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The Martyr Bomber Becomes a Goddess

By Prof. William Harman, The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Full text of talk delivered by Prof. William Harman at Iinternational Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo on September 23rd 2008:

The Martyr Bomber Becomes a Goddess:

Women, Theosis, and Sacrificial Violence in Sri Lanka 

I am extremely grateful for the extraordinary privilege extended to me to address this distinguished body. For years I have heard wonderful things from fellow scholars of South Asia about the International Center for Ethnic Studies in Colombo, and little did I expect that I would be granted an opportunity to make a presentation before you. I would not be honest if I did not say that I appear here with some hesitation. It is likely that most of you here know more about my topic than do I. I am very much an outsider to what is happening in Sri Lanka, though I have been captivated by the works of several scholars who have tried to shed light on the tragic conflict with which the citizens of this country live every day. What I have to offer, then, is derivative. I invite you to correct me, and to assist me as I seek to understand how the tragedy of civil warfare could have enveloped such a remarkable country as this. I am grateful to Mr. P. Thambirajah whose gracious and informative email correspondence has brought me here and assisted me with the details of finding both lodging and colleagues in Colombo. And I am deeply grateful for your indulgence as I do my best to offer a perspective from beyond your shores.

I will be speaking about female martyr bombers in the civil war here. It is a strange topic to select, but it is one that interests me immensely. It would take sometime for me to say why the topic attracts my attention, but a few words will, I hope, suffice. First, as my venerable teacher Mircea Eliade once said, “The scale makes the phenomenon.” The very scale of female bombers is remarkable in Sri Lanka. Worldwide, in other struggles where female martyr bombing occurs, about 8% involve females. In Sri Lanka, that percentage is considerably higher, anywhere from 30% to 40% according to estimates offered by various agencies. A second reason I am interested is because much of my scholarship has focused on village goddesses in Tamilnadu, and I have been struck by how the activities of these goddesses suggest elements found in the stories of female martyr bombers. I will say more about this shortly. Finally, I grew up learning that one of the most admirable attributes of a person who is committed to a cause is that such a person would be willing to offer his or her life in defense of  a particular commitment. Yet, at the same time it strains my sense of what is right, proper, and just to know that martyr bombers are willing not simply to take their own lives, but also the lives of innocent civilians who are considered “collateral damage.”

Perhaps most important, I want to make it clear that my analysis at this point has occurred in a context in which I have sought primarily to understand rather than to judge the events surrounding the activities of these women. I do not advocate killing and I do not endorse murder. But I do not begin with the assumption that these women are crazy or evil. Such a perspective, while tempting, is motivated by what I would call a lazy hermeneutic. These women are human beings acting out of a sense of commitment to principles for which they are willing to give their lives. Whether we agree with those principles or not, it will be impossible to understand these events by simply dismissing these people and their motives as insane.

And what good will understanding these women do? Hopefully, it will allow us to bring an end to the tragic loss of life involved in these bombings: the losses among innocent victims of these activities and among the actual women who do the bombing, who themselves are also victims of this conflict. Circumstances are clearly tragic when women  -- as well as men – reach the point of feeling they must sacrifice their lives in order to accomplish a particular purpose. 

Well before female martyr bombing became a morally and religiously sanctioned strategy to respond to perceived oppression in Palestine, Israel, Iraq, and Chechnya, it had become a routine tool in the civil war waged between the government and the Sri Lankan Vitutalai Pulikal Tamil Ilam, that is, the Liberation Tigers of  the Tamil Homeland, abbreviated as LTTE M uch has been written about what Stanley Tambiah has termed this “fratricidal conflict,”2 but two of the most dramatic developments since 1983 have been the routinization of martyr bombing and the participation in martyr missions by Tamil women in these martyr attacks. It is with this issue that I am especially concerned in this paper.

The most internationally visible example of Tamil Sri-Lankan female martyr bombing involved the assassination of the Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991. I shall argue here that the increasingly frequent occurrence of deliberate and pre-meditated female bombing/martyr events primarily in Sri Lanka emerges out of a South Asian context of a set of powerful and pervasive traditional notions about the nature and role of women.

