Nimmi was held captive once—by a Western man, named Dangerous Dan.
Earlier this year, I was in New York City at a panel of worldly writers discussing women in wars. A thoughtful Nigerian author spoke of the #Chibokgirls abducted into extremism. “What of those who chose to stay with Boko Haram?” I asked. A definitive nod before he responded: “That must be the Stockholm syndrome.”
Last year, I was in Mexico City to explore the distance between femicide and female vigilantes. Outside the theater, I sat with Ofelia Medina. Medina was an actor before she was a rebel, a rebel before she was an activist. “What of the women who actually join the infamous narcos?” I asked. She shrugged: “This is, you know, the Stockholm syndrome.”
The female fighter is this, and that. She is the syndrome; the syndrome is her.
Several years ago, I was in Uppsala, 70 kilometers outside Stockholm, to discuss my work with female fighters. I was taken by the quaintness of the town. Cobblestones invoked an unexpected nostalgia for a time I knew nothing of. There was a strange sense of comfort in those smooth and simple stones.
On the university campus that once hosted the Peace Prize founder Alfred Nobel, before a group of students that included former rebel combatants, I presented my research. The lecture was on my work with women in Sri Lanka’s violent separatist movement, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or the Tigers). Scholars of conflict focus too much, I think, on how the female fighter joins a violent movement (was she a “forced” or “voluntary” recruit?), ignoring why she stays on the battlefield.
It is in fact a lifetime of oppressive moments—the dark molecular makeup of her politics—that matters. Why does an abducted fighter become a high-ranking captain when given the choice to leave? In order to understand her, researchers should adjust their gaze to scan the entire time line of her humanity.
The first question was expected and tiring. “Are you arguing, then, that violence is empowering for women?” No, I am not. You created that word—“empowerment”—to mean the transfer of power from you to her. Also, having been made threadbare through overuse, the word is meaningless.
The second question was unexpected.
A young graduate student, genetically gifted with the type of blinding blond hair Iranians I grew up with in Los Angeles paid good money to replicate, raised his hand. “It seems to me,” he said with a certain smugness, “that your theories could all be challenged by the fact that these fighters are simply experiencing the Stockholm syndrome.” A few of his colleagues nodded in relief. The answer was simple.
Stockholm syndrome turns victims into victims a second time, by taking from them the power to interpret their own story—and by turning the most significant experiences from their story into the product of a syndrome.
Natascha Kampusch was abducted at the age of ten in Austria and was one of the first women outside Sweden whose stories were diagnosed as an example of the Stockholm syndrome. The viral vernacular had traveled across Europe from Norrmalmstorg Square in Stockholm, where in 1973, three women and one man were taken hostage inside a bank vault.
Outside the bank, inside police lines, was psychiatrist Nils Bejerot, known for his work advocating zero tolerance drug laws (aka mass incarceration). His brand of behavioral analysis found fault with individuals for the society that failed them. As a criminologist, he positioned himself as a key negotiator between the Norrmalmstorg robbers and the state.
The women inside the vault refused to comply with the demands of the police. They wanted their captors’ safety guaranteed. One captive, Kristin Enmark, even maintained a relationship with one of the robbers many years later.
Interviewing the women as the standoff dissipated, Bejerot determined that such strangely un-submissive behavior could be explained only by a syndrome. The method of his diagnosis was questionable, never scientifically validated, and built on a theory that was, essentially, an early incarnation of victim blaming. Yet the Stockholm syndrome constructed a medicalized frame that distorted our view of captive women everywhere.
With ambiguous unsubstantiated “signs” (positive feelings toward the abuser, negative feelings toward authority), the syndrome relied on Bejerot’s early theory of “a victim’s emotional ‘bonding’ with the abuser.” The syndrome became what critical psychiatrists would call a “received truth” in the medical community—an easy explanation for complex cases.
It would go on to defend Patty Hearst’s participation in the Symbionese Liberation Army in California, explain Elizabeth Smart’s silence while she was held captive in Utah, limit the lives of prostitutes and battered wives in India, and, eventually, dismiss the politics of female fighters in Sri Lanka.
“If you say these girls or me have this syndrome, you don’t have to pay attention to what they say.”
When I began my research, almost twenty years ago now, my advisers pushed me to find the science in political questions, to locate answers that might outlive my activism.
