Q. by some hopeful female photographer? If one assumes

Q. Discuss at least one arena where traditional gendered norms and
relations are being challenged. Draw on one source (for e.g. literary, popular
culture, or visuals) in support of your argument.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A young woman dressed in a military uniform holds a gun. With her stark
shadow against the wall, she seems comfortable in her posture and looks
directly at the viewer, while her face holds determination. What is a woman
doing dressed like a man and holding a gun? Is she a soldier fighting a battle
or is she a fictional character from a fantasy driven project by some hopeful
female photographer?

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If one assumes to not know the story behind the image, it certainly
piques their curiosity and stirs up notions of warfare being a ‘male’ domain where
women are only seen as bodies that need protection. The portrait challenges exactly
that as seen here is a 22-year-old female Kurdish fighter named Serjin who is part
of the YPJ (Women’s protection unit), an all women’s brigade that grew out of the
Kurdish resistance movement. Her very presence in the image challenges the
notions and stereotypes that demand her to be invisible.

 

The all female militia that is closely linked with the PKK1,
apart from fighting for the rights of the Kurdish people has been actively
involved in the war against ISIS. These women fight neck to neck alongside the
men as active participants and have taken up leading roles as military
commanders of both men and women. In doing so, the Kurdish women fighters are
subverting and challenging traditional gender norms where traditionally
military service is associated with manhood. The most crucial aspect to their
fight is the larger cause attached to the movement; the fight for women’s right
and liberation from patriarchal domination. They advocate the need for equality
in the society through the dismantling of patriarchal gender constructs.

 

This essay aims to discuss how the Kurdish women fighters and their
liberation ideology are challenging conventional gender norms and relations in
spaces that are traditionally masculine. The essay draws on two visual sources;
the work of Sonja Hamad who has photographed the Kurdish women fighters and the
documentary titled ‘Kurdistan: Women at war.’

 

 

BACKGROUND

 

One of the elements that strike out in the Kurdish movement is the
successful mobilization of women in large numbers. However, this wasn’t the
case always as the gendered Kurdish society bound women under various “patriarchal
attachments when it came to nationalist movement (Ça?layan 2012:9).  In the early 20th century, women
were seen as mere carriers and sustainers of the authentic essence of Kurdish
culture. They were expected to adhere to women oriented tasks by mainly serving
as “symbols and boundary markers”  in the
nationalist discourse (Ça?layan 2012:2). The association of women with ‘namus’2 and
the need for its protection meant that women were controlled and kept locked up
in their homes. Because women were considered to be “biological and cultural
reproducers of the ethnic community”, it allowed for the control of their
behavior and bodies under the guise of the nation (Ça?layan 2012:5). Additionally,
the homeland was identified as a female body and this particular construction
called out to the men to become “gatekeepers” and fulfill their duties by
protecting women. (Ça?layan 2012:7). This clearly served as a tool of
patriarchal control, giving women the status of secondary citizens. Thus, it is
evident that’s the nationalist movement in the early 20th century
was wound up in patriarchal structures.

 

The first sign of change was made evident under the leadership and
philosophy of the PKK leader, Ocalan, who realized the importance of women’s
participation in nationalist movements and adopted gender equality as a mobilization
strategy. PKK became one of the most crucial parties to take up the political
agenda of Turkey’s Kurds and the discrimination they faced by the state. Apart
from prioritizing the question of modernization of the Kurdish society, women’s
“secondary and dependent position” was also seen as a pragmatic problem. (Ça?layan
2012:9). He called for the men to fight for the homeland and attempted to
“shift namus’s field of signification from the female body to the homeland”( Ça?layan
2012:12). It affected the inherent relation between the homeland and the female
body by redefining love in the context of love for the homeland. This in turn allowed
for women’s freedom of movement enabling them to move out of their homes as
well as break out of the patriarchal control (Ça?layan 2012:12).

 

 

The results became evident by the end of
1980’s as more and more women started to appear in political meetings and public
demonstrations. Along side that, the active involvement and efforts by one of
the founding members of the PKK, Sakine Cansiz, also resulted in encouraging
the involvement of women in the struggle. As illustrated in the documentary, coming
from the Alevi belief where men and women were considered equals, Sakine, wondered
as to why gender equality and basic ethnic rights were being denied in that day
and age. Arrested during the student protest and revolts in the late 1970’s,
she refused to die down and initiated an atmosphere of rebellion and solidarity
amongst the women in jail, where women rights weren’t granted. Unafraid, she
soon became a symbol of resistance inside and outside the jail and had a great
impact on the wives, sisters and daughters of those imprisoned. Once released,
she dreamt of organizing an army of women for fighting not just for the rights
of her people but also aiming for a gender equal future. Öcalan

facilitated women’s struggle by encouraging them to form independent
armies and institutions (üstünda? 2016:4).

 

By 1990’s, the woman’s army moved up to the mountains of Qandil and
received autonomy. Many women from the villages joined the protest against the
oppression of the Kurds and “combatted for the homeland side by side with men” (Ça?layan
2012:13). Women’s extensive participation affected “the over all gender
composition” of the movement and the “ideological and political discourse” (Ça?layan
2012:13,14). Unlike the 1980’s it wasn’t just men fighting for the homeland but
women too, and in numbers that cannot be undervalued (Ça?layan 2012:14). These
female fighters were challenging spaces that were dominated and run by men. The
impact of the movement was felt not just on the “ideological political
discourse” but also on the organizational front (Ibid:14). The women were no
longer seen as mere objects waiting to be liberated, instead they moved out of
their homes and became actively involved in the resistance movement, at par
with men. Their very presence in the arena of war challenged the traditional
gender norms associated with military operations.

