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The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS

Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

July 11, 2017
5 min read

Image: Javier de Riba

It was in the autumn of 2014, only months after so-called Islamic State (ISIS) achieved massive territorial gains inside Syria and Iraq, committing genocidal and femicidal massacres as it did so, that a revolutionary silver lining arose from the little-known town of Kobane. Having overrun Mosul, Tel Afar and Sinjar in Iraq, as well as a vast expanse of territory inside Syria, ISIS prepared to launch an attack on the north of Syria, known by Kurds as Rojava.

What it did not anticipate in Kobane was to encounter an enemy of a different kind – an organised, political community that was ready to defend itself courageously by all means necessary, and with a worldview that turns ISIS’s death ideology on its head. Arîn Mîrkan, a young, revolutionary Kurdish woman, would become the symbol of Kobane’s victory.

A fighter in the Women’s Defence Units (YPJ), she detonated herself in October 2014 near the strategically critical Mishtenur Hill to rescue her comrades and to capture the position from ISIS. This eventually shifted the battle in favour of the People’s Defence Forces (YPG/YPJ) and other co-operating armed groups, pushing ISIS onto the defensive.

After months of tireless fighting, which moved the US-led coalition to provide aerial military support, Kobane was finally free. Then, almost every day, as ISIS was forced back, videos emerged of villagers celebrating their liberation. People danced and smoked their cigarettes for the first time again; men shaved their beards with tears of joy; women burned and stamped on their black veils and chanted cries of freedom.

In the eyes of the fighters and the organised community, especially women, in the region, this epic war was perceived not as an ethnic or religious conflict, but as a historic battle between the concentrated evil of a male-dominated, statist and capitalist modernity – embodied by the rapist gangs of ISIS – and the alternative of a free life personified by the liberated woman in struggle.

The victory of revolutionary Kobane practically illustrated that the fight against ISIS did not consist merely of weapons, but of a radical rupture with fascism and the underlying frameworks that make it possible.

Ancient violence

Of all oppressed and brutalised groups, women have been subjected to the most ancient forms of institutionalised violence. The view of women as war spoils, tools in the service of men, objects of sexual gratification and sites to assert ultimate power persists in every fascist manifesto.

The emergence of the state, together with the fetishisation of private property, was enabled above all by the submission of women. Indeed, it is impossible to assert control over entire populations or create deep-cutting social divisions without the oppression and marginalisation of women that is promoted in the male-dominated writing of history, production of theory, and economic and political administration.

The state is modelled after the patriarchal family and vice versa. ISIS is a direct product of ancient models of hierarchy and violence, as well as capitalist modernity with its particular mindset, economy and culture.

A revolutionary alternative

Since revolution was declared in Rojava in 2012, tireless efforts have been dedicated to creating a realistic, viable alternative. The system of democratic confederalism was adopted in northern Syria by a large collective of people from all communities. It proposes a model for a secular, democratic, gender-egalitarian, federal Syria. By creating alternative forms of social organisation through direct self-management and solidarity, safeguarded by autonomous women’s and youth structures, thousands of people have been turned into active, self-determining agents of their own lives.

Radical democracy thus strengthens the ties of solidarity that capitalism tries so aggressively to sever in order to produce the individualised subjects it needs. In Rojava, there is an intrinsic link between radical democracy and concepts of belonging and identity that take democratic and ethical values as reference points rather than as the abstract concepts and nationalist myths that fascism relies on.

With the paradigm of the democratic nation as an antidote to the nationalism of the state, the protagonists of the revolution in Rojava attempt to formulate an identity around principles rather than ethnicity. The presence of an autonomous women’s army, unapologetically committed, in a sea of militarist, patriarchal violence, to women’s struggles, constitutes the most liberationist, anti-capitalist, anti-fascist element.

By organising in cooperatives, communes, assemblies and academies, women become the guarantors of freedom. And while male domination has not been overcome entirely, women have established a general political culture that no longer normalises patriarchy and unconditionally respects autonomous women’s decision-making mechanisms.

The YPJ underlines that the most direct way of defeating religious fascism, statism and other forms of authoritarianism is women’s liberation.

A longer version of this article was first published in ROAR magazine. Dilar Dirik is from northern Kurdistan (Turkey). A Kurdish women’s movement activist, she writes on the Kurdish freedom struggle for an international audience


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