Bulletin N°36

mars 2022

Understanding combat motivation among Kurdistan’s female fighters – English version

Faye Curtis

In September 2014, the Islamist militant jihadist group known as the Islamic State (ISIS) began its assault on Kobanî, a majority-Kurdish city in the de facto autonomous region of north-eastern Syria (Rojava). By this point, ISIS had swept across the region, taking over towns and villages and subjecting civilians to a life of terror, including selling Yazidi women and girls into sexual slavery. Upon reaching Kobanî, however, ISIS was met with fierce resistance, as opposing forces led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fought hard to defend the city and with the help of United States and Allied air support managed to push the ISIS advance back, retaking the region by March the following year. The siege of Kobanî is thus recognised as a key turning point in the subsequent demise of ISIS. Kobanî also made international headlines for an altogether different reason, however, as images and stories began to circulate of the YPG’s all-female fighting forces, known as the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).

Kurdish women fighting ISIS caught the attention of international media outlets, in part because women’s participation in ground close combat is forbidden in most countries around the world (and remains a novel phenomenon in much of the West), and in part due to their Manichean appeal, appearing in stark normative and ideological contrast to the extreme religious conservatism of their opponents. Indeed, major militaries, including both the United States and the United Kingdom, banned women from participating in combat roles in 2014, so to Western audiences the female fighters of the YPJ appeared to fit the liberal feminist notion of women securing rights and representation for themselves by proving their equal worth to men. At the same time, female fighters of the YPJ seemed to contradict preconceived notions of oppressed Muslim women in the Middle East, giving rise to a somewhat orientalist fascination that has inspired popular literature and award-winning films, as well as eliciting an invitation for former commander of the YPJ, Nesrin Abdullah, and other Kurdish female representatives, to meet former French President Francois Hollande at the Elysée Palace (much to NATO Ally Turkey’s annoyance).

In an effort to move beyond the headlines, this article will consider the varying motivational forces that have led Kurdish women to war. Though providing an undeniably remarkable contrast to the usual images of male-dominated warfare, media representations of Kurdish female fighters often fail to interrogate the wider historical context in which they are situated, copy-pasting Western frameworks onto the actions of the YPJ and overlooking the political motivations of combatants themselves. The article begins therefore, with a brief history of the Kurdish independence movement, followed by an overview of imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan’s theory of ‘democratic confederalism,’ and finally a discussion of how this distinctly socialist-feminist yet utopian and largely mythological ideology has shaped the form of female militancy embodied in the YPJ, in contrast to religious and secular liberal alternatives.

A brief history of Kurdish militancy

Spread mostly across four countries in Western Asia – Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq – the Kurdish population is sometimes referred to as the ‘world’s largest stateless nation.’ There are autonomous Kurdish zones in Iraq (KRI) and Syria (Rojava) but across the Middle East, Kurdish independence movements continue to push for greater cultural and political rights; most notably in Turkey, which has sought to repress Kurdish expression and violent rebellion ever since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the Kemalist state in 1923, but especially so following the establishment of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in 1978. The PKK, a militant nationalist liberation front, was formed with the express aim of establishing an independent state connecting all parts of Kurdistan, and it includes both men and women in its ranks. In fact, women made up around a third of the 17,000 strong fighting force of the PKK by the early 1990s, engaging in support activities as well as active combat. Having resorted to the use of violent tactics, including suicide bombing and guerrilla warfare against Turkish security forces, however, the PKK (along with other Kurdish militias) is considered a terrorist group by many Western countries.

Indeed, numerous Kurdish independence movements remain designated terrorist groups despite the Kurds having become important partners for the West in the fight against ISIS and other Islamist networks in the Middle East. Throughout the 1990s, the Turkish state responded quickly and forcefully to the violent campaign of the PKK, imprisoning thousands of men thought to be involved in the movement and pushing Kurdish communities to find refuge in neighbouring Syria (where it is rumoured that a deal was made with the Syrian government that allowed for a de facto autonomous zone close to the border with Turkey in exchange for minimal unrest). Following the eventual arrest and incarceration of PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan in 1999 however, the Syrian government also began to crack down on Kurdish militants in its territory, leading to the formation of a new group in 2003, known as the Democratic Union Party (PYD). As the leading party among Syrian Kurds today, the PYD remains in close contact with the PKK and represents the political wing of the national army of Syrian Kurdistan, which incorporates both the YPG and YPJ.

