In the aftermath of the murders of Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Dogan, and Leyla Saylemez on January 9, 2013 in Paris, mainstream media suddenly focused on a long neglected, yet fascinating subject: the remarkable role of women in the Kurdish liberation movement.
Over the last two years, the Kurds seized control over West Kurdistan (Rojava) and gradually established self-governance structures in the midst of the Syrian civil war. From the start, women were active parts of the Rojava Revolution through their civil and political activism, but what struck Western mainstream media most was women's identity as equal militant combattants in the war. These women, who fight against the Assad-regime, as well as jihadist groups, repeatedly stress that their struggle is a multi-front fight for freedom as Kurds and as women. Even though the existence of female fighters has been a natural element of politics across Kurdistan for decades, the world only now comes to realize the strong role of women in the Kurdish liberation movement. Especially recently, the women's movement has captured the imagination of mainstream media in several ways, ranging from astonished awe to condescending orientalism to sheer sexism.
Most articles about the Kurdish women fighters are simplistic, misogynistic, orientalist, and patronizing to say the least. Rather than trying to understand the phenomenon in all its complexity, these articles often resort to sensationalist statements to exploit the audience's astonishment over the fact that " the poor women in the Middle East" could somehow be militants. Hence, instead of acknowledging the cultural revolution that the actions of these women constitute in an otherwise conservative, patriarchal society, many reporters fall for the same used up categories: while state media, especially in Turkey and Iran, portray female guerrilla fighters as "evil terrorist prostitutes", family-hating, brainwashed sex toys of the male fighters, Western media often refers to these women as "oppressed victims looking for an escape from their backward culture", who would otherwise face a life full of honor killings and child marriage. Apart from completely ignoring the human rights abuses against the Kurds, which caused this resistance, these statements are not only not based on facts, but actively distort the reality on purpose. Yes, Kurdish women face a very patriarchal society with vast violence against women, but the motivations of these struggling women are very diverse and complex, and - considering the societal structures of Kurdistan and the Middle East - in many ways, revolutionary. Whether one agrees with their aims or not, it is unfair and problematically simplistic to label these women's choice to become militant as an "escape". These women actively fight against patriarchy - how can that be seen as an "escape"?! Exploring the reasons behind these distorted representations reveals that acknowledging these women's agency would clearly pose a danger to the system...
The fact that Kurdish women take up arms, traditional symbols of male power, is in many ways a radical deviance from tradition. Therefore, it is important to note that the mainstream media's criticism of Kurdish women's participation in combat is not made on pacifist grounds, but on essentialist, binary notions of what "womanhood" should entail. Being a militant is seen as "unwomanly", it crosses social boundaries, it shakes the foundations of the status quo. Militant women are accused of violating the "sanctity of the family", because they dare to step outside of the centuries-old prison that has been assigned to them. Because they turn the system, the patriarchal, feminicidal order upside down, by becoming actors, instead of remaining victims. War is seen as a man's issue, started, led, and ended by men. So, it is the "woman" part of "woman fighter", which causes this general discomfort. Even though traditional gender roles often essentialize and idealize women as saints, the punishment is vicious, once women violate these assigned roles. That is also the reason why many struggling women, everywhere in the world, are subject to sexualized violence as combatants in war and as political prisoners. As many feminists have pointed out, rape and sexual violence hardly have anything to do with sexual desire, but are tools of power to dominate and force one's will over the other. In the context of militant women, the aim of sexualized violence, physical or verbal, is to punish them for stepping into a sphere reserved for male privilege.
