“We want the world to know us not because of our weapons but because of our ideas.”
by Janet Biehl, Academic Delegation to Rojava
On December 7 our delegation met with members of a platoon of YPJ, the women’s defense force (Kurdish:Yekîneyên Parastina Jinê), in Amuda, Rojava.
As we enter the chilly room, the dozen or so women present invite us to sit on cushions around the edges of the room. In the center a stove cuts the chill. On the walls are photos of platoon members who have been martyred.
One woman is already sitting in place as we arrive, cross-legged. She keeps very still, and abundant blankets swath her legs. From time to time, as the conversation unfolds, she rubs her stomach. My eyes keep returning to her. Suddenly I notice a drip bag hanging on the wall behind her, and an IV line to her wrist.
They and the other YPJ friends (as they call one another) welcome us, saying our presence give them hope, for it shows them that what they are doing has reached the outside world. A younger woman arrives, also injured, on a metal crutch, wincing with each step, palpably relieved to sit down.
How did the YPJ originate? we ask. Initially, we are told, back in 2011, women fought in the YPG alongside men. But at a congress in 2012 women fighters decided to organize autonomously, to show that women can be their own force.
Before the revolution, they told us, women’s “whole world was one room. Rights belonged only to men,” and women “were treated as if we were there but not there.” Neither their men nor they themselves had any trust that they could do anything important.
But the formation of the YPG and especially the YPJ “gave us political and social consciousness to struggle for freedom. You gain self-confidence. . . . When you are together with others, you realize you are a power. . . . We could express our colors, our thoughts. … We gained a liberationist consciousness.” They realized that everyone, including themselves, has rights and that those rights must be defended.
At one point the lights go out. Those who have flashlights flick them on, someone lights a candle, and the talk continues without skipping a beat.
The newly formed YPJ wrote a charter, setting out rules that are as democratic as possible. Structurally all members are equal, even commanders; everyone lives together, cooks together; the age range is about 18 to 35.
Commanders are elected once a year based on skills and attitudes, and they undergo special training. But their rank accords them no privileges. In fact, once elected, commanders have greater responsibilities than others and are expected to contribute more to the community. They try to ease conditions and model behavior. They have no right to yell at anyone—“that’s what we’re fighting against.” If anything, they are subject to criticism.
As the YPJ fought successfully, the women came to understand that strength is self-sustaining. Now they are dedicated to showing what women are capable of. Inspired by Kurdish history, which is replete with strong women, they are conscious of fighting not just ISIS but for their revolution.
The still woman with the IV has risen to her feet and now moves carefully across the room to the exit. Younger women help her, carrying the apparatus. We hold our breath as she makes the endless journey.
We resume. YPJ education covers not only military training but political and philosophical ideas: “We try to understand and analyze life.” In ongoing educational seminars, the women study the writings of Abdullah Öcalan, and they ponder the example of Arîn Mîrkan, a YPJ commander whose photo adorns the wall. She was killed in Kobanê in October, having detonated herself in order to cover the retreat of her friends. As well, the platoon studies the life and ideas of Beritan Çewlik, a PKK woman who, back in 1992, was fighting the peshmerga. Beritan fought until the last bullet and then, so as not to have to surrender, threw herself off a cliff in the mountains along with her weapon.
“We’re struggling not just against ISIS,” the women of the YPJ tell us. “We’re struggling to change a mentality and to show the power of women to the outside world.” The YPJ engage in war in Rojava only out of necessity, they say; “our ideas go beyond Rojava. We want to struggle on a global scale.” Indeed, “we want the world to know us not because of our weapons but because of our ideas.”
One of the delegation members assures the women that whatever happens, nothing can go back to the way it was before. “You are also fighting for my three daughters” in Europe, he says, expressing his thanks. “Rest easy,” comes the reply. “We are struggling here, but also for the whole world. We have suffered a lot here, and we do not want others to suffer. It’s necessary that a consciousness of freedom develops.”
After the discussion ends, we ask anxiously about the woman with the IV. She had been wounded a week ago, in Sere Kaniye, to the west, we are told. ISIS attacked, and something hit her from a distance. Did we tire her? No, we are told. “If she wanted you to leave, she would have said so—we are honest here.”
—December 22, 2014