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Ladies at Conflict within the Center East: Gendered Dynamics of ISIS and the Kurdish YPJ

The Syrian battle noticed the conflict of two state-building teams with starkly contrasting ideologies. The Islamic State (ISIS) sought to construct a world theocratic state underpinned by strict gender segregation underneath Sharia Legislation (Khelghat-Doost 2017: 25). ISIS not solely conquered an unlimited territorial base, but in addition noticed the unprecedented recruitment of overseas fighters – as many as 5000 of which had been girls (Prepare dinner 2019: 10). Ladies had been central to ISIS’ state-building imaginative and prescient and carried out various roles underneath Caliphate rule. Opposing ISIS is the Yekîneyên Parastina Jin (YPJ), an all-female Kurdish militia branching out from Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (PYD), The Democratic Union Social gathering. It espouses concepts central to conventional Western leftist actions corresponding to democratic participation and egalitarian social buildings. The importance of girls’s participation within the YPJ ought to be understood within the wider geopolitical context of the Kurdish state-building challenge within the Center East. Kurdistan has, after many years of activism, but to grow to be a sovereign state, with its present territories overlapping Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, and Kurdish girls have campaigned for political rights because the Nineteen Eighties (Al-Ali and Tas 2017: 5).

Ladies’s participation in armed battle is just not particular to the Center East, however the gender politics of the area give rise to a level of sensationalism round extremely politicised imagery of feminine ISIS recruits and YPJ militants. The target of this essay is to maneuver past an empiricist epistemology, and in doing so, it builds on a conceptual framework of essential feminist concept. Feminist concept conceptualises contested narratives of essentialist gendered topics and the way they’re represented, specializing in perceptions of company relative to femininity and motherhood. Following on, it can discover girls’s positions throughout the ISIS Caliphate and their militarisation within the YPJ. The 2 circumstances might be in contrast and evaluated towards the theoretical framework with emphasis on problematising the gendered perceptions of girls as brokers in battle. Extra particularly, it can consider the sensible and normative significance of girls’s participation in ISIS and the YPJ – each in a Center Jap and broader worldwide context. Total, the principle argument of the essay is {that a} gendered lens on girls’s participation within the Syrian battle highlights components essential to understanding the complete scope of Center Jap violent politics. Nonetheless, this offers rise to a normative problem: in understanding girls actors particularly as girls, there’s a danger of cementing the gendered buildings of battle reasonably than trying past them.

Feminist concept: Conceptualising the feminine agent

There’s a huge physique of feminist IR concept specializing in the gendered dimensions of battle. The juxtaposition of inherently violent masculinity and pacifist/nurturing femininity gives an essentialist understanding of gendered roles in battle and decide actors’ violent capabilities (Steans 2006: 63; Youngs 2004: 76). As phrased by main feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe, the dominant expectation is that “Males are simply naturally those that wield violence” (Enloe 2006: viii). Situating males and masculinities within the public realm of warfare and violence and girls within the non-public/home realm, just one is introduced as having political company while the opposite is by nature acted upon (Tervooren 2016: 9; Tickner 1992: 3). Feminist concept addresses the normative balancing act between highlighting gendered oppression and violence towards girls towards discourses that successfully render girls as passive victims outlined by their violability (Shepherd 2007: 10). A singular give attention to girls as completely victims of conflicts obscure girls’s various roles, together with that of perpetrators (Ibid).

The query of company is central to feminist concept and might be critically employed all through this essay. Feminist concept engages repeatedly with discourses framing company as emancipatory, which renders the dedication of company as the usual towards which levels of liberation and participation are judged (Benhabib 1995: 21). Auchter contests this binary give attention to company as constitutive of topic identities, claiming that this obscures the a number of and even conflicting roles girls inhabit (Auchter 2012: 120). This conceptualisation might be employed to analyse contrasts between perceptions of ISIS and YPJ girls in public discourse the place girls are, as Auchter elucidates, both “a both sufferer of a patriarchal system or agent enabled with a takeover of that patriarchal system” (ibid). This notably pertains to the ladies of ISIS as moms, the place company is constructed in opposition to motherhood (Ähall 2012: 288).

