Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ): The Fight to Protect Democratic Confederalism

In September, Western media outlets ran stories with headlines like “Asia Ramazan Antar—the Kurdish Angelina Jolie—‘Killed While Fighting ISIS.’” The articles featured photos of Antar and described her heroic death protecting the town of al-Yashli from Daesh (the so-called Islamic State or ISIS) car bombs. Antar was a member of the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). This group is part of the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has governed the area of Rojava in northern Syria since the Rojava Revolution in 2012.

Part of the Western media’s fascination with the young women of the YPJ comes from their military success against Daesh in Kobani, an area in northern Syria, as well as from the fear they instill in Daesh fighters. Khamlin, a YPJ fighter who was injured in Kobani, told one reporter that when she and her female comrades captured Daesh militants, “they were crying because they said they did not want to be killed by women, as that would keep them from entering heaven.” The small amount of media attention these women have received in the West has focused on military details, the youth and beauty of the women (as in the case of Antar), and surface-level empowerment feminism that celebrates women soldiers but does not address broader societal concerns for equality. Meanwhile, the more comprehensive feminist and democratic ideology that the YPJ and their Kurdish coalition subscribe to has been largely overlooked.

On their website, the YPJ states that they are “struggling against the military domination of the male sexual system … and the patriarchal and governmental system that serves itself for five thousand years and the rape of social values.” They write that “it is the legitimate power of women [to carry] upon themselves the guarantee of women’s liberation.” Indeed, Torin Khairegi, an eighteen-year-old YPJ fighter, told a reporter, “We live in a world where women are dominated by men. We are here to take control of our own future. When I am at the frontline, the thought of all the cruelty and injustice against women enrages me so much that I become extra powerful in combat.” The YPJ is fighting not only to defeat Daesh and secure the territory of Rojava, but also to break free from a sexist, patriarchal society that has not adequately protected women for centuries. As the Western media coverage indicates, the YPJ empowers women. But even more fundamentally, it frees women. Having recognized a pattern in past revolutions whereby women are temporarily empowered during the beginning but ultimately excluded from the long-term progress, the Kurds of Rojava have consciously worked to create a sustainable culture of equality that will lead to women’s liberation.

The YPJ is a part of the military arm of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and therefore subscribes to the ideology of the PYD. The three cantons of Rojava are governed by popularly elected councils formed by the Charter of the Social Contract, which focuses on the theme of autonomy and the protection of human and democratic rights. Rights protected by the Charter include the right to cultural and religious freedom, the right to political participation, economic rights, environmental rights, equal rights between men and women, and all “fundamental rights and freedoms set out in international human rights treaties, conventions, and declarations.” Many rights and freedoms are reiterated in more than one article. The YPJ is thus a part of a larger movement in Rojava working toward equality, autonomy, and fair treatment.

As a part of the PYD, the YPJ is under the broad umbrella of the Kurdish democratic movement, and it is also one of many organizations that form the Kurdish women’s movement. Founded in 2005, Kongreya Star is an organization of women’s groups formed in opposition to the oppression of Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’ath regime, and it played an important role in the revolution of 2012. The women of Kongreya Star felt that they had to organize because the oppression of the Assad regime was felt “doubly” by Kurdish women who were oppressed due to both their ethnicity as Kurds and their gender. Indeed, Kongreya Star views patriarchy as the underlying system that allows other forms of oppression—such as the oppression of the Kurds under the Assad regime—to flourish. Like the PYD, Kongreya Star is committed to Democratic Confederalism, “a democratic model for direct and radical democracy, organized by the people from a grassroots level in communes and assemblies.” Thus, all of these Kurdish organizations in Syria are linked in an overlapping web of both administrative and ideological connections: the YPJ is a military organization which works closely with both the PYD political party and the women’s organization Kongreya Star. All of these organizations can be understood as a part of the general Kurdish democratic movement.

