has
the ideological need to demonstrate that the LTTE movement is an all-
encompassing mass social movement in order to maintain a wide base of support; and
pressure from young Tamil women who wanted to become engaged in a struggle for
Tamil Eelam (Alison 2004, 453).
The LTTE proceeded slowly with the integration of women into their fighting
force so as not to offend the cultural values of their support base (Ness 2005b, 363). In an
effort to accommodate the traditional views in Tamil society about women in combat,
women who join the LTTE are often portrayed by the organization as rape victims of the
SLA or the IPKF (Bloom 2005a, 159).
In 2001, the police reported a total of thirty-six
rape cases, five of which involved security personnel; further, there have been several
high-profile reports of rape of Tamil women by SLA personnel (Womenwarpeace.org).
During the IPKF era, rape by IPKF soldiers was often cited as a motive for a suicide
bombing, re-framing the attack as a personal vendetta rather than a politically-motivated
assassination (Gunawardena 2006, 86). Dhanu, the female bomber who killed Rajiv
Gandhi, was alleged to have been raped by Indian peacekeepers (MIPT). However,
investigations into the Ghandi assassination indicate that there were actually two bombers
(one in reserve), which refutes the claim that it was a personal vendetta and instead paints
it clearly as a political act (Gunawardena 2006, 86).
Some women may in fact have been raped by members of the insurgency itself in
order to give them motivation to fight (Bloom 2005a, 143).
In autumn 2002, three Tamil
women presented themselves to an international aid organization and reported that they
had been raped. But although the women’s attackers had spoken Sinhalese, the rapists
were later discovered to be Tamils. Within days of the rape, the women were approached
by members of the LTTE and were coerced into joining the organization (Bloom 2005a,
One reason why raped women may be inclined to join the LTTE is the stigma
attached to rape in Tamil society. Tamil rape victims are said to be socially prohibited
from marriage and childbearing. However, suicide bombings are an acceptable offering
from women who can never be mothers (Cunningham 2003, 180).
The theme of the
“soiled” woman martyring herself for a cause is seen throughout secular and religious
struggles. In this way, women continue to adhere to the gender norms of Tamil society
while supporting the cause and providing important man-power to the LTTE.
It is difficult to determine whether or not rape is a major factor for women joining
the LTTE because the organization has a vested interest in accusing the SLA of human
rights violations and in highlighting the martyrdom and suffering of the Tamil people.
Regardless, the LTTE woman who is clearly willing to kill and be killed for the cause
“participates in the public domain in a way that flies in the face of traditional patriarchal
containment designed for her” (De Mel 2001, 214). Further, the use of female
combatants is often perceived as a necessary but temporary measure (Alison 2004, 458)
and, as with most struggles, common mores such as gender can be overridden in a time of
need without changing a society’s fundamental core values (Ness 2005b, 357). In Tamil
society, these assumptions likely hold true; once the struggle is over, Tamil women will
be expected to resume their role in the patriarchal society. Evidence of this is the LTTE’s
treatment of its women members.
“Equal Opportunity” Terrorism: Gender Equality in the LTTE?
The portrayal of women in the Tamil militant groups has gone through three major shifts.
The first phase described women as mothers as well as fighters. The second phase,
brought about by the more progressive Tamil militant groups, presented the idea of a new
woman who contested the patriarchal aspects of Tamil culture. In the third and current
wave, women are presented as “virgin warriors” and continue to be described as feminine
and chaste (Jayawardena and de Alwis 2002, 265). The shift in the way that women are
perceived is directly related to the consolidation of power by the LTTE and is reflected in
gender roles within that organization.
The literature on the LTTE suggests that women and men are subject to the same
recruiting practices, training and opportunities. According to the Institute of Peace &
Conflict Studies Terrorism Project, women account for nearly one-third of all LTTE
members, are members of all units of the organizations, and do not suffer discrimination
based on sex when it comes to training and combat operations (Manoharan 2003).
Women LTTE members are said to be more operationally involved than women in other
terrorist organizations by authors such as Mia Bloom:
In Turkey and Sri Lanka, women’s militant activism has a different history
– women have participated fully in the early stages of the political
resistance at all levels [Bloom 2005a, 147].
Further, it is suggested that men and women in the LTTE conduct similar missions and
thus run the same operational risks. However, an in-depth analysis of both the literature
and the data do not support these statements.
