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Up in arms: The media’s objectification of Kurdish female fighters

Up in arms: The media’s objectification of Kurdish female fighters

What else could fetishise the spectacle of war and bloodshed in the Middle East as astutely as the “woman warriors”, the “angels of death”, the “women at war” of Kurdistan? Young, exotic, dark haired beauties – many of them teenagers – their petite frames labouring under the weight of heavy machine guns. America’s ABC News has described how their “long, braided hair” falls out from their green, camouflaged hats. The ever-upstanding Daily Mail has identified “lip stick” as their “unlikely weapon” in their fight against Daesh. Because, “for the woman warriors of Iraqi Kurdistan makeup is essential – if they die they want to look beautiful”.

As the operation to take back the Iraqi city of Mosul from Daesh is underway, it might be a timely moment to look back on some of the sexist reporting that has led up to the Iraqi offensive and the regional conflict more generally. Centre stage in the latest Act of the grandiose geopolitical theatre of the War on Terror, stand the Peshmerga, the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan, and other Kurdish forces across their fractured region. Kurdish forces have featured as the unlikely protagonists supported by a US-led coalition of air strikes as the ethno-linguistically distinct and autonomous Kurds struggle for self-governance across the mountainous regions of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. It is the YPJ (Yekîneyên Parastina Jin) however, who have stolen the limelight. The YPJ is an all-female brigade of a Kurdish armed coalition gaining control over much of northern Syria’s predominately Kurdish region, Rojava. Their exploits and escapades have had the Western media’s tongues wagging. Just when we thought death, destruction and children’s bodies washing up on beaches couldn’t get any sexier, the YPJ shot across our television screens and smart phones some time in the last couple of years. They are the poster girls for the battle between Good and Evil. The sexualised embodiment of our excited, heightened fears. As the terror of terrorism terrorises us just enough to be whisked into the exciting foray of violent conflict momentarily, the woman warriors of Iraqi Kurdistan are an omnipresence on the real battlefield. How thrilling!

The YPJ, the female brigade of the Kurdish People's Protection Unit (YPG), were reportedly instrumental in retaking the city of Kobanê, northern Syria, from Daesh in 2015. Image: Wikimedia Commons. Credit: Free Kurdistan
The YPJ, the female brigade of the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), were reportedly instrumental in retaking the city of Kobanê, northern Syria, from Daesh in 2015. Image: Wikimedia Commons, Credit: Free Kurdistan

Last month, media reports circulated the death of Asia Ramazan Antar, a young Kurdish woman fighting in the YPJ, who was killed in battle in northern Syria. Her comrades said she was martyred by fighting to defend the freedom of her people. But Asia was martyred by Western media for an entirely different reason. Dubbed the “Kurdish Angelina Jolie”, Asia was sashayed across news media for her ravishing good looks. As she fought for a people seeking to dismantle gender oppression in their region and to give women political representation in their future plans for a liberated and autonomous society, Asia was objectified and sexualised by media in the Western world – that beacon of liberty and progress. If only the archaic Middle East would emulate us more!

“Poster Girl Killed Fighting ISIS: Beautiful female fighter dubbed the Angelina Jolie of Kurdistan dies while battling ISIS in Syria”, said the Sun.

“The Kurdish Angelina Jolie Died a Hero’s Death Battling ISIS, “ said Maxim, “Here’s how the beautiful young fighter gave her all fighting jihadis…”

“The 22-year-old brunette has been killed in a fierce clash with the terror network,” captioned The Daily Mail, who’d concluded that the best noun to encapsulate a woman fighting gender oppression is by describing the colour of her long, dark locks and sultry eyes.

Never mind that Asia was killed fighting against forces whose ideology sees women’s role as primarily one of voiceless reproduction. Baby-making machines, lacking in any agency. The irony is almost palpable.

The YPJ is a dream come true for news outlets. The Middle Eastern narrative needs both villains and superheroes, and here they’ve been given Wonder Woman clad in khaki. Which really fits in quite nicely with the UN appointing the busty, skimpily-dressed comic book character as the new “Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls”. Like, actually.

News-for-dudes platform Vice stated of female Kurdish fighters that, “Few things unsettle the male mind like a lady in arms”, hence the military strategy to send in the “demure diaboliques” in a region “not exactly known for its progressive stance on women’s rights”. The military strategy, according to Vice, is for Kurdish women to take up arms not as an act of their liberation, but to stupefy ISIS fights on the battlefield with their sheer buxomness. Luckily, Vice is here to exemplify how that “progressive stance on women’s rights” is done. After conducting what could have been a thought-provoking interview with a female fighter from PJAK, a Kurdish insurgent group from Iran, Vice’s Thomas Morton concluded, “The conventional view of liberated women is a bunch of crew-cut, masculated butchies, basically women acting like men, but aside from the uniforms and despite the strictures against motherhood and fucking, the female PJAK fighters we’d seen so far all preserved a sense of femininity that went well with their Kalashnikovs in a kind of Leila Khaled meets the Viet Cong sniper from Full Metal Jacket way.” Well at least these badass feminists look hot, right?

YPJ fighters, Rojava. Image: Flickr, Credit: Kurdishstruggle
YPJ fighters, Rojava. Image: Flickr, Credit: Kurdishstruggle

The media’s crude objectification of Kurdish female fighters – as we bask in their suffering and sexualise the struggle for their freedom – is a stark reminder of what negligible progress has been made in dismantling the glamorisation of war. As we watch “Aleppo burn” or stunned children, bloodied and covered in ash, we feel sympathy, but, through media discourses, a kind of indifference punctuated with momentary thrill and excitation. What fun war can be when we watch it at a safe distance. Writing about the media in postmodernity, Argentinian scholar Maximiliano Korstanje says that war and terrorism on our television screens remind an individualistic society “how vulnerable but how special” it is. From our vantage point of First World comforts we can imagine, elaborate, fancify and consume the suffering of others.

Is there anything wrong with reporting on the female fighters of the Kurdish armed forces? Of course not. It’s interesting and it’s news-worthy. But lets give voice to what these women and men are fighting and dying for. “The entire philosophy of YPJ is to fight sexism and prevent using women as a sexual object,” said Kurdish fighter Choman Kanaani. “We want to give women their rightful place in society and for them to own their own destinies.”

Kurdish women will play a role on the frontline in northern Mosul as the Iraqi-led operation to retake the city is expected to take months. Many of these enlisted women are Yazidis, who were formerly Daesh’s captive sex-slaves.

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Megan Giles

Communications Director at WhyDev
Megan is WhyDev's former chief editor and is the Media Coordinator at Oxfam Australia. She has an MA in International Development and a broad range of development interests, including global trade, Indigenous rights, gender equality, Middle Eastern politics and the representation of Islam and terrorism in media discourse. She tweets at @Megan_Giles_ Any of her views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of her employers.

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