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24 Jan 2018 2:56
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  •   Home > News > International

    How women in northern Syria won freedom in a region ravaged by Islamic State

    Lilwa Ebdullah knew she was going against tribal rules, but now she is part of a movement of women who have helped their country defeat Islamic State. But once the fight is over, will women keep their freedom?


    Lilwa Ebdullah knew she was going against tribal rules, but now she is part of a movement of women who have helped their country defeat Islamic State. But once the fight is over, will women keep their freedom?

    Every day, 24-year old Lilwa Ebdullah, dressed in her military uniform, carries her chest rig and weapon to work — the last frontline in the battle against Islamic State.

    Not long ago, she was planning her wedding. A year later, the young Arab wife joined the military resistance and is now a spokesperson for the Kurd-led forces kicking IS out of their last major stronghold — her hometown of Deir ez-Zor.

    "I knew I was breaking traditional barriers and going against tribal rules, yet I believed in liberating my hometown," she says.

    Like many young women in Northern Syria, Lilwa has taken the war into her own hands and joined the Kurdish Women Protection Units (YPJ).

    Whether they are Kurdish, Arabic, Turkmen or Assyrian, women of North Syria who join the YPJ feel freedom in the all-female military units, says Lilwa.

    "It's a new way of life for us, it's a democratic way of life for women. A way to liberate women who grew up in a male-dominated society."

    Why do Kurds control north-east Syria?

    Syria's Kurds gained control of the north-east of the country during the civil war as Assad's government forces withdrew.

    After making gains against Islamic jihadis in 2013, they announced "self-rule" over the territory they control in the northeast of the country. They took over all government and civil institutions in the region, implementing governance based on local, grassroots democracy. The area is known by Kurds as "Rojava".

    As conflict with IS spread from Kurd-dominated areas to Arab-majority cities, thousands of Arabs joined the Kurdish militias, with further backing from the United States.

    Shifting attitudes

    As the YPJ's female soldiers have helped drive IS out of Northern Syria, local attitudes towards them have shifted.

    "As more and more women deliver victory over the enemy, parents are believing that women can step outside their traditional roles," says policewoman Suzdil Othman from the Kurdish-majority city Amuda.

    The shift in attitudes can be seen even in conservative, Arab-majority cities. Manbij was wrested from IS in 2016. Now, many of its Arab women have joined the police and army forces to protect their hard-won freedom.

    Even in Raqqa, the city that was IS's self-declared "capital", residents are relinquishing old attitudes.

    "IS fighters were telling people that the Kurds have no ethics and use women to fight with them. But the residents of Raqqa City came to find them to be very ethical and respectable," says Muahemd Jaltif, a resistance fighter.

    Amara's life after IS

    Seventeen-year old Amara managed to flee Raqqa with her family a few months ago.

    "We've lived under ISIS control for over three years and women especially have suffered from their strict rules," she says.

    Raqqa was already a conservative city where families wed their daughters to their cousins and polygamy was rife. But IS made things worse — the women in Amara's family couldn't leave the house without being chaperoned by male relatives.

    "I decided to join the YPJ when I saw Arab women from different cities coming to fight for their freedom. We've all suffered from our tribal societies that don't give women enough freedom."

    During her military training, Amara heard of many women who died fighting. The women she speaks of are Syria's "shahid" figures — the Arabic and Kurdish word for "martyr". Perhaps the most famous is Arin Mirkan, a Kurdish fighter who blew herself up in the battle for Kobani along with some IS fighters, rather than surrendering to them.

    Photos of these martyrs decorate the streets of Northern Syria — the merging of feminism and military resistance is hard to miss.

    The 'science of women'

    The biggest inspiration for the female fighters of the YPJ may be the founder of the Kurdish independence movement Abdullah Ocalan, who has been jailed in Turkey since 1999.

    His philosophy of gender equality is called "Jineology" or "the science of women". It is one of the governing ideologies of the now-autonomous Northern Syria.

    Quotes from Ocalan, like "No country can be free unless its women are free", are written on walls across northern Syria.

    Today, power is equally divided between women and men in Rojava. In the new Kurd-led government, every position of authority is co-held by a man and woman. Polygamy has been banned.

    Each city has a "House of Woman" training centre, to help tackle gendered social problems. Some of these houses even resolve disputes between spouses.

    "Sometimes if a woman complains about her husband and he is found to be mistaken, he could face detention for days," says an employee at the House of Woman in the Rojavan city of Amuda.

    Some residents say women use the House of Woman to complain about trivial issues that could be solved without exposing a couple's private life.

    But many women think the centres are helpful, saying they stop men from considering harming their wives.

    Liberation before marriage

    There are other controversies over women's empowerment in the militias. While there's no obligation, many fighters turn their back on family and social life to focus on their fight for liberation.

    "It stems from a belief that a man and woman who are not liberated themselves, if they marry, cannot help others to be free," explains Bushra Ali of the Kurdish Women's Relations Office.

    Zeinab Qanbar, a co-president of the civil administration in Minbij city, agrees.

    "So many women who got married ended up having to leave their homes and got divorced because their society didn't secure their lives," she says.

    "A lot of our youth died fighting to free our land. Liberating the land needs sacrifice. I feel that my life is a sacrifice to free my society."

    As well as refraining from marriage, many Kurdish women who join the YPJ are cut off from families who may not accept their choices. In place of family, the women strive to create a sorority with their fellow fighters, who they call "heval" (Kurdish for comrade).

    To prevent emotional attachment among the female fighters, leaders of YPJ units routinely rotate the women.

    What's next?

    It remains to be seen whether women in Northern Syria will hold on to their newfound freedom once the fight against IS has been won, which the YPJ estimates may be a matter of weeks.

    While the Kurd-led forces control nearly a fifth of Syria and more than half of its border with Turkey, it is unclear whether they can hold on to their gains, especially if US support doesn't continue after IS's defeat.

    Threats to the Kurds will always be there, according to Ibrahim Ibrahim, who heads the media team for the political party PYD who control Northern Syria.

    "This democratic way of thinking will not be welcome amid dictatorships in the region, especially in a region that doesn't believe in women's freedom."

    "Our victory represents a real threat to authoritarian systems, especially Turkey, whose government is led by an Islamic radical who doesn't like democratic thinking," he says.

    "Of course, there are liberal people in the Arab world and Turkey, but they're not the ones who are in control."

    The Kurds think their model could be replicated across the country, with power shared between the different genders and ethnic groups.

    "We'd like our project to succeed even more now because it's the best way to stop blood shed among Syrians," says Zeinab Qanbar.

    She says women will continue to defend their equality.

    "Ending ISIS will make us women even stronger. We haven't obtained equality easily but with a lot of determination.

    "Women in Northern Syria achieved success in all fields: military, political, organisational. We have to continue this struggle because the liberation of society depends on women's liberation."

    © 2018 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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