I returned to Sri Lanka that summer determined to do so. As with most budding researchers my early questions were too broad to capture nuance and elicited answers that were too narrow to offer any. “Why did you join the movement?” I asked each former fighter in the contested territory of Batticaloa, in Eastern Sri Lanka. In the beginning, I was fascinated by the feminist grip of pink nails on an AK-47. I was looking for liberation.
Every woman in the Tigers gave me a quizzical look before answering: “I was abducted” or “I had no choice.” The women’s answers were precise and pointed, and fit within the thin lines of my project.
This was after peace was declared and before the war started again: a brief interlude for reflection. In those days, we would discuss my parents, their childhoods, my siblings, their favorite moments on the battlefield, my marriage prospects, the friends they lost in the jungle, my job, the high-ranking positions they had eventually won. Despite the intense connections forming between us, I would walk back to my hostel along the edges of the lagoon, in the stillness of the late afternoon heat, disappointed. If these women had no choice from the beginning, surely, they had no power.
But when exactly did choice end and coercion begin?
Just a few months out of the movement, most of the young women had been placed in a vocational training center half a mile from the sparsely furnished rooms where I slept. Church bells, and meticulously presented tea at my doorstep, woke me every morning before I began my walk. I was pulled forward by the life histories of these women I was slowly cataloging across the library table. As I walked I concentrated on my feet, stepping quickly around stray dogs. Whenever I looked ahead, my vision blurred in the pulsating heat.
It was on this walk, on one unremarkable day, that I realized I couldn’t see the woman I intended to study: the female fighter. I had enforced my own analytical blackout. The moment of her abduction was the switch to a power outage. Focusing only on her captivity I could not see her power, or her politics.
Prema was one of the fighters who came to chat with me most often. When she met recruiters from the movement in her school classroom, she knew she didn’t really have a choice.
“In the beginning, before I joined, I only knew that they [soldiers] had been everywhere, my whole life.” Along with several of her classmates she reported for “voluntary” participation at the nearest Tiger camp, where she learned of independence struggles abroad and atrocities against Tamils at home.
She intended to be one of the women her senior commander, Thamilini, spoke of. In her unpublished memoirs, Thamilini writes: “We women of [Tamil] Eelam would one day write stories of courage like the women who joined the battle in the Chinese Red Army, in Palestine, and in Telangana.”
Her childhood friend wasn’t surprised that she joined the movement. “Since she was a child, Prema has always been very strong-minded—even the boys in school are afraid of her.”
“Soon after I joined,” Prema told me, “I felt that I had the power to save the Tamils.”
Several years later, in a sprawling mansion in Italy owned by the Rockefellers, my summer task was to draw these women’s life histories together in some semblance of scholarly order. That was the summer I met Valeria Luiselli. As our friendship deepened over the years, I playfully lobbied for a namesake character to appear somewhere in the pages of her heady handspun fiction.
In the very beginning of Valeria’s story of a Mexican family’s time in a Southwestern reenactment company, “Shakespeare, New Mexico”, we meet Nimmi, “the beautiful, captive Apache girl who lived as a kind of slave with Dangerous Dan.” Before it was published, I read through the scenes-within-scenes and found myself rushing to the end.
I was unconcerned with the conditions of Nimmi’s captivity: I needed her to be free.
In the Western world every feminist conversation I have been a part of centers on power, and empowerment. A modernized, revamped “royal we” are called upon to give power to the third world woman, birthed into powerlessness. It is a matter of morality, not politics.
An imperative meant to be obeyed and never, ever, questioned.
Charity buzz phrases like “community-driven initiatives” and “centering women’s voices” cannot change the fact that “we” are the “us” versus “them.” Their voices are meant to be uplifted and carefully placed into a dialogue, scripted by us, in the West. Giant placards are held up by unarmed white feminists to prevent the erasure of other women’s experiences. Hashtagged helping hands offer choices for women’s livelihoods, while hidden small arms sales destroy the opportunity for women to live freely.
When a selective morality overshadows a moment of import—the donning of a hijab; the marriage of an underage girl; the sale of sex; the forced recruitment of a female fighter—the very women we seek to see are disappeared: sometimes, quite simply, through a lazy lexicon.
From that moment forward, a captive woman’s thoughts, actions, and calculated inactions are static white noise behind the black bars of her captivity. Through any number of attempts to theorize the oppressed, even the clearest articulation of politics can be heard only as the delusions of a sick, syndrome-struck woman.
Prema had just turned 16 when she began military training in the Tigers. Sixteen, for Prema, was the beginning, not the end.
