Freedom: The YPJ and a New Beauty Standard
Much has been written about the impact of the YPJ and the Rojava Revolution, especially with regards to gender liberation. One area which has generated little to no attention though is the revolutionary, anti-capitalist notion of beauty as advocated by the writings of imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan and developed further by the Kurdish Women’s Movement.
Since bursting onto the international scene the Women’s Defense Units (YPJ) in Rojava (Western Kurdistan) have been widely analyzed by international media, regional experts, and critics. The YPJ has had widespread media visibility, but at the same time has been largely sensationalized, often tacitly or implicitly repeating racist or sexist cliché’s towards Kurdish women and the Middle East. The sensationalization of the YPJ has contributed to them being sexualized and fetishized, with her ideological revolutionary objective often coming secondary to the promotion of “exotic” orientalist notions of Middle Eastern femininity.
The general western depiction of the YPJ, particularly through the Western media, has presented her as essentially emerging solely as a result of ISIS. Her ideology, her activism, her entire political position, therefore, is analyzed in relation to the rise of ISIS’s brutal ideology. This position points to the ways in which racialized and sexualized minority women’s entire subjectivity is determined from the perspective of the Western gaze—whose analysis determines and becomes the medium through which her position is clarified.
One notable example was the case of 19 year-old Asia Ramazan Antar, who was killed in the battle for the liberation of Manbij in 2016. Asia burst upon the world the year before in 2015, when western journalists took photos of her flippantly likening her to renowned beauties like Angelina Jolie or Penelope Cruz. When she was then killed fighting ISIS, news headlines predictably sexualized her and reduced her political activism, her revolutionary ideology, and even her heroic death came secondary, to her physical beauty and celebrity-like appearance. In the battle against ISIS thousands of her female comrades had been killed heroically fighting, yet none generated as much attention as Antar had because of her physical attractiveness.
Furthermore, the Western media depiction of the YPJ as suddenly arising unexpectedly in the fight against ISIS, delinks her revolutionary struggle from her colonized status and historical oppression as well as silencing and erasing the existence of a long history of women in armed revolutionary struggles. Women have a long history of participation in revolutionary and nationalist liberation struggles, specifically and explicitly in armed guerrilla struggles. Women from Uganda, Eritrea, Lebanon, Congo, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Liberia, Algeria, Peru, Sri Lanka, and all through Latin America have long been present as armed combatants. To use the YPJ as a archetype of never-before-seen women’s liberation activism is to suggest that women have never picked up weapons in the face of state terrorism or other forms of oppression. It is to suggest the complete absence of Kurdish women in the long history of Kurdish struggle against state oppression in places like Turkey. It erases the long history of women needing to take up self-defense and weapons in order to protect their rights. The YPJ comes from this long line of women’s militant activism, and this connection is essential to her ideology of protecting women from not only oppression but the terrors of capitalist patriarchy.
Within the context of the Kurdish women’s struggle, their militant activism goes back decades if not centuries. Since the 1980’s at least, Kurdish women have been combatants in the nationalist struggle for liberation. From its inception, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), for instance, positioned women increasingly in the forefront of the liberation struggle, both in terms of militant activism, but also ideologically. In 1995, autonomous women only units were created under Ocalan’s concept of a “Free Woman”, a concept which grew rapidly to embody and capture the ideological essence of Jineology (the science of women). These women have engaged in decades’ long struggle in relation to subverting oppressive gender stereotypes and structures across multiple fronts. The YPJ is but the natural outcome of this long history of struggle and activism, though she is consistently depicted as separate and removed from the women in the PKK.
This historical struggle has explicitly involved unlearning and reeducation of society against sexist and patriarchal gender notions, increasingly under the concept of Jineology. The importance of anti-sexist and women-centric doctrines to not only the YPJ but also to their male counterparts in the YPG, is integral to the social progressive ideologies being promoted in Rojava. More essentially, this is an attempt to link the liberation movement of the Kurds within its military-political context to a feminization and women-centric psychology of social change and politics of resistance. This mentality is perfectly captured in Ocalan’s statement “a society can never be free without women’s liberation.” This statement highlights that the Kurdish struggle for liberation has not just been a struggle against the fascism of the state towards minorities but also the lesser recognized goal of women’s liberation. Therefore, by delinking her struggle from that of the PKK as well as the historical women’s movements, she is deliberately depoliticized and uprooted from her historical foundations—a colonial practice that continues to promote the delinking notion of Kurdish liberation being irreparably influenced by colonial borders and the four region division.
