Syria's war liberates Kurdish women as it oppresses others

by Benedetta Argentieri | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 29 February 2016 05:01 GMT

A woman stands on the porch of a house in the northern Syrian town of Kobani January 28, 2015. REUTERS/Osman Orsal System ID: RTR4NAY4

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In Kurdish area, polygamy not tolerated, underage marriage outlawed, violence against women addressed with strict laws

NEW YORK, Feb 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Nubohar Mustafa is proud of what her leaders and fellow activists have done for Kurdish women in northern Syria.

Coming from the self-proclaimed autonomous region of Rojava, wedged between the Turkish border and territory held by Islamic State, Mustafa enjoys freedoms that few women living under the militants' rule could dream of.

Polygamy is no longer tolerated, underage marriage is outlawed and violence against women addressed with strict legislation in Rojava, which has been governed by a Kurdish party since Syrian state forces withdrew from most of the area in 2012 - a year after civil war erupted across Syria.

Rojava's constitution, or "social contract", governing its some 4 million people enshrines women's rights and urges public institutions to work towards ending gender discrimination.

"While we try to empower women, a few kilometres away Daesh (Islamic State) are trying to do the opposite. We are fighting them on behalf of all the women in the world," said Mustafa, a female politician and union leader in Rojava.

"Women have active participation at all political and military levels," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Rojava's women fighters, also known as YPJ, make up 40 percent of the region's militia force and have won praise for their prowess when battling Islamic State, including the liberation of Yazidi families under siege near Sinjar in northern Iraq in 2014.

The internal police, or Asayish, has a women-only unit that deals also with sexual assault and rape. Each city in Rojava has a co-presidency that must be filled by a woman, and at least 50 percent of political offices are held by females.

Academies and foundations to further women's rights and as many as 27 centres to help women facing domestic violence or financial hardship have opened in Kurdish Syria since 2014.

"It's a revolution within a revolution," said Mustafa.


The plains of Rojava stretch out to the horizon in all directions, with few trees and little agriculture since the war began. Abandoned oil pumps dot the landscape, left to rust since foreign oil workers fled Syria.

In its small towns, food vendors ply their wares from stalls, mechanics work on cars and children walk to class.

The Kurdish-held town of Kobani is just 140 km (85 miles) from Islamic State's stronghold of Raqqa where women must wear a full face veil in public or face punishment, often at the hands of the all-female Al-Khansaa Brigade whose mission is to pursue and arrest women who break the group's strict rules on morality.

The United Nations has accused Islamic State of the abduction and rape of thousands of women and girls. Many have been given to fighters as rewards or sold as sex slaves.

Devastated by a ferocious battle against Islamic State forces last year that captured international headlines, Kobani residents have started to rebuild ruined homes. Booby traps remain a menace, although most of the bombs and mines left by retreating Islamic State fighters have been removed.

Here, strict legislation to combat violence against women has been implemented as well as measures to challenge patriarchal attitudes, said Idris Nassan, a leading politician in the city.

Before being sent to jail, violent men are first excluded from any political and social activity in their village.

"Not being able to participate in events or discussions is a stigma and for our society it is a big deal. Prison is the last resort," Nassan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"This is because we want to change the culture and not just punish the crime. We want men to understand violence against women is not socially accepted any longer."


Rojava's ideological foundations were laid by Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is closely linked to the Kurdish militias. The PKK has fought for three decades for Kurdish cultural and political rights.

Öcalan, imprisoned in Turkey since 1999, has often stated: "A country can't be free unless the women are free." Throughout his political career, the Kurdish leader has emphasised that the level of woman's freedom determines the level of freedom in society at large.

As part of Rojava's new security apparatus, the women's branch of the Asayish police leads the enforcement of laws aimed at protecting women, such laws banning underage marriage.

Education also plays a key role in changing attitudes.

For example, the SARA women's association focuses on tackling gender violence, encouraging women to speak openly about their problems, as well as helping female victims of domestic violence in shelters.

Meike Nack, a 40-year-old German activist, moved to Rojava in 2014 to work with the Foundation of Women based in the territory's de facto capital, Qamishli.

"We realised there was an urgent need for education so we started literacy classes. Then we established economic and politics courses," she said. Now their most popular lectures are in nursing, psychology and physiotherapy.

"Once a woman understands her place in the society then she will reject being a victim," said Nack. The past year has seen a real shift away from traditional, patriarchal attitudes in Rojava, including among the Arabs, Christians and Assyrians who also live there, she said.

"It has been very quick. Not just Kurdish women are attending these courses, but anyone who chooses to live in Rojava."


Before the war broke out in 2011, women in Syria already enjoyed more freedom than their counterparts in other Middle Eastern countries, such as Iraq, Turkey and Iran.

"We had more freedom, a kind of legitimacy," Jendara Alsawish, a 34-year-old Kurdish woman from Aleppo. "But we couldn't participate in political life. If we had to go to the police station or any administrative offices we would go with our husbands or brothers because we might get harassed."

The women's revolution in Rojava has been a bright spot in a horrific war, said Alsawish, who sought asylum in Sweden in November with her three children, but still has close ties to the Kurdish enclave.

"Now we know what are our rights, we know about laws and so many other things. After the revolution started our Kurdish men tried to bring us below them, but the revolution opened our eyes," she said from the Swedish city of Vasteras.

"A lot of husbands would not let women go out and would force them to stay in the house to take care of the children. Now everything has changed."

In Kobani, Nassan said the real test would come when the war is over and refugees return to Syria: "I am more worried about the thousands of men who now live in Europe," he said.

"I don't know if they will be able to change their mentality since they have not been part of the cultural revolution."

(Editing by Ros Russell and Katie Nguyen; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit

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Syria's war liberates Kurdish women as it oppresses others

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