The Women’s Defence Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Jin – YPJ) were formed on April 4th 2013 in Rojava. Especially with their resistance against the so-called Islamic State in Kobane (2014-2015), they came to be known internationally. Women in many countries in the Middle East and beyond were inspired by the successful fight of the YPJ against the mysogynist ISIS killergangs. ISIS was considered the most open expression of the patriarchal system, in which women are murdered and raped every day in all parts of the world and in which their will is broken in brutal or subtle ways. With their determined struggle, the women of YPJ have proven that women’s desire for freedom is stronger than the brutality and weapons of the patriarchal system.
The following is an interview with YPJ commander Zeynep Efrîn about the role of the YPJ within the revolution and women’s struggle in Rojava.
How has the establishment of the YPJ Women’s Defense Units affected the struggles of women in the Middle East?
From the beginning of the establishment of the Women’s Defense Units until today, a lot of time has passed and many topics have been discussed: How did the Women’s Defense Units come about? How did their construction take place? How did the effect of the YPJ unfold? In the reality of the Middle East and its history, the YPJ were not the first to say: We defend ourselves against attacks and protect our people, our dignity and our country. Even before us, hundreds of women from all the peoples of the region have joined struggles and played an important role in them. We find this history in all communities: among Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians. We do not know every single name of these women, but some of them have been handed down. It was mainly individual personalities who became known. They were remembered and their values still exist. We see ourselves in continuity with them. They were our predecessors, we are their granddaughters. It is important not to sever this connection. The same is true globally. All over the world, in countless freedom struggles, women played an important role: whether in leadership positions, in wars, or in supporting the armies in the wars – in all societies, in all countries there are such examples.
Unfortunately not many of the stories of these women have been written down. It would be good to gather them together in a book, a documentary, a film and to mention which woman played which role and what influence they had. For example, all those women who fought for the development of education; women who fought for social equality; women who fought for gender equality and those who fought for the freedom of their country. Each one of them ensured the continuity of the role and existence of women in every place. Today we are the ones who continue their values and remember them. This is our legacy and we draw our experience from those stories. At every time, in every period of history, in every moment of society, there have been women who have come from the heritage and diversity of the Middle East.
So why did the YPJ become so influential or so well known? Suppose that the YPJ did not exist during the war in Rojava. Suppose that the People’s Defence Forces YPG fought, but the YPJ were not at their side. Would the world have developed so much interest then, could they have influenced it so much? In the war in Northern Syria, in the war against the Islamic State, it was above all the immense role of women that aroused the interest of the world. Although the world had already learned by then that this or that woman took part in the war individually or even small groups of women, an army of women organising themselves – was new. We are not talking here about women putting on military clothing and taking up arms to stage propaganda. Not just as a show, so it can be said: Look, there are also women who fight.
The truth of the YPJ is – and this is what has made them so influential – that they are far from being mere propaganda, mere spectacle, mere advertising. It is not about military clothes, because many of our friends have fought in civilian clothes and fell in civilian clothes. Those women who took up arms also fought. They died as martyrs. They made sacrifices. They were wounded. And all this came from the strength of their hearts. This is the reality that they created and this is what caught the attention of the whole world. If it’s just about joining some army, there are many states in the Middle East that are taking in women. The Syrian state, for example. For years there has been an academy for women, where they can go through military training. But the participation of women directly in combat, in war – that was only with us, that was new. That was the first time. And not as isolated female fighters, but as a separate army! An army of women taking their place at the front.
On what ideological basis has such an army as the YPJ been built and how did it become so well known? How has it gained the interest of so many women?
I would say that perhaps not so many are passionate for this work for ideological reasons. There is the decades old Kurdish women’s liberation ideology, that is true, but out of a hundred, there are perhaps twenty or ten who really know the women’s liberation ideology. But more people know that we are going to war for women. However, women are looking to prove themselves in every place. Women now have the spirit to tear down the walls of prohibition and no longer accept the stereotypical division into “men’s work” and “women’s work” and work that women cannot do.
