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Video: Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) – an all-female militia actively fighting in Northern Syria

Women have been involved in Syrian Kurdish Resistance fighting since as early as 2011 when the mixed-sex YXG was founded, later to be renamed YPG in 2012. The YPJ was founded as a strictly women’s organization on April 3, 2013 with the first battalion formed in Jindires. All female fighters who were previously part of the YPG mixed units automatically became members of the YPJ. Initially, there was just one YPJ battalion in each of the three cantons of Rojava, but battalions were quickly established in every neighborhood, expanding the organization.

As of late 2014, the YPJ had over 7,000 (or 10,000, according to TeleSUR) volunteer fighters between the ages of 18 and 40. By November 2016, the number of Arab and Kurdish YPJ fighters had reportedly risen to 20,000. As of March 2017, the group was alleged to have 24,000 members.

In the Syrian Civil War, the YPJ and the YPG have fought against various groups in Northern Syria, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and was involved in the Siege of Kobane beginning in March 2014, with various Kurdish media agencies reporting that “YPJ troops have become vital in the battle”. In the Battle of Kobane, prior to receiving the support of Western powers, the YPJ was forced to hold off ISIL attacks using only “vintage Russian Kalashnikovs bought on the black market, handmade grenades, and tanks they put together out of construction vehicles and pick-up trucks.” It was not until October 2014 that the United States began coordinating air strikes with the YPJ-YPG fighters on the ground.

Additionally, the YPG, YPJ and the PKK were involved in an August 2014 military operation at Mount Sinjar, where up to as many as 10,000 Yazidis were rescued from genocidal attacks at the hands of ISIL. The islamists had taken control of most areas around Mount Sinjar after pushing out the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Because ISIL views the Yazidis as “a community of devil worshipers” those formerly inhabiting the town of Sinjar were forced to flee into the mountains. This left many Yazidis, including children and the elderly, without food, shelter, or resources. Those still in the town were either massacred by ISIL or forced into sexual enslavement.

Along with the help of US air strikes, the attacking force was able to create a 30 kilometres (19 mi) safe zone for the Yazidi refugees to escape ISIL capture. The refugees were then moved into Northern Syria, with most later departing for safer areas of Iraqi Kurdistan.

YPJ continues to fight alongside YPG as part of the multi-ethnic Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The YPJ was involved in battles such as the SDF offensive against the major IS strongholds in Tabqa and Raqqa, serving as the main proxy force (along with the YPG) for the United States. During Operation Olive Branch, the Turkish offensive against Afrin Canton, YPJ units were again heavily involved in the fighting. Guerilla warfare tactics were among the tactics used against Turkey and their allies.

The YPJ is politically aligned to the PYD, which bases its libertarian socialist philosophy on the writings of Abdullah Öcalan, the leading ideologue in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who is imprisoned by the Turkish government. Central to YPJ ideology is the PYD feminist ideological concept of “Jineology”.

Dating back to the early 1990s, Öcalan had been advocating that a ‘basic responsibility’ of the Kurdish movement was to liberate women. He argued that gender equality and women’s liberation is necessary for Kurdish liberation. The PKK established its first all-female units of guerrillas in 1995, claiming that in order to “break down gender roles solidified by centuries, women had to be on their own.” The YPJ adheres to the same strand of feminist ideology. Having joined the YPJ, women must spend at least a month practicing military tactics and studying the political theories of Öcalan, including Jineology. In any communal decision, regarding the YPJ/YPG or otherwise, it is required that no less than 40% of women participate.

Additionally, Arab and Yazidi women that the YPJ liberated from ISIS have also begun joining fight against their former oppressors. The YPJ has set up institutions where these women are trained both militarily, as well as in fields such as feminist history and philosophy.