These Kurdish Women Fought on the Frontlines Against ISIS. Now They’re the No. 1 Target in Syria

Female fighters symbolized the feminist revolution in the Kurdish enclave of Rojava. But since the Turkish invasion in October, they’re increasingly vulnerable to sexual violence on the frontline

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YPJ soldiers in the Rojava army.
YPJ soldiers in the Rojava army. Credit: Andia / UIG via Getty Images IL
Shaina Oppenheimer
Shaina Oppenheimer
Shaina Oppenheimer
Shaina Oppenheimer

In the early days of the Turkish offensive in Syria last month, a video of Turkish-backed commandos desecrating the body of a female Kurdish fighter went viral on social media. “Allahu Akbar! This is one of your whores whom you have sent to us,” shouted one of the soldiers, standing over the body of a woman with the nom de guerre Amara Renas.

The commando was reportedly part of a coalition of mercenaries who were hired by Turkey for its mission to establish a “safe zone” along a strip of northeastern Syria, following the decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to withdraw U.S. troops from the region. That decision has left Kurdish forces to fend for themselves, with female fighters finding themselves doubly exposed to the threat of sexual violence.

Similar photos and videos showing soldiers proclaiming victory over captured Kurdish women have been shared on Twitter by journalists and academics in Syria. Also last month, 35-year-old politician Hevrin Khalaf was ambushed while driving near Tal Abyad. She was reportedly pulled from her car, savagely beaten, dragged by her hair and shot to death. Pictures of her mutilated body later surfaced online, provoking an international outcry.

“With the murder of our friend Hevrin Khalaf ... a message was sent to all women,” says Saristan Efrin, a 31-year-old Kurdish female fighter stationed in Al-Darbasiyah on the Syrian-Turkish border.

Efrin belongs to the Women’s Protection Units, the female militia known as the YPJ that helped secure Rojava (the de facto autonomous region in Kurdish Syria being targeted in the ongoing Turkish offensive). Established in 2013, the unit is comprised mainly of ethnic Kurds who have fought alongside the male People’s Protection Units (the YPG) in the Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF had spearheaded a U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State group in northeastern Syria.

Demonstrators holds up a photo of Hevrin Khalaf during a protest in Budapest, Hungary, November 7, 2019. Credit: AFP

Top Kurdish official Ilham Ahmed, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council (the political arm of the SDF), tells Haaretz that “there is a specific type of warfare directed at women. We have seen this with the murder of Khalaf. Her death represents this warfare: She was a woman struggling for freedom — and she was targeted for that.”

As Turkish-backed militias, Syrian and Russian troops all advance in the Kurdish enclave, the female fighters of Rojava are left in the most vulnerable position of all. Hana, a Kurdish activist from Qamishli whose name has been changed to protect her identity, tells Haaretz in a phone interview that for female fighters, “losing is worse than dying.”

The video of Khalaf “was really important for the fighters to show women: Look, this is how we’re going to treat your body if you’re captured,” adds Hana.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the Kurdish militias have been withdrawing from parts of the border zone, but Efrin tells Haaretz they are staying to fight.

Turkey launched its cross-border military offensive into neighboring Syria on October 9 with the aim of pushing the SDF away from its border. A deal brokered by Moscow and Ankara on October 23 effectively ceded part of the SDF-held territory to Turkey. But despite this agreement, Kurdish leaders have said the Turkish offensive is still very much ongoing, including in areas outside of the designated 30-kilometer “safe zone.”

Brutal revenge campaign

There are an estimated 20,000 fighters in the YPJ, which was instrumental in the 2013-2019 fight against ISIS. However, while the United States turned the Kurds into its allies in the fight against ISIS, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan considers them to be terrorists associated with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (known as the PKK, and which both Turkey and the United States considers to be a terrorist organization).

When Turkey joined the U.S.-led coalition to fight ISIS, it also began carrying out arrests and raids in Kurdish districts inside Turkey to quell PKK activity as part of a larger conflict between the state and its Kurdish population.

Turkish-backed militias in northeastern Syria “see the enemy as terrorists, but they see the women as prostitutes. They see them in their own, very patriarchal way,” explains Dilar Dirik, a Kurdish feminist and researcher at the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. The militiamen are the ones filming and posting the videos as part of their own propaganda, says Dirik, adding that “this is the message they want to show to the world — and especially to women.”

In October 2017, when the SDF declared victory over the Islamic State in Raqqa, they specifically posted photos of female fighters waving the flag of the YPJ. This non-Islamist, female-led victory over male jihadists could be a major driver in the string of recent violent attacks against women. Indeed, Adam Hoffman, an ISIS researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University, suspects that it is “payback along ethnic, national and gender lines” on the grounds of Arab masculine honor.

“The brutal revenge campaign is worsened by the fact that they’re women and Kurdish,” he tells Haaretz.

While there are few details on the makeup of the Turkish-backed militias, “there’s a measure of certainty that a lot of these fighters were involved in Islamist, jihadist militias,” says Hoffman.

Kurdish female members of the Popular Protection Units stand guard at a check point near the northeastern city of Qamishli, Syria, 2013. Credit: Manu Brabo / AP

According to Marco Nilsson, an associate professor of political science at Jönköping University in Sweden who has written both about female Kurdish fighters and jihadists, Kurdish women have a “double handicap” due to their minority status.

