After the mainstream media finally started covering Kurdish female fighters in Kobane, some critics began to take notice of them. For these media critics, the subaltern only comes into existence after becoming the subject of consideration for the mainstream media. Subsequently the critics take issue with mainstream media’s representations, but fail to go beyond that. Hence, questions of who these Kurdish women are, what their world-views and ideals are, the history behind their current resistance, and the gender politics in Kurdish political culture are disregarded.
The mainstream media oftentimes considers the presence of Kurdish female fighters in Kobane in an ahistorical manner and depoliticizes their causes and practices by disregarding their political ideals, world-views, and the history of Kurdish women’s participation in various political struggles. As a result, Kurdish female fighters, in such media coverage, are reduced to brave women who are fighting against the bad guys. Most of these fighters, whose political organization is considered terrorist by the NATO and its allies, collectively participate and believe in an egalitarian, non-identitarian idealism; one that refuses a commitment to capitalist liberal democracy as the ultimate and supreme societal arrangement.
It is not only sections of mainstream media that overlook Kurdish female fighters’ political world-views, ideals, and the history of their struggle. Critics of the mainstream media’s representations of Kurdish female fighters also reproduce the same reductive images in their coverage. Most of their criticisms employ irrelevant progressive terms and notions such as, beautiful, tough Kurdish women are objectified in the Western media (failing to show how exactly they have become objectified), Western media overlooks the dominance of the Kurdish men in Kurdish societies and culture, Western media depicts in its coverage the orientalist fantasy of a good looking tough Muslim female fighter, Western media only pays attention to good looking Kurdish female fighters who pose for the camera in flowery scarves and not the other anti-imperialist female fighters from the region (who are too radical to pose for the Western cameras).
An argument can be made, however, that the media only picks and circulates photos of Kurdish female fighters whose features conform to Hollywood’s beauty standards. This is not the argument that is often made, since there is not ample data to see which photos are dismissed based on a lack of conformity to beauty standards. A similar argument could be made that the mainstream media mostly cries over the causes of those that suit their defined factors, such as A) fighters with whom the white European and North American middle class can identify in terms of features; B) fighters whose enemy can be considered as their own; and C) fighters whose political stories can be framed in ways which do not go against the liberal-capitalist values. The last of these doesn’t hold true for the Kurdish struggle in Kobane. As a result, in order to conceal Kobane’s transgression and deviation from the ideals of liberal-capitalist societies, their struggle is dehistoricized and depoliticized and its particularities are disregarded to illustrate it as a generic fight against ISIS, so that it fits neatly into preconceived frames.
The argument that most critics make is the following: the mainstream media is too fascinated with Kurdish female fighters due to beautiful, tough Kurdish women being the embodiment of the media’s orientalist fantasies. For such critics, Kurdish female fighters are reduced to women whose features conform to corporate institutions’ beauty standards, the objects of media’s orientalist fantasy, and the fascination of the media. These criticisms replace the women’s actual struggle with its representation in the media. In her essay “Objectifying Female Fighters,” Linah Alsaafin states: “Looking past the outer appearance of army fatigues and gun-slinging women, some with short-cropped hair, others with long braided flower adorned hair, the concept of the motivations and behaviors that drove women to pick up arms— that is, their agency—remains missing.” Agency is the capacity of a person to act in the world. Any person who engages in social structures is an agent. Hence, female Kurdish fighters who resist ISIS, with old and torn weaponry, while the world decides to ignore them, cannot possibly be without agency, contrary to the claims of Alsaafin, regardless of how many different hairstyles the author enumerates for Kurdish female fighters and no matter how many of the offered descriptions sexualize them. In fact, it is exactly such criticisms that violently reduce female Kurdish fighters to mere imaginative descriptions of their pictures, “army fatigues and gun-slinging women,” turning them into lifeless objects, hence without agency. Objections to the “braided flower adorned hair” of Kurdish female fighters, perhaps for not performing critics’ ideal of chaste female fighters, or considering the flowered hair the fanciful illusion constructed by the media, stem from puritanical gendered standards and a total ignorance of Kurdish cultural particularities. The sociopolitical conditions (of living in constant state of emergency) for Kurds, in various geopolitical spaces, have resulted in resistance to being part of the quotidian. A Kurdish friend once told me, “I and my mother were listening to radio, and all of a sudden we heard the speakers’ voice diminishing while they were coughing hard, and then there was a continuous silence. The radio speakers were targeted by the chemical gas of Saddam’s forces. After that day, I am scared of radio devices and never use them.” Ordinary daily practice of listening to radio is intertwined with the trauma of his people being gassed. It’s living with a consciousness of such conditions that a female fighter does not forget the quotidian practice of wearing a flower on her hair or her pleasant scarf to go to fight for the survival of herself and her community, her alternative society and form of life. That is the reason that we have videos of a Kurdish male fighter in Kobane singing while having his wounds treated, and videos of Peshmerga men, upon getting a chance, dancing while being under the fatal threat from ISIS forces. The singing and dancing of Kurdish male fighters however, have not become the subject of essays of media critics.