Prior to their inclusion in combat roles, women were active in Tamil militant
groups in support roles: nursing, administration and intelligence collection (Stack-
O’Connor 2007, 45). Women in the LTTE were also assigned work of a more
administrative or clerical nature, as is traditionally associated with women, such as
propaganda, fundraising and recruitment (Alison 2004, 450). In 1983, the LTTE founded
a special section for women called the Vituthalai Pulikal Munani (Women’s Front of the
Liberation Tigers), and these women were trained in Tamil Nadu in 1985. The Women’s
Front saw their first battle against the SLA in July of 1986 and in October 1987
Prabhakaran set up the first all-women training camp in Jaffna (Alison 2003, 39; Alison
Despite having a large female membership, the LTTE is not an equal-opportunity
terrorist organization. Few, if any, women have risen to leadership positions (Gonsalves
2007, 25), and control of the organization is held firmly in the hands of Prabhakaran
(Reuter 2004, 157). In 1990 the first women was appointed to command a military unit in
the LTTE (Reuter 2004, 161), but women have only been put in command of all-female
units. According to the women’s political leader, “Thamilini,” in 2002 five of the twelve
members of the Central Committee (a major decision-making apparatus) were women;
further, a number of women are now LTTE area leaders and administrators. However,
according to Stack-O’Connor (2007), only three out of ten Central Committee members
are women (Manoharan 2003). It is worth pointing out that individual members of the
Central Committee are unlikely to have much influence on key policy decisions, since
issues of importance are decided by Prabhakaran alone.
While many authors view the inclusion of women in the LTTE as a step towards
equality, their situation is far from equal, and some reports suggest that women are seen
by the organization as more expendable than their male colleagues (De Mel 2001, 219).
The LTTE is estimated to have 15,000 members (Womenwarpeace.org), of which thirty
to sixty per cent are thought to be women, with comparable estimates for women’s
participation in the Black Tigers (Reuter 2004, 161; Cunningham 2003, 172). While
women may in fact make up a significant percentage of the membership, they are not as
active as the literature would suggest, and they do not account for as many of the terrorist
incidents as is presented.
If women and men carry out the same kinds of missions (for example, suicide
bombings, sniper attacks, hit and run attacks and so on) and have roughly the same roles
in the organization, one would expect their casualty rates to be roughly equal. However,
as figure 2 demonstrates, there have been significantly fewer female deaths than male
deaths in the LTTE since women became operationally active.
(figure 2) This suggests
that fewer women are engaged in combat operations than men, or that there are in fact
fewer women in the organization. Either way, the numbers indicate that women and men
are not equal partners in the Tamil Tigers.
Sri Lankan society, and particularly Tamil society, is conservative when it comes
to gender roles. As a rule, women are expected to perform traditionally “feminine”
A woman’s decision to join the LTTE is often an act of rebellion, done
without the consent of her parents. In general unmarried Tamil women remain under the
control of their fathers or brothers (De Mel 2001, 207),
and therefore by joining with the
LTTE they have broken with their families and may well have closed the possible
avenues to return home.
The LTTE has been popular with some Tamils precisely because of its perceived
adherence to conservative Tamil values, in particular chaste, heroic and chivalrous
behaviour by men (Stack-O’Connor 2007, 47).
Despite the desire to keep the LTTE an
“all-male” force, demographic and operational pressures forced the LTTE to include
women. In order to preserve the Tamil gender values of chastity and modesty, women are
kept separate from men and have their own organizational structure and plan their own
projects. Further, female Tamil soldiers are not allowed to marry before the age of
twenty-five (Ness 2005, 363). This restriction is presumably intended to prolong the
period when women members are fully-committed to the cause by postponing the
introduction of responsibilities to husband and children which could reduce a woman’s
willingness to sacrifice herself for the LTTE.
The LTTE controls the personal behaviour of all its members, but particularly
women. In 1994, three women LTTE members were executed for having sex with men
from outside the organization, and male LTTE members also face sanctions for breaking
the rules on sex (Ness 2005, 50-1). The LTTE has attempted to compel married women,
including retired female cadres, to adopt more traditional and conservative forms of dress
(sari and head coverings) and not to wear trousers in LTTE-controlled areas (Bloom
Women in the LTTE have also generally been denied a status in peace talks
proportional to their role in the struggle (Ness 2005b, 358). The first round of formal
peace negotiations held between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE were
attended exclusively by men. Following those discussions, only one woman attended as a
representative of the LTTE at the following five negotiations (Womenwarpeace.org). In
most conflicts, women’s participation is often subsequently reframed as less authentic
and less important than men’s contributions. This allows women to be kept on the
political periphery of arrangements for the post-conflict order. In this way, emergent
political leaders not only separate women from the citizenship rights inherent with
military service, but they tend to place women’s violence during the conflict within a
more palatable context (Cunningham 2003, 175).
Any organization that places controls on the ways that women dress and behave and
that promotes traditional Tamil values cannot be seen as progressive on women’s rights
and issues. Despite the rhetoric of the LTTE suggesting that women’s issues form a
fundamental aspect of their struggle and that they promote gender equality, women
remain marginalized within the LTTE as within Tamil society at large.
Struggling for a Difference: The LTTE and Women in Terrorism
There are two main problems with the traditional analysis of women in the LTTE,
particularly in comparison with women in other terrorist organizations. First, an accurate
comparison is difficult because the study of gendered terrorism is a relatively new field.
Most reports to-date are only rough estimates, and few studies are based on empirical
evidence. Second, the LTTE, for a variety of reasons, has a vested interest in portraying
itself as more egalitarian that it might really be. Therefore, the number of women in the
group and the roles they fill is likely exaggerated, making a comparison unreliable. The
following section will address these problems in the literature and pave the way for a
more accurate understanding of the role of women in the LTTE in comparison to other
terrorist organizations. The analysis presented here will demonstrate that women in the
LTTE are not an anomaly in their involvement with the LTTE and that the LTTE does not
in fact represent a departure from the traditional gender roles of women in terrorism.
As has been discussed, estimates of female participation in LTTE attacks vary
greatly: according to a major Tamil website, twenty-nine per cent of attacks have been
perpetrated by women.
The database used in this analysis suggests that the number of
women actually participating in terrorist activities for the LTTE is far lower than the
literature suggests. Problems arise in the analysis, particularly in incidents involving the
Sea Tigers, as gender is often unknown or unreported. Of the 233 LTTE incidents listed
in the MIPT terrorism database (MIPT), only nine per cent of the attacks perpetrated by
Tamil Tigers can be said with any certainty to have been carried out by women.
In order to establish a framework of reference, confirmed incidents of women
perpetrating terrorist activities since 1968 were collected into a dataset (the Female
Terrorist Attack Dataset). The results of this research indicate that there are several other
groups or causes – Chechen groups, for example – that equal or approach the LTTE in
terms of the level of participation of women.
The difference between the groups is not
statistically significant and does not support that conclusion that women are much more
involved in the LTTE than in other groups, particularly considering that the dataset is
quite solid when it comes to describing LTTE activities, but less so historically.
The LTTE may have a vested interest in overestimating the number of women it
has both in its ranks and who perpetrate terrorist attacks. The LTTE suffers from a
personnel shortage, and therefore has had to open its ranks to women to fill those
shortages. Having a proportional representation of women in the LTTE gives the
organization a bargaining chip in negotiations with the government of Sri Lanka as well
as with the international community. By including women, the LTTE can argue that it is
representative of Tamil society.
Even when women perpetrate political violence, there is little evidence of gender rights
being advanced in surrounding aspects of society (Ness 2005a, 350).
As a result, it is rare
for women’s involvement in a political struggle to lead to their emancipation. In Sri
Lanka, the patriarchal norms of womanhood prevalent in Tamil society seem to have
remained intact despite the inclusion of women in the LTTE. Further, the gender norms of
Tamil society extend into the LTTE; women’s inclusion has not resulted in women’s
emancipation (Gonsalves 2007, 18). While women are employed in non-traditional roles,
there is a real ambivalence towards some of the social forces of change which the
movement has supposedly embraced (De Mel 2001, 216).
The LTTE has not changed Tamil society, but has split Tamil women into two
groups: LTTE women and “normal” women. LTTE women are seen and treated
differently from “normal” Tamil women, and they receive respect and privileges that
Tamil women do not (Stack-O’Connor 2007, 51),
at least while they are serving in the
LTTE. For example, LTTE women wear trousers, carry weapons and are soldiers.
Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that when LTTE women are no longer active
members of the organization, the gender norms of Tamil society apply to them once
Essentially, women’s status as second-class citizens in much of the world makes
them invisible as political actors (Bloom 2005b, 54-62), and terrorist groups are taking
advantage of these stereotypes. For example, in 1995, two female bombers attacked the
Sri Lankan Army headquarters, killing sixteen people and injuring fifty-two others (South
Asian Terrorism Portal). In 1999, a female terrorist was deployed in an attempted
assassination attempt on President Kumaratunga. Although the attack was unsuccessful,
twenty-six people were killed and over 100 were injured as a result (Bloom 2005a, 61;
Bomb attack Kills 11 in Sri Lanka Capital). These attacks demonstrate the advantages of
employing women as suicide bombers, particularly in high-value attacks.
Overall, the literature about women in terrorism presents an unbalanced portrait of
women in the LTTE. The polemic tends to present the LTTE as treating its male and
female members equally and as advancing gender equality within Tamil society. While
the picture of gender norms and equality within the LTTE is difficult to describe with
complete accuracy, it is safe to say that gender equality has been over-emphasized simply
because of relatively high female involvement and because of the rhetoric of the
organization itself. Further, because of the deeply entrenched gender norms prevalent in
Tamil society, women’s involvement in the LTTE is likely to have little impact on gender
norms in Tamil society or on the peace process itself in Sri Lanka.
