Speaking with People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL), Dr Nimmi Gowrinathan, Founder and Director of the Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative and Visiting Research Professor at the City College New York, gave an enlightening discussion on gender and militancy, in which she critiqued attempts to depoliticise and categorise the female fighter.
Constructing the female fighter
Whilst recognising that Tamil women have played important roles, both non-violent and armed, Gowrinathan notes that it is traditional models of the female combatant which are presented as deviant or simply criminals. Their motivations are reduced to who they bump into or the men around them. They are constructed passively as opposed to active agents. As apolitical blank slates, “untethered from reality and can be pulled by anything” in contrast to being viewed as students of injustice.
Whilst the female combatant is presented as being brainwashed or coerced, far less attention is given to the structures of violence that shape her lived experience. Gowrinathan notes:
"I understand it as the violence that led her to the battlefield is the normalised violence of the everyday. The rape that pushes her away from society, the marriage that traps her within it, the military occupation that intrudes on her every movement, and the ‘peaceful saviour’ that seeks to extract her voice from the body it inhabits".
However, Gowrinathan maintains that it is not simply trauma that leads women to take political action. Instead, "for the female fighter mobilising centres on political oppression, not on trauma".
Emissaries of Empowerment
Gowrinathan reminds us that this desire to present women as victims may be traced back to the colonial period, "when white women were called to intervene to save in the uncivilised nations”. Brown women, she notes, were “cast as special and deserving objects of feminist concern".
These women of the Global South are presented as "sexualised, brutalised and powerless", to the outside world she is defined by her trauma. Her victimhood robs her of the ability to be a political actor. Subsequently, interventions into her life are viewed as a moral obligation.
This poses significant issues as those intervening on a moral basis are depoliticised and the conversation is subsequently shutdown. This Gowrinathan states contrasts with the original meaning of "empowerment".
The term "empowerment" started in the 1970s from a group of feminists from the Global South. For these women, their conversations centred on the political forces that led to this oppression. It was an explicitly political call which was intended to incite mobilisation.
"50 years later. Now we have empowerment projects ranging from indigenous women in Bolivia crocheting string bikinis to allow white women to shop with a purpose to ex-combatants in Sri Lanka being offered training in icing cakes and hairstyling and sewing classes", Gowrinathan states.
We must ask ourselves how did this happen?
“What initiated in the Global South as a political project has now become a lynchpin of anti-politics”, Gowrinathan remarks.
She recounts how she had worked as aid an aid worker and was tasked with handing out chickens and cows for rape victims.
Gowrinathan critiques this model adopted by aid organisations as she maintains that it denies women their “distinctive politics and their desire for political power”. She further states “aid is not just neo-colonial there is a white feminism that keeps this in place”.
Read more from Deviarchy: Emissaries of Empowerment
This depoliticising of female fighters is done deliberately as they are perceived as a threat.
Recounting her discussions with a former Tiger commander, she notes that she had told her 'sewing is of no use to me but only when I finish the course will they say that I am deradicalized'.
She further states:
"Female fighters see the goal of these programmes very clearly, to push them away from political life into gender-appropriate roles".
The issue, she highlights is that the female combatant is not a "one-dimensional depiction of a superhero, a Malala or wonder woman". Gowrinathan maintains that it is this fact that she does not fall easily into a single category, that she is denied political space.
"She is neither, for feminists, a victim to be saved nor is she a political agent to be supported", Gowrinathan remarks.
The myth of Stockholm syndrome
A frequent criticism that Gowrinathan comes across is the idea of Stockholm syndrome, which maintains that these women had no choice their captivity and therefore they have no power.
Gowrinathan challenges this narrative by asking us to examine political power within captivity. She remarks that this fallacy implies that because women are coerced there is no point in talking to them about their politics. However, she reminds us that this too is a form of depoliticising her just because of this one moment. An attempt to categories her and place within smaller and smaller boxes of belonging. This denies them their political complexity as well as their own agency.
Erasure of identity
Gowrinathan also spoke on the attempt by the state and those with the power to impose identities as an attempt to categorise and control. Placing this in a global framework, she states:
"In Sri Lanka you have Tamil women, wiping off the potu on their forehead before they enter a military checkpoint, hoping to be disassociated from themselves. In Harlem, my students remove headscarves as they descend into the subway. My son’s public school has banned hoodies.
Whether it’s the hijab, or a hoodie or a potu, the state is asking our communities to sacrifice identity for security".
This issue of security and identity played an acute role in the political formation of Tamil women as political combatants. Gowrinathan remarks speaking to a political fighter who said that "She was vulnerable to rape because she was a woman, but she was targeted because she was Tamil".
The focus on culture
Another point of critique for Gowrinathan is the UN’s insistence on "changing the culture".
Gowrinathan states that:
"Culture is a very useful perpetrator as it leaves nobody accountable. Not the state, nor the NGOs".
For these NGOs, culture is presented as stagnant and as a constant barrier for progress.
"When I was working in Afghanistan there was this idea that girls were not going to school because their father would not let them. No, they were not going to school because there was a US military check point on their way to school. […] So, their fathers did not want them to be harassed at these checkpoints".
Here we can see a clear deflection from the tangible political and structural issues women face using "culture". Culture, Gowrinathan reminds us, is not constant but instead, it is “wrapped around a context” which we inhabit.
"The rise of alcoholism in the northeast right now that is not culture. That did not exist before the end of the war".
These problems cannot be understood outside of the context of the post-war settlement; the threat to the economic livelihood of those in the North and East; as well as the military presence which bears down on Tamils in the North and East.
The role of the 'outside actor is not to change the culture', Gowrinathan states, but rather to change the context. Those inside the movement have an obligation to challenge the culture.
Commenting on the failures of international bodies and organisations she states;
"The process of pushing back against rigid institutions is futile as they cannot accept change. I see my work is to expand the political imagination of the resistance".