Kurdistan’s female militants are making history in their battle against the Islamic State (IS). These women have played a major role in halting the advance of IS and are currently involved in the fight for a key border in the Syrian town of Kobani.
Kobani has been under regular attack by the Islamic State, which has been trying to seize the town since mid-September. Reports suggest that one in three of Kobani’s defenders are female, fighting under the banner of the Women’s Protection Unit, known by its Kurdish acronym, YPJ. The female fighters are now fully integrated with their male counterpart, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG).
Established in 2012, the all-female militia group is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Turkish-Kurdish guerilla group designated as a terrorist organization by the US and EU, mainly because of its three-decade rebellion against NATO-ally Turkey. Amid the context of the Syrian civil war, the population of Rojava took control of a region in Northern Syria and declared itself autonomous. The YPJ emerged shortly after, growing out of a Kurdish resistance movement with democratic ambitions. The organization currently has over 7,000 volunteer fighters between the ages of 18 and 40, who fight alongside the YPG and the Kurdish Peshmerga in the battle against the Islamic State. Unlike the Peshmerga, however, neither the YPJ or YPG receive support from the international community and are wholly reliant on the Kurdish community for supplies and food.
According to one female fighter, the women of the YPJ have taken up arms because they feel that they can no longer depend on the Kurdish government. “They can’t protect us from [IS],” she told Marie Claire. “We have to protect ourselves [and] defend everyone…no matter what race or religion they are.” And the YPJ has proved successful in doing just that.
The group has played a critical role in rescuing the thousands of Yazidis stranded on Mount Sinjar. The Yazidis captured the world’s attention in early August, after news emerged of the Islamic State’s campaign against the group, which included kidnapping, killing, and enslaving hundreds of girls and women, and sending thousands fleeing to the top of Mount Sinjar. As the international community deliberated over a possible plan of intervention, help emerged from elsewhere. The YPJ, along with the YPG and PKK, were the first forces to respond to the calls of the trapped Yazidis. The troops broke the siege IS maintained on the area, allowing the refugees to flee into the relatively safe part of northern Syria, where they received medical attention, food and shelter.
The PKK guerillas and fighters from Rojava were the only forces on the ground to respond immediately to the crisis. Many Yazidi refugees criticized the Peshmerga, who were supposed to be defending Sinjar, for withdrawing so quickly. One refugee questioned why the US and Turkey called the PKK terrorists, when she and the other Yazidis owed the guerilla fighters their lives.
Though many of the Yazidis were able to escape, thousands remain stranded on the mountain. Additionally, the UN has estimated that nearly 2,500 women and girls are currently held captive by IS. A month after this report was released, the Islamic State published its own account, explaining why Yazidi women are “devil worshippers” who can and should be enslaved.
Despite the dire situation the Yazidi’s still face, the YPJ has vowed to find the thousands of missing girls and women. In addition, the YPJ and YPG have collaborated with the PKK to offer training to young Yazidis under the banner of the Sinjar Resistance Units. They have set up three training camps, teaching male and female fighters how to shoot an AK-47 and throw hand grenades. In driving these people from their homes, IS- notorious for its barbaric treatment of women- has inadvertently created an army of women prepared to fight. As one woman stated, “joining the units has changed my life. Daily life with girl fighters is so different [to the fear of fleeing from IS].” The atrocities endured by the Yazidis have only made them more determined and dedicated to a shared goal: the eradication of IS from Sinjar.
Female soldiers might actually be more effective than males in the fight against IS. In addition to their expertise in handling snipers, Kalashnikovs, and rocket-propelled grenades, the YPJ fighters have a secret weapon: IS are terrified of female soldiers. The extremist Sunni group believes that if they are killed in combat by a woman, they won’t go to heaven. One female Kurdish fighter described how IS soldiers would run away once they noticed women on the battlefield. She told AFP, “I think [IS] are more afraid of us than of men.” Another fighter believes that the fear has more to do with how IS views women as sex objects. “They know how they treat women, and they know we are aware of what they do and can feel our resentment and hatred of them,” she stated. Either way, the female fighters are proving to be hugely influential in the fight against the Islamic State.
The Women’s Protection Unit has incited hope amongst not only the Yazidi refugees, but in people across the entire Middle East. They have succeeded in providing military protection to civilians, as well as challenging traditional gender expectations and redefining the role of women in conflict. However, both the YPG and YPJ are now in a very vulnerable position. They have become the primary targets of IS and have no backing from western nations. The West should seriously consider supporting both groups, who could prove to be crucial partners in coordinating efforts to rescue and protect those at risk of persecution by the Islamic State.