Six years of YPJ: growing and changing society

Six years ago the Women's Defense Units were founded. YPJ spokeswoman Nesrin Abdullah takes a look back to the early days when Kurdish women in Rojava took up arms.

The Women's Defense Units (YPJ) was founded on April 4, 2013. On the occasion of its six-year anniversary, YPJ spokeswoman Nesrin Abdullah commented on the developments since the very beginning in an interview with ANF.


You took part in the founding phase of the YPJ. On what basis were the YPJ founded?

Women play a strategic role in the freedom and independence of peoples and in the peace and justice of society. Gender equality, social justice, a life of free organization and identity are important to a society. We see this above all in the Kurdish society. Despite centuries of colonization and hostile attacks, the Kurdish people have preserved their own selves. It was not a political claim, but as a people, they protected their own culture, existence, traditions and customs. They have always been in resistance.

There have been many revolutions in history and the past is full of the stories of these revolutions. Here, women were always significantly involved and have come to the fore. Even at times when there were no women's organizations, single women have shaped events.

In comparison with the other parts of Kurdistan, Rojava has always provided assistance and created opportunities. However, no revolution took place and there were no organized defense mechanisms, especially none involving women. In the history of Rojava, a revolution has taken place for the first time, and women's defenders play a leading role in this revolution. This was a historic process for Rojava.

So it was a first, but we have to see it in the context of the fight of the Kurds as well as the women worldwide and the Kurdish women. "We are hidden in the beginning of history and history in our presence" - this statement has not been made in vain. The existing combat experience took shape in Rojava and especially in the women of Rojava. As YPJ, we regard ourselves as a continuation of the heritage that emerged from the struggles of women worldwide and Kurdish women. The YPJ was built under the leadership of Kurdish women.

Rojava has been ruled by the Baath regime, a chauvinist and ignorant system. Not only the women, the entire Kurdish people were disenfranchised. There was no right to identity and political status. The prevailing repression was so great that the Kurds were not even allowed to live their own culture and customs. There were many casualties and women were tortured. Nevertheless, the population of Rojava never capitulated. Especially women were not allowed to breathe, but they insisted on speaking for themselves and organizing themselves politically.

Another factor should not be forgotten: in this part of Kurdistan, no revolution took place earlier, but it was the nest from which all the revolutions of Kurdistan emerged. And Abdullah Öcalan had great influence in this region. He has spent years educating the women's liberation ideology in the population, and this work has had a major impact on women. Already at that time numerous women from Rojava joined the liberation struggle and many of them have fallen martyrs. Even today, this effect is noticeable. Women have gained self-confidence and trust has also been generated in the population. This factor has contributed to the emergence of the YPJ.

How did you decide to start the YPJ?

The YPJ were not suddenly founded by resolution from above, and they did not just come into existence. They were founded on the basis of a consciousness, on a scientific basis. The history of women worldwide and Kurdish women has been researched and interpreted. The decision to build up their own women's forces is based on scientific findings. In order to enable a strong foundation, preparations for the necessary substructure have been made.

Our first finding in the start-up phase was the existing need for specific women's units for self-defense. Second, we realized that such an organization would not be possible without ideology. An ideological participation was necessary, the pure accession was not enough. If women do not trust themselves and their own strength and have no consciousness, there would have been no difference. Women would have carried weapons and men as well. That's why the women's liberation ideology was essential to us.

Also for the own defense a scale was necessary, therefore we put on the legitimate self-defense. In subsequent developments, this line has always been decisive and that is why we still exist today.

There has also been a debate on the standard of acceptance and rejection of women and the question of their own organization. In addition to the positive factors such as the trust that was placed in us and the growing determination and perseverance, there were also many difficulties.

What were the difficulties?

It was the first time that women's defense units were established in the region. Women wanted to take up arms and represent their own identity in this part of the world. It was not so easy for society to accept, people did not accept it. We know that the society is feudal in Kurdistan and the Middle East. There was a patriarchal way of thinking.

In the Middle East, both a female and a male mentality had emerged. According to this way of thinking, women were helpless. They were assigned a life within the house. Women have been taught that they only come into the world to give birth to children and to satisfy men that they are beautiful, fragile and gentle. The men had established an understanding of domination. Of course there was also the policy led by the enemy, which had a crippling effect not only within society but also in the personality of women.

How did you manage to build women's defense units for the first time in a society with committed gender roles?

We have noticed that we first needed a small group of women who can organize other women. Here, Şehîd (Martyr) Warşin and Şehîd Jinda played a major role. Both have done much to convince other women to join the YPJ. The YPJ did not exist yet, but there was already a decision to found it. Therefore, women had to be found first, who were willing to do so, otherwise the pure decision would have no function. We went from house to house, dealing with the women and talking to them. We got together with their families and talked for hours. These discussions sometimes lasted for days, even months. Through our persistence, women could be persuaded to join the fight.

