The Independent Archive: Daughters in the fight for independence

21 September 1990 Gabriella Gamini in Jaffna reports on dedicated `Tigresses' who are in arms for a Tamil homeland
MALANI'S NEATLY braided hair and classic profile remind you of a Renaissance beauty. But the battle fatigues, the cyanide capsule hanging from her neck and the AK-47 cartridges around her waist dispelled that image.

She is a political leader for hundreds of women who have joined Tamil Tiger separatists fighting the Sri Lankan government for a independent Tamil homeland in the north of the island. They call themselves the Women's Front, and some estimates put the number of "Tigresses" at 3,000. "We are training more and more women to fight every day," said 27-year-old Malani, which is an assumed name.

On my way to the Jaffna peninsula, the heartland of the minority Tamil community and the rebels in the far north, women ran the midnight ferry crossing. At least 50 new recruits were crammed on board.

The Tigers' war against the Sinhalese-controlled government, which flared up again in June and escalated recently with an operation by the Sri Lankan forces to rescue the garrison in an old Dutch fort in Jaffna, has been characterised as a "young boys' war".

But women between the ages of 15 and 30 are a significant force. As bombs from Sri Lankan aircraft hit densely populated parts of Jaffna one morning last week, a squad of women patrolled the streets, evacuating civilians and firing at helicopter gunships which were strafing residential areas.

In the battle around the star-shaped fort, where Sri Lankan troops have relieved 180 servicemen who were stranded for three months, women fighters entrenched in bunkers fired mortars on the fort's walls. "Six girls were killed in one attack on the Sri Lankan positions in the fort," said Malani.

All over Jaffna hang posters of dead fighters. Among them are several of young women, respectfully named akka, meaning "sister". In a Hindu society where women are revered for representing the stability and importance of home and family, the involvement of women in such large numbers shows how deeply ingrained the support for the separatist campaign is among Tamil people.

Malani laughed at the thought of planning a family. "I have never had time to think of children or even love affairs," she said. "Women in Jaffna have had to realise that first we have to fight to rebuild our strength and rights as a community before we look to have children." The Women's Front code of conduct says marriage is acceptable only for those over 23 who have been in the movement for five years.

Malani joined the Tigers in 1983, the year when ethnic riots against the minority Tamils flared up all over the island, including the capital, Colombo. "I had just taken A levels, but the small ratio of Tamils allowed into universities stopped me from getting a place," she said.

Tamils, who make up three million of the 17-million population of Sri Lanka, were only allowed places in Jaffna universities in the same proportion, although 99 per cent of people in Jaffna and 70 per cent in the northern province were Tamils.

At the time women were mainly involved on the political side, running social services, nursery schools, women's groups. More and more joined the military struggle, however, "Many of us have been raped by Sri Lankan army soldiers. Others have seen their parents killed," said Malani.

The majority of the Tigresses are based in women-only camps in the heavy jungle. They plan their own operations against army positions. They do not expect the men to help them. A squad I met had just returned from a reconnaissance mission, and had brought back bags of rice and lentils along 40 miles of dirt track and jungle. "We are forced to move camps frequently and dig new wells after air attacks by the Sri Lankan forces," said Malani.

Her parents know she is in the movement and have little choice but to accept it. Civilians like her parents have lived through years of civil war and have come to see the armed youth as their only protection from attacks by government forces. "We are proud that our daughters have joined the struggle for independence," said the father of one Tigress.

From the Foreign News pages of `The Independent', Friday 21 September 1990