Two Nationalisms (Oppress and Being Oppressed):
Women Bodies are Caught up In-between
The recent war in Sri Lanka illustrates how human bodies particularly women's bodies are turned into objects. On the one hand, the Sri Lankan military tortured and killed the Tamils and raped many women to invade the land where Tamil speaking humans are majority. On the other hand, the raped and dead bodies of Tamil women were used by the Tamil diaspora in their online media to further their nationalist propaganda. Both of them used women’s bodies as sexual objects and as a representation of Tamil nation. This shows that even though Sri Lankan and Tamil nationalist movements differ in their nationalist perspectives, their entire gaze is based on a patriarchal, heterosexist and racist standpoint which dominate these nationalist movements. The hegemonic power of these ideas constructs women as objects, secondary human beings and sexualized bodies. Following this argument, my paper shows how Tamil women have been reduced to and used as objects, in particular as sexualized objects, by both nationalist movements.
The motivation for this essay was an uncensored YouTube clip (http://youtu.be/DMKJaJH9BR8) and other war pictures which show the killing of Tamils by the Sri Lankan military. This clip and the pictures urge the discussion of how women’s bodies are gazed and used. In the book, Imperial Leather, Ann McLintock ( ) argues that white women are “ambiguously complicit,” in a complex social status as both oppressors and oppressed, privileged and restricted, and acted upon and acting (6). As a South Asian diasporic brown man, I also exist in a similar complex and conflict situation much like white women in their societies. The exception for me is that I am not a colonizer; rather I am colonized as a patriarchal heteronormative man. This is what Kimberle Crenshaw ( ) defines as intersectional identity (202) which is the multiple identities of a person who is privileged, underprivileged, oppressor and being oppressed. For example, I have many identities based on sex, gender, class and sexual and racial identity which are imposed by the society. I also have my own identity which I define for myself. However, in general, on one hand, as a man, I am privileged, particularly in the Tamil societies. But on the other hand, as a Tamil in Sri Lanka or as a brown diasporic human being in a North American white society , I am underprivileged.
With my intersectional identity, as a human, man, Tamil and feminist, I have some questions: does the person who was taking the video, and do I, as an observer, have the same gaze when looking at the dead and nude body of the female? Arguably, the person who took this video was a Sri Lankan military personnel and certainly the person was a man who gaze at this woman’s body from a patriarchal and racist standpoint. Then I looked at within myself and asked how am I looking at this woman’s body and is there any difference from the army person’s? I understood that, as both of us as men, we have a similar patriarchal standpoint of viewing a nude woman’s body, even though it was a dead body. However, both of us as different races or ethnic group have different feelings about the woman. Having been born and growing up in Tamil society, I identified myself with her race and her ethnic group and therefore, felt that she was part of the
Tamil society. Hopefully, Sri Lankan army personal felt differently since he was a Sinhalese with a domination of Sinhala racist nationalist hegemonic ideology. In addition, as a feminist, I should question how Tamil nationalists are using these dead bodies, unconsciously from a patriarchal point of view, against the Sri Lankan government (GOSL) for the crimes they committed during the war. Why we as men gaze at women like this or as invaders rape and kill them, or as nationalist use them?
Patriarchy and nationalism, in general, represent and reduce “other” bodies, particularly women’s bodies, as matters and objects and also use them to represent a nation and its culture. Social scientists and feminists argue that human bodies and their sex, gender and sexual identities have been socially constructed as binary oppositions as a result of patriarchal heterosexual ideology (King, 275; Vance, 30). In public spaces, for example, in a war situation or in a factory, all the human bodies including men’s and women’s are used and reduced to objects by the people who have power over them . However, in both public and private spaces women are typically used and reduced to objects. The reason for this is that the hegemonic power of patriarchal heteronormative male gaze is common all over the world. However, it does not matter whether they are the oppressors or being oppressed, men (and women) see human bodies, particularly women’s bodies, as “other”, and as objects that they can also used. These men’s gazes and attitudes can be seen in the recent war which ended without any solution in Sri Lanka two years back.
In Sri Lanka, as Enloe argues, both groups are victims of colonization. The country had many kingdoms but after the colonization, it was united and ruled under one administration. It led to construct Sinhala Buddhist hegemonic ideology in the country after colonizers had left. Symbolically the name of the country was changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka. The result of this, as she argues, one of them [Sinhala Nationalists] have been the perpetrator of [Sinhala] racism while others [Tamils] have been its victims (Enloe, 222). Since then, Tamil speaking human beings have been discriminated against and affected by this Sinhala racist state and its government. On the other hand, this does not mean Tamils do not exhibit racism. Even though Tamils are minorities and have less power within the supremacy of Sinhala nation, Tamil nationalists not only have racist attitudes against Sinhala people, but they also discriminate against other minorities such as Muslims within the Tamil communities. However, these difference does not give the right to anyone to oppress or carryout a war against Tamil-speaking human beings.
The differences between these two nations, cultures, or ethnic groups have nonetheless been used to legitimize the ethnic conflict and war against Tamil societies. Therefore, the ethnic conflict between the Sinhala and Tamil societies became predominant. Sri Lankan governments have perpetuated this conflict through acts of racial discrimination, oppression, violence and war against Tamil-speaking societies in Sri Lanka. This discrimination and oppression led the Tamil youth or “boys” to begin an armed struggle against the Sri Lankan military in the late 1970s (Ismail, 1678). As a witness to the uprising of Tamil struggle, I knew, it included many Tamil armed groups, mostly men, from the middle and lower classes and also from various castes with different ideological backgrounds, at least in their political manifestos. Therefore, it is difficult to agree with Qadri Ismail’s claim that the Tamil boys were only from the upper class and upper caste which is a contradiction to my own experience (1677). However, in the struggle, as Enloe points out that, “When a nationalist movement becomes militarized… male privilege in the community usually becomes more entrenched” (225). This was no exception for the Tamil national liberation struggle also because Tamil people believed in the beginning that “our boys” or “movement’s boys” were going to fight and get freedom for them. Even though, there were few girls in the liberation movements but no one referred them as “our girls” or “movement girls”
However, Feizal Samath supports this by providing the example of Adele Balasingham, who was a British white woman married to Anton Balasingham, who was the spokesperson for the Tigers. She was seen seated along with her husband speaking as an equal. Samath also adds that this kind of scene could not be seen in Tamil society and therefore, Tamil women were attracted by this and believed in it (ipsnews.net, 2010). However, Samath’s argument is patronizing and he forgets two things. First, he was not aware of Tamil women’s own awareness of their liberation and participation in the struggle, even before Adele Balasingham came onto the scene. Second, he lacks critical scrutiny and sees her only as a woman but forgets to see as a representative of whiteness and has privilege in these colonized societies. However, this criticism of Samath does not negate his insight that she made a contribution for the struggle. As Ruth Frankenberg points out, whiteness has a particular place in the social structure and has its own privileges even though location varies (2-3). Because of this representation of whiteness, Adele Balasingham has some kind of respect and power compared to not only Tamil women but Tamil men as well. This is because of the unconscious mind of Tamil society which is still being colonized and therefore respecting their former masters. This is similar to Fanon’s arguments about whether a black man or a white woman enjoys more power in a colonized society. However, Samath agrees that what Tamil women were imagining or expecting was an illusion within Tamil national liberation (ipsnews.net, 2010).
Mclintock argues that race and gender have an intimate relationship (4). She continues that there are five major ways in which women have been implicated in nationalism: “as biological reproducers; as protectors of the boundaries of the nation; as active transmitters and producers of the national culture; as symbols of national difference and as active participants in the national struggle” (355). Inaddition, Nira Yuval-Davis argues that nationalism constructs “us” and “them” and uses women as symbolic “border guards” (219). In a war against another country or nation, women are one of the important targets, even before the land is occupied, they were raped and killed and this shows that oppressors have taken the control of “others” property. In addition, the nationalists also call their land as motherland which shows, as Edward Said argued, that “land is feminized” (Mclintock 14). Moreover, “women” are as the boundary markers of ethnic/ racial community in the “host” of a nation (Mclintock 70; Gopinath 18). Furthermore, “women are…threshold figures. They facilitate the male plot… but they are not the agents of change. Nor are they conceivable heirs to political power” (Mclintock 70). This is how heteronormative patriarchal society not only constructs sex, gender and sexuality in a society with the hierarchal order and power but also women as objects by comparing to their land; as a representation of the nation and their responsibilities and status in a society.
