Qamishli – In the Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava (NSR), unlike the rest of the country, female soldiers and officers are commonplace. Breaking with centuries of tradition, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) fought to the death in defense of Kobane and now they’ve taken point in the battle for Raqqa.
“Our women are fighting like heroes. Why? Because they have a strong will,” said Hediya Yousef, a leading female politician. “We have women who are 18, 19, 20-years-old and they have made their decision – they want to fight.”
While women are now highly visible in military fatigues and on the executive committee, their presence irks traditional communities, which have found the imposition of sexual equality to be wrenching. Conscription, underage marriage and polygamy continue to be divisive issues.
Yousef told ARA News that the NSR’s female fighters are its strength and a powerful symbol of equality. In point of fact, only men between 18 and 30-years-old are conscripted. The burden of military service remains unequally distributed.
Hediya Yousef believes that a transition period is necessary as women become accustomed to their new freedoms and responsibilities. “Women were oppressed for more than 5,000 years. That’s why we don’t force them,” she said.
The governing Democratic Union Party (PYD) believes that reform has to happen at the local level if it is going to last. The party has consequently set up Women’s Houses in both Arab and Kurdish towns. These political centers aid women and work to protect their newly-won rights.
The PYD is also trying to break the honor-based religious and tribal rules that confine women. In much of Syria underage and polygamous marriages are accepted and celebrated customs. However, in northern Syria Kurdish communities are experiencing a new secular politics and stamping out the practice.
“Before the revolution [polygamy] was allowed,” said Narin Yousef, a leading member of the Woman’s House in Qamishli city. “It was also related to Islam. People in this region justified marrying several women according to religion.”
Sabri Mirza, a lawyer and member of the rival Kurdish Yekiti Party, told ARA News that under Syrian statutory law polygamy and underage marriage are allowed, as “Islamic law is the source of the constitution.” He added that he disagrees with the law and believes that “anything that promotes women rights is [fundamentally] good.”
Mirza’s maxim is not a consensus view within the NSR. Many Kurdish and Arab men are not happy with the new rules and their diminished domestic authority. They believe that the campaign for equality has gone too far and that they are now living in a matriarchy.
“Women control everything now,” half-joked Mazhar Sino, a 39-year-old Kurdish man from the tribal town of Derbesiye. “In the past, women did not receive respect from their husbands, but now they will take out their [husband’s] teeth.”
According to the social contract adopted by the local Self-Administration in 2014, anyone who marries a second wife will be arrested for one year and must pay a $1,000 fine. In addition, if the groom is a member of the administration he will be dismissed.
Speaking to ARA News, several of Derbesiye’s older residents rejected the new social contract. Hamid Hebo, a 46-year-old man, said: “[The YPJ] recruits young girls when they are 14 and 15 years old! Then what’s wrong if they marry someone underage?”
“Some parents may be afraid that their girls will join the military and that’s why they want them to get married early, to prevent that scenario,” Hebo argued. “It’s difficult to accept that girls can join the military without the permission of their family.”
Mazhar Sino, a 39-year-old resident, told ARA News that the Hebo’s argument wasn’t grounded in reality because the YPJ only accepts volunteers who are over 18-years-old. “Some of them are [marrying off their young daughters] but the percentage is very low. […] Women are not forcefully recruited,” he said.
Even some youths and women expressed misgivings. “Some women accept becoming a second wife. This is because of the old mentality and these women are ignorant but in time we will change them,” Kurdish rights activist Narin Yousef said.
Beytoul Mohammed, 21-year-old women living in the Kurdish-Christian town of Derik, told ARA News that imposed change would lead to instability. “We asked for equality but if they immediately give rights to women it will be chaos,” she said.
“Some men have the right to marry a second wife but only based on specific justifications,” Mohammad argued. “If I marry and don’t do my duties, [my husband] has the right to marry a second wife.”
The NSR has not applied the law evenly, giving some conservative communities time to adjust. Local administrations have also tried to be flexible, delaying marriages while acknowledging long engagements.
“My fiancée is 16-years-old. I love her and she loves me and her family would give her to me, but now because of [the social contract] they delayed it for two years,” said Ismail Derbisiye, a 28-year-old man.
“We have a culture of kidnapping [our future brides]. I will do it and we’ll escape together to Europe,” he joked. “Maybe to Holland, […] the country of love.”
Badiya Arabo, a leading member of the PYD-affiliated Kongra-Star organization, told ARA News that women should be able to build their chosen future and not be trapped in an early marriage. “We stop the underage marriages immediately and even arrest the fathers of these girls,” she said.
However, Arabo confirmed that in some cases weddings have been put on hold. “We delay for two or three years if the girl is 16 or 17-years-old,” she said.
Arabo told ARA News that more time and education was needed before her people would accept the new laws. “From the beginning, people were unsatisfied with this and tried to resist, but we will punish them if they don’t accept it,” she said.
“But just punishing them is not sufficient. We want to educate people not to get married and solve [our disagreement] peacefully,” said Yousif, a member of the Women’s House. “We have started a media campaign to educate the people, and our activists have gone to Arab and Christian villages to explain the new laws.”
“Some women cannot have children and their husbands want to get married again. But what if a man cannot produce children? Will the woman get married to another man? That’s why this law does not allow [polygamy] despite the men’s complaints,” Yousif reasoned.
While the ban on polygamous and underage marriage is clearly unpopular in some quarters there is no way to go back. The Self-Administrations have permanently changed regional customs and family dynamics.
“In the past, our women used to live their lives between a room’s four walls because they were under the control of men, but today there is a women’s revolution,” she told ARA News. “Now you can see women participating in all parts of life. We want women to lead the revolution.”
Reporting by: Wladimir van Wilgenburg | Source: ARA News