How a female guerrilla escaped forced marriage and the ISIS

Zîlan comes from a feudal family from East Kurdistan in which patriarchal structures are predominant. Her father forced her into marriage and her uncle forced her to join ISIS. An experience led her out of the spiral of violence into guerrilla struggle.

The civil life of guerrilla fighter Zîlan Ciwanro was marked by patriarchal domination and degradation. She was born in Ciwanro (Jawanrud), a city with about 60,000 inhabitants in the East Kurdistan province of Kermanshah. As the daughter of a feudal family, in which patriarchal structures are predominant and the traditional understanding of roles attributes almost no rights and privileges to women, she experienced violence, was oppressed and discriminated.

When Zîlan Ciwanro and two of her cousins were forced to marry against their will, they decided to escape the spiral of violence. A first way out of the shadow of the strictly hierarchical family order was to flee to relatives. She recalls those times: "The women in our family had no say. We were despised, considered submissive. There was an order of male dominance. This situation had increasingly negative consequences for me, my mother and sisters. The situation of my cousins was similarly hopeless. When the three of us were forced to marry against our will, we started to search a way out.”

An uncle of Zîlan Ciwanro on her mother's side, who was supposed to offer refuge to the three women seeking help, took advantage of their situation. "Out of sheer selfishness," she says. He persuaded them to join the ISIS. It was later revealed that he was doing this “for money”.

"We had no idea what the ISIS was, what its ideology was, what it did. We only knew about the ISIS from the stories of my uncle who told us of the militia as a kind of liberation movement. I was even glad because I thought my uncle was helping me for the sake of our people. After all, I wanted to liberate myself, away from the family oppression, the beatings and the way we women were treated. So I accepted my uncle's proposal. At that moment I did not realize that my own uncle was making plans to send his own niece to ruin. Many young people from our relatives had been lured in to ISIS at that time. But I was lucky to meet the Kurdish liberation movement at the right moment," says Zîlan Ciwanro.

Center of Salafism in Iran: Jawanrud

Jihadism, but especially Salafism, is widespread in Iran, mainly in some Sunni Kurdish regions. The most active followers of the ultraconservative current of Islam are in Jawanrud. The first traces of Salafism in Iran go back to the time before the revolution in 1979. With the emergence of the ISIS in the neighbouring country of Iraq, however, the current gained popularity and today, in addition to some regions in Eastern Kurdistan, active followers are mainly to be found in the Iranian province of Sistan and Balochistan as well as in Shiite-dominated large cities such as Tehran and Isfahan.

Jawanrud is located near the Iraq-Iranian border. Survivors of the attacks by US troops against the Kurdish Islamist group Ansar al-Islam fled there during the US invasion in 2003. Together with jihadists from Eastern Kurdistan, they founded the group Kataib Qaid in Jawanrud, which originally aimed to fight the South Kurdistan’s autonomous government in Hewlêr (Erbil). Tehran maintains a selective policy towards the Kurdish Islamist groups. The regime even supported the recruitment of young Kurds who were sent to Afghanistan or Iraq. However, members of Kataib Qaid who direct their activities against the Iranian leadership are suppressed, imprisoned and even executed.

Within the family of Zîlan Ciwanro, there are many connections to the Kurdish liberation movement as well as to the ISIS and other radical Islamist or Salafist militias.

"This phenomenon can be observed in almost every family in the city. As a pilot city, Jawanrud fulfils ideal conditions from the regime's point of view to carry out an ethnocide in Kurdistan. The area is religiously shaped, but ideologically broad. Although fundamentalist Salafists dominate, there is also a large number of jihadists. They justify violence with Islam - a contradiction to Islamic norms. Two cousins of mine, for example, went to the ISIS and blew themselves up in Kobanê. They did so while Kobanê was fighting for its freedom. In Islam, it's sacred to fight for freedom, yes. But the suicide bombings of my cousins were directed against a struggle for freedom. The ISIS is un-Islamic. It has nothing to do with true Islam. But these young men were obviously brainwashed and incapacitated. Many Ciwanro families were not aware of this situation. They thought their children were with the guerrillas, but they were trained as suicide bombers by the ISIS," says Zîlan Ciwanro.

Key experience: The death of an HPJ fighter

In August 2015, Iranian regime troops together with paramilitary Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran) and militiamen from Kataib Qaid conducted an air-supported operation in the vicinity of Jawanrud against a four-member mixed unit of the East Kurdistan guerrilla organisation YRK (Yekîneyên Parastina Rojhilatê Kurdistan) and the women's guerrilla force HPJ (Hêzên Parastina Jinan ên Rojhilatê Kurdistan). During the four-day clashes, guerrilla fighter Zîlan Gabar (also Zîlan Serdeşt), who came from Sardasht, lost her life.

"Zîlan Gabar was killed by mercenaries who had sold their soul. In the course of the operation she had killed several Pasdaran members, including one of their commanders. She was selfless, mounted great resistance to the betrayal and was seriously wounded. A short time later she died. The news of her death spread like wildfire in Jawanrud. We were deeply impressed by what Zîlan had accomplished in those days - as a woman who had been separated from her group during the fighting. This gave us the impetus to fight as well. First my two cousins and I and later other young men and women from my family decided to join the YRK after the death of Zîlan Gabar. We immediately felt connected to Zîlan and the path she had taken," Ciwanro recalls.

At that time, the YRK fighter was not much acquainted with the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan and the Kurdish liberation movement. "We knew almost nothing about him. In retrospect, I think it was a systematic approach within the families in Jawanrud, which were marked by patriarchal violence. They obviously wanted to prevent us from learning anything about the freedom movement at all costs. Television, for example, was strictly forbidden. It was only when we joined the guerrilla that we learned why Öcalan is imprisoned on Imrali and what this movement is actually fighting for. Basically, we didn't even know what kind of freedom the goal of this resistance was."

"Come to the mountains”

In the guerrilla movement, Zîlan Ciwanro finally came to know the thoughts of Abdullah Öcalan. She dealt with the idea of building a free life and developed an understanding of the mentality of the Kurdish liberation movement. "But my main intention was and still is to avenge the death of Zîlan Gabar. This shall not go unpunished since it was mercenaries from our tribe who were responsible for her death," says Ciwanro.

“Religious fundamentalist groups continue to dominate the city of Jawanrud. Since the state offers no prospects for the youth, many young people take refuge in drug addiction. To finance consumption means that many inhabitants have to live in constant concern for their personal safety. Criminal activities such as robberies are the order of the day," explains the young guerrilla fighter.

At the end of our conversation, Zîlan Ciwanro makes an appeal to the people in her hometown: "Anyone who is not pushed into social marginalization by the regime in this way is pushed to the edge of their cultural identity by being recruited as an informer or recruited into organisations like Basij-e Mostaz'afin. I appeal to the youth of Rojhilat: do not be deceived by this insidious policy and do not remain silent on the oppression of our people. Recognize the instrumentalization as the plaything of the regime, especially in Jawanrud. Come here and live the friendly and common, just and indivisible life in the mountains."