Women in vanguard of Kurdish battle against IS and Syrian regime

Estimated 10,000 Kurdish women have joined peshmerga in battle

Kurdish women kin Suruc, Turkey, carry the coffin of one of four Kurdish female fighters killed during clashes against Islamic State fighters across the Syrian border in Kobani. Photograph: Umit Bektas/Reuters

Kurdish women kin Suruc, Turkey, carry the coffin of one of four Kurdish female fighters killed during clashes against Islamic State fighters across the Syrian border in Kobani. Photograph: Umit Bektas/Reuters

 

“Ahin” was just 20 years old when she joined the Kurdish peshmerga forces.

She had finished her baccalaureate exams in 2011 when protests against the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad began sweeping north through the country. Ahin, a nom de guerre, immediately joined demonstrations against the regime and within weeks became a member of Kurdish peshmerga, set up to protect communities from Syrian security forces in Kobani.

When regime forces withdrew from Kurdish towns and villages of northern Syria in the summer of 2012, the local communities got what they had craved for so long: an opportunity to govern themselves.

But now, two years on, a new, ghastly menace is at the gates.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring body, has documented 662 deaths in the month- long battle for Kobani between peshmerga and Islamic State (IS) militants. More than a third of those were peshmerga and other Kurdish forces, it said.

Improved

Ahin said the situation in Kobani had improved in recent days, largely a result of at least 12 air strikes by US war planes early this week. On Tuesday, Kurdish fighters retook a strategic hilltop south of the town from where jihadists had been firing mortars and rockets.

For many young Kurdish women, picking up a gun to defend the territories they see as Kurdistan is a rite of passage. “The first reason I joined the peshmerga is, like all Kurdish women, I wanted to be in the revolution,” she told The Irish Times in a phone interview this week from the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli in northeast Syria. Ahin’s family, she says, has remained in Kobani.

More than 10,000 women are fighting among peshmerga forces in northern Syria, about half the overall number, she says, though other reports suggest women make up around one-third of the total.

Regardless, women fighters make up a critical force in the battle to stave off the macabre IS jihadists bent on establishing a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and massacring anyone who gets in the way of that.

For the women fighters, the emergence of IS, which sees the women in society through a primitive viewpoint, is anathema. “Syrian Kurdish women are revolutionary women. Daish [IS] hate women, so we hate them just as much,” Ahin says.

The advance of IS jihadists into Syrian territory in July led to the adoption of a law by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, the political wing of the women’s protection units, to conscript 18- to 30-year-olds for six months. Women were precluded, but continue to fight as volunteers.

“I’m representing all women; I’m defending my people. As a Kurdish woman, our situation is different from Arab women. Because of the male dictatorship, women should support each other in a respectful way to defend their land,” she says.

Ahin says the peshmerga forces in Kobani need “anything we can get” in terms of equipment and support. “Daish is bigger than us, better equipped; they have more tanks, weapons. Daish is stronger than the [Syrian] regime.”

Symbolic operations

Women fighters have carried out some of the most symbolic operations in defence of Kobani. In one case, a 20-year-old mother of two, Dilar Gencxemis, reportedly killed herself and 23 Islamic State militants this month when she ran towards the jihadists and triggered a grenade. Ahin says she has lost around 20 family members and friends in the war.

Ceasefire risk

Claims that Turkish jets bombed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) positions in the southeast of the country early this week have rattled Kurds in Turkey and put at risk an 18- month-old ceasefire between the PKK and Ankara.

Kurds were already enraged by Turkish border guards’ refusal to allow them into Syria to help their brethren in Kobani – a battle they are witnessing from nearby fields in Turkey.

Kurds in Turkey are increasingly divided into a secular camp, led by the PKK, and Islamists supportive of the ruling AK Party, who see no role for Kurdish women in war. Many among the three dozen people killed in clashes in southeast Turkey this month were victims of Kurd-on-Kurd violence.

But even as Syria falls ever further apart, Ahin still talks of revolt against both the Assad regime and IS.

“We are still in a revolution. This is a revolution for the people, for every person, for a hopeful future,” she said. “We believe in our faith, that our will will overcome.”

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