How To Trust A Terrorist

Art by Julia Ladics
Art by Julia Ladics

Correction: The author of this piece asked to have his/her name removed for personal reasons.

They carry guns, dress in jumpsuits and boast impeccable eyeliner — such is the irresistible image the US media has created for the female peshmerga soldiers of two influential Kurdish political parties. In southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria, respectively, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) have employed battalions of these fighters for many years, but their most recent claim to fame has been their fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Dozens of articles about these “badass women” fighting ISIS have flooded English-language media accompanied by objectifying, and ultimately damaging, images of beautiful women and their rifles. The apotheosis of these soldiers even rose to the point where H&M designed — and then was pushed to recall — a “peshmerga chic” khaki jumpsuit.

The newfangled focus on this decades-old group has appeared parallel to the founding of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. By focusing on the role of female Kurdish fighters in the battle against ISIS, Western media sources inflate the assumption that the peshmerga, or pesh, are the perfect ally in a turbulent Middle East. But one snag makes the romanticization of these forces a lot more complicated: The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization on the State Department watch list. The female pesh are a stark example of the unconventional associates that the United States has had to rely on in a region largely hostile to the West. America’s Kurdish partners are not the great hope of the Middle East and can hardly be said to be fighting for Western-style democracy.

The PKK and YPG are two militant wings of the fractious Kurdish nationalist movement. The peshmerga — literally “those who face death” — earned their chops fighting for Mustafa Barzani’s Kurdish Regional Government in Northern Iraq during the ’60s and ’70s and in his son Masoud’s government during the Iran-Iraq War in the ’80s. Female pesh have only reappeared in the media in the past few months, with outlets busying themselves drawing an impermeable boundary between ISIS and the peshmerga. This largely centers on the narratives of how each group treats its women; female pesh are presented as embodiments of liberal democratic ideals in contrast to the arcane misogyny of ISIS. But the Kurdish communities from which the pesh come — where honor killings are still common — largely maintain traditional gender roles.

There is little question that the terrorist designations of the PKK and YPG are well-founded. The period of greatest PKK activity during the mid-’90s in Turkey was one of immense unrest and fear, with both the PKK and the government committing atrocities that contributed to a 45,000-person death toll. The PKK’s most notorious tactic is its use of female suicide bombers, including one infamous case in which a pregnant suicide bomber killed six Turkish soldiers in 1996. Additionally, the PKK and YPG have a fractured base: Not all Kurds support a physical fight for a sovereign, independent Kurdistan. This is especially true in Turkey, where the battle for greater civil rights and regional autonomy is taking place largely in Parliament and the courts. Yet the West seems to have reconsidered its position on these armed militias, a fact that analysts have claimed may be a reason why Turkey expressed reluctance to join the anti-ISIS coalition.

The US position is bolstered by Western media coverage of the female pesh that softens the public’s gaze on these violent guerillas. Conservative sources, including The Telegraph, have highlighted an oft-quoted but unfounded rumor that ISIS fighters “know their reward will come in heaven, in the shape of 72 virgins — but not apparently if they are killed by women.” The PKK and YPG have also been given the opportunity to reconcile the public perception of themselves abroad: “We have been called terrorists for years,” one female fighter told Foreign Policy in September, but ISIS “beheads civilians…We have rescued civilians.”

It is unclear whether the media’s love affair with the female pesh will make Western nations more supportive of Kurdish autonomy in the future. In the early ’90s, Masoud Barzani’s Iraqi Kurds fought on the side of the US-led international coalition against Saddam Hussein. Then, as now, CNN trained its cameras on the faces of Kurdish women, who were cast as empowered young ladies participating in a righteous war against a temperamental regional strongman. Yet just a decade later, faced with the necessity of currying favor with Turkey, the PKK was internationally castigated as a terror group. Former President George W. Bush described the PKK as “an enemy of Turkey, a free Iraq and the United States.” Now recent reports suggest that the EU and United States are considering lifting the PKK’s terrorist designation. In response, talking heads across Washington have affirmed that the Kurds are the West’s most “solid allies in the long-term war that jihadism has declared against us” and that the Kurds are “our best friends inside Syria.” In many ways, the media’s questionable use of the female peshmerga as a symbol of an allied cause is just the latest example in a long history of self-serving rhetoric.

The upsurge in media coverage of the female pesh helps repaint Middle Eastern battlefields as portraits of ideological struggle with far-reaching consequences rather than landscapes of sectarian violence. The West’s fairweather friendship with the Kurds is one of the only invariable features of Middle Eastern politics in the past four decades. America’s boldfaced political and sexual co-optation of the female rebels creates tacit support for their terrorism and undermines attempts to resolve the regional crisis.


  • I believe you don’t know about the history of women in Kurdistan, it was a time when women in Western countries and anywhere else didn’t allow to be in any political rules, kurdish women were and are commander and local authorities of its nation.
    For the proof reply to me I will give all.
    We are not denying there were not honour killing in our nation, majority of Kurds are Muslim and among them there are and were some with stupid Muslim mentality. As honor killing happens much worse in Turkey and other Muslims countries you dumbassk. Wash your hands and your dirty mouth when you want to write or talk about Peshmerge women in PKK and other opposition against those 4 kurdish neighbours countries. You have just did a little research and you write about them. Who gave you this bloody degree? When you can’t do your research well? If we are a terrorist as you saying give me a one historical genocide, Kurds did to other nations? but other nations massacred Kurds they still do it. We have been divided into 4 countries which none of even gave us a basic right. They wanted to destroy our culture and language what do you to do keep silent and they kill us??? There were several times our leaders want peacefully to negotiate with their central governments but those countries terrorised our leaders in different countries and in their countries.
    First do your homework right and than come write articles about politics.