If it is a young and vigorous perpetrator, and the victim is a young and romantic woman, a love affair between the parties easily develops. This intensive emotional imprinting may certainly be so strong that it keeps its hold for years afterward; in principle, it may last for life.
In Luiselli’s story, we never find out when or how Nimmi entered into slave-like servitude under Dangerous Dan. We know that she didn’t love him, he wasn’t a kind man, and she was never entirely subservient. The beginning could have told us more about her life in the middle, but the girl in the middle tells us a lot, tells us more than the woman at the end.
In my first reading, I was drawn to the Nimmi at the end. She was a Nimmi I could never be. It was only much later that I reread the middle. In the middle, Nimmi makes a friend she doesn’t need to call an ally: Juana Baca, a Mexican woman who devises a plan for both to escape.
It is here, in captivity, that Nimmi begins to despise Dangerous Dan. She sips milky coffee with Juana, grinds acacia seeds, and dabbles in daydreams of violence.
“Yes, I was afraid of the police; what is so strange about that? Is it strange that one is afraid of those who are all around, in parks, on roofs, behind corners, [with] armored vests, helmets, and weapons, ready to shoot?”
“I was only in jail once,” Janice, a young black woman in Atlanta, tells me with a note of pride. I meet her in the years after Trayvon Martin is killed, and just before Donald Trump takes office.
On the inside there are three girls in a cell, depending on behavior. When the handcuffs capture her as an accessory, she is innocent. Of the many concentric circles that capture her, the largest in diameter and reach is the state. It can touch her, yet she never gets to hold it accountable.
The daily surveilled journey Janice takes to get someplace where she can sleep is familiar. On the short walk from her home to her Atlanta high school, she passes three official police checkpoints. This doesn’t include the points where the police just stand, unofficially, to check you.
In jail, and in school, before she picks up a cafeteria tray, there is a metal detector and a pat down.
“We were divided up by behavior; we were all black but, you know, the bad ones were known to be more ‘thuggish’.” Here in the safe space of activists at Project South, she rarely smiles. In there, she smiles to survive. In the presence of her captors, to “act crazy” would extend the length, and brutality, of her captivity.
In her skin, in this community, incarceration is a birthright.
At a nail salon in midtown Manhattan, Fathima tells me, “Being born into my community, you are born into bondage.” In India, where she has just come from, her nomadic community is associated by caste with trading cattle.
Earlier that day we had been eating vegetarian Indian food amid white business lunchers. In the restaurant she shifted uneasily, looking up only to offer hardened one-word answers to questions I quickly stopped asking. I suggested we get a manicure. In Sri Lanka, the girls and I often spoke most easily over nail polish fumes. We would carefully paint and repaint our nails—all of us offering tidbits of ourselves while admiring our handiwork.
Fathima is pleased with the large sequins embedded in the gold paint she chooses. She is comfortable enough now to express her discomfort in an examination chair that follows her everywhere. “Sometimes I just don’t want to talk about my husband. I hate him.” A male salon staffer starts to massage her shoulders and she jumps, pushing him away. Everyone in America is too close for comfort, and too far away for solace.
On the subcontinent marriage is inevitable. To whom and when are choices presumed to be predetermined: by God, the Party, and the State. Or, in contemporary India, the three heads of one omnipotent overseer.
When her parents tied the cotton thread around her hands, binding her in marriage to her husband, they knew he was a pimp. Fathima was nine years old then. “My parents, they thought they are making the right choice, by sending me out of Nepal.” Between a life of herding animals in the mountains, and one caged in an urban slum as a prostitute, her parents made a choice.
Now that she is free, she is in New York to raise funds for victims of trafficking still in captivity. Whether for tsunami victims or child brides, fund-raisers always seem to me like a necessary evil.
A performance for the powerful.
On this occasion she surveys the catered spread from the top of Tribeca, nearly eye-level with the lofty tip of the Freedom Tower. She finds the buffet choices distasteful, and whispers softly, “Everything looks uncooked. So far in America, I only like the Mexican fried shrimp.” She serves herself a few grapes and a piece of cheese. The austere gaping space, adorned with a few select prints notable for their rarity, has an air of isolation meant to be envied. One that penetrates her in the most unenviable way.
She stands off to the side as the guests gather. A nouveau riche, cultured, socially conscious crowd—people for whom an invitation to such events is an increasingly necessary symbol of status. The type of crowd that admires both the Fendi Casa coffee table and the copy of “Guerrilla Warfare” conspicuously lying on it.
