In the first few months of 2019, streams of women, children, and surrendered fighters have trickled out from the Islamic State’s last stronghold, Baghuz. Many of the women and children fled under a rain of bullets, falling victim to their own husbands. Still, they continued on, escaping the clutch of the patriarchal Islamic State (ISIL) to walk into the hands of a new set of captors, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), part of the mixed Arab-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance.
In an uncertain status somewhere between refugees and prisoners of war, the IS women have been cordoned into their own area of al-Hol camp, in part because of their aggression toward the Syrian and Iraqi families who fled ISIL. In the past few months, the plight of ISIL women has come under global attention as many foreign women have spoken to the press, begging to be allowed to return to the United States and Europe. While some remain loyal, others have spoken mournfully of their hard lives as women under the caliphate. They have spoken of forced marriages (many lost several husbands), hunger, and their sense of disillusionment. They have painted a picture of ISIL’s extreme patriarchy in action.
Their new captors, the YPG, have seized much of the Islamic State’s land through their role in the SDF and tactical support from the US. However, their war is not just about land or fighting terrorism. Like ISIL, they have envisioned their version of a utopia, and they are taking up arms in order to establish it. While IS and its Islamist patriarchal state crumbles, the YPG has continued building their feminist anarchist “stateless democracy” of Rojava. In YPG-controlled Rojava, one utopian vision is replacing another, but the two proto-states could not be more different, especially for women. YPG’s feminist vision helps drive its state-building mission but also exposes the YPG to vulnerabilities both outside and within.
Women hold important and visible roles in both ISIL and YPG, especially through the lens of Western media, but that is where the similarities end. Women represent the future of the caliphate and are responsible for raising generations of jihadists. Both wives and slaves, who tend to be Yazidi captives, are dehumanized. They function to serve men, and in extension, the caliphate. Neither are treated well, but wives, who are often foreign, reign well above the Yazidi slaves, and often serve as their jailers. Both categories, however, are largely restricted to reproductive and sexual roles. The only exceptions are in ruling and recruiting other women. Just as they cruelly rule over slave women, ISIL women in serve in the all-female al-Khansaa Brigade, a moral police force. They brutally force Sharia law on women such as local Iraqis living under their rule, torturing them physically for acts like going about without a male guardian. Similarly, many serve as online recruiters, using Twitter and other platforms to encourage vulnerable young women and girls to seek a new life in the Islamic State.
While ISIL aims for a traditional Islamist revival, the YPG looks forward with an explicitly anti-patriarchal ideology. Rather than serving, women lead, with a power structure consisting of local councils jointly led by a chairman and chairwoman. While some locals believe this practice promotes the hiring of unqualified women, women have nevertheless made real impacts on the region, especially militaristically. Kurdish and Arab women alike serve in the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), an all-female militia vital to the YPG’s campaign against ISIL. Rather than integrate into a traditionally masculine coed military unit, they set themselves apart. For them, fighting and femininity are not mutually exclusive, and many take pride in wearing colorful scarves and styled hair to battle.
Formally and informally, YPG members are working to radically reform Kurdish society with a great focus on women–a source of both strength and tension, especially given the region’s historic conservatism. Legally, women have gained a litany of new rights and responsibilities overnight. From council positions to new laws, these changes have empowered women to take larger parts in society. In the YPG-controlled Kurdish and Arab towns in Rojava, child marriage has been banned, women have been allowed to divorce, and female testimonies are now counted the same, reversing the Sharia laws that counted women as half a man in the courts. Soldiers speak of feminist theory among themselves, and Kurdish community centers now teach jineology, or the “science of women,” the feminist theory developed by imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Such policies may appear to undermine the YPG’s public support. Though Rojava is often thought of as a Kurdish homeland, Kurds barely make up a majority, with Arabs making up around 40 percent of the YPG-controlled population. Despite the YPG’s outreach to the Arab population, there has been a considerable amount of discontent with the YPG’s leftist feminist rule. Many Arab residents view YPG rule as oppressive, with accusations of unjustified arrests and extra-judicial killings of local Arabs. While Arab Rojava residents are happy to be rid of ISIL’s tyranny and instability, many see YPG ideology as a step too far. One teacher described YPG rule “as ISIS but the other end of the spectrum,” with traditional Arab values in the middle.
However, many younger Arabs have come to embrace the multiethnic YPG. Young women in particular have welcomed feminist change. Many young Arabs see the YPG as their vehicle to fight Turkish aggression and have joined its ranks through the military and civilian protests. While it may repel some, the YPG’s feminism has essentially doubled their potential supporter base as it encourages women to take active roles within power structure–very unlike the women of ISIL, or even of the traditionally patriarchal powers involved such as Turkey and the United States.
While feminism so far remains a core component of the YPG’s mission, shifting US and Turkish involvements may compromise this ideal. For several years, the YPG have relied on the tactical and financial support of the United States. On the other side, they face increasing attacks from an increasingly assertive Turkey. Turkish-Kurdish rivalries have existed for decades, and Turkey considers both the PKK and YPG to be terrorist groups. This has put the US in the tense position of arming a group that fights Turkey, a member of NATO. With the collapse of ISIL representing an opportunity for the YPG to seize land and assert itself on an international stage, the US retreat from Syria weakens the YPG at its most critical point in asserting sovereignty. The US’s absence from the region may embolden Turkey, who will no longer have to fear overly-angering its NATO ally.
Turkish gains at the expense of the YPG have deep ideological implications concerning women. Under the Turkish state, violence against women is rampant and protestors face police brutality. Though women are legally equal to men, the Turkish state is turning more conservative and does not put women’s issues at the forefront. Turkish rule may not be as bad as the state-sanctioned subjugation of women under ISIL, but it may undo the YPG’s battle against traditional Kurdish patriarchy.
As they gain territory while facing increasing threats from Turkey, the YPG is at a crossroads. On one hand, the withdrawal of US support may better allow them to fulfill their anti-capitalist, feminist vision without the imposition of American neoliberal ideals. On the other, relations with Arabs under and part of their rule may moderate the YPG’s ambitious feminism. For now, they have to balance their anti-patriarchal ideals with native conservatism (among both Kurds and Arabs) amidst Turkish encroachment, US withdrawal, the remnants of ISIL, and a lack of international recognition.
Photo: “Kurdish Female YPG Fighter“