The use of sexual violence against women in conflict zones is not a new phenomenon and as a threat it is not unique to the plight of the Kurds. Nilsson says generally such violence is an “efficient strategy in many violent conflicts to target women: Raping a woman leaves a much stronger mark than killing her. The impact will last longer, is more symbolic and causes shame among the enemy.”

Sharstan Afreen, a 32-year-old Kurdish fighter from Rojava’s Western region of Afrin, tells Haaretz, “When we see such brutal acts and how they are treating the bodies of our civilians and our fighters, we really feel pain. ... They wanted to give us a message that says if you struggle against our masculine system or mentality, you will share the same fate as Hevrin Khalaf.”

While there is no evidence yet that rapes have been carried out against female fighters in northern Syria as a weapon of war, the chilling videos shared on social media are probably part of a psychological warfare designed to make Kurdish women fear they are at risk of sexual assault.

“The images shared by Erdogan’s militias aim to intimidate us and our society,” says Efrin. “On the contrary, they just increase our contempt for the enemies of women. ... These attacks are simply immoral and part of a uniquely sexist war.”

YPJ Spokeswoman Nesrin Abdullah concurs, telling Haaretz in a phone interview that “when they kill a woman, they kill the hopes of a society and the values of humanity.”

The battle with ISIS in many ways overshadowed the achievements of the Kurdish enclave, which sought to create something unique out of the chaos. Following the withdrawal of Syrian forces from the area in 2012, the Kurds looked to create an egalitarian, bottom-up government in Rojava that aimed to bring all sectarian groups — Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs, Armenians, Yazidis and Turkmen — under one democratic system.

The Syrian Democratic Council’s Ahmed says they were “able to develop an alternative political project” in Rojava. Though some critics say the Kurdish leadership also exhibits authoritarian tendencies, undoing the political headway made in Rojava has been a top priority for Turkey. “Erdogan is against this system we have created, which promotes equality between men and women as well as religious freedom. There is a really big risk right now,” she warns. “There is no other system like ours anywhere else in the world — an administration that promotes and has achieved gender equality. That is exactly what is under attack.”

Since the beginning of the war against ISIS and the involvement of Kurdish forces on the ground, there has been something of a Western fascination — critics call it a “fetishization” — of female fighters. They quickly appeared in Hollywood-type movies and glossy photoshoots in magazines such as Marie Claire. Female Kurdish fighters were even featured in the latest version of “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare,” an immensely popular first-person shooter video game.

Touring Western capitals in recent weeks to advocate for support, a Kurdish diplomatic delegation headed by Ahmed has been pushing a narrative that paints the Turkish operation as an assault on gender equality — as well as religious coexistence — and as giving a new lease of life to ISIS, which is benefiting from the current crisis to reinforce its resurgence.

So, it is perhaps no coincidence that a photograph of a female Turkish soldier deployed in northern Syria against “Kurdish terrorists” was recently released and shared on social media. The battle is seemingly as much for narrative as it is for territory.

Saving a feminist society

The writings of Abdullah Öcalan, a founding member of the PKK who dreamed of establishing a socialist state for the Kurds, was a huge influence in shaping Rojava. “When Öcalan arrived in the region [in 1979], it was the first time women started to organize,” says Dirik. “He changed gender relations in Rojava.” After being arrested by the Turkish authorities in 1999 for supporting armed struggle, Öcalan published “Jineology” while in prison, outlining Kurdish feminist ideals. “Along with the women’s movement itself, he can be credited for feminism being such a key issue for the Kurdish question,” says Dirik.

Kurdish women have taken up arms since 1995, with the YPJ being praised for shattering the mentality “that women need men to defend them,” says spokeswoman Abdullah.

“After 2013-2014, we saw a lot of women being in charge,” says Hana, explaining that the idea was that women would not only put themselves on the frontline against ISIS but serve as the ideological solution to the group.

Kurds take part in a demonstration calling for the release of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan, in Strasbourg, France, February 16, 2013.Credit: REUTERS

“The Kurds created a society that is more egalitarian in many aspects, and I’m not sure if under the Russians they’ll be able to keep it,” says Nir Boms, a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, referring to Russian militias currently patrolling the region.

Hana also worries about the loss of the nonhierarchical social structure. “Will we have the same inclusiveness and participation in the past as when the Americans were here?” she asks.

Whether Rojava ends up under the control of Turkish-backed militias or President Bashar Assad’s regime and the Russians, it’s clear that none will have women’s rights at the top of their agenda. Then there’s the very real danger of ISIS making a comeback. “The masculine mentality and systems will win” if this incursion doesn’t stop, says Abdullah.

However, while the hard-fought feminist revolution in Rojava seemingly has dark days ahead, a Kurdish activist from Munich, Gulistan, remains optimistic: “Just because the whole autonomous region is under threat, it doesn’t mean it’s the end.”

Just as the YPJ was on the frontline in the battle against ISIS and the establishment of Rojava, its fighters remain determined to lead the movement to protect their homeland from what they refer to as “Turkish occupation forces.” “We as women and mothers are always at the front of this revolution,” says Afreen. And Efrin adds, “We are prepared to do everything in our power to defend our homeland.”

While many Kurds feel the United States has turned its back on them, these women and others hope the world will not turn its back on any attempt to reestablish male dominance in northeastern Syria. “All the political, cultural and economic gains of women are at stake,” says Dirik. “Women in other parts of the world need to defend them — this is women’s history being erased.”

Wilson Fache contributed to this report.

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