It has been more than two years since the barbaric reign of ISIS in northern Syria came to an end. And as Turkey, Russia, and Syria now battle for control there, one group can do little but wait for the outcome of that ongoing war: the fierce fighters of the the Women’s Protection Units or YPJ, the all-female mostly Kurdish militia who were among the courageous soldiers to take up arms against the Islamic state.
The YPJ joined alongside the anti-regime Syrian Democratic Forces in the midst of Syria’s civil war to promote equality, democracy, and freedom for women in the Middle East. Progressive by most standards and singular in the region, the YPJ is made up of Kurdish women, Arab women, Turkish women, Armenian women, and Syrian women- all with varied religions, languages, and cultures-who came together to fight alongside men to bring down ISIS. Together, these women vanquished terrorists, liberated towns, and promoted the belief that the progressiveness of a culture can be measured by the place women hold in it. The women of the YPJ chose a life without husbands, without children, and without a family. They are loyal only to the mission of the YPJ: to promote and advance a women’s revolution.
A senior commander and spokeswoman for the YPJ is Nesrin Abdullah, a 41-year-old Kurdish woman, a member of the region’s largest ethnic minority, historically oppressed and stateless. She began organizing the YPJ in 2011 and formally announced the movement in April, 2013. The movement Commander Abdullah birthed grew to be 24-thousand strong and hundreds of its female fighters were killed fighting ISIS, including during the six-month siege to liberate the Syrian city of Kobane in 2015. Commander Abdullah was on the frontlines of the battle, winning local and international recognition for her courage in taking on terrorists, jihadists, and Islamic factions. The YPJ went on to liberate more than 50,000km of Syrian territory from ISIS and Commander Abdullah told Women in the World, “with each woman we liberated, we felt that we had liberated an entire nation.”
The YPJ’s slogan is “Know yourself, protect yourself” and its fight for freedom, gender equality, and social justice is not just on the battlefield, but across all aspects of society. Men and women have equal representation in the councils that govern the region. One of the YPJ’s strategic goals is to abolish societies built around masculine systems that consider women weak, without determination or will, and whose only mission is to have women be wives and mothers. The YPJ academies teach their pupils about the “science of women,” also known as Jineology, which is a form of feminism advocated by the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party Abdullah Öcalan.
U.S. President Trump’s October 2019 order to withdraw American forces from Syria was devastating for the YPJ and all the Kurdish militias who fought alongside U.S. troops against ISIS. In the time since, Commander Abdullah has seen the massive displacement of civilians in the region, which is now vulnerable to new attacks from terrorist organizations and invading Turkish forces. Schools once full of young students have been converted into shelters for the internally displaced.
Commander Abdullah continues to lead the YPJ even as the region faces a new enemy: the coronavirus pandemic. Refugees and internally displaced people in northern Syria are particularly vulnerable to the virus because they often lack basic medical care, raising fears of a new disaster if the virus spreads through a refugee camp or a camp housing Islamic State detainees.
But Commander Abdullah is undeterred. And earlier this month, on International Women’s Day, she recorded a message, reiterating the YPJ’s promise to protect women in their mission to build a more democratic, just, and equal world.
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