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Just Warriors and Beautiful Souls - reflections from fieldwork in Rojava


Just Warriors and Beautiful Souls

Blog entry by Florence Bateson, former University of Leeds student and MA graduate of Utrecht University

In conflict men are often seen as the “Just Warriors” and women the “Beautiful Souls”; the former associated with masculinity and the latter to femininity. My recent fieldwork in Rojava (West Kurdistan/North Syria) on the YPJ (the Women’s Protection Units) proved that women can be both of the above. The YPJ defy all notions that militarism and femininity are in opposition, and they show that the two can be complementary. Prior to my research I was a strict pacifist, convinced that conflict can always be solved by peaceful means. Perhaps this was a naïve approach, but I always tried to cling on to the hope that it was true. The savagely patriarchal nature of ISIS - that specifically targets women to rape, enslave, and sell them – has challenged my pacifist values. Meeting women from the YPJ, and learning about the values they are fighting for and the ideology behind their defence, has challenged my thoughts on feminism, militarism, and femininity.

The YPJ have captured the imagination of Western media due to their heroic and courageous victory against the rigid brutality of ISIS in Kobane earlier this year, but they didn’t just spring out of nowhere. They are often painted with a broad brush as Amazonian type heroines sensationally fighting against the fascist force of ISIS, and their ideology and motives behind their struggle goes unnoticed. Kurdish women have been historically repressed from different angles: for being Kurdish and for being women. In Syria, Kurdish people have been treated as secondary citizens – their rights not recognised, their cultural practises prohibited, their language banned. Women have often been restricted to the home – their voice not being heard in politics, law, or society. Evidently, Kurdish women have experienced layers of marginalisation.

The PKK (the People’s Workers Party), a Kurdish revolutionary movement born in Northern Kurdistan (South-East Turkey), directly addresses society’s enslavement of women. In their formation, the PKK were an armed militia that admittedly resorted to violent means in trying to achieve their rights as Kurdish people. Due to this they have been blacklisted as a ‘terrorist’ organisation by Turkey, and subsequently by the U.S. and many European states. Today, having drastically changed their ideology (shaped by their imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan), they are a progressive, gender egalitarian, and democratic movement. Ocalan’s ideology strongly critiques the state model for being inherently patriarchal, promotes gender quotas in all aspects of society, and argues for the necessity of legitimate self-defence. The PYD is the political wing of the PKK in Rojava, they are often referred to as their sister units. The YPJ is the all-female military unit of the YPG (the People’s Protection Units), both of which are the military forces of the PYD. The power vacuum created in the midst of the Syrian civil war has allowed Kurds to culturally and ideologically fight against their oppressors. The PYD have established a form of self-administration in Rojava based on the model of democratic confederalism. Democratic confederalism is inspired by Ocalan, and is built on the three pillars of ecology, gender equality, and grassroots politics. In Rojava women are given a prominent place in this new form of administration, with gender quotas in place in all aspects of society. Ocalan’s ideology, the abovementioned oppression of Kurdish women, and the voice Kurdish women have now been given, all contributed to the emergence of the YPJ.

As soon as we arrived in Rojava the influence of Ocalan is everywhere. His nickname ‘Apo’ is sketched into hillsides, his photograph is on every wall, his name is chanted in local songs. We stayed in Rojava for a total of 8 days, and during our time there everything was organised for us by the PYD. Because of the social revolution that is happening in parallel to the conflict, the PYD wanted to show us everything they were establishing. We visited education academies, women’s organisations, houses for wounded soldiers, justice offices, and so forth. Of course we did not visit just for a tour though, we had research to do! The aim of my research was to understand the multifaceted collective identity of the YPJ, beyond the military identity portrayed in the media. I wanted to see how their cultural, social, and political history influenced their formation, how they consciously and unconsciously displayed their identity, and how this affects group dynamics. I was conscious of not focussing on what they were fighting against – because ISIS already dominates news reporting – but I instead focussed on what they were fighting for.

On my first encounter with the YPJ I was struck not only by the parallel identities they displayed, but also how comfortable they were in both. On the one hand they were self-assured, fearless, and powerful women, yet on the other hand they were affectionate, giggly, and sisterly – braiding each other’s hair and playing with flowers. My pre-assumption was that these two, traditionally thought of as masculine and feminine, identities are in contradiction to one another and cannot exist in unity. Based on my knowledge of Western militaries, in order for female fighters to be accepted they often have to adopt masculine characteristics, or at least they feel they have to. It was recently reported in the US that two women Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Have successfully completed the infamously gruelling Army Ranger School, starkly proving that women are physically and mentally as capable as men. Yet, still, these two women are not allowed to fight alongside men on the frontline. In other revolutionary movements I have studied, even where women are permitted on the frontline, they still rarely achieve leadership positions and their duties are somewhat inferior to their male counterparts. YPJ defy both of these. Due to the focus in Rojava on women’s liberation, they are empowered through their female identity. With ease, they carry their guns around in their war fatigues to and from the frontline, proving that those qualities often associated with masculinity are not exclusive to men. There are many female commanders. Interestingly, female commanders are able to instruct both men and women, yet male commanders are only able to instruct men. The YPJ are shaping a new feminised military structure in contrast to traditional military structures that are based on the notion of dominant male power. They are disrupting the borders between the militarised masculine and feminine, and ascertaining that gender binaries are not static but, rather, fluid.

There was one instance which, for me, illustrated the YPJ multi-layered identity perfectly. We were at a military barracks about 7km away from the Tel Brak frontline. Every day at this YPJ base, women are going to fight against ISIS. We were all sitting around in a big circle (two other researchers and myself, and around 25 women from the YPJ), conducting a very informal interview. The girl I was speaking to had a little pink bow in her hair and was sitting with her legs crossed on the ground, whispering to her friend. Minutes later a fighter returned from the frontline and approached us. She had her gun in hand still, her Kurdish scarf wrapped around her head, and she came up to us and hugged the girl I was interviewing, sat next to her and preceded to act in a similarly feminine way to that I had just observed. It was these private interactions between women in the YPJ that revealed far more about their collective identity than the images seen in newspapers or documentaries. I was able to witness social interactions within the YPJ that are not accessible from public portrayals.

The aim of my research was to further the understanding about the YPJ, and to learn about the female fighters behind the military front. These women are not only effectively fighting against the ruthless force of ISIS, but they are fighting for an egalitarian and democratic society in the midst of regional patriarchy. When they liberate a town or village they provide humanitarian support for vulnerable people; they teach women about their rights and help them escape abusive situations; and they live life according to values of equality and inclusiveness. This all goes unreported, and they thus receive little international support or recognition. One commander from the YPJ said “We don’t want the world to know us for our guns, but for our ideas”. Spread the word and contribute to her wishes!