Women’s Protection Units and the spread of Egalitarian Ideals in the Middle East

Photograph: 'Syria, Aleppo' IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation

For over eight years the Syrian Civil War has engulfed the country and now has escalated into a Middle-Eastern Cold War. Beginning with internal factions, it has now progressed to the point where major international powers, such as Russia, the U.S.A, Iran and more, are currently involved. From this, the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) has been a major combatant against the conflict with Islamic State (IS). The DFNS territory consists of several states that act as an autonomous region in Northern Syria. Of the branches of the DFNS armed forces, the Women’s Protection Unit’s (YPJ) have caught the attention of both the national and international press with its female fighters pushing against the militant IS forces with regards to both territory and ideology. However, these women not only symbolise the ideological differences of IS but how the beliefs of the DFNS are at odds with Bashar al-Assad’s regime as well.

The YPJ is another branch of the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), the primary component of the DFNS armed forces. Unlike, for example, the female Soviet Soldiers fighting in the Second World War, the YPJ operates separately from the Syrian government and is under the jurisdiction of the DFNS. Made up of a conglomeration of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians (and to a lesser extent Circassian’s and foreign volunteers) the YPJ has been battling IS since its formation in 2013. Although female military personnel did exist beforehand within the YPG, it wasn’t until March 2013 when an official organisation for female volunteers was set up. Numbers grew to 7000 in late 2014 and continued growing to 24,000 by March 2017. Compare these numbers to the decreasing Syrian Armed Forces having gone from over 200,000 in 2011 to just over 100,000 in 2014. Motivations differ for the members of the YPJ, ranging from nationalism, feminism (ideological belief) to the vengeful motivations of soldiers who have seen their family and loved ones suffer from the terror of IS.

As a semi-separate entity from the Syrian Government, the DFNS spread an ideological principal of Democratic Confederalism. Feminism stands as one of the central pillars, as the ideology is based on egalitarian principles. Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the ideology, said that the “achievement of freedom and equality for women means the establishment of freedom and equality for the society”. The idea being that a democratic society such as that of the DFNS cannot coexist with those policies that marginalise women such as IS implements within its territories. The YPJ have released a number of videos on the internet raising awareness and support for their cause. The YPJ forces in the video, state that it is not just a battle for territory, but also a battle for ideals, fighting for ideas of gender and as well as for Kurdish values. Volunteers even undergo compulsory training in military tactics and the political theories of Abdullah Ocalan.

The most reported battle involving the YPJ was the siege of Kobane where the YPJ made up a considerable number of the fighters during the battle against IS. One YPJ Commander who took part in Kobane said in an interview, “They will not enter any part in the city without passing over our corpses“. The combatants received aid from the United States during the conflict and continue to do so today. As the death toll mounts, much like with the Iran-Iraq War, the idea of martyrdom plays a heavy role within the YPJ/YPG motivations and ideology.

Other pro-Kurdish independence movements, such as the Kurdistan Workers Party, are considered terrorist organisations in Turkey. With the on-going struggle for Kurdish independence/autonomy in many other countries that surround Syria, many flock to the DFNS banner. The situation is made even more complicated as the cities that have liberated by the DFNS armed forces are subject to Kurdish ideals and ideology. Currently, the YPJ symbolise the possible egalitarian democracy that might yet emerge from Northern Syria.

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FranklyMrShankly 2 Articles
Daniel Harper is a recent graduate from Aberystwyth University. Having spent half a year teaching in South America and being engrossed in the politics and culture of Latin America and Europe he carries a personal perspective to each article he writes. With a deep facsination in women's rights and feminisim in the Middle-East and around the world, Daniel takes Journalistic integrity seriously and reviews and researches each topic with great care and seriousness.

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