She isn’t only the youngest cop in Syria’s Kurdish-dominated Northeast; she must be one of the youngest policewomen anywhere in the world. But the slight 17-year-old, a pony-tailed brunette, isn’t fazed by her job, exudes confidence and says she doesn’t allow her age, gender or good looks to get in the way of doing her job—despite the fact she’s working in a highly patriarchal Middle East country during a civil war.
Speaking in a bare police office in downtown Qamishli, the largest town in the northeast corner of Syria and considered by Syrian Kurds their capital, she shows off her holstered firearm, flashing a self-conscious smile, and says she has used the handcuffs hanging on her other uniformed hip.
Baraan—she doesn’t want to give her family name—says her family backed her joining Syria’s first ever all-female municipal police unit set up by a volunteer-based city council itself established this year in the wake of President Bashar al-Assad withdrawing most of his forces from Syria’s Kurdistan.
The council’s dynamic 30-year-old woman co-president, Sama Bekadash, says she and her fellow councilors—many of whom (but not all) are members of the leftish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, the dominant political faction among Syrian Kurds—are determined to effect major political and social change. They see as key to the reform element altering women’s prospects in Syria’s Kurdistan, expanding their roles in public life and political life. Forty percent of all council jobs are reserved for women.
“Journalists just come here to see the fighting and focus on destruction and jihadists and don’t examine what we are trying to do here, to make changes and to progress. We have a program and a clear idea of what we want to achieve,” she says.
The odds are stacked against that happening. The Kurds have carved out a pocket of stability for themselves in the midst of a raging, bloody civil war following the driving out by Kurdish militias of al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists from a swath of Syria’s Kurdistan. But they are surrounded by enemies—from the jihadists and militant Islamists who don’t share their progressive reform ideas, especially when it comes to women, to the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan which fears the rise of a Kurdish statelet in Syria.
And at any time, Assad could decide to crush Kurdish self-rule, something the Kurds worry could happen if the Syrian government manages to recapture the half of the city of Aleppo currently held by rebels.
On top of those threats there are major political divisions among Syria’s Kurds. The PYD, which has been a driving force behind the expulsion of jihadists from the northeast, has formed alliances with several other political factions, but whether unity can hold in the long term remains unclear. Other Kurdish political groups aligned with the Western-backed Syrian National Council and its Free Syrian Army oppose the PYD. Critics claim the PYD is heavy-handed and is aiming to monopolize political power. They cite the violent suppression of a pro-FSA protest in early summer in the town of Amuda in which seven civilians were killed.
But within the Kurdish pocket being carved in northeast Syria in territory abutting Turkey and Iraq a sense of common purpose is holding and women like Baraan are seizing the opportunities available.
“I want to challenge the perception here among people that women are weak and can’t work in jobs like this and want to show them that we can,” she says. She nods vigorously when 20-year-old colleague, Nagbeer, says, “It was outside our thinking that we could join the police. It only came the last year with the decision that women could become police officers, but we never thought about it before.
Baraan says she has made arrests. “We deal mostly with women offenders.” And she contrasts the different way she and her female colleagues do the job compared with men. “We use a different approach, a softer one, and we try to persuade a suspect to come with us and not to use physical restraint. That is a last resort. An older woman, a pickpocket, got angry with me in one incident and she said I was just a young girl and she was older than me but I managed to persuade her it was best to come along.”
Baraan and her five female municipal police colleagues aren’t alone in combining security roles with a determination to be agents of change. Kurdish women—in large numbers—are fighting to protect Syria’s Kurdistan. They are on the frontlines, maintaining law and order and guarding checkpoints and strategic buildings from jihadists and radical Islamists.
No other ethnic or religious group in Syria’s brutal two-and-half year civil war has fielded so many female fighters, analysts say. Twenty percent of the Kurdish warriors grouped together in the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, are women.
A couple of miles from Qamishli’s downtown Souk district where Baraan’s unit is based, past shops thinly stocked with clothing, electrical goods and food products smuggled from Turkey, past street vendors hawking locally-produced fruits and vegetables, is the headquarters of a 50-strong female detachment of the Asayisa, an internal security force that’s separate from YPG women fighters, although there is an overlap with their duties. The age range is from 18 to 40. Three of the women are married, and the commander is the mother of two boys and a young girl.
The squat two-story base of the detachment located behind a road barrier is sparse, except for the commander’s office that’s furnished with a desk and a couple of sofas. The two rooms where the women sleep have mattresses positioned along the walls; and the kitchen is equipped with a few pots and pans. There is just one squat toilet, immaculately clean.
On this cold evening the building remains unheated and the fighters are bundled up in their olive green uniforms. Some are members of the PYD—others are not. A dozen of the fighters interviewed by the Daily Beast said they had a dual purpose in enlisting in the Kurdish security forces: to protect Kurdistan and to assist in altering traditional perceptions about women.
Twenty-year-old Ronak joined three months ago. The tallest of the women and with angular facial features, she wears a blue polo-neck sweater and a black ammunition vest over her fatigues. “I joined to protect people and to show we can do the same things men do. My parents and three sisters and four brothers are proud of me.” Once the conflict is over she intends to remain in uniform. “There will be new challenges after and I want to help meet them.”
She sees nothing incompatible about being a woman and a fighter. “We have managed to change the opinion of the people and most people think the world of us,” she says.
On two of the walls in the commander’s office there are photographs of Kurdish women who have died battling jihadists and fighting Assad’s forces in the Kurdish Sheikh Maqsud district in the city of Aleppo. At least 13 Kurdish women have died in defense of Syria’s Kurdistan. Despite the easy smiles and confidence of these women there is danger all around and not only at the frontlines where YPG units are trying to capture more territory from jihadists and Islamists.
In recent weeks jihadists have launched a burgeoning car and suicide bombing campaign. Since the summer there have been 40 bombings, including three suicide attacks, in Syria’s Kurdistan. Nearly 40 people have been killed and dozens wounded. The latest came on November 24 when a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb outside the Asayish base in the Swes district of Qamishli killing a civilian and two members of the Kurdish security forces.
Twenty-seven-year-old Jameila Abbas says she is not worried by the danger, “ I believe in what I am doing so I am not frightened,” she says.
These women hold contempt for the jihadists. They say it easy to blow things up and not to care about those killed or maimed but it is a much greater challenge to fight and build at the same time.
One of the Kurds’ top military commanders, Giwan Ibrahim, says many jihadists hang keys around their necks and keep spoons in their pockets—symbolizing their belief that when martyred the gates of paradise will be thrown open to them and they will eat with the Prophet. There the jihadists expect to be rewarded with submissive women, but in the here and now these earthly Kurdish women see the jihadists as their complete opposite: men who would trample on their rights and seek to enslave them. They have no intention of submitting.