Iranians Debate Combating ISIL & Defending Kurds/ Kurdish Women

The urgent need to combat the onslaught of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), and the fact that the Kurds are being seen as a democratic bulwark against ISIL, has led to some important debates among Iranians. These debates concern the struggles of the Middle East region’s Kurdish national minority and Kurdish women in particular.


Frieda Afary

Sept. 19, 2014

The urgent need to combat the onslaught of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), and the fact that the Kurds are being seen as a democratic bulwark against ISIL, has led to some important debates among Iranians. These debates concern the struggles of the Middle East region’s Kurdish national minority and Kurdish women in particular.

Some Iranian Kurds argue that Since Kurds and Kurdish women have been especially targeted by ISIL in Iraq and Syria, and since the Kurdish Peshmarga* are now in the forefront of battling ISIL, Kurds should now aim for realizing their century-long struggle for nationhood and create an independent state out of the Kurdish regions of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. (1)

Others argue that only Iraqi Kurds should strive to create an independent Kurdistan out of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. Kurds from Iran, Turkey and Syria should remain within the existing borders of their countries and aim to promote multi-ethnic societies based on respect for the principle of national self-determination.   Among those who adhere to this position is Bahman Ghobadi, a renowned Iranian Kurdish film director who currently lives in exile. He argues that an independent Kurdish state in Iraq is needed as a safe haven for Kurds who continue to flee persecution in Iran, Turkey and Syria, so long as these states are not democratic and respectful of the rights of their national minorities. (2)

There are also more nuanced arguments which point to the larger regional and international power politics and the difficulties of creating an independent Kurdish state whether out of Iraqi Kurdistan or the Kurdish regions of other neighboring countries as well.

Omid Taheri writes: “Undoubtedly, the military interventions of the USSR, the U.S. and the West, in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries in the region had a role to play in the growth of Islamic fundamentalism of the Taliban type. However, in recent years, the prejudiced policies of Religious Jurisprudence [the Islamic Republic of Iran—tr.] and its allies (Syria and Iraq) aimed at promoting the strategy of the Shia Crescent, have been the most important factor for the growth and expansion of Sunni extremism among Muslims.” (3)

Omid Taheri argues that Iraqi Kurds are currently not strong enough from an economic, political or military standpoint to declare their own independent state. However, he believes that “the defeat of the Iraqi model based on existing borders and rules revealed that the partition of this country is not an inevitability but an urgency which will lead to the independence of Kurdistan in the next few years, unless there is direct intervention from neighboring countries….” (4)

A. Sharifzadeh argues that the main barrier to Kurdish independence is “the conduct of Kurdish leaders and decision makers.” He writes: “Only a short while after the thesis concerning Kurdish independence was put on the table, an informal alliance (ill-fated triangle) consisting of the Islamic Republic, The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) opposed the idea of creating a Kurdish state, based on the pretext that Kurdistan is not ready for independence and that fighting ISIL is primary. Therefore, the independence seeking activities of Mr. Masud Barezani faced serious difficulties.” (5)

Farrokh Nematpour also points out that “the two main forces in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan … do not have the same position…While the PUK is closer to Iran and is more flexible toward the central government of Iraq, the Kurdish Democratic Party under the leadership of Barzani is closer to Turkey.” (6)

Farrokh Nematpour is critical of all the above forces: “Factors such as horrible wars and ruthless bloodshed in Syrian Kurdistan and the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq, and also corruption within the government of the Kurdish autonomous region and the lack of formation of a natural Kurdish government (free of guardian parties), a government in which the Kurdish people would feel more of a sense of political participation, all can have a certain negative influence on the spirit of the people of Iranian Kurdistan. We also have to speak of the recent cooperation of the armed forces of the Islamic Republic [of Iran] with the Kurds. Although the Iranian armed forces are pursuing their own broader interests, they have affected public opinion in a certain way through this cooperation. A force which is fundamentally considered an enemy and placed together with anti-Kurdish forces in the larger regional picture, has now been placed in a strange position or cast in a misleading light thanks to the complexities of the contradictions of the region. We have to admit that the Islamic Republic [of Iran] has made certain gains in this respect.” (7)

On the other hand, among those Iranian feminist activists who come from the dominant Persian culture, there has been an effort to express solidarity with Kurdish women who are fighting ISIL’s mass rapes and enslavement raids. However, this expression of solidarity has been mostly combined with criticism of Kurdish women for fighting as Kurdish women and not only as women concerned about women’s rights.