 

As Ocalan (1996:176) said “It may be difficult but women joining the
army means taking the most radical step to equality and freedom. If we can’t be
as great as the situation demands, we will finish ourselves off. Because no
army has ever done so. If we do this, the radical solution will follow. That
is, not only an instrument of war, not even for a liberation personality, but
to achieve a living personality.” The ideological framework of the equality of
men and women was stressed on and the relationship between men and women were
reorganized on the “basis of equality”(Ça?layan 2012:15). Ocalan believed that
if “we want to build a new society, we must realize this new society, equality,
freedom, esteem and love amongst ourselves first.” (Ibid:15)

 

The equal participation of women in the movement was telling of the new
society and the rise in women’s liberation during mid nineties. Women were
encouraged to “question their relations with men and society and to redefine
them in a way that would make them equal” (Ça?layan 2012:16). This was believed
to lead to the “enlightenment of the entire society” (Ibid:16). What also
challenges gender relations here is that normally “men set binding conditions
for women in ethnic-national processes”, but here women were also doing the
same for men. All this lead to reaffirmed that “women had to be independent of
men and men had to stay away from establishing patriarchal dominance over
women.” (Ibid:16)

 

Hence, the foundation for an equal society, free of gender
discrimination was being laid. Traditional gender relations and gender norms are
being confronted at every step leading to a more equal society.

 

 

THE PRESENT

 

The ideologies around women’s liberation and their involvement in the
armed struggle has only grown and led to the formation of the YPJ, an all
women’s brigade fighting ISIS. These Kurdish female fighters engaged on the
frontlines are responsible for the independence of Rojava in Northern Syria.

They have also played an important role in the liberation of Tell Abyad and
Kobane. Unafraid, there relentless fight against ISIS is not just territorial
but it is a fight against patriarchy, to fulfill the establishment of a gender
equal society. They believe that if ISIS is not defeated, it’s crass ideology
of sexism, patriarchy and feudalism will prevail resulting in a dark future
especially for women. The spokesperson of the YPG, Nesrin Abdullah says “Because as the women of the YPJ, we aim not only
liberation from ISIS but also a liberation of mentality and thoughts.

Democratic culture and fraternal life must be deepened because war is not only
the liberation of land. We are also fighting for the liberation of women and
men. If not, the patriarchal system will prevail once again.” The ISIS
has kidnapped, raped and sold a large number of women and these actions on
their behalf attracts a large number of women to join the armed combat. According
to some fighters, ISIS believes that if they die at the hands of a woman, they
will go directly to hell. Considering that one-third of all Kurdish fighters
are women, ISIS has a large chance of landing in hell.

 

These courageous women refuse to succumb to the conventional view of
women that demands them to be trapped in their homes, waiting to be treated
like objects upholding family honor. They are rejecting traditional gender
relations by refusing to be just logistic providers to the male fighters or
just take part in protests. Rather, they have taken the fight against
patriarchal forces in their own hands and have stepped out of their homes and
into the battlefield. They are safeguarding their own future by deciding their
own fate. It is fascinating to see the “boundaries between patriarchy and
liberation being redrawn against the backdrop of conflict” (Prerana 2016:2).

 

The documentary provides a glimpse into their determination and
commitment to their cause as they laugh and go along chanting – women, freedom,
life. An army is typically a space which is “conducive to the creation of
masculinity” reminiscent of male characteristics Prerana 2016:2). But these
women portray a “side of military that involves itself in activities beyond
combat” (Ibid:2). These female fighters are “teaching young men the functioning
of feminism in everyday life” through regularly organized camps. They are
imparting the message of “unlearning patriarchy and holding other members of
the society responsible” (Ibid:2). This trait is unique to the Kurdish women’s
army and defies the male hegemonic-ness of military functioning (Ibid: 2). Yet
again, we see how these female fighters are subverting gendered norms.

 

 

The women in Rojava are also building a village called ‘Jinwar’ meant
exclusively for women. ‘Jin’ which means woman in Kurdish language will be a
space for women where they will live together as a commune. Breaking away from
patriarchy is a big challenge and many women who take this step need a place to
call home. It welcomes women who decide to remain unmarried, widows, those who
have faced violence at the hands of patriarchy or those who are looking for a
safe place to stay with their children. The women themselves are building the
village and its very existence challenges the conventional norm that women need
a husband and a family for a respectable life. “The village will be an autonomous space, a space of
women to live freely and to regain the confidence, strength and creativity that
have been undermined in the long historical process of an ever deeper and
broader systematization of state, capitalism and patriarchy.” This space will
allow women to disconnect with patriarchy and reconnect with themselves.

 

 

Conclusion

 

Thus, we see how the Kurdish women fighters have been challenging
traditional gender norms and relations since the 1980’s. The Kurdish women’s
movement gives one hope for a future where women will be truly liberated and
free. A future that will witness a gender equal society without any form of
patriarchy. They truly make you dream of a Utopian world which makes one
hopeful. As a student of Gender studies and someone who is constantly striving
for a gender equal society, the Kurdish fighters leave me with lots to think
about our future as women.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Namus – control over the female body and sexuality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1
The PKK is a Marxist Guerrilla organization founded in 1978 and fought against
the Turkish state on behalf of the Kurds.

2
The concept of honor that controls women’s sexuality and bodies.