A Critical Analysis of the Media Representations of Women Fighting in Rojava - IMAGINING WOMEN FIGHTERS IN THE LIMITS OF MEDIA FRAMES
Deniz Dilan Arslan
In January 2014, the three cantons of Rojava declared their autonomy and created their democratic autonomous administrations, which ensure an inclusive and pluralistic system. The revolution that is still happening in Rojava has built on the promise of an anti-capitalist, stateless, democratic and ecological society.
The self-defence carried out by the YPG and YPJ, which declare themselves as self-defence forces of the revolution, against the Islamic State has been an undeniable mark of the resistance going on in the region, which also took Western media’s attention after August 2014 while YPJ and YPG were fighting against IS in Kobane, which is one of the cantons in Rojava. Over two years the similar news articles that headline women’s resistance and fight against IS had been circulated in mainstream media channels celebrating and admiring women fighters as the allies of Western countries. However, throughout the time that the revolution has been realized, the news, without exception, portrayed women fighting in Rojava as soldiers who are a response to brutal IS’ actions, excluding the social and political structures, political ideological and the historical background of the resistance given against IS.
It has often been self-evident in this state of permanents war that the resistance of peoples that has been given is against dominant power structures that are interwoven with the relationships between global capitalism and nation-state alliances. So, here I follow some questions that query the relationship between power of people and power of discourse, in which the media has been positioned as a main instrument inbetween.
This study is an inquiry into the limits of media representations of women fighting in Rojava by following the argument that media representations are the cultural productions that nourish the imagination of distant others.
My main question: the possibility of speaking with the women fighting for a revolution through their representation in the complexity of the context, by imagining them through media frames.
When looking to media frames, I look at the exclusions in the media frames of women fighters in Rojava.
the problem with the representation is mainly considered as ‘missing representation’ rather than misrepresentation. The problem with the representation is considered as ‘misframing’ by following Butler who suggests that to be able to analyse the discourse we should look at what is excluded from the frame rather than what is false or biased in the frame. Still, frames are imprints of power.
I adhere to Spivak’s proposal to analyse what a work does not say – firstly as ‘what a work refuses to say’, and then, as ‘what it cannot say’ (1988: 82). the question of ‘what it refuses to say’, which indicates an ideological, collective refusal, can demonstrate ‘the deviation from an ideal that is irreducibly differential’, ‘what it cannot say’ asks the question of the consciousness of the subaltern and the role of the receiver who transforms the ‘insurgency’ into the text (ibid.).
The analysis comprises of online articles about women fighting in Rojava, published in online newspapers, journals and platforms in the period between August 2014 and September 2016. The analyzed media is categorized as mainstream and alternative due to their economic and political positions and relations they have in the space of media.
Mainstream media is the media that is regulated, financed and controlled by media corporations that are dependent economically to the free market. Alternative media sources used here are the media productions that support the existence of Kurdish libertarian movement and are not corporate media channels. The alternative media is considered as being autonomous due to their economic and political position in the space of media.
The included mainstream media sources are from online newspapers BBC, CNN,
The Independent, The Guardian and The New York Times. There are 22 articles about women fighting in Rojava that can be reached via the internet from the newspapers that can be categorized as elite newspapers. I use elite newspapers as McNair describes it: ‘By “elite” … is not implied any qualitative superiority in the content or style of a particular outlet; simply that its audience mainly comprises those whom social statisticians would place above the societal average in terms of income, educational level, or profession’ (McNair: 2009, 5).
The Exclusions: The Reasons for Fighting
- Fighting ‘Against ISIS, For Myself and My Family’
All articles produced between August 2014 and October 2016 in the online sites
of analyzed mainstream media about women fighters fighting in Rojava, headline Kurdish women together with IS. The news articles are given in a conflict frame, which figures two oppositional sides fighting with each other.
The narrations about women fighters are in positive tones of celebrating or admiring their fight against IS. Most of the headlines propose to inform the audience about women fighters, but their focus is more on the militaristic aspects of the conflict or the brutal actions of IS rather than women fighters.
Even when they promise to give the reasons for women fighting and give place for women’s fighters words, the content undermines the words of women fighters not only by indicating what is happening ‘in fact’, but also by excluding any other information about women fighters.
