General Aitan Farhad is a coveted target for the so-called Islamic State and she knows it; at 39 the young Kurd from the city of Afrin is the first woman to be appointed co-head of Syria’s Kurdish armed security force, or Asayish.
“They have tried to kill me four times,” she says sitting in a dim office surrounded by portraits of young Kurdish fighters fallen in battle, a blue Asayish flag on a golden stand sits beside her desk.
“I have lost a lot of people close to me,” the petite woman in military green fatigues adds faintly.
We’re tucked away inside the Asayish headquarter, a building sealed by large concrete cylinders, barbed wire and armed security personnel in the Kurdish city of Qamishli.
The organisation was formed in 2012 during the increasingly violent turmoil of the Syrian civil war as a means to police and protect the three de facto autonomous Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria: Jazeera, Kobane and Afrin.
Today the Asayish is led by both a man – Ciwan Ibrahim – and a woman and is at the forefront of the struggle against IS.
While much of the world’s attention has turned to the Kurdish women risking their lives on the frontlines, female Asayish – 25 per cent of the force – have been working behind the scenes, collecting intelligence and ensuring that cities and civilians remain safe.
“We believe that Isil has become weaker, because of this they are now trying to take revenge against us by carrying out attacks inside our cities,” explains Aitan matter-of-factly.
We damaged Isil’s morale
Isil’s alleged change of strategy has put added pressure on the Asayish to control any potential sleeper cells inside the cities and rigorously guard all checkpoints.
According to the Kurdish military spokesperson Redur Xelil the Kurds have liberated 2,400 square kilometres, 398 villages and two major towns since 21 February – greatly damaging the morale of Isil fighters.
In order to build morale, Xelil says they have turned to attacking populated areas. In February over 200 Christians were kidnapped by Isil from Kurdish controlled villages while March saw the city of Hasakeh fall victim to three suicide bombings in the space of one week, losing over 50 civilians.
I ask her if she has faced any difficulties as a woman leading a male-dominated organisation: “At the start it was very difficult to make the community accept this idea – but now it has become a reality,” she smiles.
Women in her community are overcoming a myriad of challenges through their innate will and perseverance, she says. “Yes we’ve had difficulties, but if you trust yourself, if you have the will and the personality you can do this job very well.”
‘As female police we are targets’
While gender equality has yet to be embraced by all components of Syria’s Kurdish society, they are undoubtedly ahead of its neighbours; so much so that the deputy prime minister of Jazeera canton is a Christian woman. According to Aitan this is partly due to the teachings of Abdullah Ocalan – the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, whose socialist ideology focuses on gender equality and female emancipation.
“What we’ve done has opened a path for female Asayish and drawn a map to change the mentality of the community,” she says, taking a moment to answer calls and give orders to a young man at the door. She is undoubtedly busy but patiently answers every question, claiming that while she trusts both male and female journalists to paint a clear picture, she believes that women will better explain the reality of other women.
While Isil only really caught the world’s attention in June, following the fall of Mosul, the Kurds of Syria have been fighting the barbaric organisation for over two years.
“They are an enemy to us, there’s no difference between men and women but of course as female police we are targets,” she says in reference to Isil’s barbaric treatment of women.
‘It’s better to die than have no honor’
But it is not just the dangers posed by Isil that Aitan and her women deal with: gender-based violence, familial feuds between women and the protection of women during female-led celebrations or protests are some of the other jobs they are tasked with on a daily basis.
Like most of Syria’s Kurdish community Aitan had been fiercely politically active prior to being appointed head of the Asayish. In a country where Kurdish rights have been disregarded at the best of times and crushed at their worse, Aitan is proud to have fought for the Kurdish cause.
“The most important thing for us is to live without honour and resistance. It is better to die than to live with no honour or resistance for your people,” says Aitan.
“I don’t see this as a danger on my life, I see it as a woman being proud of what she’s doing for her country,” she explains.
Aitan smiles kindly and shakes her head when I ask her if she goes home to a husband and children at the end of her work day: “I married my country, my land and my identity and all the people I serve are my children.” She laughs bashfully when I tell her she reminds me of Queen Elizabeth I when once famously remarked: “I am already bound unto a husband which is the Kingdom of England.” Laugh Aitan might, except I’m not joking. I’m seriously in awe of this woman leading one of the charges against the deadly Isil.