1987 marked the period when women became formally active agents in the organized insurgency: this was the period when the Tigers developed a fleet of hit-and-run attack boats that were light and fast and manned (so to speak) by cadres of women whose lighter body weight gave the boats greater maneuverability. Several of these boats launched deliberate group-martyr missions. But it was not until May, 1991 that the first prominent  female martyr bomber grabbed international attention. Her name was Thenmoli Rajaratnam . She detonated an explosive device in southern India, in the town of Sriperumputur as she was bowing in mock reverence to touch the feet of the Prime Minisher Rajiv Gandhi, who was on the electioneering stump. 16 others perished in this campaign event preceding parliamentary elections. The Tamil-speaking southern portion of India had long offered illicit support to the cause of the Tamil Tigers, but Rajiv Gandhi saw an opportunity to insinuate Indian power into Sri Lankan affairs by sending a peace-keeping force to mediate between the Tamil and Sinhala factions. Reports of widespread abuses by Indian forces soon surfaced in the Tamil community. Thus, the Tigers did not want Rajiv to be re-elected, lest he send the Indian forces once more.

Stories, often exaggerated, about the supposedly sophisticated and daring Rajaratnam immediately began to circulate: she, like several other of the female martyr bombers, was said to have been raped in Sri Lanka by Indian army troops. Once a woman is raped, in the traditional South Asian context, her future is sealed: no self-respecting man will wed her and a family will never be a possibility. And so, the stories claimed, she “married” , if you will, the cause of Tamil liberation. Gradually, after years of  training, she decided to become a martyr bomber. So vividly did she capture public imagination that a famous Tamil film was produced based roughly on the few facts known about her.  This film, called “The Terrorist” celebrated the valor and courage of female martyr bombings, and received a wide international showing.

The fact that this film represented in India so positively the exploits of someone much like the person who had murdered the Indian Prime Minister, and 16 other innocent Indians, suggests a certain predisposition to exalt martyr bombing, or, rather, to exalt a female who perpetrates a martyr bombing. Indeed, there are some basic elements in Tamil culture that suggest how such a woman might be glorified to the point of being deified. This could be one of the reasons why nearly 40% of all Tamil Tiger martyr bombings are executed by women. There are, of course, strategic reasons as well: traditionally, women are regarded as less threatening and less dangerous than men, and so are able to gain access to sensitive or protected targets with greater ease. And in a culture where bodily searches of women by men are considered tantamount to molestation, concealing explosives becomes much easier for women.

But there are certain basic cultural norms found in Tamil society which promote the notion that a woman’s body is the repository both of special powers as well as of special responsibilities when it comes to constructing and influencing a society in which justice and prosperity prevail. A female has the capacity to be the ultimate personification of virtue, justice, fidelity, and health. Unfavorable conditions mitigating against her cultivating these virtues and threatening the promotion of these qualities  risk the wrath of an almost magical force virtuous women are understood to cultivate and nurture in their bodies, a power called karpu. The more virtuous a woman, the more powerful is that karpu, and the greater danger it becomes to compromise that virtue. For this reason, dedicated, chaste women who for the sake of justice and righteousness suffer unjustifiably, are imbued with a power to reverse injustice and oppression, especially after their deaths, when they become deified as goddesses.

In becoming a martyr bomber, a woman becomes much more than simply a martyr. She becomes a goddess, reborn after her death to a new and higher calling, with fearful powers to avenge evil, oppression, injustice, and corruption. The religious culture of South Asia, whether Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jain, or Sikh places extraordinary emphasis on conduct regulated by vows. Most often, those vows are promises made in public to a sacred figure. Women who become martyr bombers  almost always do so by making a vow to do so, either to a deity or to the movement, or to both. They are accorded respect and honor – similar in many ways to that accorded animals set aside for religious sacrifice. In this liminal state they lead a disciplined, celibate life dedicated to a single purpose. Preparations for the event are understood as part of a physical, spiritual, and psychological discipline.

