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 beneath Sharia Legislation (Khelghat-Doost 2017: 25). ISIS not solely conquered an enormous territorial base, but in addition noticed the unprecedented recruitment of overseas fighters – as many as 5000 of which had been ladies (Prepare dinner 2019: 10). Ladies had been central to ISIS’ state-building imaginative and prescient and carried out various roles beneath 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 Get together. It espouses concepts central to conventional Western leftist actions similar to democratic participation and egalitarian social constructions. The importance of girls’s participation within the YPJ must be understood within the wider geopolitical context of the Kurdish state-building undertaking within the Center East. Kurdistan has, after a long time of activism, but to develop into a sovereign state, with its present territories overlapping Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, and Kurdish ladies have campaigned for political rights for the reason that 1980s (Al-Ali and Tas 2017: 5).

Ladies’s participation in armed battle isn’t 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’ll discover ladies’s positions throughout the ISIS Caliphate and their militarisation within the YPJ. The 2 instances shall be in contrast and evaluated in opposition to the theoretical framework with emphasis on problematising the gendered perceptions of girls as brokers in battle. Extra particularly, it’ll 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 ladies’s participation within the Syrian battle highlights components essential to understanding the complete scope of Center Jap violent politics. Nevertheless, this offers rise to a normative problem: in understanding ladies actors particularly as ladies, there’s a threat of cementing the gendered constructions of battle relatively 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 personal/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 in opposition to ladies in opposition to discourses that successfully render ladies as passive victims outlined by their violability (Shepherd 2007: 10). A singular concentrate on ladies as solely victims of conflicts obscure ladies’s various roles, together with that of perpetrators (Ibid).

The query of company is central to feminist concept and shall be critically employed all through this essay. Feminist concept engages repeatedly with discourses framing company as emancipatory, which renders the willpower of company as the usual in opposition to which levels of liberation and participation are judged (Benhabib 1995: 21). Auchter contests this binary concentrate on company as constitutive of topic identities, claiming that this obscures the a number of and even conflicting roles ladies inhabit (Auchter 2012: 120). This conceptualisation shall be employed to analyse contrasts between perceptions of ISIS and YPJ ladies in public discourse the place ladies are, as Auchter elucidates, both “a both sufferer of a patriarchal system or agent enabled with a takeover of that patriarchal system” (ibid). This significantly 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 quite a lot of public capabilities 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 ladies 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 ladies’s participation in ISIS as a transparent violation of gendered expectations (Nacos 2006: 437). Whereas the preliminary focus exhibited a transparent tendency to trivialise ladies’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 develop into synonymous with oppression.

A complete report by the Worldwide Centre for the Research of Radicalisation (ICSR) established that the principle so-called “pull” issue main ladies to hitch the Caliphate was the notion that there was a chosen place for them in ISIS’ preferrred society (Saltman, Smith 2015: 19). Whereas many had confronted discrimination and cultural limitations to societal participation in liberal Western societies, the promise of an alternate state the place ladies by advantage of being ladies constituted an specific asset was alluring to significantly younger ladies 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 constructions. It could subsequently be straightforward to conclude as many have achieved, that feminine ISIS recruits had been oppressed and coerced into submission to a patriarchal state order. Nevertheless, this excludes the potential of company when the roles taken on don’t conform to a set normative normal. It might certainly be argued that feminine ISIS recruits have displayed greater ranges of company and political convictions in becoming a member of the Caliphate than male overseas fighters, as a result of they face greater societal limitations to depart their households for an extremist organisation (Davis 2008: 50).

As well as, by equating ladies’s participation within the home sphere with a renunciation of company and subsequently energy, ladies’s authority over new generations of radicalised youth are obscured (Vale 2019: 6). As moms the ladies had been chargeable for the ideological training of future ISIS fighters. Fostering ideological convictions amongst ladies recruits translated into an elevated recruitment-base because of the 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 ladies’s participation to grasp the gendered dynamics of the Caliphate. As a consequence of ladies’s function 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 ladies in tactical operations because of their inconspicuousness as brokers of violence, ISIS strategically employed ladies of their intensive on-line recruitment course of so as to appeal to different ladies (Spencer 2016: 90; Pearson 2018: 855). Owing to ladies’s conventional societal roles, feminine recruits had been strategically employed to boost the credibility of ISIS’ state-building undertaking, seeing because the closely circulated information tales of males conquering territory and committing sexual violence in opposition to 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 high management. As ladies had been, predictably, deemed unfit for fight, they had been as a substitute posited because the Caliphate’s supply of non secular legitimacy (Vale 2019: 4). There are few testimonies from feminine ISIS recruits obtainable, however people who exist underline a want 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 id. ISIS positioned ladies as faces of a gendered Center Jap order, in direct opposition to the narrative of Muslim ladies dealing with marginalisation within the West (ibid).

