Last updated: August 29, 2014

Exclusive documentary: Get up close with Kurdish female fighters in Syria (VIDEO)

Banner Icon Journalist Rozh Ahmad has filmed a day in the life of female fighters from the pro-Kurdish Yekineyen Parastina Jin (Women Protection Units). Hear them tell their stories, their experiences, why they joined and what they fight for in this women-only militia amid the civil war in Syria.

The Women Protection (Defence) Units, commonly known by its Kurdish acronym, YPJ, is a women-only and pro-Kurdish militia that claims to fight for "gender equality, environmentalism and democratic autonomy for all", amid the on-going civil war in Syria.  

The militia has managed to mobilise thousands of Kurdish women since its inception in April 2013 across the predominantly Kurdish region of northeast Syria known as "Rojava".

These female fighters simultaneously clash with Assad's soldiers and the various Islamic jihadist groups attacking their territories, including Al-Qaeda linked Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State (IS).

"For us; Assad's regime and the so-called 'Islamic opposition' bandits are two sides of the same coin. The regime is oppressive and totalitarian denying us autonomy, while these so-called 'Islamic jihadist opposition' are warmongering murderous perceiving gender equality as evil," said 26-year-old Suzan Judi, one of the YPJ militia officers stationed in the Kurdish frontline of Al-Hasakah province.

"The militia has managed to mobilise thousands of Kurdish women"

She first took up arms back in July 2012, when locally organised Kurdish armed groups drove out regime forces from most parts of Syria's Kurdish region.

"At the time we all fought for one common cause and that was to force out the regime’s soldiers from our areas. We easily won because we had determination to fight for rights denied for so many years, but soldiers were conscripts, thus fearful and had no morale. We therefore asked them to peacefully evacuate, many did, but others were forced to leave," she said.

The estimated three million Kurds and other ethnic minorities living across "Rojava" of northeast Syria have been unceasingly fighting both the regime and jihadist groups for more than two years now.  

Earlier this year they announced the formation of three autonomous canton governments advocating "peaceful co-existence as an alternative to the civil war."  The canton governments are Kurdish-led and self-govern the autonomous cantons of Cizire, Kobane and Efrin provinces in the northeast.

The women-only YPJ militia is now recognised as one of the main official armed forces defending the cantons against onslaughts by regime forces and Islamic jihadist armed groups.

The ideology of the Kurdish-led autonomy and the pro-Kurdish militias in Syria, described as "Democratic Autonomy" or "Democratic Con-federalism", is derived mainly from the political philosophy of the imprisoned Turkish-Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan, founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey.

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Syria's largest Kurdish party, Democratic Union Party, better known by its Kurdish acronym, PYD, is often accused of siding with Assad. However, PYD and the non-Kurdish allied parties ruling the autonomous canton governments all rejected the Syrian presidential election held on 3rd June 2014.

Back in June, various official armed forces of the autonomous cantons, including YPJ militia as well as Christian militias, fought street battles in the Al-Hasakah province to stop Assad's election campaign to take place, which was led mainly by local Sunni Arab tribe leaders loyal to the ruling Baath party.

"We rejected the election because it was a sham and we fight fierce battles with regime forces almost on a daily basis in some parts of the Kurdish region. Comrades have fallen in those battles, it is thus we who consider betrayal as any sort of participation in such statist elections," Judi said.

She added: "Syrians have to politically mobilize to build alternatives. We in the YPJ believe that our fight contributes to an alternative. We may not live to see final victory, but it is imperative that we die proud while shouldering the historical responsibility of building a democratic future for all the people of this country. "

YPJ female fighters are renowned among Kurdish locals in the "Rojava" region for radically criticising Kurdish patriarchy norms too, although they still adhere to some traditional values typical of the greater Middle East.

Generally, female and male fighters of the "Rojava" security and armed forces work together on duty, but live separately.

"We rejected the election because it was a sham"

It is thus only women who live at the YPJ military camps, unless based in the frontline fighting alongside male fighters of the pro-Kurdish People's Protection (Defence) Units (YPG).

Kurdish locals quickly recognize YPJ female fighters because they are dressed in military uniforms, typically armed with Kalashnikov rifles or pistols and some openly smoke cigarettes in public, even though smoking for women is considered "awkward" in Kurdish culture. 

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Resorting to arms for these Kurdish women is evidently a reaction to the fact that they belong to one of the poorest and most oppressed nationalities in Syria.

24-year-old Berivan Selman was about to get married last year before she changed her mind and instead joined the YPJ ranks.

"My family was just shocked that I rejected marriage and opted to take up arms. They could not understand longings of an independent woman wanting to be part of fateful events determining the future of her nation, although we are being attacked by all kinds of jihadists and despots alike, " she said.

"I refused marriage to practically reject Kurdish patriarchy norms. My life as a female fighter in one of the most dangerous places in the world is now an evidence substantiating the historical fact that an independent woman can impact significant political events and change the world they live in for the better whenever they would want to do so."

Rozh Ahmad
Rozh Ahmad is a journalist based in Paris. He grew up in England but has his roots in Iraq’s Kurdish region. In the last three years, Rozh has reported from and about Kurds in Europe, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria for various English and Kurdish publications.
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