I deal here with what has to be a decidedly blood-and-guts phenomenon in which human beings blow themselves and others to bits in a deliberate and calculated way. Given the elemental nature of the topic, I move now to specifics inasmuch as I am able to do so. The particulars I have to offer come primarily from the Tamil culture of southern India, though there is widely verifiable evidence that the same particulars we will find on the ground in Sri Lanka.

Throughout Tamil culture, and especially in Sri Lanka and Tamilnadu, we find widely worshipped goddesses whose powers and images Tamil people invoke and respect. Narrative accounts about these goddesses can, on occasion, become models for Tamil womens’ understandings of themselves and of how they should function in society. The stories of these goddesses provide, if you will, a logic and a framework for apprehending how Tamil women might take charge of things under duress.

The first goddess is Mariyamman. Her shrines can be found throughout the northern and eastern areas of Sri Lanka, in much of Tamilnadu (India), and even in such places as Paris, Hamburg, and rural Michigan where migrating Tamils from Sri Lanka have constructed temples. The stories about Mariyamman vary widely, but nearly all of them have a central theme. They speak of how a once-human, but now divinized female, was somehow deceived, mistreated, irresponsibly cared for, or downright abused. In nearly every case, the abuse was perpetrated by males who should have protected or cared for her: her husband murders her, a priest rapes her, a brother marries her off to someone he knows to be inferior. As a result of that abuse, and her stoic willingness to endure it, the woman derives from her sense of righteous purpose and dignity a superhuman strength and ferocity. Mariyamman deserves in no way such treatment. Her purity, or karpu, empowers her to return from the dead as a powerful spirit seeking vengeance and justice on those who have wronged her and women like her. In many cases, she literally explodes in anger, destroys the always male figures responsible for her  mistreatment, and dies herself in the conflagration. She then becomes a goddess who must be worshipped fervently. She insists that her followers be willing to sacrifice considerable energy and blood in their worship of her. Firewalking, excruciating pilgrimages that involve rolling one’s body on the ground for miles, and submission to the insertion of sharp metallic lances into one’s flesh are just a few of the many demands she makes.

I will not belabor the ways in which Mariyamman could easily be seen as a role model for the female martyr bomber: a virtuous person submits to a violent blazing death that is necessitated by injustice. Resurrected in the form of a goddess, she now demands a devotion from her followers that reflects and embodies their willingness to sacrifice, as well.

A second goddess whose narrative history serves as a model for Tamil women is named Pattini. Her shrines can be found in much of Sri Lanka; she is actively worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists on the island . Though her roots are in India, she is far more popular and her shrines are far more visible in Sri Lanka. She has become, in fact, one of the  more visible goddesses of Sri Lanka. Her story comes from a Buddhist document dating to the 5th century called the Cilappatikaram.  In that document she is introduced to readers as a woman named Kannaki, married to a man named Kovalan. Kovalan, however, fell in love with a courtesan named Madhavi and frittered away all his money on her. Despondent, Kovalan returned to his chaste wife Kannaki, who forgave him and took him in without question, displaying the quality of chastity that would eventually provide her with such remarkable post mortem powers. She gave him one of her family treasures, a precious golden anklet, which he was instructed to take to the city of Madurai and sell there so that he could  refinance his trading business. But in trying to sell the anklet, Kovalan was framed by a goldsmith who claimed Kovalan stole the anklet from the local Pandyan dynasty queen. Hauled before the King on this mistaken charge, Kovalan was immediately beheaded at the King’s order. When Kannaki found out about this unjust murder, she flew into a righteous rage. She appeared before the king, produced the paired duplicate of the anklet Kovalan was said to have stolen, thus proving definitively that the anklet Kovalan tried to sell was not stolen. She then  cursed the King and his entire court to a fearsome death. Her righteous indignation took on new power when she she ripped off her left breast, threw it in front of the palace, thereby (and somehow) causing a massive conflagration that consumed her, the King and his court, and eventually the entire city. As the city burned to the ground, Kannaki was assumed into heaven, becoming the goddess Pattini. Today, as a goddess, Pattini is understood to be a powerful instrument for justice. Her worshippers pray to her for healing, retribution, and assistance at times of difficulty. One of the most common ways to approach her, to enter her world in worship, is to flirt with injury and death by walking on fire. While her temples dot the landscape in Sri Lanka, there are fewer in India., but there is a major carved stone statute of Kannaki/Pattini about 20 feet high on the marina of the beach in Cennai (Madras). The statue of Kannaki  holds up that jeweled anklet as she denounces the Pandyan King in an inscription on the base of the statue that comes directly from the epic ballad.