Given their geographic spread and long history of militant resistance then, it is little wonder the Kurds took full advantage of the window of opportunity afforded by the last two decades of regional turmoil to redraw the post Ottoman map in their favour. Beginning with the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, followed by the Arab Spring in 2010, and the ensuing civil war that began in Syria in 2011, Kurdish populated regions have been at the centre of major international conflicts involving the US, NATO, and Russia, as well a direct confrontation with terrorist groups such as ISIS, and state offensives by Turkey and Syria. Nevertheless, Kurdish forces have managed to withstand war on all fronts. Aided by US and Allied airpower, as well as the multi-ethnic and religiously diverse Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Kurdish forces have successfully defended their homelands, retaken many of the key towns previously captured by ISIS, and perhaps most significantly, secured an autonomous zone for themselves in northeast Syria, otherwise known as Rojava.

Though later stymied by the widely condemned Turkish and Syrian operations Olive branch (2018) and Peace Spring (2019), the de facto administration of Rojava ceremoniously announced the formation of a new federal system in March 2016, to be defended by the SDF and governed according to the principles of ‘democratic confederalism’ (a non-statist political theory first articulated in Öcalan’s writings from prison). Furthermore, the decision to form a strategic alliance with the West against ISIS has allowed Kurdish militants to ‘rebrand’ their political project and elicit greater international sympathy for the wider independence cause, of which the promotion of female fighters is just one part.

The revolution is female?

According to regional specialist Pinar Tank, it was in this historical context of Turkish state repression and the widespread imprisonment of Kurdish men, that Kurdish women first became politicised, initially taking on the role of vocal advocates for their communities and in recent years joining the YPJ[1]P. Tank, Kurdish Women in Rojava: From Resistance to Reconstruction, Welt Des Islams, 57(3-4), 2017, pp. 404-428.. At the same time, the ideology underpinning Kurdish militancy has shifted significantly. In the years since Öcalan’s arrest, his philosophical teachings have moved away from Marxist-Leninism towards a radically different political theory based around three core principles: grassroots democracy, ecology, and women’s liberation. Indeed, this shift in revolutionary thinking not only tolerates but actively extols and depends upon women’s political participation. Taking the notion of a social contract and turning it on its head, Öcalan’s concept of democratic confederalism privileges the community as the primary political entity, diminishing the centrality of the state in favour of direct, or ‘bottom-up’ governance. But crucially, Öcalan’s numerous writings also advance a theory of capitalist and statist oppression that is explicitly said to have begun with the establishment of patriarchy and its attendant enslavement of women[2]To delve further into points made in this paragraph, refer to P. Tank, op.cit.

In a chapter titled ‘The Revolution Is Female’ Öcalan starts by saying “no social group has ever been exploited physically and psychologically to the same extent as women[3]A. Öcalan, The revolution is female, Abdullah Ocolan’s writings in “il manifesto”, 2010, p. 1. [Online] http://www.freedom-for-ocalan.com/english/hintergrund/schriften/ilmanifesto.htm … Continue reading.” Tracing patriarchy back 5,000 years, from ancient Mesopotamia to the present-day capitalist system, Öcalan links the history of women’s oppression to the emergence of the state and advocates the abolition of gender hierarchy as a key pillar of Kurdish liberationist politics[4] A. Öcalan & K. Happel, Prison writings: The PKK and the Kurdish question in the 21st century, London, International Initiative ed., 2011.. From this perspective, feminism involves “the uprising of the oldest colony” because it was women’s oppression and slavery that paved the way for all other forms of hierarchy, including the state and capitalist system[5]Cited in N. Al-Ali & I. Käser, Beyond Feminism? Jineolojî and the Kurdish Women's Freedom Movement, Politics & Gender, 2020, p.16.. And crucially what this means is, the freedom of the Kurdish people is inextricably bound to women’s emancipation[6]P. Tank, op.cit.. For Öcalan, patriarchy, the state, and capitalist domination go hand in hand, meaning there is no ‘route out’ of the current world order that does not treat women’s liberation as both reason and method of freedom[7]A. Öcalan & K. Happel, op.cit..

