Kurdistan is located right in the middle of the some of the most volatile places in the modern world. The geo-political region shares a border with Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, regions which have all been ravaged by civil and international conflicts for decades. In many middle eastern countries, the issues faced by the people often echo one another. Oligarchs, dictators and warlords hold on to power at the behest of their people, and of foreign governments. Multiple cells with different end goals fight one another and shed blood on their shared land. The western world is decried. Strict religious fundamentalists violently brandish and enforce their beliefs. In Iraq, women’s social standings and rights have been trampled on for decades. In Syria, where strict Sharia law is enforced in many places, women are legally allowed to participate in everyday Syrian life, but are not generally allowed to take part in political, social, cultural and economic aspects of it. So it is somewhat surprising that a political party in Kurdistan, which is a stones throw from multiple countries who possess oppressive views of women’s rights, have a hugely progressive inclination towards their women.

The PKK or The Kurdistan Workers Party are listed as a terrorist organisation by the EU, the US and Turkey. They have been fighting for years in Turkey to establish a Kurdish state within the territory. Recently, they have moved into Syria to claim the city of Mosul from ISIL insurgents, while still pursuing goals in Turkey. Although they have a history of violence, the group is now trying to promote themselves as a “democratic” and “federalist” institution. Since the PKK‘s inception in 1978, the group has held a view which falls out of line with many other their neighbours – that view is that women deserve to be afforded the same rights as men. This extends to fighting. Huge numbers of the PKK‘s troops are women, who take up arms and fight alongside the men. Even in the western world, there is a certain stigma surrounding women in armed forces, and having them on the front lines of conflict. But that isn’t where it ends. In the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq, where forced marriages, honour killings of women and forced or desperate suicides are considered the norm, feminism has become a powerful tool used by the PKK to rescue and recruit women. They offer women a sense of purpose, and empower them to see themselves as equal to a man in their society. Since 2012, two offshoots of the PKK (the YPJ (Women’s Defence Unit) or the YPG (People’s Defence Forces) have recruited more than 15,000 women into their ranks. 

Fighters for the PKK have been quoted as saying things like “I joined YPJ because I was looking for something meaningful in my life and my leader showed me the way and my role in society,”  and “we live in a world where women are dominated by men. We are here to take control of our own future. When I am at the frontline, the thought of all the cruelty and injustice against women enrages me so much that I become extra powerful in combat.” An eighteen year old member of the YPJ group said that after killing an ISIS fighter, she cheered as loudly as she could, so that other ISIS militants in the area could hear her – “I wanted to let them all know that their worst nightmare had come true: their friend had been killed by a woman.”

For women in this part of the world, the fight is not just about securing their territory or fending off enemy forces. In a society where women are viewed mostly as home makers and mothers, these young women are proving that they have more to offer, that they are strong, brave and are willing to fight – and die – for their beliefs and their rights, just as the men are. In a destabilised area where misogyny and the patriarch are so deeply engrained in society, groups like the PKK and the YPJ are changing the narrative while fighting for an ideological cause bigger than themselves, and bigger than territory or religion –  they are fighting for equality, and they are shedding blood if they have to “along with defending our Kurdish land we are also fighting for women’s rights. Like a man, I can fight in the mountains and the desert.”

When it comes to warfare and bloodshed in volatile regions, there are no winners or losers. There is no group who is “right” and nobody who holds the moral high ground. Groups like the PKK, the YPJ and the YPG have committed atrocities in the same vein as members of Al Qaeda and ISIL, but perhaps their reasons for doing so serve a larger cause. In the western world, women still have to fight for equality every day, to try to chip away at the engrained sexism which clouds so much of our modern society. But for the Kurdish women in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, women are laying down their lives for that same equality.