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January 16, 2008

When the Suicide Bomber Is a Woman

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In 2002, the LTTE and the government signed a cease-fire agreement, putting Menake and the other Tamil Tigers’ lives on ice. Both sides suspected it wouldn’t last. During the four years of uncertain peace (throughout which the Tigers continued their military training in secret), Menake wrote to the LTTE secretariat. “I’m willing to become a Black Tiger,” she wrote. “It would be an honor. Please let me have your permission to join.”

“I was depressed and in pain,” she says simply when I press her as to why she made the leap from fighter to would-be martyr. “I had nerve damage to my spine after falling from an LTTE tractor. The doctor said I might become paralyzed when I got older. I thought, Why continue to live? A lot of girls were volunteering to be suicide bombers, so I thought I would, too.”

It was more than a year before she received a response that summoned her for an interview. The LTTE, preferring its suicide bombers to be stable (by which it means sufficiently brainwashed to the point of reliable devotion) and idealistic (and therefore likely to carry out their assignments), screens candidates carefully.

In a region where women’s rights are few, the LTTE provides an ironic twist: One reason the group is believed to have the highest number of female suicide bombers in the world (and a high percentage of female fighters) is its vocal emphasis on gender equality. Army roles are gender-neutral, and the glory of martyrdom can be bestowed equally upon men and women. But unlike young men who seek the role of suicide bomber with great fanfare from their families, some female bombers gravitate toward the role as a last resort.


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