Accepted Paper:

Engaging feminist martyrdom: discourses of life, death and agency in the self-produced media of Kurdish 'Women's Protection Units' (YPJ)  
Leela Ford

Paper short abstract:

This paper draws upon early-postgraduate, case-study research on martyr culture in the self-produced media of Kurdish 'Women's Protection Units' (YPJ). It argues that the women of the YPJ seek to preserve the agency provided by a free symbolic life, which the physical death of martyrdom can secure.

Paper long abstract:

The Kurdish revolution in Rojava, Northern Syria notoriously involves all-women 'Women's Protection Units' (Yekîneyên Parastina Jin or YPJ), which have a unique culture of feminist martyrdom prevalent in their self-produced media. These women have an important role as fighters on the front lines, and as actors in the revolution's focal women's movement. This paper contributes to the understanding of a feminist movement being built amid an active war zone, by examining the way that YPJ members employ discourses of life and death. I draw upon data from visual/virtual ethnography, and discourse analysis conducted on a case-study of the YPJ's self-produced media, and supplemented by content from interviews with YPJ members. I argue that YPJ members view freedom of agency over their own lives and bodies as symbolic "free life" which transcends physical death, and which martyrdom can, seemingly paradoxically, secure. YPJ members appear to engage ideas similar to those of post-colonial thought to the oppression they face as women, seeing violent oppression as a form of symbolic death. Their martyr culture embraces narratives depicting women who choose death as a martyr rather than facing the loss of their self-determination from capture or defeat. These findings challenge current research which often overlooks the central agency of YPJ women. There are also implications for security discourses focused on protection of women from physical death and conflict, as, for these women, choosing physical death may appear necessary to protect symbolic life.

Panel P05
ANSA postgraduate panel