Source: The New Internationalist
Rahila Gupta meets the women fighters who are helping to stop the advance of ISIS while also leading a radical democratic charge against capitalist ideology. Welcome to the Rojava phenomenon.
It is no exaggeration to say that a strip of land along Syria’s northern border with Turkey is home to the most radical experiment in democracy and gender equality, not just in the Middle East, but in the whole world. Western Kurdistan, or Rojava, ‘the land where the sun sets’, first entered popular consciousness in that lopsided way that news from elsewhere hits Western TV screens, when Kurdish women fighters liberated Yazidi women and children from ISIS on Mount Sinjar in August/September 2015. When the might of the US, the Free Syrian Army and the other regional armies in Iraq were unable to stop the advance of ISIS, young women in military fatigues and floral scarves defeated men who can barely tolerate fully covered-up women. Such film footage was undeniably eye-catching. Yet rather than leading to further information and analysis of the Rojava phenomenon, it was appropriated for the purposes of capitalist consumerism. H&M tried to sell a range of clothing based on the women’s uniforms, provoking outrage in the Kurdish community for trivializing their struggle.
So who are the YPJ (Women’s Defence Units), and what kind of society are they defending? Inspired by the evolving ideology of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the banned PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in Turkey, and triggered by the ‘Arab Spring’, the Kurds of Rojava began their struggle for autonomy in 2011, and their autonomous self-administration was formally set up in November 2013. Öcalan, unlike any other male freedom fighter to date, has placed women at the centre of his vision of a liberated, democratic society with a system of co-presidentship, a man and a woman sharing power at every level. The political vacuum created by the chaos in Syria allowed this experiment to flourish compared to similar attempts in southeastern Turkey, which have been met with the brute force of the Turkish government.
Abused by patriarchy
The YPJ, variously estimated to be 7,500-10,000 in number, is not to be confused with the Peshmerga army of the Kurdistan Regional Government across the border in Iraq. Alongside the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a force consisting of both men and women, the YPJ works closely with the military wing of the PKK and is also part of a newly constituted fighting force, the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, Kurdish and Turkmen militias, which targets ISIS and other Islamists in the Syrian opposition. When I visited Rojava I was able to catch up with Nesrîn Abdullah, Commander and chief spokesperson of the YPJ.