The following is an exclusive KCS interview with Berivan Amuda, from the YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) Information and Documentation Office, which was conducted on December 8th, 2023.
The YPJ was established in 2012 and emerged from the bloody outcome of the Syrian Civil War. Since then, the YPJ has gained global renown as a women’s self-defense force, especially through their revolutionary struggle against ISIS during the siege of Kobanê. Can you define the conditions that contributed to the establishment of this revolutionary women’s movement?
Syria, like many other countries in the region, was engulfed by the Arab Spring. However, instead of the people’s outcry for a dignified life finding an answer, the oppressive systems of rule only increased the levels of violence, and a civil war broke out in Syria that has kept the country fragmented to this day. In addition to the Syrian regime, a number of international powers have intervened in Syria and stationed proxies and mercenaries in the region. None of these powers represent a solution for the people in the slightest, but rather increase misery and deepen the state of war.
The revolution in Rojava presents itself as a third alternative path, different from either the Syrian opposition or the state. However, it did not simply emerge out of nowhere: Kurds and many other groups, including Christians and Arabs, that do not belong to the elite circle of the Syrian regime, have historically been subjected to torture, assimilation, and oppression. The Syrian regime had implemented concrete Arabization plans for the predominantly Kurdish regions, such as the state-planned “Arab belt” of villages near the border with Turkey. The Kurdish language was banned in public, and children were punished with physical violence if they spoke Kurdish in the schoolyard. Thousands of civilians vanished into the torture prisons of the Syrian regime.
Against this oppression, a small part of the population of Rojava began to organize in secret, a development catalyzed by the arrival of Abdullah Öcalan to Syria in 1979. Fundamentally, organizing the people in this way became the basis for founding a system of self-administration, even if no one knew at this time that one day an opportunity like this would arise. By the start of the revolution, Abdullah Ocalan had developed a political paradigm and taught it to thousands, first in academies and after his abduction and imprisonment, by composing his prison writings. He effectively created and implemented a paradigm for women’s liberation, which had spread widely in the society of Rojava. This is certainly one aspect of the basis for the emergence of the YPJ.
On the other hand, the first women guerrillas were developed in Kurdistan’s mountains. With more and more women joining the guerrillas from Rojava and with the formation of the women’s army in 1993, women had already been developing a self-confident and influential fighting force since the mid-1990s. Their experience gave them the knowledge that they can overcome all difficulties and that no matter how few they are, if it is done the right way, they will succeed. Women in Rojava also saw the experiences in the mountains and benefited from the accumulated knowledge of the Kurdish women guerrillas.
“The YPJ is not a traditional army, but a revolutionary force whose decisive task is to transform the mentality of oppression and domination.”
Each woman first broke her own shackles, thus breaking the backwardness of society and dealt a blow to the mentality of the oppressive regime in Damascus and the tyranny of ISIS. At the beginning of the revolution, so many women joined self-defense units that two autonomous battalions first emerged, until the YPJ was officially founded in 2013. Of course, there were many classical or feudal reservations in society, which meant that some did not believe that women could effectively participate in their own self-defense.
But women played the biggest role in the war to defend Kobanê against ISIS because of their strong willpower and convictions. With this, the YPJ became a force to be reckoned with in the eyes of the world’s public, seen as heroines defending humanity. From the beginning, the YPJ had to resist both the Syrian regime and forces such as Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS, and Turkey. What sets the Rojava Revolution apart from everything else in history, is that the usual attitude of “let’s solve this war first and then liberate women” or “let’s establish the system and then change society” simply never existed. It is a revolution that, from day one, has truly been based on a struggle centering women’s liberation and society’s change towards an ethical and political society. So this is why it was the most natural thing to form a women’s army as a core part of this transformation.
Women in Rojava have consistently been the target of various forms of patriarchal violence, including from states such as Turkey or the Syrian regime and organizations such as ISIS and fellow terrorist groups. How do you manage to resist such oppression and what are the challenges that you continue to face in this regard?
