Turkey is bent on extinguishing a beacon of women’s liberation in northern Syria. But the women of Rojava are not giving up, writes Dilar Dirik.

Women in Qamishlo, the de-facto capital of Rojava, protest against a Turkish-Russian deal that threatens them and the gains of their revolution. Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty

Early every day, Ilham, a Kurdish woman in her sixties, gets up to make her way to her Mala Jin – or Women’s House – in the Northern Syrian city of Qamishlo (aka Qamishli). There, with colleagues ranging from teenage girls to women her age, she tries to help resolve issues raised by women in her district.

Among these are domestic violence and so-called ‘honour killings’. The Mala Jin helps women to leave abusive partners, supports economic independence and organizes against sexism and violence in the community.

Ilham listens and follows up on individual cases by visiting the women who have confided in her. Since the establishment of the first Mala Jin in 2012, the women’s movement has spread them to villages and cities. They are considered among the most efficient institutions addressing women’s social issues and are one reason people refer to achievements in this region as ‘a women’s revolution’.

Women have almost disappeared from the public sphere

Long before the US-led coalition against ISIS was formed, Kurdish women were at the forefront of the war against ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates in Northern Syria – an area the Kurds call Rojava or Western Kurdistan.

In 2013, women formed the autonomous Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), which alongside their male counterpart, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and other units, would make up the Syrian Democratic Forces which in 2019 ended ISIS’s territorial control.

The women fighters have always been clear that they are the self-defence force of a wider emancipatory project, a social revolution with women’s liberation at the heart of the struggle for a free society.

Since July 2012, the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria has taken remarkable steps towards establishing women’s rights in all spheres of life. Its legal documents enshrine gender equality and tackling violence against women as core principles.

In all parts of the self-governed administration, a system of co-presidency is implemented, whereby one woman and one man share power and responsibility equally. Women are chief political negotiators on behalf of their region. There are many grassroots women’s communes, assemblies, co-operatives and academies.

But all these are under attack from Turkish military operations in Northern Syria.

‘Olive Branch’ and ‘Peace Spring’

For years, the Erdoğan government in Turkey has insisted that there is no difference between ISIS and the majority Kurdish self-governance system of Rojava. Both are seen as terrorist threats to Turkish national security. Turkey launched two major military operations with the aim of occupying these regions: ‘Olive Branch’ in Afrin in January 2018 and ‘Peace Spring’ in the border area between Serêkaniyê (Ras al-Ain) and Girê Spî (Tel Abyad) in October 2019.

The Turkish army, the second largest in NATO, is aided by its proxy forces which it calls the ‘Syrian National Army’. This is a union of battalions with radical Islamist ideologies, trained, armed and funded by Turkey.

What all the aggressors have in common is a sexist mentality and desire to break women’s free will

Organizations such as Amnesty International have documented the war crimes and human rights abuses committed by Turkey and its allies in Afrin.

Shortly after launching Peace Spring last autumn, President Erdoğan used the language of ethnic cleansing, saying that the areas he considered part of his ‘security zone’ were ‘not suitable for the lifestyle of Kurds’ but for that of Arabs. As in Afrin the previous year, Turkey plans to dilute and displace the Kurdish population and settle Arabs into the area.

Human rights reports on Turkey’s ‘Peace Spring’ campaign confirm large-scale and systematic murder, assault, kidnapping, pillaging and forced displacement – consistent with the war crimes and human rights abuses documented in Afrin. According to numbers provided by the UN, 100,000 people were already displaced two days into the operation. The number doubled within two weeks.

From the ground, the Rojava Information Center documents the impact of the Turkish invasions on the ongoing struggle against ISIS sleeper cells. Their findings demonstrate that ISIS has been significantly empowered by the Turkish onslaught, its prisoners able to flee and regroup.

Kidnapped, tortured and murdered

I last visited the region shortly after the Turkish invasion of Afrin in the spring of 2018. At the Manbij Women’s Assembly, ethnic Turkmen, Arab, Circassian and Kurdish women, who had lived under ISIS for years, spoke about their new projects to transform their communities and end violence against women.

One Turkmen, a teacher, who had witnessed public executions, stressed that any Turkish invasion would harm community co-existence efforts and result in ethnic and religious violence. Her worries were confirmed a year later.