  • It seems that you have done some research about the brutal war in Northern “Turkey” Kurdistan. Don’t tell me you didn’t come across of the atrocities of Turkish military against the Kurdish people.During that period of time You mentioned in your article Turkish army burned down 5000 Kurdish and Christian villages, killed 40,000 kurds, forced 5 million kurds to migration to Europe and Western cities in Turkey, put thousands of men and women jails, and the list goes on.
    Please don’t tell me you did not come across all these in your research!!! High likely, the information you have used in your article has been provided to you by your bosses in Ankara. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  • It is unfortunate that, in making a point about the media’s focus, you press your case so far opposite that you discredit and dishonor people that are fighting tooth and nail, and blood so they don’t get trampled on by foreign invaders. You also make very big errors in this article to support your claims.

    Let’s start with errors:

    -In the second paragraph you confuse Pesh Merga with PKK fighters. Though both are largely ethnic Kurds, Pesh Merga is the designation given to the the military of the Kurdistan Regional Government of northern Iraq. PKK and YPG (by the way, the female fighters belong to the YPJ, they are the ‘sister’ outfit of the YPG) are PKK and YPG/J fighters.

    -You state that the Pesh Merga “earned their chops fighting for Mustafa Barzani’s Kurdish Regional Government in Northern Iraq during the ’60s and ’70s…” Mustafa Barzani died before the formation of the Kurdistan Regional Government. By the way, it is KurdISTAN Regional Government, not the Kurdish Regional Government.

    -You state that “There is little question that the terrorist designations of the PKK and YPG are well-founded.” While one can make a very large case for the designation, I will simply state that the YPG is not designated as a terrorist organization by any State.

    -You mention that in the struggle between the PKK and the Turkish state atrocities were committed by both sides, yet the example you cite is one in which 6 military personnel are killed, no civilians. And you conflate the case against PKK by claiming that they routinely used cuicide bomber, perhaps to make a connection in the readers’ mind between PKK and Al Qaeda/ISIS’ tactics.

    -As in the point above, it seems you are purposefully, or ignorantly perhaps, trying to confuse the military factions of the Kurdistan region to make your case. You state, “In the early ’90s, Masoud Barzani’s Iraqi Kurds fought on the side of the US-led international coalition against Saddam Hussein…. Yet just a decade later, faced with the necessity of currying favor with Turkey, the PKK was internationally castigated as a terror group.” This statement is so erroneous that it requires an entire article to rebuff it. It is true that the KRG fought alongside the coalition to oust the Ba’ath party and not a single American soldier was killed in the territory controlled by the KRG during the invasion of Iraq. But again, the PKK is not part of the Kurdistan Regional Government, so you mentioning them interchangeably is either ignorant or intentionally misleading. Also ignorant or intentionally misleading is the sequence of events in the above statement. The PKK was designated a terrorist organization BEFORE the invasion of Iraq.

    I could continue, but I think the above mentioned errors are sufficient.

    I agree with your regarding your (main?) point that the western media is focusing their cameras too much on the female fighters, and not only that, it seems they pick out the most beautiful and only show those. But to take the faults of western media and turn it into a statement against the YPG/YPJ is to do a disservice to the struggle against real terrorism: that of religious fanatics intent on killing anyone who does not follow their ideology.

    You mention that the Turkish state committed atrocities, does it then not follow that a people would be within their right to fight for their freedom? But, disregarding that thread of thought, and I only mention it to make the following point: You seem to be making a case for discarding one of the only reliable American partners in Syria in the fight against IS(IS), but you completely fail to see the larger picture… and the larger picture has a glaring detail: Turkey has proved itself completely and utterly unreliable in this fight exactly as they were during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Then, as now, it was the Kurdish military and militia outfits that were reliable and fought bravely against the Iraqi state as well as fought to protect the American brave men and women service members.

    One final point, and it is for this that you should be ashamed as a woman to fail to see, that in the fact of these brave women picking up weapons to fight alongside their male counterparts they are not only fighting an existential threat, but they are also fighting against traditional and religious practices such as honor killings. Did you know that the political wing of the YPG/J just outlawed honor killings last month in northern Syria?

    I really hope that for the sake of all the blood that has been shed so far by all the innocent civilians in Syria that you will stop your misleading statements and perhaps as a woman truly do your research to find the facts about your sisters fighting for a just cause.

  • I’m sure [the author] understands that there is a grey area in between “terrorist” and “freedom fighter”. The Netherlands got their independence from Spain in a 80-year war. The USA got its independence from Brittain in a somewhat shorter war. Of course, some would call the founders “terrorists”. Coming back to the Kurds: a horrible division of their territory into 4 different countries got them 4 enemies. What’s wrong with correcting that situation? I really don’t see it. And yes many Peshmerga women are eye candy, but that’s a detail.

  • Nice read!

    It seems that you have confused the traditional backward culture of religious Kurds with that of the PKK. In fact, PKK is among the most feminist groups in the world. I don not condone their acts of violence but they have been using females in combat for over thirty years, and they are quite different than the Peshmerga. They and YPG enforce a dual leadership policy in all of their organizations including in the Kurdish self-ruled cantons of northern Syria. All of their political and military units are headed by a man and a woman simultaneously. PKK has been fighting the backward religious-tribal mentality in the region since 1978, long before their recent love affair with the west, while the Turkish government was busy setting up extremist outfits like Turkish Hezbollah. Please inform yourself regarding the history of Kurdish struggle before making unfounded claims.

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