The Western media has been buzzing about female fighters in the Kurdish Peshmerga, which operates in Iraq, and the YPG/YPJ, the revolutionary armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria. Both groups are fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Since the recapture of the Syrian city of Kobanê in September 2014, there has been increased interest in the Peshmerga and YPG/YPJ, especially in their female members.
Many of the articles about these women fighters have, however, reflected distorted, Western biases about Middle Eastern women. While there is nothing wrong with standing in solidarity with the Kurds in their struggle against ISIS, it is important to critically reflect upon the monolithic and reductionist images of female Kurdish fighters found in the Western press, and the ways these depictions distort how we understand these women’s beliefs and ideologies.
These Western narratives reveal deeply ingrained attitudes and judgments about women in the Middle East, reinforce gender stereotypes about women in war, and reflect problematic attempts to divorce feminism from socialism, which some feminist scholars argue are inextricably linked.
Stereotypes about Middle Eastern Women
Despite the critical scholarship and empirical evidence showing active female participation in various armed struggles, gendered notions of warfare remain deeply ingrained in Western society. It is considered remarkable and astonishing to see women, especially women from the Middle East, take up arms and fight on the frontlines.
There are several reasons for this. First, in the West, Middle Eastern women are seen as oppressed by patriarchal societies and devoid of any agency. In some cases, the women themselves are blamed for their own oppression. An article published in the Foreign Policy Journal by Elena Veatch highlights how an increasing number of women are joining ISIS and playing a crucial role in policing women’s public behavior and dress codes in ISIS held territories. The article also argues that these women may feel empowered by assuming these important public roles, in societies that are otherwise inherently oppressive and patriarchal. What is missing from articles like this one is any acknowledgement of the ways female Kurdish fighters are challenging these stereotypes about Middle Eastern women as passive and oppressed.
Those articles that do discuss the women fighting with Kurdish armed groups often re-entrench subjective perceptions about female beauty and youth. These depictions center around gendered conceptions of what it means to be a woman. In one article published in Foreign Policy, in September 2014, Kurdish female fighters are described as “mostly relaxed, […] debat[ing] the merits of drinking coffee versus tea” and “photogenic.” The article describes one fighter, Avesta, who “is only 24, but […] looks much older, with piercing grey eyes. [Moreover], her long face is wrinkled and roughened; her hands are calloused.”
Articles such as these extend binary understandings of gender roles to the war zone. By concentrating so much on the outward appearance of Kurdish female fighters, in this case in the article’s introductory paragraphs, the meaning of these women’s struggle is diluted. The ideological drivers and personal sacrifices these women are obliged to make to achieve their goals are completely left out of these depictions.
The Ideological Motivations Inspiring Female Kurdish Fighters
Very few Western media reports discuss the unique ideological goals of Kurdish female fighters, whether in the Iraqi Peshmerga or YPG/YPJ. Instead, they generally portray these women as “fighting for democracy.” With respect to the YPG/YPJ in particular, there is little discussion about how radical this vision of democracy is. These articles also obscure the distinct philosophical approaches taken by the Iraqi Peshmerga and YPG/YPJ, and how these philosophies influence women’s decisions to join the Kurdish fighting forces.
Iraqi Kurdistan is governed by a Kurdish government, based in Erbil, and has a popularly elected parliament. The government enjoys de facto autonomy and has ambitions of becoming a nation-state. The Peshmerga is the government’s armed wing and is viewed as critical to the creation of a sovereign Kurdistan. The women who join the Iraqi Peshmerga are likely motivated by a desire to establish a national home for the Kurdish people and, more immediately, to defend their national home in northern Iraq, according to an article published in Vocativ.
By contrast, the Kurds of Rojava, which is located in northern Syria, are not motivated by a desire to establish their own country. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the most influential party in Rojava, is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The YPG is the PYD’s Defense Unit; the YPJ is its female wing. The YPG/YPJ does not support the idea of a nation-state but advocates an alternative model, known as “democratic confederalism.” This philosophy deviates significantly from the goal of establishing a nation-state and, instead, seeks to create an ethical and political society with an inclusive grassroots politics and a self-directed and autonomous institutional structure. The main premise is that true democracy can only be achieved through the abolition of the state. Unlike the Peshmerga, the YPG/YPJ is engaged in an emancipatory project. It is not just fighting ISIS, but rather is also struggling against the oppression inherent in the international, nation-state system.
