For nearly a year now, the Kurdish People’s Defense Units, or YPG, has been fighting against Islamic State. In the process, they have gained control of large portions of the three Kurdish-majority cantons in northern Syria, including the frontline city of Kobani. The military successes of the militia has been impressive to date, but it is by no means the only front on which it is challenging Islamic State.
Apart from simply battling for survival, the Kurdish rebels are also waging an important ideological battle in the region. They have repeatedly appealed to progressive democratic ideals as a way to counter the jihadists in their struggle for the hearts and minds of the region’s inhabitants. Last January, the group held elections in the territories they control. They made a point of including all ethnic and religious communities. “Everybody has to be represented,” is one of the articles in the self-proclaimed “Constitution of the Rojava,” which refers to their de-facto autonomous region in northern Syria.
A key part of the new Kurdish administration’s agenda in Rojava is gender equality. The Kurdish militia has a large women’s unit, which makes up 40 percent of the entire force. The female soldiers don’t take orders from male commanders, though they, in turn, are allowed to command men and mixed units. Compared to any other military environment, the Kurdish army’s gender composition and hierarchy is unique. Consider that, as the world recoiled in horror at tales of mass sexual enslavement of minority women by Islamic State, pictures of armed Kurdish female fighters on the battlefield went viral on social media.
The group’s ideological foundations were laid by Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the Kurdistan’s Worker’s Party (PKK), which is closely linked to the Kurdish militias. The PKK was founded in 1978 and, for three decades, fought for cultural and political rights for Kurds. Their aim was a Kurdish state, independent from Turkey. In 1984 the group, which was previously based on Marxist-Leninist principles, started an armed struggle against Ankara, in which they employed suicide bombings, kidnappings and assassinations. Nearly 40,000 people, mostly Kurds, died as a result of the conflict, which ended with a 2013 ceasefire. The group is considered a terrorist organization by NATO members.
Öcalan has often stated that “A country can’t be free unless the women are free.” Throughout his political career, the Kurdish leader has emphasized that the level of woman’s freedom determines the level of freedom in society at large. The Kurdish leader has also written several books on the issue, including “Killing the Male” and “Liberating life: Women’s Revolution.”
“It is realistic to see our century as the century when the will of the free woman will come to fruition. Therefore, permanent institutions for woman need to be established and maintained for perhaps a century. There is a need for Woman’s Freedom Parties. It is also vital that ideological, political and economic communes, based on woman’s freedom, are formed,” he wrote.
Öcalan has also advocated what he called the “science of women,” (Jineoloji in Kurdish) and has set up centers where women learn about female emancipation. These ideas are being implemented in parts of Syria controlled by the Kurds. “When we liberate a town from ISIS we first get rid of Sharia, we open a school for all the children and Jineoloji for women,” Arin, 21, a YPJ fighter in Rojava, told me in a recent reporting trip in the area.
“I decided to join to fight the Daesh [Islamic State] not just for me, but for every woman in the region,” she said. Once they join the Kurdish militia, the women give up on family and relationships. They become, in effect, married to the army.
According to a Human Rights Watch report, published in June 2014, there have been some human rights abuses in Rojava, including the arbitrary arrest of political opponents, physical abuse of detainees and unfair trials. The report also included testimony of YPG child soldiers, who said they had joined the militia when they were as young as 15. In response, the group banned child soldiers last December. “I’m sad to say there were sometimes violations of that order and were even some martyrs among them,” said Redur Xelil, the spokesperson for the YPG said.
Still, the group’s stated ideals offer a stark contrast with the other contenders for power in the region.
Benedetta Argentieri is a freelance journalist based in New York City.