Revolutionary women from Rojava lead fight for women’s liberation in the Middle East

Women's Protection Unit (YPJ) soldiers.

“We were taken from Mosul to Syria. There were thousands of young girls and ISIS members in the ISIS centre we were taken to. Young girls were being raped here. Young girls were forcibly brought and savagely raped, then were made to marry [ISIS members]. Those who didn’t agree were tortured and beaten up.

“We were forced to pray and read the Quran. They wanted us to wear black clothing and cover up our hands with gloves. They would sell the women who didn’t agree to this.”

This was the account of a 25-year-old woman named Jihan from the ethnically Kurdish Yazidi religious minority in the Middle East. Jihan was one of the 18 Yazidi women and children rescued in March last year from the captivity of so-called Islamic State near Raqqa, the de facto capital of the jihadi group.

They were rescued by the revolutionary Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), from the liberated territory of Rojava in Syria’s north.

Hundreds of Yazidi women kidnapped by ISIS militants from their homeland of Sinjar in northern Iraq are still held as sex slaves in Raqqa in Syria. Among these women are children under the age of 13, some of whom became pregnant and gave birth while they were held in captivity. 

YPG fighters played a critical role in rescuing the Yazidis from the Islamic State siege in Mount Sinjar in Iraq in 2014 by opening a corridor and leading them to safety into Rojava — a region free of both jihadis and the Assad regime, and scene of a revolutionary experiment in direct democracy and women’s liberation.

Today the YPG and its allied all-female Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), are advancing towards Raqqa. The US-backed Wrath of Euphrates operation, led by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, which includes the YPG/J), has encircled the city.

The feminist YPJ, although dominated by Kurdish female fighters, has fighters from different ethnic groups in northern Syria, including local Arab women and internationalist-Western volunteers. The feminist ideology of the YPJ is deeply embedded within the proposed system of confederalism developed by Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the left-wing Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey.

Women who join the YPJ must spend at least a month practising military tactics and studying the political theories of Ocalan. Apart from fighting the Islamic State, the YPJ wants to rid the area of the oppression of women, which is prevalent in both traditional Kurdish and Arab life in the region.

Leading YPJ commander of the Raqqa operation Rojda Felat said they want women’s participation in the operation to increase, as many Yazidi women are still being held in Raqqa. Felat joined the YPJ in 2013 and is from the town of Hasakah in Rojava.

From the frontline, she said: “ISIS has gathered the captive women in Raqqa as sex slaves ... What we are saying is that women have their own will and are autonomous beings.” 

For the YPJ, women must break free of traditional gender roles in the region, and become females who are self-sustaining and able to defend themselves.

“ISIS sees women as property, while the capitalist system views us as objects,” Felat noted. “Both perspectives think it is legitimate to use, abuse and persecute women.”

The feminist revolutionary commander adds: “We are also leading a physical and ideological war against the enemies of humanity [ISIS], and this foremost is an ideological war. As Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs, Turkmen and others, we’re declaring our unity. Our slogan is ‘Women, Life, Freedom’.”

Jihan Sheikh Ahmad, spokesperson of the Wrath of Euphrates operation and a SDF commander, joined the group with the eruption of the Syrian civil war in 2011. A Kurd from Raqqa, 35-year-old Ahmad lived in an area known for its rich mosaic of Arabic, Kurdish and Christian residents until the city’s capture by ISIS in 2013.

After ISIS took control, the fraternal relations between different ethnic groups were destroyed and families divided.

Ahmad’s role in the operation holds a different meaning to her as a Kurdish woman from the city where Kurds were expelled soon after it was taken over by ISIS. “As women in the SDF, we see each woman rescued as equivalent to a rescued homeland,” she said, a couple of metres from the frontline.

“In every village we rescue, we give a new identity to the humiliated and despised woman. This is a female identity that has received ideological and military training.

“That’s what happened in Manbij. After the city was liberated, the women there joined the YPJ and formed their own armies, now they’re defending themselves. We also want to do this for Raqqa.”

The YPJ’s struggle has been called the real feminism of the 21st century by some. One of those is Kimberly Taylor, a 27-year-old from Blackburn and the first Briton to join the all-female militia.

“Everyone here sees the YPJ as leaders of the revolution, they’re women that we can’t compare with anything in the world,” Taylor recently told the BBC.

Freeing the enslaved Yazidi women in Raqqa is a prime motivation for the internationalist revolutionary who joined the YPJ in October 2016.

But it was the story of a friend, an Arab YPJ fighter whose village had been ransacked by IS militants and whose eight-year old sister was killed, that inspired Taylor to join the revolution.

“I want to get in there [Raqqa] because this is something in my heart. I need to do it,” she said.

As millions of women across the world took to the streets on March 8, International Women’s Day, to demand an end to the injustices and oppression they face, the fighters of the YPJ bared their arms once again to courageously resist at the forefront of the struggle for women's liberation.

[Abridged from Kurdish Question.]