From this we can draw conclusions about what women are looking for and what drives them. The point is that ‘as a woman I have my own power. Why is this power not recognized? Right where it is most difficult, that is where I want to experience and discover my power’. The women have broken out of the preconceived forms that were intended for them in society; they have escaped all the attributions. In women, the fire for freedom burns against all these stereotypes.
There is a riot burning in them! A real fire! Neither the submission to the family nor the attributions of society are accepted by them. They are against a too soft approach, but also against an oppressive one. Neither serves justice to the woman. A woman must have the knowledge to see her own way and to be able to explain it to herself. Nevertheless, I emphasize once again that not all members of the YPJ came to us because of the women’s liberation ideology. It was curiosity, a search. It was an attempt to explain, to make an effort. And at the same time it was out of a fear. There were many attacks against us. We have seen the attack against Şengal. Thousands of women of Şengal were kidnapped by the IS, sold in bazaars and enslaved. And this is what the women saw. The women had a choice: either I fight, I will be killed, or I will fall into the hands of the IS and they will make me their slave. It is clear: I’d rather go to war, I’d rather die there than fall into their hands. Out of great danger, every living being became ready for defence.
It was this example that caught the attention of so many women in the world. You asked how we became the vanguard of world’s women. The women of the world have seen this hope. For example, in Afghanistan, women seized for the first time the weapons, went to war and killed some members of al Qaeda. In an interview they were asked why they took up arms and started such an action, because al Qaeda has been there for so long and nothing like this had ever happened before. That was 2014/2015. They replied: “We have taken an example from the YPJ. We saw the YPJ and said to ourselves: They are women, we are women. They can do that, so we can do that too. And what we have lived through is similar.” From that point they set out to organize themselves.
So the formation of the YPJ was a very big threat to the system of patriarchal oppression. It created a contradiction. Everyone saw: These are women. We are also women. We have contributed to questioning and changing the prevailing mentality. It is this mentality in the Middle East that we have confronted:
The woman can’t do , the woman knows nothing. I don’t know if we can say that we have completely overcome it, completely smashed it, but a notch, a crack has been made in this mentality.
The YPJ are a force that fights against the enemies of humanity, for example the IS, and in which hundreds of female fighters like Arîn Mîrkan, as the symbol of Kobanê, Barîn Kobane or Heval Revan, and Avesta Xabur in Afrîn, occupy an important place. Women play a pioneering role in every operation. Wherever there are attacks, it is women who stand up for defence. In all these struggles we also see many internationalist women fighters. What do you feel when you see this?
Women from many different countries such as the USA, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Eastern Europe and some more have joined us. They set out from the other side of the world and come here for a society they don’t know; for a language they don’t speak; for a country that is foreign to them. What I asked myself was: why? How could you summon up this courage? They said they were keeping up with us and our struggles. They were enthusiastic about the standards of our friendship, our values, to our contacts and connections. You mentioned friends who became a symbol, we have not only one or two of these symbols, and not only women, but also men. Heval Arîn, Heval Barîn, Heval Avesta, Heval Amara, those women became symbols. Some are known, but there are many more. These are young women who could have lived a life like any other, but that was not enough for them. And so the question arises: “Where do these women get their courage to brave the attacks and the bullets of the enemy?” But that strength is in all women.
I want to tell you about Heval Hêlîn (Anna Campbell). She came from England. During the war in Afrîn, she suggested going to Afrîn ten times. Before that, she had participated in the operation in Deir ez-Zor. She said, “I’ll definitely go to Afrîn.” I told her she couldn’t go to Afrîn. In order to do so, she would have to cross the territories of the regime and because of her blonde hair, they would see that she was not from here and arrest her. She dyed her hair black, to go to Afrîn. She went to EArîn and fell there.
With her feeling, with her world, with her whole existence, she came to fight. She was English, but she came to fight. With Hêlîn, it was the human side, the socialist side, her female side, that said: “In this world, something better must be built.”
