Kurdish Women of Afrin: Targets of Occupation
By Dr. Hawzhin Azeez
In January 2018, Turkey’s military launched an unprovoked cross border operation against the Afrin (Efrîn) region of Rojava in northwest Syria. The military invasion was cynically named “Operation Olive Branch” (an Orwellian reference to somehow offering peace through war), which went on to cause massive infrastructural damage and civilian suffering to those in the city of Afrin and surrounding areas.
By March 18, 2018, the Turkish armed forces alongside their allied jihadists posing as the “Syrian National Army” (SNA) completed their encirclement and occupation of the region. As a result, up to 400,000 Kurdish civilians were forcibly displaced and terrorized out of their homes, as they fled a lawless wave of kidnappings, arrests, and torture. As Kurdish civilians were ethnically cleansed from their neighborhoods, the families and IDPs (Internally Displaced People) from other regions controlled by the SNA and allied Turkish forces began to move in and steal their houses.
As early as March 13, 2018, Redur Xelil a senior official for Rojava’s Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), pointed out that Turkey was conducting deliberate demographic changes in the region. By June of that year, UNHCR produced a report in which it confirmed that:
“Civilians now living in areas under the control of Turkish forces and affiliated armed groups continue to face hardships, which in some instances may amount to violations of international humanitarian law and violations or abuses of international human rights law.”
However, the situation would become much worse as Turkey’s occupation continued. The invasion by the Turkish military and their allied jihadist mercenaries has caused a catastrophic array of human rights violations and abuses for everyone in Afrin, but especially in relation to the treatment of women and girls. The range of shocking abuses that the interim Turkish-backed government has engaged in or allowed read like a list of horrors, including: unlawful detentions, kidnappings, extortion, theft, forced eviction of homes, beatings, torture, sexual abuse of minors, gang rapes, forced marriages, murder, bombings, and desecration of historical and holy sites. Essentially, every ghastly war crime that a person can conjure up, has been committed on a daily basis in occupied Afrin over the last five years.
Likewise, since the invasion, attacks on integral civilian infrastructures including water, electricity, and vital health-care networks have resulted in massive destruction, which continues to make like unbearable for the remaining Kurdish civilians. Hospitals, markets, shelters, camps, homes, shrines, and monuments have not been spared, especially when these sites were directly linked to Kurdish, Yazidi, Alevi, or Christian communities. Yet, one of the most terrifying aspects of the ongoing occupation is the threat of sexual violence and forced marriages targeting women and girls.
Indeed, the targeting of Kurdish women is a deliberate and ongoing tactic used by the Turkish occupation to continue to create an atmosphere of terror and fear within Kurdish communities and eventually drive them all to leave the region. Ankara’s objective is to make life so dangerous and psychologically traumatic for the Kurds of Afrin, that they all migrate to other areas, thereby completing their ethnic cleansing without having to conduct full genocidal mass murder.
Targeting All Kurdish Women
Hilal Alkan, in her 2018 article titled “The Sexual Politics of War: Reading the Kurdish Conflict Through Images of Women”, highlighted the racist and sexualized nature of Kurdish women’s representation in Turkish society and media. She notes how Kurdish women’s bodies are seen as playgrounds in which state politics and power are played out and racist and violent policies enacted. For instance, in October 2019, there was international outcry as a Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf was murdered by jihadists allied to the Turkish regime. In her case, she was pulled from her vehicle and repeatedly shot, and then her body badly abused by jeering men, who showed their delight in not only murdering but humiliating her, for being a Kurdish woman who dared to live as a full human.
Other women, such as Zehra Berkel, another politician was murdered ay a Turkish drone strike in June of 2020. Or five teenage girls: Ranya Eta, Zozan Zêdan, Dîlan Ezedîn, and Diyana Elo, who were all murdered in August of 2022 by a Turkish drone strike while they played volleyball at a United Nations Educational Center for Girls near Heseke. Then the morning after the massacre, where the four girls were burned alive and died while crying out for their parents, the Turkish dictator Erdoğan declared: “We are continuing our fight against terrorism… Our phrase ‘we might come suddenly one night’ is not in vain.” Displaying how according to Turkish state policy, all Kurdish females in Rojava (whether women or girls) are seen as legitimate military targets.
