The Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) are a female military group consisting of predominantly Kurdish women that fight alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces. The group is pushing for the Kurdish region of Rojava in North-Eastern Syria to become officially autonomous. The successes of the YPJ faction illustrate the need for gender equity within military complexes.
The anger and drive to gain autonomy is a product of the repressive treatment of Kurds from Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. Repression of the Kurdish population was most notably witnessed in 1962, whereby 120,000 Kurds had their Syrian citizenship revoked. This event would grant the Syrian government justification to further suppress the ethnic group, preventing the Kurdish region from gaining any autonomy.
The YPJ’s fight is to attain autonomy within Rojava and other Kurdish held areas within North and Eastern Syria. Possessing de facto authority within those regions today, the Kurdish struggle was most notably witnessed following the events of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Syrian dictator Bashir al-Asaad pulled his forces out of the Kurdish region to quell the resistance in the major cities, allowing Kurdish forces to take control of the new unregulated territory. Kurdish influence expanded, as Syrian government forces focussed on stabilising its major cities. However, the ethnic group were faced with a new enemy. The rising Islamist extremist terrorist organisation, ISIS.
One can argue that Asaad fuelled the rise of ISIS through his release of Jihadist extremists from prisons across Syria. This move was a strategy to tinge the rebellion with extremism and redirect the civil war towards battling extremism. Additionally, in fuelling the ISIS insurgency, Asaad was able to stabilise the Kurdish expansion in northern Syria as ISIS substituted for the regime to perpetuate conflict in Rojava.
The YPJ was established in March of 2013, a few months before ISIS encroachment into Rojava. The forces were being trained under the People’s Protection Units (YPG) to engage ISIS fighters. Throughout the next two years, the YPJ were the most successful force in pushing back the ISIS insurgency and retaking territory. Fighting on the front lines, the YPJ posed a major threat to ISIS, but not in a way that you would expect. One interpretation of the Jihadist faith grants a martyr or Jihadist fighter the gift of 72 virgins in paradise (heaven) upon death. However, if killed by a woman, one no longer receives such a gift. Understanding this, the YPJ witnessed ISIS forces retreat without combat upon engaging female soldiers. In establishing unrecognised, yet autonomous, operation in Northern Syria, the Kurds are yet again under siege by Turkish militarization. With the rising threat of Kurdish encroachment into Turkish territory in 2015, Erdogan has engaged in ground and air military operations, targeting Kurdish-held regions in Northern Iraq and Syria.
Despite the ongoing repression of the Kurdish population, the story of the YPJ and their successes presents a strong case for gender equity in military bodies around the world.