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The female guerilla fighters of the PKK

MEE meets female Kurdish Workers Party fighters in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan - and finds a diverse group united by a vision of freedom
An all-female fighter unit of the PKK take part in training in the mountains of northeast Iraq (MEE/Eleonora Vio)

“Why the PKK? Because Turkish society wouldn’t let women be as free as they wished,” says 22-year-old former engineering student Roserin Wan from Van, Turkey.

“On the one hand, there was us, on the other hand the female guerrillas. They lived independently in the mountains and fought for their own people’s freedom. I wanted to be like them.”

Making contact with the all-female unit based in Qandil, in northeast Iraq, which Wan joined 15 months ago, is anything but easy. Countless army checkpoints prolong what would be an otherwise short drive from the city of Sulemaniye. As the roads grow steeper and coarser, a poster of a smiling Abdullah Ocalan (or "Apo"), leader of the Kurdish Worker’s Party’s (PKK), signals a less than subtle shift in the local dynamics of power.

Middle East Eye travels in a pick-up truck alongside five young girls in camouflage uniforms, scarves tightened on their foreheads and assault rifles hoisted casually around their shoulders. This is the riskiest stretch of the journey. After disembarking from the bus, a single bright light in the distance provides the only point of reference. After an hour-long march on rough terrain we fall upon the entrance of a small, well-organised camp.

About 40 young guerrilla fighters are standing in line. Wan is among them. Kurdish, Turkish, Yazidi, Turkmen... women from all over have decided to become PKK guerrilla fighters throughout the years. The majority of them are trained here in Qandil, abandoning their former lives and embracing one of the world’s most feared and resilient guerrilla movements.

Young guerrillas are chatting before the tactics and strategy classes takes place (MEE/Eleonora Vio)

Since the 80s, the PKK has been considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey and the United States, largely due to regular and deadly clashes with Turkish security forces, but the movement has recently acquired a new level of popular support

The "rebranded" PKK has seen a rise in the number of recruits, partly thanks to a number of recent successful campaigns against the Islamic State (IS) with which it remains engaged across the Kurdish regions of Iraq and Syria. The first victory was the evacuation of the Yazidi people from the Sinjar Mountain in August 2014. It followed this up by liberating Syria's Kobane in January 2015, and later on its victories in Kirkuk and Makhmour in northern Iraq. The PKK is now concentrating on the struggle for Tal Abyad in Syria.

“IS had surrounded Mount Sinjar and killed or captured many Yazidis, when the PKK saved us,” says 17-year-old Berivan Arin from Sinjar. “When they moved us to Rojava, I started getting closer to them and their ideology.

“I joined the movement because I wanted to fight against those criminals who abused and killed so many of our own,” she says, “But I also wanted to be free from a system, the Yazidi one I belonged to, where women are imprisoned at home and considered useful only for raising children and maintaining the household.”

Nuve Rashat, one of the oldest members of this female unit with 17 years of experience within the PKK, comes from a very different background from Arin, as she was born and raised in Turkish Kurdistan. But she joined the movement for a similar reason. “I did it because of the occupation Kurdistan had been suffering under for hundreds of years but mainly because the PKK’s fight for Kurdish freedom had always incorporated the struggle for women’s emancipation, which was lacking inside my society.”

After "commando" training the guerrillas must face one more test: crossing the river despite its robust current (MEE/Costanza Spocci)

The goal of the PKK has changed in the past few years. While the movement has abandoned the dream of a sovereign Kurdish nation, bringing together the four Kurdish regions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, it has embraced the idea of a democratic confederalism with political representation for all the oppressed communities living across this vast area.

“Ours is a bottom-up approach and it is based on grassroots participation,” explains the PKK’s media spokesperson, Zagros Hiwa. “Its decision-making processes lie with the communities, who send their own delegates to the general assemblies, and higher levels only serve their coordination and implementation.”

“Since female slavery is the form of human oppression with the longest history,” Hiwa continues, “we wanted to give women freedom first".

As female oppression affects womanhood as a whole, not just individuals, the concept of freedom, as Ocalan and his followers developed it throughout the years, has been influenced by this collective vision.

“A woman can’t feel free just by pursuing her own individual freedom - she has to struggle for the liberation of all the other women too,” says Rashat. “In the PKK, our main goal is to uproot from the girls’ minds all the misconceptions hailed from male-dominated societies. Women need to find their mental freedom before anything else."

“We have full self-determination here. As opposed to the society out there, we don’t let men influence and control our choices,” says Rashat. “We decide how to educate and organise ourselves, as well as how to train for the actual fighting.”

Back at camp, a normal day starts at 4am, as a group of guerrillas prepares breakfast for the camp. Shortly afterwards, the first classes on strategy and tactics commence, teaching guerrillas how to confront and defeat their enemy on the ground.

“The basis of everything is self-discipline,” says Mohin Ziran, the 20-year-old Turkmen teacher, who, despite her youth, is already a hardened fighter with experience under fire. “It doesn’t matter how sophisticated your enemy’s weapons are, you can defeat him using your brain. This means not just learning how to move silently or create effective camouflage, but also by holding a stronger vision of the world than the one for which your enemy is fighting.”

Finally, each girl grabs the rifle lying at her feet and runs up the hill to commence a physical training session named “Commando”. The sun has chosen not to spare them on this day. “Commando” is designed to strengthen the girls’ build before the actual fighting. With its jumping, running, push-ups, climbing and crawling on the soil, it resembles the clichéd marine boot camp through and through.

Guerrillas undertake a hard physical training named "commando" (MEE/Eleonora Vio)

Soaked in sweat, the guerrillas rush to the summit of the hill before jumping down a steep rocky slope, which softens to a river bed, which turns into a robust current. Everyone makes it across despite the lively flow. It is only once they have reached the other side that they can finally drop the serious war masks to reenrol as teenagers and play together in the water, if just for a few minutes.   

The rest of the day is spent preparing dinner, discussing the events of the day, and dancing and singing Kurdish nationalist songs. When the sun sets at around 8:30pm, the guerrillas return quietly to their tents.

The advances made by women inside the PKK has inspired Kurdish women everywhere, but particularly in Turkish Kurdistan, where, in the aftermath of the recent parliamentary elections, the pro-Kurdish HDP’s women have emerged as a new important political force.

“There are some similarities between PKK and HDP in the egalitarian vision of the world and of the women in it,” says Rashat, “but they act within a political party and we are an armed fighting group, thus there cannot be any contact.”

The thought of hiding in the mountains your entire life and being constantly on the edge doesn’t sound particularly liberating, yet the PKK has moulded a concept of freedom that is proving to be very successful in a region where women’s rights are often disregarded.

The PKK has in fact given young women a debatable, but still concrete, chance to both flee the gender-based restrictions imposed on them by their society and to serve their own people.

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