Clearly inspired by socialist feminism and the ideas of Engels then, Öcalan’s later theorising puts women’s liberation front and centre of his revolutionary vision for a new Kurdish society[8]F. Engels & E. Untermann, The origin of the family, private property and the state, Chicago, Charles H. Kerr, 1902.. As Kurdish scholar and activist Dilar Dirik explains, women’s liberation is conceived as a primary political objective rather than a by-product of the wider emancipatory movement geared towards Kurdish political autonomy[9]D. Dirik, Overcoming the Nation-State: Women’s Autonomy and Radical Democracy in Kurdistan, Gendering Nationalism, Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018, pp. 145-163.. And as the first region to implement Öcalan’s ideas in practice, Rojava has become a unique, ongoing experiment in self-governance, which in its emphasis on gender equality offers a radical alternative to the religious conservatism that dominates elsewhere in the region[10]Ibid.. Since 2012, women in Rojava have been involved in every aspect of decision-making and community building, from rewriting the constitution to establishing women’s unions and academies for promoting gender awareness, building sustainable agriculture, and filling the ranks of the military. Women also have veto power over decisions that affect them, and there are quotas stipulating that at least forty per cent of policy makers in key administrative bodies must be women[11]Ibid..

There is a risk of overstating the case, however. Kurdish society is majority Muslim and socially conservative, notwithstanding Öcalan’s secular ideas and emphasis on the need for gender equality. Kurdish female fighters have spoken candidly about the judgement and social ostracisation that women who volunteer for military service often face[12]M. Nilsson, Muslim Mothers in Ground Combat Against the Islamic State: Women's Identities and Social Change in Iraqi Kurdistan, Armed Forces and Society, 44(2), 2018, pp. 261-279.. And despite holding sway among left-wing intellectuals and scholar-activists, Öcalan’s ideas also represent just one camp on the spectrum of Kurdish political opinion. In seeking to understand the combat motivation of Kurdish female fighters it is therefore necessary to consider the influence of Öcalan’s pro-women ideology in relation to two other explanations dominant in journalistic reports and the existing academic literature. The first is the notion that Kurdish female fighters chose to fight ISIS in response to that group’s extreme misogynist violence and imposition of conservative values antithetical to women’s freedom. The second maintains that Kurdish women saw the war against ISIS as an opportunity to exercise agency and prove their equal worth in what remains a deeply patriarchal society.

Fighting religious extremism with secularism?

The contrast between brave, headscarf-free women carrying rifles and the religious extremism of their opponents is a common theme in the reporting on Kurdish female fighters. Scholars have noted how the femininity of Kurdish women is often emphasised or even fetishised in relation to masculinist notions of war[13]P. Tank, op. cit.. And while the generally secular orientation of the Kurdish political project allows for the framing of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ Muslims in the Middle East, the radical leftist underpinnings of Kurdish revolutionary thought tend to be overlooked[14]Ibid.. That being said, Nilsson’s work on women in the Kurdish Peshmerga shows there are multiple competing influences at work, such that defying gender norms and reclaiming religion are important motivational factors, in tandem with wider political objectives[15]M. Nilsson, Muslim Mothers in Ground Combat Against the Islamic State: Women's Identities and Social Change in Iraqi Kurdistan, Armed Forces and Society, 44(2), 2018, pp. 261-279..

Indeed, Nilsson argues ISIS posed a religious as well as military challenge to the Kurds. One female officer Nilsson interviews described the situation as follows: “it is not a problem to fight and shoot at the IS. I am religious. The IS uses the name of religion to destroy Islam. Islam is not about cutting off heads and enslaving women. You must treat prisoners well. They are terrorists and will go to hell[16]Ibid. p. 273..” In contesting the extremist interpretation of Islam advanced by ISIS then, Nilsson says Kurdish female fighters demonstrate how religious sentiments “do not always conserve traditional societal roles but can also contribute to changing them by increasing women’s involvement in the war.” So, on this basis, defence of religion, the nation, and women’s rights become closely related endeavours[17]Ibid..

At the same time, an emphasis on ‘deep history’ and folklore in Kurdish culture centres mythological tales of utopian past worlds and alternative forms of knowledge production[18]N. Al-Ali & I. Käser, op.cit., in a way that distinguishes it from the Western secular paradigm. In their exploration of Jineoloj – a ‘women’s science’ advanced by Öcalan – Al-Ali & Käser explain how stories linked to Mesopotamian, Sumerian, and Babylonian times, are passed down through the generations and celebrated as important cultural reference points shaping Kurdish people’s histories and identities. Mythology is frequently evoked to support Öcalan’s idea that there was once a time free of hierarchical gender relations, and to support contemporary aspirations for a matriarchal society in which women exercise freedom and power just as they did before the advent of the capitalist state[19]Ibid.. Indeed, the teaching of Jineolojî is designed to uncover ‘lost truths’ and challenge the privileging of ontological rationality and enlightenment-era scientific thinking by re-establishing the importance of alternate, feminine-coded epistemological sources such as emotional intelligence and the idea of women’s instinctive bond to the natural world[20]Ibid..