The depictions of dead bodies show that human bodies are used as objects and representations of a nation. It does not matter whether they, who kill the people, are Sinhalese or American, or Taliban or even Tamil militants, all have similar view and attitude towards the human body. As Stuart Hall argues, visual images and popular representation have been and continue to be deeply political. They do not simply reflect reality (428, 259). The video clip and pictures show that they are not just human bodies but they are racialzed as Tamil bodies, sexualized as women’s bodies and depicted as representation of the Tamil nation. That is why they were humiliated by Sri Lankan military. In addition, it also shows Tamil men’s patriarchal view about women’s bodies when they used it for their political propaganda.
The Sri Lankan military and Tamil (diasporas) media both see women and their bodies from a patriarchal stand point, but from different perspectives. Both of them see these women as representatives of the Tamil nation. In addition, both gaze at and represent (Tamil) women as objects and also reduce them to soulless matter and use them. Nevertheless, they use them in different ways for their specific patriarchal and nationalist purposes. Therefore, Tamil women continue to be used as objects by both sides in the name of nationalism. As a result, women become the literal and figurative battleground on which ethnic nationalist ideologies play out (Gopinath 175).
The Sri Lankan military tortured, raped and killed Tamil women to show that they had occupied Tamil land, the motherland, by controlling their women. In addition, they represent Tamil women as sexualized and racialized bodies. Therefore, they also have used Tamil women to be gazed upon, killed, tortured, and raped as sexual objects and as representatives of the Tamil
nation. For example, one of the Sri Lankan military personnel says pointing to the vagina of the dead woman’s body that “it is a good stuff” and another one says “shoot on the breast” (see the youtube) and another one says, the dead body “is still warm”. This show how Sri Lankan military men gaze at Tamil women as racialized and sexualized body during the war.
On the other hand, what the Tamil nationalists did was not much better (f.n.2). They also used these nude pictures and YouTube without censoring them when they were released first time to propagandize for their own course of punishing the Sri Lankan government for their war crimes (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QckiYi_N6rQ). (However, later everyone censored them). Tamil societies, particularly Tamil nationalist men, have the control of Tamil media and used and treated these women and their dead bodies as objects to represent their Tamil nation in their media. This shows as Gayatri Gopinath point outs that the diasporic nationalism is predicated on the notion of women’s bodies as communal property (163). However, it is not limited to diasporic nationalism even though they have more concern about their cultural values but in their country of origin too. During the Tamil nationalist struggle and war time, the dead bodies whether they were Tamils or Sinhalese were used to represent their nation and humiliated or respected according to their space and nation.
Tamil nationalists who are fighting for their freedom have a double standard when it comes to women’s issues. On the one hand, they have to fight for their freedom and use these images to punish the people who are responsible for this genocide. On the other hand, they are also using these images at least unconsciously from a patriarchal gaze and reducing women to objects. Therefore women particularly oppressed women suffer more by wedged between two men and their hegemonic patriarchal nationalistic standpoints.
In addition to being racist, both Sinhala and Tamil societies are typically traditional, patriarchal, heteronormative, and sexually repressive societies and have a conservative standpoint, particularly with regard to
sex, gender and sexuality issues. Therefore, they are characterized by sex, gender and sexual discrimination and assign gender roles based on each sex like other societies (De Alwis, 676). As Edward Said (Eng, 2001, 190) figured out, one hand, women are agents of biological reproduction to cultural reproduction. On the other hand, women are expected to be reproductive because of their cultural values which they must follow and respect. It is as if they are in a recycle system. In addition, in a South Asian society, male children are preferred over female; girls must be virgins before they marry; chastity is only required for women, but not for men. Brides’ families have to give dowries if their daughter wants to marry a man. However, the values of dowry depend on the man’s status in the societies. Furthermore, women who cannot conceive or who are widows are not respected and also not given important place in most social and family functions.
Therefore, in a national liberation struggle, women are stuck between both men oppressors and the oppressed (Ismail 1677). In the oppressed nationalistic standpoints, women are responsible for producing children, particularly male, to continue the national struggle and they are also responsible for representing their nation in the name of tradition and culture which are mostly based on patriarchal standpoints. Therefore, in the gaze of oppressors who have hegemonic nationalistic racist standpoints, women are the main and first targets when they invade the other nation. That is why, Enloe argues that for women “living as a nationalist feminist is one of the most difficult political projects in today’s world” (223).