Even Kurdish women in the diaspora are not safe from Turkey’s campaign of hatred. In June 2022, Amineh Kakabaveh, a Swedish-Kurdish parliamentarian and a former Komala Peshmerga fighter faced threats and demands for deportation by the Turkish state after she voted in a no-confidence motion against Turkey; thereby saving the Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson’s government. In her case, although Kakabaveh’s early life had been spent resisting Iran and not Turkey, and she has never lived in Turkey or been a Turkish citizen, Erdoğan’s regime believed he was entitled to have her deported from Sweden and into one of his dungeons, simply because she was a Kurdish woman who dared to defy him. And therein lies the psychology behind Turkey’s sado-masochistic brutality in Afrin towards Kurdish women, where the Turkish state and military operates under the worldview that all Kurds do not deserve basic human rights, but especially the women.
Such violations have resulted in decades of Kurdish women’s resistance and struggles against external oppressors, but also internally within the Kurdish community itself. For this reason, Kurdish women, especially with the popularity of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), have come to be known for their courage and bravery in defeating ISIS, and resisting their primary sponsor—the invading Turkish military. Yet, no amount of bravery can withstand all of the sophisticated weaponry provided by NATO, which is utilized for acts of state terror by the organization’s second largest army – Turkey. Nevertheless, Kurdish women are determined to challenge the image of their marginalization and victimization, while remaining determined to achieve their own form of freedom.
But, despite their defiance, the ongoing occupation of Afrin and surrounding areas has continued to create a collective sense of fear and terror, as daily acts of depravity continue, and every new instance of detention, abuse, torture, and rape adds to the collective trauma of a people who have already experiences five years of Turkish-occupied hell. And this is not even mentioning the other regions of Rojava, Bakur, and Bashur in which regular abuses and violations against Kurds by the Turkish regime and its allied forces occur with terrifying regularity.
Tragically, one form of abuse that has generated little international attention and condemnation has been that of kidnapping or arbitrary arrests, and the subsequent sexual violence committed against the women and girls of Afrin. Undoubtedly, males have also been targets of sexual abuse, however, cultural norms, feelings of shame, guilt, and hopelessness may have prevented many of these men and boys from coming forward.
As the cases of war crimes against Afrin’s Kurdish women continued to add up, some organizations have attempted to chronicle the atrocities in the hopes that they would spur future accountability. For example, the Missing Afrin Women Project compiles reports of kidnappings and disappearances of women and girls in Afrin since the region came under the control of Turkey in January 2018. As such, reports from local media and human rights organizations have identified over 150 women and girls who have been kidnapped during this time period. It is widely documented that the military police and Turkish security personnel along with other Islamist groups allied with Turkey are responsible for these crimes. But sadly, justice and answers are still on the horizon for all of these women, as long as Turkey is not held accountable for their actions.
The Role Gender Plays
Gender based violence (GBV) during conflicts and wars often takes a gendered approach. For instance, traditionally men encounter violence, torture, and abuses as combatants – while women are traditionally treated as victims. Which helps explain why GBV as a concept has only generated international attention since the 1990s. More specifically, in 1993 when the UN adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. Yet, we still see extensive abuses imposed based on gender within modern day conflicts, and the Syrian situation has proven to have a similar trajectory. Indeed, civilians were consistently targeted not only by the Syrian regime, or the invading Turkish forces and allied jihadists, but also other rebel groups across the country. The deliberate targeting of women and children, who are often the most adversely affected demographic within a warzone, causes not only mass refugee flows, but also internally displaced peoples (IDP) too. According to the UNHCR:
“Gender-based violence (GBV) is a serious violation of human rights and a life-threatening health and protection issue. It is estimated that one in three women will experience sexual or physical violence in their lifetime. During displacement and times of crisis, the threat of GBV significantly increases for women and girls.”
