One of the most fascinating aspects of my recent trip to Rojava, the Kurdish region of Syria, was its leaders’ focus on empowering women.
The failure of many Mideast nations to let women play a major role in politics and society has severely impeded their development. At the farthest extremes, Saudi Arabia treats women like mentally impaired children while the Islamic State enslaves them.
But in Rojava and North Syria — a self-proclaimed federal state that is recognized by no other country — things are very different. There, the non-Arab but Sunni Muslim Kurds have taken the opposite tack.
Women hold many of the highest posts in Rojava and women’s rights are taught in school. Moreover, the Syrian Kurds have a female force, the YPJ, that fights fiercely alongside male soldiers against Islamic State jihadis in Syria and even inside neighboring Iraq.
Would that this approach could be copied throughout the region, although that is hard to imagine. One can only hope that Rojava’s philosophy of female liberation can survive in this Kurdish enclave that is threatened from all sides.
Drive through Kurdish towns in Rojava and you will see banners on the main streets that display the faces of fallen Kurdish soldiers, including many women. Sometimes the female portraits are clustered around the mustached visage of Abdullah Ocalan, the ideological guru of the Turkish PKK rebel group. Ocalan’s thinking has also shaped the outlook of the dominant political party in Rojava, the Democratic Union, or PYD.
Whatever one thinks of Ocalan, now imprisoned in Turkey, his philosophy insists that freedom for women is the essential component of political freedom. “We call this the ‘revolution of women,’” says Hediye Yusuf, co-president of the Kurdish federal state.
I interviewed her in an ornate, former state-owned oil company headquarters in the northern Syrian town of Rumaylan. A petite women with uncovered hair and wearing a black pants suit, white sweater, and no makeup, Yusuf exuded authority. “If you want to see the revolution of Rojava, women are the majority of the structure,” she said.
Yusuf became politicized in the 1990s when Ocalan was living in exile in Syria. “It was his ideas on women that attracted me the most,” she says. “I believe in the freedom of women. We were interested in how PKK women were fighting in the mountains. We began thinking, ‘Why couldn’t we do things like this?’”
Yusuf spent more than two years in prison under the Assad regime. Released after the Arab spring revolt started, she helped draft a new law on women’s rights that abolishes polygamy, which is facing resistance from Arabs in Rojava. She also helped establish the YPJ.
At a YPJ office in Qamishli, Rojava’s largest city, I got a glimpse of the impact that the force has had on many young Kurdish women.
Deniz Sipan, an attractive 21-year-old, dressed in fatigues, was an architecture student in Damascus when the Arab Spring began in 2011. Her nervous family decided to relocate (temporarily, they thought) to their ancestral home in the Kurdish region of Syria.
Sipan soon realized that in this more conservative area her options were limited to teaching — and getting married.
“Kurdish women when they get married, they give up life,” she said, making a face, and speaking in the excellent English she learned from watching old American movies. “I didn’t like this idea.”
So, despite her parents’ misgivings, she joined the YPJ and became a front-line sniper.
“Female fighters have their own personality,” she said proudly. “No one can control them and they are highly respected. It gives you the confidence to trust yourself more.”
In the fierce battle to liberate the Yazidi areas of Sinjar, Iraq, which were seized by the Islamic State in 2014, she was initially assigned to the rear guard.
“I couldn’t believe it at first that I could do it,” she says. Eventually, she was on the front lines in 2015.
“I am fighting for society to understand that they have to let women do what they want,” she says. “I fight for my country and for women. I saw many women fight better than any man.”
“The men like to fight alongside women,” she added, “because the women smile and laugh when they are fighting. It keeps morale up.”
Sipan says she intends to stay in the military, and is eager to go back to the front. If women just return home, she says, the situation will revert to male control “over everything.”
It is hard not to wonder what will happen to her and her colleagues. On her cellphone are pictures of military mates who look like U.S. college students on spring break, the women with long flowing hair, the men with happy smiles. But Kemal, a 24-year old commander who trained her as a sniper, was blown up by a suicide bomber, and her best friend, Penaber, 19, fellow female sniper, was shot dead at the front.
Can the example of Kurdish women fighters inspire Arab women elsewhere in the Middle East? Unlikely, but one would like to think so.
“If women are free, society is free,” says Sipan’s older colleague Nujin Roj, who returned from Turkish exile to join in the struggle.
The Rojavan Kurds are trying to promote this message in a resistant Middle East.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.