Rojava: Political Structure Obscured By Headlines

In recent weeks, as the world has watched the siege of Kobani enter its third month, the narrative followed by the media has centred on the sensational elements.

Glossy magazines have run articles praising the bravery of The Female Fighters Of The YPJ.

Stories of foreign fighters who have joined the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) abound . As new recruits to the cause join daily, the press is beginning to question the motivation of some soldiers, incorrectly identifying two British fighters as mercenaries. None of the ‘Lions’ are receiving payment, but they do get advice on what to bring; a minimum of $5,000 to purchase weapons, armour and supplies.

The fetishisation of the Kurdish women defending Rojava from the Islamic State has been depressing. I don’t question their heroism, in fact I’m deeply impressed by all with the courage to fight an enemy that has struck fear into supposedly stronger forces. Their resolve has remained intact, although reports suggesting that as much as 80% of Kobani is under Kurdish control appear to be wildly inaccurate. Refugees on the border claim the opposite is true. They say that the only area held by the Kurds is the highway to Turkey, which IS will not attack for fear of finally snapping the patience of the Ankara government.

The Marie Claire article that did the most to highlight the women battling IS in Rojava was hastily, and to their credit, publicly amended shortly after publication. Of the 12 women profiled, two were girls of just 12 and 14 years old. Naturally this caused something of an outcry, with accusations that the magazine was, if not celebrating, tacitly condoning the use of child soldiers.

Fewer commentators have tackled the way the article patronises women, the implication being that gender has an effect on the desire to protect your home and family. It’s certainly not as overtly misogynistic as Greg Gutfeld, the Fox News presenter who ridiculed UAE pilot Major Mariam al-Mansouri. Perhaps we should be thankful that the editor chose not to illustrate the article with the cultural appropriation of Peshmerga clothes, for which retailer H&M was forced to apologise in October. H&M claim the style and timing of release of the belted khaki jumpsuit was a coincidence.

But the Marie Claire article doesn’t ask about the politics of the women – there is not a single enquiry about what the Democratic Union Party (PYD) or even the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) stand for, merely the compulsory references to the 30 year struggle in Turkey and the identification of the PKK as a terrorist organisation. Without that, all the article exists for is to highlight that women fight, just like men (there is no mention of the fact that Kurdish women have been involved in armed resistance for decades). By reducing the role of women in the struggle in Rojava to just a military one, Marie Claire misses the true quest for equality happening in the region. A light shone, however briefly, on the fact that the three cantons are run by two elected leaders – a man and a woman – would have been apposite. Quotas in local government insist on 40% of positions being filled by women. This commitment to women’s liberation has been adopted in Rojava from core principles of the PKK and PJAK in Iran.

On the whole the world’s press still prefers to illustrate the women of the cantons with a fighter in fatigues holding an AK-47, rather than a 30 year-old engineering graduate marshalling decrepit oil fields. That a genuine attempt at social gender equality is receiving little attention is incomprehensible, especially in this region.

Elsewhere in the world, where women have been involved on the front lines for years, media speculation is less intense. A Canadian soldier, Captain Ashley Collette was awarded the Medal of Military Valour for her leadership of an all male platoon whilst in Afghanistan, and nine other countries, including Germany, permit women in all combat units. In Israel, single and married women without children are required to undertake mandatory military service, and are able to serve in light combat roles.

One such soldier is Gill Rosenberg. The 31 year-old served for two years in the Israeli Defence Force when she emigrated to the country in 2006. She travelled to Syria via Erbil airport last month, joining the expanding ranks of international fighters within the YPG and YPJ.

She followed Jordan Matson and Brian Wilson who generated headlines as the first Americans to sign up with the YPG, and Matson especially has maintained a high-profile as the face of the social media recruitment campaign, The Lions of Rojava. The Guardian reported last week that two British men, Jamie Read and James Hughes have travelled to Syria as mercenaries, a claim flatly denied by Graham Penrose who knows the men.

“They are volunteers and brave men like Jordan Matson and Joshua Bell, whose conscience has motivated them to apply their skills to assist innocent people who have been left to their own devices in the face of terror from IS and to report their experiences so that Western European audiences can understand the imperative of assisting the Kurdish nation resist IS,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

Joshua Bell comes with a superficially interesting back story. A former contestant on the Discovery Channel’s Naked & Afraid programme, Bell is an ex-Marine, serving as a sniper with the YPG. Colourful characters one and all, and risking their lives for a cause that many would feel is not their battle.

Of course this is awesome copy – but it feels thin, and as I say, superficial. What would be fascinating is a glimpse into the personal motivations of the recruits. Do we want to know, above and beyond the slogans (“Better to live one day as a lion, than 1,000 as a lamb” and “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”), the ‘why’? For example, how do the right-wing politics of America chime with the decidedly left-wing principles at play in the PYD?

And what of those politics? Rarely reported, and with the focus squarely on the fight against the encroaching Jihadis, what does the Western media care for the type of autonomy that Rojava and its people wish to carve in a post civil war Syria? The head of the PYD, Salih Muslim, has been around the world canvassing support and weapons for the struggle, and yet the Kurdish Supreme Committee’s plans for elections in the next two months are mostly left unreported, and even in longer pieces about the cantons, little in the way of ideology is addressed. It appears that interest is focused only on the conflict, and not what comes after (or even during). Surely there must be an appetite for the political system developing in Rojava? No? Just me?