Over the past few decades, all conflict zones – for example, Gaza, Kosovo, Eelam, Kashmir, Kurdistan – have witnessed the havoc that is wrought by wars on the lives of women. Though women have been involved as armed combatants in only a few of these areas, they have been at the receiving end of large-scale violence in all such conflicts, all the time.
The story of riots and civil disturbances within India is not very different: Partition, the riots following the demolition of the Babri Masjid, anti-Sikh violence in Delhi, post-Godhra riots in Gujarat, counter-insurgency operations in the North East and many more. It is only over the past few decades that the impact of violent conflicts on the lives of women is being studied and documented.
Rupture, Loss and Living: Minority Women Speak about Post-Conflict Life (K Lalitha and Deepa Dhanraj) presents oral histories of how Muslim women picked up the pieces and learnt to rebuild their lives along with their families under trying circumstances. Coming to the Eelam conflict, The Seasons of Trouble: Life amid The Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War (Rohini Mohan) tracks the post-conflict struggles of three protagonists, two of them women. Oru Koorvaalin Nizhalil – In The Shadow Of A Dagger – (Tamizhini) is the memoir of a woman fighter chronicling her years with the LTTE, from joining the force as a spirited youngster to the calamitous end of the war in Mullivkkal in 2009 and the formidable challenges of surviving as a woman in the post-war situation.
All three books illustrate a familiar pattern: the default conditions of oppression and marginalisation that is the lot of women in their ordinary lives during the conflict, and the double burden of negotiating not just adverse personal circumstance and the burden of responsibility towards their families after the conflict, but also the uphill struggle for survival, often without a support system, in a male-dominated world.
Three lives in intersecting trajectories
Ummath, a novel by Sharmila Seyyid, translated by Gita Subramanian, covers this complex terrain in the format of narrative fiction. The story concerns itself with the life-trajectories of three young women – Thawakkul, Theivanai and Yoga – during and after the civil war between the Sri Lankan Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which ended in 2009. The familiar features are all there. Though the LTTE was founded with the just mission of finding a resolution for the discriminatory treatment of Tamils under majoritarian Sinhalese governments, it turned into a monstrous entity that would feed on the lives of the very people whom it sought to liberate from tyranny.
A high-school student from a normal peasant family, Theivanai is drawn to the LTTE after witnessing two acts of gruesome violence wrought by the Sri Lankan army. Yoga, born into a poor household of three daughters, goes to live with a family in a distant city as a housemaid. To escape the violent abuse in her employer’s house, the forsaken teenager runs away and joins the LTTE, earning the undying hatred of her mother and elder sister with this childish, irresponsible act.
Both the young women lose a limb each in battle, but receive vocational training from the LTTE. The end of the war finds them adrift: Yoga as a burden to her hostile family, with no prospect of marriage and no avenues to make a living as an independent woman, and Theivanai, stranded without employment in a Muslim majority area where former LTTE cadre are treated with disdain by both Tamils and Muslims alike.
The third woman, Thawakkul, is a young woman from a well-to-do family in a village near Batticaloa in the eastern province of the country. Thawakkul, who is passionately engaged in the rehabilitation of war widows and disabled woman cadre of the LTTE – Yoga and Theivanai among them – is hampered by the historically fraught relationship between the LTTE and Muslim in the Tamil areas.
The bad blood between the two communities is the result of the unjust eviction of Muslims from their traditional homeland and their land being taken over by the LTTE with the excuse of the liberation struggle. Thawakkul is besieged by challenges on several fronts during her work. Jealous of her independence, her fiancé wants to control her and shut down her activities. Fear of slander is used as a weapon to achieve this end. She is faced with a sexist and abusive environment in the male-dominated NGO sector. The worst aspect is provided by misogynistic elements in her village community, who seek to punish her for disobeying the strictures on women laid down, according to them, in Islam.
A protest and a critique
Ummath is a poignant account of how vulnerable and insecure young women are rendered in a post-conflict situation and how the community fails and betrays them at every turn. Even as the world is preoccupied with the many sins and transgressions committed by the LTTE in the pursuit of its struggle, and the relentless violence of Sinhalese majoritarianism as represented by the Sri Lankan army, both leading to the large scale murder of civilians at the end of the war, the story of what the war did and is doing to the women of the land needs to be told.
Sharmila Seyyid, the 36-year-old author of Ummath, has drawn from her own experience for the portrayal of Thawakkul, the besieged Muslim girl. The novel is not merely a feminist outcry against the unjust social order that engulfs and victimises women, but also a clear-eyed critique of both the LTTE’s moral bankruptcy and the violent misogyny perpetrated in the name of Islam.
The translation by Gita Subramaniam is clear and fluent, making for an eminently readable text. It succeeds in skilfully transporting Sharmila Seyyid’s anguished but feisty account into English. However, the use of formal and elaborately precise diction for spoken dialogue throughout the novel often has the effect of rubbing out the tonal inflections from the speech, which are so resonant in the Tamil original. But Ummath is certainly a welcome addition to the growing body of fiction and non-fiction about the war and its aftermath, as endured by the unfortunate men and women of Sri Lanka.
Ummath: A Novel of Community and Conflict, Sharmila Seyyid, translated by Gita Subramanian, HarperCollins India.