One brief look at Turkish and Iranian media portrayals of Kurdish militant women reveals headlines such as "She became pregnant" "Desperate mountain women" "The rape realities in the mountains" "Look whose lover she is", "She was not a virgin", etc. This exposes the sexist mentality that underlies these claims, which exploits common conservative social values such as the families' sexual "honor" and combines misogyny with racist stereotypes of Kurdish culture as backward. Instead of being outraged about rape and sexual violence by the army and prison guards (especially on children in prison), the media obsesses about the virginity of these women. These kinds of sexist propaganda methods are primarily meant to delegitimize the women's movement and to cover up the radical reality, which would challenge, upset, and traumatize the hyper-masculinized heteropatriarchal systems that these women fight against. They are meant to distract from the fact that the vast majority of Kurdish women join the struggle out of conviction, out of a desire to fight oppression, that they are conscious actors, who want to determine their live autonomously. It becomes obvious that the "instrumentalized victim" discourse is an attempt to discard the consciousness of these struggling women. One pseudo-scientific academic even claims: "As women are more emotional than men, women are more available to be conditioned". If the Kurdish movement aimed at recruiting women as purely physical war tools or sex objects, would it rely on great amounts of sophisticated feminist ideology and educational seminars to mobilize them? Would then, the PKK and its affiliates for instance, not be better off without an ideological leader that says "Man is a system. The male has become a state and turned this into the dominant culture. Class and sexual oppression develop together; masculinity has generated ruling gender, ruling class, and ruling state. When man is analysed in this context, it is clear that masculinity must be killed. Indeed, to kill the dominant man is the fundamental principle of socialism. This is what killing power means: to kill the one-sided domination, the inequality and intolerance. Moreover it is to kill fascism, dictatorship and despotism"? Claiming that women's mobilization is an insidious way of recruitment begs the question of engaging with the movement's feminist philosophy, which explicitly states women's liberation as a core principle.
Another way of denying the significance of Kurdish women fighters is the claim that they resort to the mountains in order to "escape" their oppressive culture. Both, the Western media as well as state-linked media outlets have repeatedly propagated this claim, most likely without ever having spoken to a single Kurdish woman fighter. Even if we, for the sake of argument, accept the premise that the mountains are an "escape" for women, why don't we ask which socio-economic and political factors perpetuated by these states have contributed to a woman's decision to pick life as a freedom fighter over her civil life? Why do women find the freedom that they otherwise don't have in their lives – in the struggle? Falling for old state propaganda which has often referred to fighting women as confused victims, or easy recruits is very lazy and problematic and simplifies a very complex phenomenon. Kurdish women, who take up arms, have high levels of political consciousness, which are further enhanced by educational seminars. In stating that the mobilization of especially illiterate, rural women without much educational background is illustrative of the superficiality of the women's movement and its lack of "sophistication", even self-proclaimed feminist authors problematically patronize women from these social backgrounds. Not only are these "explanations" inherently chauvinistic or sexist, these kinds of arguments are further unable to explain how the Kurdish movement created a popular grassroots-feminist movement, which challenged tradition and transformed society to a striking extent, empowering women in the broader society to a remarkable degree.
Interestingly, even though the women's movement seems to appear on the agenda nowadays, the motivations and ideologies behind the movement appear to be left out on purpose. For instance, while some articles started to admire the strength and courage of the women that fight against the regime and al-Qaeda linked forces in West Kurdistan, the same authors often do not mention that these women explicitly state Abdullah Öcalan's ideology to be a driving force behind this mobilization.
Imposing factors such as desperation, irrationality, or confusion on militant Kurdish women's actions and spreading propaganda about sexual exploitation are gendered tools of warfare that serve to delegitimize their empowering struggle. Why, before even bothering to talk to these women, does everybody seem have ready-made explanations of Kurdish women's militancy? Where does this intense fear of these women's decisions derive from? If we want to understand the bizarre and distorted nature of the representation of Kurdish women fighters in the media, we need to ask: "Who are these women fighting against?" The answer will provide us with important insights. Militant Kurdish women (currently) fight against the Turkish state, the second largest NATO army with its hyper-masculine military structure and a prime minister that appeals to women to bear at least three children, the Iranian regime, which dehumanizes women supposedly in the name of Islam, and al-Qaeda-linked jihadists, who have declared it "halal" to rape Kurdish women and who are promised 72 virgins in paradise for their barbaric acts. But further, these women fight against the excruciating patriarchy in Kurdish society itself. Against child marriage, forced marriage, honor killings, domestic violence, and rape culture. No wonder armed Kurdish women are seen as immense threats! Trying to undermine these women's agency through verbal and physical sexual attacks is a survival technique of the patriarchal structures that these women take up arms against. Accepting women as their enemy in combat would make these fragile testosterone-loaded orders crumble to pieces...
- Dilar Dirik