Fascist Turkey, the Syrian regime, and ISIS. As much as each of these forces may have used different policies against women, they are all grounded in the same patriarchal and state mentalities. Certainly, horror and violence in history have always taken on different dimensions and generally reached new dimensions in recent years, especially concerning the Turkish dictatorship. However, we can generally speak of a Third World War developing in recent years, the center of which is also here in Kurdistan and in north and east Syria. Accordingly, the women of the region have experienced a great deal of violence and suffering. This includes Turkey’s war of aggression, including the use of phosphorus chemical weapons in Serê Kaniyê, and the abduction and rape of women by Turkey and its aligned mercenaries in the Turkish-occupied areas. It includes the daily horror of ISIS torturing, enslaving, raping, and killing women. There is a disastrous level of violence women have faced and continue to face. What is crucial, however, is that they resist and that they found a different ideology, a solution, in the paradigm of Abdullah Öcalan.
For the revolution in north and east Syria, this is the paradigm of Democratic Confederalism, centered on women’s liberation and ecology. With this mentality, a change has been initiated in every cell of society. While it is about defense, it is also about building a new path. The state system and the reign of terror under ISIS had their mentality defeated. For sure, this change in mentality must become a collective organization. Otherwise, there cannot be real change at the base of society.
The establishment of women’s self-defense units, as well as the organization of society, play an important role in this resistance. The situation in north and east Syria has changed from the ground up. For sure, this is not a completed process, because what we analyze as patriarchal oppression slowly evolving in a five-thousand-year-old system cannot be removed from everyone’s mind in a day. The principal challenge is the change in this mentality itself. So this is an ongoing struggle, involving organizing all women according to their strength and possibility to contribute to the defense of their homeland and the development of the women’s revolution. For sure, it is often the most difficult issue to change our mentality as women ourselves, because only if we overcome our internalized patriarchal beliefs and struggle together in the right way can we achieve success, change our society, and resist.
The YPJ is a powerful symbol of women’s resistance, courage, and agency. Can you identify one key step that women in other societies can take towards gaining greater power and visibility within their societies?
For women, in order to make fundamental change, they first have to fundamentally question a modernity that sells, exploits, rapes, degrades, and disrespects women and turns them into commodities. If we understand this, we can understand that there is a need for women to organize together and take charge of major areas of their lives. This has to happen in an autonomous way, including in self-defense. Without autonomy, liberation cannot be reached because there is simply no space where women can question and overcome patriarchal influences. For sure, there is no one specific program that you can just place into any society. You rather need to understand the true necessities and realities of all women in this society and develop an approach according to this. If today we speak of the self-defense of women, this doesn’t necessarily only mean to develop a women’s army; it can take on different forms.
“Women from all over the world can come together and develop a confederalist system of organization that allows them to exchange experiences, share solutions, and develop a common perspective on women’s liberation.”
So if we were to propose a concrete step to take, it would be this: for women worldwide to develop their common confederal organizations, focusing on the central issue of self-defense in the broadest sense.
Between your courageous fight against ISIS and ongoing resistance against the oppressive policies of the Turkish regime, which has been the greater challenge?
The fight against ISIS cost thousands of martyrs and great sacrifices, but the military threat of Turkey is greater because it is backed by NATO. After all, ISIS was just a proxy force used by state powers, but the powers that supported ISIS, like Turkey, remain undeterred by the defeat of ISIS. It has been proven that the YPJ and YPG were able to defeat ISIS while largely being abandoned by the world. This also shows that you can achieve anything if you are determined to and have a strong ideological basis.
Technologically, Turkey is much more equipped than ISIS was. The continuous drone war and use of aircraft is, for sure, something that harms the people of north and east Syria a great deal and costs the lives of many civilians, members of self-defense forces, and politicians. But what actually makes a major difference is the political credibility that international powers give Turkey. In front of the world’s eyes, Turkey occupied Afrin and Serê Kaniyê through brutal wars and continued ethnic cleansing and assimilation politics towards the different population groups of the region, especially the Kurdish people.
