In a New York Times op-ed  published during the siege of the Syrian city of Kobane in 2014, Meysa Abdo, a Kurdish commander of the all-female YPJ (Women’s Protection Units), appealed to “women around the world” to help the Syrian-Kurdish resistance in their battle against Da‘ish (ISIS). Abdo demanded feminist solidarity, particularly in pressuring the Turkish government to allow weapons to reach outgunned Kurdish guerrillas, because they were “fighting for the rights of women everywhere.”

As Abdo made her appeal, Marie Claire published a widely-circulated photo essay of Kurdish women holding guns and wearing camouflage. As with other pieces featured in the Western press about female Kurdish fighters battling against Da’ish in Northern Syria and Iraq, the Marie Claire photographs were criticized by journalists and scholars of the Kurdish women’s movement in the Middle East.

These critics have generally agreed that the frenzy of media profiles on Kurdish female fighters has relied on Orientalist fantasies of saving Muslim women from a “male force of destruction.” Indeed, these profiles buttress popular assumptions about the oppression of Middle Eastern women by reducing the Kurdish resistance in Syria and Iraq to a struggle against patriarchy. As a result, they fail to account for the ideological elements behind the resistance and the decades of organizing that preceded the Kurdish liberation of Kobane.

The Orientalist critique about depictions of Kurdish women is both important and insightful. At the same time, however, it has its limitations. While they may evoke Orientalist fantasies, photos in fashion magazines of women like Abdo challenge “Western” feminists who view political violence as something to organize against. The Orientalist critique also inadvertently positions the “West” as the main interlocutor of non-Western resistance. In so doing, it fails to account for how the Kurdish female fighter is produced and politically deployed outside of “Western” media sources, particularly the gendered representation of Kurdish resistance, gender, and ethnicity in Turkey. It denies women like Abdo a conscious and active role in negotiating these projections and constructing their own image.

In other words, Abdo and her photographed colleagues challenge their voyeurs (and critics) to consider how they actively negotiate multiple narratives and representations. Their attempt to speak to several audiences demands that we look beyond Orientalist tropes and engage with Kurdish history, politics, and feminist practices in the Middle East.

Political Violence and the Current Limits of Western Feminist Curiosity

In her New York Times op-ed, Abdo tempered her appeal for anti-tank missiles by reassuring female readers they are under no obligation to come and fight on the battlefield. This likely reflects an awareness that appeals to political violence may make many “Western” feminists uneasy.

This uneasiness is expressed in a critique of the Marie Claire photographs by journalist Tasbeeh Herwees. In her article, Herwees argues that admiration for the bravery of Kurdish guerrillas does not mean tacit support for women taking up arms. If the women of the YPJ want to “forge a better world,” she insists, their goal should be the “elimination of military conflict, not an expansion of it.”

Herwees’s critique reflects a theoretical tendency in feminism to challenge “discourses and practices of political violence.” Given the gendered (masculinist) politics of war and the centrality of violence in the enforcement of patriarchal power, the notion that political violence may intersect with and produce feminist subjectivities other than “victim” is, for many “Western” feminists, unthinkable.

To counter Orientalist stereotypes, Herwees lists historical examples of Muslim women “on the frontline of war” and mentions that Muslim women have long fought in armies. But, she is quick to argue that the objectives of Kurdish militancy are not “feminist” in nature and that violence is a “disservice” to their national cause (the “reclamation of land and political autonomy.”) Herwees again invokes assumptions about what constitutes correct feminist practice by recasting women like Abdo as “victims” of military (read: male) violence.

Patricia Melzer, a professor of Women’s Studies at Temple University, calls this an “imperialist gesture,” as it imposes a universal notion of gender and proper feminist practice. Instead of labelling some forms of activism “feminist” and others “non-feminist,” Meltzer urges consideration of the “diverse and necessarily contradictory” political strategies of feminism throughout history and all over the world.

In reproducing stereotypes, Herwees fails to acknowledge that feminism has multiple legacies and ignores the fact that women like Abdo have willingly participated in revolutionary and anti-colonial struggles throughout history. Indeed, Abdo herself recovers this history in her op-ed, stating that, while they are not obliged, she “would be proud” if “Western” women joined the fight against Da‘ish.

