“We were taken from Mosul to Syria. There were thousands of young girls and ISIS members in the ISIS centre we were taken to. Young girls were being raped here. Young girls were forcibly brought and savagely raped, then were made to marry [ISIS members]. Those who didn’t agree were tortured and beaten up. We were forced to pray and read the Quran. They wanted us to wear black clothing and cover up our hands with gloves. They would sell the women who didn’t agree to this.”
This was the account of a 25-year-old Yazidi female named Jihan, who was one of the 18 Yazidi women and children rescued from the captivity of so-called Islamic State by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia near Raqqa, the de facto capital of the jihadi group in March 2016.
Hundreds of Yazidi women kidnapped by ISIS militants from their homeland of Sinjar in northern Iraq are still held as sex slaves in Raqqa. Among these women are children under the age of 13, some of whom became pregnant and gave birth whilst they were held in captivity.
YPG fighters played a critical role in rescuing the Yazidis from the Islamic State siege in Mount Sinjar in 2014 by opening a corridor and leading them to safety into Rojava, the de-facto Kurdish region in northern Syria.
Today the YPG and its all-female unit, the YPJ, are advancing step by step towards Raqqa. The US-backed Wrath of Euphrates operation, led by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which both militias are a dominant component of, have encircled the city.
The feminist YPJ, although dominated by Kurdish female fighters, has fighters from different ethnic groups in northern Syria, including local Arab women and internationalist-western volunteers. The feminist ideology of the YPJ is deeply embedded within the system proposed -democratic confederalism- developed by Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Females who join the YPJ must spend at least a month practising military tactics and studying the political theories of Ocalan, including Jinelogy, a ‘science’ or anthropology of women, which is part of the governing ideology of the autonomous region. Apart from fighting the Islamic State, the YPJ wants to rid the area of the oppression of women which is prevalent in both traditional Kurdish and Arab life and in the region in general.
The leading YPJ commander of the Raqqa operation, Rojda Felat, said that they wanted women’s participation in the operation to increase, as many Yazidi women are still being held in Raqqa. Felat joined the YPJ in 2013 and is from the northern town of Hasakah.
From the frontline she says, “ISIS has gathered the captive women in Raqqa as sex slaves. Their approach to women is clear, they want them to sit at home and have children and look after them. What we are saying is that women have their own will and are autonomous beings.”
For the YPJ, women must break free of the traditional gender roles in the region, and become females who are self-sustaining and able to defend themselves.
“ISIS sees women as property while the capitalist system views us as objects. Both perspectives think it is legitimate to use, abuse and persecute women.”
The feminist revolutionary commander adds, “We are also leading a physical and ideological war against the enemies of humanity [ISIS], and this foremost is an ideological war. As Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs, Turkmen and others, we’re declaring our units. Our slogan is ‘Women, Life, Freedom’.”
Jihan Sheikh Ahmad, the spokesperson of the Wrath of Euphrates operation and also a Syrian Democratic Forces commander joined the group with the eruption of the Syrian civil war in 2011. A Kurd from Raqqa, 35-year-old Jihan lived in the al-Badou neighbourhood of the city, well known for its rich mosaic of Arabic, Kurdish and Christian residents until the city’s capture in 2013. After the Islamic State took control of the city, the fraternal relations between different ethnic groups were destroyed, and families were divided.
Ahmad’s role in the operation holds a different meaning to her as a Kurdish woman from the city where Kurds were expelled soon after it was taken over by militants in 2013.
“As women in the SDF, we see each woman rescued as equivalent to a rescued homeland,” she says, a couple of meters from the frontline.
“In every village we rescue, we give a new identity to the humiliated and despised woman. This is a female identity that has received ideological and military training. That’s what happened in Manbij. After the city was liberated, the women there joined the YPJ and formed their own armies, now they’re defending themselves” and adds, “We also want to do this for Raqqa.”
The YPJ’s struggle has been called the real feminism of the 21st century by some. One of these people is Kimberly Taylor, a 27-year-old from Blackburn and the first Briton to have joined the all-female militia.
“Everyone here sees the YPJ as leaders of the revolution, they’re women that we can’t compare with anything in the world,” Taylor recently told the BBC.
Freeing the enslaved Yazidi women in Raqqa is a prime motivation for the internationalist revolutionary who joined the YPJ in October 2016.
But it was the story of a friend, an Arab YPJ fighter whose village had been ransacked by IS militants and eight-year old sister killed, that inspired Taylor to join the revolution.
“I want to get in there [Raqqa] because this is something in my heart. I need to do it,” she said.
As millions of women across the world prepare to take to the streets on 8 March, International Women’s Day, to demand an end to the injustices and oppression they face, the fighters of the YPJ will bare their arms once again to courageously resist at the forefront of the struggle for women’s liberation.