The UN defines GBV as:
“Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.”
In other words, it is not just the act of the abuses and violence that is a form of GBV, but also the threat or possibility of abuses against women that are seen as a form of violence too. Concurring with the UN definition, the European Institute for Gender Equality states that:
“Gender-based violence is a phenomenon deeply rooted in gender inequality and continues to be one of the most notable human rights violations within all societies. Gender-based violence is violence directed against a person because of their gender. Both women and men experience gender-based violence but the majority of victims are women and girls.”
Turkey’s Terror by Proxy
Nevertheless, the international community also sees GBV during armed conflicts as primarily inevitable and unavoidable. Soon after the occupation of Afrin, the UN reported concerns over the prevalent and recurrent use of hostage-taking by the various armed forces of Kurdish civilians, especially of women and girls. Other concerns included Yazidi women being pressured to convert to Islam under threat of violence during interrogations. Other reports were presented indicating that at least 49 Kurdish and Yazidi women were detained in the regions of Efrîn and Serê Kaniyê by allied Turkish forced between November 2019 to July 2020.
A number of terrorist groups, most affiliated or directly linked to the Turkish regime in Afrin including the Sultan Murad Brigade, Sultan Shah Brigade, and Hamza Brigade amongst others continue to operate a state of terror in the region. One of the most brutal is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly known as the al-Nusra Front. HTS is a group that was the main affiliate of al-Qaeda in the region until about 2016, when it severed relations with the original organization. However, observers have noted that they still retain the very same ideology as al-Qaeda. Aside from Afrin, the terror group also controls the majority of Idlib province, as well as some neighboring provinces. It is widely viewed to be the strongest and best organized of the rebel groups and an ally of the Turkish state. Essentially, HTS now fills the role that ISIS did as Ankara’s anti-Kurdish proxy in Syria.
But all of these groups serve a purpose, as these Turkish-allied terrorist forces and their kidnapping of women has established “a pervasive climate of fear which in effect confined them [women] to their homes” in Afrin. These allied jihadist forces have an avowed and publicly established misogynistic approach to the rights of women in areas they occupy in their pursuit of a puritanical form of radical Islamic governance. Soon after the occupation of Afrin, women and girls were barred from leaving their homes, while also being forced to wear the niqab in public. The previously liberal and open society that symbolized Afrin’s multicultural system when under Kurdish control was entirely reversed.
A 2020 UN report titled “Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic” argues that in Afrin:
“Women and girls have also been detained by Syrian National Army fighters and subjected to rape and sexual violence – causing severe physical and psychological harm at the individual level, as well as at the community level, owing to stigma and cultural norms related to ideations of ‘female honour’”.
Likewise, the report goes on to note that at least 30 Kurdish women alone were reportedly raped in February 2020. Furthermore, occupying fighters in Afrin had been charged with acts of sexual violence and rape during house raids. Yet, despite the charges, none have been convicted, and they were released after several days. At the same time, dozens of women were kidnapped and pressured into forced marriages with occupying militants, with some women divorced soon after. Tragically it appears that so long as the Afrin region is under the control of Turkish and allied jihadist occupying forces, all acts of violence—physical, sexual and psychological will continue unabated towards women.
For these reasons and more, it is essential that Kurdish studies take on a more gender-orientated focus and the plight of Kurdish women within warzones is studied closely and highlighted. Moreover, since today March 8th is International Women’s Day, we must emphasize the significance of transnational women’s solidarity with the plight of women across Rojava, but also most specifically in Turkish occupied Afrin. Jin, Jîyan, Azadî (Women, Life, Freedom) cannot just be a slogan for chanting at protests in Western cities, but it must be a solemn oath and principle that we all commit to living out, by ensuring that vulnerable women – like the tens of thousands of Kurdish women in Afrin – do not have to spend another day hiding in fear from a state set out to violate their bodies and destroy their humanity.