The images and narratives associated with the two major female deities worshipped by Tamils in Sri Lanka share some basic characteristics: pure, chaste women have both suffered enormous injustices at the hands of uncaring, callous males. They finally erupt in righteous anger, destroying themselves and their persecutors. Then, they live on as goddesses to whom people pray for protection and assistance, and especially for the rectification of injustice.

Female Tamil martyr bombers reenact in strikingly parallel fashion the careers of these two goddesses.  The mythic traditions of these two goddesses are traceable to the 5th century for Kannaki and at least the 15th century for Mariyamman. I can only be impressed by the fact that some of the most visible tactics for guerilla campaigns in South Asia find their roots in religious traditions describing how women might experience apotheosis. The extent to which women and those who assist them, deliberately and self-consciously invoke the memories and names of Mariyamman and Kannaki  remains to be seen. Discussions with female martyr bombers who have taken a secret oath to give up their lives are very difficult to arrange. But I maintain that these religious traditions provide for them models, implicit support and acceptance, and encouragement if not inspiration. Mariyamman and Kannaki are the forebearers of the tradition of martyr bombing in South Asia, and provide a cultural context in which martyr bombing is understood, accepted, and lauded by those dedicated to the cause of the Tamil Tigers.

Womens’ bodies and Martyr Bombers 

In the media coverage of the civil war in Sri Lanka Tahira Gonsalves has noted a particular concern with the appearances of the bodies of women who have enlisted as combatants in the struggle.3

Normally, she claims, …”women are expected to conform to gendered stereotypes which cast them in roles of the demure and passive nurturer, linked to the land, nation, and culture. However, in the context of war, these stereotypes are often thrown open and women are forced to or volunteer to play “mens’ roles.”

Female Tamil combatants in the Sri Lankan civil war have frequently attracted the fascinated attention of media and government because they are perceived to have given up their essential “femaleness,” represented by the female body adorned in a flowing sari, wearing bangles, necklaces, toe rings, makeup, and fragrant flowers in their long hair. As trained combatants, female Tamil Tiger army recruits have become much more “male,” wearing combat boots, battle fatigues, no makeup,  their hair either tightly braided or cut short beneath their standard issue military caps. Their training is rigorous, with few concessions made to the traditional  notion that women are unable to endure physically demanding exercises. They are taught to kill rather than to preoccupy themselves with what is considered quintessentially female, giving birth.. The values of fertility and beauty, normally prized among women, are eclipsed by the ideals of ferocity and intimidating violence.

The leader of the Tamil Tiger cadres, Prabaharan, has insisted on a relinquishing of gender identities among the soldiers who serve under him. In his speech given on International Womens’ Day (1992), for example, he spoke of “…the need to eliminate male chauvinistic oppression, violence, the dowry system, and casteism (p.166)”.4  (p. 166).He exhorts them to live lives of strict celibacy, and to regard each other as brothers and sisters. But it is the women for whom the gender transformation is greatest. In terms of customary roles and dress they must relinquish their feminine identities.  In general, in the Tamil culture – as in much of South Asia – the body of a woman is considered to be “fungible,” which is to say that womens’ bodies are understood to be able to incorporate and sustain basic changes in their gendered and ancestral identities. Inden and Nicholas have written about how a woman, at the event of marriage, becomes the “half-body” of her husband.5 She takes on the physical properties of her husband’s clan, eats the food common to her husband’s extended family, worships the new deities of her husband’s house, and in so doing assumes a physical transformation initiated by the ceremony of marriage and sustained by a new lifestyle. In Tamil culture, women are seen as the mediators between lineages, for they can move from one to the other in a way men cannot. Traditionally when they marry they transfer their residences to the homes of their husbands. When they bear children, those children become members of the family lineage into which she has married.

