Issue 2: Feminisms

Rojava: The Details of their Struggle

Arianne Shahvisi with Ghiwa Sayegh

September 23rd, 2016

Kobane 'veils', December 2014. Demotix/Jonathan Raa. All rights reserved

In August 2016, writer and editor Ghiwa Sayegh interviewed philosopher Arianne Shahvisi on the history and representation of the Kurdish women’s struggle.


Ghiwa Sayegh: The Kurdish struggle has acquired new prominence with the rise of Da’esh, but its history goes far back. What can you say about the historical context of Kurdish resistance, particularly in relation to leftist feminist politics and women fighters?

Arianne Shahvisi: After a period of clandestine resistance beginning as early as 2004, The People’s Protection Units—“Yekîneyên Parastina Gel” (YPG)— of Kurdish fighters in Syria became active around 2011. An all-women cognate group, the Women’s Protection Units—“Yekîneyên Parastina Jin” (YPJ)—was established a year later, around the time of the Syrian revolution, and its women fighters achieved international notoriety as protagonists of the battle for Kobane in December 2014. The women fighting in Rojava (Western Kurdistan) are combatants of the YPJ, which, like the YPG, is an organization closely affiliated with the PKK: the Kurdistan Workers Party, which operates within Turkey and Iraq, and in which women have fought alongside men since its conception in the later 1970s. It must be stressed that neither the PKK nor the YPJ/G are defined by their opposition to Da’esh. Rather, Da'esh is just one of several regional powers that the Kurds have had the misfortune of contending with.

Like the PKK, the YPJ is a radical, leftist organization whose political philosophy is based on that of PKK-founder, Abdullah Öcalan, who has been incarcerated by Turkey (with the collusion of the CIA) since 1999. A decade of his time in prison has been spent in solitary confinement—such is Turkey's fear of the broad influence of the Kurds' intellectual leader.

Around the time of his capture, Öcalan began to steer the PKK away from its Marxist roots towards an autonomous, anti-statist form of governance. Called ‘democratic confederalism’, and based on participatory (rather than representational) democracy, it also holds feminism and environmentalism as its most cherished values. Democratic confederalism repudiates nationalism, and instead calls for the cooperation and interdependence of many poly-ethnic, self-organized groups small enough that citizens' concerns can be heard through people's assemblies.

In his writings, Öcalan asserts that the subjugation of women, through their relegation to the provision of sex and care-work – assumed to be their “natural” or “biological” role – is the most fundamental of oppressions and provides a template for the enactment of other axes of subjugation. That is, the oppression that is practiced in the intimate space of the home is precisely what trains our capacity to produce and accept a variety of oppressions outside the home. As such, feminism cannot be seen as the responsibility of women to push for their own empowerment, as it is so often conceived of by liberal feminists, for that would indicate that women are in some way responsible for their own situation, and that they, rather than over-arching social structures, need to change. Rather, feminism requires the complete reformation of society, which is currently stratified by power, entrenched by incomplete histories and misuses of science, and defended through violence. Öcalan calls for the overthrow of masculinity as dominance, indicating the oppressive structures of the traditional family unit and of compulsory heterosexuality. He emphasizes the importance of determining and disseminating a science and history of women, since so much power lies in these domains, which can be used to rewrite the lies that have been told about women. Öcalan's vision requires that women be at the forefront of these changes, and it is against his theoretical vision that women of the YPJ are now fighting.

GS: Women resistance fighters are fascinating for the Western, white gaze. Why is that, and how have Kurdish women been overwhelmingly represented in Western platforms?

AS: Sadly, media coverage more often than not spends so much time gawking at the spectacle of women fighting that there is no space made for the complex particularities of the struggle, even less for the narratives of those who risk their lives.

By far the worst reporting I’ve seen was a 2012 report on women PKK fighters by a young American man for Vice magazine. (I won't name him lest he mistakes himself for a serious journalist.) Though brief, the documentary manages to be patronizing, orientalising, and extraordinarily sexist, which forms an instructive contrast: the bumbling white man of the “free world” excitedly insisting to his (presumably shocked) white viewers that some brown women are permitted to fight with guns. And while the platoon of women (who defy local and international gender norms and risk their lives for their cause) undertake training drills, he awkwardly stands by and mocks their military capabilities, while praising the surprising preservation of their girlish charms. You get the picture.

Four years later, it's not clear that the quality of the mainstream media's framing of Kurdish women fighters has significantly moved beyond shock and amusement, though writers such as Dilar Dirik and Rahila Gupta--whose factual accuracy and theoretical nuance more than makes up for the worst of the rest--have brought fantastic journalism to the English-speaking world.

This fetishisation reaches beyond the media. In 2014, the clothes corporation H&M, retailed a military jumpsuit based on uniform of the YPJ fighters, swiftly followed by social media backlash and a public apology. This is typical of the way in which women's participation in politics is readily processed and packaged into acceptable forms of femininity, often linked to superficiality and consumerism, seen as the rightful domain of women.

