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A young Kur­dish woman called “Rehana” has gar­nered a great deal of media atten­tion over the past few days, after reports emerged claim­ing that she had killed more than a hun­dred ISIL fight­ers — sin­gle-hand­ed­ly. A pic­ture of the smil­ing beau­ty, wear­ing com­bat gear and tot­ing a rifle, is still mak­ing the rounds of social media. Even as Rehana’s cir­cum­stances remain uncor­rob­o­rat­ed, the over­abun­dance of atten­tion she has received rais­es sev­er­al impor­tant ques­tions. It adds to the pletho­ra of reports out there glam­or­is­ing the all-female Kur­dish bat­tal­ions tak­ing on ISIL fight­ers, with lit­tle atten­tion to the pol­i­tics of these brave women.



Pre­oc­cu­pied with attempts to sen­sa­tion­alise the ways in which these women defy pre­con­ceived notions of east­ern women as oppressed vic­tims, these main­stream car­i­ca­tur­i­sa­tions erro­neous­ly present Kur­dish women fight­ers as a nov­el phe­nom­e­non. They cheap­en a legit­i­mate strug­gle by pro­ject­ing their bizarre ori­en­tal­ist fan­tasies on it — and over­sim­pli­fy the rea­sons moti­vat­ing Kur­dish women to join the fight. Nowa­days, it seems to be appeal­ing to por­tray women as sym­pa­thet­ic ene­mies of ISIL with­out rais­ing ques­tions about their ide­olo­gies and polit­i­cal aims.

At the same time, crit­ics have accused the Kur­dish lead­er­ship of exploit­ing these women for PR pur­pos­es — in an attempt to win over west­ern pub­lic opin­ion. While there may be an ele­ment of truth to such charges in some cas­es, those same crit­ics fail to appre­ci­ate the dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal cul­tures that exist among the Kur­dish peo­ple as a whole, scat­tered across Syr­ia, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. They also ignore the fact that Kur­dish women have been engag­ing in armed resis­tance for decades with­out any­one’s notice.

Badass’ Amazons

Typ­i­cal of west­ern medi­a’s myopia, instead of con­sid­er­ing the impli­ca­tions of women tak­ing up arms in what is essen­tial­ly a patri­ar­chal soci­ety — espe­cial­ly against a group that rapes and sells women as sex-slaves — even fash­ion mag­a­zines appro­pri­ate the strug­gle of Kur­dish women for their own sen­sa­tion­al­ist pur­pos­es. Reporters often pick the most “attrac­tive” fight­ers for inter­views and exoti­cise them as “badass” Amazons.

The truth is, no mat­ter how fas­ci­nat­ing it is — from an ori­en­tal­ist per­spec­tive — to dis­cov­er a wom­en’s rev­o­lu­tion among Kurds, my gen­er­a­tion grew up recog­nis­ing women fight­ers as a nat­ur­al ele­ment of our iden­ti­ty. Although there is still a long way to go, what some now igno­rant­ly call “tokenism”, has in fact shaped the con­scious­ness of mil­lions of Kurds.
Cur­rent­ly, apart from the fight against ISIL and the Assad-regime in Syr­ia, Kur­dish women also strug­gle against regimes they con­sid­er oppres­sive, such as Turkey and Iran. There are many exam­ples of women as war­riors or lead­ers in Kur­dish history.

For instance, in the late 19th cen­tu­ry, Kara Fat­ma led a bat­tal­ion of almost 700 men in the Ottoman Empire and man­aged to insert 43 women into the army ranks — very unusu­al for the peri­od. In 1974, Ley­la Qasim, at the age of 22, became the first woman to be exe­cut­ed by the Iraqi Baath par­ty for her involve­ment in the Kur­dish stu­dent movement.
Despite this lega­cy, it would be a stretch to call Kur­dish soci­ety gen­der-equal, con­sid­er­ing the preva­lence of male-dom­i­nat­ed rule and violence.

The Peo­ple’s Defence Forces (YPG) in Syr­ia and the Wom­en’s Defence Units (YPJ) from Syr­i­an Kur­dis­tan have been fight­ing ISIL for two years and now lead an epic resis­tance in the north­ern Syr­i­an town of Kobane. An esti­mat­ed 35 per­cent — around 15,000 fight­ers — are women . Found­ed in 2013 as an autonomous wom­en’s army, the YPJ con­ducts inde­pen­dent oper­a­tions. There are sev­er­al hun­dred wom­en’s bat­tal­ions across Syr­i­a’s Kur­dis­tan region. Meysa Abdo is the woman com­mand­ing the resis­tance in Kobane and hun­dreds of women have died fight­ing ISIL.

