AIN ISSA, Syria — At just 21 years old, Zilan's burdens are already heavy. She has a pair of violent ex-husbands and a daughter from each. But she said she has left all that behind in her home village near Raqqa, the recently liberated capital of the so-called Islamic State in Syria.
Zilan is among scores of women joining an all-Arab women’s force that was formed earlier this year as part of the Syrian Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), the globally acclaimed women’s militia that has become the bane of jihadis. These fresh recruits are testing the limits of the deep-rooted patriarchy of Arab communities and more critically, the uneasy cohabitation of Arabs and Kurds that is meant to serve as a blueprint for the future of Syria.
“I feel respected as a woman. My life has meaning now,” Zilan told Al-Monitor during an interview at the Shahid Arin Military Academy for Women in Ain Issa, a nondescript town northwest of Raqqa.
The YPJ and its male equivalent, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), are the US-led coalition’s top allies against IS. As the fight expands beyond Kurdish-dominated areas into Arab-heavy territory, a growing number of Arabs are either directly joining the Syrian Kurdish forces or Arab groups allied with them. They are collectively known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. An SDF official told Al-Monitor that as of Oct. 22, at least 500 Arab women had enlisted with the YPJ. Female fighters were the first to declare victory on Oct. 19 in Raqqa’s main square. “Many were Arabs,” the official said.
Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and the co-author of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.”
Hassan, a native of Deir ez-Zor, told Al-Monitor, “The social upheaval that has convulsed Syria for the past six years and how women have been impacted by the conflict dynamics, displacement and living on their own will take years to understand.”
He believes the jury is still out on how much the Syrian Kurds can fundamentally change attitudes toward women. The far bigger question, though, is whether the United States will stay on and “steer the SDF into a national project or pull out and allow it all to collapse," Hassan said. In the meantime, “So long as women are doing their jobs in the public sphere and there is full transparency, I don’t think even becoming fighters is that controversial in our society. Eastern Syria is not too religious.”
On a recent afternoon Zilan and her comrades sat in a circle at Shahid Arin, full of teasing camaraderie. The spartan camp consists of a couple single-story buildings and modestly sized training grounds. Male fighters who help train the women smoked and swapped jokes with them during a break.
The academy was named after Arin Mirkan, a Kurdish female fighter who blew herself up rather than be taken alive by IS, and is also dedicated to Dewreye Silan, the first Arab female fighter who fell in the battle for Manbij, an Arab-majority town that was wrested from IS last year. These actions earned Mirkan and Silan the distinction of “shahid,” which means "martyr" in Kurdish and Arabic. Silan's smoky dark eyes stare down from a giant portrait hanging in the communal room where the women drank tea and described what drew them to the YPJ.
Their backgrounds are mixed. Some are secular, middle-class urbanites. Others are rural and conservative. Many were seduced by online propaganda videos of YPJ fighters or recruited at university. Then there are those such as Zilan who fled abusive families or the gray monotony of their previous lives.
Zilan, from Raqqa’s populous Jamassah tribe, was the first to speak. “Both of my husbands beat me. Their mothers beat me.” Her first husband refused to grant her custody of their 3-year-old daughter. The second took their 10-month-old baby and disappeared. “I was left with nothing. That’s when I decided to join the YPG to fight for a better future — for my daughters, for all women.” Zilan is a nom de guerre that means "storm." She displays no hint of self-pity.
Leila, an Iraqi Shiite who alternates between driving Hummers and firing Soviet-designed “Doshka” machine guns at the enemy, says she joined the YPJ in 2014. She had seen video clips of YPJ women fighting in the epic battle for Kobani that same year. “I was very impressed,” she said. “I wanted to be like them."
Eylem, or “Action,” is an Alawite from Latakia. Her comrades said she has already lived up to her name, displaying exemplary valor at the Tabqa and Raqqa fronts. The 22-year-old was at university when a fellow Kurdish student introduced her to the radical feminism preached by Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which spawned the YPG and the YPJ. “I used to support [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad, but now I support Ocalan,” she said. “Assad only cares about Alawites. Ocalan cares about everybody, especially women.”
