by Antonella Vicini, Reset Doc, September 12, 2014

In the ‘Great Game’ developing in the Middle East and amidst constant changes in diplomatic equilibria, as well as the deployment of armed forces to try and stop ISIS’ advance, the only certainty for the moment is the role the Kurds have over time cut out for themselves and their mandate from the most important European countries and the United States. This concerns not only the often discussed Peshmerga, Iraqi Kurds who have rather effectively opposed the Islamic State’s penetration since the beginning of the summer, but also Syrian Kurds, active since at least 2012 and without doubt less visible at least from a media perspective.

Syrian Kurdistan is a region mainly inhabited by Kurds in northern Syria and also known as Rojava, effectively the western part of the nation called Kurdistan. Since the Syrian civil war started, rather like what happened in Iraq after 2003, the Kurds have gained control over increasingly larger areas and achieved greater autonomy, although there has not as yet been formal acknowledgment as happened with Iraqi Kurdistan. The Syrian Kurds, after fighting Assad’s armed forces, have clashed with Islamists so as to defend their region, in a rather fragile area bordering with Iraq and subject to infiltrations from the Al Nabar province. They have become a force, fighting the Islamic State fanatics thanks to action taken by YPG, the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (Kurdish for the People’s Protection Unit), a regular army of about eight brigades spread throughout the area and also the armed wing of the Kurdish Supreme Committee. The female wing of the YPG is called the YPJ, Yekineyen Parastina Jin, the Women’s Protection Unit.

Since 2013, when it was created, they have become the new “protectors” of the Rojava. Armed with Kalashnikovs and wearing camouflage they amount to about 35% of the YPG’s fighters. Their image, however, remains rather controversial as they are part of the armed wing of the Kurdish Supreme Committee which also has relations with the PKK, a group that the United States and the European Union have placed on the black list of terrorist organisations. This militia has always denied having “compromising” relations or ones disliked by the West, continuing to fight and playing a role needed also by those same powers.

They are also portrayed in a brief documentary entitled “A Day in Syria”, online here, in which the brigade’s women – mothers, daughters, sisters, teenagers, educated or not – explain why they have made a choice linked not only to a desire to fight extremists, but also to a need to assert their importance and independence from men, proving they are able to be more than just “good wives” restricted to their homes.

Their origins, therefore, arise from a dual battle for freedom, the first is freedom from restricting and chauvinist social customs, and the second as a battle to safeguard their country, also opposing all those additional restrictions imposed on women first by Jabhat al Nusra and then by ISIS, as also reported by Human Rights Watch in January 2014.

At the end of 2013, Kurdish refugees from both Iraq and Syria had told HRW that Jabhat al-Nusra and Isis aq and Sham (ISIS), by forcing and radicalising the interpretation of Sharia, had begun to use punishments and threats to oblige women to wear the veil or the abaya, the traditional long garment that completely covers a woman’s body, and in some areas preventing them from leaving their homes, attending school or going to work. The tragic consequences in some case resulted in death during armed clashes since they were afraid to leave their homes without a male member of their families.

The war they are fighting is also against the Syrian regime, to defend the identity of their people. In this case the means used are not military, but rather the teaching of the Kurdish language, which is forbidden in schools, an education they provide when not training. The YPJ’s soldiers are women at war who speak of ‘humanism’ and describe themselves as a “self-defence force”, but carry their weapons like men and, like the men, have their dead and their martyrs.

The Syrian Kurdish women fighters also include the mothers from Kobanê, united in a group called the Şehîd Jîn’, founded by Şemsa Mihemed, with the objective of protecting their region and the strategic area of the Kobanê district.

Kobanê is the Rojava’s symbol. Part of the governorate of Aleppo, in Arabic ‘Ayn al-Arab, the city was retaken from Damascus and since July 2012 has been under Kurdish control. Besieged by ISIS militias, they defended the city tooth and nail in July.

On the Iraqi front there are other Kurdish women fighting a similar battle. These are the soldiers led by Colonel Nahida Ahmed Rashid, the woman with the highest military rank in the Peshmerga. Nahida Ahmed Rashid leads the 2nd Battalion of 550 mothers, daughters and sisters. For them the battlefield is not unknown terrain since they have been active since 1996 and, like all Kurds, they are used to fighting. Before it was Saddam, now it is ISIS, and the stakes for the Kurds are certainly high.

It is worth remembering that on the same side of the barricade, albeit for different reasons, there are the Shiite women’s militias who answered the call of the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, with their weapons and their veils, ready for martyrdom.