The following article was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Let’s go. We need to go; it will be dark soon,” says Heval Dalal with a reassuring smile and a Kalashnikov over her shoulder, as she climbs swiftly up a steep path in a camouflaged camp in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. While walking, she explains the rules: no phones, no cameras. (Drones can pick up thermal signatures and mobile phone signals.) No one goes out after dark.
For the past two years the Turkish military has raided the mountain system in northern Iraq, at the border with Iran, looking for clandestine hide-sites exactly like this one. “We need to take even more precautions,” she says.
Dalal, 26, wears a baggy green uniform and blue turban, her long, dark hair in a loose chignon clipped by a blue pin. She was born in Sweden to Kurdish parents who moved to Europe as refugees. At 18, she married a Swede with Kurdish origins, despite her family’s disapproval. Her mother told her that he would control her, that he would stop her studies and prevent her from going out.
It was worse than that. She ended up in hospital several times. The violence escalated, but she failed to seek help. “I was ashamed to face my mother and admit she was right.”
While married, the couple visited family in Sulaymaniyah, the second-largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan. It was there that Dalal started cultivating the idea of joining the YJA Star, the women’s military wing of the left-wing Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), regarded as a terrorist organisation by most Western countries owing to the 30-year-long armed conflict it has fought against the Turkish state. Since the 1990s, the PKK has been based in Qandil, a 60-kilometre-long valley in northern Iraqi Kurdistan, and guerrillas are spread out across the mountains all the way to Turkey.
“I admired their bravery, and the fact they were really strong women fighting for our rights,” Dalal tells me. Back in Sweden, she ran away from her husband and hid in a women’s refuge. “Everyone I told laughed at me. They said I would never make it in the mountains; they thought it was too hard for me. And now look at me: I am a guerrilla.” She laughs.
Dalal joined the YJA Star in 2014, and embraced a new way of life. She went underground, into the mountains, living in tunnels or secret camps. From here, she can’t contact her family or communicate with the outside world. She can’t have a romantic relationship, nor a best friend: everyone has to be equal, and sentimental attachments are frowned upon.
Dalal lives for the cause and puts all her efforts into whatever tasks the party assigns her, from greeting guests to shooting heavy weapons. “Nothing can be a distraction, especially feelings,” she says. “If you want to cry, you should fight back those tears and use them in battle.”
The YJA Star is the older sister of the betterknown YPJ, the all-female Syrian Kurdish militia that has become globally famous for its fight against Islamic State. In 2014 the YPJ helped liberate the Syrian border town of Kobanê, the fight for which became a symbol of the fierce resistance of women fighters. They are now marching on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s “capital”. The YPJ is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an Arab-Kurdish coalition allied with the United States.
“When you talk about the YPJ, you can’t ignore the YJA Star’s influence,” says Meral Çiçek, an activist who has written extensively on women’s issues in the Middle East. She’s an advocate of the Kurdish women’s movement, which includes both YPJ and YJA Star. The two groups follow the teaching of Turkishborn Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned founder of PKK who supports a women’s revolution.
When the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, Syria’s Kurds were ready to fight the Assad regime, which had kept a firm grip on them – as other rulers did on Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Guerrillas travelled to Syria to help set up the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the women’s branch, the YPJ. They opened academies and training centres. Ideology, military training and discipline were the main pillars of the new movement, which mirrored the PKK organisation.
By 2012, the chaos of the civil war helped the Kurds to gain control of Rojava, the highly populated Kurdish area in northern Syria. The rise of Islamic State slowed down the process, though it didn’t stop it completely. While the YPJ and its male counterpart, the YPG, were fighting the jihadists, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – a Syrian Kurdish political group – started a democratisation process of the area under their control.
“Many of us joined,” says Nisrin Abdullah, a YPJ commander, at her office in Qamishli, in north-eastern Syria. “During the Assad regime we couldn’t speak our language. We were not allowed to celebrate Newroz [Kurdish New Year]. We had no rights at all. As a woman, it was even more difficult because you were discriminated against twice. The idea that women were inferior started at school. I had classes on how to please a husband, how to look beautiful, the proper way to comb my hair.” She adds sewing and cooking courses to the list. “Assad was telling us the only future we could hope for was to get married and have children.”
She wanted more. The 33-year-old was one of four women who were the first to join the YPJ academy for new recruits, in Qamishli. “At first it wasn’t easy; we had to educate men to treat us the same,” she recalls. As Islamic State spread out in Syria between 2014 and 2016, the YPG and YPJ gained momentum in the international press as the only effective force on the ground in stopping the jihad. (They receive support and military supplies from the US and France.)
The women fighters captured the collective imagination, and now the YPJ has 24,000 soldiers – including Yazidis, Assyrians and Arabs – out of an overall 60,000 fighters. As the fight continues, women join up every day, running away from families and refugee camps to seek revenge for the brutality and violence they have experienced under Islamic State rule. There are no official numbers on casualties, mainly to keep morale high.
In early May, a recruit walks into Abu Kahef base in a village on the outskirts of Raqqa. It’s a two-storey building with a concrete patio. Muna (she declines to give her surname), a 19-year-old from north-west Syria, is wearing a dark hijab and a golden dress. She’s invited in and served tea in a small glass.
