The Syrian battle noticed the conflict of two state-building teams with starkly contrasting ideologies. The Islamic State (ISIS) sought to construct a worldwide theocratic state underpinned by strict gender segregation below Sharia Law (Khelghat-Doost 2017: 25). ISIS not solely conquered an unlimited territorial base, but in addition noticed the unprecedented recruitment of international fighters – as many as 5000 of which have been ladies (Cook 2019: 10). Women have been central to ISIS’ state-building imaginative and prescient and carried out various roles below 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 Party. It espouses concepts central to conventional Western leftist actions equivalent to democratic participation and egalitarian social constructions. The significance of ladies’s participation in the YPJ needs to be understood in the wider geopolitical context of the Kurdish state-building challenge in the Middle East. Kurdistan has, after a long time of activism, but to grow to be a sovereign state, with its present territories overlapping Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, and Kurdish ladies have campaigned for political rights since the 1980s (Al-Ali and Tas 2017: 5).

Women’s participation in armed battle will not be particular to the Middle 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 goal of this essay is to maneuver past an empiricist epistemology, and in doing so, it builds on a conceptual framework of crucial feminist concept. Feminist concept conceptualises contested narratives of essentialist gendered topics and how they’re represented, specializing in perceptions of company relative to femininity and motherhood. Following on, it would discover ladies’s positions inside the ISIS Caliphate and their militarisation in the YPJ. The two instances will likely be in contrast and evaluated towards the theoretical framework with emphasis on problematising the gendered perceptions of ladies as brokers in battle. More particularly, it would consider the sensible and normative significance of ladies’s participation in ISIS and the YPJ – each in a Middle Eastern and broader worldwide context. Overall, the most important argument of the essay is {that a} gendered lens on ladies’s participation in the Syrian battle highlights elements essential to understanding the full scope of Middle Eastern violent politics. However, 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 slightly than trying past them.

Feminist concept: Conceptualising the feminine agent

There is an unlimited physique of feminist IR concept specializing in the gendered dimensions of battle. The juxtaposition of inherently violent masculinity and pacifist/nurturing femininity offers 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 “Men are just naturally those who wield violence” (Enloe 2006: viii). Situating males and masculinities in the public realm of warfare and violence and ladies in the personal/home realm, just one is offered as having political company while the different 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 ladies towards discourses that successfully render ladies as passive victims outlined by their violability (Shepherd 2007: 10). A singular give attention to ladies as completely victims of conflicts obscure ladies’s various roles, together with that of perpetrators (Ibid).

The query of company is central to feminist concept and will likely be critically employed all through this essay. Feminist concept engages constantly with discourses framing company as emancipatory, which renders the dedication of company as the normal 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 ladies inhabit (Auchter 2012: 120). This conceptualisation will likely be employed to analyse contrasts between perceptions of ISIS and YPJ ladies in public discourse the place ladies are, as Auchter elucidates, both “a either victim 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 a spread of public features necessitated the recruitment of not simply combatants, however individuals 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 “domestic servants”, in actuality ladies have been concerned in actions starting from on-line propaganda to army intelligence-gathering (Hoyle et al. 2016: 10; Martini 2018: 459). Similarly to YPJ militants as explored beneath, 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 as the extent of ladies’s participation in ISIS actions turned 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 in the West has largely grow to be synonymous with oppression.

A complete report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) established that the most important so-called “pull” issue main ladies to affix the Caliphate was the notion that there was a chosen place for them in ISIS’ excellent society (Saltman, Smith 2015: 19). Whereas many had confronted discrimination and cultural boundaries to societal participation in liberal Western societies, the promise of another state the place ladies by advantage of being ladies constituted an express asset was alluring to significantly younger ladies missing a way of neighborhood (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 would subsequently be simple to conclude as many have performed, that feminine ISIS recruits have been oppressed and coerced into submission to a patriarchal state order. However, this excludes the risk 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 greater ranges of company and political convictions in becoming a member of the Caliphate than male international fighters, as a result of they face greater societal boundaries to go away their households for an extremist organisation (Davis 2008: 50).

