Kurdish Women’s Army and the role of feminism in politics

The Kurdish population in the Middle East has been heavily persecuted since the Ottoman Empire was divided at the end of WWII. Today, there are an estimated 30 million Kurds dispersed around the world, with the majority living in the area between Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Discrimination against the Kurds has been a serious issue for Turkey, with the United Nations and European Union often condemning the state for its maltreatment of the ethnic minority. Indeed, it has been a sticking point in Turkey’s accession to EU membership, having first applied to become a member of the Union in 1989.

The Kurdish people have since established the People’s Protection Units. The organisation is a home grown defence force in the Kurdish area of Syria, made up of men and women from local communities. The Kurdish Project attributes its emergence to the Civil War in Syria and its spill over into Syrian Kurdistan. The group is primarily comprised of ethnic Kurds. Known in Kurdish as Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG), the group considers itself to be a democratic people’s army.

The YPG has since formed a female brigade, which came to be known as the Women’s Protection Units or YPJ. Different sources have the population of YPJ sitting somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 women. Established in 2012, the YPJ was formed to fight Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, al-Nusra Front and ISIS. In an interview with Ben Wedelman, a senior CNN correspondent, one of the female fighters was reported as saying “[ISIS believe] they’re fighting in the name of Islam, and they believe if someone from Daesh is killed by a girl, a Kurdish girl, they won’t go to heaven”.

According to the Kurdish Project, the YPJ have been instrumental in the Syrian civil war, and the fight against ISIS. In 2014, CNN recognised the People’s Protection Units as the most inspirational women of the year, noting their “courageous role in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”.

The women in the organisation have been commended by feminists for their courage and bravery. However, in an interview with The Australian’s Anthony Loyd, the women are quoted as saying that they “are not just fighting for feminism” but “to protect [their] people and our land”. Tolveen Van, a 20-year-old Kurdish woman, states that “fighting is … a part of true equality, and as women we are proud to fight an enemy like the Daesh”, who she accredits with liking their wives “stuck in the kitchen, cleaning dishes”.

Feminism has become very relevant in recent years, particularly in relation to question such as what role women should play in politics. The goal of achieving proportionality and equality in democratic states appears to be unremittingly slow. The United Nations notes that “30% is widely considered an important benchmark for women’s representation”. However, females are still under-represented in most of the world’s parliaments. As of 2015, only 22% of parliamentarians were female. This is only 10.7% more than in 1995. Furthermore, in 2015, only 17% of government ministers were women, and typically headed social sectors including education and family.

If Hillary Clinton is to win the U.S. presidential election, there will be women at the helm of three of the most influential Western democratic nations in the world; the UK, the U.S. and Germany. However, leadership has typically been associated with masculinity, and women in high profile leadership positions are often subject to gender-based backlash. Research suggests that observing others experiencing backlash will often result in individuals ensuring they are not in a position in which they may receive the same treatment. As a result, many women are deterred from entering the political arena.

Furthermore, when female politicians do become high profile, they are often subjected to criticism that appears sexist in nature. Julia Gillard was often mocked for her choice of clothes or glasses, and Angela Merkel – the world’s most powerful woman – was told she should have a more fashionable haircut and clothing.

In the case of Hillary Clinton, it has been defined as a “subtler sexism”. When speaking on MSNBC in February, Bob Woodward said that “she shouts”, failing to address the fact that Bernie Sanders also uses this tactic. Jay Newton-Small addresses this issue, stating that “when Bernie yells, it shows his dedication to the cause”, in contrast to Clinton who appears to be “yelling at you”, often presenting her in a maternal role. This, Newton-Small calls “a subtle kind of sexism”, which is not recognised by the vast majority.

Canada provides an exception that the rest of the world should endeavour to emulate. Recently elected Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau produced a gender-equal cabinet of 15 men and 15 women. This, and the attitude of the Kurdish women fighting in Syria, where women are not congratulated for fighting as women but are respected for fighting in general, are examples of real progress when it comes to the role of women in the world today.


Original feature image by Sara Andreasson 





I have wandering feet and a love for travel, which has enabled me to engage with cultures and societies all over the world. Through my travels I have developed a greater understanding of how politics is shaped in different nations around the globe. I hope to use my experiences to help frame how young people view politics, and help people re-engage.

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