The reason for women to fight that is given in this frame is IS’s brutal attacks.
Women’s armed resistance is a response. The emphasis is on ‘honor’, ‘protecting family’, ‘protecting future’ and ‘protecting lands’. It is remarkable that when these reasons for fighting echo the political discourse of the nation-state that is immanently patriarchal.
The difference between women’s words(the personal attachment of women to the place, which is given in a nationalization frame) about why they are fighting and the reasons given in the articles(the geopolitical importance of the region) is more than a gap, since the information given undermines their reasons to fight by informing the audience about the importance of happenings that are exclusive of what women say.
Fighting Against IS For Emancipation
When the question about why ‘women’ fight remains, the answer found in mainstream media is IS’s oppression of women, which is repeatedly emphasized by framing the acts of beheading, raping and enslaving women. These acts are proudly presented by IS, for its own propaganda. (Ebrari, 2014). IS has been presented, as mainstream media has done often, without its background and causes. While an image of IS as the enemy of any means of women rights and freedom is drawn, they remain incapable of explaining IS popularity among women, not only in Western countries but also in Syria. Muhammed Ebrari discusses that although IS’s attitude towards women who are seen in the status of ‘enemy’ is brutally violent, contrary to the general opinion, IS gets positive attention from women who are in its ideological influence area (2014: 31). He adds that one of the reasons for neglecting the existence of women, which is effective on IS’s gender regime, is considering IS only in terms of war. Since war itself is considered as a male sphere, it is the male soldiers of IS who are the exposed face of the organization, which makes women supporting IS invisible (ibid.). On the other hand, when it is that women fight for their freedom, their fight is to be freed from IS brutality that is attacking ‘Western’ or ‘modern values’, which would be ‘gender equality’, in this case, that is embraced in Western culture in a certain form.
Although the violent attacks of IS towards women, who IS consider as ‘enemies’, are nothing to undermine, reasoning women’s fight only as a response to IS’s occupation and giving IS’s oppression as a ‘powerful motivation’ to join the fight leaves no space for imagining the fight women have given outside of an IS narrative, and neglects the historical and political context of their fight.
Edward Said argues that one of the features of Oriental-European relations is that
Europe was always in a position of strength: one between a strong and a weak partner.’ (2003: 40) While the women fighters are represented as defenders of Western values, this narration becomes more forceful with a repetition of women fighters being especially powerful in front of IS, which can be found in many articles: “women fighters have an advantage of being women.” Stating that IS members are afraid of being killed by women, since it means they will not go to heaven, and so they are scared of women fighters. This narration feeds the image of IS as a weak enemy, being afraid of a group irrationally. It also mystifies women’s resistance as it becomes sufficient to be woman, a ‘naturally’ existing advantage.
In this contrast frame, given as women vs. IS presents the fight women give as a conflict that concerns the women more since they are the ones living in the same space. This representation of self-struggle against a monstrous enemy, in which women oppression is presented as a local problem that is linked with the problems of the other/Islam/the Middle East, implies that the Western audience has no need to relate with the causes of this struggle.
Fighting Against Patriarchy
In alternative media, articles respond to the narratives in mainstream media: women oppression is linked with patriarchy in the region, rather than only IS. Women are heavily affected by the attacks of IS, but it is not given as the only reason for women to join the struggle. The patriarchal violence that is rooted in the social structures as a reason for women’s attendance to the struggle is given, which indicates the context and the historicity of the issue and also it points out political and social consciousness of the fighters.
Although the women’s accounts state that the oppression of women in the region has accelerated together with, crucially, the existence of IS and similar jihadist groups, they also tell that the oppression is not a result of IS occupation, as ‘women were also oppressed during the Baath regime, and subjected to continuous pressure.’
both in mainstream and alternative media, the reason given by women for fighting is their experiences of oppression as a result of the family structure, which they aim to change through their struggle. In this frame, the women’s attendance to fight liberates them. This representation easily fits into an Orientalist perspective since here patriarchy would be understood only in terms of ‘traditional society’, which in Rojava would represent women oppression as a problem belonging to Islam/the Middle East.