The personalities of women were not prepared for this because women are socialized within the traditions of society. The dreams of women did not go beyond attending school, a house, a partner and children. Such was the situation of women in our society. For us, the accession of a woman was as meaningful as the liberation of a nation. In this consciousness we went forward. It was difficult for us, but it was very important. We knew that we were doing a very difficult job, and with each new woman joining us, our burden became lighter. It was a success and this success motivated us further.

In 2012, we founded an academy called Şehîd Xebat in the village of Zixate in Dêrik.

Has this academy been founded by the YPJ or the YPG?

At that time, the YPG did not exist. It was the time of the YXK, the Academy was a military academy of the YXK. A friend named Piling and I worked on building a military academy. Heval Piling fell a martyr later. No women participated in the first three courses. In the fourth course, we decided to get the women out of their families so they could also get an education. Two women then participated. Even that was a great success for us. Over time, more and more women came. The confidence in women grew, they became more courageous and self-confident. For us that was a developmental leap.

How did you come to the official foundation of the YPJ?

For many organizations, the first step is building and then taking the step into practice. It was not like that with the YPJ. At the YPJ and YPG, organization, construction and defense took place simultaneously. In 2012, our friends actively participated in the defense in the fight against the Baath regime in Aleppo. Our forces were built and at the same time actively participated in the defense.

This time was really remarkable for us. We did everything at the same time, experienced beautiful and difficult things at the same time. Before the YPJ were officially founded, they participated in the revolution, grew bigger and formed.

That's why the YPJ quickly gained influence, both within society and among male friends. They were recognized in society, more and more women joined, and friends earned respect and trust.

All the women who joined declared their willingness to sacrifice themselves for this people, for the land and for the women. With this motivation, they joined the ranks and fought. With their conviction, their passion and the will they represented, they proved themselves both in organizing in the social sphere and in war. They gave the company confidence.

In the war, women quickly gained the trust of men. Although they were inexperienced and young, they were able to give strength to the male friends. Although we were just getting started, the morale of friends at the front was very different when women were present. Their conviction, perseverance and determination grew larger.

Within the population, the friends who were responsible for organizing made for a similarly positive atmosphere. That was very important for the YPJ. Within a short time, the number of fighters grew rapidly. The motivation developed among the women led to very rapid accessions. That's why we, as the YPJ headquarters, needed to hold a conference in 2013. And on 4 April 2013, the founding of the YPJ was declared.

At the beginning of the revolution our numbers were still small, we were still under construction, yet we participated in all the offensives and battles. Since 2012, the YPJ has been involved in defense in all areas. The YPJ have fought against the regime, against Islamist groups, against al-Nusra, the ISIS and even against the gangs of the Turkish state, Afrin is an example.

How do you evaluate the current developments? You said that the YPJ was founded by Kurdish women. Are women from other peoples now present in the YPJ ranks?

From day one to today, there have been really big changes within the YPJ. Both YPJ and society have changed. The YPJ was founded under the leadership of Kurdish women. They started with the Kurdish women and then organized themselves throughout northern and eastern Syria, not only within the Kurdish society, but in all the peoples of the region. The YPJ are the defense forces of all the women in the region, and women from other peoples have joined as well.

Within the YPJ there are Arab, Syriac, Armenian, Circassian, Chechen and Turkmen women. The colors of all nations are represented. The handling of the YPJ has ensured that women of other peoples have found their place within the YPJ. Every woman can find herself in the YPJ.

The principles of the YPJ play an important role here. One of these principles is that the revolutionary struggle is of course not conducted only for the Kurdish people. Our real goal is to build a democratic, free, ecological and egalitarian society that does not discriminate between the genders. As our name implies, we are a force dedicated to women's defense, regardless of origin.

Every woman has the right to join the YPJ regardless of religion, origin, language and belief.

What developments have the YPJ made since its founding in military terms - strategy, tactics, technology, command center?

I have already said that the YPJ have matured in practice. The YPJ were founded on a scientific basis. At our 2013 conference, we decided to set up military academies. We have seen the need for both ideological and military training. There were already academies before, but they were mixed. We wanted to start our own women's academies.

Lessons in the art of war took place at our academies, at the same time experiences were gained in practice. Looking back at the beginning, we see that we have seen great developments both as the commanders and fighters of the YPJ.

We have fought against armies and against Islamist groups that have used guerrilla tactics. As for defense tactics, we have become experts. The fight for Kobanê is the best example, Raqqa is also a good example. The liberation of Raqqa has, under the leadership of the YPJ, become a retaliatory offensive for the women from Shengal. The YPJ have become a professional force.