ISIS’ pearls: The feminine face of the Caliphate

ISIS differs markedly from different Islamist terrorist teams in its state-building imaginative and prescient. A theocratic state with a wide range of public features necessitated the recruitment of not simply combatants, however folks to fill various societal roles (Khelghaat-Doost 2019: 856). Whereas Western media representations of feminine ISIS recruits initially referred to them as “jihadi brides” and “home servants”, in actuality girls had been concerned in actions starting from on-line propaganda to navy intelligence-gathering (Hoyle et al. 2016: 10; Martini 2018: 459). Equally to YPJ militants as explored under, worldwide media sensationalised girls’s participation in ISIS as a transparent violation of gendered expectations (Nacos 2006: 437). Whereas the preliminary focus exhibited a transparent tendency to trivialise girls’s political motivations, over time because the extent of girls’s participation in ISIS actions grew to become evident, their endorsement of Islamic fundamentalism was more and more positioned as a “betrayal of womenkind” (Dagbladet 2019). The female beliefs of a Sharia-based Islamist state embrace the gendered essentialism which within the West has largely grow to be synonymous with oppression.

A complete report by the Worldwide Centre for the Examine of Radicalisation (ICSR) established that the principle so-called “pull” issue main girls to hitch the Caliphate was the notion that there was a chosen place for them in ISIS’ superb society (Saltman, Smith 2015: 19). Whereas many had confronted discrimination and cultural limitations to societal participation in liberal Western societies, the promise of another state the place girls by advantage of being girls constituted an express asset was alluring to notably younger girls missing a way of group (Shorer 2018: 100; Klausen 2015: 3). Conformity to such inflexible gender roles can seem unfathomable in gentle of the aforementioned feminist logic that characterises political company by its transgression of oppressive energy buildings. It will due to this fact be straightforward to conclude as many have finished, that feminine ISIS recruits had been oppressed and coerced into submission to a patriarchal state order. Nonetheless, this excludes the opportunity of company when the roles taken on don’t conform to a set normative normal. It may certainly be argued that feminine ISIS recruits have displayed larger ranges of company and political convictions in becoming a member of the Caliphate than male overseas fighters, as a result of they face larger societal limitations to go away their households for an extremist organisation (Davis 2008: 50).

As well as, by equating girls’s participation within the home sphere with a renunciation of company and due to this fact energy, girls’s authority over new generations of radicalised youth are obscured (Vale 2019: 6). As moms the ladies had been liable for the ideological training of future ISIS fighters. Fostering ideological convictions amongst girls recruits translated into an elevated recruitment-base as a result of inter-generational character of the Caliphate. Therefore, a reductionist understanding of motherhood and company/energy as oppositional neglects the violent political potential inherent to familial relationships (Seierstad 2016: 376).

Consequently, it’s important to analyse ISIS strategic imaginative and prescient for girls’s participation to know the gendered dynamics of the Caliphate. As a result of girls’s position as not solely moms within the literal sense, however their symbolic worth as moms of the nation, ISIS crafted their recruitment propaganda as deliberately women-centric (Hoyle et al. 2015: 10). Whereas different well-known terrorist organisations of the Center East primarily utilised girls in tactical operations on account of their inconspicuousness as brokers of violence, ISIS strategically employed girls of their in depth on-line recruitment course of as a way to appeal to different girls (Spencer 2016: 90; Pearson 2018: 855). Owing to girls’s conventional societal roles, feminine recruits had been strategically employed to reinforce the credibility of ISIS’ state-building challenge, seeing because the closely circulated information tales of males conquering territory and committing sexual violence towards enemy populations was thought-about to be of restricted worth in enhancing feminine recruitment (Shorer 2018: 90).

