Kurdish revolutionary: 'We are showing the strength of women'

October 25, 2015
Nesrin Abdullah. Photo by Giu­liana Sgrena.

One year ago, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) began its brutal assault on the city of Kobane in the largely Kurdish region of Rojava in the north of Syria. The violent fanatics were seeking to destroy the profoundly democratic, multi-ethnic and feminist revolution under way in the liberated autonomous region.

At huge cost to life and property, the People's Protection Units (YPG) and Women's Protection Units (YPJ) led the liberation of Kobane from ISIS in January, but has been subjected to fresh assaults since. Since June, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been deploying military forces to the border with Syrian Kurdistan, threatening to end the project of democratic autonomy in Rojava's three cantons.

Below is an abridged interview with YPJ commander Nesrin Abdullah given to Giuliana Sgrena from the Italian left-wing daily Il Manifesto in June on the role and goals of the YPJ.

Abdullah told Sgrena of the role of women combatants in Rojava: “We are not soldiers, we are militants; we are not paid to make war, we are partisans of revolution. We live with our people, follow a philosophy and have a political project.

“At the same time we are carrying out a gender struggle against the patriarchal system. Other combatants are our comrades; we have political and friendly relations.”

The 36-years-old Abdullah was born in Dirik in the canton of Jazeerat. She was a journalist before joining the army. She is unmarried, as is demanded of all Kurdish fighters, men and women.

Since Syria's war broke out in 2011, Abdullah has been on the front line - becoming one of the “heroines” celebrated not only in Kurdistan, but worldwide.

“At this moment in Kurdistan, the role of women is historic, not only for Kurdish women and those in the Middle East but also at the international level,” Abdullah said.

“Our struggle aims at the creation of a new society starting with an ecological vision, the respect for nature, and the affirmation of the rights and identity of women.

“The world today is unstable; there are many threats, among these is terrorism. As women combatants we have a lot of responsibility toward all women.”

The full interview, which features an interview with YPJ commander Rangin from telephone in her headquarters in Kobane, can be read in Resistance Book's new pamphlet the Kurdish Freedom Struggle Today. The text is taken from The Bullet.

* * *

Women who in the past took part in struggles for the liberation of their countries placed the rights of women in second place. They thought this would be achieved afterwards thanks to their contribution, but it did not turn out this way. For you, the approach is different.

Patriarchy has oppressed women, they have also suffered physical violence, and despite struggling, they have not succeeded in achieving a space within society. Nevertheless women have always striven for their liberty and their rights.

Through our struggle, we are realising this dream. It is the struggles of previous years that have led to the creation of the YPJ; it was the example of the movement of the women of the PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party], who for years fought in the mountains for their identity and freedom.

Women have been protagonists of the Arab Spring, yet this has not opened a path for the realisation of their rights.

Instead, the revolution in Rojava has shown the strength of women. Ours is a struggle in which everyone participates: from seven-year-old girls to 70 year-old women. This has allowed for a feminine presence in all areas, even the military.

Do you think that women combatants who confront the fanatic terrorists have caused a shock for ISIS?

I think the presence of women among combatants has caused a breakdown in the convictions and maybe in the faith of ISIS. They have always fought against armies of men and won, but now confronting women must have been a shock because they declared women to be their main enemy.

Moreover, they immediately decreed that if a fighter is killed by a woman, he cannot enter heaven and his body is burned. When they killed a women fighter, they cut off her head and displayed it by the hair like a trophy. This act symbolises an ideological defeat for ISIS.

For us, in contrast, fighting this enemy has become a symbol of identity. This mesmerised and won the attention of Arab, Assyrian, Turkish and other women.

What is your relationship with the Western coalition? In the past, such interventions always failed. Do you think that together you can defeat ISIS? Is a a United States-led coalition is interested in assisting your democratic project?

We are fighting for democracy; our door is also open to the coalition if it wants to help us. Up to now, they have helped us with bombardments, including heavy ones.

So far the assistance has only been through bombing, which we well know has not been undertaken for us, but to defeat ISIS as a mutual enemy. But it must go further: Rojava needs international recognition, we will see if the coalition is willing to also give us diplomatic help. We demand an end to all massacres including to that of our identity.

Presumably, the first assistance could be to pressure Turkey to put an end to the embargo that prevents the passage of aid for Kurds.

We think that if the coalition wants to, it could create humanitarian corridors. The borders need to be opened for humanitarian purposes, but we also need commercial relations.

Can the success of the People's Democratic Party (HDP, a Kurdish0-led left-wing party) in Turkey's June elections foster a change in the policies of Ankara?

Certainly when a Kurdish party is strong, it is an advantage for all Kurds. They are our representatives in Turkey, their victory is our victory. Important also is the fact they elected many women (31 out of 79) - this is a terrific message to the Turkish parliament.

The success of the HDP could encourage a common policy among Kurds. We hope it can help push Turkey toward a more democratic regime to also foster new relations with Syria. We want autonomy for the three Kurdish cantons, but our country is Syria.

And what will happen in Syria?

Syria has gone the way of a suicide bomber; there is now nothing on which to build. We are ready at the military level to construct a new democratic system but political engagement is necessary.

The Syrian opposition does not have a project for the future of Syria and proposals cannot come from abroad. It could follow our example.

We are not waiting for the situation in Syria to resolve itself in order to achieve our project for democratic autonomy as part of a democratic Syria. The model proposed from Rojava is popular at the international level because it guarantees everyone can live freely with their culture, identity and religion.

We are fighting solely against ISIS and are ready to defend the system we created; we are one pillar of our system.

Yet the charter of Rojava foresees a demilitarised territory.

We only want to maintain a self-defence force, to administer our territory. In the Middle East, all peoples need self-defence.

What do you ask of the international community?

Above all, political support for the international recognition of Rojava and then assistance for the reconstruction of Kobane, but also wider cooperation. In addition, the weapons we fight ISIS with are obsolete, so we also need arms, but only for defence.

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