Suicide Belts to Bicycle Rides – LTTE’s Brand of ‘Woman Power’

Some incremental change seems to have accompanied this ‘empowered’ version of the Tamil militaristic woman.

4 min read
Suicide Belts to Bicycle Rides – LTTE’s Brand of ‘Woman Power’

A quick Google image search of the words “female” and “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” (LTTE) drudges up pictures of women toting guns and hiding in trenches, whilst clad in the organisation’s characteristically striped camouflage outfits. To Indians, the words probably conjure mental images of female suicide bombers – or perhaps of one woman in particular, by whose suicide belt the nation was bereft of a Prime Minister.


In a war waged over 26 long years, the LTTE’s brutality played an irrefutable part in the alarming toll on civilians, as did the unrelenting cruelty of the Sri Lankan government forces. Yet, maybe it is time to strip away suicide belts to take a closer look at the women who donned them, since doing so could help us better comprehend the link between gender inequality, conflict and the allure of militancy.

When researching why women joined the LTTE, Miranda Alison observed that women enlisted for a host of reasons – from oppression, educational disruption and nationalistic sentiment, to escaping sexual violence at the hands of the Sri Lankan forces. The last issue seems particularly relevant in the context of the recent Jaffna protests against the government’s continued detention of Tamil political prisoners. This has garnered heavy criticism from the UN and human rights groups: first, for the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which the Sri Lankan forces misuse against those suspected of LTTE collaboration, and second, for the egregious acts of violence perpetrated against both male and female prisoners. That some women joined the LTTE to escape sexual violence only to experience it as political prisoners speaks to a bleak reality – that whether at war or at peace, the ‘huntress’ or the ‘hunted’, women often heave under the weight of imbalanced power dynamics.

This prompts another question – what were the power dynamics at play for women combatants within the LTTE, and did these women break gender stereotypes for other Tamilian women?

Those who equate women’s participation in the LTTE with gender equality have received harsh criticism from feminist scholars. For one, the LTTE’s perennial, all-encompassing goal was a separate Tamil state. Achieving gender equality was a secondary concern, and in fact, a recruitment strategy to bridge the dwindling numbers of young men perishing in battle. In addition, the LTTE has been criticised for prescribing typically militaristic and patriarchal roles to its women combatants. Its carefully orchestrated image of the aspirational ‘Armed Virgin’ is an apt example – women were being persuaded to fulfill the stereotypically male roles of combat, yet fit the conventional Tamil role of ‘purist’ sexuality, a point noted by researcher Tamara Herath. This brand of ‘women’s empowerment’ has additionally been criticised from the vantage point of authority, with most decision-making roles still being held by men – a fact that drove Coomaraswamy, former UN Special Rapporteur for violence against women, to title them, ‘Cogs in the Wheel’.


Still, some incremental change seems to have accompanied this ‘empowered’ version of the Tamil militaristic woman, a good example being breaking the taboo around women riding bicycles. Although Alison questions whether stereotypes were effectually broken, citing the backlash against bicycle-riding via attempts to make women dress more conservatively, it appears that women in the LTTE may have incited change in still other realms, such as dowry and widowhood practices. Dowry practices were, in fact, frowned upon by the LTTE (though sadly, the practice perseveres). However, Herath’s paper proffers the example of ex-LTTE women stating that they would not leave room for their widowed mothers to “wear white saris and live in the shadows anymore”, indicating room for incremental change.

In truth, a thorough analysis of the LTTE’s role in promoting gender equality brings the researcher Senanayake’s term, ‘ambivalent empowerment’, to mind. With the Jaffna detainees, the ‘Hunted’ fought to become the ‘Huntress’, but reverted to the ‘Hunted’ on imprisonment. These complexities warrant greater research – especially since regardless of the several variables in question or the roles donned by women, the imbalanced power dynamics and gender norms appear intractable.

As for greater Tamil society, one can fathom just how ambivalent this ‘empowerment’ is, given that women can ride bicycles into work, but might have to be “decently” clad whilst doing so.

(The writer is an economist who set up Oman’s first in-house consumer research department in Banking (at Bank Dhofar) and is pursuing Master in Public Administration at Harvard Kennedy School. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same )

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