This “fungibility in bodily substance” (if I may call it that) suggests how these Tamil women who take on male roles and appearances as foot soldiers can then assume another major change when they are selected to become elite martyr bombers. Nearly all women who become martyr bombers first train as combat recruits, as foot soldiers in the Tamil Tiger army. Having undergone this radical change in identity and in appearance, they are then called upon to change once more. The quintessential female martyr bomber must once again effect a transformation. She must become the epitome of the South Asian female. She forsakes any hint of the militant male, and becomes effective as a martyr bomber only to the extent that she becomes once again, in appearance, at least,  the feminine, retiring, unthreatening, sari-clad female. Indeed, the Tamil Tiger strategy in designing the explosive belt to be worn on the torso has sometimes sought to make women appear to be pregnant. One of the more recent martyr bombings occurred in April, 2006 in the Sri Lankan Army Headquarters Hospital when a Tamil woman who had visited earlier for neo-natal care, strapped onto her body a belt of lethal explosives and detonated them inside the hospital compound. Eight were killed and 26 were seriously wounded, including Sri Lanka’s top-ranking military officer, General Fonseka. Interestingly, the Tamil Tiger propoganda wing insists vehemently that the martyr bomber was pregnant at the time. The Sri Lankan government  denies this. Little independent evidence supports either position, but the heated public information debate is revealing. If a pregnant woman commits an act of martyr bombing, the act takes on an air of forceful intimidation. A woman willingly gives up her life and the future life of her unborn child in dedication to the Tamil Tiger cause. This kind of resolve and self-sacrifice on the part of  a woman, a woman who, by all appearances, is doing what real women do, i.e. nurture and give birth) call attention to the seeming determination and dedicaton of those enlised in the cause of the Tamil Tigers. It suggests that all the normal rules of military engagement are suspended and that no strategy and no sacrifice in this war is unthinkable. Here, strangely enough, the words of the late Janice Joplin seem to echo: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” When a woman, possibly a pregnant woman, can perform a martyr mission, she and her trainers have been released, are free,  from all normal constraints, and what some would call basic humanity, and they have done so in unthinkable ways.  The very act invites fear, awe, dread, and disgust. Much easier it is to face women dressed like and acting like men on the field of combat. 

The final transformation a female Tamil martyr bomber’s body undergoes is from human being to goddess. Reports I have read indicate that of the shrines constructed in honor of martyr bombers, those built in memory of women-become-goddesses are more often frequented by worshippers, and are more enthusiastically worshipped than are shrines to male martyr bombers. For females the transition  from human to goddess is  more natural, much easier to accept and to affirm. I believe this has much to do with the perceived fungibility of the female body. In Tamil villages, both in India and in Sri Lanka,  most village shrines traceable to human apotheosis are associated with female deities. When a heroic woman dies, let us say in childbirth, she may be enshrined in the village into which she has married. But it is also possible that an ancillary shrine will be constructed in her natal village, and in some cases, in villages into which she might have married.  Shrines for male heroes (See Blackburn’s study) are more unusual, but hardly ever do these shrines migrate outside the village and lineage into which the men are born. A males’ transition into a deity is usually slower and always much more spatially limited. A male body is always less fungible.

As we look at how Tamil women become martyr bombers, we see in this process a reprise of several notions about the female body in South Asia. (1) Womens’ bodies are capable of becoming the ultimate cultural custodians of justice, virtue, and purity in society. When women are virtuous they accumulate extraordinay powers to protect themselves and the society in which they live. (2) When virtuous women perceive that they are violated or betrayed (and this includes the violation of their husbands, sons, daughters, and larger social circles) they have the capacity to erupt in violent, fiery destruction wreaking havoc on the usually male forces threatening them. (3) Womens’ bodies are especially sensitive to  transformations involving gender, lineage, and spiritual status. This transformative “fungibility” enables them to adapt to the requirements of guerilla warfare, to do mens’ work  when needed, and to become goddesses when their inspiration and protection can become a resource for those who continue the struggles required of the still living.

Please click here to print an MS word file of this speech, with foot notes
Dr. William Harman:

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