04 May, 2012

The Women Guerrillas



for the edited version, pls see - Geopolitics, May 2012, pp 70 - 72




Abstract - Why do women join insurgents? What is the status of women in the so-called democratic guerrilla groups? What is the situation in India? Do the Indian Maoists treat the women comrades at par with their male counterparts?



In the third week of December 2011, Kanchan and Bipasha were arrested from Patahi village in East Champaran in the Indian province of Bihar. It was not an ordinary arrest. Police discovered that the two women had joined the ultra-left Maoist camp in order to take revenge of the killing of their fathers by local landlords. Both of them were new recruits and had joined the Maoists barely six months back.

Again, in November 2011, another female Maoist, Rumpa Mahato alias Sujata surrendered to the police. She told the Superintendent of Police, Pranab Kumar, that she joined the Maoist ranks about two years ago. Her only hope was to get work as she was the daughter of a daily wage labourer. However, she alleged sexual exploitation by her male counterparts and leaders.


Gender  and War

Is war a male bastion? Conventional answer would lead us to believe so. And why not? Hardly any standing army in the world allows female combatants – not at least to assume the lead role. In fact, such ‘discrimination’ encourages commentators to jump into heated arguments. Moreover, it inevitably stimulates the discourse of ‘sex’ versus ‘gender’ by Radical Feminists.

The appropriate question in this regard is – if not in the regular armies of nation-states, do the women participate in irregular warfare? Do they show up – and if yes, then in what manner in guerrilla armies all across the world? Is there any gender bias even in the so-called egalitarian guerrilla groups? What is the corresponding status in India?

Che Guevara – the larger than life revolutionary – opines:

“The part women can play in the development of a revolutionary process is of extraordinary importance.”

Further, he issues caution as he says:

“in all our countries, with their colonial mentality, there is a certain underestimation of women that becomes real discrimination.”

In “War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa”(Cambridge, 2001), Joshua Goldstein comprehensively reviews the historical performance of women combatants in war, across history and cultures.

She writes, “Women's participation in combat, although rare, demonstrates potential capability roughly equal to men's – though women on average may fight less well than men. Women have proven to be capable fighters in female combat units, in mixed-gender units, as individuals in groups of men, and as leaders of male armies.”

Such a hypothesis is firmly corroborated by Che too as he asserts: “Women are capable of performing the most difficult tasks, of fighting beside men……..”

Goldstein lifts data from historical archives and posits two very interesting examples. One, Soviet Union in the Second World War mobilized substantial numbers of women combatants, and thereby clearly increased their military effectiveness. Second, according to Goldstein, the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Dahomey Kingdom of West Africa (present-day Benin) remains the only documented case of a large-scale female combat unit that functioned over a long period as part of a standing army. “Yet, these successes were not copied elsewhere”, laments Goldstein.

Dahomey was a critical case, as per Goldstein’s analysis, “because it showed that women can be physically and emotionally capable of participating in war on a large-scale, long-term, and well-organized basis”.

However, the riddle that why such a successful case was not replicated elsewhere – not even in other African countries during the slave era - continues to remain unsolved.


Guerrilla armies – Latin America, Africa and Asia

On the other hand, Guerrilla warfare provides a rich source of data on mixed-gender combat units. Women fighters are not at all uncommon in guerrilla armies. Women’s crucial roles in a variety of irregular wars, viz. Vietnam, South Africa, Argentina, Cyprus, Iran, Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Israel, Nicaragua, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, among others; have been documented.

As a matter of fact, in the Second World War, a considerable number of women participated in the forces of Nazi-occupied countries. These forces basically carried out insurgent activities against Nazi occupiers – a case which could be seen today in Iraq and Afghanistan; but without notable women participation.

The insurgencies were carried out in countries which did not allow women into regular military forces – like Italy, Greece, France, Poland, and Denmark. The women irregulars took part in street fighting, carried out assassinations, and performed intelligence missions.

Communist guerrilla forces in the cold-war and post-cold war eras have spearheaded the process of inclusion of women. The Sandinistas of Nicaragua resemble one such. Women reportedly made up nearly one-third of the Sandinista military. 

However, in some ways, the Sandinistas kept traditional gender roles firmly in place. Women were mobilized around the image of mothers protecting their children as part of a divine order. One Sandinista official said in 1980, “give every woman a gun with which to defend her children.”