Par­al­lel to the exis­ten­tial fight against ISIL, women in the Syr­i­an Kur­dis­tan region, includ­ing Arabs, Assyr­i­ans, Turk­men, and Arme­ni­ans, lead a social rev­o­lu­tion against soci­ety’s patri­ar­chal order through gen­der-egal­i­tar­i­an gov­er­nance and a grass­roots-fem­i­nist movement.

Real fighters

The YPG/YPJ fight­ers are close­ly linked to the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers Par­ty (PKK). This guer­ril­la organ­i­sa­tion is one of the strongest forces against ISIL, but due to hos­til­i­ties with Turkey, it is clas­si­fied as a “ter­ror­ist organisation”.

Lit­tle known is the fact that almost half of the PKK ranks con­sist of women . The move­ment explic­it­ly com­mits to wom­en’s lib­er­a­tion and enforces quo­tas, as well as “co-pres­i­den­cy” on all lev­els — one woman and one man share the chair. These poli­cies were adopt­ed by the Syr­i­an Kur­dis­tan admin­is­tra­tion and Kur­dish par­ties in Turkey and Iran.
Influ­enced by the PKK’s fem­i­nist stance, the major­i­ty of women in the Turk­ish par­lia­ment and munic­i­pal admin­is­tra­tions are Kur­dish. Togeth­er with the YPG/YPJ, PKK units were key to cre­at­ing a safe­ty cor­ri­dor to res­cue the Yazidis in the Sin­jar Moun­tains in August. Some PKK women died defend­ing Makhmour in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan, along­side male Pesh­mer­ga fighters.

In Iraqi Kur­dis­tan, sev­er­al hun­dred make-up the all female bat­tal­ion of the Pesh­mer­ga . Many of them com­plain that they are not deployed at the front. In the 1970s-80s, dur­ing the armed resis­tance against the regime of Sad­dam Hus­sein, Kur­dish women took up arms along­side their hus­bands and even assumed noms de guerre .

Today, Iraqi Kurds enjoy a degree of auton­o­my and rights. Unlike the old­er gen­er­a­tions, almost none of the women cur­rent­ly enlist­ed have actu­al com­bat expe­ri­ence and are often in charge of logis­tics instead. The feu­dal-patri­ar­chal cul­ture of the two dom­i­nant par­ties in north­ern Iraq is less per­mis­si­ble of wom­en’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in war.

Culture of resistance

If there is a strong wom­en’s move­ment among Kurds beyond the bat­tle­field today, it has more to do with left-wing pol­i­tics and the cul­ture of resistance.
Those who see the Kur­dish wom­en’s fight as PR either treat all Kur­dish par­ties as one homo­ge­neous group or ignore the social rev­o­lu­tion that pre­ced­ed the armed strug­gle, which gave Kur­dish women a rep­u­ta­tion as impor­tant polit­i­cal actors and equal deci­sion-mak­ers. After all, Kur­dish women have been fight­ing this cause with lit­tle media atten­tion for decades.

In fact, the mass-mobil­i­sa­tion of women in Kobane is the lega­cy of decades-long resis­tance of Kur­dish women as fight­ers, pris­on­ers, politi­cians, lead­ers of pop­u­lar upris­ings and tire­less pro­test­ers, unwill­ing to com­pro­mise on their rights.

Last­ly, it does not help Kur­dish women to be glo­ri­fied as ene­mies of ISIL, if their entire polit­i­cal strug­gle is not sup­port­ed. West­ern medi­a’s white-wash­ing of the Kur­dish wom­en’s resis­tance sani­tis­es a rad­i­cal strug­gle in such a way as to suit the per­cep­tions of a west­ern audi­ence. Rather than chal­leng­ing the awk­ward fact that the move­ment that the vast major­i­ty of women fight­ing ISIL belong to is labelled as a ter­ror­ist organ­i­sa­tion — by Turkey, the EU, and the US — they con­ve­nient­ly leave it out.

Appre­ci­a­tion for these women should not only praise their fight against ISIL, but it should also recog­nise their pol­i­tics. Those seek­ing to hon­our the bravest ene­mies of ISIL can begin by active­ly sup­port­ing the resis­tance in Kobane, remove the PKK from the ter­ror list, and offi­cial­ly recog­nise the Syr­i­an Kur­dis­tan administration.

Dilar Dirik

Dilar Dirik


Dilar Dirik is a Kur­dish activist and a PhD stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge. Her research focus is Kur­dis­tan and the Kur­dish wom­en’s movement.

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Le petit mag­a­zine qui ne se laisse pas caress­er dans le sens du poil.