However, even if rarely, it can be also found in alternative media sources that the political ideological framework of the women’s movement follows the political philosophy proposed by Abdullah Öcalan, which considers that the emergence of hierarchy, class rule and statism are the consequences of patriarchy, which therefore should be overcome for an egalitarian society. In this frame, the Kurdish women’s movement considers IS as one of the extreme forms of capitalist patriarchy, rather than due to religion/tradition. Important to mention here Özselçuk’s and Küçük’s note about the increasing representation of the Kurds after their fight in Kobanê “a certain phantasmal projection of a civilizational narrative upon the struggle in Kobanê that divides the world into good(Kurds) versus evil (Islamists).’”
Framing patriarchy only as a result of traditional society does not only strengthen dominant power discourses, which are also built on the dichotomies of Western vs. oriental, modern vs. traditional or secular vs. Islam, but also it works for embodiment of the women’s struggle in dominant power structures, which is done through the distortion of their political claim and by supporting the fight in the limits of recognized identity politics. It should also be noted that this understanding of gender issues in the Middle East has already led to an ignorance of political economies and imperialist geopolitics that have been shaping women’s experiences in Arab/Muslim countries.
The feminist struggle of the women’s movement aims to overcome patriarchy both in social practices and in power structures, which should be considered together, are difficult to encounter in media representations.
In this contrast frame of women and IS the war is also considered as an ideological war given in terms of ‘gender equality’, which is often also framed in alternative media.
In media there is the exclusion of the women who are not heterosexual and the exclusion of the feminist discussions that might refer to the issue. In alternative media, there are a few articles that mention the problematic proposition with regards to sexuality, representing that the dominant gender structure embedded in ‘capitalist modernity’ is preserved by the movement in Rojava. When considering these narrations together with the previous articles, the imagination of women’s struggle that is against patriarchal social structures, also referred as ‘traditional society’, has limits that are drawn with the dominant patriarchal discourse, which recognizes homosexuality as ‘aberration’ and marriage as the compulsory institution for sex.
From this perspective, it doesn't come as a surprise that the dominant gender discourse could easily embody the struggle women have given in Rojava when the political ideology is excluded, because the representation of the ‘women’ is implicit in and strengthens dominant gender structures, as the represented ‘women’ is without question a heterosexual female.
Although the women fighters are still a transformative force, as they also represent roles that are not accepted as feminine, if one does not claim that all women fighting in Rojava are free of their desires and all of them are heterosexual, their representations are exclusive and oppressive.
The Exclusion: The Rojava Revolution
In mainstream media it is not possible to encounter women whose works in political organizations reflect the social transformation for a gender equal structure and with women organizations in social and economical levels that open space for this transformation. There is the exclusion of the political and social background from the imagination of women fighters.
In a few articles in mainstream media the armed struggle is linked with gender equality. One of them is important since it is the article of a female commander, Narin Afrin, published in The New York Times. It shows that the fighters are not the ones whose voices in the space of mainstream media cannot be heard. The politically represented subject is the women fighting against IS in the battlefield. However, if one has been following the traces of the revolutionary subject here, the existence of her voice in this space does not widen the limits of the frame. The only women who are represented in mainstream media are the women fighting in the battlefield, which points out that the political representation of women fighters are drawn with militaristic power.
In alternative media, the links between women emancipation, Syrian revolution and women taking place in social and political transformation are emphasized. In this frame, the armed forces are the defense mechanisms of the revolution that work together with other mechanisms and structures. The armed resistance is seen as a need to protect lives and it is presented as a ‘legitimate self-defense’, which includes establishing social and political grassroots mechanisms to protect society beyond a narrow physical struggle. ‘Legitimate self-defense’ takes important space in the imagination of women fighters since not only it breaks the contrast frame ‘women vs. IS’, but it also answers the discussions based on the critique of violence.
Contrary to mainstream media, in alternative media there are many articles about women fighting in Rojava, which focus on women in social and political organizations. In Jinha, there are hundreds of articles in indicated period about women in organizational structures, public spaces, and about non-armed women that are fighting for the revolution. In opendemocracy there are articles of Rahila Gupta who interviewed with women in head organizations and she emphasizes the significant relationship between women’s constant effort in different social and political structures and the revolution. Jo Magpie who is a traveller and a free journalist writes about the existence of women councils, of communes, women only commissions and a greenhouse project. She also states that YPJ is not the only defense force of the revolution but women have their own defense forces in three different levels.
