Kurdish women fighting Islamic State for more than feminism

Beneath their combat gear they wear pink or baby-blue socks with rabbit patterns, but when the women turn their talk to killing men, they speak with careless familiarity and even merriment. Killing is nothing unusual among them. Indeed, most regard it as part of what led them to become fighters.

By Anthony Loyd – The Times

“I killed some Daesh here with my Kalash,” said Tolveen Van, the nom de guerre for a 20-year-old Kurdish woman, referring to ­Islamic State fighters. She pointed behind her to the nearby slopes of Jabal Abd al-Aziz, northern Syria, seized from the jihadists by a combined Kurdish fighting force of men and women in May. “And I killed another in a battle elsewhere. When I see the Daesh lying dead, I feel a 100 per cent morale boost.”

Despite their youth, these members of the YPJ, the women’s brigade attached to the people’s protection units of the YPG, have become battle-hardened veterans in clashes across the region since the world first took note of their role in the defence of the Kurdish border town of Kobane this year.

Fighting alongside the men, their recent victories have extended a de facto Kurdish autonomous region in Syria, known as Rojava. It runs westwards along contiguous territory from the borders of Iraq all the way to Kobane — provoking threats from neighbouring Turkey.

Formed in 2012 to help in the defence of Kurdish areas in Syria against Islamic rebel groups, the YPJ is now more than 7000 strong, and is likely the world’s most ­experienced women’s frontline force. Resting in an abandoned farm before an expected strike on Islamic State positions to the south of Jabal Abd al-Aziz2, the women fighters I met endure the scorching heat and all-pervading dust on a meagre diet of bread, beans and potatoes, yet appear to relish their role as soldiers.

“We are not just fighting for feminism, we are fighting mainly to protect our people and our land,” said Tolveen. “But fighting is also part of true equality, and as women we are proud to fight an enemy like the Daesh — men who like their women as housewives, stuck in the kitchen, cleaning ­dishes.”

Any notion that the YPJ might be nothing more than a rear unit was quickly dispelled in the short shadows thrown around the farm by the midday sun. The women described the act of killing Islamic State fighters as a reward of gender equality, rather than a challenge to their femininity, and expressed ideological revulsion for their foe.

“I don’t even like to look at them when they are dead,” said Nuda Saso, 25, a Kurdish woman from Turkey. “The last one I killed here during the operation to capture Jabal Abd al-Aziz. I checked he was dead but couldn’t bear to look at his face — the Daesh disgust me too much.”

Seated on a rug beside their ­armoury, where clean, lightly oiled BKC heavy machine-guns, ­Kalashnikovs, RPGs and a sniper’s rifle lay in orderly rows waiting for action, the young women giggled when explaining how all four male fighters from the YPG attached to them on a recent operation became casualties.

“One dead and three wounded in minutes!” laughed Tolveen. “Men! They chose poor cover and hadn’t listened carefully enough to their orders.”

Her laughter provoked a lively debate with two male fighters sitting near by as to who was better in action; men or women. Outnumbered, the two YPG men came off the worse in the argument, conceding that although they were physically stronger, neither sex was less dedicated to holding their positions during an attack.

Their dedication to a community-based brand of socialist ideology, cemented by a cult-like adoration of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is outlawed in Turkey, has made the YPG and YPJ the most formidable of Islamic State’s many ­enemies.

Even before coalition aircraft began bombing the jihadists in support of the YPG in Kobane and elsewhere, the Kurdish fighters in Syria were a formidable force. PKK cadres from the mountains of northern Iraq, whose operational experience had been gained fighting the Turkish army, crossed over into Rojava in 2012 to help to train and organise the Syrian Kurds. Many PKK troops, both men and women, still remain there, in positions of field command.

The Syrian Kurds’ martial prowess is further enhanced by a cult of sacrifice, which is deeply imbued within their units. Pictures of Kurdish “martyrs” killed fighting ISIS adorned every wall of the farmhouse, and suicide is seen as preferable to capture.

“We would prefer to kill ourselves rather than be captured by the Daesh,” said Arjeen Rojava, 24, a twice-wounded veteran of the conflict. “Three of our YPJ comrades did so recently during fighting near Tel Tamer.”

Surrounded by Islamic State forces and out of ammunition, the three women are believed to have blown themselves up with a grenade rather than face capture and certain beheading. Arjeen, wounded in the stomach and one arm by shrapnel during an Islamic State suicide attack on her position earlier in the year, and then shot in the chest, claimed her ­injuries had served only to motivate her to fight.

“For our homeland we are ready to die!” she exclaimed forcefully, thumping a table with her fist in emphasis. “Also, I decided to come back to the front to take my revenge. And I have taken my ­revenge three times since. We left the Daesh in piles of dead in one village here.”

Despite their dedication to the cause, their ardour stops short of radicalism. Compared with the other ideologies at play in Syria’s war, the YPJ’s socialist egalitarianism seems progressive, and the women said they were encouraged to read feminist literature as well as political philosophy as part of their daily ideological training.

“Social feminists, radical feminists — I’ve read them all,” said ­Arjeen. “I am proud to reverse the concept of the ‘military’ being a male concept, but rather than describe myself as a particular type of feminist, I would say only that I am seeking ‘sameness’ rather than ‘equality’. Even so, when this war is over I am going to train other women elsewhere in military matters. For after the Daesh are gone, there will be other men that women have to fight.”

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