The Revolutionary Women’s Army of Rojava



In order to exist as a sovereign territory, Rojava has to face the multiple fronts imposed by national and international forces from Syria and Turkey, while building a new societal model. Dilar Dirik gives us a first-hand account on Rojava’s Protection Units, in particular the YPJ, formed solely by women.

In the era of capitalist nation-states and transnational military-industrial alliances, any form of violent resistance against exploitation and oppression is framed as dangerous to the established order. Picking up a stone against the state, its police, and its armies is seen as a threat to the authoritarian status quo. Knowledge produced with the purpose of questioning infrastructures of state violence and injustice is often labelled as morally questionable at best or potentially terrorist at worst. When privileged classes, including left liberals, dismiss the option of violent resistance against fascism as being ‘just as bad’ as the original injustice that disrupted the lives of the oppressed, one must tackle the ideological roots of the backdrop behind which violence in the hands of state systems is justified. 

In 2014, the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS) made global headlines as a non-state army with a willingness to use brutality and systematic genocidal and sexual violence as a tool of warfare and propaganda. Although the state forces that collectively make up the international anti-ISIS Coalition since 2014 have tried to claim most of the credit for the territorial defeat of ISIS in 2019, those who initiated and led the eventually victorious fight against the group were the native local communities on the ground. Rojavayê Kurdistanê (western Kurdistan), more commonly called Rojava, is the majority Kurdish territory in northern Syria that led the resistance against ISIS and similar groups years before any international military coalition was even formed. Moreover, the region, with its self-declared revolution ongoing since 2012, also recently contributed to reviving discussions within the left around revolutionary violence.

Although the Kurdish liberation movement and the United States with its allies tactically engaged in a military cooperation against ISIS due to their temporarily common interests, each side started writing different histories of the war. Over a period of five years, U.S. officials and mainstream outlets have ideologically constructed a narrative that downplays the explicitly revolutionary theory and practice that motivated the struggle against ISIS on the ground, pioneered by a socialist people’s movement that has been waging a war on capitalism, imperialism and patriarchy for decades. On the one hand, countries with imperialist and colonialist legacies, who had caused most of the chaos, violence and devastation in the Middle East region for the past decades tried to claim moral and military victory against ISIS with Western-centric, statist references to perceived value systems. Meanwhile, the autonomous women’s army YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) for instance declared the liberation of Raqqa from ISIS in front of a large banner of imprisoned Kurdish thinker and political leader Abdullah Öcalan, who writes that the paradigm for 21st century socialism is ecology, radical democracy and women’s liberation through struggle against state, patriarchy and capitalism. Thus, although the U.S.-led Coalition capitalized on the sacrifices on the ground, it was deeply disturbed by the thought of legitimizing a just violence that is not controlled by capitalist nation-states or their economic and political systems.

In this paradoxical context, mainstream commentators have sometimes compared the resistance forces of Rojava to ISIS, by referring to both their sacrificial willingness to fight to death, which has ideological commitment and international appeal. In a pseudo-liberalist fashion, deprived of a meaningful moral compass, this sort of assessment explicitly equates the unholy death cult of ISIS with people’s commitment to defend their local communities and cultures from conquest, rape and occupation. Such analyses are acceptable today because in the age of modern state armies and capitalist nation-states, all ideology that challenges the assumptions that the entire statist ruling system is built upon must be portrayed as two sides of the same coin, regardless of their differences. 

The fear of violence outside of the hands of ruling states is deeply rooted in colonial history. Although many tend to focus on Martinican anti-colonial psychiatrist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon’s theses on violence in the context of decolonization, other parts of his book The Wretched of the Earth (1961), emphasize the importance of autonomous paradigms, frameworks, and terms to overcome the colonial order in its totality without falling into the trap of meaningless nationalism. In the Kurdish liberation movement around the ideological leadership of Abdullah Öcalan, self-defense plays a significant role in the struggle for self-determination, both in theory and practice. 