These articles focus on women’s initiatives that actualize the transformation of women’s status in social levels bring different voices into the imagination of women fighters. Considering the agency in these articles; the importance of the relationship between the representation and ideological stance of the agency becomes apparent as a determinant factor in the way frames of women fighters are set in the media environment.
The Exclusion: Non Kurdish Women & Other Revolutionary Groups
Kurdish identity of women fighters is underlined. Whether the historical context is given or not.
One principle of democratic autonomy, as defined in Social Contract, is the recognition of all different groups, acknowledgement of different identities. Although the principle of non-discrimination is mentioned in several articles, both in alternative and mainstream media, the salience given on Kurdish-ness of the women feeds the imagination of the women fighting in Rojava as of a nation.
The nationalistic frame of “Kurdish women” points out the power of the Kurdish women as the dominant one while excluding the other groups and ethnicities who also fight. So it inevitably creates inequality between ethnic groups and reinforces the tension between them. Also, it leads to an ignorance of the difference between Kurdish peshmerge forces in Iraq and the armed forces in Rojava: they have different motivation to fight and different ideological positions.
In rojavareport, an alternative news platform built by people supporting the Rojava revolution, its founders express the necessity of presenting the attendance of other groups and ethnicities in YPJ and YPG cadres as a response to a general misunderstanding of the resistance being a nationalist one. They have several articles giving space to the words of non-Kurdish women fighters. Again, its their political consciousness regarding the issue that makes the political representation of non-Kurdish people possible.
The Exclusion Of Suffering
There is hardly an imagination of suffering when the subject is women fighters. But when the women are represented as the ones who are living the Syrian war, the images of suffering with stories of lost families, forced migration, beheading, enslaving by IS. The politics of pity is predicated on women in Syria, with the exception of women fighters.
The positive imagery of women fighters with undertones of fascination and admiration donates the space of media representations and imposes itself as women’s reality. The objectification of women fighters with smiling images in mainstream media was criticized in several articles in alternative media. However, the glorification of women fighters is also dominating the space of alternative media, while it is difficult to imagine the possible difficulties women confront throughout their struggle.
The positive representation of women’s struggle becomes an obstacle to hear about the difficulties they experience, but I believe also for them to speak their experiences out.
Sara Ahmed: “women are happy”- gendered labor - as expressions of a collective wish and desire. The imagining of revolutionary women only as happy and powerful because of their becoming warriors works for their myhtification, as it is clear that a constant human struggle given in the battlefield or in political social organizations harbor different feelings other than a constant happiness.
In the case of the images of women in revolutions, besides the idea that people who sacrifice their life for the revolution are the objects of the revolution rather than its actors, the dominant understanding of ‘the revolution’ which suggests that a revolution is not constant struggle but a point after the struggle, where all problems are already solved, also promotes the idea that women fighters are/should be happy.
The glorification of women fighters and their positive imagery strengthens the dynamics in which the norm is determined; women should sacrifice their life for their emancipation.
When we look how the death of women fighters are represented in Western media, the analysis brings the question “whose lives are considered valuable, whose lives are mourned, whose lives are ungrievable” (Butler) Considering Western media’s coverage about IS attacks in Western countries compared to the media’s attention to the attacks in non-Western ones, the life is that is valuable to grieve is the life of the Western person, whereas for the other, the death is normalized as the life is dehumanized. This norm making is maintained in the news about women who dies fighting in Rojava. There are so many news about the death of Western female fighters went to fight in Rojava whereas it is rarely the case for Rojavan people. When there is the news about non-Western women, there is the focus on her being like “Angelina Jolie” or how many IS fighters she killed when she made a suicide bomb attack.
Contrary to its rare existence in the news, the public grieving over a fighter’s death takes an important space in life in the region. The death of a fighter is not only embraced with collective mourning but the burial of fighters is a collective act that is often a protest. While the political discourse signs the death of a fighter as heroic, which is framed in media, contrary to the media representations the death is still considered unjust and grievable.
