Guerrilla movements’ policies: a driving force towards gender equality?

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A woman with her back to the camera aims down a rifle
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Author(s)
Beatriz Pimenta Klein

Female violence has always attracted curiosity. From the Greek myth of Medusa to the black-widow phenomenon, for centuries men have asked what could possibly turn their lovely female companions into such violent aliens. From deviant sexuality, to irrationality and emotionality, many explanations have been offered to try to explain this weird phenomenon: violence committed by women.

Far from natural, the difference between male and female behaviour is a form of reiterated socialization, which means that characteristics usually understood to be “manly” (e.g. aggressiveness and competitiveness) are a collective normalization of given behaviours. It is not the male condition that confers men these forms of display of emotion and personality, but the cultural association made between men and masculinity that assigns men these roles and privileges.

Women have only recently been accepted as citizens with rights. Historically, women were restricted to the private spheres of civil society. Therefore, violence committed by women is a phenomenon historically understood as unnatural and politically unacceptable. Men, however, are structurally justified to engage in violent activities. Customarily and historically, (1) only men are entitled to engage in the military; (2) the common understanding of standard behaviour is that men are naturally aggressive, etc.

These gendered social constructs are powerful structures that have shaped our societies and, consequently, the State. Thus militarized institutions are closely related to the construction of masculinity (as opposed to values attributed to femininity). According to Cynthia Enloe’s book “Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives”, the values entrenched in the military institutions are the ones that spread through society when the phenomenon of militarization happens: “[the militarized social group] becomes controlled by, dependent on, or derives its value from the military as an institution or militaristic criteria.” Militarization takes place when armed conflict is on the horizon, and means logistic and cultural preparation for the approaching violence.

Derived from the latter concept, the process of militarization imposes determined gender performances that are abnormal to the usual functioning of such social group. In armed conflict, gender roles are reinforced in ways that can be remarkably damaging to women.

This article will illustrate and broaden comprehension of the phenomenon of women participating in political violence ("political violence" is understood in this article as a continuum of possibilities of violent confrontation, which includes armed conflict, terrorism, guerrilla, and also other forms of political violent manifestations), and will analyse militarism as a tool for achieving political/social goals. For those purposes, I will draw on the experiences of female guerrilla fighters in the Colombian FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People's Army) and the Kurdish PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party)/PYD (Democratic Union Party)/YPJ (Women's Defence Units).

Female guerrilla fighters

Within academia, there are many explanations to the outbreak of civil conflicts: from the greed/grievance binary, to the failed/fragile States concept. Another potential explanation is gender inequality as a force driving surges and continuity of internal conflicts.

Both Kurdish and Colombian conflicts have erupted in scenarios of fragile democracies and high economic vulnerability, so guerrilla movements represent alternatives to disadvantaged communities. Taking into consideration the fact women experience higher levels of economic deprivation, it is clear women are particularly vulnerable to recruitment campaigns by guerrilla groups, beyond ideological (Marxist-Leninist inspired) motivations.

Socio-economic vulnerability and ideological commitment are good explanations for women participating in guerrilla movements. However, they are not exhaustive: the condition of being a woman in the Kurdish and Colombian societies is also a strong driving force behind female adherence within these groups. This is not only due to the (lack of) opportunities available to women elsewhere. It is also because of the lack of security they experience due to sexist beliefs and practices, such as traditional gender roles towards marriage and family, sexual repression, gender based violence, lack of education, etc.

FARC-EP

Engaging with guerrilla groups allows many levels of agency that would not be attainable to women in other circumstances. These organizations are, in many ways, a haven for women. In their article “'Like going to a fiesta' - the role of female fighters in Colombia's FARC-EP”, Herrera & Porch explained that “for many young females, the FARC offers a sanctuary from physical and verbal, occasionally sexual, abuse, empowers them through arms, assigns defined roles and tasks that allows them a measure of control over their lives”.

Since 1985, the FARC-EP’s Statute has contained a clause that foresaw the equal treatment of women and men within the guerrilla. Along with the death penalty for sex offenders, these policies certainly encouraged women to join the movement. Nonetheless, these discursive practices did not mean any sort of gender neutrality or women’s liberation, but rather a form of masculinization of female combatants. As Méndez points out, feminine traits were only desirable in determined private/intimate circumstances: “Some traditional aspects of femininity are militarized and incorporated, and women navigate a space that requires them to imitate men (e.g., in combat) while they maintain certain traits that are believed are “natural” to women.”

Therefore, the reality is that while 40% of the Colombian combatants were women, only two female fighters held hierarchical high command posts in 2007. The higher command of the group circumscribed women to determined functions, preventing them to evolve within the guerrilla.

Testimonies from former female guerrilla fighters’ show that women’s participation in FARC-EP did not result in any sort of change of the Colombian social structures – especially regarding gender. After the ceasefire treaty in 2016, Colombian society understood women’s participation in the guerrilla as a past chapter in their lives, and women were now expected to return to their old gender roles. As Teresa, a former Colombian combatant, stated on the matter of re-integration: “The man gives orders, where the man imposes his laws ... I am accustomed to giving orders ... so it‘s difficult for us.” (Herrera & Porch, 2008, p. 628).

PKK/PYD/YPJ

The female condition is also a driving force towards the adherence to the Kurdish guerrilla. However, in a different note from the FARC-EP, in the PKK and its later branches, the PYD and its offshoot, the YPJ, it is ideology, more than the socioeconomic context, that plays a strong attractive role when it comes to adhesion.

