North Africa, West Asia

Objectifying female fighters

We must acknowledge women's agency without allocating gratuitous attention to physical appearances or banal insinuations regarding their somehow 'illicit' deviation from conventional roles.

Linah Alsaafin
17 October 2014

Syrian Kurdish female fighter at the front-lines against ISIS (1/3). Courtesy of James Harkin. All rights reserved.

From the recent articles on the Kurdish female fighters resisting against ISIS, it is easy to see that mainstream media is adamant in continuing the long tradition that obsessively portrays women involved in armed combat through the lens of objectification, sexual deviation, and as an abnormality. Looking past the outer appearance of army fatigues and gun-slinging women, some with short-cropped hair, others with long braided flower adorned hair, the concept of the motivations and behaviors that drove women to pick up arms— that is, their agency—remains missing.

The role of female participation in nationalist struggles has been frowned upon by western feminists as a continuation of the patriarchal agenda of the men. Anna McClintock views the nation-state as a repository of male hopes, aspirations and privilege unless nationalism has been thoroughly exposed to an analysis of gender power. That is to say that nationalism as a male-dominated and executive arena offers very little space to women in order to better their own status and gain basic equality rights with men.

Thus, women are relegated to the pre-subscribed role of motherhood or “bearers of the collective,” whether that is to reproduce more members of the nation (in the biological sense) or to reproduce the nation’s customs and traditions (in the social sense). Men, however, are characterized as the civil or military reproducers of national policy and decision-making. When women are offered a role, it essentially boils down to conforming to the established gendered division of labor and conventional roles.

Additionally, women are seen as protectors of life and antithetical to violence. Therefore, whenever they engage in violence through armed resistance and combatant roles, they are automatically seen as an anomaly, and as being hostile to peace. The dichotomy: women are predisposed to peace and life and men are naturally inclined to violence, is an essentialist one and too often falls into the trap of rendering women as passive within national struggles. Not enough attention is given to the behavior, motivations, and experiences of the roles women play in armed conflict.

However, while not denying that nationalistic struggles— by virtue of the hegemonic masculinity that they are founded upon— are patriarchal by nature, many nationalist revolutionary struggles have proved that they are a space where feminist identities can take root and develope. In this respect, Tami Amanda Jacoby helps us with the examples of how the politicization of women in the Middle East and the advancement of their indigenous feminisms was formed as a direct result of anti-colonial and national liberation movements. 

Denying women their agency, or right to take charge of their own lives, is to reject the opportunity for them to challenge and change their situation as women. Far from adopting a straitjacket position that regards nationalism and feminism as irreconcilable, women strategically use their participation in national liberation movements and struggles to further their own status in society, as well as to safeguard their gains during and after the national struggle. It is important to note here that this anti-essentialist definition of feminism should be rooted in the inclusion of women who are situated in various ethnic, class and other structures. This has been a major blind spot of western feminists, who too often ignore the inequalities in class and ethnic differences.

Syrian Kurdish female fighter at the front-lines against ISIS (2/3). Courtesy of James Harkin. All rights reserved.

The main motivating reason for women participating in armed combat stems from their politicization due to direct exposure to state violence and the need to protect their communities, where the private and public domain are expanded and become blurred. The image of armed women oscillates between sexual objectification and demonisation. It is bound to the concept of gendered heroism and socially constructed notions of feminine weakness, which inform heterosexual romance and the desire for a feminized beauty.

IRA member Evelyn Glenholmes was described by British newspapers as the “Terror Blond in Jeans” and “Blond Bomber”. Sexual liberation, deviance, and abandonment are associated with armed women because of the impression that these women have sacrificed their sense of innocence or purity. Or as Theresa O’Keefe put it, “Women’s violence can also be represented as just sexy - attractive, not repulsive - and a template for heterosexual male fantasy; it is indicative of sexual aggression.” On the other hand, the “sexy image” of armed women can also be regarded as perverse and as a threat, as men fear political and sexual emasculation.

The alleged suicide of 19 year old Kurdish fighter Ceylan Ozalp, who shot herself to escape being taken captive by ISIS, was commended as brave and daring. Ozalp is described as a “fierce warrior”, “beautiful”, and “bold.” She represents the pinnacle heterosexual fantasy - a beautiful, sexually aggressive, armed young woman - with secondary attention given as an afterthought to the horrors of facing the decision to take her own life or risk capture and probable rape by ISIS. This sexist view obscures the Kurdish women’s struggle (who fight the Assad regime as well as Jihadist groups) as one for freedom as Kurds and as women. As Dirar Dilik summed up, “Imposing factors such as desperation, irrationality, or confusion on militant Kurdish women’s actions and spreading propaganda about sexual exploitation are gendered tools of warfare that serve to delegitimize their empowering struggle.”

For Palestinian women who were involved in suicide/martyrdom operations, the same rhetoric was also applied. Their acts were not represented as an assertion of control over their own bodies or as an anti-colonial act (since the colonizers seek to control the minds and bodies of the colonized). Instead, the reaction elicited from male pundits was either to underline, in light of the impotence of the male leadership, the desperation of these women’s acts, or to glorify them in the gendered language of marriage (to Paradise) and motherhood.

18 year old Ayat al-Akhras was engaged to be married before she blew herself up in front of an Israeli supermarket in West Jerusalem on March 29, 2002. The photographs circulated of her shows her standing in front of a backdrop of a tree and a river with her long hair swept over one shoulder, and staring soulfully at the camera— a picture of femininity. In contrast, the photo of Dareen Abu Aisha, who blew herself up at the checkpoint near the Jewish colony of Maccabim, shows her wearing a headscarf, with the green banner of Hamas’ military wing on top, and a jilbab (long gown). Her right index finger is held up symbolizing the shehadeh and “One God” while her left hand is clutching a knife pointed to her own body. Abu Aisha is an exception because it is too difficult to sexualize her and her depiction remains concentrated in the role of a militant and a devout Muslim.

Frances Hasso has observed that these operations “both reproduced and undermined gender-sexual norms with respect to violence, politics, and community - corporeally and discursively destabilizing domination notions of moral order and duty with respect to gender.” In other words, women such as al-Akhras, Abu Aisheh, and Wafa Idris have dispelled assumptions that their communities must be defended by Palestinian men, while simultaneously urging the male leadership to act. Evoking concepts of masculinity, these women used honour as a weapon against the male leadership by calling out their political impotency in failing to fulfil their role, as well as taking matters into their own hands by offering themselves to the front-lines.

There is no denying, however, that the ability for women to develop, explore and change socially constructed notions of femininity also depends on the roles of men during the revolutions, conflicts, or movements, and the conception of masculinity implicit in appraising their political and personal struggles. The least we can do for these women battling enemies on the ground and forging a revolutionary path for their roles in society is to give credit and acknowledge their agency without allocating gratuitous attention to their physical appearances or banal insinuations regarding their 'illicit' deviation from their conventional roles.

Syrian Kurdish female fighter at the front-lines against ISIS (3/3). Courtesy of James Harkin. All rights reserved.

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