ISIS’ gender ideology was strategically communicated by the group’s prime management. As girls had been, predictably, deemed unfit for fight, they had been as an alternative posited because the Caliphate’s supply of religious legitimacy (Vale 2019: 4). There are few testimonies from feminine ISIS recruits obtainable, however those who exist underline a need for creating a brand new society which positioned essentialist femininity at its ideological core (Peresin, Cervone 2015: 499). Ladies had been represented because the carriers of the religious-national identification. ISIS positioned girls as faces of a gendered Center Jap order, in direct opposition to the narrative of Muslim girls going through marginalisation within the West (ibid).

Nonetheless, the inflexible gender hierarchy and gender-segregated areas underneath ISIS’ rule was additionally a supply of inner pressure. Ladies had been required to be veiled in a niqab displaying solely their eyes, thus eradicating their private presence from public life (Yilmaz 2017: 27). While this was ideologically rationalised to protect religious purity and cling to Sharia legislation’s strict honour code, externally the elimination of female our bodies from the political scene carried a heavy symbolism for what constituted a girl’s place within the Center East (Winter 2015: 17; Ingram et al 2020: 199). Whereas ISIS required girls to carry out various roles to maintain its operations, gendered politics required that this be balanced towards spiritual purity – leading to disillusionment amongst feminine recruits who had imagined a extra participatory mannequin of societal interplay between the genders (Huey, Witmer 2016: 2). A compromise to quell the rising inner dissent was achieved by the institution of the Al-Khansaa brigade, an all-women’s police drive whose major accountability was guaranteeing adherence to gendered guidelines of modesty and public morality (Almohammad and Speckhard 2017: 6; Winter 2015: 22). Offenders would obtain punishment within the type of torture and even dying (ibid).

But, because the anti-ISIS coalition gained floor and ISIS’ territorial base more and more weakened, girls’s participation grew extra militant out of necessity. Traditionally, violent teams have elevated their recruitment of girls when ranks of male combatants grew skinny (Davis 2008: 85). Within the case of ISIS, girls had been already energetic in non-military roles, however as acknowledged above, this pacification was not unchallenged. The territorial weakening of ISIS thus enabled girls to assert extra militarised roles – which ought to function a reminder of their capability for violence, an element that has been persistently undermined in public debates following the Caliphate’s fall (Khelghaat-Doost 2019: 870). Moreover, after the autumn of the Caliphate, ISIS girls detained in refugee camps have dedicated violence corresponding to stoning and even homicide towards these they understand to transgress Sharia ethical code (Washington Publish 2019). In truth, some researchers predict that the probability of girls committing violent acts has elevated following the collapse of the gender-policing restrictions underneath ISIS rule (Peresin and Cervone 2015: 499).

To summarise, girls’s roles within the ISIS Caliphate didn’t see them attaining positions of energy within the organisation’s higher management buildings. They had been concurrently featured closely in ISIS propaganda and barred from taking part as political actors outdoors of strictly ascribed roles. Ladies recruits negotiated new roles as the inner and exterior dynamics of the Syrian battle advanced. Nonetheless, the glorified imagery of “pure” girls’s lives within the Caliphate stand in stark distinction to the mass atrocities dedicated towards girls of enemy populations such because the Yezidis and Kurdish girls in the course of the ISIS offensive (Enloe 2000: 190; Yilmaz 2017: 20)

YPJ: The feminist militia of the Center East?

In distinction to violent spiritual teams, nationalist actions traditionally have seen a a lot bigger proportion of feminine members (Davis 2008: 17). Ladies combatants are estimated to represent over a 3rd of Kurdish armed forces (Bengio 2016: 39). Along with the just about 10 000 Kurdish girls from the Center East engaged in fight and supporting roles, a whole lot of girls from the Kurdish diaspora have travelled to the battle zone to hitch the Western-backed anti-ISIS coalition by the YPJ (Knapp et al. 2016: 107). After Assad’s regime withdrew from northern Syria – Kuridish Rojava – in 2012, the Kurdish forces established an autonomous native authority which might later grow to be a key characteristic within the battle towards ISIS (ibid).