Dirik Funambulist (1)
YPJ fighter parade in 2016.

Self-defense is an integral part of the Kurdish liberation movement’s political project of building Democratic Confederalism. It is understood as a natural necessity for communal survival and analysed as having been taken away from communities and especially women with the rise of the state around 5,000 years ago. The movement draws on ancient Mesopotamian history for its argument for an alternative system of defense, by connecting the rise of economic monopolies, official armies, administrative bureaucracies, and male-dominated ideological worldviews with one another. Qualitatively, people’s self-defense must differ from statist security paradigms in that their primary aim is to protect life from extinction. This in turn means that resistance to cultural assimilation, ecocide and patriarchal violence are essential pillars of self-defense. In the work of the movement, especially in Öcalan’s writings, self-defense is the ethical duty and practice of preserving, creating and asserting the self against violence, assimilation and denial, whether in the realm of mentality or materiality. Therefore, defending oneself also means establishing autonomous knowledge systems, ecological perspectives and of course militant self-defense units to protect the self from alienation. Thus, only with political consciousness and ethical, foresighted action, violence can play a meaningful role for liberation. For women to reclaim the means of protection from the hands of men, armies, and states, autonomous self-organization, informed by feminist revolutionary ethics and aesthetics is seen as a vital need.

In this sense, the Kurdish liberation movement’s understanding of self-defense, which is explicitly committed to changing and transforming society through direct action, autonomous politics and economy and active struggle against societal patriarchy, stands in contradiction to some of the practices that prevail in the left such as the creation of safe havens of autonomy outside of the capitalist state system. Although such spaces (whether temporarily created in the context of festivals, events, gatherings, and political cooperation, or permanently established in physical places in the form of occupations, squats, and living co-ops) constitute meaningful social, ecological and cultural sites of alternative lives outside of exploitative systems, they do not necessarily change social conditions. 

Dirik Funambulist (3)'
YPJ fighters in Rojava (August 2015). / Photo by BijiKurdistan.

Unlike the other three parts of Kurdistan, Rojava did not have a history of armed struggle until the beginning of the war in Syria. This does not however mean that people from this smallest part of Kurdistan did not have any experience with fighting. With the arrival of the leader and cadres of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria in 1979, hundreds of women and men started to join the revolutionary party in its fight against the colonization of Kurdistan. After training with Palestinian, Armenian and other revolutionaries in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon in the early 1980s, the organization eventually began its guerrilla warfare against the Turkish state, which is currently the second largest army of NATO. With the escalation of the war against the Turkish state after the mid-1980s and especially the 1990s, many young people from Rojava died fighting as guerrillas in the battles. Therefore, similar to many other Kurdish family homes, images of women and men walking with rifles through the mountains of Kurdistan decorated the walls of the impoverished community of Rojava. The children, who grew up with these impressions, formed the first military units under the People’s Self-Defence Units (YXG) at the beginning of the war in Syria in 2011. Ever since, a complex web of self-defense structures have been build up. While the Syrian Democratic Forces consist mainly of Kurds and Arabs, there are also autonomous armies of Christian groups such as Suryoye and Armenians, as well as several battalions of internationals and revolutionary groups. Apart from the self-defense armies that were built with the aim of defending the region from outside attacks, local internal security elements were formed by training local women and men, who protect their neighborhoods on a rotating basis.

International media falsely portrayed women’s militancy in Kurdistan as an abnormal phenomenon that emerged out of a reaction to ISIS’ explicit use of sexual violence as a tool of war as part of its ideology, although in reality, Kurdish women’s widespread participation in armed struggles is several decades old. In fact, their autonomous organization as women in militant self-defence structures began in the early 1990s in the PKK guerrilla. Among the first pictures emerging from the declaration of the Rojava revolution in the summer of 2012 were women with AK-47s, securing the area after the withdrawal of the Bashar al-Assad regime from the majority Kurdish areas. Women took part in the earliest battles against the al-Nusra front and Free Syrian Army (FSA) sections in 2012, which constituted the first time that Kurdish women became commanders of city wars. Units were created in each city, and once there were enough numbers, the first women-only battalions were established in 2013. Following a conference in the spring of 2013, the YPJ were established as an autonomous army.