Nevertheless, the inflexible gender hierarchy and gender-segregated areas beneath ISIS’ rule was additionally a supply of inside rigidity. Ladies had been required to be veiled in a niqab exhibiting solely their eyes, thus eradicating their private presence from public life (Yilmaz 2017: 27). While this was ideologically rationalised to protect non secular 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 lady’s place within the Center East (Winter 2015: 17; Ingram et al 2020: 199). Whereas ISIS required ladies to carry out various roles to maintain its operations, gendered politics required that this be balanced in opposition to 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 inside dissent was achieved by the institution of the Al-Khansaa brigade, an all-women’s police pressure whose principal duty was making certain 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 demise (ibid).

But, because the anti-ISIS coalition gained floor and ISIS’ territorial base more and more weakened, ladies’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, ladies had been already lively in non-military roles, however as acknowledged above, this pacification was not unchallenged. The territorial weakening of ISIS thus enabled ladies 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 ladies detained in refugee camps have dedicated violence similar to stoning and even homicide in opposition to these they understand to transgress Sharia ethical code (Washington Publish 2019). In reality, some researchers predict that the chance of girls committing violent acts has elevated following the collapse of the gender-policing restrictions beneath ISIS rule (Peresin and Cervone 2015: 499).

To summarise, ladies’s roles within the ISIS Caliphate didn’t see them attaining positions of energy within the organisation’s higher management constructions. 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 interior and exterior dynamics of the Syrian battle advanced. Nevertheless, the glorified imagery of “pure” ladies’s lives within the Caliphate stand in stark distinction to the mass atrocities dedicated in opposition to ladies of enemy populations such because the Yezidis and Kurdish ladies throughout 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 individuals (Davis 2008: 17). Ladies combatants are estimated to represent over a 3rd of Kurdish armed forces (Bengio 2016: 39). Along with the virtually 10 000 Kurdish ladies 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 via 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 develop into a key function within the combat in opposition to ISIS (ibid).

The YPJ’s ideological rationale relies upon Jineology, a distinctly Kurdish feminism that establishes the liberation of ladies and men from dichotomous gender constructions because the cornerstone of a democratic confederalist society (Düzgün 2016: 285). In contrast to a lot of “mainstream” feminist concept which emphasise the universalist constructions affecting ladies as a bunch, Jineology locations ladies’s native expertise at its ideological centre. Thus, Jineology is extra carefully associated to postcolonial feminism in its emphasis on intersectionality – outlined as “the popularity of overlapping marginal identities” similar to ethnicity and sophistication, contextualising ladies’s participation the historic Kurdish wrestle for independence (Crenshaw 1991: 1242; Dirik 2015: 63). Its intention nevertheless, is equally emancipatory to essential feminist concept, in that it seeks to dismantle oppressive social constructions 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 demanding voices problematise the prospect of an additional militarisation of Kurdish society (Morgan 2019: vi).

The YPJ fighters gained widespread worldwide consideration for efficiently countering ISIS’ tried siege of the town Kobanî in Rojava. The potent symbolism of feminine guerrilla fighters taking over arms in opposition to ISIS positioned them as feminist warriors preventing the embodiment of patriarchy (Dean 2019: 5). Certainly, YPJ banners in native strongholds proclaim: “we’ll defeat the assaults of ISIS by guaranteeing the liberty of girls within the Center East” (Dirik 2015: 66). This dynamic has been broadly represented in worldwide media as a conflict of not simply sectarian teams on a battlefield, however as an ideological wrestle with doubtlessly vital repercussions throughout the Center East (Begikhani et al. 2018: 15). Cultural components have been highlighted to exacerbate the ideological rigidity – a frequently-cited instance is the assumption held by militant Islamist teams like ISIS that fighters killed by ladies won’t 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 will not be solely preventing in opposition to ISIS, they’re preventing 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 subject. In reality, the Kurdish Employee’s Get together (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). Nevertheless, within the context of the Center East the place ladies are largely assumed to be oppressed and barred from significant political engagement, YPJ represents a placing new picture. Their militaristic anti-ISIS stance is deducted from a multifaceted Kurdish ladies’s activist motion, of which lively fight constitutes just one half (Dean 2019: 4). YPJ combat not solely to liberate ladies 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 might take pleasure in Western backing as feminist fighters in opposition to Islamic fundamentalism, this endorsement doesn’t lengthen past the anti-ISIS coalition. Thus, the gendered spectacle of feminine militarism overshadows, and in some instances depoliticises the ideologically motivated participation of Kurdish ladies of their wrestle 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 in opposition to the Yezidi inhabitants is emphasised as being each a person motivation for ladies 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 ladies from brown males” in that ladies are central brokers shaping the battle (Spivak 1994: 107; Shahvisi 2018: 4). Nevertheless, the dialogue of victimhood and liberation from oppressive constructions may 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 battle in opposition to Yezidis (Murad 2017). The Kurdish and Yezidi ladies of the YPJ can thus be seen as not solely saving themselves from violence – however establishing new societal positions for ladies altogether.