Though not overtly otherworldly then, Öcalan’s teachings do bear quasi-religious overtones. Fulfilling the role of a spiritual leader or deity, Öcalan’s theory of patriarchy and the state is comprehensive and universal in scope, purporting to explain thousands of years of human history leading up to the present and offering a way back to this lost and utopian time only through education (Jineoloj), introspection (where both men and women unlearn internalised power structures), resistance (to domination), and sacrifice (‘killing the male’), on what is a single path to achieving one ultimate, transformational objective. In Öcalan’s words: “To kill the dominant man is the fundamental principle of socialism. This is what killing power means: to kill the one-sided domination, the inequality and intolerance. Moreover, it is to kill fascism, dictatorship and despotism[21]Cited in D. Dirik, op.cit., p. 150”.

Fighting religious extremism with liberalism?

Another source of motivation often ascribed to Kurdish female fighters is the struggle for equal rights and recognition relative to men. According to Nilsson, Kurdish women see participation in war as a chance to both reclaim their religion and increase their agency as Muslim women[22]M. Nilsson, op.cit.. War, on this view, provides a rare window of opportunity to increase women’s agency, change perceptions of women’s capabilities, and increase respect for women’s contributions in what remains a traditional and highly patriarchal society irrespective of ideological aspirations to the contrary. Nilsson finds women of the Peshmerga often cite gender equality as a primary motivating factor, and do not reject but counterbalance their role as ‘good Muslim mothers and wives’ by proving that “even Muslim women can be fearless warriors[23]For the two citations: Ibid, p. 275.”. While for Dirik: “The women’s fight against ISIS is not only militarily, but also philosophically, an existential one. They not only resist against feminicidal ISIS, but also the patriarchy and rape culture prevalent among their own community[24]LMH Oxford. (2020). Dr Dilar Dirik: Women’s Justice-Seeking in the Context of Political Violence [Video]. YouTube. [Online]
https ://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TC695DT8m0Y (accessed 10th March 2022).

As both Dirik and Tank point out, resistance to patriarchy in the Kurdish context does not neatly map on to the liberal feminist ‘tough as men’ frame prevalent in Western discourse[25]P. Tank, op.cit. & D. Dirik, 2018, op. cit.. It is a common notion that women’s participation in European wars had a modernising effect on those societies, increasing women’s agency and expanding women’s rights, including the right to vote. But applying this version of history cut-and-paste to the Kurdish context risks overlooking and depoliticising the radical political ideology that underpins the Kurdish independence movement, in addition to the tangible policy advances in gender equality already underway in places like Rojava[26]Ibid..

War fighting does entail gender norm challenging in conservative Kurdistan, but many female fighters have also been explicit in their view that the Kurdish vision for a new society requires robust self-defence[27]P. Tank, op. cit.. The liberal feminist framework is therefore inappropriate as it tends to perceive combat motivation in terms of individual ambition rather than a political mobilisation, paradoxically denying the very agency it purports to recognise. At the same time, Kurdish women’s war fighting breaks with more radical forms of anti-militarist feminism in its recognition of the need to exert ‘hard power’ when necessary. In the Kurdish context, political autonomy is the key guarantor for women’s protection, but political autonomy itself requires militaristic defence.

The key point then, is that women’s liberation is integral to Kurdish revolutionary thought and practice and is not a by-product of the social changes wrought by conflict[28]D. Dirik, op. cit. & LMH Oxford, op.cit.. Nilsson says “The violence perpetrated against women by the IS has encouraged more Kurdish women to join the frontline war effort, challenging their victim role in warfare and broadening their identity from being mere caregivers to protectors[29]M. Nilsson, op.cit., p. 276.”. But following the ideas of Öcalan and the teachings of Jineoloj, there is nothing inferior about typically feminine practices such as caregiving in the first place. Indeed, Öcalan’s entire political project is about reinstating “mere caregivers” to their rightful, elevated place in the social hierarchy.

Here again, there is a risk of over-romanticising the ideological motives at play. There is a wide gap between the teachings of Jineolojî and the daily lives of women in Kurdistan, and it is difficult at times to distinguish between analysis and propaganda in existing work on the topic. But nevertheless, Öcalan’s political theory and the case of Kurdish female fighters does challenge us to think about motivations for war beyond defence of the nation state. As Pinar Tank eloquently puts it: “The idea of building a society in which gender equality is a bearing foundation strengthens the resolve of Kurdish women in their fight against Daesh by giving them a stake in an egalitarian future in which they play an integral political part. This perspective is markedly different from considering their engagement through the lens of gender victimhood or resistance alone[30]P. Tank, op.cit., p. 427.”.