Even in western countries, or countries with strong women’s rights records,
prevailing stereotypes about women can benefit terrorist groups. As a result, we are likely
to see a steady increase in women participating in and carrying out terrorist attacks.
However, it is important to remember that simply because women are participating in an
organization does not mean that women’s rights are being advanced as a result or that
women play an active role in the planning of attacks or in the structure or leadership of
the organization. Fanaticism, death cults and terrorist groups, no matter what the rhetoric,
are unlikely to lead to emancipation of women, particularly if the structure of the group
itself is unequal. As Mia Bloom argues, “…if they are part of a system that affords them
unequal status, then feminism doesn’t apply” (Bloom 2005a, 164).
From a counter-terrorism perspective, women do present a difficult problem.
Many societies, Sri Lankan included, do not see women as perpetrators of political
violence. As a result, counter-terrorism policies have lagged behind. Typically male
security personnel are hesitant to conduct a thorough search on a woman (particularly a
pregnant woman) despite the evidence that women do perpetrate suicide terrorist attacks.
Certainly, having female security personnel makes thorough searches more comfortable,
but what is really required is a shift in perspective. Women are, and will continue to be,
involved in the struggle in Sri Lanka, in whatever form that may take. Sri Lanka is on the
forefront of the counter-terrorism struggle, and the rest of the world is likely to see a
dramatic increase in the number of women perpetrating terrorist attacks, particularly
against high-profile targets. To effectively combat this threat, women must not be
neglected as important political actors and potential perpetrators of political violence.
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Bomb targets Sri Lanka army chief. 2006. BBC news report, 25 April. Available from http://
Chalk, Peter. 1999. Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) International Organization and
Operations – A Preliminary Analysis. Canadian Security Intelligence Services (CSIS)
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Cook, David. 2005. Women Fighting in Jihad? Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 28/5: 375-84.
Cunningham, Karla J. 2003. Cross-Regional Trends in Female Terrorism. Studies in Conflict and
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The Female Terrorist Dataset includes 144 case studies of women perpetrating terrorist
attacks. Each case study contains some or all of the following information: name, age,
date of attack, type of attack, affiliated group, socio-economic details, motivation,
casualties, a description, and a reliability rating for the sources used. The sources used in
the compilation of the dataset vary greatly. Previously-published material, terrorism
databases (MIPT and START’s GTD), newspaper articles and internet reports were
examined and relevant data added to the dataset, with a reliability rating. Attacks reported
by sources that were not rated as highly reliable were excluded from the dataset. The
dataset covers the period of 1968-2006.
There is overlap in many of these areas; rarely does a group adhere to one ideology,
religion or political affiliation. These numbers are meant to provide a rough guide to the
participation of women in various movements.
Not all women are accepted to carry out suicide missions as far as these groups are
concerned. Specifically, only women who are unmarriageable or barren are “acceptable”
sacrifices in most struggles. Only a few organizations (most of them secular) embrace the
idea of all women carrying out acts of terrorism, particularly suicide bombing. See Nacos
The LTTE were designated a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” in 1999 by the US and
were officially banned as a terrorist group in Canada in 2006 (U.S. Department of State
2000; Public Safety Canada).
Womenwarpeace.org is a UNIFEM portal that consolidates information on armed
conflict and how it affects women and girls.
In 1997 the Canadian government began to curtail its open-door immigration policy.
After the events of 11 September 2001, no western government wanted to be seen
supporting the LTTE, thus restricting the organization’s ability to raise funds abroad.
Within the LTTE there is an amphibious group (Sea Tigers), an airborne group (Air
Tigers), an elite fighting wing (Charles Anthony Regiment), a suicide commando unit
(Black Tigers), a highly secretive intelligence group and a political office. The LTTE is
frequently cited as employing child soldiers. See Chalk 1999 and Bloom 2005a, 60.
Alisa Stack-O’Connor suggests that the LTTE has changed Tamil society forever by
incorporating women into its fighting force (2007, 44).
Data compiled from Tamil Tigers Website. http://www.tamiltigers.net/.
According to the Gender Gap Report 2006, women in Sri Lanka lack economic
opportunities. They earn only sixty-four per cent as much as men for the same work and
there are few women in management and executive positions and in parliament and
ministerial positions (World Economic Forum 2006). As a result, the economic and
political situation for women in Sri Lanka can only be described as highly unequal.
Tamil Tigers Website. http://www.tamiltigers.net/.
The Female Terrorist Attack Dataset identifies twenty-five groups as having perpetrated
terrorist attacks using women. The groups which have carried out the highest numbers of
attacks using women are: Chechen groups (20); the LTTE (20); the Kurdistan Workers’
Party (12); the Red Army Faction (11); Palestinian groups (11); the Syrian Socialist
Nationalist Party (7). Twelve attacks could not be identified with a group.