An army of feminists
Members of an all-women troop that took on Daesh in Syria talk to WKND.
Belkin's cherubic face and unalloyed demeanour couldn't be more deceiving. At 18, she would easily pass as a woolly-headed teenage girl if not for her crisp military jumpsuit and khaki boots. Inside the stern and austere visitors' room at the military headquarters of YPJ (Women's Defence Units) in Northeast Syria, Belkin (name changed to protect identity) was warm and welcoming. The sloppy hobble in her gait was unmissable as she strolled across the room to make us a cup of tea.
The bullets lodged in her spine may have restricted her mobility but have certainly not crippled the spirit of this feisty Kurdish female fighter who took on Daesh when she was just 14. "I got hit in the battle of Manjib a year ago. It was a tough fight against the Daesh militants. But we held on and even killed a few before I was taken out of the battlefield," says Belkin.
She was paralysed for months after she got shot in the spine. "I underwent two surgeries and still cannot walk properly. It is difficult to bend as I have iron rods inside my spine. As soon as doctors give me the green signal, I want to get back into action."
Belkin's extraordinary courage is emblematic of the all-female military might of the YPG (popularly known as Yekineyen Parastina Gel) that helped secure Rojava, the de facto autonomous region of Northeast Syria. The armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Party is called the YPG (People's Protection Unit) and its female brigade is called YPJ (Women's Protection Unit) - both functioning under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which was the key US ally in fighting Daesh in Syria.
Though women have been involved in Kurdish resistance movements since 2011, the female militia was formed in 2013 and they fought side by side with men when Daesh was at their doorstep, and controlled swathes of territory in both Iraq and Syria.
Now, it is estimated that more than 40 per cent of the Kurdish military is made up of women. Made of predominantly Kurdish women but also Arabs, they are a force to reckon with.
"People ask us whether we are afraid of Daesh. We tell them Daesh is afraid of us," says Newroz, a YPJ fighter from Qamishli, the capital of Rojava. She joined the military six years ago and has fought many battles in Manjib, Raqqa, Ras Al Ayn, Al Hasakah and Hol since 2013.
Ask her why she chose a life of hardship and danger, and Newroz has a ready retort. "I wanted to defend my homeland against Daesh. It was not a difficult choice. I also had to defend women from Daesh and I was willing to give all for it."
Newroz has been wounded many times - in the shoulders, legs and back - and was paralysed "for months" - but she is not backing down. She has returned to the battlefield as Turkish invasions on Kurdish towns in October last year threatened her people. "We fought Daesh. We fought Turks in the past. Now we are fighting them again. They are superior to us because of their air power. It is difficult but we will fight with all our might and keep our morale high."
Helin, 24, another seasoned fighter, says she does not think of herself as a woman when she is fighting. "When you are facing the enemy, it does not matter whether you are a man or woman. There are hardships, but we simply forget them. Our only aim is to destroy the enemy."
These women who have been on the frontlines with Daesh know no fear. They have taken up arms knowing that death is a whiff away. They have willfully embraced martyrdom. "Of course, there is fear that one could get killed. But the biggest fear is our homeland falling into the hands of Daesh; our women and children falling into the hands of jihadis. For us, martyrdom is a blessing. It is a big honour to be carried on the shoulders of your colleagues. We do dream about it with pride. So, we are prepared to fight and not surrender till the last moment," says another YPJ fighter.
It is not just the grit and determination that drives their fighting spirit. Months of arduous training and ideological conditioning fortifies these women from a young age. Hours of physical training teaches them military tactics and warfare while psychological training prepares them against all adverse situations.
Diehard feminist army
Reared in the leftist political and feministic theories of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, the YPG women are diehard feminists whose fight is as much against patriarchy as it is against Daesh. They draw their ideological inspiration from Oclan's books Killing the Male and Liberating Life: Women's Revolution. The fighters are also taught Jineology, Ocalan's famous science of women where he elaborates on female empowerment.
"We are fighting Daesh. But we are also fighting against inequality in our society. Our army symbolises female emancipation. By joining the military and fighting on the frontlines, we declare that we are equal to men," says Meetan, 24, a YPG fighter.
By taking on the traditionally masculine role, many fighters say they earn more respect in the society. "When a woman joins military, she has more respect in others' eyes. Our society is used to looking at women as weak creatures who cannot even carry a brick. She is a slave, expected to stay at home all the time. Now, the same women are carrying heavy weapons like Kalashnikovs and driving tanks. We are breaking the age-old stereotypes," says Helin.
Another female fighter, who heads a YPJ unit and wanted to keep her identity anonymous, says they are happy that Kurdish women are setting an example for the rest of the world.
"The whole world recognises us and understands the importance of women empowerment. Our fight does not end by defeating Daesh. We are willing to reach out to women who need help; we want to help them in their fight against patriarchy. Our commitment is to Rojava and to the cause of every woman."