Radicalizing Her: WHY WOMEN CHOOSE VIOLENCE by Nimmi Gowrinathan, published in 2021 by Beacon Press.
Reviewed by: TU Senan
To deny history is to effectively destroy people, commented George Orwell once. In the aftermath of 2009 in Sri Lanka, the triumphant state and their collaborators have been precisely engaged in this destructive act. One of the most disturbing aspects is the treatment of female fighters during and after the war: they are subjected to abuse, harassment, marginalization, and ultimately cast aside by society. These actions are often justified by state institutions under the guise of combating terrorism.
Some individuals who label themselves as “intellectuals” and have directly or indirectly supported the killing of these combatants in the past attempt to justify it as inevitable consequence of “extreme nationalism.” They argue that these ideologies aimed to “control the sexuality and reproductive rights and choices” of female fighters. This reductionist perspective not only objectifies these women to their bodies and sexuality. It also generalizes the notion that all female fighters are somehow “mentally ill” and acting under duress. Shockingly, such analysis is considered progressive feminism in certain circles.
Until the end of the war, and to some extent even today, those who put forth similar arguments were promoted by the Sri Lankan government and Western institutions, primarily as a means to counter the influence of the Tigers in the Tamil community. Anti-social behavior and disruptive attention-seeking were wrongly labeled as “feminist.”
One notable work that dismantles such misleading arguments is “Radicalizing Her: WHY WOMEN CHOOSE VIOLENCE” by Nimmi Gowrinathan, published in 2021.
This book is essential reading for those seeking to comprehend the experiences and origins of female fighters. For Nimmi the simplified “Stockholm Syndrome” argument is deeply misleading. Her work is unique in that it does not glorify violence; instead, it offers a narrative based on real-life experiences to illuminate the role of the state in perpetuating violence against women.
Nimmi poses straightforward and evident questions that many others have chosen to ignore. She highlights the ingrained patriarchy within the state and questions what options rebellious women have when deprived of all forms of resistance. It is important to note that violence against the state is not the only form of resistance that can be chosen. However, in the absence of organized mass opposition with a clear strategy, the eruption of violence by group of people becomes one of the most likely outcomes. Nimmi argues that the violence exhibited by the violated is not a matter of choice but rather a symptom of being devoid of choices altogether.
The book also vividly portrays the most compelling aspects of Nimmi’s interviews conducted during her visit to Sri Lanka. In prison they only bring food and beauty products, a point of complain for many. In the eyes of the state, these individuals were once perceived as ruthless killers who needed to be “rehabilitated” into becoming “ordinary women” prioritizing their appearance above all else. The message conveyed by the former combatant was crystal clear: “Tell them,” she says to the outside world, “I have not compromised—I am in prison.”
The NGO’s that claim to help them have directed the discussions towards topics such as domestic violence and other gender issues, while leaving political discussions primarily to men. Thamilini, who held the rank of colonel in the LTTE’s military apparatus and served as the head of the women’s political wing, was reduced to such a role. Throughout the armed struggle for an independent homeland for Tamils, numerous strong female leaders emerged, commanding immense respect. Did the LTTE challenge gender discrimination in a concrete manner? They did not. However, the gender discrimination did not exist under LTTE control in the same way as it does now. The movement certainly challenged traditional gender roles, and many female combatants left behind a legacy that is unique in many ways.
Nimmi’s argument goes beyond the traditional interpretation of women’s emancipation as being “equal” to men, instead envisioning a completely new role that they aspired to be cherished by society as a whole. What strengthens some of her arguments is her comparative analysis of many other countries such as Colombia, Syria, Eritrea, Pakistan, and others, where women fighters share similar stories.
One key aspect that Nimmi challenged is the comparison that often relate violence to “culture specific” phenomenon. Notorious British “historian” David Starkey, for instance, wrongly claimed that crimes were the result of black culture, perpetuating a racist sentiment. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair also shared a similar view, suggesting that “knife crime in London was not a consequence of poverty but rather a distinctive black culture” as reported by the Guardian. Such perspectives serve the interests of the state and their supporters, as they justify collective punishment and somehow tolerate the suffering of those subjected to state violence. Nimmi effectively dismantles these arguments in her book. Furthermore, she explores how women are conscious of the “cultural commodity they wield,” highlighting how marriage and motherhood can also become a tool to “eke out political space that have been denied”.
The book did not include any critique of the LTTE, which will undoubtedly face significant challenges, particularly in the West where a strong critique is demanded before discussing them. The Sri Lankan government often dismisses such analyses as biased views from the diaspora, citing examples of so-called “rehabilitated” women who have chosen to work with the government or even participate in military-led projects for economic reasons. However, many of these women still lack the freedom to express their own views, as they are constrained by their circumstances.
Mothers, for months on end, continue their relentless demands for information about the whereabouts of their loved ones. Unable to counter the strength of their voices, the state and others have found ways to de-politicize the protests. Given these circumstances, it is no secret that strong expressions and opinions are prevalent within the diaspora. The book does not aim to explain the role of the LTTE but rather seeks to understand why these women resorted to violence. It’s a thought provoking read for the activists.
For discussions on the analysis presented in the book or to engage in conversations about the current challenges faced by women activists in Sri Lanka, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org