How Kurdish Women Are Transforming and Democratising the Middle East

How Kurdish Women Are Transforming and Democratising the Middle East

How Kurdish Women Are Transforming and Democratising the Middle East

By Dr Shilan Fuad Hussain, Former Doctoral Fellow, Global Fellowship Initiative, GCSP

The story of the current Middle East cannot be fully understood without analysing the role that Kurds play in the region. Within this narrative, it is the unique role of Kurdish women in particular that deserves wider attention. Despite facing the dual struggles of gender and ethnic oppression, they have altered the political landscape. In fact, it can be argued that there is no other group in the Middle East that features a higher percentage of women serving leading roles. Moreover, when you consider that these Kurdish women are fighting for democracy (both diplomatically and militarily) in a region where women are traditionally sidelined and excluded from the public sphere, it makes their quest for equality all the more remarkable.

Essentially, the Kurdish women’s movement is engaged in a long-term process of transforming society by putting the “Kurdish question” and women’s rights issues on the international agenda. Kurdish women acting as guerrillas, human rights activists and members of parliament have spread the principle of gender equality throughout the Middle East. As a testament to their talents, they have also accomplished such feats while promoting dialogue, peace, security, and gender empowerment throughout Kurdistan and the Kurdish European diaspora.

While it is true that Kurds are not a monolith, it is helpful to begin any analysis with a general overview of the Kurdish situation. With an estimated population over 40 million, Kurds are often referred to as the “largest stateless group in the world”. For comparison, if Greater Kurdistan were an independent state, its population would be around the 37th-largest in the world, bigger than that of Canada and similar to that of a nation like Spain.


The problematic roots of Kurdistan

As for where Kurdistan is located, although the borders are not universally agreed upon, Kurdistan is usually described as comprising the four overlapping regions of south-eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, north-western Iran, and northern Syria. Since names themselves can hold political significance, Kurds often refer to these areas as Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western Kurdistan, respectively, signifying that they are divided and occupied entities of a potential Kurdish state. However, the four states of which these entities are a part fear that the Kurds’ desire for their own independent state threatens their viability as states or even their very existence. As a result, Kurds often claim that these states use the Kurdish nationalist desire as justification for oppression, language denial, and forced cultural assimilation.

Historically, Kurdistan does not exist as a separate state because the Kurdish homeland happened to be right at the center of several powerful blocs. After the First World War, when European powers were dividing up the defeated Ottoman Empire, the establishment of a Kurdish state was initially an objective of the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. But this objective did not form part of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which set the borders of the new Turkish Republic and left the other regions of Kurdistan divided between French and British colonial holdings (which were subsequently divided between Iraq and Syria). The current lack of a Kurdish state is central to understanding the ways in which Kurdish culture is now influencing the Middle East.

In addition, because historically Kurds have lived between empires and have been surrounded by so many different ethnicities and religions because of their position at the centre of the Middle East, Kurdish culture is fairly diverse and tolerant of differences. For instance, within the Kurdish community one can find Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and Alevi Muslims alongside Yazidis, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Jews. This appreciation for diversity has now manifested itself in an appreciation of the concepts of protecting minority rights and promoting democratic ideals within states that usually prefer homogeneous national identities.


Armed with jineology while defeating ISIS

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Kurdish women’s movement, which has deep roots in and is influencing the culture and politics of the Middle East in a number of ways. The ideological foundation of this movement is based on a philosophy known as jineology, which means “the science of women”. A number of political parties and movements adhere to jineology’s principles, with the best known being the women fighters of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) in northern Syria, an area that many Kurds refer to as “Rojava”, meaning west / sunset, an allusion to Western Kurdistan.

These YPJ fighters gained almost universal acclaim in the global West and around the world in 2014, as stories surfaced of their participation on the front lines in the fight against Islamic State (IS), in particular while defending the Kurdish city of Kobane. Ultimately, IS suffered its first defeat at Kobane, and images of young, unveiled, mostly Kurdish women YPJ fighters began to appear on magazine covers and in newspapers around the world. The YPJ were soon referred to in Western headlines as the “Angels of Kobane”, “America’s newest allies”, and the defenders of enlightenment principles such as secularism and democratic values against fanatical theocracy and totalitarianism.


Winning over the Western world

While it is true that these YPJ women likely gained some notoriety because they superficially fulfilled the West’s orientalist gaze – which was craving images of attractive young women battling IS barbarism – as reporters dug deeper they discovered the substance behind these women’s smiles. For instance, after visiting Kobane several times, the French writer Patrice Franceschi defined the war between IS and the Kurdish YPJ as being one of “Islamist fanatics” versus “democratic fanatics” who were defending Western values.

Despite the protests of the Turkish government – which argued that the YPJ was a “terrorist” organisation and its members no better than IS fighters because of their ideological connections to Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrillas who had been fighting government forces in south-east Turkey since 1984 – the United States and European Union saw them as heroines worthy of support. This assessment resulted in the US military (and later EU countries) entering into an alliance with the YPJ and their male counterparts in the People’s Defence Units (YPG) to defeat IS throughout Syria. Interestingly, this decision was largely supported by a Western public on both the political right and left wings as the Kurdish YPJ became the other side of a good-versus-evil narrative, with IS as the ultimate villains. The European left saw the YPJ as quasi-socialist egalitarians battling the patriarchy, while the US right saw them as the first line of defence against jihadi terrorism and Islamist extremism.