In each canton in Rojava, citizens are organized in either mixed-gender or women-only communes with elected administrations. Kongreya Star is responsible for the women-only communes, and each commune is made up of five committees: education, health, economy, problem-solving, and self-defense. The YPJ is organized under the self-defense committee. A 2016 report by Kongreya Star outlines how these committees play a role in challenging “current patriarchal structures and mentalities.” The report found that education helps dispose of the patriarchal mentality, that women’s cooperatives allow women to take control of their own capital, and that self-defense is central to protecting women’s rights.

Kongreya Star considers self-defense a “holistic practice” that is “one of the cornerstones of the Rojava Revolution and the model of Democratic Confederalism” because it is a mechanism for battling large-scale oppression facing the Kurds. For example, they view education as a form of self-defense against oppressive ideology and communal living as a form of self-defense against capitalistic exploitation. It is in this context of holistic self-defense that Kongreya Star organizes and arms women in the fight against Daesh. They write: “The ideology of societal sexism and the system of patriarchy are based on the destruction of the ability to self-defence.” Thus, in protecting themselves and their communities, the YPJ and Kongreya Star are fighting a double battle: against Daesh and against the patriarchy. Their opposition to Daesh cannot be separated from the more fundamental ideology of self-defense as opposition to societal sexism.

This ideology seems to have been successfully ingrained in the minds of the Kurdish women. Farashin Mehriva, a twenty-one-year-old YPJ fighter, told one reporter that “the role of female fighters is much more important than the role of male fighters, because they are already free. But we are fighting for the freedom of all women in the world.”

Ideology aside, it remains unclear how strong of a hold the feminist ideals of Kongreya Star and the YPJ actually have upon daily life in Rojava. The Charter puts in place rules to work toward equality of the sexes, guaranteeing that “the Legislative Assembly must be composed of at least forty percent of either sex.” Additionally, all leadership positions are held jointly by one male and one female. One account from Afrin in 2013 reported that over 65 percent of individuals involved in the administration were women. In 2013, Kongreya Star pushed for the stateless democracy to pass a number of measures which further protected women in Rojava: Honor killings were criminalized, underage and forced marriages outlawed, and men with more than one wife excluded from all organizations and committees.

On an individual scale, women are encouraged to leave their traditional role of homemaker and to work in cooperatives in one of three fields: agriculture, animal husbandry, and sales. Entering the workforce is one deceptively simple way for women to gain responsibility in their communities and recognize their potential. This is an empowering experience for women who have never worked outside of the home, and it is an easy way for Kongreya Star to convince women to buy in to the changing structure of society. Education is also very important. Women’s academies, established in 2012 directly after the revolution, serve students of all ages and both genders. They offer courses like “History of Kurdistan,” “Women’s History,” and “Gender Equality.” Nonetheless, Heval Welide, a member of Kongreya Star’s administration, says there is more work to be done in both ideology and practice: “There are a lot of fundamental changes but the history of patriarchy is so strong from thousands of years, that there are still problems arising, problems in people’s mentality … So even though there are changes, there needs to be a longer struggle to fulfill those changes.”

When we see Western media’s praise of the “Kurdish Angelina Jolie” and coverage of beautiful young women striking fear in the hearts of Daesh fighters, we’re only seeing half of the story. The YPJ is only one very visible aspect of the Kurdish women’s movement in Syria.  On a whole, the movement espouses a democratic, egalitarian, and feminist ideology, and it works hard to realize these ideals in the administration of Rojava. The women’s movement opposes both the physical threat of Daesh and the equally dangerous and much more ingrained threat of patriarchy and societal sexism. In fact, Kongreya Star and the YPJ see these threats as interconnected: “Faced with the threat of ISIS, we believe that our greatest victory would be to build a society free from all oppression … This cannot be achieved through the continuation of the existing structures of nation-states, patriarchy and capitalism, which led to this crisis in the first place.”

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

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