From Pen to Sword: Kurdish Women Warriors in Syria
In January 2011, I got lost in Qamişlo, the unofficial capital of Rojava (West Kurdistan/northern Syria). I wandered around the streets that all looked alike: broken pavements, small houses side by side with flat roofs, bigger and three-storey high buildings with colourful tiles on the facade, young girls emptying buckets with dirty water from the balconies, old men sitting outside their shops on small chairs, women ardently pushing pink, worn out plastic strollers with their babies in and skinny, dark boys riding blue bikes with colourful ribbons on the steer and buckets of yogurt on the carrier.
I shifted between looking ahead of me to see where I went and looking down so I would not trip on the broken pavement. While walking I noticed there were garbage bins on the corner of the streets. When I realised I was actually looking at green garbage bins, I came to a halt and I had an epiphany: Qamişlo had changed.
The garbage bins held more significance and meaning than they did garbage that day because Qamişlo did not seem to me to be at a stage of development where a clean environment mattered yet; more pressing issues seemed at stake like unemployment, poverty and corruption. A garbage bin might seem insignificant to you, but it was a sign of change to me. I became aware of the many new buildings, shops and restaurants that were shooting up in places that used to be dry and deserted sites. I noticed that the clothes people wore in Qamişlo were no longer 90s fashion but contemporary.
It struck me as a superficial change. Rojava was not free but under the rule of a regime that nurtured the notion of Kurds being either non-existent or seeking to divide Syria. 120,000 Kurds had been stripped of their citizenship in 1962, leaving today around 300,000 Kurds stateless. They were not allowed to travel outside the country; they were arbitrarily arrested to induce feelings of terror and uncertainty and their way through the educational system was impeded. This was and still is the everyday life of Kurds living in Kurdistan under the rule of not just the Syrian but also the Iranian and Turkish government. Massacres, forced assimilation, torture, unsolved killings and disappearances are not only a part of the Kurdish past but also a part of the present. Kurds have a remarkable ability to continue life after the ordeals despite facing ongoing discrimination.
It was mid-July, 2012. I was sitting with my cousin in the hallway of my uncle’s house in Qamişlo. It was after noon; that time of day during the summer where shops close, people take naps, even cockroaches stop whizzing past us on the floor and remain motionless in a corner. I told my cousin that a Kurd had told me the reign of Bashar al-Assad was preferable to the unrest now harrowing Syria. But who is to blame for the unrest, my cousin asked. Who has caused it, who has made it what it is and who can stop it? Only the president can. The country has potential, she said, but the president doesn’t allow Syria to develop. The war is worth it if we get rid of this president. 75 percent of the money profited from farms and oil benefits only 3 percent of the people. They don’t build more universities despite the fact that the number of students rises every year. They also demand a higher grade point average, she continued. The grade of a high school student can be tweaked. If you have rich parents or contacts within the system, your grade can be raised. Rich parents hire teachers who tell the students what is strictly necessary to learn and what will be on the exam. The rich kids get the good education and the good jobs.
Another day, we were again sitting on the floor in the hallway, leaning up against the white wall. The house was quiet and so were we. My cousin was spending her days doing nothing, waiting for the results of her exams to be announced and I joined her in her restless mood. We were playing with our tea glasses, breathing out in an annoyed fashion because we were bored out of our minds. My cousin looked at me and said: If don’t get a high score, I will join the YPG (People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish armed group that defends Rojava) and go to war.
She got a high score. She applied for medical school in Damascus and was accepted after I had gone back home to Denmark. The last I heard was that she still attends lectures. She is not the only one; there are other Kurdish girls who take the dangerous trip to Damascus to study. It does not surprise me. I met these girls who were very ambitious, eager to seize every opportunity of a better life that would come their way. It is a way to gain independence. I do not think it is wrong to say that Kurdish girls or young Kurds in general have had more reason, more motivation to seek independence both in private and public compared to their peers of other nationalities. The history of being part of an oppressed people, discriminated against and killed by regimes in a number of countries has undoubtedly influenced them to achieve independence in whatever form relevant to them; for some it is marriage, for others it is education. Today it is the YPG.
Every Friday at 5 o’clock during my stay in Qamişlo in the summer of 2012, I went to the pro-YPG protests by the mosque. The last Friday of June was dedicated to women. Dressed in the colours of red, yellow and green and playing drums, they were leading the protest. Women, children and men were shouting “jin, jiyan, azadî” meaning “woman, life, freedom.” The voice of famous Kurdish singer Aynur Dogan was blasting through the speakers during the march, singing about the daughters of Kurds being educated and leading the way, telling them to lift their heads and ask “where is our homeland, where is our freedom, where is the mother of us orphans.” Especially one line was striking: “From now, the pen has taken over the place of the sword.”
Only two days earlier, the seniors had completed their last exam in high school and today, these high school graduates were protesting against al-Assad, protesting those who had denied Kurds their rights and those who had been passive and silent in the decade-long discrimination of Kurds. The girls and the young women had put their pens back in the pencil cases.
The girls I used to pass on the street, walking in groups and giggling, the girls I saw leave classrooms with books under their arms are now the girls I recognise in articles I find on Twitter by foreign journalists who are fascinated by these Kurdish women warriors fighting side by side with men against Assad and Islamists.
A reporter from The Daily Beast met a 22-year-old YPG fighter named Delar who said, “There is no difference between women and the guys here. I learn to fight, and they learn to cook […] There is a huge difference between women’s rights in FSA (Free Syrian Army) territory and Kurdish territory. When fighting with Kurds, they respect me first as a human, then as a woman, then as a fighter.”
Reporters Jenan Moussa and Harald Doornbos wrote that at least 40 percent of the YPG fighters are women and that they fight in mixed-gender units at the frontlines.
“These Al Qaida guys go crazy when they hear that we are women fighters,” says Akeed, the YPG commander who leads the Kurds on the front lines of Ras Al Ayn. She notes that the Islamists benefit from thousands of volunteers from Europe and the Middle East, but the imbalance in numbers does not bother her. “Yes, they have quantity,” she says. “But they are lousy fighters. They are unorganised. It is easy for us to kill them.”
There is more than just the search for individual independence that drives Kurdish girls and women to the frontlines. It is collective independence. It is safety. It is the right to speak Kurdish. It is the conviction shared by us all but is more apparent in a state of war: the right to exist. In the nightmare that is Syria where not just the al-Assad regime and his army is the enemy but also foreign fighters and some opposition rebels who share al-Assad’s perception of Kurds, protecting the Kurdish life is imperative. This Kurdish life consists of both men and women and thus the Kurdish armed groups consist of both men and women. The women put their pens back in the pencil cases and are holding the swords in a tight grip at the frontlines.