They come bearing their power, ready for the one transaction (via tax-deductible gift) they are happy to conduct themselves. They will defer to her pain, and demand inspiration from it.
She is wearing a salwar kameez with sparkling red and green bhandara work, partially covered by an oversize charcoal blazer—a nod to the business side of it all. She is pleased with the gray high- top sneakers she bought in Times Square. The large beads on her costume jewelry suggest she has drawn from the accessories she has reserved for special occasions.
Fathima shares handpicked details of her disempowered life with the crowd that encircles her. Married as a child, she was held captive; she was beaten; she watched, every day, as girls were sold to her husband.
The audience is drawn close enough into the intimacy of Fathima’s wounds to feel an easy sympathy but positions itself far enough away to escape a more demanding empathy. This is a moment I have seen before—where heart and purse strings become entangled. One opens to release the other from responsibility.
There is a silence, a collective chest tightening, as the audience waits for the empowering ending it can celebrate.
When she is free.
“But him, he is there, a celebrity. He is free,” Shivanee says.
The abuser is revealed here, in this inner circle. I am sitting among activists in Canada; there is love and respect—for experiences, pronouns, and colonized lands. We are all still settling into the strange territory of a conversation genuinely guided by a collective desire to center the victim of sexual violence, and her experience. “You know who he is, you see his face on the billboards,” Shivanee says. The Tamil, Sri Lankan, island version of an African “big man”. In oversize advertisements and cultural life the community holds him up. Waiting in the wings, she reminds us, are “uncles-in-training.” In an expansive community of Toronto Tamils, social circles are small and overlapping. The triangular space where they meet is sharply defined by a collective silence.
It is a silence we have become accustomed to in its overshadowing oppression, and its constant presence in the Tamil language, a placeholder for violence. We had, all of us, heard these words before:
“Ah, yes, she couldn’t marry because, that, you know . . .” “She was fine until . . . this . . . happened.”
Rape is this, and that.
There is, in fact, a word for it in Tamil, Shivanee reminds us: “katpazhi”. She repeats it. Broken into its composite parts, it means: “katpu” (chastity) and “azhi” (destroy). “Azhi” can also mean erase. “I don’t think I’ve ever used the word, though. When I get angry with a Tamil man, I get so angry I switch to English,” Shivanee says. The language of the incident is less relevant than the reporting of it: “If you say anything, you get pushed outside the community, outside the circle.”
A longtime activist against sexual violence defines the circular lines she lives by. “I follow the three-six-nine rule. I can only directly support the woman three feet from me. I can only hope that she impacts the family six feet from me, and the community nine feet from me.” In this configuration, she manages expectations of social change, acknowledging the levers of state power that are out of her reach. Shivanee prefaces what she says about her abuser with the language of the Stockholm syndrome, a caveat that compromises her own clarity. “Maybe this is just the victim’s complex talking, but we should think about the pressures of Tamil masculinity, the problem of the perpetrator.” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders rejects its legitimacy every year, and yet the syndrome can speak through her.
These activists yearn for action, even as they crave the space for premeditation. Justice should be active—a swinging gavel. Someone swings, someone else is smashed. Action yields immediate rewards, the emotive sustenance to continue. And yet, to someone sitting in the middle of generationally violated women, justice seems permanently delayed.
“It doesn’t matter, anyway,” Shivanee sighs. “You don’t have time for justice when you’re working class, when you have a two-hour commute in Toronto in the winter.”
Some suggest moving backward to move forward—remembering grandmothers who fashioned palmyra leaves into patterned baskets, sat in circles where marital abuse stories were woven into the laughter of commiseration. They didn’t leave their men, but they did line the insides of lipstick cases with the numbers of domestic violence hotlines. “We have no illusions that society was built for us,” Shivanee says.
For them as immigrants, Tamils, and women, dependency is a cultural legacy. “Even within that, trying to survive . . . is exhausting.”
“Creating a cocoon of normality within the framework of a crime is not a syndrome.”
Significantly, the women in the bank drama did not have to act violently to be medicalized; it was the fact that they acted at all that was taken as a pretext for regarding them as sufferers of a psychiatric condition.
–Cecilia Åse, Professor, Stockholm University
With the exception of the occasional male Nazi sympathizer, the Stockholm syndrome has always been used to explain behavior of women that men find surprising. A Swedish police officer, who later questioned Dr. Bejerot’s methods, concedes, “The Stockholm syndrome is a gender thing, actually. It is quite easy to silence a woman just by saying these things.”