On this regard, the YPJ are preventing a two-front battle. The YPJ’s acknowledged intention is institutionalising ladies’s self-defence in opposition to 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 in opposition to ladies in battle solely exacerbates the violence dedicated always in society, thus situating violence on a continuum (Cockburn 2001: 13). The function 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 similar 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 apply highlights the contesting dynamics that affect ladies’s participation – and in flip is influenced by the function ladies declare throughout political areas. In contrast to the case of ISIS, the place the interior gender hierarchies are nearly charicaturesque of their extremity, the gendered dynamics of the YPJ are extra ambiguous. Nevertheless, one might argue that it’s exactly these inside contestations that has led to the emergence of various ladies’s activism and participation, not least on the battlefield (Begikhani et al. 2018: 6).

Synthesis: Gendered company and illustration of girls in battle

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 the vast majority of feminist IR theorists – whose analysis represent the majority of educational work on gender points (Tickner 1992: 10; Enloe 2006: vii). Nevertheless, it’s crucial to discover what implications might come up from viewing the conformity towards/transgression of stereotypical roles because the defining lens via which to grasp the dynamics of girls’s taking part in Center Jap conflicts. By attaching a constructive agential worth to sure roles there’s a threat of obscuring extra delicate constructions 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 might query whether or not these discourses in truth reinforce hierarchical gender constructions, 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 affect on the male a part of Kurdish society (…) Once they see ladies with weapons and preventing, they be taught 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 will not be – the crux of the controversy then turns into: are ladies 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/personal dichotomy that feminist teachers have disputed for many years seems to hold vital weight when figuring out which ladies represent safety threats and which don’t (Steans 2003: 60). Starting from NGOs to members of the family 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 unattainable to reconcile (Ähall 2012: 290). Moreover, these discourses downplay the political elements of girls’s motivation to hitch ISIS, as a substitute characterising them in private phrases as “brainwashed”, “exploited” and “looking for love” (Pearson 2018: 860). Curiously, and maybe concerningly, this view can be expressed by civil society actors working with grassroots de-radicalisation efforts particularly aimed toward ladies (JAN Belief 2019).

The absence of a corresponding dialogue over the political company and menace potential of male fighters reinforces the purpose that ladies are repeatedly subjected to a means of “gendering” vis-à-vis a masculine normative normal, via which their actions are understood and judged (Shepherd 2007 143). Whereas ladies’s participation is evaluated in opposition to 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 a way ladies’s participation in violent battle is known. The difficulty of company finally turns into a problem of duty, which shall be extremely related in felony prosecutions beneath anti-terrorism laws.

Nevertheless, even discourses of empowerment via violence dangers representing ladies in an identical hierarchical agential order as famous above. While ladies guerrilla fighters are naturally assumed to be liberated, ladies represented as victims of battle are assumed to be oppressed and in want of liberation. These singular depictions of girls’s lived expertise neglect the multifaceted identities ladies inhabit which are 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 might inform nuanced educational evaluation – and by extension, overseas and safety coverage.


It stays to be seen which roles ladies of ISIS and the YPJ maintain post-conflict. Traditionally, ladies 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. Curiously, and as many would declare, unjustly; ladies of each ISIS and the YPJ are categorised as overseas fighters beneath the identical anti-terrorism laws. In leaving Western nations to hitch an armed group abroad, additionally YPJ recruits might be prosecuted upon their return as a substitute 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 preventing within the anti-ISIS coalition paradoxically provides 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 instances of ISIS and the YPJ. Crucially, it challenges the binary conception of victimhood and company/liberation. Furthermore, it has analysed how ladies negotiate their positions via fight and different societal roles, asserting that the singular concentrate on militarism obscures essential political constructions – which in flip hampers nuanced analyses (Morgan 2019: ii). In conclusion, Begikhani provides 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 constructions, are appropriated, negotiated and embraced as a lot as they’re brazenly resisted.” (Begikhani et al. 2019: 15). These dynamics stay central to ladies’s participation in violent battle all through the Center East and past.


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

Additional Studying on E-Worldwide Relations


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