Meet Syria’s Women
Fighters

Flavius Mihaies

36-year-old Commander Chichek on the frontline against the Islamic State (ISIS) by the Turkish border near Sere Kaniye (see map below), where I followed her all-women platoon

There is another battle brewing for Syria. With all eyes on the fight against the Islamic State (picture above), media coverage has largely ignored Syrian women below, fighting without a gun but with other means.

Women I met during my trip to Syria last May are active participants in the reconstruction and development of northern Syria, an autonomous region with a Kurdish majority.

This is their story.

Along with Beirut, northern Syria is one of the few places in the Middle East where I found as many women in professional life, from politicians to police officers, both veiled and unveiled - Tweet this

THE BUILDERS


Rodin Dabo

AGE: 25

LOCATION: Kobane

ROLE: Co-president of the committee responsible for the reconstruction of Kobane


THE STORY: The 25-year-old civil engineer’s mission to rebuild Kobane (see map below) is daunting, with about 50% of the buildings destroyed following ISIS’s defeat last January. When the Islamic militants closed in last year, Rodin left for Turkey with her two-year-old daughter, Mehran. However life was hard and expensive there and after her daughter fell sick she decided to come back where they had left off for a new beginning in Kobane. “Our biggest challenge now is clean water as we have to pump it from the ground. We are also very afraid of unexploded bombs,” she says. What has changed in the new Kobane? “When I went to university in Aleppo we were not allowed to say ‘I am Kurdish’; Today my daughter speaks Kurdish.” What about the future, I ask. “We have to change the way we think. We need teachers and education experts from the West so schools can teach how to think and how to want, not only tell kids what to do or not to do. We want minds, not machines from the West.”


“I want a future for my daughter in Kobane”


THE HEALERS


Dr. Jihan Ibrahim Shaeen

AGE: 35

LOCATION: Qamishli

ROLE: Pediatrician


THE STORY: Along with her husband, a gynecologist, Dr. Jihan Ibrahim Shaeen, a 35-year-old mother of three and a pediatrician, dedicates time to work for free in a clinic for the poor in the Alhalalia district in the city of Qamishli (see map below). Between her private practice and voluntary work for the poor, she can’t find work-life balance. She also takes time to visit refugees and displaced people in camps, where she examines and treats the sick. We need medicine, she pleads, milk for children, and vaccines.


“Yes, the revolution brought a war but we now have our freedom, we can care about our society and create associations. The government does not interact with our job”


THE POLITICIANS


Stera Rashek

AGE: 44

LOCATION: Sere Kanye

ROLE: Co-mayor of Sere Kaniye


THE STORY: A mother of three, Stera Rashek left her occupation as an elementary school math teacher in her village to enter politics. Today she is elected co-mayor of Sere Kaniye (see map below). Her office is located in a reconverted Assad regime’s building the Kurds won back after a bloody battle against the terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra, who briefly occupied it in 2013. Her duties include overseeing the security of the city.


“It is normal that we sacrifice ourselves”


Habun Farzand

AGE: 23

LOCATION: Qamishli

ROLE: Member of Parliament


THE STORY: At 23 Habun Farzand is the youngest Member of the Parliament in Al Jazira, one of the three cantons that make up the Kurdish autonomous region the Kurds call Rojava, in northern Syria (see map below). Habun’s father belonged to the PKK organization in Turkey and was killed by the Turkish Armed Forces when she was a young child. Although she is an appointed — not elected — Member of Parliament, as are her colleagues, the canton is planning its first Parliamentarian elections.


“Political engagement runs in my blood. My father was active in the PKK. He was killed by the Turkish Armed Forces”


THE ADVOCATES


Munaa Abdusalam

AGE: 45

LOCATION: Qamishli

ROLE: Teacher and women’s rights organizer, founder of Syria’s first NGO dedicated to gender-based violence


THE STORY: A mother of three, Munaa Abdusalam holds a degree in education and founded Sara Organization Against Violence, Syria’s first NGO dedicated to domestic violence, she says. Munaa is taking initiatives to engage in topics previously considered taboo. “It’s not in our tradition and culture to go out and say, I have been beaten by my husband. After a long time, it has finally become acceptable. Society has learnt that abused women would previously commit suicide.”


“In 2015, violence against women decreased because their rights are being known”


“We depend on the media to inform society about women’s rights and education”


THE EDUCATORS


Henna Ali

AGE: 29

LOCATION: Qamishli

ROLE: Teacher, community organizer


THE STORY: Henna Ali helped build the new intercultural pre-school in Qamishli (see map below) that welcomes Kurdish, Arabic, Assyrian and Armenian children. She is a founder of Jina Azad, the Foundation of Free Women in Rojava, created last year in Qamishli, the capital of the Al Jazira canton in northern Syria. The Foundation motto is “free women is the basis for a free society,, and it has been assisting women and children affected by war and violence. Henna leads training and teaching activities. Her husband is a member of the City Council.

Henna with daughter Lonar, 4, outside Jina Hazad offices in Qamishlo
A young Yazidi student attends a class in the Newroz refugee camp near the Faysh Kabur border with Iraq. Tens of thousands of mainly Yazidis have fled to Syria since Islamic State militants captured Sinjar and other northern Iraqi towns last August. One UNHCR staff member in Newroz described the situation as a “humanitarian tragedy”

Kobane, Sere Kaniye and Qamishli — the major cities I visited during my trip to Syria —below on a map (adapted from ISW). Purple areas are controlled by the YPG, a mainly Kurdish militia. A tenth of the Syrian population, 2.2. million, are Kurds and most are located in northern Syria.

(JN stands for Jabhat al-Nusra on the map)

MORE→ Next trip. With the Christians of Syria.

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I am grateful to Ali Mese for his advice on publishing!