Privacy Goes Public in War-Torn Sri Lanka — At Military Checkpoints, Modesty Is a Casualty

A security officer guards a camp for ethnic Tamil civilians. The country's stringent security is testing the limits of what people are willing to endure for the sake of their safety.
A security officer guards a camp for ethnic Tamil civilians. The country's stringent security is testing the limits of what people are willing to endure for the sake of their safety. (By Ravi Nessman -- Associated Press)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

MADAVACHIYA, Sri Lanka -- It was just past 10 p.m. when the hulking bus sputtered to a stop at this military checkpoint, 70 miles from the front lines of this country's civil war.

The passengers quietly exited the bus and stood behind the razor wire, identification cards in hand. The men split off into one line. A far smaller number of women went into a separate row, some cradling sleeping babies.

But it was the women's line that took twice as long to navigate. That's because female officers rummaged through women's purses and bags before moving on to their breasts, even feeling the insides of their bras for explosives.

They didn't stop there. They patted down their groins and occasionally looked inside their underwear. Pregnant women routinely had their swollen bellies squeezed or prodded, just to make sure.

Women are often singled out for scrutiny because, in Sri Lanka's 25-year civil war, more than two-thirds of the Tamil Tiger suicide bombers have been women, according to experts from the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

The rebel group, known officially as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, has had the highest number of female suicide bombers in the world and was the first to widely use women in suicide attacks, according to the FBI and military experts. A woman from the rebel group's Black Tiger cadre killed former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. More recently, on Feb. 9, a female suicide bomber from the Tamil Tigers detonated explosives at a checkpoint as female officers in the Sri Lankan army frisked her. The blast killed 28 people, according to government reports.

In Sri Lanka, an Indian Ocean island of 21 million where modesty is a virtue and women still wade into the sea in billowing saris, the focus on women at checkpoints can be painful -- some turn red and even cry as they are being frisked. Overall, Sri Lanka's stepped-up security -- the routine traffic stops, countless checkpoints, car searches, bag checks and frisking -- is testing the boundaries of what people here are willing to endure for the sake of their safety. The experience could serve as a barometer for other countries forced to balance civil freedoms and privacy rights against the need to protect residents from terrorism.

Across much of South Asia, suicide attacks and bomb blasts are increasing. In India, which suffered terrorist attacks in eight cities last year, frisking has become a part of daily life at malls, movies theaters, five-star hotels and even hospital emergency rooms.

Women's groups are pushing not only for more female guards, but also for some basic protections, such as separate curtained-off areas, more metal-detecting wands and fewer hands-on searches, which some rights groups say are an affront to women in a region where nakedness is still highly taboo.

"You really feel humiliated. Even when a female is putting her hands all over your body, men are often watching," said Roshan Farid, 39, a researcher for a women's rights group in Sri Lanka. She passes through about 14 checkpoints during her trips from the capital of Colombo to the northern region of Mannar. "On my way home, there are about nine checkpoints where no female officers are working."

In Sri Lanka, the level of security is ratcheted up after every attack. The country is hyper-militarized, and the movement of its residents is tightly regulated, especially now that the Sri Lankan army has cornered the rebels in a tiny patch of jungle.

"The frisking in Sri Lanka now is very intimate, and it feels shocking and rude," said Ila Kumar, an Indian woman who frequently makes business trips to Colombo. "But it's a question we are asking in India and maybe all over the world, also: Is it worth it if it stops even one female with a bomb in her bra?"

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