Turkey attempts to occupy and annex major parts of northern Syria, mostly Rojava and parts of Southern Kurdistan (northern Iraq). The international support that Turkey receives for this war and for its attempt to destroy the alternative that the Rojava revolution represents is what makes Turkey more dangerous than the attacks of ISIS. So in this sense, it will always be more challenging to resist Turkey. But also, the fascistic Turkish state is in a state of crisis, which makes it possible to resist and defeat it. But this will continue to require great sacrifices.
There is a powerful quote by the American Black woman and scholar Audre Lorde who states, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” The YPJ is not solely a Kurdish women’s military organization. It is so much more than that in scope, aspirations, and objectives. What are the commonalities between women, say in Kobanê and those in Afghanistan, Latin America, Sweden, or Canada?
For sure, it was Audre Lorde’s aspiration to understand and struggle against women’s oppression while not forgetting that there are other issues to face, such as racism. Much of what she analyzed is also addressed in the writings of Abdullah Öcalan. He built his paradigm around the concept of the Democratic Nation, which allows different religious or ethnic groups to live according to their own culture and maintain autonomy, while at the same time creating common ground and the framework of an ethical and political societal life. In this framework, the YPJ is also a force that includes different societal groups, such as Yazidis, Christians, Arabs, Turkmen, and so on. Some build their own defense forces, like the Armenian Battalion or the Bethnahrain Women’s Protection Forces – an Assyrian all-women defense unit that is part of the SDF. Others took part in the YPJ, with all uniting to defend their homelands in north and east Syria.
Our approach to women’s liberation is so unique that we attempt to analyze the core of women’s enslavement by analyzing and teaching about the roots of women’s oppression that developed after the Neolithic Age. This also leads us to develop different perspectives than the ones of many feminists and critical thinkers, in the sense that we see the need to analyze even further the nature of the issue and its historical roots. If we do not do this, we can fall again into the trap of staying within the framework of liberalism or simply not succeed in developing solutions for society.
We are very aware, from the start of our struggle, that it is one for all women. Today, an average woman in the western world might see herself as privileged in some ways, but essentially, the means of patriarchal violence, whether it is war, domestic violence, exploitation as a commodity, or rape culture, target every woman in some way. It is also a reality that even a woman who may not face femicide herself will be consciously or unconsciously affected by other women facing such violence. We shouldn’t ever fall into the trap of seeing things from a solely individual point of view. The killing of women sends a clear message to all women in this sense: It spreads the message to avoid making your voice heard and to conform to a patriarchal and fascist system. The faces of ISIS attacking Kobanê or the Taliban in Afghanistan are only the most obvious and violent manifestations of the same mentality.
“So for us, our resistance and our efforts to prove that revolution is possible are something we see as our responsibility towards all women worldwide.”
But women worldwide should also develop the same sense of responsibility that many of us have already. The ones who do not see themselves as oppressed or only want a bigger role in the system of patriarchy, monopolies, and exploitation might even be the ones who are the most enslaved by modernity, unable to dissociate from its framework. We are all in need of freedom and we are all in need of developing our organization for self-defense. We also need to make our voices heard as women, when forces like the Taliban or Turkey systematically target women.
As a women’s movement that emerged within the context of the Kurdish liberation movement in Rojava, the war against ISIS, and the ongoing invasions and terrorism imposed by Turkey, the challenges faced by your movement have been immense. How has the YPJ attempted to reform and evolve in response to these obstacles?
The history of the revolution is full of vanguards and pioneers. In the most difficult situations, there were always women in our struggle standing up and finding new steps to take. What plays a major factor in this is education. Whenever we faced major challenges, we asked ourselves, “What is the aspect of our own strategical approach that we didn’t grasp or discuss sufficiently?” and then we adapt and strengthen our educational programs and methods according to this; we self-criticize. Some methods that were used against ISIS cannot be used against Turkey because it is a very different force we are facing, so for sure we have made tactical changes.
It is also possible that other international powers will intervene and attack us. So we take pride in always learning from our experiences and preparing for any possible changes. Also, we always closely monitor the historical phase that we are passing through and challenge ourselves to become an adequate respondent to it. For self-defense against major state forces, this means professionalization and, most importantly, becoming even more one with society. Without the power of society, there is no possibility of defeating attackers like state forces. For this reason, our strategic basis today is the revolutionary people’s war. That means organizing every part of ethical and political society and of daily life according to the needs of legitimate self-defense.
