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What are the Kurdish Women’s Units fighting for in Syria?

FILE: Young Syrian-Kurdish women take part in a training session organized by the Kurdish Women’s Defense Units (YPJ) on August 28, 2013. BENJAMIN HILLER/AFP/Getty Images
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Syria’s Kurds now control a contiguous swath of territory linking the border region of northern Syria all the way to Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurdish forces seized the city of Kobani near the Turkish border in January, and in June took Tel Abyad to the east. The self-governing cantons of Afrin, Kobani and Cizire have set up administrative structures that operate with near complete autonomy from Damascus. Now that the Kurds have effective control of this territory, what they will they do with it? Will they attempt to break away from Syria, and establish an independent Kurdish state? Or will they remain within Syria as an autonomous region?

Many outside observers assume, based on the long struggle for Kurdish independence, that the Kurds must still want a state. In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Jonathan Steele wrote that, “the dream of having a state of their own never faded.” Others refer to the Kurdish enclave in northern Syria, Rojava, as a “statelet” or a “quasi-independent mini-state.” The Iraqi Kurds are perhaps closest to achieving statehood, and a recent article about the Kurdistan Regional Government in Foreign Policy was titled, “The world’s next country.”

But this may not tell the whole story. Earlier this year, I conducted one of the first surveys of the Kurdish Women’s Defense Units known as the YPJ (Yekîneyên Parastina Jin) after witnessing the liberation of Tel Abyad in June and the final days of the battle of Kobani at the end of January. Despite the Western media’s fascination with the Kalashnikov-toting young Kurdish women fighting the Islamic State, there remains a significant lack of basic demographic information about these women. The full results of this research will be released in a forthcoming publication. One of the most surprising findings is that 44 of the 46 respondents did not want to establish an independent state but rather wanted to remain part of Syria.

First, some important methodological caveats. Surveying the YPJ poses certain challenges. Methodologically, the YPJ constitute a hard-to-reach “hidden population” for which random sampling is impossible. Instead, I used a respondent-driven sampling technique among a unit of the YPJ stationed in Kobani in June of 2015. I interviewed 46 members of the YPJ, all unmarried women between the ages of 18 and 34, many of whom were involved in the liberation of Tel Abyad, Kobani and other important battles. At the time of my research, many units were engaged in combat operations against the Islamic State at the front lines, limiting the number of women available to participate as respondents. Finally, because the survey was conducted in a single location with a single unit of the YPJ, we should treat these results with caution as Kurds who live in other areas may have different aspirations.

Despite these limitations, the results do complicate the popular narrative that all Kurds inherently want an independent state. For those who follow the work of Kurdish scholars or are familiar with the situation in Rojava, these findings may not come as a surprise. Dilar Dirik, for example, has argued that some Kurds “no longer fight for a state because they reject statehood as inherently oppressive.” They do not need to secede from Syria, because they never recognized the European-drawn borders as valid in the first place.

The views of the women in the survey corroborate Article 12 of the Rojava Social Charter, which reads: “The Autonomous Regions form an integral part of Syria. It is a model for a future decentralized system of federal governance in Syria.” Instead of an independent Kurdistan, the movement now aims to establish autonomous structures at the local level based on the principles of “Democratic Confederalism” including a bottom-up democracy, cooperative economy, gender egalitarianism and environmentalism. In short, a stateless democracy.

This follows the political and ideological shift within the PKK since the capture of one of its founders, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999. The reasons for deciding to abandon the goal of establishing an independent Kurdistan were complex, but happened in part because Ocalan was “following the lead of the PKK women.” For years, women have fought alongside men in the PKK and other national liberation struggles. Despite making huge sacrifices, women often found themselves marginalized either within their own movement – as in the PKK – or after achieving independent statehood – as in the Algerian FLN – or both.

It is not only political strategy, however. Many of the Kurdish women I interviewed said that they were fighting not only against the Islamic State but also against the patriarchal norms of their own culture. A 24 year old from Afrin said she joined the YPJ because there was “no equality between men and women in the society.” A 22 year old from Cizire said she joined because “of the suffering of women, and the YPJ was solving problems of women.” A 21 year old from Kobani said she joined simply because she “saw freedom in the YPJ.”

In order to prevent the kind of marginalization that has occurred in the past, the YPJ was established as an independent women’s unit, rather than being subsumed under the men’s YPG (People’s Protection Units). The self-governing cantons in Afrin, Kobani and Cizire were formed in 2012, and both the YPJ and YPG are a result and key feature of this autonomy.

This brings us to what may be a contradiction. Article 15 of the Rojava Social Charter asserts that the People’s Protection Units are the “sole military force of the three cantons.” Establishing a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a given territory is, according to Max Weber, the very definition of a state. The YPJ in Syria may not want to emulate the de facto state structures that have been created in Iraqi Kurdistan. However, by participating in the establishment of a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within northern Syria, they may be laying the groundwork for potential state formation.

Amy Austin Holmes is an associate professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo. She is the author of “Social Unrest and American Military Bases in Turkey and Germany since 1945,” (Cambridge University Press, 2014). The research and travel for this project were entirely self-funded. The full results of the survey will be released in a forthcoming publication.