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‘The Orders Were to Rape You: Tigresses in the Tamil Eelam Struggle’ review: Surviving war

The picture of a woman with cropped hair, attired in camouflage shirt and trousers, and wielding a gun, can symbolise the ultimate dream of empowerment. More so if the woman is part of an armed liberation struggle.

Often invoked in the depiction of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, the image of a Tamil militant woman challenged some prevalent social norms, but could it overturn the entrenched biases in society?

Meena Kandasamy’s The Orders Were to Rape You: Tigresses in the Tamil Eelam Struggle, is in part an essay, with narratives of three Tamil women — the wife of an LTTE fighter, a female combatant from the LTTE, and the author herself. Its second part is a collection of resistance poems by female guerrillas and militants.

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Drawing upon interviews for a documentary project that did not materialise, Kandasamy records the gruesome experiences recounted by the two survivors of war in chilling first-person accounts. She meets them in Malaysia and Indonesia in 2013, just four years after the war ended.

Struggle to survive

They are not grateful to be alive, after facing recurring torture and sexual violence at camps and “rehabilitation” centres, and unceasing judgement by their own people following their release. The woman married to the LTTE member had no direct connection with the movement, but had to cope with regular questioning, harassment, and torture by military personnel. She speaks of having contemplated death by suicide but decided against it for the sake of her child. The account of the Tamil Tigress, of being repeatedly raped by soldiers and treated like a trophy of war, is gut-wrenching.

The southern Sinhala psyche cannot accept that their “war hero” engaged in a “humanitarian operation” could unleash sexual violence. That rape was used as a weapon of war, as a stamp of domination is rejected in disbelief by the people, and categorically denied by the state.

The women’s accounts point readers to the very male, violent core of the military, which asserted its “heroism” by targeting Tamil women with abject brutality and perversion. Equally distressing, as the former combatant recounts, is Tamil society’s cruel gaze on women like her, who are part of the very movement it venerates. If the Sinhalese army sought to crush their resolve and resilience, the Tamils whose liberation they fought for virtually banished them.

Unquestioning embrace

Early in the book, Kandasamy declares her political affinity to and emotional investment in the Tamil self-determination struggle. Her crisp and vivid prose, though highly readable, centres too much on herself, at times overshadowing the women’s stories. She admits that meeting a female Tiger in flesh broke her own “naïve carnivalization of war”, and “shattered” her image of female militancy, as liberated, gun-wielding women embodying empowerment. But curiously, the women’s testimonies notwithstanding, Kandasamy does not question her own embrace of Tamil nationalism.

On the other hand, in her autobiographical Oru Koorvaalin Nizhalil, Thamilini, who led the women’s political wing of the LTTE, offers an insider’s account of how the movement that she once saw as the agent of women’s liberation, in fact regulated women’s desires, sexuality, and bodies. Much like Kandasamy’s interviewees, she holds a mirror to Tamil society, which so readily rejected and stigmatised women like herself who fought for the cause, while extolling the LTTE.

The accounts of the ex-combatant and the wife of a militant in Kandasamy’s essay lay bare the enduring patriarchal character, sexism, and moral policing in Tamil society. But Kandasamy’s stubbornly romantic rather than critical view of Tamil nationalism falls short in its reckoning of women’s emancipation in the Tamil struggle.

The Orders Were to Rape You: Tigresses in the Tamil Eelam Struggle; Meena Kandasamy, Navayana Publishing, ₹250.

meera.srinivasan@thehindu.co.in


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