Marie Claire knows what an inspirational woman looks like. The leading international women's magazine frequently publishes profiles of strong, unique women who have struggled against adversity and made the world a better place. "Maybe one day you'll be profiled here, too," the magazine teases. "Because we know better than anyone that you're more than just a pretty face."
The latest installment features the YPJ or "Women's Protection Unit," a 7,500 strong all-women volunteer Kurdish military faction in Syria that formed in 2012 to protect Kurds from the destruction wrought by the country's bloody civil war and the brutal attacks of President Bashar al-Assad.
"They fight with weapons that are bigger and heavier than they are against a relentless enemy," writes Elizabeth Griffin. "And yet they continue to fight."
These brave women are certainly inspirational. There's only one problem: Some of them are children.
The two girls in question are Hevedar Mohammed, 12, and Mizguin Emraly, 14, photographed at YPJ bases in Syria and Kurdistan, respectively. The girls are both mugging for the camera. Hevedar wields a rifle alongside a massive grin.
YPJ soldier, Hevedar Mohammed, 12. Image Credit: Marie Claire.
Mizguin Emraly, 14. Image Credit: Marie Claire
"Recruits under the age of 18 are not permitted to fight, though they go through some physical training and participate in the group by way of carrying out 'household' chores," Griffin wrote of these underage warriors. "Hevedar, like many YPJ, was inspired to join because of the group's reputation for developing strong, independent women and because of its positive standing in the community."
On one level, this reputation is a powerful and important one. The Kurds have faced persecution in both Iraq and Syria for decades; a UN High Commission on Human Rights report found that "successive Syrian governments continued to adopt a policy of ethnic discrimination and national persecution against Kurds, completely depriving them of their national, democratic and human rights — an integral part of human existence." Saddam Hussein essentially waged a one-man genocide against Iraq's Kurdish population in 1988, killing 50,000 civilians. The Kurdish people have endured, survived and thrived with unparalleled perseverance, and every woman fighting to protect their homes and families embodies the human spirit at its finest.
But their story does not outweigh the fact that these are children fighting in one of the most brutal war zones in recent history, one that's claimed more than 200,000 civilians. That Hevedar and Mizguin aren't actively fighting is irrelevant: The prohibition of children from armed conflict is, by and large, considered an international norm of human rights, as essential (in theory, at least) as norms against torture and sexual violence.
The United Nations has facilitated the creation of a robust body of international public law in the service of reinforcing the rights of children in the past two decades alone. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (OPAC), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2000, "prohibits the recruitment or use in hostilities of under-18s by non-state armed groups" like the YPJ.
In 2003, UN Security Council Resolution 1460 required member states to enter into talks with the United Nations to establish "clear and time bound action plans to end child recruitment and use." And in 2007, the Red Cross' Paris Principles, formally endorsed by 58 states in France, established guidelines on "the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of all categories of children associated with armed groups." In all of these international standards, the type of service, from cooking to killing, doesn't matter: that the YPJ recruits those as young as 12, as NBC News reports, violates this international standard.
It's more than just illegal: In Marie Claire and NBC's fawning, AJ+ producer Sana Saeed sees a more troubling narrative brewing:
.@marieclaire acknowledges ages&justifies it bc they're not fighting but are trained&help w/chores. See a 12 yr old w/gun as inspirational?— Sana Saeed (@SanaSaeed) October 4, 2014
So, just so it's clear: child soldiers are OK when they're fighting our enemies and are under the guise of feminism. OK, got it. #YPJ— Sana Saeed (@SanaSaeed) October 4, 2014
This isn't the first time a women's magazine has missed the forest for the trees in Syria. In February 2011, Vogue published a glowing profile of Asma al-Assad, Syria's first lady. As Max Fisher wrote in 2012, the profile didn't make the splash Vogue intended:
In February, Vogue magazine published, for the benefit of its 11.7 million readers, an article titled "A Rose in the Desert" about the first lady of Syria. Asma al-Assad has British roots, wears designer fashion, worked for years in banking, and is married to the dictator Bashar al-Assad, whose regime has killed over 5,000 civilians and hundreds of children this year. The glowing article praised the Assads as a "wildly democratic" family-focused couple who vacation in Europe, foster Christianity, are at ease with American celebrities, made theirs the "safest country in the Middle East," and want to give Syria a "brand essence."
Vogue's editors defended the controversial article as "a way of opening a window into this world a little bit," conceding only that Assad's Syria is "not as secular as we might like." A senior editor responsible for the story told me the magazine stood by it. A few weeks later, the article and all references to it were removed from Vogue's website without explanation. In August, The Hill reported that U.S. lobbying firm Brown Lloyd James had been paid $5,000 per month by the Syrian government to arrange for and manage the Vogue article.
The story of the YPJ is heroic, but it's irresponsible for Marie Claire to hold up young girls like Hevedar and Mizguin, adorned in camouflage and combat gear, as an "inspiration" to anyone. It does the fighting women of the YPJ— the ones over 18, as stipulated by international law — a disservice. While focusing on powerful women, magazines like Marie Claire and Vogue can't pretend that human rights don't exist.
Then again, it's not as bad the alternative: