Syria's other battle: Women fighting militarised machismo

Syria's other battle: Women fighting militarised machismo
14 min read
18 October, 2016
Kurdish women in northern Syria are fighting both the fundamentalist tyranny of the Islamic State group and the violent authoritarianism of patriarchy itself.
Women fighters are featured heavily in Western portrayals of Kurdish militias [AFP]
The collapse of the the US-Russian ceasefire agreement on Syria and the subsequent resumption of frenzied violence meted out on eastern Aleppo by the Syrian regime and Russia may appear just another unfortunate phase of the civil war in Syria - another deadly consequence to add to those that have gone before it.

But to view the latest attacks on Aleppo merely as a continuation of the same level of violence that Syrians have experienced throughout the past five years of the conflict is to disguise the current reality.

What remains routine in Syria, in addition to the rhetoric that asks for new solutions to the conflict, is a war seemingly without end - the destructive forces of Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic State group, and the external actors that have sustained them, continue unabated - their collective hubris prevailing with callous disregard for Syria's people or the perennial scarring of a nation.

The Syrian regime and Russian assault on rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo, in coordination with sectarian fighters loyal to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, has seen Syria's largest city endure its worst phase of Syria's five-and-half-year conflict.

Within Syria's noxious war, women are rarely addressed in prevailing discussions. Their contribution in offering possible solutions to the conflict are not part of the existing international discourse.

Rarer still are discussions on women-led armed groups that are fighting IS in Syria, at least not discussions that go beyond the formula of the occasional fetishisation of these women - an act that robs Syrian women of their agency and undermines their fight.

The unfortunate objectifying attention towards Asia Ramazan, of the Syrian Women's Protection Units' (YPJ), in the many media outlets that reported her death in an IS attack last month continued the exploitative trend in the coverage of female fighters in Syria's war.

"Rehana", another YPJ fighter, who purportedly killed more than 100 jihadists in 2014, was the first poster girl of the YPJ chosen by mainstream media. Like Asia Ramazan, coverage of the reasons for her fight was deemed unimportant. What was a media priority was the tantalising proposition that Rehana offered in her example as an apex YPJ female fighter whose bravery was juxtaposed with the misogynist benighted forces of IS.

As with Asia Ramazan's death, Rehana's turn in the spotlight momentarily brought attention to the Kurdish-led  revolution in northern Syria.

As seems so often the case in coverage of the YPJ and their kin, the Peshmerga in Iraq, analysis of both Asia and Rehana's case failed to divulge in any real detail the type of reasons why each fighter and her comrades were fighting - beyond the manifest and convenient reasons that this distinctively "other" (but at the same time seemingly paradoxically progressive) Middle Eastern female force of the YPJ were fighting a common enemy embodied in the Islamic State group.

In Syria's sphere of competing influences, where zealotry and the militarised machismo of leaders most committed to the conflict has gained admirers not only from their public but also among some in the West - including a tranche of some of its more illiberal leaders in the US and Europe  - it can be easy to overlook some of the efforts of those groups in Syria that are fighting for an alternative to authoritarianism, both that which was for years endured under Bashar al-Assad and the fundamentalist tyranny which is being offered by the Islamic State group.

Looking beyond the egregious Western elevations of Kurdish women, whether it be through fetishised  representations in the media or through the appropriation of their clothing, the YPJ Women's Protection Units efforts deserve closer attention.

The Syrian organisation, part of the all-female armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), is closely linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) - listed as a terrorist organisation in Turkey, the EU and the US.

That said, America and the EU are effectively supporting the PKK in Syria through their backing of the PYD'S YPG and YPJ military wings - which calls into question their official policy in designating the PKK as a terrorist organisation in the first place.

Part of a vanguard at the forefront of a unique social movement in Syria, the YPJ's fight is not limited to confronting IS, but battling against societal norms within their communities that have relegated them within the largely patriarchal societies in which they live.
Their fight is against domination, whether that be through combat with IS or with the Syrian regime. And fundamental in their struggle is the reshaping of gender dynamics within the Kurdish community and wider Middle East

In meetings with members of the YPJ, University of Maryland PhD student Ruken Esik has revealed broad reasons behind why some women are participating in this Kurdish-led, but multi-ethnic experiment in self-rule in northern Syria.

Some women profess that their fight is against domination, whether that be through combat with IS or with the Syrian regime.
Who's who?
A guide to the acronyms of the Kurdish region

- KRG - Kurdistan Regional Government. The administration of the official recognised autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq.

- KDP (sometimes PDK) - Kurdistan Democratic Party. Founded in 1946, it is the dominant party in the KRG and
is headed by KRG President Masoud Barzani. Ideologically conservative, it has its own armed Peshmerga forces usually called the 80 Unit.

- PUK - Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Founded in 1975, the other main political party in the KRG, with its power base concentrated in the city of Sulaimaniah and the contested city of Kirkuk. A social democratic party, it has its own armed Peshmerga forces usually called the 70 Unit.

- PKK - Kurdistan Workers' Party. Armed group founded in 1978 in Turkey; one of its founders and current leader Abdullah Ocalan has been in jail in Turkey since 1999. Waging an armed campaign against the Turkish state since 1984, and outlawed in Turkey as a terrorist group, the PKK has its base in the Qandil Mountains, located in the northeast of Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) territory.

- Democratic Confederation of Rojava and Northern Syria - Autonomous democratic federation in Syria's north declared in March 2016. To date, includes three cantons: Jazeera, Kobane and Afreen.

- PYD - Kurdish Democratic Union Party. Founded in 2003 in Syria, it is the most powerful Kurdish political party in Rojava. It is led by two co-chairs, Salih Muslim and Asya Abdullah, and is an ally of the PKK.

- YPG - People's Protection Units (YPG). Founded during the early phases of the Syrian conflict, it is the main armed forces of Rojava, an ally of the PKK and the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

- YPJ - Women's Protection Units. The female counterpart to the YPG

- SDF - Syrian Democratic Forces. The official defence force of the Rojava area; an alliance of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and other militias fighting against the Islamic State group.

- YBS -
Sinjar Resistance Units. A Yazidi armed force trained by the YPG and the PKK following IS' August 2014 attack on Sinjar and Sinjar mountain, the historic heartland of the Yazidi population.

And fundamental in their struggle is the reshaping of gender dynamics within the Kurdish community and wider Middle East - as revealed by Esik's meeting with YPJ member Meryem Kobani.

"I wanted women to have agency and will, and to build a free identity for themselves, said Kobani.

Another YPJ member, Rosa Hasek, reflected on the dynamics she experienced in her family that led her to join the group.

"At an early age, I saw the relationship of my parents in the marriage, or my elder sisters' marriages…they were all assigned roles that were making me angry," she said .

"I was telling myself that I need to struggle for these women. I need to empower them and get them to know themselves, educate themselves."

Set out in the PYD's constitution - its "Social Contract" which is in operation in the three cantons under its de facto control in northern Syria which it collectively calls Rojava - are core principles enshrining gender equality beyond the cosmetic offerings and assurances of "women's rights" promised both by secular Middle Eastern and Western governments.

Gender parity is a practice that the PYD says is applied throughout the movement. In addition to the inclusion of all-female Protection Units within the organisation, the PYD also applies coequality at executive level with decision-making bodies each having a male and female co-leader.

A gender quota where forty percent of all members have to be female is applied in all administrative and civil institutions throughout the three cantons under the PYD.

A separate structure that has been set up by the PYD's all-female Kongira Star movement goes further. Acknowledging the need to redress the balance caused by gender inequality, the movement has developed women-only academies. These centres enable women unable to read or write to be educated and empowered, fostering their effective participation within civic life within the PYD's autonomous cantons.

Inspired by the American anarchist philosopher Murray Bookchin, Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed founder of the PKK in Turkey, has directed his organisation away from its founding Soviet-style Marxism and demands for Kurdish statehood, and has now concentrated on developing the teachings of Bookchin to fuse elements of feminism, environmentalism and anarchism.

The PYD in Syria, meanwhile, has adopted this system within their three self-declared cantons in Rojava - it is an arrangement which rejects centralised administration and instead bases governance on the concept of democratic autonomy, a system that allows the multi-ethnic and religious groups living within the cantons to organise themselves based on the needs of their communities.

Despite the undeniable successes of the PYD's experiment in northern Syria, the organisation has often fallen short of the lofty ideals that it has set out within its "social contract".
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Amnesty International has accused the political movement of ethnic cleansing in non-Kurdish settlements within territories it controls, and Human Rights Watch has documented the recruitment of child soldiers by the organisation's YPG armed wing.

Other vestiges of the PKK's authoritarian practices loom large over the PYD too. Reported raids on the offices of the PYD's political rival, the Kurdish National Council (KNC) - a party the PYD has made illegal within the territory it controls - has echoes of the late 1970s and 1980s.

This was a period in which Öcalan's group suppressed rivals through violence, attacking Kurdish groups that were seen as "collaborators" with the Turkish state.

In spite of some of the PYD's well-documented authoritarian whims in the short spell in which the group has controlled sections of Syria's north, the group has also made significant progress.

Democratic federalism and the PYD's Kongira Star education academies have done more for the elevation of the status of many women in Syria's Kurdish heartlands in the three years that have elapsed since the declaration of Rojava's de facto autonomy than the Syrian regime had done in the country's north east for a generation.

The PYD has, meanwhile, attracted up to a hundred Europeans, North Americans and Australians who have have volunteered their services within the organisation's armed Protection Units.
A big part of it was because I wanted to be part of the women's revolution

While a proclivity to fight for a PYD political ideology has not necessarily been the primary focus for the male volunteers that make up the overwhelming number of the YPG's "Lions of Rojava" volunteer wing, this has not been the case for women that have joined the ranks of the female YPJ. Those that have been interviewed on record profess a fealty to the PYD's Kurdish-led uprising.

"I totally believe in their revolution, that's why I came back to support the YPJ and YPG," Canadian fighter Hannah Bohman told Wladimir van Wilgenburg.

"A lot of [other volunteers] are not here for the revolution, they just want to fight ISIS. The Kurds seem to think we are all here for the revolution, but we came to fight Daesh."

Bohman's Canadian compatriot, Shaelynn Jabs, talks of how she was compelled to get involved in Syria - initially to help save lives, teaching herself online how to treat combat wounds, before deciding to engage directly in the fight.

"A big part of it was because I wanted to be part of the women's revolution," she said.

Indeed, like those who leave incomparable comfort and prosperity when contrasted with the hardship and ravages on Syria's numerous front lines, western volunteers' flight to PYD-controlled territory have often been stirred by the perceived inaction of their governments in Syria - and by terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels.

In IS they see an existential threat not only to the Middle East but to them in their home countries.

YPJ volunteer Shaelynn Jabs, in her interview with CBC Canada, referenced the attacks in Europe.

"Just because it's not happening in our country, doesn't mean it's not our war," she said. "That could happen in Canada at any moment."
The YPJ train women to defend their villages [Getty]

The involvement of some volunteers in Syria goes beyond the affirmations and practice of assistance to Kurds in their struggle against IS - some YPJ volunteers have been drawn to PYD-controlled territory by ideological reasons.

The PYD's revolutionary ideas of democratic autonomy, feminism and anarchism attracted Ivana Hoffmann to Rojava. The 19-year-old German, who joined the YPG, was the first western woman to die fighting IS - killed in March last year in a battle for the north-eastern Syrian town of Tell Tamer.

Before she died, and in a final letter to her friends, Ivana spoke of her commitment to the struggle that she had joined.

"I want to be a part of the revolution in Rojava, I want to evolve, in this six months I want to get to know the fight, which unites all the oppressed people and of course the Rojava Revolution, which I will defend with my life," she wrote. "I know what I am going for and how important this fight is."

Westerners that have fought as members of the YPG and YPJ are increasingly finding themselves under suspicion when returning from the conflict. This is despite their participation in an anti-IS partnership backed by a US-led coalition through the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) - an umbrella alliance that draws on the YPG and YPJ as its main fighting force.

This contradiction in the past year has begun to affect countries that are supporting the Kurdish-led forces in Syria through the SDF. Germany and Canada, nations with arguably the largest cohorts of anti-IS volunteer fighters, have stepped up their monitoring of these returnees.

Germany arrested Ashley Dyball, an Australian man, on terrorism charges last year and extradited him to Australia, where he faced no further charges. Meanwhile, the Canadian government was in January mulling the decision whether to follow the direction of the anti-terror law set out by Stephen Harper's former conservative government, which called for investigating those returning from fighting IS with groups affiliated to proscribed groups such as the PKK.

The ambivalent and contradictory attitude in the treatment of people supporting western-backed militias in Syria has also taken hold in the United Kingdom.

Shilan Ozcelik became the first person to be arrested and imprisoned for planning to join the YPJ in Syria. Sentenced to 21 months in a youth offenders' institute in November 2015, the British national was charged with "engaging in conduct in preparation for giving effect to an intention to commit acts of terrorism".

This came in spite of then-Prime Minister David Cameron in September 2014 offering latitude to fighters involved in UK-backed forces including the all-female YPJ returning home after fighting IS jihadists in Syria.

When asked how the UK would distinguish between fighters volunteering with the Kurdish-led forces in Syria and IS jihadis the PM replied: "highly trained border staff, police and intelligence services".

The UK's Home Office has also stated that "UK law makes provisions to deal with different conflicts in different ways - fighting in a foreign war is not automatically an offence but will depend on the nature of the conflict and the individual's own activities".

Western regimes' treatment of anti-IS volunteers returning from Syria reflects a broader and growing trend - their partnership with the Women's Protections units and the PYD in general is one of convenience.

Support for the YPJ does not go beyond aiding the Kurdish-led group in ousting IS from territory in Syria. The US and Europe have no interest in sustaining the Rojava revolution. Western support of an anti-capitalist uprising that is so affixed to the ideology of the PKK, an organisation at war with Turkey - a NATO ally - would be untenable.

US Vice-President Joe Biden's directing of the PYD's forces to retreat from the northern Syrian town of Manbij at the behest of Turkey and its "Euphrates Shield" operation into Syria illustrates what relationship the US will ultimately prioritise when forced to choose between the Kurds and Turkey.

The cult of the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan no doubt continues to persist within the Rojava revolution, as does fragments of Öcalan and his organisation's more authoritarian impulses.

That should not mean that the social transformation taking place in Syria's north should be discounted.

Author George Orwell was a volunteer for Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War. He spoke of the Spaniards' fight for the republic in Homage to Catalonia as being driven by hope:

"It was the kind of effort that could probably only be made by people who were fighting with a revolutionary intention…fighting for something better than the status quo."

In a country where the forces unleashed by Syria's civil war has led to the mass rape and kidnapping of women, premature births caused by the trauma of war and the most regressive conditions for women in generations - women in Rojava are not only sustained by the changing status quo in their communities, and within a Syrian state that has long alienated them, but have fought for an egalitarian system that has the potential to have much wider implications in laying the groundwork for a future civil democratic pluralist state in a post-war Syria.

Follow Otman Aitlkaboud on Twitter: @OtmanA