In early 2013, Ruwayda, the commander of the first all-female brigade of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (or PYD), oversaw 53 fighters, working with the Free Syrian Army to stop Assad’s forces from entering Kurdish neighborhoods of Aleppo.
After holding off the regime, she and her brigade returned to their home base, the predominantly Kurdish northern city of the Afrin, turning their efforts to stopping the advance of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
“I believe in a greater cause, which is protecting our families and our cities from the extremists’ brutality and dark ideas,” she says. “I read Nietzsche and Marx, which they don’t accept. They don’t accept having women in leadership positions. They want us to cover ourselves and become housewives to attend to their needs only. They think we have no right to talk and control our lives.”
Kurdish women, regarded as some of the most liberal in the region, have a decades-long history of fighting. Many have fought with the PKK, an internationally recognized terror organization that works with the YPG, in southern Turkey.
Now, Ruwayda says, jihadists’ repression of women has led many Kurdish to pick up arms, and that about 30 percent of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the armed wing of the PYD – is now female.
Britan Derek, 33, is a commander in the YPG’s unit in Hassakeh, another Kurdish-majority city in the north, which is grappling with the increasing threat of ISIS as the group, fueled by gains made in a June takeover of Mosul, has been marching steadily north and east.
“Women can fight better than men,” she says. “We remain calm and steadfast. We are usually snipers, or on the fighting fronts. Women don’t have much to lose in battle. Men dream of starting a family, or returning to their families. Whereas women who have chosen this path do so willingly. They have no other purpose.”
But even among more liberal Kurdish families, daughters have to convince their parents to let them join the fight. Some are just teenagers.
“I quit studying Kurdish and joined training camps in Dirbasiyyah,” adds her friend Ameena, 19. “My parents tried to stop me but they couldn’t. My mother didn’t talk to me for six months after I joined, but we are back to normal now.”
After beginning her studies at a traditional Kurdish language school in Hassakeh, Ameena “joined PYD training camps, supervised by men and women who came from Turkey, and who have been fighters for decades,” says her father, Mohammed.
“I tried to stop Ameena by all means, but I couldn’t. Her decision was final. We are born in a liberated society that respects women and their decisions. I never imagined my daughter’s decision would be to be a fighter, but I’ve become very proud of her. She is braver than I am, and stronger than her brothers. When she comes to visit us, all family friends come to take pictures with her.”
Names have been changed.