With the exclusion of their feeling of loss, sadness and with the salience that is given to the glorification of women fighters: legitimate the death of some, reproducing the mechanisms that differs lives as grievable and ungrievable. They normalize the death of women fighters, again representing them as soldiers.
If we turn back to the question: is it possible to represent suffering? I would like to bring Maryam Ashrafi’s work into the imagination of women fighters. In her work, it is not only the space of war they exist. There are so many images of women fighters who cry, cook, smile, dance, draw a picture or think. They disrupt the positive imagery of war created through the glorification of women fighters and also they break the image of women only with smiling faces or soldier postures.
by categorizing them as alternative and mainstream, has demonstrated that even if the boundaries determined by ideological positions are blurred, economic power relations still determine frame settings in media. The exclusions in the frames reveal the borders of recognized subjectivities, which are represented through and shaped by political discourses of each media agency.
the exclusion of the historical and social backgrounds and of political consciousness of women fighting limits their fight only to a response to the events, creating an imagination of the women fighters only as soldiers. The Orientalist and militaristic discourses that embrace women as soldiers in this caricaturized ideological war between IS and Western values indicate that, even if the women fight for their emancipation, they are part of the problem rather than the solution of it. This perspective becomes clear also when one considers the exclusion of the transformation happening in social levels through social and political organizations that are carried out by women fighting in Rojava. This perspective
dominant in mainstream media that is blind to people’s agency, will and ability to act in a different direction that is not recognized by dominant discourses.
In mainstream media, when we consider the political representation of women fighters and ask the question, ‘who is excluded in this representations?’ a comparison with alternative media shows that women fighters who are on the front lines fighting IS are recognized in the mainstream media, whereas the women who are not combatants are not represented. At this point, when considered with the content of Afrin’s article in which she is calling for armed support in the fight against IS, her recognition brings the question of whether the existence of her voice in this space is the recognition of the fight women have given for an anti-capitalist, anti-statist, egalitarian society or if it is the reaffirmation of the war, which Western governments have taken active part – a question already answered by the exclusions in the frames of mainstream media.
In the alternative media, the representations of women fighters in the political and social organizations, other than the women in YPJ, disrupt and change the image of women fighters dominated by a militaristic and patriarchal discourse; the imagination of women fighters widens in the representations and the women speak words other than those of a soldier. A wider political representation of the women emerges, but it also misses the realization of democratic autonomy, since the people who are not in institutional or military levels are rarely vocalized.
The dominant discourses are reproduced in alternative media when the journalists do not take a political stand to bring a different perspective, but only responding the exclusion of the political and historical background. This is especially apparent when such articles are compared to the articles in which journalists disallow a patriarchal discourse, but frame the women fighters from a feminist perspective. In these articles, the women’s words announce their political consciousness, excitements, motivations and daily struggles, all of which unfold their belief in the revolution.
The representations that disrupt dominant discourses or widen the limits of the frames owe their existence to initiatives of people and of platforms whose political perspectives widen the political representation of women fighters. Here, the distribution of the sources is the issue to consider; although the number of the articles in English and their informative quality in alternative media surpasses the news articles in mainstream media, the alternative media sources are by substantially difficult to access via searching for them in Google, and they are far less circulated in different media spaces.
The women fighting in Rojava, who are the main actors of a revolution, who
have the means for producing their knowledge and their representation and whose
struggle is recognized internationally are apparently not the subaltern. However, this
argument is questionable as there is the exclusion of suffering, the exclusion of women who do not fit into discursive identity of the Kurdish liberation movement and the exclusion of the other revolutionary movements in Syria and in Rojava in the
representations of women fighters. regarding the possibility of hearing the voices of the women who are not recognized by dominant ideological discourses, the question of the subaltern resonates in the non-representation of the one who have not spoken yet, like the LGBTI+ people. The subjectivities of women fighters, when not recognized by political discourses, are mainly left outside in their representations.
It is possible to hear the women fighters in Rojava when there are agencies whose political discourses recognize different identities of women. However, speaking with the women fighters who have different colours and shapes still seems impossible underneath the rumble of dominant voices that drowns out the sound of others and occupies the imagination of women fighters.