For 20 years, the fugitive Turkish Kurd ran his armed campaign for Kurdish independence, then for self-rule in Turkey, from Damascus and Aleppo with the full blessing of Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez, until the elder Assad booted Ocalan out in October 1998 under threats of Turkish military intervention. Ocalan was captured four months later by Turkish special forces in Kenya. Some 17 years on, Ocalan remains the uncontested leader of the PKK, which is formally labeled a terrorist organization in the United States and Europe. The group’s cocktail of leftish ideas, martial discipline and Kurdish pride has broadened its appeal among Kurds across the globe, and its success in mobilizing and empowering women is unparalleled among other guerrilla groups.
Ocalan’s rambling treatises on gender equality known as “jineoloji” — a play on words based on “jin,” which means “woman” in Kurdish — resonate with women of different ethnicities and creeds. This self-professed “science of women” is drilled into men and women across Rojava, or “Western Kurdistan,” as the Kurdish-dominated swath of territory controlled by the YPG is known.
Martin van Bruinessen is a Dutch academic widely acknowledged as one of the most authoritative voices on the Kurds. He noted in a 2001 essay, “Kurdish society is highly male-dominated, and it has been for all its known history.”
This observation still holds true. A sprinkling of colorful matriarchs such as Adela Khanum, a Persian Kurd who married into the powerful Jaf tribe in Iraqi Kurdistan and reigned over Halabja, have long been held up as proof of gender equality among the Kurds. A more contemporary example is that of Hamayl, the second wife of the legendary Kurdish leader Molla Mustafa Barzani and mother of Massoud Barzani, who stepped down from the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s presidency Nov. 1. The daughter of a chieftain of the powerful Zibari tribe, the formidable Himayl enjoyed “a certain leverage even toward her husband.” Such women owed their status mainly to their privileged backgrounds and tolerant spouses. Yet as Van Bruinessen noted, “The anomaly of female leadership appears to be more acceptable among the Kurds than in most other Middle Eastern societies.” Ocalan wants this mindset to be institutionalized.
Polygamous, imam-officiated and underage marriages permitted by the supposedly secular central government have soared since the start of the conflict in Syria but have been banned in Rojava. For every male mayor, there is a female co-mayor vested with equal powers — a model repeated at almost every level of government and civic authority. Women manage traffic and run schools. In an interview with Al-Monitor, Fawza al-Yusuf, a top Rojava official who spent long years in the PKK before returning to Syria in 2011 at the start of the uprising, boasted, “We have launched a feminine revolution not just for Kurdish women but for all Syrian women that ought to inspire the world.”
Hassan said, “This [system] will encourage more Arab women to participate in public life, which will have a huge impact on education and on the economy. It breaks new ground.”
All but one of the Arab women interviewed at Shahid Arin claimed their families had not objected to their choice. “My mother, my grandmother, my father, my brothers, all of them support me,” said Asmin from Aleppo. “I use the Bixi,” she proudly added. She was referring to another Soviet-type machine gun. Like many of her fellow Arab fighters she has picked up Kurmanji, the most common Kurdish dialect spoken in Rojava. “We are applying reverse assimilation here,” jokes her commander, a Syrian Kurd. She is referring to the central government’s decadeslong drive to forcibly assimilate the Kurds by transplanting tens of thousands of Arabs into their midst, among other schemes.
Perhaps one reason the parents are relaxed about their daughters joining the YPJ is the celibacy that is encouraged among fighters and that is mandatory for those who choose a lifelong career within the PKK and its affiliates, becoming “kadro” or cadres.
Male conscription is mandatory in Rojava, but not so for the opposite sex. They can join and leave as they please. Hence female fighters enjoy a status surpassed only by that of female "shahids." Ruken Isik, a US-based Kurdish American academic who specializes in gender issues, told Al-Monitor, “Female fighters are at the top of the pecking order in PKK culture.” This, Isik contends, has the negative, if unintended, effect of rendering war a vehicle for upward mobility. To be sure, there is a certain aloofness — even harshness — among some seasoned female fighters, who treat a female reporter with polite disdain.
“If women start using their positions to humiliate men, that could be a real problem in Arab society, far greater than any ethnic frictions that are likely to arise,” Hassan warned. “Our men are very sensitive, after all.”