In addition, by equating ladies’s participation in 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 have been answerable for the ideological schooling of future ISIS fighters. Fostering ideological convictions amongst ladies recruits translated into an elevated recruitment-base attributable to the inter-generational character of the Caliphate. Hence, 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 grasp the gendered dynamics of the Caliphate. Due to ladies’s position as not solely moms in 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 Middle East primarily utilised ladies in tactical operations attributable to their inconspicuousness as brokers of violence, ISIS strategically employed ladies in their intensive on-line recruitment course of in order to draw different ladies (Spencer 2016: 90; Pearson 2018: 855). Owing to ladies’s conventional societal roles, feminine recruits have been strategically employed to reinforce the credibility of ISIS’ state-building challenge, seeing as the closely circulated information tales of males conquering territory and committing sexual violence towards enemy populations was thought of 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 have been, predictably, deemed unfit for fight, they have been as an alternative posited as 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 need for creating a brand new society which positioned essentialist femininity at its ideological core (Peresin, Cervone 2015: 499). Women have been represented as the carriers of the religious-national identification. ISIS positioned ladies as faces of a gendered Middle Eastern order, in direct opposition to the narrative of Muslim ladies dealing with marginalisation in the West (ibid).

However, the inflexible gender hierarchy and gender-segregated areas below ISIS’ rule was additionally a supply of inner rigidity. Women have been required to be veiled in a niqab displaying solely their eyes, thus eradicating their private presence from public life (Yilmaz 2017: 27). Whilst this was ideologically rationalised to protect non secular purity and adhere to Sharia legislation’s strict honour code, externally the removing of female our bodies from the political scene carried a heavy symbolism for what constituted a girl’s place in the Middle 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 towards spiritual purity – ensuing in 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 power whose most important accountability was guaranteeing adherence to gendered guidelines of modesty and public morality (Almohammad and Speckhard 2017: 6; Winter 2015: 22). Offenders would obtain punishment in the type of torture and even dying (ibid).

Yet, as the anti-ISIS coalition gained floor and ISIS’ territorial base more and more weakened, ladies’s participation grew extra militant out of necessity. Historically, violent teams have elevated their recruitment of ladies when ranks of male combatants grew skinny (Davis 2008: 85). In the case of ISIS, ladies have been already energetic in non-military roles, however as acknowledged above, this pacification was not unchallenged. The territorial weakening of ISIS thus enabled ladies to say 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). Furthermore, after the fall of the Caliphate, ISIS ladies detained in refugee camps have dedicated violence equivalent to stoning and even homicide towards these they understand to transgress Sharia ethical code (Washington Post 2019). In truth, some researchers predict that the chance of ladies committing violent acts has elevated following the collapse of the gender-policing restrictions below ISIS rule (Peresin and Cervone 2015: 499).

To summarise, ladies’s roles in the ISIS Caliphate didn’t see them attaining positions of energy in the organisation’s higher management constructions. They have been concurrently featured closely in ISIS propaganda and barred from collaborating as political actors exterior of strictly ascribed roles. Women recruits negotiated new roles as the inner and exterior dynamics of the Syrian battle advanced. However, the glorified imagery of “pure” ladies’s lives in the Caliphate stand in stark distinction to the mass atrocities dedicated towards ladies of enemy populations equivalent to the Yezidis and Kurdish ladies throughout the ISIS offensive (Enloe 2000: 190; Yilmaz 2017: 20)

YPJ: The feminist militia of the Middle East?

In distinction to violent spiritual teams, nationalist actions traditionally have seen a a lot bigger proportion of feminine members (Davis 2008: 17). Women combatants are estimated to represent over a 3rd of Kurdish armed forces (Bengio 2016: 39). In addition to the nearly 10 000 Kurdish ladies from the Middle East engaged in fight and supporting roles, tons of of ladies from the Kurdish diaspora have travelled to the battle zone to affix 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 grow to be a key function in the struggle towards ISIS (ibid).

