Gender and Terrorism (Female Suicide Missions)

Sri Lanka

Female suicide terrorism in Sri Lanka appeared in the context of the bloody internal war on the island,[i] which gave rise to one of the most ruthless radical organizations - LTTE. During its existence, Tamil Tigers organized more suicide attacks than any other violent group in existence.[ii] Women carried out at least 53 of 243 suicide missions.[iii] Interestingly, not all of these missions can be defined as terrorism because some were perpetrated against military staff and targets under conditions of de facto civil war and thus should be seen rather as insurgency acts.

Internal War

LTTE training campThe roots of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka are both historic and modern. During the colonial period complex relations were established between two main communities: Tamil and Singhalese. The independence of Sri Lanka (1948) didn’t bring a satisfactory resolution to the existing tensions. Despite being “secularist and modernist in their approach to state formation”, and despite of promising “rapid modernization and industrialization along with increased political participation”, Sri Lankan elites were not able to avoid the ethnicization of the state.[iv] Eventually, the established political system led national political life to be dominated by two parties - United National Party and Sri Lanka Freedom Party– both of them representing interests of the Sinhalese majority.  Photo: 2008 LTTE training camp.

The difficult co-existence of the two communities in a unitary state lead some circles of Tamil political elite in 1970s to embrace federalization; an idea sharply rejected by the Singhalese majority. In the 1960s the idea for a separate Tamili state didn’t enjoy great support, [v] but by the 1970s, with the declaration of Sinhala as the official language combined with Buddhism being declared the official religion by new constitution (1972), the Tamil Tigers got the community’s attention.


The Sixth Amendment to the constitution (August 1983) declared all separatist activities unconstitutional. This put the main Tamil political party, the Tamil United Liberation Front on the outskirts of  the law, depriving thus Tamil community of the opportunity to exercise any impact on the national decision making process. Resulting in “heavy casualties  . . . incurred by both sides in the bloody battles between the separatists and the Sri Lankan armed forces, and interaction between the Tamil areas in the North and the rest of the country has come to a virtual halt in almost every sphere.”[vi]

LTTE has No Competition

Pro-LTTE meetingAfter an intensive internal competition during which LTTE eliminated its rivals, the LTTE rapidly rose to the leadership position of the separatist movement. Historian Marshall Singer describes LTTE as: “The last of the remaining major Tamil militant groups, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), are clearly ruthless. They have brutally eliminated all of the other militant Tamil groups who once fought at their side. They terrify Sinhalese villagers, particularly in the Eastern Province, which they consider part of their traditional homeland. They consider the Sinhalese who have been settled there by the government as unlawful trespassers on "their land." They have no compunction about going into villages at night and slitting the throats of men, women, and children. They have also killed many moderate Tamil leaders whom they label as "traitors."[vii]  Photo: 2009 A pro- LTTE meeting discussing the fallout of army's crackdown on LTTE in Sri Lanka, Mahabalipuram.

For More on Sri Lanka Suicide Units (Male and Female) 

[i] Some of the texts dedicated to the topic are: BRUN, Cathrine. 2005. Displacement in Sri Lanka. In Women in the Local/Global Fields of War and displacement in Sri Lanka. Gender, Technology and Development, Vol. 9, No. 1, 57-80; DE MEL, Neloufer. 2004. Body Politics: (Re)Cognising the Female Suicide Bomber in Sri Lanka. Indian Journal of Gender Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1, 75-93; TAMBIAH, Yasmin. 2005. Turncoat Bodies: Sexuality and Sex Work under Militarization in Sri Lanka, Gender & Society, Vol. 19, No. 2, 243-261; SCHRIJVERS, Joke. 1999. Fighters, Victims and Survivors: Constructions of Ethnicity, Gender and Refugeeness among Tamils in Sri Lanka. Journal of Refugee Studies, vol.12,N3, pp. 307-333; 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; SINGER, Mashall. 1992. Shri Lanka in 1991: some surprising twists. A Survey in Asia in 1991.Part II. (Feb), pp. 168-174;

SINGER, Marshall. 1992. Shri Lanka’s Tamil-Singhalese Conflict: alternative solutions. Asian survey. Vol.32, N8, (Aug.) 712-722; SINGER, Marshall.1990. Shri Lanka: the ethnic strife continues. Asian survey. Vol.31, N2, (Feb.) 140-145; SINGER, Marshall.1990. New realities in Shri Lanka Politics.Aian Survey, N4 (Apr.), 409-425 and the articles of GUNARATNA, R. 2001.Suicide attacks, in Michael Green (Edt). Global Rebels: Terrorist Organizations as Trans-National Actors’, Harvard International Review, (Fall 2001); The LTTE and suicide terrorism. India's National Magazine, Volume 17 - Issue 03, Feb. 05 – 08, (2001); ‘Suicide terrorism: a global threat’(2002)

[ii] GUNARATNA, R. 2000. ‘Suicide terrorism: a global threat’.  

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

[iv] RUPESINGHE, Kumar. 1988. Ethnic Conflicts in South Asia: The Case of Sri Lanka and the Indian Peace-keeping Force (IPKF). Journal of Peace Research, vol. 25, no. 4, рр. 335-351

[v] SHASTRI, Amita. 1990. The Material Basis for Separatism: The Tamil Eelam Movement in Sri Lanka. The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 49, No. 1, (Feb., 1990), pp. 56-77

[vi] HENNAYAKE, Shantha. 1989. The Peace Accord and the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Asian Survey, Vol. 29, No. 4, (Apr., 1989), pp. 401-415  

[vii] SINGER, 1996. Marshall. Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict: have bombs shattered hopes for peace? Aisan Survey, Vol.36, N11, (Nov), pp. 1146-1155

Associated Articles

Associated Groups