(For more stories on the continuing fight against ISIS in Syria, buy the latest issue of THE WEEK, dated January 19, 2020)
Clad in khaki jumpsuits, bandoleer belts tied around their chest and long rifles in their hands, they are the icons of unparalleled bravery. They are the antidote to wipe out the evil of a death cult that began casting its shadow in the Middle East. In the past five years, they were in the front lines fighting the unfathomable evil of the world, ISIS. They are champions and role models who set out a silent revolution after the outbreak of Rojava revolution in 2012. They are the women fighters of the Kurdish Militia or the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), popularly known as Yekineyen Parastina Gel or the YPG.
“For an ISIS militant, one of the worst things is being killed in the battlefield, that too by a woman. They believed that they would directly go to hell if killed by a woman. For me, I was the happiest woman, as I could send a few men to hell,” tells 19-year-old Sterek Judhi. Sterek believes that she had sent at least six men to hell when she was on the front lines fighting the ISIS in the areas of Manbij, Serekaniye, Hasakah and Hol.
Pale and frail, Sterek is one of the fighters with the all-female branch of the YPG. Sterek in Kurdish means star and she is proud that she is one of the shining stars among the female fighters. Sterek belongs to the Women’s Protection Units, the female Militia known as the YPJ that helped secure Rojava, the de facto autonomous region in Kurdish Syria, which is now targeted by Turkey.
Established in 2013, the unit is comprised mainly of the ethnic Kurds who have fought alongside the male People’s Protection Units (the YPG) in the Syrian Democratic Forces. The all-female branch of the YPG comprises at least 10,000 women in the age group of 18 and 25 old. Influenced by the Marxist-Leninist thought of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish women have been in the forefront during many of the political and military struggles in the Kurdish-dominated regions of Syria and Iraq.
They have been part of the Kurdish Militia, since the foundation of the PKK in 1978. They played an integral role in the liberation movement as guerillas, activists and politicians and have also contributed in a big way during the Rojava revolution in 2012. The Kurdish Military was formed in 2011, only to defend Rojava during Syria’s civil war.
In fact, during the fight with ISIS, women from the Kurdish Militia or the YPG fighters were on the front lines. And eight years down the line, after it was formed, the women comprise 40 per cent of the Kurdish military and it is hierarchically independent from the men’s unit. When Sterek joined the Kurdish Militia as a 13-year-old, she faced strong opposition from her family. Her father, who retired from the military, her mother, her four brothers and five sisters opposed her decision. Hailing from Derek in Syria, Sterek was inspired seeing the Rojava revolution. Though the Kurdish women are relatively progressive, she felt the society at large is still conservative. “I wanted to be independent. I am happy being here. I make close to $200, which is more than enough,” tells Sterek.
Sterek shares a very good understanding with her co-fighters in the same battalion, Danish Roj (19) from Al Roj from Ter Besbe and Beritan Qamishlo (20) from Qamishili.
While Danish has just finished her military training, Sterek has been to the front lines, killing several ISIS men. “When in the battlefield, our concentration will be very high. That’s the training given to us,” tells Danish Roj. In the Kurdish Militia, once a woman joins, she is taught military tactics and studies the political theories put out by Ocalan, who has been imprisoned in Turkey since 1999. Ocalan’s books like Killing the Male and Liberating Life: Women’s Revolution are also considered during the theory classes. Ocalan, according to Sterek and the other girls, emphasised gender equality.
For Sterek, when she joined at the age of 13, she was in the military school undergoing training and studying the political theory. “We are given full-fledged military training only after we turn 18,” she says. She was trained for over two months and then she went straight to the battlefield to fight.
Whichever part of Syria or Turkey they come from, once the girls come to join the YPG, they are given intensive training: They have only six hours of sleep a day and they go out walking and marching inside the battalion grounds at 4am in the morning.
The training begins at 4am every day only to continue with the theory classes and they learn everything from marching, how to shoot, take care of their guns and staying strong on the front lines. One part of the training is to make sure that the girls stay psychologically strong, so that they don’t sit back when their friends or co-fighters are killed on the front line.
The women in the YPG take pride in talking about Ocalan’s science of women, referred to as Jineology. Jineology is taught in almost all the Kurdish community centres in Syria and Turkey, where a woman can go to learn about female emancipation and self-defence. These Jineology centres also assist female victims if they go through any domestic abuse.
“These centres help the women understand that we need not accept everything in a patriarchal society. Kurdish women are still subordinate to men,” Sterek points out. Sterek feels women are not just equal to men but are different at the same time. She is particular that she sports her red-and-black scarf around her head like a turban, every day when she is out with her machine guns and bullets.
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“I am proud to be a soldier. I had two options: Stay at home and wait for ISIS to come or protect my family, my people and Rojava by joining the YPJ,” says Beritan Qamishlo, an Kurdish woman fighter. A soft-spoken person, Qamishlo is glad that she chose the latter option to protect Rojava. Qamishlo, who had been to the front lines, is a passionate fighter on the battlefield. She wasn’t forced by her family, she says. Rather her parents did not want her to join the Militia, fearing that she might get killed one day while fighting. But Qamishlo is a determined woman.
“We women have single-handedly killed at least 100 ISIS fighters during the final stages of the fighting. In Koban, when the ISIS moved to the front lines, 40 percent of the fighting force were Kurdish women,” she declares.