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The myth of the ‘badass’ female Kurdish fighters

Updated: Aug 27, 2023

After the jihadist group, ISIS attacked Kobane on 15 September 2014, the Kurdish fighters, YPG with its female unit YPJ and later Peshmerga started to defend the city.

The United States finally started its military support in 2014 and requested European countries to participate, after Obama had been drawing „red lines“ in Syria since 2012. Western media indicated their support with the representation of these fighters, especially of women.

During the conflict in Kobane, the Kurdish female fighters defending the city, started to draw international attention in Western media. In addition to news media, the Kurdish warrior women also were represented in fashion magazines. At this point, the warrior women became the product of marketing and popular culture. Furthermore, their clothes were used for a new trend in fashion.

There are two significant samples for this discussion

In the coverage of Air France’s October 2014 issue of her fashion magazine 'Madame', the model was portrayed in fashion, very similar to the uniform of the Kurdish fighters. The model appeared in a khaki jacket under a wide belt and she had her hair in plait and thick eyebrows.

The most significant point is the background, because the photo was shot in like a hill or desert. So it looks like a war environment in Syria.

The other important sample was seen in H&M’s catalog on its website. Although the famous fashion brand removed the outfit from the website, its reflections can still be found in the internet.

The NY Daily News includes the shares in Twitter with sayings ‘peshmerga chic’, ‘their bravery to be recognized’, and ‘peshmerga outfit sells in H&M stores’.

Although the brand denied they got their inspiration from the Kurdish female fighters, it worked to influence the public.

The conflict in Kobane

Kobane or Kobani is also called with Arabic name as Ayn al-Arab. It is in the central northern Syria and it has a border with southern Turkey. On 15 September 2014, a jihadist group assaulted and besieged Kobane.

This jihadist group has also been as ISIS referring to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIL to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, IS to Islamic State, or Daesh for the Arabic acronym of al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. Their infamous act, which has been shared in media, is beheading their enemies.

The women fighters in Kobane will be pointed out in this paragraph. These women are worthy of research, because their resistance in Kobane has been seen as heroic and even mythologized.

These myths also have been represented in media. The most famous one is the ISIS’s fear from being killed by Kurdish female fighters because of going hell. The details about this subject and the representation of these women in media will be mentioned in the chapter of 'warrior women in the media below.

While the media turned the city of Kobane into ‘symbol of resistance’, these women became ‘icons of heroism and bravery’ while fighting with impeccable makeup, eyebrows plucked and their hair perfectly styled with plaits , killing ISIS fighters or Turkish soldiers with a smile on their face, showing perfect white teeth. Don't forget their perfectly clean combat uniforms.

These Kurdish women mostly come from Syria, Iraqi-Kurdistan and sometimes Turkey. All of them have an outstanding goal which is to fight both, the Assad regime and ISIS.

Warrior women in the media

Many of the Western media serve the consumer culture and broadcast exactly that what is trendy or what their customers expect them to broadcast. We can assume that the guerrilla women in Kobane have been used for the consumer culture by manipulating the news and building myths.

War and its news are linked to men, because it is seen as male territory. Women are only mentioned as subordinate standing, like supportive mother or wife to their men.

Before the representation of Kurdish women in Western media, the famous myths about them should be mentioned; 'The Angel of Kobane', 'The Beauty of Diren', 'The Peshmerga Princess of Narin Afrin', and 'The Canadian-Israeli Peshmerga woman'.

Firstly, Rehana is called as ‘The Angel of Kobane’ and she has drawn attention of the media by sharing thousands of pictures and retweets about her all over the world.

In the picture, she is beautiful and smiling, wearing combat gear and carrying a rifle. It was written in many Western newspapers that she had killed more than 100 hundred ISIL fighters on her own.

Secondly, 'The Beauty of Diren', also known as Ceylan Özalp, has become the other myth. She has been known with her brave explanations in BBC report even though she was only 19 years old.

According to the rumors, she has killed herself when she was surrounded by IS forces not to be taken captured. However, this baseless news was denied and she was reported as still alive. Although the news was not real, she has also taken a lot of attention on social media

Thirdly, 'The Peshmerga Princess of Narin Afrin', also known as Maysa Abdo, is 40 years old and the leader of YPJ. Reports in International Business Times tell that she earned the international reputation due to her ‘bravery and intelligence’. According to this report, she has been known as ‘humanist and realist...and very courageous’. Another myth built.

Lastly, the other myth’s woman, 'The Canadian-Israeli Peshmerga Woman', joining Kobane has been reported as ‘extraordinary’ because of her different nationality.

Apart from the myths, the Kurdish fighters in Kobane have been represented by Western media as ‘Taking the same risks and facing the same dangers’ with men and being successful in defending the city in BBC.

'The Beauty of Diren'

‘Gaining increased prominence’ in Business Insider.

'Frightening ISIS forces due to be killed by a woman' in The Wall Street Journal.

‘Fighting as equals alongside the male Kurdish forces for the future of their country’ and being 'Not scared and worried to be killed' on the frontline in The Telegraph.

'Dying while defending the city, so being proud of their family and environment in The Guardian.

While female fighters are represented in these news media, their beauty, attractiveness, and heroism are also mentioned.

On the other hand, there is a dissatisfied side of these representations; ‘Western fascination with 'badass' Kurdish women’ in Al Jazeera.

‘Western media is obsessed with Kurdish female fighters battling ISIS’. Both of the writers are Kurdish, so they can be the other side.

From the perspective of Western Orientalists, the Kurdish woman is a sample of a ‘free, warrior and leader' and that Kurdish women are more free and stronger than the other women neighbor Muslim countries in Middle East.

The mentioned representation in Western media leans towards sensationalism. Some myth became the symbol, and the symbol was used to manipulate the public opinion and create sensationalism.

Furthermore, these manipulations cause to ignore the reality of the guerrilla women fight and their ideologies. These women are used for PR purposes of the Kurdish guerrilla group to gain over the Western public opinion by selecting and representing mostly attractive, young and beautiful guerrillas, so exoticize them.

It can be said that female fighters have become the product of the conflict, while still being an object, not the subject.

The majority of the Kurds are Muslims and the Islamic patriarchy in the Kurdish society is a system of oppressing women, dictating their cultural establishment, social organization style, Islamic lifestyle, secular male order.

So women in this system are still subject to class power and national traditions and are gathered on the bottom line in the society.

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