Gender and Terrorism (Female Suicide Missions)

Status, Stigma, and National Pride

Female Tamil Tigers

Photo: 2009 One of the most disturbing news that came out of these refugee camps is the discovery of the bodies of 11 young Tamil women in the periphery of the Menic Farm camp near the town of Vavuniya. Their throats had been slashed. According to some detainees, female Tamil Tigers who had earlier surrendered to authorities were eventually murdered. These women were easily identified as former Tamil guerrillas through their short haircut which was a requirement for Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) female cadres.

Obtaining Status After Death

For the women who have volunteered as suicide bombers different motives might have a much different significance:

  • obtaining higher status after the death,[xx] 
  • revenge,
  • immortality in the memory of their own ethnic community, or
  • avoiding social stigma in which they would suffer for violating – voluntarily or not - traditional gender roles system.

Higher status after the death is definitely one of the attractive factors for combatants.  Ramasubramanian, a researcher form the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, describes the strategy for the glorification of the Black Tigers by the LTTE. Every year July 5 is celebrated by the LTTE as the day of the Black Tigers. On this particular day, an eternal lamp is lighted in front of the tombstone of every Black Tiger who had lost his or her life. The LTTE flag is hoisted and the parents of the Black Tigers, who had sacrificed their lives, are honored. The LTTE radio broadcasts the brave deeds of the Black Tigers with their operational details.[xxi]

Social Stigma

Concerning the social stigma, Goodwin, the only journalist who has been allowed to interview an arrested female bomber, points out that “rape is something many female suicide bombers have in common. Considered spoiled goods and unmarriageable in their patriarchal cultures, they view becoming human bombs as a form of purification by fire”[xxii] Whatever are the circumstances of their rape, the outcome is always the same: social stigma that under some conditions can push to suicide bombing.

National Pride

There are no sufficient reasons to assume that the female bombing is above all an expression of aspirations to gender equality. The women themselves put the gender motives after the nationalistic ones.  This is clearly stated in interviews with female combatants.[xxiii] Allsion reports that “The majority of the women I interviewed said that they had not been aware of issues surrounding women’s social conditions, women’s rights or equality before they joined the movement.”[xxiv] Historically, the interest to possible female members by Tamil radical organizations in the 1980s is due to the decrease of number of men[xxv], who emigrated out of the country or were killed in the armed conflict. The self exclusion of this process would mean for LTTE fewer number of combatants and thus lost of the competition with other separatist groups which at that moment already were recruiting women. The fear existed that to admit women would damage the image of the Tigers as revolutionary ascetics who had voluntarily rejected all temptations of the material world and devoted themselves to the liberation struggle only. It is postulated that at the beginning of 1990s women were already 20-30% out of all members of the organization and comprised a majority of the Black Tigers – combatants prepared especially for suicide missions.[xxvi] According to the leader of female political wing, Ms. Thamilini, in 2004 there were almost 10,000 women in the organization, while in 1987 there were only 90.[xxvii] It should be noted that this information has been questioned by other sources.

In the last years, there was a clear trend to feminization of the nationalistic discourse of LTTE, in two ways women were portrayed: as warrior-mother and warrior-virgin.[xxviii] For example, in a nationalistic web site, interviews with some women soldiers (Ms. Malathi) and leaders (Ms. Thamilini) can be seen. To the question if she thinks about love, family and children, Ms. Malathi (killed in a battle) points out that she will think about it after the liberation of Tamil Eelam. The photos in the same site reveal young girls with ascetic appearance, with arms in their hands, meting the same challenges and fighting just like men. These ideas are poetically worded  by one of female fighters of LTTE, known as Vanati:

Her forehead shall be adorned

not with kunkumam (but) with red blood.

All that is seen in her eyes

is not the sweetness of youth (but) the tombs of the dead.

Her lips shall utter

not useless sentences

(but) firm declarations of those who have fallen down.

On her neck will lay

no tali, (but) a Cyanide capsule!

She has embraced

not men , (but) weapons!

Her legs are going and searching

not for searching a relationship with relatives

(but ) looking towards the liberation of the soil of Tamililam.

Her gun will fire shots.

No failure will cause the enemy to fall!

It will break the fetters of Tamililam!!

Then from our people's lips

a national anthem will tone up!!![xxix]

At the same time LTTE female fighter is expected to be a modern Kannaki, a legendary Tamil women, prized for her chastity and marital fidelity.

Al this, however, did not translate into more gender equality for women in the Tamil community, which continues keeping its rigid gender role system, and also reduces women’s access to public sphere. Will the situation change after the military defeat of LTTE? It too early to say.


[xx] GODWEEN, Jan. 2007. When a suicide bomber is a woman. Asian Tribune, 18.08.,

[xxi] RAMASUBRAMANIAN, R. 2004. Suicide terrorism in Sri Lanka. Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, рр. 6-26

[xxii] GODWEEN, Jan. 2007. When a suicide bomber is a women. Asian Tribune, 18.08.,

[xxiii] GONSALVES, Tahira. 2007. Gender and Peacebuilding: A Sri Lankan Case Study - Tahira Gonsalves. 28.11.

[xxiv] ALISON, Miranda. 2003. Cogs in the Wheel? Women in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Civil Wars, Vol.6, No.4 (Winter), pp.37-54,

[xxv] SORNARAJAH, Nanthini. 2004. The experience of  Tamil women: nationalism, construction of gender, and women’s political agency. Line-magazine.

[xxvi] ALISON, Miranda. 2003. Cogs in the Wheel? Women in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Civil Wars, Vol.6, No.4 (Winter), pp.37-54

[xxvii] SILVA, Alfred. 2004. Women’s wing leader, Thamilini. Pic.

[xxviii] COOMARASWAMY, Radhika1997 Tiger Women and the Question of Women’s Emancipation, Pravada 4 (9): pp. 8–10.

[xxix] Published in

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