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How Women Rebel: Gender and Agency in Sri Lanka


Rebel movements in Sri Lanka, Eritrea, Nepal, Columbia, and El Salvador among others report between 20-40% participation by female combatants. These women have largely been excluded from the literature around the recruitment, mobilization, and participation in violent social movements. If we acknowledge that young women are among those who might rebel, then existing paradigms on how rebellion occurs must also be re-imagined to include the experiences of the female combatant.

Looking at the case of women's involvement in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, this dissertation aims to address two main overarching questions around female participation in rebel movements. The first set examines how we take seriously the politics around female participation in violent politics, without resorting to a feminist debate on agency. Assuming that female fighters are agentive actors, how to we understand their politics at an individual and collective level? The second explores how variations in state repression shape political identities and impact the eventual nature of political participation for Tamil women. How do we understand the agency of women confronting multiple forms of repression?

Drawing upon existing theories of mobilization and participation, I argue that in order to understand the impact of state repression on female participation, we must adopt a new theoretical framework. This dissertation highlights the interactive nature of the relationship between the individual and the collective, expands the timeline of analysis to incorporate entire life histories, and understands female combatants as exercising `restricted agency'. The analysis uses a unique data set, relying on significant field work done over ten years as both an academic and a humanitarian worker. Significant trust built over time in local communities, allowed for entry into controversial spaces (detention centers, training areas, refugee camps) and difficult to access populations (female fighters, victims of gender-based violence). The theories developed in this qualitative study rely on the insight and concepts generated using an ethnographic approach to data gathering that includes CPOs, person-centered interviews, focus groups, and gathering testimonies.

Working within the framework established above, I find that given pre-existing conditions of inequality (both political and gender), the identity of Tamil women are mobilized by multiple mechanisms, among which experiences of direct and indirect state repression are most likely to shape political identities and the nature of political participation.

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