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Crouching Tigresses

Why women are lining up to become part of Sri Lanka's biggest terrorist organization By Eric Furman

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Terrorist groups take credit for a great many things in today's world—violent uprisings, anarchic revolutions, and suicide bombings, to name a few. But one thing you probably won't find many modern-day terror organizations actively advertising is equality for women. The exception to the rule? The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka.

During their 30-plus years in existence, the Tigers have incorporated plenty of Tigresses into their ranks. They're known as "Birds of Freedom," and they participate at all levels of the Tigers' cause—from intelligence gathering and public relations to training, fighting, and, yes, suicide bombing. But whether Tiger officials are in the business of opening the doors of opportunity for women or simply stockpiling humans as ammunition, the militarization of women in Sri Lanka has become a troubling—and deadly—trend.

The full story after the jump.

The Force of July
Since Sri Lanka's independence from Britain in 1948, tensions between the Tamil-speaking population (concentrated primarily in the northeast, near Jaffna) and the majority Sinhalese have increased dramatically. When the hostility reached a boiling point in the mid-1970s, The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) emerged as a revolutionary group hell-bent on gaining autonomy for the Tamils.

The Tigers' first act of military rebellion was the assassination of Jaffna's mayor in 1975. But from there, the LTTE downgraded the intensity of its campaign to mostly picking on policemen and other state agents. That is, until July 1983, when Tamil guerrillas—citing Sinhalese attacks—killed 13 Sri Lankan army soldiers, sparking full-blown warfare. The Sinhalese retaliated by forming mobs against the Tamils, resulting in several hundred deaths. While devastating, the event—now known as Black July—only served to rally young Tamils behind the LTTE cause. Four years later, the LTTE was strong enough to wrestle the city of Jaffna away from the Sinhalese. India, which had been closely monitoring the sociopolitical climate of its island neighbor, decided it was time to intervene. Now faced with two overwhelming enemies, the LTTE saw only one way to fight back—by bringing in the "Birds of Freedom."

Flocking Together
The two-pronged fight against the Sri Lankan government and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) taught the Tiger leadership a quick lesson: Women could astronomically increase their troop count and keep them in the game. Plus, Tamil women found easy motivation for signing up. "The Indian invasion was a watershed," offered Adele Ann Balasingham, author of Women Fighters of Liberation Tigers. "The Indian army was brutal and male chauvinist. The rapes and molesting made a bitter impact."
It was a double-liberation ideology. Not only did joining the LTTE mean women could gain equal footing in the trenches fighting for a liberated Tamil state, it also meant breaking free from longstanding and oppressive cultural norms. Even today, that joint appeal has kept women joining the Birds of Freedom in droves.

The Fade to Black
Since their inclusion in the 1980s, LTTE women have been trained for combat just like men. They are assigned to the same forward military positions and administrative staff positions as men. They make up the ground forces and the sea forces, just as men do. And sadly, the Birds of Freedom are dying in large numbers, just like the men. In fact, recent documents suggest that, of the 17,000 total Tamil Tiger combat deaths since 1985, at least 4,000 were women.
But LTTE women have become indispensable operators in an even more powerful, more insidious weapon—the elite suicide bomber forces known as the Black Tigers. The LTTE, it seems, pioneered the modern-day suicide bomber. And in 1987, the organization established a specialized squad of Black Tigers, whose sole purpose was to initiate suicide bomb missions against political, economic, and social targets.
To do this, the LTTE became the first to use concealed vest bombs. Unfortunately, this made women ideally suited for the task. Precisely because they were women, and because the vests allowed them to cross borders "empty-handed," they could easily and inconspicuously infiltrate enemy territories.
Between 1980 and 2000, the Black Tigers carried out a reported 186 successful suicide missions, easily outpacing terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas during the same period. (Horrifically, both of those organizations have since embraced the concealed-vest method.) Of those 186 bombings, more than 100 were performed by women. In fact, the 1991 LTTE-led murder of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was carried out by a female suicide bomber.
Sadly, the women of the LTTE have been so "successful" in their quest for equality that they've motivated their counterparts in battle—the Sri Lankan armed forces—to offer the same military opportunities to women of the Sinhalese majority. According to some military experts, there may now be as many as 5,000 women (including 500 officers) in the 100,000-strong Sri Lankan army.

An Equal-Opportunity Problem
So, can we really give the LTTE—which has been listed as a terrorist organization by 32 countries, including the United States—credit for championing equal rights for Sri Lankan women?
Most experts don't think so. They argue that the induction of women into the LTTE flies in the face of the nonviolence and humanism that are the foundations of feminist movements all over the world. And in many critics' minds, not only are the LTTE not providing women emancipation, as the organization's public relations officials imply, they're simply supplying themselves with an all-important cadre of bodies for the battlefield. Put another way by objectors: The LTTE isn't actually giving women an equal chance at all of life's endless possibilities. It's only giving them a chance at one thing—an early death.

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