“Fighting for the Country, Fighting for Ourselves:” Pro-Regime Female Soldiers and Feminism in Today’s Syria

By Tatiana Rabinovich
Submitted to Session P4760 (Postcolonial Arab Feminisms: Past Meets Present, 2017 Annual Meeting
Gender/Women's Studies; Middle East/Near East Studies;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
With the inception of the war in Syria, women have participated in the shaping of competing state projects in the country. Parties to the conflict have recruited them as fighters (e.g., “lionesses of Asad”), comrades (e.g., women on governing committees in Rojava), and wives (e.g., IS’ “jihadi brides”). Through Syrian women, Western aid agencies and foreign governments have promoted ideas about proper statehood and gendered citizenship. NGOs propel the neoliberal discourses of female empowerment and victimization, while foreign backers of the regime present an eroticized vision of Syrian women as supporters of male soldiers.

It is in this context, where I situate my analysis of government-sponsored print and visual media sources in Arabic, Russian, and English about women fighting on the side of the Syrian regime. By unpacking the discourses and aesthetics of these materials, the paper interrogates the intersection of gender, sexuality, and militarized violence, reflected in the regime’s state project, which female fighters seemingly endorse and contribute to. It shows how pro-regime female warriors articulate a version of feminism that encompasses calls for equality, invocations of paternalism, and gendered desires for security, survival, and recognition. This rhetoric is embedded in the history of state-sponsored feminism in Syria, hyper-militarization and masculinization of regional politics, and female vulnerability to violence.

The paper argues that by interpellating women as fighters for Asad and Syria, the regime reiterates Syrian modernity and nationalism as normative and produces the other side as the oppressors of women. It also presents pro-regime women’s participation in combat as “normalizing” and “liberating” (i.e., “women are not only good for birthing”). The women-soldiers’ recognition of themselves as equal partners to state-building – a well-known ruse of state feminist projects – subjects and disciplines them into proper citizenship and womanhood, thus postponing the “uncomfortable” questions about a true feminist liberation.

I draw from works on third world feminism, gender and violence in the Middle East, and state feminist projects in the region. Although research has been done on gender, normativity, and militarization in different contexts, this paper analyzes these interconnections in war-torn Syria, which lends itself to new theoretical insights. Moreover, media and scholarly attention has been given primarily to Kurdish and IS’ women fighters. Focusing on pro-regime female combatants, who also articulate a feminist project, will complicate the discussion about feminist possibilities and futurities in Syria.