The following article was originally published in The Independent on January 4, 2017.
The Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) in Syria is both widening its operations to include Arab women who want to join the fight against Isis and stepping up its military assault on the extremists’ de facto capital of Raqqa in 2017, a spokesperson has said.
“As the women of the YPJ, we aim not only liberation from Isis but also a liberation of mentality and thoughts,” the YPJ’s spokesperson Nesrin Abdullah announced.
“War is not only the liberation of land. We are also fighting for the liberation of women and men. If not, the patriarchal system will prevail once again,” she said in an wide-ranging interview with the Amsterdam-based Kurdish news agency Firat.
The mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters began a US-backed operation to retake the northern Syrian city of Raqqa in November, timed to dovetail with the assault on Isis’ other remaining urban stronghold of Mosul in neighbouring Iraq.
2016 saw women’s participation in the fight greatly expand, Ms Abdullah said, with the formation of several new military councils designed to encourage the participation of freed Arab and Yazidi women across both Syria and Iraq.
In Manbij in particular, female residents were so inspired by the female YPJ soldiers who helped liberate them they have created their own all-female battalion to retake the neighbouring town of al-Bab.
Two units have now completed training for battle inside the umbrella Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition, Ms Abdullah said, and both a military training academy and college-style institution were being set up for 2017.
“Arab people were the predominant residents of the liberated areas. They were impressed when they saw that women participated in military affairs and played a leading role in clashes. This had important consequences…. From Shaddadi to Manbij, many women have joined us,” she said.
The YPJ gained a lot of battlefield experience in 2016, Ms Abdullah added, which is being transformed into an “academic consciousness.”
The training women receive covers many fields, including feminist history and philosophy.
“This is because the YPJ is not a brute fighting force but a force of social, cultural and moral consciousness. Women who realise themselves wage this struggle,” the spokesperson said..
The results give women confidence, empowering them to make their own decisions and take an “active, mobilised, intellectual role” in the fight against Isis without relying on men, she added.
Kurdish fighters in Syria managed to fight off government troops at the beginning of the civil war, establishing their own relatively peaceful and democratic administration in Rojava despite the chaos that has engulfed much of the country since.
While they have been kept out of all peace talks to date, Rojava officials remain hopeful that they will be allowed to continue govern themselves, despite opposition from neighbouring Turkey.
“2017 will be the final year [of the war] both militarily and politically. Even if a solution is not reached, the conditions for a solution will be created. The YPJ will always support a democratic peaceful solution,” Ms Abdullah said.
Whether the war winds down or not, the YPJ aim to double or triple their existing forces regardless, she added: “There is the possibility that contradictions and clashes deepen. We should enhance our strength.”
This article originally appeared in The Independent.