Although Kurdistan’s female fighters first shot to fame in 2014, during the siege of Kobanî and the battle against ISIS, women have been active in Kurdish political life, including militant independence campaigns, for decades. Imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, has been explicit in his view that oppressive structures such as the state and capitalism have their roots in patriarchy, meaning freedom for Kurdistan is inseparably bound to women’s freedom. Defeating patriarchy is therefore considered an essential stage in bringing about a new society, and it is in this ideological context that the famed female fighters of the greater Kurdish region have emerged.

Contrary to liberal feminist notions of gender equality, this alternate vision of women’s liberation aims to undo the hegemony of the nation state as the primary site of political freedom, whilst at the same embracing militarism. For this reason, it is not sufficient to say that Kurdish female fighters have been motivated in reaction to the religious extremism of ISIS, or the opportunity to challenge gender norms and exercise greater agency in a way that resembles Western feminist movements. Complex and overlapping, the motivational forces driving Kurdish women’s participation in war are rooted in the history of the Kurdish independence movement, as well as everyday struggles against the denigration of women and the misappropriation of religion, amidst a highly unstable regional context.


1 P. Tank, Kurdish Women in Rojava: From Resistance to Reconstruction, Welt Des Islams, 57(3-4), 2017, pp. 404-428.
2 To delve further into points made in this paragraph, refer to P. Tank, op.cit.
3 A. Öcalan, The revolution is female, Abdullah Ocolan’s writings in “il manifesto”, 2010, p. 1. [Online] http://www.freedom-for-ocalan.com/english/hintergrund/schriften/ilmanifesto.htm (accessed 9th March 2022).
4 A. Öcalan & K. Happel, Prison writings: The PKK and the Kurdish question in the 21st century, London, International Initiative ed., 2011.
5 Cited in N. Al-Ali & I. Käser, Beyond Feminism? Jineolojî and the Kurdish Women's Freedom Movement, Politics & Gender, 2020, p.16.
6 P. Tank, op.cit.
7 A. Öcalan & K. Happel, op.cit.
8 F. Engels & E. Untermann, The origin of the family, private property and the state, Chicago, Charles H. Kerr, 1902.
9 D. Dirik, Overcoming the Nation-State: Women’s Autonomy and Radical Democracy in Kurdistan, Gendering Nationalism, Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018, pp. 145-163.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.
12 M. Nilsson, Muslim Mothers in Ground Combat Against the Islamic State: Women's Identities and Social Change in Iraqi Kurdistan, Armed Forces and Society, 44(2), 2018, pp. 261-279.
13 P. Tank, op. cit.
14 Ibid.
15 M. Nilsson, Muslim Mothers in Ground Combat Against the Islamic State: Women's Identities and Social Change in Iraqi Kurdistan, Armed Forces and Society, 44(2), 2018, pp. 261-279.
16 Ibid. p. 273.
17 Ibid.
18 N. Al-Ali & I. Käser, op.cit.
19 Ibid.
20 Ibid.
21 Cited in D. Dirik, op.cit., p. 150
22 M. Nilsson, op.cit.
23 For the two citations: Ibid, p. 275.
24 LMH Oxford. (2020). Dr Dilar Dirik: Women’s Justice-Seeking in the Context of Political Violence [Video]. YouTube. [Online]
https ://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TC695DT8m0Y (accessed 10th March 2022).
25 P. Tank, op.cit. & D. Dirik, 2018, op. cit.
26 Ibid.
27 P. Tank, op. cit.
28 D. Dirik, op. cit. & LMH Oxford, op.cit.
29 M. Nilsson, op.cit., p. 276.
30 P. Tank, op.cit., p. 427.
Pour citer ce document :
Faye Curtis, "Understanding combat motivation among Kurdistan’s female fighters – English version". Bulletin de l'Observatoire international du religieux N°36 [en ligne], mars 2022. https://obsreligion.cnrs.fr/bulletin/understanding-combat-motivation-among-kurdistans-female-fighters-english-version/
Numéro : 36
mars 2022

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Faye Curtis, PhD Candidate in International Relations, former diplomatic attaché to the UK Delegation to NATO.

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