If, in the beginning, there was force or coercion, the syndrome predicts the outcome in the end. The middle is skipped over, dismissed, medicalized away. But the movement is in the middle, where women are navigating within the circumstances they were given and those they create. In Sweden, Mexico, and New York City I heard the same diagnosis. From marginalized American, Indian, and Tamil-Sri Lankan women, I heard the same lines of resistance. For women held captive, sentiments and politics intersect to form a matrix for nonlinear transformation—from the inside, out.
On marriage: “The hardest part, for me, is feeling stuck inside the mind-set of other people.” As she nears 18, marriage looms ahead. She isn’t looking forward to it. The weight of a heavily embroidered veil will cover her head, the one place on her body without any wounds. In order to leave, she needs a plan. She begins by asking her husband for a favor. She waits until his head is wobbly, his arms are too limp to hit her. Together, the wives leave the house in search of oil. When they are denied, shamed because of who they are, the women beat the policemen over the head with plastic tumblers. They get the oil.
and . . .
Community: “I do want to be free. But for us, the cage is on the inside. It was my destiny to be captured.” The unarmed men are the more immediate threat. She smiles, a grim smile, recalling a recent incident. One man, in particular, would come home drunk and beat his wife. It was a small enough community that even secret abuses were conducted out loud.
One day, he was stopped, just before reaching home. Several wives were waiting, rope in hand. Together, they tied him to a tree in a prominent community space. He promptly passed out.
and . . .
State violence: “On the outside, people will still see you as a ‘nigger’—it feels like you can’t do anything about that.” There had always been violence outside her home. Men in militias. This violence was called political. Group loyalties shifted with the ease of money changing hands. Trust built only through funds eventually collapsed community ties.
An agent for securing the Homeland tells me, “People keep worrying about the police becoming militarized. Really, in America, the military should be trained by the police. They are much more sophisticated in both surveillance and capture.”
and . . .
Resistance: “I became a very good fighter, on the outside. In the end, I still would not have left. Because I was taken at eighteen, now someone else will make the choice for me.”
In the end, Nimmi ties a drunkenly obedient Dangerous Dan to a hitching post. She slaps him a couple of times. She places a heavy stone on top of his head. When he lets it fall, she slaps him again—and puts the stone back on his head.
In 2009, heavily armed by an unholy alliance of religious states, a humanitarian operation wiped out the Tigers in Sri Lanka, and nearly 100,000 civilians. It was the marketed happy ending to decades of war (promises of ever after were not included). Last year, a senior military commander tells me, speaking of the former female fighters with pride, “We saved these Tamil women. Look, see, we have made them beautiful, we have made them women again.” Prema won’t meet me until it’s dark. Against the pull of thirty- something hormones, she is much thinner than she was when we first met, when she was in her mid-twenties. Cell phones light the pathway through damaged homes to a tiny patio. Her own cell phone, a gift from the army, sits at the bottom of a well.
“That is what they use,” she says, “to track you.” Calls from the soldiers are more frequent at night. We stand in the glow of the next door neighbor’s kitchen lamp. Children and older aunties huddle on the porch, fixated on our shadowy outlines, the only possible form of evening entertainment.
She was captured in the final days of fighting. Months in detention bled into months of de-radicalization. Before the army would believe she had been defused as a threat, she had to learn to sew. Now, she has two choices: to work in a beauty salon or push a pastry cart, with her one good leg.
Nearly a decade earlier, she had told me, “I wasn’t sure I wanted to join. But what they told us, in the movement, is still true. Tamils, in this state, we are slaves. Who doesn’t want to live free, not as slaves?”
Days before she meets me again, a government soldier brags of their surveillance, “If there’s a wedding, a gathering, we know that it’s happening.” He smiles, “We know what Tamils eat for lunch.”
They hold her picture, track her movements, register her activities. Every checkpoint has a cashier’s notebook filled with the details of her life. She knows of others, fighters, whose fear pushed them to exchange sex for security.
Everything goes suddenly dark. Prema sharply commands one of the children to bring the kerosene lamp, used sparingly to avoid begging for oil from the military. She strikes the match just in front of her face. Before she lights the wick, she looks at me. “I am very angry, all the time. If I could, I would join again.”
“There was no one in the main square except for Dangerous Dan—still tied to the hitching post—so deeply asleep that he appeared dead, his head drooping. Nimmi was standing guard beside him, holding a shotgun. She fired twice into the wide, open sky.”
The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.