For women, Turkish-occupied places like Afrin, where the YPJ was first formed, are no longer recognizable. Extremist ideologies and forced conversion are imposed on non-Muslim communities such as Yazidis. Women have almost disappeared from the public sphere. Every single women’s structure and organization created since 2012 has been dissolved by the occupation. Data produced by researcher Meghan Bodette, and seen by New Internationalist, documents dozens of women being tortured and kidnapped for ransom.

A report by the Independent International Commission of the Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic states that ‘by targeting almost every aspect of Kurdish women’s lives in the Afrin District, and – progressively – in areas affected by Operation Peace Spring – armed groups generated palpable fear of violence and duress among the female Kurdish population’.

One of the documented atrocities in the Turkish state’s invasion of Afrin was the mutilation of the body of YPJ fighter Barin Kobane, whose dead body was filmed exposed, violated and dragged along the ground, surrounded by extremists. Similarly, the corpse of YPJ fighter Amara Renas was filmed being abused by Turkey’s proxy forces. Three days into the Peace Spring invasion, Hevrin Khalaf, a young women’s activist and leader of the Syrian Future Party, was dragged out of her vehicle, tortured and murdered by Ahrar al-Sharqiyah, one of the extremist forces within the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, according to an investigative report by BBC Arabic. Execution-style killings and sexualized torture of female Kurdish combatants have been compared to the methods employed by ISIS in the past, but they have a long history in the Turkish army as well.

Sosin Qamishlo, member of the military council of the Jazeera region and media spokesperson of YPJ, told me: ‘In our eyes, ISIS and the Turkish state are occupation forces that share the same method and logic. By consciously targeting women in particular, the Turkish state and its mercenaries use the same methods as ISIS to break the resistance of women.

‘The ways in which Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Syriacs, Assyrians and Turkmen in the region started organizing themselves is a thorn in the side of both ISIS and the Turkish state.’

Calling all women!

Evîn Swed, spokesperson of Kongreya Star, the umbrella organization for the women’s movement in Rojava, reports that although their structures have been destroyed in the Turkish-occupied areas, activists have continued their autonomous women’s organizing as internally displaced people in nearby cities and refugee camps.

‘Accepting the occupation is not an option,’ she says. ‘For the past nine years, this region and the different communities living in it have resisted all sorts of attacks and violence, including plans to forcibly displace them.’

Evîn compares the mentality and methods employed by the Turkish invasion to the patriarchal nature of the violence of ISIS, citing cases of systematic rape, sexual assault, murder, child marriage and forced marriage. ‘What all [the aggressors] have in common is a sexist mentality and desire to break women’s free will.’

According to Evîn, women who are still in these regions and are known for their work with Kongreya Star and affiliated structures are threatened and assaulted.

The coronavirus pandemic currently aggravates the pre-existing humanitarian crisis caused by the Turkish military campaigns. Alouk water station, located in Serêkaniyê, was seized by Turkey and its allies and is now used to cut off the water supply to the Kurdish regions. According to a statement issued by Human Rights Watch in April 2020, these measures restrict water for at least 460,000 people in the al-Hasakeh governorate, which hosts tens of thousands of internal refugees as well as ISIS prisoners. Earlier this spring, Turkey began bombing the region of Shehba (aka Shahba), home to the displaced population of Afrin.

Despite the odds stacked against it, the women’s movement is determined to continue the struggle. In response to the Turkish invasions, hundreds of thousands of women from the different communities in Northern Syria have taken to the streets. On the International Day against Violence against Women, all the women’s organizations in Northern Syria organized large rallies across the region with the slogan ‘Occupation is Violence’. These local actions were echoed by feminist actions around the world under the campaign ‘Women Defend Rojava’.

‘Day and night, we engage in efforts to struggle against the occupation,’ Evîn says. ‘Our aim is for these areas to be liberated and for our people to see a dignified return. Both things must be led by the organized, free woman.’

Similarly, Sosin reaffirms the determination of the YPJ: ‘The occupiers’ sexist mentality thinks that brutalizing women will pacify the population, but we see that the opposite is happening. As the YPJ, but more generally, as the women’s movement in North and East Syria, we are more determined than ever to struggle against occupation. We call on women around the world to stand with the women’s revolution. As the YPJ, we will hold the occupiers to account through resistance. Resistance is life.’