While critics, similar to Alsaafin, are busy with descriptions such as “army fatigues and gun-slinging women […] with long braided flower adorned hair,” Kurdish female fighters, currently using battered Kalashnikovs, worry about not having weapons to resist getting beheaded and tortured by ISIS, as explained in the following statement:
“Women snipers have killed hundreds of ISIS fighters with the most minimal weaponry (ancient Russian Kalashnikovs) – but they are running out of bullets. Many of these young girls are already martyrs; many have been captured and tortured, abducted into sexual slavery, killed and beheaded. It was the YPG and the YPJ rather than the peshmerga which, with the PKK, rescued the Yezidis from Mount Sinjar. It is due to the bravery and skills of these women that Kobani has not fallen. Rojava is the one place in the Middle East where there is real gender equality and the YPJ demonstrates this empowerment of women. They desperately need the heavy arms to defeat Isis.”
In her essay, “Beyond the Battlefield: The Kurdish Women’s Radical Struggle,” Dilar Dirik demystifies Kurdish female fighters and criticizes their dehistoricization and depoliticization in the mainstream media. Yet, in the same essay, Dirik has a few statements regarding Kurdish men using Kurdish female fighters and the media’s beauty standards: “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. […] there may be an element of truth to such charges in some cases…” The claim that Kurdish leadership is instrumentalizing female fighters in the struggle, in order to glamorize it for the mainstream media, stems from an ignorance of history and the gender politics at play in Kurdish political culture. The claim robs Kurdish female fighters of any political aspirations, subjugated, and mere victims of Kurdish men’s political goals. Dirik also mentions that, “A picture of the smiling beauty, wearing combat gear and toting a rifle, is still making the rounds of social media.” Similarly, Linah Alsaafin writes, “The alleged suicide of a 19 year old Kurdish fighter Ceylan Ozalp, who shot herself to escape being taken captive by ISIS, was commended as brave and daring. Ozalp is described as a “fierce warrior”, “beautiful”, and “bold.” She represents the pinnacle heterosexual fantasy – a beautiful, sexually aggressive, armed young woman […]” It seems that any representation of the Kurdish female fighters can not be made without being concerned with judgments of their appearance. There is also a backlash against Kurdish female fighters for being perceived as “beautiful” by some critics. The mainstream media, under the influence of popular culture in current capitalist societies, may only find the loss of women perceived as beautiful worthy of grief. However, some of the criticisms of media’s representation are only interested in the importance of these women’s beauty for the media. Most of these criticisms confine Kurdish women to a box named the mainstream media, and view them only through their imagination of the ways that media represents them. Such criticisms inadvertently convey the impression to their audiences that Kurdish female fighters do not exist outside such media representations and are not associated with a political history.
Female Kurdish fighters did not become the focus of media attention because of their appearance. If it was not for their resistance, no beauty contest would pay attention to them. One important factor in the attention that is paid to them is the spectacularity of their enemy, ISIS, and the fear that ISIS has stirred in mainstream media and in its audiences. The resistance of these female fighters did not receive attention when they fought against various groups in Kobane and many of them were killed. Would their current resistance not receive the media’s attention if their features didn’t conform to beauty standards as the mentioned critics claim? No one can be sure of the answer to this question. What is clear however, is that their former struggle in Kobane received no attention prior to ISIS positing itself as a new evil in the mainstream media. We can also be sure that being a female fighter, first and foremost, positions the subject in a place where her beauty will be scrutinized by critics. If she passes the exam, there may be a backlash against the attention that her resistance receives because she may have received the media’s attention not through the courage of her acts, but rather through the conformity of her features to beauty standards.
So a question to ask from these critics is this: why can’t Kurdish female fighters be observed and discussed without their reduction to their features, femininity, colorful scarves, “long braided flower adorned hair,” and the mainstream media’s fascination with their struggle? Why can’t the fascination of the mainstream media be understood in any terms other than the Kurdish female fighters’ femininity and perceived beauty? If mainstream media turns these female fighters into history-less brave people fighting against the bad guys, doesn’t such criticism reduce female fighters to “beautiful tough Kurdish women” and “fatigues and gun-slinging women”? More important of all, the identities of “beautiful tough Kurdish female fighter” and “the female Kurdish fighter as the object of the orientalist fantasies” are constructed by these critics themselves. These criticisms of media’s representation of female Kurdish fighters, while advertise themselves as critical of the male gaze, in fact, they reduce the whole concept of Kurdish female fighters and their resistance to an imagined male gaze and assign derogatory identities to them. Once more a vivid sexism is displaying itself, albeit honey coated with progressive sounding terms (such as objectification, orientalism, criticism of mainstream media, abnormalization and sexualization of female fighters, etc.). This sexism proves that the attention that the progressive resistance of Kurdish women (who stand, with basic weapons, against forces whose goal is to cut their heads or put them on sale) receive can be explained away with their features or imaginations of orientalist male fantasies.
The unprecedented practice of alternative politics in Kobane and its female fighters are neither some random pictures fabricated by media, nor representation of the resistance of a fictitious group of women who are in the media due to becoming media’s object of fantasy and desire. They are real people who have fought against genocides and systematic anti-Kurdish policies of various nationalisms in the region. Keeping busy with criticisms of mainstream media —on the progressive sounding subjects of objectification of women, male gaze’s sexualization of women, orientalist fantasy of beautiful tough women, etc.— does not conceal the lack of sympathy and well-deserved fascination with the alternative unprecedented practices in Kobane. Kurdish female fighters are not pictures, and they can teach the world many lessons if we would let our ears free of empty turned-into-cliches cacophonies.