What have been some of the key successes of the YPJ since its inception in 2013?
If we speak about the major successes of the YPJ, we must first speak about the change YPJ’s establishment brought for women in Rojava. Women became an autonomous force, from the first battalions to the first YPJ conference and its foundation on April 4, 2013. From the beginning, the YPJ decided to be a force for all women and our struggle had a major impact on society. It is the first and only successfully established women’s army in the region. It made major contributions not only to the freedom of Kurdish women, but also Arab, Turkmen and Christian women. It was the example and practical assistance of the YPJ that made it possible to establish forces like the Assyrian self-defense force. This shows women in the Middle East a clear model for a solution, which in itself is a major success. The YPJ contributed major steps to the education of women in a new, liberated mindset. Broad and colorful systems of academies, from military education to practical skills, but most importantly, ideological education, have been developed. Many of these take place in both Kurdish and Arabic. The YPJ has changed society from the ground up; this is a major success.
There are also many military successes that we could mention, most prominently: the YPJ was involved in the liberation of Şengal, home of the Yazidi people, in 2015, after the brutal genocide by ISIS in 2014. Even if Şengal is in Southern Kurdistan (north Iraq), the YPJ saw it as its moral responsibility to come to aid the Yazidis when the world abandoned them. The YPJ most prominently played its role in the opening of a safe corridor for the fleeing Yazidi population from ISIS, saving thousands of civilians from the same fate that ten thousand Yazidi suffered under the ISIS genocide. There were also several offensives in which the YPJ took on the pioneering role of the people’s defense.
The most prominent example of this is the liberation of the city center of Kobanê in 2016, completed on January 26th. For the first time, the eyes of the world were on the Rojava Revolution, while the YPJ defeated the much better-equipped ISIS attackers with sheer willpower. Following this, the liberation of Manbij from ISIS in 2016 was a major step, as it showed that the YPJ also stood up for a predominantly Arab region, gaining the trust of all the women of north and east Syria and showing what the Democratic Nation and women’s unity can truly mean.
Another, and possibly the most known example, is the liberation of Raqqa in October 2017, when the city was completely liberated from ISIS. The YPJ played the decisive vanguard role in this offensive. For sure, this was a major defeat for ISIS since they saw Raqqa as their political epicenter; the YPJ truly broke the backbone of ISIS. This is a success that changed the history of humanity.
As 2023 draws to a close, the international system is in crisis, and the global pandemic has destroyed social, economic, and political structures, causing increasing havoc. As a result, the situation and condition of women, colonized, stateless, and oppressed peoples globally are increasingly dire. What is the message of the YPJ to such communities as they face these bleak times?
We have already said that we are facing a situation that we can name the Third World War, with the Middle East as one major center. Certainly, everywhere in the world, crises or wars are showing up, and this is mainly proof of what we are already sure of: that there has to be an alternative modernity and that we cannot live with this status quo. Whether it is exploitation or war, oppression will only continue to intensify if we do not organize. To struggle does not merely mean to wait for opportunities or to only continue with limited approaches that do not solve the root of the issues. It is essential to develop approaches that follow new methods that strengthen democratic modernity.
We have to know that this isn’t an easy way and it cannot be solved by a single issue or a one-method struggle. If we speak of the environmental crisis, for example, we have to acknowledge that it is a sign that humanity in general has to understand that life cannot continue at the current pace of capitalist modernity, and the pandemic is a part of this. So we shouldn’t fall into the trap of searching for the solution to the problem in the same places and approaches that created it.
We have to analyze the greater truth of these problems, and we as the YPJ are convinced that Abdullah Öcalan offers an important perspective on this. We clearly see the pain and despair the world is going through; everywhere in the world there is the horrifying oppression of women, exploitation, and continuing genocides. We encourage every individual to see all of this as further evidence that democratic modernity—the liberation from this oppression—can and will be reached if we struggle. We very much hope that all the resisting forces of the world can continue to strengthen their bonds and see our common ground of struggle in order to face this situation with hope.