Feminist History/Feminist Histories

An unwillingness to explore feminism outside of mainstream parameters is partly a result of a failure to engage with the feminist history of historical Kurdistan. As mentioned, Herwees situates contemporary Kurdish female fighters within a genealogy of “Muslim Arab warrior(s)” beginning with Khawlah bint al-Azwar and the Islamic conquests of the seventh century. Interestingly enough, by lumping Muslim women together in this way, Herwees reifies the Orientalist tropes she seeks to dispute.

In an article published by al-Jazeera, Kurdish activist and scholar Dilar Dirik similarly offers a genealogy of female military prowess in the Middle East. Instead of presenting this narrative through a sweeping religious category (“Muslim” warriors), however, Dirik begins her lineage with Kara Fatma, a women who commanded a unit of Kurdish volunteers for the Ottoman Army during the Crimean War (1853-1856). These examples of strong, Middle Eastern women differ from those evoked by Kurdish guerrilla fighters, who appeal to the legacies of women involved in armed struggle against the Turkish (“colonial”) state.  While they may be Kurdish and/or Muslim, the figures they conjure are revolutionary and explicitly anti-colonial.

For example, Zîlan Diyar, a Kurdish guerrilla fighter, references “the cry of Zîlan (Zeynep Kinaci),” the first female martyr of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), who blew herself up as she approached a group of Turkish soldiers in 1996 (The PKK is a “sister organization” to Syria’s Democratic Unity Party, or PYD. The YPJ is a fighting force of the PYD). Since Diyar places herself firmly within the PKK’s revolutionary past, her genealogy seemingly contests the religious and ethnic categorizations offered by Herwees and Dirik. She also explicitly glorifies violent resistance by emphasizing its “beauty” and utility.

The genealogy of Kurdish feminist resistance offered by Diyar does not necessarily exclude the historical figures that Herwees and Dirik underscore. But, unlike the other two writers, Diyar’s understanding of resistance is rooted in a vision (and experience) of political struggle that is historically discerning and inclusive.

From Appropriation to Dialogue with Militant Women

Another issue with Herwees’s piece is that, while she instructs readers about how not to talk about Kurdish female fighters, she fails to engage with the women she insists on speaking for. As such, Herwees appears unaware that the Kurdish women photographed by Marie Claire can describe and defend their commitment to armed struggle themselves. This is clearly illustrated by both Diyar and Abdo, whose opinion pieces were published and translated into English.

To be sure, it is not that Herwees’s gendered critique of political violence is without merit. Rather, her refusal to enter into conversation with women like Abdo reinforces patriarchy’s monopolization of violence.

It is hard not to sympathize with Herwees’s discomfort with how some “Western” feminists rely on stereotypes of Muslim societies, in portraying Kurdish female fighters as “kickass socialist-feminists.” These expressions of feminist curiosity about the preeminent place of women’s liberation within the Kurdish struggle relies upon simplistic binaries of religious/secular, traditional/modern, and repressed/liberated. It is also informed by a “Western,” left-wing caricature of religious fundamentalism rather than knowledge of Middle Eastern (and Kurdish) history. What is missing from Herwees’s critique, however, is an appreciation for why Kurdish women represent themselves the way that they do and how they approach armed resistance on their own terms.

The fact is that many Kurdish women link gender reform to armed, political struggle. As writer Arzu Demir recently told the New York Times, the strength of Kurdish women “comes from being organized, and because they are armed.” Herwees and other feminists certainly have a right to challenge this association. But, any critique of women’s participation in armed struggle must consider the perspective of those women who engage in such practices.

Terrorist Fantasies of the Turkish State

Abdo was aware of the limits of “Western” feminist solidarity when penning her op-ed. At the same time, she avoided employing the political rhetoric of the War on Terror. Instead, she referred to Da’ish as the Islamic State and its fighters as jihadis rather than terrorists. This is because Abdo was also addressing Turkish state discourses.