The YPJ’s ideological rationale is predicated upon Jineology, a distinctly Kurdish feminism that establishes the liberation of ladies and men from dichotomous gender buildings because the cornerstone of a democratic confederalist society (Düzgün 2016: 285). Not like a lot of “mainstream” feminist concept which emphasise the universalist buildings affecting girls as a gaggle, Jineology locations girls’s native expertise at its ideological centre. Thus, Jineology is extra intently associated to postcolonial feminism in its emphasis on intersectionality – outlined as “the popularity of overlapping marginal identities” corresponding to ethnicity and sophistication, contextualising girls’s participation the historic Kurdish battle for independence (Crenshaw 1991: 1242; Dirik 2015: 63). Its goal nevertheless, is equally emancipatory to essential feminist concept, in that it seeks to dismantle oppressive social buildings and defines its topics in opposition to a patriarchal, colonialist, and capitalist world order (ibid). It’s, nevertheless, unclear how the deconstruction of gendered identities will manifest, and important voices problematise the prospect of an extra militarisation of Kurdish society (Morgan 2019: vi).

The YPJ fighters gained widespread worldwide consideration for efficiently countering ISIS’ tried siege of town Kobanî in Rojava. The potent symbolism of feminine guerrilla fighters taking over arms towards ISIS positioned them as feminist warriors combating the embodiment of patriarchy (Dean 2019: 5). Certainly, YPJ banners in native strongholds proclaim: “we are going to defeat the assaults of ISIS by guaranteeing the liberty of girls within the Center East” (Dirik 2015: 66). This dynamic has been extensively represented in worldwide media as a conflict of not simply sectarian teams on a battlefield, however as an ideological battle with doubtlessly important repercussions throughout the Center East (Begikhani et al. 2018: 15). Cultural components have been highlighted to exacerbate the ideological pressure – a frequently-cited instance is the idea held by militant Islamist teams like ISIS that fighters killed by girls is not going to go to paradise nor obtain their promised virgins (The Unbiased 2016; The Telegraph 2014). Thus, the “female essence” of YPJ militants represents what can solely be characterised as an irony-laden feminist revenge. As phrased by Dirik: “The YPJ should not solely combating towards ISIS, they’re combating for feminism and gender equality – they usually’re doing it with concepts and bullets alike” (Dirik 2015: 69).

The sensationalised broadcast of YPJ militants stands in distinction to many Western authorities positions on the Kurdish problem. In truth, the Kurdish Employee’s Social gathering (PKK), which YPJ is loosely affiliated with, has been labelled a terrorist group by the US and several other European states (Haner et al. 2019: 16). Nonetheless, within the context of the Center East the place girls are largely assumed to be oppressed and barred from significant political engagement, YPJ represents a hanging new picture. Their militaristic anti-ISIS stance is deducted from a multifaceted Kurdish girls’s activist motion, of which energetic fight constitutes just one half (Dean 2019: 4). YPJ battle not solely to liberate girls from the patriarchy, however to liberate all Kurdish folks from ethnic oppression and fulfil the nationalist imaginative and prescient (Çaha 2011: 435). This angle is underexplored within the cited media articles, suggesting that whereas the YPJ could get pleasure from Western backing as feminist fighters towards Islamic fundamentalism, this endorsement doesn’t prolong past the anti-ISIS coalition. Thus, the gendered spectacle of feminine militarism overshadows, and in some circumstances depoliticises the ideologically motivated participation of Kurdish girls of their battle for political revolution (Ibid).

Moreover, the YPJ’s efforts to free Yezidi slaves from ISIS provides one other layer of complexity to the gendered dynamics of the group. The mass-scale of sexual violence dedicated towards the Yezidi inhabitants is emphasised as being each a person motivation for girls to hitch the YPJ, and on a structural stage it underlined a necessity for an all-female armed group (Küçük and Özselçuk 2016: 184). On this regard, YPJ represents a departure from the oft-cited and closely criticised Orientalist discourse of Western saviourism: “White males saving brown girls from brown males” in that ladies are central brokers shaping the battle (Spivak 1994: 107; Shahvisi 2018: 4). Nonetheless, the dialogue of victimhood and liberation from oppressive buildings might be ambiguous. The time period “sufferer” is more and more related to passivity and has been changed by “survivor” in discourses on sexual violence to foster extra empowering connotations. But, utilising victimhood to affect coverage and obtain justice can arguably be a show of company, as evident within the worldwide recognition of ISIS’ genocidal conflict towards Yezidis (Murad 2017). The Kurdish and Yezidi girls of the YPJ can thus be seen as not solely saving themselves from violence – however establishing new societal positions for girls altogether.