Suzdar Derik, one of the main YPJ commanders of the Raqqa operation, talks to her in a calm, almost motherly way. Since 2013 Derik has overseen the arrival of hundreds of newcomers; she has to prepare them for the new life ahead. Muna will be assigned to an all-female unit, and moved around the front as required. She will start fighting soon after completing her military and ideological training.
Death is a possibility. “You must be really sure, in order to join,” Derik says. “We fight for the freedom of every woman in society. After the training academy, everything will be clearer to you and you will understand we can do something every day for the freedom of all women.”
She adds, “Fighting, for most women, is something new – I do not think it is part of our character – but we learn to hold a rifle. War is tough, and Islamic State is a shocking brutality. But it is with training that you build up the consciousness of why you fight and from that moment an ordinary life is no longer enough.”
At first, Muna seems intimidated by the group of uniformed women around her, but as soon as she’s given her own uniform, her demeanour changes. “I want to fight Islamic State and liberate our land,” she explains. Leaving her old life and family behind, she was given a nom de guerre. Her phone was confiscated for security reasons. She recorded a video message to her parents in case she is killed in the war. She was asked “to stand like a soldier” for the purpose.
“A revolutionary woman fighter sacrifices everything: she has no right to fall in love, have children or desires. She must show more determination than anyone else,” explains Rojda Felat, chief commander of the Raqqa operation, who is in charge of thousands of soldiers marching on the city. Most are Arabs who joined the Kurds under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Her appointment is a deliberate political move by the Kurds, who see female emancipation as a top priority when fighting Islamic terrorism. The Raqqa operation is a great opportunity to show that women can be leaders. “We promised we would liberate every woman who was captured by Islamic State and I am here to keep that promise,” Felat continues. She estimates that the bloody battle for Raqqa will take at least six months.
Aged 35 and from Qamishli, Felat joined the YPJ in 2012. She saw the rising threat of Islamic State as an opportunity to finally create a new world. She dreamed of freedom and equality; she wanted women to have a different role in society. Ever since, she’s fought Islamic State in all of the major battles. “I was the main war strategist in many fronts,” she tells me.
Before our conversation, I see Felat’s car pull into Suzdar’s base, causing a sudden agitation. “She is here!” someone whispers urgently. Soldiers start to frantically clean up. Everyone stands in line to greet her. The youngest women smile timidly – she is their hero. Felat is a petite woman. Her hair is incredibly long and always tied in a braid – “I never cut my hair; it used to reach my feet,” she says with a smile. Her eyes are vigilant; they have a certain sparkle. She walks and speaks with extreme confidence, and is an intimidating figure – men do not joke around her.
“In past revolutions, in France or Russia, women have played smaller roles and then societies are back in the hands of men,” she says. “Our revolution will be different.”
Felat will not stop fighting after defeating Islamic State. “I will not go home and get married. I will continue to fight,” she says. “You can already see the difference in our society, but in five years’ time the role of women will have changed completely. The future will be bright.”
In Rojava there are laws that punish underage marriage, polygamy and violence against women. The women’s security force (Asayish a Jin) implements legislation and patrols the roads. Every town liberated from Islamic State establishes a local council that has both a man and a woman as representatives. Education centres are set up for women, with courses including self-awareness and literacy. For them, the first step towards real women’s liberation is self-defence.
“Knowing how to defend yourself is very important,” says Felat. “If you are not afraid, then you can fight back – both against the enemy and against the mentality.” Now, there are even courses for elderly women on how to use a weapon. Most of them have children who joined the revolution and are now on the front line. “We are very proud of them all. They will bring back hope and with their efforts we will live in a democracy,” says Nisrin, an older woman who has a daughter in the YPJ.
On the night of April 25, three Turkish fighter jets target the headquarters of the YPG in Dêrika Hemko, north-east Syria. The attack lasts two hours, and the bombs destroy buildings and kill dozens of Kurds. It’s a moonless night, and the sound of bombings is heard kilometres away. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has struck the YPG before – he has repeatedly called them terrorists, and Ankara opposes the formation of an autonomous region run by the Kurds along its southern border. In the following days, the Turkish military shells several towns along the border, which leads to the US deploying armoured vehicles along the Syrian side as a deterrent.
Four days later, the YPG and the YPJ hold a funeral for 12 of the 20 soldiers who died in the air strike. Everyone in Dêrika Hemko attends. The town is in mourning. During the ceremony, three American Stryker armoured vehicles arrive. Half the crowd turn to take pictures; the rest think it disrespectful.
Felat doesn’t seem to notice. Her gaze is lost in grief. One of her good friends has died in the air strike, and Felat has travelled from the front line to pay her respects. Jiyhan Amed, her friend, becomes a shahid, the Kurdish word for martyr, which is the highest honour in the YPG/ YPJ militia. A martyr will always be remembered: their pictures are everywhere, roads are named after them. Which is why soldiers shouldn’t cry for them. New recruits are taught not to show emotions, but this time Felat can’t hold back the tears.
This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.