As a stateless people, the Kurds have experienced multiple layers of oppression. Oppression by the Turkish state and exclusion from the world economic system have left them marginalized and deprived of any legitimate agency to act within the international arena, which only recognizes nation-states as credible actors. The nation-state’s organizational framework ensures that only the state has a legitimate monopoly on violence. The Kurds in Rojava believe that true emancipation and liberation can be achieved only by breaking through the nation-state system, reclaiming legitimate self-defense, and depriving the state of its monopoly of power.
To achieve this, the YPG/YPJ has implemented a radical democracy, based on gender equality, ecology, and grassroots politics. The YPG/YPJ has established a 40% quota for women’s representation across the territories it controls. The same applies to the representation of ethnic minorities, which are assigned seats in regional governments according to the size of their populations. For the YPG/YPJ, this structure is a response to the international capitalist system and aims to emancipate citizens by establishing a truly egalitarian political society. For the Kurds of Rojava, capitalism is inextricably tied to the nation-state and industrialism, which create and perpetuate patriarchal structures, feudalism, and other forms of exclusion. In order to upend this system, an alternative form of economy has to be created that has feminism and ecology as its central pillars.
Creating this sort of equal society is the YPG/YPJ’s primary goal. The intellectual inspiration for this project came from American eco-anarchist Murray Bookchin. According to Bookchin’s ideology, the nation-state is a product of bourgeois power. Instead of adopting the modern nation-state’s centralized model, the main political organization promoted by this counter-ideology is centered on grassroots politics, particularly on councils in urban neighborhoods, women’s and environmental associations, political parties, and professional groups, including for journalists and lawyers. According to this model, each person is a political agent and contributes to creating institutions that will, through a permanent social revolution, reflect the central pillars of an egalitarian society.
For the YPG/YPJ, “defense” is not defined only in military terms, but rather involves fighting for these social values through social enlightenment and education. This model is unconstrained by state boundaries, which is particularly appropriate since the Kurdish population is spread out across Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.
The women who join the YPG/YPJ are likely motivated by a desire, not only to fight ISIS and other enemies of the Kurds, but, more importantly, to bring about an egalitarian society rooted in feminism and guided by principles of social justice. According to socialist feminism, women’s liberation is part of a wider revolt against a socially, economically, and political oppressive super-structure, namely, global capitalism. Like other members of the YPG/YPJ, Kurdish female fighters are guided by the tenets of socialist feminism and are putting it into practice.
As one female YPJ fighter, Amara Cudî, told Dilar Dirik, a Kurdish activist and PhD student at Cambridge University, after the recapture of Kobanê, the Kurds and, especially Kurdish women, are actively writing history. She emphasizes that “philosophical views” about women’s roles in society have been the main drivers motivating their struggle. These women realized their lives would only be secure, and their equality realized, if they actively resisted. By defending and liberating their people, these women are defending and liberating themselves.
Western media narratives have broadly ignored these trends, even though people like Dilar Dirik have been actively publicizing this information. Dirik has published a vast array of articles and participated in countless conferences explaining the YPG/YPJ’s struggle, their ideological motivations, and the Rojava Revolution. She has criticized the glamorization and exploitation of Kurdish female fighters for PR purposes, which she sees as a pervasive part of Western media accounts. Nazand Begikhani, a writer, poet, and researcher at the University of Bristol, has also highlighted how Kurdish women’s participation in the armed struggle and revolution has altered gender roles, and explained how these women have institutionalized these shifts by passing an equality decree in Rojava that grants them rights within the family and society. The decree also advocates for women‘s inclusion in all sphere of political life.
Western Media Narratives Are Depriving Us of the Real Story about Kurdish Female Fighters
By ignoring the whole story behind Kurdish female fighters, the Western media is presenting a simplistic image of their struggle. As far as this distorted narrative is concerned, anyone who is fighting against ISIS is fighting for the West. In reality, however, the struggle is a far more radical and nuanced one in which women play an important and influential role. The active participation of these Kurdish women in establishing and fighting for political systems in Syria and Iraq provides a practical example for all feminist struggles around the world. In this way, reductionist Westernized coverage of their fight denies all women valuable lessons that could be learned from the Kurdish female fighters and their battle against ISIS.