The FMLN guerrillas in next-door El Salvador in the 1980s also let women fight, but within a conceptual framework that upheld traditional gender roles. In her dissertation for the award of Doctor of Philosophy, Lindsay Blake Churchill quotes a popular Tupamaros slogan of Uruguay:

Never has a woman been more equal to a man than when she is standing with a pistol in her hand”.

Churchill investigated whether or not gender reorganization represented a true political goal of theTupamaros or if their inclusion of women just meant revolutionary rhetoric.

In the process, she found that while most of the Uruguayan left-wing focused on the parameter of motherhood as inspiring women’s politics, the Tupamaros disdained traditional definitions of femininity for female combatants. Therefore, as per Churchill’s analysis, the Tupamaros offered women a new avenue for political participation.

In Africa, examples of women guerrillas resonate in the forests and deserts of the continent. Ironically, they fought but then were pushed aside. For example, Joice Nhongo was the “most famous” guerrilla in the ZANLA forces that overthrew white rule in erstwhile Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). 

She was known as “Mrs. Spill-blood Nhongo,” reports Goldstein in her book. In fact, Nhongo gave birth to a daughter at the camp she commanded, two days after an air raid against it. After ZANLA took power, she became Minister of Community Development and Women’s Affairs – safely removed from military affairs. According to Goldstein, 4,000 women combatants made up 6 percent of ZANLA forces.

In Sri Lanka, though the data is disputed; women apparently constituted about one-third of the rebel Tamil Tigers’ force and participated fully in both suicide bombings and massacres of civilians. Interestingly, the Sri Lankan military reportedly believed that half of the core fighting force was women. 

Such an example is also  manifested in the Maoist revolutionary force of Nepal. According to an estimate, about 30 per cent of Maoist guerrillas in Nepal comprise of women – writes Dr. Chitra K. Tiwari for the South Asia Analysis Group (New Delhi).  “This is totally a new phenomenon in Nepal, which must not be taken lightly”, admonishes Tiwari.

Similarly, the Indian Maoists are in no way behind as far as employing women and children in their Red Army are concerned.

Going back to the Dark Continent, Eritrea and South Africa had women in the infantry, due to the integration of former guerrilla forces into state armies there. Eritrean women combatants have seen extensive combat – uniquely among present-day state armies – owing to the highly lethal ground war with Ethiopia in the late 1990s. Hence, the world keeps a close watch on the integration of the Maoist guerrilla combatants in Nepal and consequent fate of women guerrillas there.


In Khalistan and Kashmir

“Indeed, far from being systematically at the receiving end of state and guerrilla violence, South Asian women have also become active participants to these armed conflicts, thus contesting the traditional sexual division of work within the region’s militant organisations”, writes Laurent Gayer in her paper titled “Princesses” among the “Lions”: the Activist Careers of Khalistani Female Combatants.


In the case of Sri Lanka, Peter Schalk suggests that this participation of women to the armed struggle was infused with a “martial feminism” that contested the male monopoly over the use of violence. The participation also aimed to emancipate women through the gun, argues Schalk.


And elements of such “martial feminism” can also be found among some of the female recruits of the Khalistani insurgency, posits Gayer. However, the demilitarisation of these women was often highly regressive. Many of these female ex-combatants were reassigned traditional gender roles after their return to civilian life – something similar to what happened to African women guerrillas.

Seema Shekhawat writes for CRISE at Oxford University:

Women in Kashmir have played a significant role in the militant activities. They have contributed to the conflict in both material and ideological ways. It is widely perceived that the movement could not have sustained without the participation of women. 

Women have been at the forefront in the initial period of militancy. In numerous demonstrations in Kashmir, they were often seen at the forefront. They actively joined hands with male counterparts in enforcing the civil curfew, helping armed separatists to escape during crackdowns by blocking the ways of security forces, etc.”

Besides carrying out tasks such as feeding combatants and providing shelters, women in Kashmir acted as couriers carrying not only the messages but also arms and ammunition under their veils, reports Shekhawat. 

However, what were the reasons for women’s participation in Kashmir?
Shekhawat finds out that Kashmiri women were mobilized to take part in the popular upsurge as part of a specific religious community. Further, to mobilize women, the terrorists and fundamentalists projected that ‘everyone fighting for Kashmir’s azadi was son of whole community.’