For the Western Gaze, the invasion of the Shengal region, the subsequent genocide of Yezidi people and the kidnapping of over 7,000 Yezidi women and girls into sexual slavery by ISIS reproduced comforting sexist tropes about passive, oppressed, silenced Middle Eastern women needing to be rescued by White men. For the Western gaze this alternative position, and the brutality of ISIS helped to explain the necessity of the rise of the YPJ into a traditionally masculine position- historically uprooted, delinked and a colonized, sexualized version that she is presented as. Clearly, this Western perspective argues, lack of choice forces women towards anomalous positions, hence why stories of fear of rape, escape from forced marriages and other similar narratives are often used and repeated to rationalize the YPJ. Once peace is restored, undoubtedly as history has shown, these armed women will re-embrace their traditional, feminine gender roles—a position which obliviously erases the foundation of the YPJ as being a permanent body that will never be dissolved so long as patriarchy continues to live.
The images which started to emerge from the Rojava region, often taken by Western journalists, also tended to further exoticize and promote the fetishization of Middle Eastern women. Stunning images started to emerge of young women with brilliant colored Kurdish scarves wrapped beautifully around their heads with their long thick glossy braids in army uniforms only added to the public imagination and fetishization of these brave, incredible, young Kurdish women fighting against the most violent terrorist organization in the world.
Much of the images and descriptions of the YPJ emerged while explicitly focusing on their feminine traits such as hair style, welcoming nature, slight size, or attire, or engaging in traditionally feminine activities—as if to reaffirm to the patriarchy that despite being an exceptional anomaly, she is essentially, and reassuringly only like every other stereotypical female in the end. The YPJ were also often depicted as “Amazonian”, “gracious”, “beautiful”, “modern-day Joan of Arcs”, and “angels of death”, furthering their feminine sensualness, rather than their bravery or ferocity for survival. Feminizing language was always seen as necessary in these depictions.
Admittedly this exoticization had one benefit, as it also helped to spread the news and ideas of the Rojava revolution further than would have perhaps been otherwise possible. But the Masters tools will never dismantle the Master’s house.
Most essentially, focusing on the physical beauty of these women is the antithesis of what the ideology of women’s liberation is built on. The main objective of the YPJ is a twofold aim of fighting internal and external oppressive structures and mechanisms. This involves fighting not only the neo-liberal capitalist, statist, patriarchal system, and its representatives in the shape of ISIS or other terrorist organizations, or state terrorism imposed on minorities such the policies of the Turkish regime towards the Kurds; but also internally in combating the patriarchal structures within their own societies. By rejecting the overt focus on feminine and physical beauty as women, through reeducation of men about the role and position of women within society, the Kurdish women’s movement is directly subverting the historical sexualization and commodification of women. For this reason the YPJ forwards an alternative, to the capitalist position where women’s biological and sexual role is used as a means to condition her into wife, mother, sex object position.
The Western gaze, however, sees a specific benefit in the existence of the YPJ which explains its own attempts to rationalize and idolize these women within its own scope of ideological understanding. In fighting the savage ISIS, YPJ are presented as taking revenge on the ‘Brown Man’ who has oppressed, sold, raped and degraded her for centuries—playing into the Western fantasy of anti-Brown/Muslim-men narratives. A perfect example of this was the case of Rehana—a close and personal friend of mine—who was promoted as the attractive poster girl for the YPJ; widely noted as having killed over a 100 ISIS fighters. In reality the image of her was taken during the general training period everyone received in Kobane as part of the self-protection process. She was never part of the YPJ and never engaged in killing ISIS—though many of the young women in Kobane did. Yet this example indicates how the Western narrative distorts and promotes its own prejudiced notions to promote its own position as opposed to the reality of these women’s lives.
Further, the over promotion of the beauty of the YPJ also fed nicely into general Eurocentric feelings of Islamaphobia, by fighting against the imposition of the compulsory burqa by ISIS—her hair free, wrapped in a beaded, colorful scarf promoting the secular, moderate alternative. As well as promoting the notion that Middle Eastern women need to be saved and “uncovered” from oppressive Islamic values such as the hijab. Relatedly, the widely promoted notion that “ISIS is afraid of being killed by YPJ fighters because they will not go to heaven” is depicted as one that deconstructs the masculinity of the terrorists.
The YPJ decolonizes revolutionary practices and movements because she is not solely a military instition. She is part of the wider Women’s movement focus on socio-political and military progression. The YPJ, by saving herself and her sisters from the threat of the “brown man”, while also building democratic and liberating institutions is stopping the White man from his “civilizing mission” and subverting the hero-victim relationship between the colonizer and the colonized (justifying imperialism as a civilizing mission.) White men no longer need to save brown women from brown men. She is doing it herself- saving herself from the oppression of Brown Men and White men simultaneously- rejecting the master’s tools and literally building her own liberating ideology.
