One day they are terrorists, the next day they are femme fatales fighting Islamic State (Daesh). The discussion of whether Kurdish female fighters are the first, the second or something third is a dynamic one, and public perception of them changes easily due to the lack of in-depth inquiries into the women as reflecting, political human beings; political ideas simply do not get retweeted as much as a female Daesh-slayer. The power to affect their image lies in the hands of almost anyone but the Kurdish women at the front lines themselves.
Yesterday, Kurdish pop star Helly Luv released her latest music video called “Revolution”. It opens with enacted scenes from everyday life in a Kurdish village when suddenly an explosion happens. Men, women and children fall to the ground, dead or injured, while survivors flee the enemy clad in black driving into the village on a tank. It is in short the reality of life as it has been for months in Kurdistan, Iraq and Syria.
Only one person is not running away from the shooting tank: Helly Luv, wearing gold high heels, ankle bracelets and head jewelry attached to a red keffiyeh that covers her face except for the heavily-made up eyes. Throughout the rest of the video she is dancing on abandoned cars, shooting the enemy and rescuing a child.
Helly Luv’s hypersexual character in a war zone reinforces the portrayal of the Kurdish female fighter as a femme fatale which is ironic. Her calls for revolution in the song is what the Kurdish fighters are already carrying out on a daily basis and have laid the foundation for in decades yet her music video adds to the misconceived notions of a Kurdish female fighter.
One digestible portrayal after the other has rendered a complex struggle and its equally complex combatants dismissable in various articles, media footage and discussions like this introduction to “Seven women peacemakers who should be on your radar”: “When it comes to women and conflict, the media often delivers two narratives. On one end of a restrictive spectrum, women are victimized and under siege – vulnerable, isolated, and helpless. And on the other end, as evidenced by recent coverage of female Kurdish fighters in Syria and Iraq, we see a celebrated, if not fetishized, image of the woman as warrior – the sexy, gun-wielding badass.”
It is as if the Kurdish female fighters have to be understood within the confines of oriental seduction because it is too hard for the people outside the Kurdish regions to understand them in the true context of their individual and collective struggles. Rather than recognizing an inherent warrior spirit the women are reduced to pieces in a media and military strategy constructed by the Kurdish man.
There have been objections against the media highlighting the Kurdish female fighters as beautiful communist Daesh-slayers, one argument being that female soldiers of other nationalities are ignored, another that some of these fighters are children. I agree with the objections to the extent that the Kurdish women’s decision to fight and their will to continue should be understood as specific to the individual woman and as part of a long process of freeing themselves from a male-dominated and traditional Kurdish society. They are not a propaganda tool and they should not be belittled by such claims.
While the argument posed by people thousands of kilometers from the front line may be that the Kurdish women are fetishized and exploited for PR purposes, one must also take into consideration that the war offered a way for the women to collectively and simultaneously leave the traditional homemaker-role, pick up guns and fight for their beliefs; beliefs that cover everything from feminism to protection of human rights to the implementation of democracy.
It is a legitimate concern that the Kurdish women are portrayed as either victims, terrorists or sexy Daesh-slayers and instead of breaking with this reductive position, Helly Luv and her crew have played into the bipolar fascination with the Kurdish female fighters.
The music video was meant to be a harmless gathering point for Kurds to remember the fallen and to be inspired in what has been a nightmarish period for not just the Kurdish people but the Syrian and Iraqi people too. Yet it does not evoke any such response in me. It comes across as a lipstick revolution kind of song due to its simplistic storyline featuring a hypersexual woman shouting words like “unity” and “revolution” and even more so after a comment Helly Luv made regarding the making of the video and the people appearing in the first few minutes: “I felt so emotional shooting this part. All these beautiful innocent people were the same people who escaped from ISIS! I didn’t want actors. I wanted them to tell the story and pain they saw and felt.”
I do not see their story nor their pain. I am neither moved nor inspired. I see the sharp contrast between a war zone with dead children and a woman in gold heels and long, red nails dancing on a car. I see the the Los Angeles pop star perpetuate the perception of Kurdish female fighters as “sexy, gun-wielding badasses.” I see a lipstick revolution.
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