It is about solidarity, friendship, sharing, morality, justice for society. People with great ideals who have the dream of another world. They cannot live in a capitalist system. That’s why they come to the Middle East, that’s why they come to Rojava. They see the sacrifice of society, of mothers and young men and women. It is like a dream for them that there can really be such a world where everyone is ready, to give everything. That’s something that impresses them very much. It is something valuable and it moves me very much that people come to us from the most diverse countries and regions, whose names I may not even know. This shows the reality, the nature of the woman, whether she comes from Europe, America or the Middle East. She is self-sacrificing and strives to build a different life. It is true that it started with the avantgarde of Kurdish women, but now we have many pioneers from different countries. The question is: How can these pioneers, these symbols become symbols of all women?
Many have joined the YPJ, both in the Middle East and internationally. Are there projects for and with these fighters?
That is the spirit of solidarity of women, which we can create wherever, everywhere in the world. Women, as a people, as a nation, can adopt an attitude of struggle. And this struggle can become a global value, a universal value. All women can take part and participate, bring their own interests and defend themselves. That is our goal. It is important that we do this. For example, women come to us, to get an education. Then we show them what we know, and they share what they know with us. They become one with society, learn about it and our culture. When they get to know society, they learn as much from it as they do from their YPJ experiences.
This common soul of the family, which lives on and is still defended here in Rojava, became something to think about for the comrades. What is the difference between the culture of the system created by capitalism and the society itself as it is lived here? What is the difference between the personality that only cares about itself and the personality here that is self-sacrificing? There is a contradiction. There really are a lot of things we can learn from each other and that can be of use for us all together. We bring things together, give and take. It’s not just about war. It’s about our unity, our friendship and comradeship, our collective soul, the goal is not just war. That would be wrong. It is about knowledge, about self-defence and about being ready for absolutely everything, maybe for war, maybe for other things. That is our goal, for our friends and comrades. As long as people are with us, we want them to have a natural relationship with everything. To their country, their families, their lives, their friends and comrades… at every level, they can give and take something together.
Would you like to say something at the end or make an appeal to women who fight for freedom?
There are many dangers. There are attempts by nation-states to stifle the Rojava revolution. I’m not saying this state or that state. They work together because they have the same interests and will do the same thing. What keeps Rojava going is the population. The unity of the population that stands up for its society and values.
Of course there are weaknesses and problems. Rojava is something new, it has now been eight years since the beginning of the revolution. It’s like a child learning to walk. Rojava is still a girl, not yet a young woman. Her defense must come from society. But the pioneers of society are women. Women must take action for Rojava. Women must defend Rojava. Rojava became an example because of women and women will keep Rojava on her feet.
Many great sacrifices have been made so far. But the phase that lies ahead will be even more exhausting and difficult. This means guaranteeing the achievements of the Rojava revolution and defending them against the coming attacks. We have seen the attack on Afrîn, on Serêkaniyê and on Girê Spî, but this does not mean that it is the end. Opposing are states that want to divide us with their traditional mentality of oppression, of rejection of other peoples. They wish to impose the identity of the state on every nation that opposes them. Whether it is the Turkish, Iraqi or Syrian state. The danger is there. The women must make a choice. What will they choose, to run away or to defend? This also applies to all our YPJ fighters. We must know our weapons really well and be prepared for anything. And we must not rely on other states and think that this or that state will come and help us. The state will never help the people. States just help each other and work together.
But people work together with the population and with society. People must stand up for each other. So we have to make a thorough analysis of all these dangers. Our forces must be ready. For this reason, most of our fighters are now in training. And also in society, all mothers, all women must stand behind us. They must give us support and not leave us alone. It may be difficult, but only as long as they are with us do we see the purpose of what we are doing. When people are with us, we will know what we are fighting for and why we are preparing. Their existence gives meaning to our struggle. If they are not here, then what are we fighting for? Our hope lies in the women, their work and the role they play.