The press is awash with images of Klashnikov-clad ‘jihadi brides’ who, we are told, are now flocking from a city near you to Syria and Iraq in order to repopulate the new Caliphate of the Islamic State. We’ve been looking on with a kind of bemused contempt: surely they must have been brain washed? How could these women have gone willingly, of their own volition, how could they have actively chosen to subjugate themselves? It doesn’t fit the passive stereotype. Little is understood of what these women actually think or feel, but for those with an ideological axe to grind and a story to sell – both ISIS and the vast majority of the media – they are the right kind of news, a gold mine for propaganda.
But the Western press have also presented us with the perfect palliative to these perplexing and unsettling images – their polar opposite, the female fighters of the Kurdish resistance. A far more wholesome and heartening display of female strength, with their faces defiant and visible, they have rightly been trumpeted as the heroines of the hour. The coverage has been sensationalist on both sides: it’s be falsely claimed ISIS militants believe they won’t go to heaven if they are killed by a woman, and there are various pin-up stars who are thought to have taken out the most ISIS militants and so on. Although it’s hard not to take some satisfaction in imagining these women kicking seven shades of shit out of ISIS, some have noted how these female fighters have become almost fetishized. People on twitter have repeatedly commented on their good looks and Dilar Dirik has argued persuasively they are now being fashioned into an orientalist trope.
But away from the hysterical point scoring, there is genuinely cause for celebration, and you, dear Belle Jar readers, may want to look to the Middle East to see the blossoming of a new, radical, grass roots feminism. I for one, am excited. Very excited. For two reasons.
1 – After a month-long siege, Iraqi Peshmerga forces have now entered the Syrian border town of Kobane, which – despite previously pessimistic projections – is still holding out against ISIS militants. Some commentators predict the defence is on the verge of collapse, while others are more hopeful. Either way, the Turks have finally allowed the Peshmerga through, which is good news.
2 – Amid a myriad of different groups fighting to protect Kobane in the region – The Free Syrian Army, the YPG, the PKK and now the Peshmerga, female fighters on the front line have been the backbone of the military offensive against ISIS.
But why should we care about Kobane?
Firstly, it’s strategically important. If it falls, ISIS will have uninterrupted control of the land from its capital Raqqa to the Turkish border, and with that, three official border crossings. To lose it would not only be a crushing and brutal blow to the Kurds but also a major defeat for the international offensive against Islamic State.
The National Army of Syrian Kurdistan, also known as the YPG, has been fighting ISIS for two years and has around 15,000 female fighters in their ranks – which is roughly 35%. Having recently entered into peace negotiations with the Turkish government after more than 30 years of armed struggle, The Kurdish Worker’s Party (aka. The PKK – based in Turkey and still labelled by the US et al as a terrorist organisation) is almost 50% female. And this isn’t a recent phenomenon either.
For decades now, many Kurdish women in Turkey have felt impelled join the struggle for democratic autonomy, leaving their homes and families for the Kurdish mountains, where they have trained and fought alongside their male counterparts. Alongside: not under. All-female regiments have female commanders who are in charge of their own operations. Last year the YPG followed suit, and the all-female Women’s Defence Unit (YPJ) was created.
So it should come as no surprise that female fighters have been so crucial in the fight against ISIS. Some of the young women who came to defend Kobane against ISIS were already veterans of armed warfare, having fought for the PKK since their late teens. And this isn’t just a cynical attempt to buy more fighters through a supposed commitment to gender equality, nor is it propaganda aimed at securing Western approval. Radical gender equality is central to the PKK’s vison of the future.
Originally Marxist-Leninist in inspiration, the PKK, orchestrated by Abdullah Ocalan from his Turkish prison cell, is still currently the glue that cements a complex and sometimes disparate Kurdish resistance movement. Stateless, the Kurds are spread across Iran, Turkey, and Syria, where they have long been marginalized, as well as Iraq, where, following the toppling of Sadam Hussein, they were finally given autonomy. They are the largest nation in the world without a state. Although it isn’t always evident exactly how these different militant groups are connected, or indeed the nature of their affiliations with various legal political parties, the Kurdish militants in Syria and elsewhere have acknowledged Ocalan as their symbolic and ideological figure-head, and in doing so have committed themselves to his theory of Democratic Confederalism.
Now here’s the thing, Democratic Confederalism is pretty radical: it’s a movement of national self-determination minus the nation state, it’s a bit socialist, a bit communalistic and more than a bit committed to grass root democratic forms of governance. Rather than independent nation states, it wants to bring about a confederation of self-sufficient autonomous Kurdish regions.
In Syrian Kurdistan or Rojava, these principles are now being put into practice amid the tumult of the Syrian civil war. With the blossoming people’s assemblies, the prioritising of ecological issues, the incorporation of non-Kurdish ethnic groups into the mix, as well as the promotion of women’s liberation, this looks set to become the most socially progressive democratic alternative the region has ever seen. And let me repeat, women have been at the forefront of this struggle. It has long been the policy of the PKK to put a female chair where there is a male chair, and now we are seeing the fruits of this take shape across these territories.
I’m not saying the region is a utopia for women’s rights – far from. But it’s important that we now look to Kobane, embroiled as it is in an epic battle, the resolution of which could have significant ramifications for the men and women in the region. You may be watching the news and feel utterly dismayed, but amid the chaos and bloodshed, there is a glimmer. Women in the region are fighting not only for the rights of other women, but for the rights of the whole nation.