In Kashmir, mothers of martyrs were publicly honoured. Those women were projected as ‘ideals’ who sent their sons, brothers and husbands for the ‘holy war’ smiling and did not mourn if they died.


The Maoist Document

The Indian Maoists – with an obvious implication of glorifying their struggle – have chronicled brief biographies of their women martyrs; commencing from Naxalbari and Srikakulam upto 2010.

The document asserts: “The history of oppressed women is the real history of the dearest daughters of our beloved country which is an inseparable, vital component of the history of oppressed people. And no success in the revolutionary war or the final victory of the revolution is imaginable or possible without women. Hence, the need to study their history. These life histories are an inseparable part of peoples’ history.”

Undoubtedly, stories of gang-rapes, tortures and fake encounters of women guerrillas galore in the two-part documentation.

However, the crux of the matter is the claim that the women guerrillas were inspired by Maoism. But in no way, the anonymous authors of the document say that belief in Maoism was the very reason for participation.


It elaborates: “The reasons for their joining the movement may vary but one common feature we find in them is their aspiration to be liberated from patriarchy and to liberate all women from patriarchy. Most of them were themselves victims of patriarchy and some of them though not as oppressed had consciously joined as they felt Maoism provided the answer to the eradication of patriarchy.”

Well, such claims could surely be debated; but one interpretation hardly cuts much ice. The Maoists [male counterparts?] construe the allegations of the surrendered female members regarding sexual exploitation by their male peers as mere slander and a foul propaganda unleashed by the Government of India as a psychological warfare - an effective component of the fourth generation warfare strategy to crush internal rebellions.

Though the Maoists do not accept such sexual exploitation in their ranks, they at least admit that there are few women comrades who had committed suicide. So the question is why? If the structure and hierarchy had been egalitarian and driven by ideology only - then why such suicides and allegations of sexual exploitation? Even in the ranks of FARC in Columbia – another communist-based group, such sexual abuse is rampant.



Motivation for Women Guerrillas

Referring to political scientists Dmitry and Cunningham, Suzanne Graham suggests seven motivations that exist for female involvement in terrorism. They could be enunciated as under. A caveat – in no way the following exhaustive list is all inclusive.

1. A deep sociopolitical desire for a change of leadership within a country would, for example, involve every segment of society. Women would be no exception.

This was especially true for Indian Naxalites in the 1960s and 1970s, where female recruits from colleges and universities were attracted by the political message of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.
2. Aspiration of gaining a higher rank in the social hierarchy.

This could be a possible reason for women recruits in the rural backyards of India where ‘social empowerment’, rather than ideological dogma is a notable issue.

3. The chance to escape poverty by earning a possible salary, a form of employment and some sort of financial stability.

The case of Rumpa Mahato as discussed in the beginning is apt in this regard.

4. Religious motivation is the fourth driver and is especially prevalent in religious extremist groups.

The women recruit in the Kashmir insurgency and to some extent in the Khalistan imbroglio are relevant with respect to this motivating factor.

5. Personal motivation, also referred to as private motivation – viz. personal revenge or close relatives being affected in the insurgency; either as participants or victims.

Bipasha and Kanchan’s case fall in this category. Even during the Khalistani pogrom, such types of cases existed.

6. The ‘Mother’ motivation implies the natural desire to protect children and subsequently joining a group in order to ensure family safety. This could, supposedly assumed to be a universal feature.


7. Lastly, females are kidnapped and become forced recruits, i.e. they do not volunteer.

Data regarding such ‘forced’ participation needs to be collated through surveys in the insurgency-affected areas – as far as internal rebellions in India are concerned. However, these may not be unlikely.


What to conclude then?

If one is allowed to summarise, then naturally some thoughts crystallize. 


First, women guerrillas obviously project women power, among other things. Second, women had fought valiantly – even though as insurgents – but retarded to normal ‘civilian’ lives once the cause of the insurgency dried up or the movement perished. Third, sexual abuse by male counterparts within the insurgent groups does exist.


It goes without mention that gender bias persists even in the so-called ‘democratic’ organisations – howsoever reluctant their male compatriots are in accepting the obvious. The point to drive home is that incorporating women in armed contingents is still fraught with ramifications which are not conducive to the women folk – a fact which bespeaks a patriarchal world – ranging from Hobbes’ state to Mao’s non-state.



Dr Uddipan Mukherjee is an IOFS [ADMIN] officer. Views expressed are personal

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