The YPJ’s ideological rationale relies upon Jineology, a distinctly Kurdish feminism that establishes the liberation of ladies and males from dichotomous gender constructions as the cornerstone of a democratic confederalist society (Düzgün 2016: 285). Unlike a lot of “mainstream” feminist concept which emphasise the universalist constructions affecting ladies as a gaggle, Jineology locations ladies’s native expertise at its ideological centre. Thus, Jineology is extra intently associated to postcolonial feminism in its emphasis on intersectionality – outlined as “the recognition of overlapping marginal identities” equivalent to ethnicity and class, contextualising ladies’s participation the historic Kurdish battle for independence (Crenshaw 1991: 1242; Dirik 2015: 63). Its purpose nevertheless, is equally emancipatory to crucial 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 is, nevertheless, unclear how the deconstruction of gendered identities will manifest, and crucial 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 the metropolis 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). Indeed, YPJ banners in native strongholds proclaim: “we will defeat the attacks of ISIS by guaranteeing the freedom of women in the Middle 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 vital repercussions throughout the Middle East (Begikhani et al. 2018: 15). Cultural elements have been highlighted to exacerbate the ideological rigidity – a frequently-cited instance is the perception held by militant Islamist teams like ISIS that fighters killed by ladies is not going to go to paradise nor obtain their promised virgins (The Independent 2016; The Telegraph 2014). Thus, the “feminine essence” of YPJ militants represents what can solely be characterised as an irony-laden feminist revenge. As phrased by Dirik: “The YPJ are not only fighting against ISIS, they are fighting for feminism and gender equality – and they’re doing it with ideas and bullets alike” (Dirik 2015: 69).

The sensationalised broadcast of YPJ militants stands in distinction to many Western authorities positions on the Kurdish situation. In truth, the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), which YPJ is loosely affiliated with, has been labelled a terrorist group by the US and a number of European states (Haner et al. 2019: 16). However, in the context of the Middle 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 energetic fight constitutes just one half (Dean 2019: 4). YPJ struggle not solely to liberate ladies from the patriarchy, however to liberate all Kurdish individuals from ethnic oppression and fulfil the nationalist imaginative and prescient (Çaha 2011: 435). This angle is underexplored in the cited media articles, suggesting that whereas the YPJ might take pleasure in 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 instances depoliticises the ideologically motivated participation of Kurdish ladies in their battle for political revolution (Ibid).

Furthermore, 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 affix the YPJ, and on a structural degree it underlined a necessity for an all-female armed group (Küçük and Özselçuk 2016: 184). In this regard, YPJ represents a departure from the oft-cited and closely criticised Orientalist discourse of Western saviourism: “White men saving brown women from brown men” in that ladies are central brokers shaping the battle (Spivak 1994: 107; Shahvisi 2018: 4). However, the dialogue of victimhood and liberation from oppressive constructions could be ambiguous. The time period “victim” is more and more related to passivity and has been changed by “survivor” in discourses on sexual violence to foster extra empowering connotations. Yet, utilising victimhood to affect coverage and obtain justice can arguably be a show of company, as evident in the worldwide recognition of ISIS’ genocidal warfare towards 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 girls altogether.

In this regard, the YPJ are combating a two-front battle. The YPJ’s acknowledged purpose is institutionalising ladies’s self-defence towards male violence, not simply in 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 ladies in warfare solely exacerbates the violence dedicated at all instances in society, thus situating violence on a continuum (Cockburn 2001: 13). The position of ladies in traditionalist Kurdish society has been closely problematised. For occasion, the prevalence of sexual violence, social and financial repression of ladies and dangerous practices equivalent 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 follow highlights the contesting dynamics that affect ladies’s participation – and in flip is influenced by the position ladies declare throughout political areas. Unlike the case of ISIS, the place the inner gender hierarchies are nearly charicaturesque in their extremity, the gendered dynamics of the YPJ are extra ambiguous. However, one may argue that it’s exactly these inner 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 ladies in warfare

A distinctly normative analytical sample seems when evaluating the significance of ladies’s participation in armed battle, in the Middle East and past. Women’s roles are positioned on a spectrum of oppression and emancipation. This is maybe unsurprising given the explicitly acknowledged emancipatory agenda elucidated by the majority of feminist IR theorists – whose analysis represent the bulk of educational work on gender points (Tickner 1992: 10; Enloe 2006: vii). However, it’s crucial to discover what implications might come up from viewing the conformity towards/transgression of stereotypical roles as the defining lens via which to grasp the dynamics of ladies’s collaborating in Middle Eastern 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 ladies are thought of political – and thereby covetable.

At the core of some of these emancipatory discourses lies an implicit assumption that ladies who transgress the assumed limitations of their gender and tackle extra masculine roles are the most “free”, and by extension, extra politically related. Following this, one may 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 female Kurdish fighters have had a “definite impact on the male part of Kurdish society (…) When they see women with weapons and fighting, they learn 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 method that female roles are usually not – the crux of the debate then turns into: are ladies thought of most agential, most harmful, most political, once they take up arms and therefore appear extra like males?

The public debate surrounding feminine ISIS returnees is an illustrative instance of related patterns of gendered agential inscriptions. The public/personal dichotomy that feminist lecturers 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). Ranging from NGOs to relations of the international 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 two identities unattainable to reconcile (Ähall 2012: 290). Furthermore, these discourses downplay the political elements of ladies’s motivation to affix ISIS, as an alternative characterising them in private phrases as “brainwashed”, “exploited” and “in search of love” (Pearson 2018: 860). Interestingly, and maybe concerningly, this view can be expressed by civil society actors working with grassroots de-radicalisation efforts particularly aimed at ladies (JAN Trust 2019).

The absence of a corresponding dialogue over the political company and risk potential of male fighters reinforces the level that ladies are constantly subjected to a course of 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 towards their femininity and standing as moms, males’s company is assumed as a political truth unrelated to gendered elements. In different phrases, the discursive development of gendered identities has profound implications for the way ladies’s participation in violent battle is known. The situation of company finally turns into a problem of accountability, which will likely be extremely related in prison prosecutions below anti-terrorism laws.

However, even discourses of empowerment via violence dangers representing ladies in an analogous hierarchical agential order as famous above. Whilst ladies guerrilla fighters are naturally assumed to be liberated, ladies represented as victims of warfare are assumed to be oppressed and in want of liberation. These singular depictions of ladies’s lived expertise neglect the multifaceted identities ladies inhabit which might be constantly produced and reproduced (Shepherd 2007: 151). In attaching much less determinism to the hyperlink between illustration and perceived company, the full variety of ladies’s participation might inform nuanced educational evaluation – and by extension, international and safety coverage.


It stays to be seen which roles ladies of ISIS and the YPJ maintain post-conflict. Historically, 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. Interestingly, and as many would declare, unjustly; ladies of each ISIS and the YPJ are categorized as international fighters below the identical anti-terrorism laws. In leaving Western nations to affix an armed group abroad, additionally YPJ recruits might be prosecuted upon their return as an alternative of celebrated – as they have been in Western media all through the battle – for his or her counterinsurgency efforts (Palani 2019: 253; UNSCR 2178). Their feminist rationale for combating in 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 ladies’s participation in battle manifests in the instances of ISIS and the YPJ. Crucially, it challenges the binary conception of victimhood and company/liberation. Moreover, it has analysed how ladies negotiate their positions via fight and different societal roles, asserting that the singular give attention to 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 Middle Eastern context: in distinction to discourses that defines company as transgressing obstacles, “Social and gender norms, as well as power structures, are appropriated, negotiated and embraced as much as they are openly resisted.” (Begikhani et al. 2019: 15). These dynamics stay central to ladies’s participation in violent battle all through the Middle East and past.


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Written at: King’s College LondonWritten for: Dr. Reinoud LeendersDate written: June 2020
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