As far as I can tell, the media’s recent enthusiasm for Kurdish women has had some positive potential, but invariably does not extend to an enthusiasm for the details of their struggle, or to any careful analysis of the personal articulations of that struggle. All this is made worse by the fact that through their reporting of the Kurdish question, Western media does not acknowledge the role Western powers have played in oppressing Kurds, and in assisting state powers in the repression of the Kurdish struggle. Furthermore, while Western powers have funded and provided weaponry to the YPG/J, they continue to list its close ally, the PKK, as a terrorist organization. This hypocrisy has produced unease among parliament members in Holland, Denmark, and Iceland. In 2015, a motion to delist the PKK as a terrorist group in the EU was voted down, prompting Turkish president Erdogan to ratchet up the Turkish military campaign against Kurds with impunity. None of this is remotely offered in media coverage.

GS: But it is not this way just in Western media. I remember seeing countless articles and pictures shared on social media that tokenize certain Kurdish women fighters. So what about media in the Middle East that recently started to feature good-looking young women as a symbol of feminine resistance against Da’esh? And what are the factors that allow this facet of fetishization to take place?

AS: Pictures of beautiful, young Kurdish women in the media remind me that one rarely sees the faces of other marginalized peoples engaged in combat, rather, we are offered dehumanized accounts of their seemingly inexplicable violence. The difference seems to be that revolutionary fighters aren’t often women. Sadly, when they are, they are permitted to be nothing but women, and as women, their decorative potential far outweighs any political actuality.

The adoption of Kurdish women as poster girls of the global anti-Da'esh sentiment has been helped along by a number of other factors. The Kurdish movement is predominantly secular; Kurds are often fair-skinned and light-eyed; and they are, of course, stateless. One can, therefore, extend sympathy without needing to revise one's opinions about the Otherness of brown Muslims.
Likewise, the media portrayal of refugees in Europe displays a similar pattern. Large numbers of those seeking asylum in European countries, and many of those desperate thousands drowning en route, are from Somalia or Eritrea. They rarely if ever appear in media coverage, rather, the faces of the European refugee crisis are those of their fair-skinned, Syrian counterparts. Sympathy for dark faces is hard to muster among people whose prosperity is built upon denying black personhood.

The representation of Kurdish women in the global media could have gone one of two ways, and the mood may yet change. They might have been portrayed as crazed, masculinized, heartless women who have abandoned their families and home duties in order to wreak violence and destruction. Women who break with social norms and enter domains traditionally dominated by men are often portrayed this way. This is how Kurdish women are portrayed in the Turkish media, which ought to surprise nobody given the brazen misogyny championed by Erdogan, along with his stranglehold on the media and desire for similar dominion over women’s bodies. Elsewhere, Kurdish women have been fetishized and hyper-sexualized, which is no better in being trivializing, rather than demonizing. When it comes to the representation of women in the media, it’s always a lottery of objectifications.

GS: What about the language of representation that is being used? In what ways is it detrimental to the Kurdish struggle, and how does it further marginalize the very people it is talking about?

AS: As a rule, descriptions of Rojava omit the ideological foundations of the Kurdish struggle. They gush over the novelty of women in an armed struggle, yet rarely provide a window onto the logic of that struggle, or what it means for women to be at the forefront of that particular struggle. This leaves the movement dislocated in the context of regional and global politics, devoid of its historical and theoretical significance. It also leaves the feminist credentials of the struggle indeterminate, in that one is unable to see its key intersections with other movements.

The YPJ is an organization of radical ideas, and if anyone is puzzled as to why so many women, raised in such fiercely patriarchal societies (let us not romanticize Kurdish gender relations: child marriage, honor killings, and domestic violence delimit the lives of many Kurdish women) are prepared to lay down their lives, it is in the name of an ideology whose clarion call is that patriarchy is failing violently, and women will assume their rightful share of the roles and possibilities, which follow the fight.

GS: Despite this problematic representation, how do you perceive Kurdish resistance, especially women’s involvement? What language do you propose for producing and documenting feminist knowledge around Kurdish conflict and resistance?

AS: For me, the most important thing to remember in reporting on Rojava, and the women who fight for its continued existence, is that the people who have fought, and continue to fight, do so in the name of a very unique ideology, which has been carved out over many years, partly in response to the negative force of the violence that has been enacted upon the Kurdish people by state powers, and partly by a positive force of the dream of a world whose economic, environmental, and social character is assembled around a keystone of justice.

That ideology is ‘democratic confederalism’, and all combatants are versed in its central tenets alongside their basic military training. The YPJ/G are not only fighting Da’esh, though that may be all those on the outside are interested in. They are fighting regional capitalism, tribalism, patriarchy, and over-consumption. Quotas are already in place in Rojava, which ensure not only that women preside over Kurdish cantons alongside men, but that Arabs, Chechans, Armenians, Yezidis, and Christians are represented alongside Kurds, with Kurdish, Arabic, and Syriac as the official languages. This commitment to pluralism and gender equality is not just a striking beacon of hope in a divided region, but a unique and startling example of a basis for a genuine, multi-ethnic democracy in an increasingly troubled world.

What the Kurds of Rojava have achieved so far is unique. It could not be further away from the ideology or praxis of Da’esh, the heartbreakingly dysfunctional KRG, the relentless brutality of regional state actors, or the imperial powers both inside and outside the region, which play a causal role in all of the above. In these desperate times, as the Kurds and so many other groups fight against the brutal dictatorships of Assad and Erdogan, and the macabre nihilism of Da'esh, it seems impossible for there to be time or space for anything other than fighting. The Kurds, a people whose age-old mythology is replete with stories of fear and suspicion (such is their heart-rending history of victimhood and betrayal) are making space to dream. Feminists all over the world could learn a lot from that dream, and should be following closely.