Whenever Sri Lankan rights activist Shereen Xavier attends a meeting related to her work in this war-battered northern capital, she makes sure to be dressed in a sari, a traditional gown worn by South Asian women.
"To be accepted by society here, you need to be seen in a sari," says Xavier, executive director of the Home for Human Rights
(HHR). But back in the confines of her office, the Western-educated Xavier feels comfortable enough to wear trousers.
That she is able to do even that is considered a step forward for women here in Jaffna, Sri Lanka's most conservative city.
It is among the indications that, thanks to the efforts of the Tamil Tiger rebels who were defeated by the government last year after nearly three decades of armed conflict, women here are slowly being freed from the strict roles and ways imposed on them by tradition.
Although the Tigers failed in their military conflict to create a separate state for minority Tamils – a conflict that took the lives
of more than 70,000 soldiers, rebels and civilians – they helped women here take a closer look at themselves and take on roles and ways other than those dictated by society.
For sure, many women had been forced to step up simply because of personal tragedy. Among them are the war widows, estimated to be in the thousands. There are also households where the husband survived the conflict, but in which the wife became the de facto head.
"They had to take the lead role," says Xavier of many women here and elsewhere at the height of the Tigers' uprising. "Even
women whose husbands were alive had an extended role. For example, if someone came looking for a male in the house or if there was a commotion outside their home, the men stayed indoors while the females ventured out."
At the time, many young men were dragged from their homes and forced into the rebel movement or arrested by the military on suspicion of being a rebel supporter or part of the Tigers.
One homemaker here echoes Jaffna elders in describing how the women coped. "They had a double burden: running a family and taking decisions. Most women were comfortable with only the first, traditional task."
But eventually, even the rest of society began to give women more space. In many homes these days, women have moved to making decisions in matters such as health and education of family members, which used to be the men's preserve.
Xavier stresses how the caste structure collapsed under the writ of the rebels, most of who came from lower-caste families – including their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Many high-caste Tamils were forced to rethink caste divisions, as young Tiger rebels, many of whom were low-caste and used to be treated with disdain, were now affectionately called ‘thambi' (our boys) as the struggle gathered momentum and support.
The rebels, moreover, romanticised the insurgency as a chance for the youth to free themselves from societal obligations and parental pressure. Even females were welcomed into the Tiger fold; young, shy village girls turned into spirited young women, dressed in trousers and shirts, and carrying guns with authority.
Comments Xavier: "Women had this romantic notion of freedom from emancipation and were looking for a taste of equality, which the rebels were providing. It was an illusion of equality."
"At one time (too)," she recalls, "we had role models in (rebel) women like Adele Balasingham who could sit alongside her husband, Anton, and speak out as an equal, which was unheard of in Jaffna society."
Balasingham was the Tigers' head strategist while his wife Adele, an Australian, was the de facto chief of the group's women's wing. Anton Balasingham died some years back due to health complications; Adele, a nurse by profession, now lives in Britain.
Xavier herself returned to Jaffna in 2007, two years before the defeat of the Tigers, to carry on her father's work as a civil rights
lawyer. The organisation she is now with campaigns for the rights of Tamils and provides them free legal help.
She says this country's women are gradually trying to carve out more space for themselves. "However," she says, "it will take a long time for women to be as free as the rest of Sri Lanka."
No woman here wears jeans or trousers except for a few Western-educated Tamils who work here or visit from abroad, non-Tamil non-government workers, and hundreds of Sinhalese, Sri Lanka's ethnic majority, who have been visiting the north in droves since the end of the war.
But at the same time, a few women can be seen riding scooters, a sight quite familiar some 30 years ago.
At a girl's hostel in the city, young women wear shorts – but only within the perimetres of the boarding house. Says a teacher at
the hostel who declines to be named: "Sometime back, women unable to afford saris wore skirts and that created a huge row among elders. This is still a patriarchal society though some liberation of women is taking place."