In his book Kurdistan: Crafting of National Selves, anthropologist Christopher Houston argued that “strict control over the…representation of Kurds by the [Turkish] state has resulted in the enunciation of Kurdish identity in very limited and gendered ways.” A fundamental part of Turkish modernity, the emancipation of Turkish women went hand in hand with a state campaign against Kurdish ethnic identity. While early Republican newspapers celebrated “modern” Turkish women and their increasingly public presence, in the same breath they portrayed Kurdish resistance to Kemalist (state) reforms as banditry. On top of this, for the Turkish state, saving Kurdish women from “tribal” Kurdish men justified the repression of Kurdish resistance.

For example, during the final summer of the Mount Ararat Rebellion (1926-1930), which was one of three major Kurdish revolts challenging the nascent Turkish nation-state, cartoons in newspapers depicting the brutal suppression of the Kurdish “bandits’ mixed with images of modern Turkish women, who were typically represented as coquettish figures with European hairstyles and plunging necklines. The few ethnographic photographs of Kurdish women offered in the nation’s largest newspaper, Cumhuriyet, depicted them as abandoned by male bandits, hopeless and waiting for rescue. According to the state press of the 1920s and 1930s, Kurdish women were imprisoned by terror and patriarchal traditions. They were, as such, in need of “Turkification” (modernization).

In contrast, contemporary headlines in Turkish state newspapers depict Kurdish female fighters as overly emancipated. To the state, they are women who simultaneously disrupt the “limits of legitimate femininity,” as well as the ethnic boundaries of the Turkish state. This may explain why both Kurdish female and male guerrillas have chosen to challenge gender boundaries in magazine shoots.

For example, a May 2005 article (“Babes in Kurdland”), authored by Andrew Lee Butters in the now defunct Plenty magazine, included pictures of attractive female Kurdish guerrillas holding flowers and male guerrillas provocatively sun-bathing in their underwear. Similarly, in a 2008 a Washington Post article, feminist Kurdish resistance was woven into a discussion of a self-sufficient revolutionary society. In an accompanying photo, a male PKK guerrilla tenderly nursed an abandoned bear cub. The photo caused outrage in Turkey, both because it humanized the “terrorist” guerrillas and also because it transgressed the boundaries of Turkish masculinity.

Towards a Shared Idiom of Feminist Resistance

As Kurdish forces retook Kobane from Da‘ish, the democratically elected (and now jailed) co-leader of the “pro-Kurdish” HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) in Turkey, Selhattin Demirtaş, visited Toronto. While ostensibly there to urge diasporic Kurds to vote in the Turkish presidential elections, Demirtaş began his speech by thanking the “brave women of Kobane.”

Images of Kurdish female guerrillas, similar to those featured in Marie Claire, were projected onto two large screens as Demirtaş addressed the crowd. The display was met with a standing ovation, in celebration of the Kurdish resistance and role of women in the armed struggle.

Unfortunately, the readers of Marie Claire are largely unaware of the history and culture of Kurdish resistance. The failure to recognize multiple forms of political struggle, in Syria and elsewhere, is fundamentally a problem that “lies with western feminists and the left.”  It is crucial that the understanding of feminist politics and history is broadened so as not to engage in the continuing tradition of “Western” myopia in the Middle East, including when it comes to Kurdistan’s female fighters.

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  • Claud

    I was blown away by the amount of scholarly research put into this article, and I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t read everything you linked to. On first read, I strongly dispute two notions:

    1) that aversion to political violence is essentially a western feminist perspective. Political violence itself manifests in almost all societies, and overwhelmingly effects women. to dismiss arguments against political violence as orientalist in nature is just bypassing the original point that political violence is in and of itself problematic.

    2) that seemingly any organization of women through the religious lens is orientalist in nature. When Herwees discusses Muslim female fighters, she doesn’t do so to erase the Kurdish identity or to present an orientalist femme fatale fantasy, she simply connects the modern role of Kurdish female fighters to a historic legacy in Islam. Dirik also presents Kurdish female fighters through a lens; the lenses of nationalism. I don’t see how it is orientalist to organize history through one lens and not the other.

    I think there is a good debate to be had here, but the allegations of orientalism towards Herwees are not convincing. The violence used by Kurds–both men and women–in order to realize their national identity–is a complex subject. What I find less complex is the commodification of this struggle, or the idea that we should uncritically accept what basically amounts to propoganda. im inclined to agree with Herwees that elevating these women because of their armed struggle would be more a sign of orientalism than the other way around.