Kurdish Syrian Rojava women suffering in the shadow of war

With the threat of another Turkish offensive against Kurdish-administered territories in northeastern Syria, Rojava women, who fought hard for freedom and equality, fear not only the war itself, but also its consequences for themselves and their struggle.

There are fewer female fighters today in Rojava, a de facto autonomous region in northeast Syria, as many lost their lives fighting the Islamic State or ISIS. The constant threat of Turkish incursions and an unstable ceasefire, economic difficulties and the attempt to squeeze the Kurds in Arab-dominated territories have also had negative effects on women’s lives, rights and freedoms.

‘The threat of war is imminent’

Life in Kurdish-controlled areas in northeastern Syria has never been easy. These days, basic goods are lacking: water and electricity supplies are intermittent, jobs are scarce, staples are expensive, and the struggle to support families and feed their children is difficult. However, as the Turkish drums of war beat louder and louder, many in Rojava fear that even this difficult reality may soon be replaced by airstrikes and waves of refugees.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has in recent weeks threatened to restart the operation in Syria if the conditions of an agreement reached between Moscow, Ankara and Washington in 2019 are not respected. Whether there is another operation in Syrian Kurdistan or not around the corner, the situation on the ground is getting worse in terms of security, Liza Shishko, a Russian-born journalist who lives and covers Rojava, told The Media Line.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media after attending Friday prayers at the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, on August 7, 2020 (Credit: REUTERS / MURAD SEZER / FILE PHOTO )

“Traveling in Rojava has become a bit more risky, while Turkey has increased precision strikes against SDF and YPG leaders for over a month and more kidnappings are reported in Turkish-controlled territories,” it recently reported. Shishko via Telegram and Instagram.

The SDF, or Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of militias, is Rojava’s official defense force. The SDF is headed by the YPG, or People’s Protection Units, a militia that is mainly Kurdish.

Over the past two years, since Turkey launched Operation Peace Fountain and attacked the mainly Kurdish cities of Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ayn in northeastern Syria, thousands of Kurdish residents have been forced to flee and significant demographic changes have occurred. in the region.

As always, women paid a high price. A recent United Nations commission found ample evidence that “the situation of Kurdish women is precarious.”

The UN-mandated Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria found extensive evidence of daily rape, sexual violence, harassment and torture. He cited disturbing examples of targeted rape and kidnapping of civilians in the city of Afrin, which was invaded and occupied by Turkey and Turkish-backed militias in 2018.

The report documents the rape of at least a few dozen women in Tell Abyad.

Shiler Sido, an ancient oriental languages ​​expert who is now exploring the consequences of the war for Kurdish women who became refugees under international law, says the situation is getting worse due to the economic blockade of both the Syrian regime and Turkey. Sido was born and raised in Afrin and had to leave the city as a result of the Turkish incursion and seek refuge in the Aleppo countryside.

“The situation in every part of Syria is serious: everything is destroyed, the schools, the houses, it is a disaster area. As for Rojava, the regime blocked us from the beginning. A lot of agricultural land was taken from us, and this economic blockade is still going on everywhere and is suffocating us. There are many reports showing that our women suffer from a lack of iron in the blood due to malnutrition, ”she told The Media Line.

    People stand by a Kurdistan flag as they wait for Pope Francis to celebrate a mass at the Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil, Iraq, on March 7, 2021 (credit: REUTERS / YARA NARDI). People stand by a Kurdistan flag as they wait for Pope Francis to celebrate a mass at the Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil, Iraq, on March 7, 2021 (credit: REUTERS / YARA NARDI).

The end of the Kurdish utopia?

For nearly 10 years, Rojava has been a striking contrast to patriarchal and degrading attitudes towards women in Syria and across the Middle East. Kurdish, Arab and international women flocked there to join the armed struggle against oppression, but also to find refuge from conservative society and patriarchal dictates. Rojava laws prohibit polygamy and early marriage, while women participate in all aspects of life, including military command and political leadership.

“ISIS wanted to cover the entire world in black and bring us back to the Middle Ages. All of humanity was in danger. Not just us. Rojava was the opposite: against radical Islamic thought, against the violation of human and women’s rights, ”said Sido.

Why is Rojava so attractive to women? Well, there are not many places in the world where women can have access to weapons and participate in armed struggle. The lack of a male monopoly on weapons allowed for a degree of confidence and the ability to defend oneself. Here a woman can play an important role in military and civil leadership. All these aspects contrast with the image of ‘weak woman’ that exists both in the West and here, in the Middle East, ”she also said.

Professor Ofra Bengio from Tel Aviv University, a leading expert on Kurdish history and the author of many books, says that foreigners who come to Rojava are drawn to a sense of romance, adventure, a war against the “bad guys” and the long civil war. .

“In this aspect, this phenomenon can be compared with the Spanish Civil War. [1936-39] that used to attract idealists, communists and seekers of justice from all over the world, ”Bengio told The Media Line.

Shishko emphasizes that, for many Kurdish women, joining the armed resistance in Rojava is seen as an opportunity to avoid the traditional path of a woman in patriarchal society: marriage, family and children. Many of them consciously choose the so-called “revolutionary celibacy”.

“Women cannot have family and children while they are in the YPG. There is no prohibition for women who have children to join the YPG, but the family may not approve of it and may even prevent you from doing so. There is always a compromise between conservative and ultra-religious society and the needs of the revolution, ”Shishko said.

Sido, a mother of three, adds that in Rojava a woman has a choice: to become a warrior or to be a mother.

“It is difficult to be completely dedicated to combat and war if your children and your family are after you. In a country like Syria, it is very difficult to fight a war and have children. Furthermore, in the current unstable conditions in northern Syria, the situation of a married woman is also very difficult: there are war crimes, rapes, domestic violence and, very often, women feel that they have to rebel, in this way. way or another, ”he said.

The precarious situation in Rojava, the bloody war against ISIS and the constant threat of Turkish invasion have had a serious effect on Kurdish utopian autonomy in northeast Syria. Before 2019, women made up about a third of all fighters in the YPG. Today, according to locals, their numbers are significantly lower, as many have died on the battlefield or, in the case of political leader Hevrin Khalaf, were killed by pro-Turkish forces. The SDF office did not respond to an inquiry from The Media Line.

Also, many progressive families have left for Europe, while the more conservative families move to the northern part of Rojava from the south, where most women cover their hair and adhere to traditional norms. These processes result in social changes, such as the lack of women in the public pool in Qamishli and in the military ranks, Shishko notes.

Syrian Kurds fear that in the event of a new Turkish offensive in northeast Syria, they will find themselves defenseless, in light of the fact that the United States is distancing itself from the region, while Russia pursues its own interests vis-à-vis Ankara. Kurdish leaders in northern Syria recently issued an appeal for talks with Damascus. And last week, Damascus mobilized Syrian Arab Army units to the SDF-controlled city of Tel Rifaat in anticipation of an attack by Ankara forces.

As Syrian Kurds continue to fight for their survival, the dream of an equal and just society that was created in Rojava, where women can be combatants, leaders and judges, continues to recede.


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