In addition, Nira Yuval-Davis argues that gender roles play an important role in cultural
representation and mostly women are implicated with patriarchal nationalistic standpoints (218). Even though most nationalist liberation struggles are not class struggles, they are democratic struggles. However, (at least for Tamil liberationists) the struggles have been led mostly by patriarchs. Therefore, women are used as combatants and for other services, but have been limited in their power and space and cultural values which are mostly patriarchal and fundamentalist. Because of this conflict and the lack of proper empowerment about women’s issues in the Tamil society, former women rebels face many problems when they come back to normal life. Like all other societies which struggled for a national liberation, Tamil society also did not welcome and accept former Tamil women rebels after the end of the war. The evidence for the patriarchal standpoints of the Tamil Nation over women fighters can be seen through the ways in which these women have been treated by Tamil society since the so called end of the war. One of the UN reports says that it is difficult for them to get a job or adapted to society again, even when they are willing to do so, because of the patriarchal social stigma against them (2011). The reason is, Tamil societies and their culture function as a barrier for the former women rebels to come back to normal life.
The societies follow traditional customs according to which women are not equal to men in every ways. These rebel women are considered as undisciplined and disobedient women who are not suitable for family life. In addition as Nira Yuval-Davis argues that it is also related to their sexual behavior (220) because these women are not going to be obedient and always be in passive and listen to their men as they were before or like their mothers or the way society expect them to live. Therefore, these former rebels, once up on a time rebel hero’s of liberation struggle, are degraded to lower level than other Tamil women in the society. To wrap up, the construction of a human body as a matter without soul and the social construction of the “other,” make it easy for people to kill. In addition, the construction of “other” makes it easier for people not only kill but also torture and rape the “other”. Judith Butler argues that ‘sex’ is an ideal construct which is forcibly materialized through time… [and]…achieve this materialization through a forcible reiteration of those norms” (1,2) She continues that “as a process of materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter” (9). In the picture, we can see a person with a weapon in his hands ready to kill the person. In the video they repeatedly killed many people without any hesitation. The people in both video and picture belong to a particular group, race or ethnicity or nationality who can be an American, Taliban, Indian, or Sri Lankan or even Tamils. In these ways, the video and photos might represent what has been happening until now around the world. For example, if it is viewed in a global context as, it can be, before 1950s the person who has the weapon might be a colonizer from Europe and the “other” might be a colonized person somewhere in Africa or Asia, or since the 1960s, an American or NATO soldier in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Soviet soldier in Eastern European countries, or after 1983 Sri Lankan soldier and a Tamil rebel, or Tamil militant and a Tamil civilian or a rebel from a different rebel groups and so on. Why is this
happening? Just a simple reason is that the construction of “other” by the people who have the power. This construction of “other” has been rooted deeper within ourselves in different forms such as civilized and uncivilized or primitive, white and black, Tamils and Sinhalese, men and women and heterosexuality and homosexuality and so on.
In conclusion, we fight for our freedom and on the other hand we also deny or oppress at least unconsciously “others.” This particular essay may be relevant to the Tamils and Sinhalese and their men and women, but can be read by white men and women, black men and women and so on. Every one of them who read it, are on the one hand oppressed on many levels for many reason in many spaces and a time. On the other hand, they are also oppressors in many spaces and levels in their societies. Most of us are concerned only about the oppression which we are facing, but are not aware or care about the oppression we are responsible for. For example, as Tamil men, we blame the Sri Lankan government for their oppression, but we “forget” or are not aware of what we are doing to the women in the Tamil societies or so called lower caste people. These same behaviors we can see in Sinhala people, white people even in Black people, and so on too. What we are not aware of is our intersectional identity of being oppressors and oppressed. Therefore, developing more awareness is one of the ways to get rid of these conflicts. To end, Rajini Thiranagama once argued that, “if nationalism is a type of aggressive patriotism, then a concept of women’s liberation would be working against the inner core of such a struggle” (Ismail 1678). In addition, Cynthia Enloe points out that “if… [women are critical of patriarchal practices and attitudes and] a gendered tension will develop within the national community. This could produce a radically new definition of “the nation” (Ismail 1678). Therefore, this essay is not to blame who are responsible for the negative actions in the struggle or war but to interrogate our past actions and thoughts for the future struggle in better, developed and progressive standpoints.
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