Filed under: Indian Subcontinent
* * * * *
( Dated Piece – 4 March 2009 )
The New York-based Genocide Prevention Project recently added Sri Lanka to its list of the top eight red-alert countries in the midst of a possible genocide. Over the past month, the Tamil community in the Greater Toronto Area has staged a series of protests regarding the killings of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The recent resurgence of Sri Lankan state violence against the minority Tamil population has triggered mass Tamil protests around the world. And while the general Canadian public may have only recently become aware of the conflict, Tamils in Sri Lanka have endured state violence and oppression since the country achieved independence in 1948.
But why am I discussing the Sri Lankan conflict in a women’s supplement of the newspaper? While women within the Tamil community in Toronto are working to organize rallies, non-Tamil women and/or feminists have failed to take notice of the Tamils’ plight. This blind sight is a symptom of the limitations of mainstream feminism in Western Europe and North America. War, in general, and the conflict in Sri Lanka in particular, affects women in very specific ways. The killings of Tamils in Sri Lanka are the product of a Buddhist Sinhalese nationalism that emerged out of anti-colonial struggles for an independent state.
As many post-colonial writers have illustrated, nationalism is inherently gendered. Women are upheld as the “mothers of the nation” and the bearers of the national culture and identity. We can see the ways in which culture and national identity are gendered if we look at terms such as “mother tongue” or “mother land.” This is why women of minority groups bear the burden of nationalist violence – they are threats to the desired nation because of their reproductive abilities and their capacity to pass on culture. The desire for a purely Sinhalese state has resulted in the direct and indirect targeting of Tamil women in the form of rape and attacks on female-headed households.
But before I continue, it is important to note that this article is not meant to target individuals; rather, my discussion is directed toward the Sri Lankan government and those mainstream feminists who have ignored the voices of Tamil women. Rape is a major issue for Tamil women in Sri Lanka as it is used as a weapon of war and as a means of dehumanizing and demoralizing the Tamil people. In her report on violence against women, Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women, stated, “Nearly two decades of armed conflict in Sri Lanka resulted in many violations of women’s human rights including rape in custody, rape, sexual harassment at checkpoints and other violations due to the number of internally displaced persons and refugees.”
As the Asian Human Rights Commission notes in their report on state-sponsored violence against women in Sri Lanka, it is Tamil women who are overwhelmingly subjected to police brutality, quite commonly in the form of sexual violence. The impunity of sexual violence against Tamil women is explicit, as they are intimidated from taking their cases to court, intimidated into withholding evidence and often violently silenced. Amnesty International, The World Organization Against Torture and many other organizations have also documented the use of rape as a weapon of war against Tamil women.
Like all countries around the world, female-headed households are more likely to experience financial difficulty and female heads of households are more likely to work and live in precarious environments. In Sri Lanka, the difficulties faced by Tamil female heads of households are amplified because of the conflict. Sri Lanka has some 12,000 missing persons, making it the country with the greatest number of disappearances, second only to Iraq. The majority of these missing persons are men and a disproportionate number of Tamil men are being murdered by the state; as a result, the number of female-headed households and widows in Sri Lanka is increasing. Furthermore, there are several hundred thousand internally displaced people (IDP) in Sri Lanka with Tamil women and children being the vast majority of them. Widows and female heads of household make up a substantial portion of those living in the refugee or IDP camps. The conditions of these camps aren’t good, especially for women. Sanitary napkins are scarce and bathroom stalls are without doors.
Women’s safety is compromised by the presence of Sri Lankan soldiers and the presence of police in these camps. Furthermore, because employment is scarce, Tamil women have no choice but to work precarious jobs to support their families. If we examine the high incidences of rape and the generally dangerous conditions for women in refugee camps, two important issues become apparent. First, women’s mobility is limited as they are constantly at risk of state harassment and have no official avenues to bring their attackers to justice. Second, the violence against Tamils is gendered. When Tamil men are kidnapped or killed, it is Tamil women who must pick up the pieces while mourning their sons, fathers, brothers, uncles and husbands.
The impunity of the violence against women is really an attack on the Tamil population as sexual attacks on women during wartime are meant to demoralize a community that is a threat to Sinhalese national identity. These incidences are well-documented, so why has the conflict in Sri Lanka been overlooked by mainstream feminists and those concerned with women’s issues? Why has there not been a strong non-Tamil feminist presence at the recent rallies in Toronto? This can be attributed to the narrow understanding of “women’s issues” that often overlooks state violence against women.
State violence against women, especially state-sponsored violence by a formerly female-headed state like Sri Lanka, does not fit into a simple binary of man-oppressor/womanvictim. This is the framework that many mainstream feminists operate within, and it has in effect erased the experiences of thousands, if not millions, of women living in conflict zones around the world. But do not mistake this article as a plea for mainstream Western feminists to “save” Tamil women. This is a call to all those willing to listen to and support those Tamil women fighting for the right to walk on their own land with dignity.