On this regard, the YPJ are combating a two-front battle. The YPJ’s acknowledged goal is institutionalising girls’s self-defence towards male violence, not simply within the excessive type of ISIS, but in addition the home and structural violence they face throughout instances of “peace” (Dean 2019: 7). This displays Cockburn’s declare that males’s violence towards girls in conflict solely exacerbates the violence dedicated always in society, thus situating violence on a continuum (Cockburn 2001: 13). The position of girls in traditionalist Kurdish society has been closely problematised. As an illustration, the prevalence of sexual violence, social and financial repression of girls and dangerous practices corresponding to feminine genital mutilation (FGM) (Al-Ali and Tas 2017: 3; Yasin et al. 2013).

In different phrases, the ascendance of the YPJ inside a nationalist motion with extremely contradictory ideology and societal observe highlights the contesting dynamics that affect girls’s participation – and in flip is influenced by the position girls declare throughout political areas. Not like the case of ISIS, the place the inner gender hierarchies are nearly charicaturesque of their extremity, the gendered dynamics of the YPJ are extra ambiguous. Nonetheless, one may argue that it’s exactly these inner contestations that has led to the emergence of various girls’s activism and participation, not least on the battlefield (Begikhani et al. 2018: 6).

Synthesis: Gendered company and illustration of girls in conflict

A distinctly normative analytical sample seems when evaluating the importance of girls’s participation in armed battle, within the Center East and past. Ladies’s roles are positioned on a spectrum of oppression and emancipation. That is maybe unsurprising given the explicitly acknowledged emancipatory agenda elucidated by nearly all of feminist IR theorists – whose analysis represent the majority of educational work on gender points (Tickner 1992: 10; Enloe 2006: vii). Nonetheless, it’s crucial to discover what implications could come up from viewing the conformity towards/transgression of stereotypical roles because the defining lens by which to know the dynamics of girls’s taking part in Center Jap conflicts. By attaching a optimistic agential worth to sure roles there’s a danger of obscuring extra refined buildings of violence. In gendering company, there are implications for which representations of girls are thought-about political – and thereby covetable.

On the core of a few of these emancipatory discourses lies an implicit assumption that ladies who transgress the assumed limitations of their gender and tackle extra masculine roles are probably the most “free”, and by extension, extra politically related. Following this, one may query whether or not these discourses the truth is reinforce hierarchical gender buildings, the place conventional female attributes and societal roles are considered as lesser than the masculine. As quoted by an informant of the CNN in a portrait interview with YPJ fighters: “The feminine Kurdish fighters have had a “particular impression on the male a part of Kurdish society (…) Once they see girls with weapons and combating, they study to respect them.” (CNN 2019) By stating that ladies should successfully tackle historically masculine roles – and accepting these as unproblematic and undeserving of analytical scrutiny in a manner that female roles should not – the crux of the controversy then turns into: are girls thought-about most agential, most harmful, most political, after they take up arms and therefore appear extra like males?

The general public debate surrounding feminine ISIS returnees is an illustrative instance of comparable patterns of gendered agential inscriptions. The general public/non-public dichotomy that feminist lecturers have disputed for many years seems to hold important weight when figuring out which girls represent safety threats and which don’t (Steans 2003: 60). Starting from NGOs to relations of the overseas fighters, those that downplay the ladies’s company actively use essentialist femininity to de-politicise and de-securitise the ladies’s participation (Dagbladet 2019b;Hansen 2006: 37). The ladies are described as non-threatening as a result of they’re moms – the conceptual dissonance between motherhood to terrorism seems to make the 2 identities not possible to reconcile (Ähall 2012: 290). Moreover, these discourses downplay the political elements of girls’s motivation to hitch ISIS, as an alternative characterising them in private phrases as “brainwashed”, “exploited” and “in the hunt for love” (Pearson 2018: 860). Apparently, and maybe concerningly, this view can also be expressed by civil society actors working with grassroots de-radicalisation efforts particularly aimed toward girls (JAN Belief 2019).

