Redirecting the colonial gaze

Are we “decolonising queer liberation” or disciplining the Kurds? Let us attempt a careful and nuanced consideration of the historicity of different struggles.

Hakan Sandal
23 September 2017

It's going down: TQILA-IRPGF Speaks from Rojava. Anon.The situation of the Kurds in a drastically changing Middle East has received little attention in academia and less in the media despite their growing impact on regional and international politics. The biggest stateless people living in the Middle East are on the verge of a new status, not only in Iraqi Kurdistan, where a referendum for independence takes place on September 25, 2017, but also in Syria and Turkey. The stories of Iranian Kurds and the conditions they live in are the least known, not only by the international community but also by fellow-Kurds living in three neighbouring countries, due to an intense isolation. And then, in this closing contribution, there are 'the intersecting modalities of power.' This week’s short series looks at current political struggles of the Kurds in four neighbouring countries or in a country that does not exist on the world map but in the hearts and mind of 40 million people. Mehmet Kurt, series editor.

The establishment of “The Queer Insurrection and Liberation Army” (TQILA) on 24 July 2017, under the International Revolutionary People’s Guerrilla Forces (IRPGF) in Syria, has attracted considerable global interest.

This interest has become manifest in two distinct versions. One response has been the intense excitement and support elicited from some parts of the left and various LGBTI+ activists. The other has been one of critique and scepticism, especially towards the western liberal discourse surrounding TQILA. Razan Ghazzawi’s piece “Decolonising Syria's So-Called 'Queer Liberation,'” published on Al Jazeera, is a noteworthy expression of this second reaction.

Keeping these ideas at the core of my argument, in this piece, I want to suggest that Ghazzawi however unintentionally reproduces the colonial gaze on Kurds and the organized Kurdish struggle.[1] I want to elaborate on what we risk missing in the political sphere because of these flaws, and in the process try to extend the ground of the critique towards the decolonial approach that Ghazzawi espouses.

Sharp turn

Ghazzawi begins the piece by giving a brief background to the establishment of TQILA and its depiction in the west, associating the group with the “war on terror” narrative, along with the organized Kurdish struggle in Rojava, Syrian Kurdistan.[2] Bringing non-normative sexualities into the discourse itself opens up a site of resistance vis-à-vis complex power relations that constantly regulate bodies, geographies, and ideologies in various ways.

Ghazzawi’s piece is a sound effort to reveal these intersecting modalities of power. However, when it comes to the Kurdish struggle in Syria, the piece reproduces the colonial framework by making Kurds’ history of resistance, memory of colonialism, and oppression under four different states invisible. Concisely, Kurdish geography was divided into four parts and Kurdish people were distributed among Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey as a consequence of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 by imperial powers. They were subjected to various atrocities, varying from cultural assimilation, to epistemic violence, to massacres, in each of these countries.[3]

Ghazzawi’s critique is levelled against not only at colonial/white use of queer struggles, but also the Kurdish struggle in Syria. The sharp turn the author makes from a decolonizing queer perspective to an anti-Rojava narrative renders the intention of the piece ambiguous. Instead of subverting the colonial form of knowledge that is criticized in the piece, the author redirects the colonial gaze towards the Kurds. Eventually, the piece itself becomes, quite unfortunately, a stereotypical anti-Rojava treatise hidden in an otherwise well argued decolonial queer text. The political unfairness, in addition, distorts the power of the decolonial argument and transforms it into a condemnatory iteration, cementing the epistemic violence against the Kurds.

Silenced Kurds

In the piece, the strategy and existence of Kurds’ organized effort – despite its historicity – is utterly reduced to being part of “war on terror.”[4] This presentist argument only becomes possible when the motivations, emotions, and history of the Kurdish struggle are silenced. This also reinforces the stereotype historically attributed to the Kurds, in four parts of Kurdistan: they collaborate with imperialism, they are not civilized, and they have a secret agenda. These stereotypes historically legitimized the rule over the Kurds.

For example, the discourses of “backwardness” and “tribalism” when it came to the Kurdish issue were reference points for the Turkish Republic’s modernization and westernization ideals.[5] In a report, the first Inspector General Avni Doğan asserts: “The Republic's settlement in the East is like the settlement of the civilized nations' in Africa."[6] Similarly, according to Lieutenant Muhammad Talab al-Hilal’s report of Jazira, dated 1963, “the Kurdish people did not exist because they possessed neither ‘history nor civilization; language nor ethnic origin.’”[7] This “security report” formed the basis for anti-Kurdish policies in Syria.

When this discourse surrounding the Kurds is evaluated starting with the stereotypes attributed to them, and then their results, the need for a layered understanding of decolonization becomes visible. A hastily put together decolonial argument can become the most useful tool for the very colonial mechanisms it intends to criticize.

Critical engagement

Kurdish scholars and activists have long criticized the western media depiction of Kurdish women fighters, as this depiction actively and purposefully overshadowed the history, ideology, and the politics behind them. These critiques, which have also come from inside the Kurdish armed movement, dismantle western colonial fantasies and resonate well with Ghazzawi’s concerns about anti-colonial struggle. It is noteworthy, though, that Ghazzawi chooses not to reference any of those women’s voices. Instead, the author concentrates on western depictions, erasing the agencies, knowledge production, and histories of local women’s struggles and with a dismissive gesture, conveniently chooses to situate these women within the “war on terror.”