With Western military support to assist their cause and Western volunteers (both women and men) travelling to Syria to fight alongside them, the YPJ provided an alternative image of women in the Middle East. To many Europeans or Americans, these often-young women between the ages of 18 and 25 looked similar to their own daughters, except that they wore camouflage uniforms, carried AK-47s, and were deployed as snipers against IS militants who hoped to force them into sexual slavery.


“Democratic confederalism” and the Rojava blueprint

Alongside their military engagement, the YPJ’s wider philosophy known as “democratic confederalism” has tenets devoted to promoting women’s equality, protecting ethnic minorities, preserving the environment – what it calls “social ecology” – and combatting the economic inequities found in unregulated capitalism. Its members have also formed women-only organisations, and insist that half of all government funds are spent on women’s projects. In addition, in the areas of Syria that it controls, the YPJ has made child marriage illegal to protect young girls, outlawed the policy of men taking multiple wives, and established ways for women to report abuse by male family members or husbands, with such abuse carrying severe criminal penalties.

The focus on women also led to a policy called the “co-chair” system, in terms of which it is law in YPJ-controlled areas that all positions of authority are held by a woman and a man with equal collaborative power. This has meant that when US or Russian diplomats meet the “Kurdish” sides in Syria (which are now multi-ethnic), they are sitting down with women and men in equal proportions.

As a result, women in Kurdish areas of Syria – now officially called the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) – hold 50 per cent of all official positions, which would make their government perhaps the most gender equal in the world. Alongside gender, they have also implemented policies that protect the participation of ethnic minorities in city and canton councils, meaning that even in majority-Kurdish cities, representatives of the Armenian, Assyrian, Circassian, Turkmen and Arab communities have a role in reaching decisions, which require full consensus.

In another point of irony, the YPJ’s women fighters are often hailed in Western nations where women do not traditionally serve in combat, and even applauded by conservative individuals who have typically argued that women are unable to serve in combat alongside men. However, in the case of the YPJ’s fighters, they are held up as inspirational figures.

It should also be pointed out that less than 1,000 km away in varying directions can be found countries where other Middle Eastern women are banned from driving, not permitted to leave home without a male guardian, handed over by parents to arranged or forced marriages, compelled to wear various hair and body coverings, and forced to undergo female genital mutilation – all of which makes the sight of young YPJ women fighting and helping to defeat an IS ideology which argues that they are inferior beings all the more dramatic.


Rooted in heroism and sacrifice

Of course, it should be pointed out that these YPJ women did not arise from nowhere; they come from a long ling of Kurdish women revolutionaries who have been challenging dictatorships and authoritarian policies for decades. Ranging from a young student named Leyla Qasim – who challenged Saddam Hussein in the 1970s, was convicted in a televised show trial and executed by hanging – to the politician Hevrin Khalaf – who most recently devoted her energies to building ethnic bridges between Muslims and Christians in Syria before she was pulled from her vehicle and executed by Salafi extremists in Syria in 2019 – YPJ members are mostly carrying a torch that was lit long before the rise of IS.

The YPJ in Syria are also part of an administration represented by the diplomat Ilham Ahmed, who sits on the AANES Executive Council. She has been part of an effort to establish a social contract designed to protect multi-ethnicity, abolish the death penalty (even for captured IS fighters), match the freedoms laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, guarantee protection for freedom of expression, and reorganise Syria into a decentralised state with local civilian councils guaranteeing the rights of all ethnicities, including recognising the rights of Kurds in the Syrian Constitution. Recent months have seen Ahmed travel to the United States and Russia to meet with both governments, in the hope of reaching a deal to finally end the almost-decade-long civil war in Syria.

If such a deal is eventually reached in Syria, a lasting symbol of the YPJ’s rise over the last seven years will be the Arin Mirkan statue in the city of Kobane. She was a young woman who signed up to defend the city against IS and found herself surrounded by IS fighters and tanks in October 2014. As a final act of defiance, she threw herself under one of their tanks and detonated explosives rather than be captured, which led to the city later constructing a large statue of her with angel’s wings in the city square.

While Kurdish women are challenging autocracy and male dominance in many ways outside Syria, ranging from being jailed as musicians and artists for defending Kurdish cultural rights in Turkey to being jailed for teaching the Kurdish language in Iran, the one thing that is clear is that the Middle East will never be the same after the rise of this new wave of women who are willing to sacrifice everything to augment their freedom. They have proved themselves to be perfectly capable political agents who can defend themselves on the battlefield, administer organisations, and challenge authoritarianism, all the while being threatened with arrest and torture. As a result, their achievements have gradually filtered their principles down into the wider society – and, indeed, the wider region.


Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in the written publications are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those shared by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy or its employees. The GCSP is not responsible for and may not always verify the accuracy of the information contained in the written publications submitted by a writer.

Dr Shilan Fuad Hussain is a Middle East and Kurdish studies expert and a Researcher at the GCSP.