Among the first tasks of the autonomous women’s army was to build educational academies to train fighters in political literacy, women’s struggle history and understanding of self-defense. From its foundation, the YPJ stressed that their struggle was not merely to defend lands from occupation and violence, but to promote a women’s notion of self-defense against the mentality of patriarchy and state. The political education of the YPJ communicates to its members the connections between the creation of the first armies under the archaic state-formations in Sumer and their mission for women’s liberation as the guarantor of revolution in the 21st century. Since the first armies were means to undermine society, the YPJ understands itself as revenging the 5,000 year-old history of women’s enslavement in the region. In the words of YPJ commander Meryem Kobanê: “The YPJ was created to live freely, to liberate our bodies, our personalities from all form of slavery. In this sense, the YPJ is a movement of love in a geography where love was killed.” 

The atmosphere of disorder at the beginning of the war partially expressed itself in the increase of violence against women. Women’s internal security structures were formed in 2012 after the regime forces were expelled to intervene in cases of violence against women, or to act in cases when gendered cultural sensitivities are required. Women are also part of the general security systems. The greatest problem they faced at the beginning was a general lack of faith in women’s abilities to provide order and security, in addition to people taboo-izing domestic violence. Over time, their visibility and ability to deliver resulted in a wide acceptance of their role as bearers of responsibility. 

Alongside a mixture of armies and battalions in the context of an unrecognized self-governance that is constantly under threat of attacks by states such as Turkey or the Syrian regime, an extensive interplay of accountability mechanisms such as criticism/self-criticism, report writing, and open discussion platforms within self-defense structures are accompanied by frequent restructurings of existing organizational systems and working formats. The idea is that a revolutionary system cannot be set in stone via bureaucratic blueprints, if its primary purpose is to serve the people and enable radical democratic forms of culture, organization and political expression. As a matter of principle, in order to reduce the already severely militarized situation of the region, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and YPJ are mostly out of sight from the people in their daily lives; it is the internal security officers’ behavior that sticks out and communicates the state of security in the towns. Their conduct (speech, body language, cultural sensitivity, etc.) is crucial for an alternative concept of security, which is a frequently discussed theme in their military, ideological, and political education. 

Dirik Funambulist (2)
Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) in a parade together in 2016.

All around the region of Rojava and beyond, in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, the faces of revolutionary martyrs paint the billboards, walls and squares. Groups of martyrs are often also displayed on large entrance signs to their hometowns. Arabs, Kurds, Suryoye, Turkmen, Circassians, Armenians, and internationalist fighters are buried alongside each other. On television and in the printed press, the individual stories of fallen fighters are told through their friends and families. Street names, buildings, cultural institutions, educational sessions are named after those who died fighting to protect the area. New fighters take up nom-de-guerre after the people, who inspired them, but did not live long enough to keep their names. After the sacrificial death of Arîn Mîrkan, whose action turned the tide of the war in Kobane against ISIS in 2014, many families in the four parts of Kurdistan as well as in the diaspora named their newborn daughters after her. Vast martyrs’ graveyards are regularly visited by large gatherings on many occasions throughout the year in the region. The graves of those whose families don’t live close enough to look after them are collectively maintained by local people. No flower is left to dry in these cemeteries.

Nationalism thrives on cultures of death that glorify the nation at the expense of the individuals, who are sacrificed for the sake of the ruling states. However, establishing a culture of co-existence and democracy must come through celebrating life. Contexts of war invite authoritarianism and power lust to take root, and yet, without the use of violence, entire communities could have been wiped off the face of the earth by now due to the short-lived, but genocidal rule of ISIS. With more than 11,000 people killed in the five-year long war against ISIS, the region has written a history both of trauma and violence, as well as of resistance and solidarity.