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Masking Terror

Masking Terror: How Women Contain Violence in Southern Sri Lanka

Alex Argenti-Pillen
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Masking Terror
    Book Description:

    In Sri Lanka, staggering numbers of young men were killed fighting in the armed forces against Tamil separatists. The war became one of attrition-year after year waves of young foot soldiers were sent to almost certain death in a war so bloody that the very names of the most famous battle scenes still fill people with horror. Alex Argenti-Pillen describes the social fabric of a rural community that has become a breeding ground and reservoir of soldiers for the Sri Lankan nation-state, arguing that this reservoir has been created on the basis of a culture of poverty and terror. Focusing on the involvement of the pseudonymous village of Udahenagama in the atrocities of the civil war of the late 1980s and the interethnic war against the Tamil guerrillas, Masking Terror describes the response of women in the rural slums of southern Sri Lanka to the further spread of violence. To reconstruct the violent backgrounds of these soldiers, she presents the stories of their mothers, sisters, wives, and grandmothers, providing a perspective on the conflict between Sinhalese and Tamil populations not found elsewhere. In addition to interpreting the impact of high levels of violence on a small community, Argenti-Pillen questions the effects of trauma counseling services brought by the international humanitarian community into war-torn non-Western cultural contexts. Her study shows how Euro-American methods for dealing with traumatized survivors poses a threat to the culture-specific methods local women use to contain violence. Masking Terror provides a sobering introduction to the difficulties and methodological problems field researchers, social scientists, human rights activists, and mental health workers face in working with victims and perpetrators of ethnic and political violence and large-scale civil war. The narratives of the women from Udahenagama provide necessary insight into how survivors of wartime atrocities reconstruct their communicative worlds and disrupt the cycle of violence in ways that may be foreign to Euro-American professionals.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0115-4
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. A Note on Transliteration
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Chapter 1 Introduction: How Women Contain Violence
    (pp. 1-18)

    A great number of young men in Sri Lanka have chosen to join the armed forces and were until recently fighting against Tamil separatists (the Tamil Tigers or LTTE) in the north and east of the country. As the Sri Lankan army suffered heavy casualties in what has become a war of attrition, waves of young foot soldiers were continuously sent to almost certain death at the front. Operation Leap Forward started in July 1995, Operation Riviresa I in December 1995, and Operations Riviresa II and III in April and May 1996. These are but some examples of the violence...

  7. Part I: The Wild in Udahenagama

    • Chapter 2 “Have some tea with a piece of Nirvana!”: A Lifetime Under the Gaze of the Wild
      (pp. 21-41)

      Once in a country there was a raksha [a dangerous spirit] and he was very foolish. People lived in houses with two stories. The people too were foolish and the raksha too. The raksha wife was very rich. She was brought to her husband’s house from a rich family. The raksha husband was poor and he got his wife because she was rich.

      One day there was no rice for lunch. The raksha wife said, “This man brought me here and said that we would have everything we need, but see, there is not even a flower of a banana...

    • Chapter 3 “Even the wild spirits are afraid!”: The Gaze of the Wild in Five Neighborhoods
      (pp. 42-82)

      The previous chapter examined the ways Udahenagama people use idioms related to domestic conflict and violence to talk about more public or political forms of violence. For the purpose of this analysis, I have thus far extracted the discourse on the gaze of the wild from its social and political context. In this chapter I recontextualize this discourse within each of the five neighborhoods in which I worked and attempt thereby to reconstruct local histories of violence. I question in which ways the application of idioms typically used for domestic violence to a context of large-scale political violence affects the...

  8. Part II: Cautious Discourses About the Wild

    • Chapter 4 “We can tell anything to the milk tree”: Udahenagama Soundscapes
      (pp. 85-101)

      Before describing the characteristics of discourses about the wild in Chapters 5 and 6, I want first to set these discourses in the context of Udahenagama acoustic space. A discourse is not only a flow of information or a style of talking. Discourse is voiced; it sounds, resonates, and has a presence among all the other sounds that characterize daily life. Its enunciation thus crucially depends on the ways acoustic space in general is organized and experienced. In this chapter I reinsert verbal discourses into the general economy of sounds in order to be able to highlight the connections between...

    • Chapter 5 “Those and these things happened”: Ambiguous Forms of Speech
      (pp. 102-132)

      In this chapter I look at the discursive strategies that are used when people refer to the wild and the terrifying and divulge or receive such potentially dangerous or illness-provoking messages. The following gives an initial impression of the type of communicative events I will describe:

      [1] My husband’s father had three brothers and two sisters. One of them was from another father. His mother was one of three siblings. That uncle does not believe in the wild spirits. He only believes in Buddhism. He is called Perera. Before, when that “Mātin elder brother” was alive, he was the father...

    • Chapter 6 “She said that he had said that . . .”: The Use of Reported Speech
      (pp. 133-156)

      He came back (from the front) because it seems to have been said that his mother said: “You should come home because I am scared.” (gossip about a deserter)

      While in the previous chapters I discussed the discursive strategies that people use when speaking for themselves, in this chapter I analyze the ways in which Udahenagama people quote one another. Quoting is a game that is firmly woven into the fabric of discourses in many cultures. When trouble looms on the playground, the toddler quotes his father. Journalists quote cunning politicians and ethnographers quote the discipline’s forefathers to similar effect....

  9. Part III: Agents of Discursive Change

    • Chapter 7 “It wasn’t like that when we were young”: Civil War, National Mental Health NGOs, and the International Community of Trauma Specialists
      (pp. 159-194)

      The question arises whether the discourses on violence I describe in Part II should be interpreted as one aspect of the cultural impact of the civil war or as styles of communication that existed prior to the violent conflict. In other words, are these particular discursive styles the outcome of a violent history—a response to violence and war—or were they normal before the war? Considering the long history of colonial and postcolonial violence in southern Sri Lanka, however (cf. Risseeuw 1988; Roberts 1990, 1994), the notion of a prewar era of peace is largely notional. Styles of acoustic...

    • Chapter 8 The Power of Ambiguity
      (pp. 195-212)

      The history of the Southern Province of Sri Lanka is replete with violent events. First colonial violence and then counter-insurgency violence terrified generations of civilians in the rural south. I refrain from using the term “culture of extreme violence” or “culture of terror” to refer to this situation of chronic violence. I find such terms misleading since they give the impression that the principal origin of violence and terror can be found locally, in a local culture. This is certainly not true in Udahenagama. In this final chapter I recapitulate some of the main ideas of my argument and conclude...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 213-224)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 225-234)
  12. Index
    (pp. 235-240)