Misleading images of Kurdish female fighters
Photographs of Kurdish female fighters donning military attire and smiling meekly for the camera in the Middle East, including northern Iraq, are often featured in Western media outlets.
These snapshots are meant to reinforce a carefully crafted image of political developments in certain areas of the region. They inform the world that the fight against terror is on track. They also masquerade female guerrillas as widely celebrated symbols of progressive Kurdish communities.
These trophy shots, however, invite a long list of problems and the choice behind them is always ideological. The more traction they gain, the greater the injustice inflicted upon Kurdish women in northern Iraq.
The interest the women receive is often organised along the victim-hero fighter binary, especially if it involves the Islamic State (ISIS). Stories about rape, early marriages and female genital mutilation within their communities are not received with the same media or public enthusiasm.
Kurdish parties in Iraq’s autonomous north are indispensable allies of the United States. Is there anything more symbolically potent than images of heroic gun-wielding women to legitimise the morality of America’s continued involvement in fighting terrorism?
Leading up to Iraq’s occupation in 2003, the United States’ new cadre of friends included the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Iraq’s Governing Council, appointed by the Coalition Provisional Authority in June 2003, designated four seats to Kurdish leaders in Iraq. Women, even at this point, had no place on the Americans’ foreign policy agenda.
The United States often references Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region as its “Iraq success story.” The reality is far more complicated.
The threat of ISIS or the killing of jihadists by women “has been increasingly appealing in Western press, especially during the formation of autonomous regions,” said Zeynep Kaya, a research fellow at the London School of Economics Middle East Centre, in a telephone interview.
After the US occupation ended in 2011, Iraqi women, whether Kurdish, Arab, Yazidi, Christian or Turkmen, were each affected differently by the shifting tide of war in her own locality.
The image of Kurdish women having bucked conservative norms to emancipate themselves to fight ISIS does not speak to the multiplicity of female experiences in Kurdish communities.
Iraq’s situation is glaringly different. A weakened and decentralised state has given rise to provincial autonomy. Iraq’s north is awash with stronger tribal configurations.
Violence in various guises confronts Iraq’s Kurdish women daily: Domestic abuse, militarisation, honour killings and arranged or early marriages. Although these stories receive some but not quite generous coverage in the Arabic-language media, they rarely filter through to front pages in the West. If the reality contradicts political narratives that may reflect badly on partners in the war against ISIS, the media too often remain silent.
A pattern emerges in the terminology used by English-language media, which are flooded by inaccurate terms such as “progressive”, “democratic” and “revolutionary.”
Some women belong, as Kaya said, to organisations that some may deem authoritarian working in conjunction with or against the state system.
Far from breaking from patriarchal norms, women “subscribe to the same ideology,” said Kaya, recognising also that “others may be aggrieved by the government and seek actions against them.”
These perceptions actively promote the militarisation of society through the “sexy” female guerrilla warrior. Whether its words or discourse, the image they promote are products of the ideological choices made by those waging battle: Men.
Images and stories that hide behind rose-tinted glasses do little to support the very communities they claim to protect.
These women are commended and heralded as protectors and gendarmes of Kurdish-inhabited territories but their combat duties do not make it any more acceptable for women to devote their full time outside the family home.
The attention these women garner is one thing, the reality is another: Keeping women affixed to subordinate positions in society.