The absence of a corresponding dialogue over the political company and risk potential of male fighters reinforces the purpose that ladies are repeatedly subjected to a means of “gendering” vis-à-vis a masculine normative normal, by which their actions are understood and judged (Shepherd 2007 143). Whereas girls’s participation is evaluated towards their femininity and standing as moms, males’s company is assumed as a political reality unrelated to gendered components. In different phrases, the discursive development of gendered identities has profound implications for the way girls’s participation in violent battle is known. The difficulty of company finally turns into a problem of accountability, which might be extremely related in prison prosecutions underneath anti-terrorism laws.

Nonetheless, even discourses of empowerment by violence dangers representing girls in an identical hierarchical agential order as famous above. While girls guerrilla fighters are naturally assumed to be liberated, girls represented as victims of conflict are assumed to be oppressed and in want of liberation. These singular depictions of girls’s lived expertise neglect the multifaceted identities girls inhabit which might be repeatedly produced and reproduced (Shepherd 2007: 151). In attaching much less determinism to the hyperlink between illustration and perceived company, the complete range of girls’s participation could inform nuanced tutorial evaluation – and by extension, overseas and safety coverage.


It stays to be seen which roles girls of ISIS and the YPJ maintain post-conflict. Traditionally, girls who transgress gender-stereotypical roles throughout instances of battle are sometimes “re-traditionalised” when peace resumes (Al-Ali and Pratt 2009: 177). Following Turkey’s invasion of Syria, the political destiny of each detained ISIS fighters and Kurdish forces is very unsure. Apparently, and as many would declare, unjustly; girls of each ISIS and the YPJ are categorized as overseas fighters underneath the identical anti-terrorism laws. In leaving Western nations to hitch an armed group abroad, additionally YPJ recruits may very well be prosecuted upon their return as an alternative of celebrated – as they had been in Western media all through the battle – for his or her counterinsurgency efforts (Palani 2019: 253; UNSCR 2178). Their feminist rationale for combating within the anti-ISIS coalition paradoxically presents much less defence than feminine ISIS returnees claiming their innocence as mere moms and wives.

This essay has explored how gendered dynamics of girls’s participation in battle manifests within the circumstances of ISIS and the YPJ. Crucially, it challenges the binary conception of victimhood and company/liberation. Furthermore, it has analysed how girls negotiate their positions by fight and different societal roles, asserting that the singular give attention to militarism obscures necessary political buildings – which in flip hampers nuanced analyses (Morgan 2019: ii). In conclusion, Begikhani presents a compelling perspective in gentle of the Center Jap context: in distinction to discourses that defines company as transgressing obstacles, “Social and gender norms, in addition to energy buildings, are appropriated, negotiated and embraced as a lot as they’re overtly resisted.” (Begikhani et al. 2019: 15). These dynamics stay central to girls’s participation in violent battle all through the Center East and past.


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Yasin, B., Al-Tawil, N. Shabila, P., Al-Hadithi, T. 2013: “Feminine genital mutilation amongst Iraqi Kurdish girls: A cross-sectional research from Erbil metropolis” in BMC Public Well being Vol. 13

Yilmaz, Z. 2017: “Critique of ISIS’ Ladies Coverage” in Turkish Journal of Center Jap Research Vol. 4

Youngs, G. 2004: “Feminist Worldwide Relations: A Contradiction in Phrases?” in Worldwide Affairs

Written at: King’s Faculty London
Written for: Dr. Reinoud Leenders
Date written: June 2020

Additional Studying on E-Worldwide Relations


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