I should note, the YPJ itself has consistently rejected these depictions of western notions of feminine beauty and sexualization. For the YPJ the concept of beauty is determined on an entirely different level that unequivocally rejects neoliberal and often-white feminist notions of beauty standards. For her, as the Ocalan quote alludes to, beauty is determined by her drive and involvement in self-liberation. The most “beautiful” are those who are most free; those who aspire towards this freedom deserve the most admiration and respect. Her physical attributes are inessential in the discussion. It is her activism, her political drive, her refusal to be subjected to patriarchal and oppressive structures, and her willingness to fight for her liberation, whether political or otherwise, which is the essential markers of her attractiveness. Furthermore, this aforementioned notion of “beauty” highlights beauty on an internal and spiritual level, rather than on the standard, capitalist and commodified notions of physical beauty.
The acceptance of this form of beauty is a conscious, political act filled with agency in the process of self-actualization for these women. The rejection of the traditional, patriarchal interpretations of beauty standards serves an individual and utilitarian objective in the pursuit of gender liberation. On the one hand, when she joins the YPJ, romantic and sexual attachments are strictly forbidden by the Kurdish movement. This restrictions plays several important roles: on the one hand Kurdish and Middle Eastern society is still overwhelmingly patriarchal and traditional and the involvement of women in armed conflict and such movements gained wide-spread support within the Kurdish and Arab communities because of the strict adherence to such moral codes as a means of protecting and preserving women’s honor and integrity, as well as largely that of the family. However, this perspective encourages her (and her society) to decolonize her mind from the traditionally entrenched mentality of women aspiring towards the only goal of marriage- and the associated linkages of the importance of beauty and sexuality.
This policy was also designed to protect women from sexual abuses within such military structures, but also to encourage her, as well as her male counterparts, to develop platonic relationships on an ideological level as opposed to traditional gender and sexual level. This process involves ongoing and consistent education to teach men and women to think on an entirely different political level, involving critical revisions and analysis of the subjugation of women under the patriarchy, within the nation-state system and liberation struggles. She knows therefore that while she is part of the YPJ certain strict restrictions and discipline is required as an active and conscious rejection of the sexualized role that women play within society, as sex objects, as wives, as mothers and as secondary, colonized citizens within general society. By embodying the alternative she presents a living model of a more complex, nuanced position as a woman who rejects the gender limitations and barriers under the capitalist system.
This restriction of course, also raises the philosophical issue of sex-negative feminism where sex, and generally marriage, is seen as negative and undesirable traits imposed on women. The Kurdish women’s liberation has yet to reach a position in reconciling the sexual needs and liberation of women within an ongoing patriarchal and traditional structure where trade-offs are required in response to that freedom. In this regard, the Kurdish women’s movement and the wider liberation movement is not entirely free from traditional and patriarchal structures and is still in some ways subject and subordinated to it. Nevertheless, this tradeoff is a politically savvy and rational choice that take into consideration the cultural-political terrain of the societies they live in, as the non-military aspects of the women’s movement work actively and tirelessly within the civil society sphere to promote an end to gender-based violence and oppression, including outlawing honor killings, polygamy, forced and child marriages, safe spaces, anti-domestic violence campaigns, and more. They know organic change takes time to be entrenched and gender liberation is not something that can be adopted collectively by society overnight.
Undoubtedly analyzing this “trade-off” may invoke uncomfortable feelings within modern, western, liberal notions of feminism, where women are encouraged to “have it all”. Some feminist movements have criticized the YPJ for this aspect. Movements such as “reclaim the night”, “slut walk”, “free the nipple”, and sex-positivity sphere that encourage public nudity and support for sex workers are largely Eurocentric movements, which are fundamentally removed and disconnected from the realities of women in places like the Middle East. The Kurdish women’s movement has generated criticism likewise for its incoherence on LGBTQAI+ and queer related issues. Some criticism is legitimate and needs to be addresses, however much of it relates to the ongoing trajectory of the social change, progress, education, liberalization and democratization processes within developing societies. The trajectory and direction of the gender liberation models within non-western contexts deserve their own autonomy and need to be led and owned by indigenous women living within these societies who can best determine the methods and mediums to negotiate extremely patriarchal and volatile societal terrains.
Overall, the revolutionary, gender liberating aspect of this freedom-grounded notion of beauty deserves much academic and scholarly attention. The existence and ongoing development of the concept of Jineology embodies that process perfectly, and doesn’t need the well-intentioned but often ill-informed input of feminists from abroad. Rather than gazing in awe at the YPJ or conversely trying to “modernize” them on their sexuality, the West would benefit more from learning from their words, actions, examples, and sacrifices. Yes they are true heroes for the entire world, but none of that is related to their outer beauty, but rather their internal principles.