A picture tells a thousand words. If I were to ask any of you about key aspects of the current conflict now erupting in Kobane in Syria, you might well describe an image. Whether it be of a man in an orange jump suit being beheaded by a cloaked ISIS member or a smiling aid worker holding a young Syrian child, this war has been summed up and presented on our TV screens in graphic imagery.
Pictures of pretty freedom fighters sell armed struggle/revolution/war – choose your terms as you see fit. The above juxtaposed photos are particularly telling. On the right the iconic photo of the beautiful Marina Ginestà, Catalan 17-year-old Communist militant (PSUC) during the Spanish Civil War. On the left, a young woman with a gun slung over her shoulder, looking back to camera intensely. Tweeters have claimed she is a ‘female kurdish fighter’ but others have questioned this claim.
But the provenance of the photo is immaterial really when its point is to symbolise and represent those fighting ISIS in Kobane in a certain way. If even young, attractive women are bearing arms against those evil hooded men then the fight must be a moral one? Or is the message also more base than that and it just makes bloody war look a bit nicer? It comes to the same thing ultimately.
It is not just this and other images of young armed women in Kobane and the surrounding region that are being used as, in my view war propaganda. There are also a number of articles and blogposts celebrating the role of young women in fighting ISIS. For example spiked editor Brendan O’Neill praised Arin Mirkan, a 20 year old woman who killed herself and some ISIS fighters in a hand grenade attack. He wrote:
‘Well, now we know that taking the ultimate risk – and let’s face it, suicide bombings, or self-explosion on a battlefield in Mirkan’s case, has a 100 per cent risk factor – is not something only Islamists do. So do Kurdish women. Twenty-year-old Kurdish women. Young women who, if they lived in Britain, would currently find themselves encouraged to treat rude tweets as a devastating assault on their personhood. Maybe Mirkan’s actions won’t only dent the morale of IS but also remind us in the cosseted, deadened West that there is more to life than being safe and snug and always protected from risk, adventure, challenge and offence.’
Regardless of previous pieces by O’Neill condemning our moral relativism about suicide in general I find his arguments quite crass. Maybe ‘risk’ and ‘adventure’ are aspects of war but should they be used as adverts for it? I think O’Neill is right about how cosseted we are in ‘the west’. And western feminists are particularly over sensitive and navel gazing But maybe one reason there is little feminist discussion of either these representations of women fighters in Syria, or the fact of women fighting in a current conflict, is that both are inconvenient to feminist rhetoric. ‘War is all men’s doing’ and ‘women and children are hurt most by war’ and ‘rape of women in war is the main problem’ are all viewpoints held by many contemporary feminists. So images of women fighters are studiously ignored. Also feminists’ preoccupation with the ‘objectification’ of women tends to be limited to women in sexual (usually passive) modes of being and a woman with a gun doesnt quite fit the bill.
Baudrillard should he still be with us, might be more quick to notice and comment on these representations of war than feminists. His statement that ‘The Gulf War did not take place’ in the early 90s, rather than a denial of the conflict in the middle east, was a comment on media representations of war and the relationship between them and the reality of the violence:
‘Baudrillard was pointing out that the war was conducted as a media spectacle. Rehearsed as a wargame or simulation, it was then enacted for the viewing public as a simulation: as a news event, with its paraphernalia of embedded journalists and missile’s-eye-view video cameras, it was a videogame. The real violence was thoroughly overwritten by electronic narrative: by simulation.’
In the 90s gulf war, Baudrillard suggested the media spectacle served US military/political interests, as it presented a view of a 2-way conflict that he believed was more of an act of imperialist aggression by the states on gulf countries/people. I am interested in the meanings conveyed by the imagery from this current conflict in Kobane and beyond. And I think they are multiple. In relation to the promotion of these images of pretty young women ‘freedom fighters’, the message coming from a variety of places is that the conflict is about ‘freeing’ or ‘liberating’ the Kurds from the terror of the ISIS jihadists. And who better to represent the need to be ‘rescued’, saved from an awful fate, than an innocent-looking girl/young woman? There are also meanings to be conveyed by the videos of the horrendous beheadings of hostages by ISIS. One question has been to what extent showing the videos at all have western media played into the hands of ISIS and helped ‘promote’ them whilst trying to expose and condemn their brutality. Another has been which videos are real, which fake?
I am horrified by the actions of ISIS. But Western liberal leftists who are idealising and claiming support for ‘the kurds’ are not telling us much about context. In short, the ‘kurdistan workers party’ or the PKK , do not represent all Kurdish people. They have murdered kurdish dissidents and people who disagree with them or who get in their way. And of course, as they are a nationalist organisation at loggerheads with the Turkish state, western liberals’ calls for Turkey (and the US) to help the PKK in their fight against ISIS seem naiive at best. And in a region where war, imperialsim, religious oppression, nationalism, terrorism have been raging for centuries, this sudden ‘something must be done about ISIS’ without historical analysis/perspective comes across as pretty dumb. Surely it could be argued that forgetting the lessons of history is one reason why we’re still in this mess Stanley?
I think we should all be sceptical about everything we see and read in the media when it comes to war, however much it fits our own ideologies (some romantic souls are still attached to the idea of socialist revolution, headed up by pretty young women). I found this ‘letter’ allegedly from a 19 year old kurdish woman fighter in Kobane to her mum, hard to believe for example:
‘We are here to defend a peaceful city. We never took part in killing anyone, instead we hosted many wounded and refugees from our Syrian brothers. We are defending a Muslim city that has tens of mosques. We are defending it from the barbaric forces.’
The letter is published on the kurdish question website. Call me cynical but it seems like staged propaganda to me. It seems too rigorous in fitting in all the arguments for PKK armed conflict neatly in a supposedly personal letter from daughter to mother. And claiming not to be killing people after describing the group of seasoned ‘fighters’ the young woman is with also seems fishy.
The PKK does include women fighters. Feminist or not, this does not sell its aims to me. But, with a little help from global media, western lefty-liberal-Marxist types, and a (sexist) tradition of using images of ‘pure’ and ‘noble’ woman as symbols of revolution/’just war’ many are buying into the ‘brand’, and willing powerful states to get behind the cause. Until some other media spectacle catches our attention…