Kurdish Women Fighters
In the heart of the Middle East, a region plagued by religious fundamentalism and where women are known to be almost invisible in political and social activities, a Kurdish political and social movement has emerged in which women play a substantial practical role in the decision-making process in both politics and military.
It is only just recently that the Kurdish movement turned into an international media phenomenon widely covered in the global news outlets, many of which focus on the particular role of women fighters and their courage being impetus of the Kurdish movement.
The extensive media coverage of the Kurdish women fighters comes in addition to the fact that the role of women and war has a historical trend in Kurdistan, the Middle east and internationally, particularly the struggle for gender quality against patriarchy. The on-going focus on the role of Kurdish fighters in Rojova (Syria’s Kurdish region) and the resistance that they put against the group calling itself Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS/ISL is perhaps a turning point in the sense it has gained international recognition of the history of such movements.
The war of those Kurdish fighters is completely different to all the other conflicts raging across the Middle East, especially when all the wars taking place in the Middle East can be easily classified as sectarian ethnic and religious conflicts, yet the Rojava war is neither ethnic nor religious. The Kurdish freedom fighters are simultaneously fighting on two dissimilar fronts, one being the militarily fight against IS and other extremist Islamic groups and the other softer, yet crucial political and social war against traditional conservative Middle Eastern beliefs, norms, and values that are truly unfair to society and extremely against liberal values, gender equality in particular.
After years of denial of their rights, the Kurds of Rojava in Syria rose, struggled and launched the political and social project of “Democratic Autonomy” on 19 July 2012. The “Democratic Autonomy” or sometimes called “Democratic Con-federalism” project was designed to ensure a future not only for the Kurds, but also for the region’s many different religious and ethnic entities, including Arabs, Assyrians, Syriacs, Armenians, Greek Orthodox Christians, Yazidis, and Chechens. The people of Rojava have declared autonomy in three cantons: Afrin, Kobane and Cizire. In the heart of this Kurdish-led revolution in Syria, women, who had taken leadership roles in all walks of life, felt the need for armed self-defense and founded the Women’s Protection Units, better known by its Kurdish acronym, the YPJ, on 2 December 2013. Subsequently, it was the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) that fought alongside the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the battle for Kobane, in which they fought a modern urban guerrilla warfare while under siege for months, defeated IS and declared Kobane liberated in January 2015.
It is worth mentioning that the phenomenon of an all-out women participation in politics and military in such a Kurdish movement is not only limited to the Kurdish region in Syria. Similar experiences happened and continue taking place in the Kurdish region of Iran, where women’s involvement in politics and military affairs witnessed three different historical stages. The first of such an experience, although limited, occurred just after the establishment of the self-declared Republic of Kurdistan in Mahabad in 1946 under the leadership of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI or PDKI). The second phase was the emergence of the Komalah (also known as Komele), a Kurdish left-wing movement first founded as a loose Kurdish student network in the late 1960s in Iran and transformed into a mass political and popular guerrilla movement by 1979. The third stage came after the founding of the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), a political and military organization founded in 2004, operating under the banner of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an umbrella united front organization led and founded by the Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Kurdish women have managed to attain more gender equality, and some of the fighters had fled conservative backgrounds solely due to the simple fact that they had been brought up in open-minded and educated families that praise university qualifications.
However, similar to their involvement in intellectual activities, they see participation in the military campaigns as a way of attaining their national and gender rights. Women have proven that they are capable of working in command positions and leading prominent roles in the Kurdish society, advocating a set of pattern for changes and revitalization that could one day inspire other societies across the Middle East.