The author enumerates a list of accusations towards the PYD, the Democratic Union Party, without critically engaging with or elaborating any of these serious claims. Ghazzawi gives ten links in two very short paragraphs, accusing the PYD without including even a single statement given by the PYD or a single bit of counter-evidence against these accusations. As an example of such counter-evidence, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic’s report denies that the PYD/YPG forcibly evacuated Arab and Turkmen civilians, as is claimed in Ghazzawi’s piece:

Though allegations of “ethnic cleansing” continued to be received during the period under review, the Commission found no evidence to substantiate claims that YPG or SDF forces ever targeted Arab communities on the basis of ethnicity, nor that YPG cantonal authorities systematically sought to change the demographic composition of territories under their control through the commission of violations directed against any particular ethnic group.[8]

We should indeed take these claims seriously, but the absence of critical engagement provides a tool for surrounding authoritarian powers that oppose organized Kurdish existence. Ghazzawi’s claims about the PYD are disturbingly very similar to those of the Turkish state, whose role in Syria’s current destabilization, and its decades-long war on the Kurds, are well known. This similarity lends unintentional support to the colonial domination of the Kurds and tends to reproduce the status quo.

Our paradise or their theatre?

Ghazzawi cites a Kurdish queer transwoman, Ziya Gorani, without giving any background information on their [Gorani’s] experience, other than three paragraphs of selected narrative supporting the author’s argument against the PYD and Rojava. In addition, Ziya Gorani says: “They’re a bunch of international fighters with YPG, trying to sell an image that LGBTQ people can wander the streets of Rojava without being discriminated against – that’s a lie. That’s not how things are in Rojava.” With genuine respect to Gorani’s experience, nobody – neither the internationalists, Rojava’s grassroots activists, nor the PYD – has ever argued nor can argue that Rojava is an LGBTI+ paradise.

On the contrary, that is why a queer struggle is necessary – without putting struggles’ into a hierarchy – just like it is necessary everywhere else, in different contexts and forms. We, as Kurdish LGBTI+ individuals and activists in four parts of Kurdistan and in the diaspora too, know our societies’ reality very well, and hold discussions that make every effort to open up spaces for our very existence.

Ghazzawi’s theoretical framework and grounding have serious potential to provide a powerful tool for the oppressed. But the text’s decolonial epistemic power is undermined by the flaws I have identified. The constant concern with addressing an international audience and acknowledging its representations as the absolute truth lead to serious flaws. 

The argument that the west’s primary interest is fighting ISIS, and that these Realpolitik concerns might be overshadowing the anti-Assad struggle, might be valid, but that does not reduce the Kurds’ struggle to these Realpolitik goals. Nor does the anti-ISIS war by the west reduce the Syrian Kurds or the PYD to operating merely in a colonial theatre, without their own historical agency or alternative objectives.

Screen Shot 2017-09-22 at 06.24.59_0.png

Screenshot: It's going down. Anon.

Does that mean that the PYD is beyond criticism? Quite the contrary. Every authoritarian tendency should be closely monitored. However, instead of perceiving anti-oppression struggles as monoliths, it is more productive and accurate to read the distinct struggles against various oppressive mechanisms and dispersed powers. With a cautious optimism, I believe that these struggles can come together, and constitute a common ground to resist authoritarianism and colonialism together, recognizing and respecting each other’s histories and agencies at the same time.

In conclusion, taking into account the history of the Kurdish struggle with its own dynamics, capacity, and motivation to oppose various oppressions, in addition to Syria’s other grassroots activists, the discourse surrounding TQILA cannot work as a re-colonizing tool in Syria, nor can it erase the struggle of the peoples of Syria. Nonetheless, my assertion does not mean peoples of Syria, queer activists, or leftists should not be critical towards TQILA or IRPGF. On the contrary, the channel of critique should be kept open, but with a careful and nuanced consideration of the historicity of different struggles.



[1] By Kurdish struggle (PYD/YPG-YPJ), I mean the organized struggle initiated by Syrian Kurds, taking its roots from the Kurdish movement in Northern Kurdistan/Turkey’s Kurdistan.

[2] Rojava means “West” in Kurdish, referring to the Western part of Kurdistan. It is located in northern Syria. For a detailed investigation on Rojava, see Michael Knapp, Anja Flach, and Ercan Ayboga, Revolution in Rojava—Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan, Pluto Press, London, 2016.

[3] For further scholarship on the Kurds under four different states, see: David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds, London: I.B. Tauris, 2004; Jordi Tejel, Syria’s Kurds—History, Politics and Society, translated by Emily Welle and Jane Welle, Routledge, London: New York, 2009; Zeynep Gambetti and Joost Jongerden, The Kurdish Issue in Turkey: A Spatial Perspective, Routledge, Oxon, 2015; Abbas Vali, Kurds and the State in Iran: The Making of Kurdish Identity, I.B. Tauris, London: New York, 2014; Choman Hardi, Gendered Experiences of Genocide: Anfal Survivors in Kurdistan-Iraq, Routledge, London, 2016; Ismail Besikci, International Colony Kurdistan, Gomidas Institute, London, 2015.

[4] It is worth noting that the PYD was founded by Syrian Kurds in 2003, the US-led international coalition was formed in 2014, and the Syrian Democratic Forces was announced in 2015.

[5] Mesut Yeğen, Devlet Söyleminde Kürt Sorunu, İletişim Yayınları, İstanbul, 2015.

[6] Mehmet Bayrak, Kürtler ve Ulusal-Demokratik  Mücadeleleri, Özge Yayınları, Ankara, 1993, (quote, my translation).

[7] Tejel, 2009, pg. 60-61.

[8] Conference paper of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, 13 March 2017, p. 21.


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