In a recent article entitled “Three Images of Women in the Framework of ISIL’s Presence,” Mansureh Shojai, a prominent women’s rights activist places the images of Kurdish women fighting ISIL,  in the same category as the images of fundamentalist Muslim women who are leaving Europe for Syria to help the ISIL army.   She then contrasts these images with that of women in the Iranian reformist Green Movement and the Arab Spring.   Shojai questions whether Kurdish women will ever be recognized as equals to men by Kurdish society. She calls on all Iranian women to work together to bring back the image of women which was characteristic of the Iranian Green Movement and the Arab Spring. (8)

Another article by Azadeh Davachi entitled “Mililtarizing Women: A Struggle Against ISIL’s Violence or the Intensification of Violence?” criticizes Kurdish women for using violent means to defend themselves against ISIL’s attacks. She writes: “Women’s taking up arms and going to war is associated with another form of violence against women, and further exposes women to violence promoted by extremist groups.” (9)

The views expressed by Shojai and Davachi have been criticized by some Iranian feminists, Kurdish and non-Kurdish. Troskeh Sadeghi, a Kurdish woman has responded that equating Kurdish women fighters and women who are affiliated with ISIL  “is a great disservice to the history of the women of a nation that have taken up arms for obtaining democracy, freedom of speech and a civil society…The armed women of ISIL aim to completely destroy freedom, democracy, peaceful coexistence and civility. Whereas, the world can witness that the Kurdish women Peshmarga are giving their lives to defend human values in the Middle East and for the sake of the rest of the world.” (10)

Sharareh Rezai explains that Kurdish women who are taking up arms to fight ISIL “see with their own eyes that hundreds of [Kurdish] Yazidi women are being captured and sold in the slave markets. In the heart of their struggle is an idea and thought and determination that says: There is no liberator. We have to defend ourselves. Those faint-hearted and non-violent feminists who are not capable of comprehending the pain and scourge which has beset these women, and those leftists who are against nationalism and simply hand over this struggle to the nationalists, are themselves without determination and irrelevant to this movement. Or they are so distant from the struggle and so inactive that they simply hand over any revolutionary and freedom-loving movement to the existing currents.” (11)

Roya Toloui, a Kurdish feminist activist and  journalist who was imprisoned inside Iran and now lives in exile, addresses the above debates in a recent essay article. (12) She criticizes Iranian feminists for ignoring the fact that Kurdish women cannot separate the struggle for women’s liberation from the struggle against the prejudices which they face as Kurds.   She is also critical of Kurdish parties for not paying sufficient attention to women’s needs and ideas or simply using women as tools for their own aims.

Toloui introduces us to the names of the first women Peshmarga in the 1960’s and clarifies the distinction between “Peshmarga” who are allowed to marry and have a family, and “Guerrillas” who devote themselves entirely to the cause and are not allowed to fall in love, marry or express their sexuality. She claims that the Kurdish women fighters who are battling ISIL in Kobani, in northern Syria and Sinjar in northwestern Iraq are in the latter category and are affiliated with the PKK.

She argues that the feminist movement should offer a “realistic evaluation of ‘wartime’ feminism or feminism ‘among nations without a state’ or the feminism of ‘women who represent national and religious minorities’ who demand their rights from the majority.” The impact of national and ethnic struggles on feminism should not be ignored because, “the truth is that the women of national and ethnic minorities face not only cultural differences but also differences resulting from the uneven distribution of political power and hence political, social and economic inequalities and problems which in turn undoubtedly intensify men’s violence against women or even women’s violence against women.”

