“Man, she’s pretty,” one of the Syrian fighters can be heard saying in the shocking video posted last week on social media. The “pretty woman” is Barin Kobani. That’s not her real name, it’s the nom de guerre of the female Kurdish fighter in the People’s Protection Units, which are trying to stop the Turkish invasion of the city of Afrin in northern Syria.
Within hours the horrifying film had spread all over the internet, and Barin became one more symbol of the inferno of this war. “That’s our revenge against the pigs of the PKK [Kurdish Workers’ Party],” says one of the fighters in the video as he takes a selfie with Barin’s half-naked and dismembered body. Her bleeding internal organs are exposed, and the men are overcome with happiness.
These aren’t Turkish soldiers, they’re fighters from the Free Syrian Army, the militia that became famous when it started out as the first organized military group to fight Syrian President Bashar Assad. This militia disintegrated into rival militias, some of which became mercenaries in the service of the Turkish army in its war against the Kurds in Syria. Although this is a militia of Syrian Arabs, it has adopted the ideology that the Syrian Kurds are terrorists.
Turkish money also helped, of course. When the Turkish forces began to take action inside Syria in the summer of 2016, the Free Syrian Army became the leaders in this battle, in exchange for Turkish funding and weapons, without which its fate would have been similar to that of other militias. When those militias lost their sources of funding, they were transformed from a fighting force with an ideology and political goal into occasional warriors, who fight in order to pay the salaries of their men.
The relatively united force is the Kurdish units, in which women fight alongside men. There are also all-female units, like the Women’s Protection Units, which have made considerable inroads among the Syrian Kurds, who in turn have adopted parts of the communist and anarchist theory that women have a role in the battles in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State. Female fighters are nothing new for the Kurds, and neither is equal status for women, not only on the battlefield but in civilian life as well.
But female combatants are also a symbol, as Lebanese journalist Hifaa Zuaiter wrote: “Barin represents everything we have heard about the courage of the Kurdish female fighters, and her death is far more than the killing of a rival, or the result of a political or ethnic struggle. The horror of displaying her body only because she is a woman stems from the fact that she dared to threaten male hegemony by becoming a female fighter on a battlefield meant for men ...”
Arab culture, men's honor, women's shame
Arab culture, which elevates the purity of the woman and connects this purity to the honor of the man, have turned the woman’s body into the ultimate weapon, which is designed to humiliate the men and thereby to cause the disintegration of society by drowning it in shame. Shame, which has pushed women to commit suicide in order to be cleansed of it.
No less interesting are the responses accompanying the video. According to one of them, “This is a particularly abominable crime because the person whose body was abused is a young woman. The morality of tribal societies prohibited damaging a woman’s honor, even if she’s an enemy.” That’s an illuminating response, which of course confirm Zuaiter’s explanation that the men are not only fighters or defenders – they are the ones who determine the moral criteria. Other talkbackers had no need for complicated explanations: “The Kurds are heretics, and the murder of this woman is a message to the Kurds.” That too is a routine assertion. But the Kurds aren’t heretics; most of them are Sunni Muslims, some are Shi’ites or Christians.
Their “heresy” lies in their ethnicity: They aren’t Arabs. The parents of Barin Kobani told BBC Arabic that she remained alone on the battlefield. She refused to retreat with her fellow fighters and was murdered by members of the Syrian militia, who refused to return her mutilated body to her family. On Saturday her funeral took place, without her body.
Not a single one of the other militias, which continue to fight Assad, expressed any condemnation or sorrow. They’re too busy conducting a struggle over representation in international conferences in which the future of Syria will be determined. In such a struggle, political rivals such as Turkey and Russia must not be angered, and it’s dangerous to identify with a female Kurdish fighter who has become a symbol.
One person who doesn’t have to answer to anyone any longer is Yazidi artist Nadia Bashar, who on her Facebook page displayed photos of herself with a bare chest, painted in blood red, and holding a sign bearing the name of Barin Kubani with an olive branch next to it. The branch doesn’t represent peace this time, it’s the name of the Turkish military operation that is ironically called Operation Olive Branch.
Bashar succeeded in escaping from the city of her birth, Sinjar in northern Iraq, when ISIS began to occupy it. Since then she has been devoting her art to a description of the war crimes committed against Yazidi women. Every year she posts on her Facebook page a photo of herself next to a stone monument, on which the following is etched in black letters: “Nadia Bashar, born on October 9, 1990, not dead yet.”