Long pursuing a state of their own, Kurdish women are fighting back ISIS and gaining many fans in the West.
Female Peshmergas on their base at the border between Syria and Iraq. These female fighters are motivated by the words of Abdullah Ocalan, head of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), who promotes Marxist thought and empowerment of women. Source: Newsha Tavakolian/TIME
To an ISIS militant, one of the worst things that could transpire in combat is not just being killed, but being killed by a woman. If this happens, ISIS members believe that they will go directly to hell. If hell exists, rest assured that they have been sent there by a number of Kurdish women.
In August 2014, ISIS moved to the Sinjar area of Iraq and began to persecute, capture and kill its minority Yazidi population–an ancient, mainly Kurdish people. Female Kurdish soldiers were instrumental in the Kurdish counteroffensive, rescuing thousands of Yazidis trapped by ISIS on Mount Sinjar. The women have since extended their fight against radical militants to Kobani, Syria. See what life for these soldiers is like in the gallery below:
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18 year-old Saria Zilan from Amuda, Syria:
"I fought with ISIS in Serikani. I captured one of them and wanted to kill him, but my comrades did not let me. He kept staring at the ground and would not look at me, because he said it was forbidden by his religion to look at a woman." Source: Newsha Tavakolian/TIME
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Female soldiers show signs of peace as trucks carrying refugees from Mount Sinjar enter Til Kocer, Syria, safely. Source: Erin Trieb
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18-year-old YPJ fighter Torin Khairegi: "We live in a world where women are dominated by men. We are here to take control of our future. I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobane. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been matryred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path."
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20-year-old Narlene wraps a scarf around her face near Raabia, Syria. Source: Erin Trieb
20-year old YPJ fighter Aijan Denis from Amuda, Syria:
"Where I am now, men and women are equal and we all have the same thought, which is fighting for our ideology and the rights of women. My three sisters and I are all in YPJ."
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Women in the Peshmerga undergo drill instruction at the Sulaymaniyah base. Source: Jacob Russell
Young recruits take part in near dawn drill in Rojava, a Kurdish area of Syria. Typically, female soldiers rise at 4am after six hours of sleep. Before joining, many of these women had never participated in sports. Source: Erin Trieb
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Women in dawn drills near Derek City, Syria. Source: Erin Trieb
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Female soldier waits for a drone to return to the PKK base in Sinjar. The drone had gone to check enemy positions near a site previously hit by ISIS car bombs. Source: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
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Female fighter discussing how to gain access to space hit by ISIS car bombs in Sinjar. Source: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
Woman totes a portrait of Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan at the Sinjar base. Ocalan was one of the founding members of the Kurdish Workers Party, which is listed as a terrorist organization by NATO, the United States and the European Union, among others.
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A female soldier adjusts her machine gun as she prepares to join others near a spot hit by ISIS car bombs. Source: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
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29-year-old Nuhad Kocer sits at a military base in Til Kocer, Syria. The person in the framed photo is Azadi Ristem, a soldier killed by a sniper from the al-Nusra Front. Source: Erin Trieb
16 year-old YPJ fighter Barkhodan Kochar from Darbasi, Syria.
"The war influenced me a lot. Before joining YPJ, whenever I asked my family about politics, they'd say 'that's not your business, you're just a girl'. But when I saw how the women of YPJ gave their lives for what they believed in, I knew that I wanted to be one of them." Source: Newsha Tavakolian/TIME
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A female fighter stands guard at a PKK base on Mount Sinjar, northwest Iraq.
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Female Peshmerga dons a pink featuring Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is Kurdish. Source: Jacob Russell
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In Kurdish Rovaja, Syria, young people are taught the ideology of the PYD (the Democratic Union Party of Syria), an affiliate of PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party). Many will be drafted to fight ISIS. Source: Newsha Tavakolian/TIME
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A young recruit wears pink on the first day of her training in Derek City, Syria. Source: Erin Trieb
Female Peshmergas pose next to a displaced Yazidi woman (far right) who lives near their base in Sinjar. At least 5,000 Yazidis have been massacred in ISIS' genocidal campaign against them. Source: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
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Female Peshmergas sit with a Yazidi family, one of which is a member of YBS, a Yazidi militant group fighting against ISIS. Source: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
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Female fighter Jin bonds with her mother, Amina, at home in Girke Lege, Syria. Source: Erin Trieb
17 year-old Cicek Derek, died in Kobani, Syria. Her body was unable to be retrieved. Source: Newsha Tavakolian/TIME
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Cicek Derek's sister, Rojin, had this to say: "When my mother told Cicek, please stay with your mother', she answered 'I left to fight for all the mothers of the world. I cannot stay here."
Source: Newsha Tavakolian/TIME
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Fallen female soldiers appear on a billboard which reads, “With
you we live on and life continues.” Source: Newsha Tavakolian/TIME
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Female soldiers carry the casket of Evrim in Derek City, Syria. Evrim was killed while combatting ISIS members.
Many of these Kurdish women compose the female branch of the YPG militia, which, along with PKK (a Kurdish nationalist party) guerrillas and US-backed peshmergas (recognized Kurdish soldiers), have been fighting ISIS back and providing humanitarian aid to local populations for nearly the past year.
Anywhere from 7,000 to 10,000 women form the all-female branch of the YPG--the YPJ--and are usually 18 to 25 years old. Influenced by the Marxist-Leninist thought of jailed PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish nationalist party demands that gender equality be re-instated, making women's "liberation" a key component of the party's nationalist project.
Political and territorial gains by ISIS, which seeks to severely curtail the rights of women, thus represent not just an international security threat. To Kurdish nationalists, it sets the dream of an independent Kurdish state that much further in the distance.
Kurdistan encompasses parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, which makes its people particularly vulnerable to the conflicts engulfing the region--and stand to benefit from a weakening Iraqi state.
Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, Allied forces attempted to create several countries within the empire's former boundaries, Kurdistan being one of them.
This did not end up happening for a number of reasons, and millions of Kurds were left without a state of their own. Since then, members of the PKK--labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, NATO and the European Union, among others--have been engaged in a long-standing fight with Turkey, and are looking for ways to gain international support for their cause.
Beyond providing humanitarian support, one such way seems to be through pumping its female fighters to the West. According to Jacob Russell, a photojournalist who has lived in Kurdistan for nearly two years, both international media and Kurdish politicians see the PR potential of "girls with guns" and have objectified these women, presenting a false, vaguely glamorous reality to Western audiences clamoring to see ISIS' downfall--and "empowered" women leading the fight.
This photo of a female Kurdish fighter was retweeted thousands of times. The woman is believed to have been killed by ISIS.
Said Russell in an interview with CNN, "A lot of the women's backstories were quite difficult. It seemed like this unit provided an alternative network for women who maybe would struggle in normal Kurdish society, because despite being relatively progressive (within the Middle East), it is still quite a conservative society."
Regardless of PKK political objectives, many feminists praise the YPJ for "confronting traditional gender expectations in the region" and "redefining the role of women in conflict [there]." According to photojournalist Erin Trieb, "the YPJ is in itself a feminist movement, even if it is not their main mission...they want 'equality' between women and men, and a part of why they joined was to develop and advance the perceptions about women in their culture. They can be strong and be leader."
Perhaps put better by 18-year-old Kurdish fighter Saria Zilan, "In the past, women had various roles in the society, but all those roles were taken from them. We are here now to take back the role of women in society."
What becomes of ISIS and Kurdistan remains to be seen. Rest assured, though, that women will play a substantial role in determining the fate of both.
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