Allied with a criticism of Marxist-oriented class struggle, the group, under its leader Öçalan, believes gender oppression to be the first of all social differentiations. Since the 1995 PKK Congress, the group used the new motto “the revolution is female”, as illustrated by the following quote from Öçalan as cited in Duzgun:

The level of woman‘s freedom and equality determines the freedom and equality of all sections of society.... For a democratic nation, woman’s freedom is of great importance too, as liberated woman constitutes liberated society. Liberated society in turn constitutes democratic nation. Moreover, the need to reverse the role of man is of revolutionary importance.

The group’s liberation of women ideal is known as jinealogy, a term that sums up the need for women’s emancipation as a prerequisite for Kurdish liberation: jinealogy is the belief that by dismantling the patriarchal system, a whole new society will emerge. According to Pinar Tank’s article “Kurdish Women in Rojava: From Resistance to Reconstruction”, this ideology has enabled the creation of numerous policies across Kurdistan, such as the criminalization of “forced marriages, domestic violence, honor killings, polygamy, child marriage and bride price”. It has also instituted the co-presidency principle (a woman and a man sharing the same governor position) and the requirement that 40% of women participate in a vote for any social decision to be taken in popular assemblies.

Female fighters’ testimonials strongly reify the ideological aims of the guerrilla group. Interestingly it was not only the female fighters who incorporated women’s liberation as a goal, but also the male ones, as pointed by 42 year-old male combatant Karim, whose testimonial was collected by Damon:

We didn't want to accept it at first. Women by nature are physically weaker, and in war that hits you like a boomerang. You need to watch the way you fight, the way you move. So we were against this. We didn't want the women with us because it makes combat tougher on us. But Ocalan said in his book, if we are really trying to create a new society, we have to develop women. If women are enslaved, then so are men.

The conclusion is that both male and female mentalities have been changed since the ascent of the Kurdish guerrilla, substantially altering the social structures of the community. However, it is essential to question if this transformation could only have been achieved “at gunpoint”.

The fallout of militarism

Acknowledging the perverse effect of militarism on societies is an important lens through which one can question the necessity for the guerrilla in order to achieve gender equality. The traditional research agenda on conflicts is concerned with macro-level analysis: sovereignty, militaristic capabilities, hard/soft power… This is the militaristic approach, an established mindset that normalizes the recurrence to warfare in order to solve conflicts. But in real life, how does militarization and armed conflicts affect our lives?

Armed conflicts are systemic; they involve a complex set of dynamics and interactions between people. Armed conflicts are about militarised gender identities; the violence derived from the conflict generates problems with migration and its consequential refugees; conflicts impact national and international economic systems, affecting production, employment and consumption; and militarization itself, as a process in which a whole society is embedded in militarized values (embedded in sexism, aggressiveness, relying on heavy expenditure on weapons), is a cyclical problem within and above armed conflicts.

Assuming anti-militaristic values allows us to question the manner through which gender equality was pursued within the Kurdish society. The political initiatives of the groups are of great value, although should be able to be detached from a militaristic leadership.

Lessons

With this brief article we could see how women’s roles within the FARC-EP have remained unaltered. Men’s mentalities towards gender equality, both within the guerrilla group and civil society, has not changed, even if the group’s rules theoretically foresaw equity between its male and female fighters. Female participation in the guerrilla did little to affect Colombian social structures.

On the other hand, with the ideological structure of jinealogy, the Kurdish guerrilla attempted structural change within its society. Women participation in the PKK/PYD/YPJ did entail some sort of emancipation, and such achievement was not confined to the group’s arena. Indeed, it is possible to say that Kurdish society was positively marked by the policies and ideology implemented by PKK/PYD/YPJ. However it is never enough to address the issue that, even though these groups are innovatively rethinking gender roles within their societies and actually altering traditional structures, this should not be taken as a model to replicate elsewhere, given the diverse consequences of militarism.

Antimilitarism and feminism are close movements, so one can surely rethink gender issues in conflict zones without the recurrence to militaristic violence. The very concept of militarism is embedded in sexist prejudices, so this is a relevant starting point towards a structural change in society looking forward, for both feminist and antimilitarist values.

Suggested further readings

  • Damon, A. (2008, October 6). Female fighters: we won’t stand for male dominance. CNN. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/meast/10/06/iraq.pkk/index.html
  • Duzgun, M. (2013). The Kurdish Women’s movement: challenging gendered militarization and the nation-state. University of Westminster, Westminster. Retrieved from: http://womeninwar.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Beirut/7/1.pdf
  • Enloe, C. (2000). Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Herrera, N., & Porch, D. (2008). “Like going to a fiesta” - the role of female fighters in Colombia’s FARC-EP. Small Wars & Insurgencies, 19(4), 609–634. https://doi.org/10.1080/09592310802462547
  • Méndez, A. (2012). Militarized gender performativity: women and demobilization in Colombia’s FARC and AUC. Queen’s University, Kingston.
  • Tank, P. (2017). Kurdish Women in Rojava: From Resistance to Reconstruction. Die Welt Des Islams, 57(3–4), 404–428: https://doi.org/10.1163/15700607-05734p07
  • West, K. (2015). The female guerilla fighters of the PKK. Retrieved May 17, 2018: from http://www.middleeasteye.net/in-depth/features/female-guerrilla-fighters-pkk-2044198184
Author information

Beatriz Pimenta Klein is a Brazilian student at the International Security Studies Master programme at Scuola Sant'Anna/Università degli Studi di Trento

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About the authors

Beatriz Pimenta Klein is a Brazilian student at the International Security Studies Master programme at Scuola Sant'Anna/Università degli Studi di Trento

Beatriz Pimenta Klein is a Brazilian student at the International Security Studies Master programme at Scuola Sant'Anna/Università degli Studi di Trento

Beatriz Pimenta Klein is a Brazilian student at the International Security Studies Master programme at Scuola Sant'Anna/Università degli Studi di Trento