Toloui further emphasizes that it is the responsibility of Kurdish feminism to “criticize the roots of violence and prejudices against women and the barriers to women’s development in all their dimensions…to comprehend and define the thin line between war-mongering and self-defense. . . to allow women to reach the understanding that the elevation of their status and their emancipation is only possible through relying on ‘their own capabilities’ and not through mindlessly following political men and patriarchal political organizations that claim to seek women’s rights but are in their practice far from their beautiful slogans.”

She argues that it is also the responsibility of those feminists who come from the dominant Persian ethnicity, not to treat women of national minorities in a “paternalistic” and “condescending” manner or to constantly accuse them of “separatism” for challenging discrimination against national minorities. Chauvinistic and paternalistic attitudes and constant accusations of “separatism” thrown at Kurdish feminists “neutralize the effect of years of struggle on the part of Kurdish and Persian feminists in creating mutual understanding and sympathy for women’s rights.”

The above debates have raised important questions about how to battle ISIL and defend Kurdish self-determination as well as Kurdish women’s rights, without becoming a pawn of international and regional power politics. These questions also reveal that the Iranian reformist Green Movement was highly inadequate in addressing burning issues such as the rights of oppressed minorities, women’s emancipation and economic injustice. No forward movement can be achieved without addressing these issues.

Frieda Afary

September 19, 2014

*Peshmarga is a Kurdish term which literally means “those who confront death.” It refers to armed Kurdish fighters. It is also the official name of the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government in the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.



هادی صوفی زاده. (( سخنی با نویسنده “به مام جلال همه ما”)) اخبار روز. 25 ژوئیه 2014


مصاحبه با بهمن قبادی. رادیو فرانسه. 13 سپتامبر 2014


امید طاهری. “کوردها، استقلال و عارضه ای به نام داعش.” اخبار روز. 21 اوت 2014




ع. شریف زاده. “ده دلیل برای استقلال کردستان” اخبار روز. 23 ژوئیه 2014


فرخ نعمت پور. “خطر بزرگتر از خود واقعیت” اخبار روز. 7 اوت 2014


فرخ نعمت پور. “رکود در کردستان ایران؟” اخبار روز. 4 سپتامبر 2014


منصوره شجاعی. “سه تصویر از زنان در قاب حضور داعش.” مدرسه فمینیستی. 5 مرداد 1393


آزاده دواچی. “نظامی کردن زنان: مبارزه علیه خشونت داعش یا تشدید آن؟” مدرسه فمینیستی. 22 مرداد 1393


تروسکه صادقی.”پیشمرگ های فمینیستی که از هویت و آزادی هایشان دفاع می کنند.”مدرسه فمینیستی.26 شهریور



شراره رضائی. “فمینیزم، ناسیونالیزم و جنبش مسلحانه زنان کوبانی” اخبار روز. 20 اوت 2014


رویا طلوعی. “فمینیسم کوردی و راز آن اسلحه ی مقدس!” مدرسه فمینیستی. 16 شهریور 1393

One thought on “Iranians Debate Combating ISIL & Defending Kurds/ Kurdish Women”

  1. thanks for this article
    I think that there is 2 problems wich should be concerned about: the question of centralism
    some activists argue that without a strong armed party, no struggle against ISIS would be possible. they wive PKK as the determining factor in resistance of Kurdistan. from this standpoint, armed women are the best evidence for the notion that centralism is not oppose the popular politics. in the other side, some activists say there is no emancipatory war in Kurdistan. in the light of permanence of hierarchical relations between Kurds, it is obvious that even women’s participation, can not led the Peshmargas to become people army again. We can adorate the bravery of Peshmargas, but cant disavow the importance of projecting a positive alternative in wich women, workers, peasants and other suppressed people can live their lives freely. We cant hit ISIS with an alliance between USA, PKK, IRI and … but if we came to an emancipatory alternative, we could hope that the majority of ISIS soldiers leave the wrong way & stand in our side.

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