Inside the Feminist Revolution in Northern Syria


Elizabeth Flock is an Emmy Award-winning journalist who reports on gender and justice issues and hosts the podcast “Blind Plea.”

This story is adapted from “The Furies: Women, Vengeance and Justice” (HarperCollins and Viking/Penguin, 2024).

Flock’s reporting in Syria was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.

Justice goes by many names.

It goes by the name Athena, whose story began with a prophecy that she would one day overthrow her father. After her father took her mother without consent, Athena sprang from his skull with a ferocious war cry, fully grown and clad in armor, holding weapons likely fashioned by her mother. While her brother Ares represented war and bloodlust, Athena would use wisdom, valor and cunning to defend and protect her people — and do whatever it took to get justice.

Justice also goes by the name Durga, who was born with many arms to fight demonic forces. In the Hindu text, the “Devi Mahatmya,” Durga was described as merciful of mind but fighting with fierce cruelty in war. Riding astride a tiger or lion, wielding a shield, club, spear or sword, her weapon of choice did not matter. She was equal parts protector and destroyer.

And justice goes by the name Inanna, who once unleashed plagues upon her rapist. She released raging storms, and water turned to blood against those who committed wrongs. The Sumerian goddess was sometimes represented by a dove, but more often depicted as angry. In the “Hymn to Inanna,” poet-priestess Enheduanna wrote: “Inanna sits on harnessed lions, she cuts to pieces him who shows no respect.”

Alive Or Dead?

TAL TAMR, Syria — The drone strike hits the building at day’s end, as the sun sets through the Syrian desert haze. Months later, Cicek Mustafa Zibo, a young Kurdish fighter, freezes the scene and plays it back to me. Her commander, Sosin Birhat, with whom she shares a birthplace, favorite music and a dream, has just walked inside the building. It was Sosin who planted the clover in front of the new military office. Several civilians are midstep on the stairs. Zibo is outside smoking a Gauloises cigarette, as she often does throughout the day. A few other soldiers of the YPJ, or Women’s Protection Units, an all-female, largely Kurdish militia, fighting in Syria for self-determination, have just left to go grocery shopping. They ask Zibo to come, but she has an uneasy feeling and declines. She says she wants to stay close to Sosin.

It is August 2021, and the heat weighs like a heavy damask blanket on the region. Dozens of people displaced by recent attacks from Turkish militias are gathered at the new military office to ask for housing help and are sweating in the heat. The sound of the missile is like a chainsaw revving, followed by a powerful explosion. The YPJ fighters are used to the constant insect-like buzz of reconnaissance drones. But this is different.

After the drone hits, Zibo’s world goes black. She doesn’t know how long she is out. She wakes to the sound of a high-pitched ringing, then another fighter saying someone is crushed beneath the rubble. When Zibo opens her eyes, she realizes that the someone is her. She is pinned beneath heavy debris, and pain shoots from her leg up her back. 

“Where is Commander Sosin?” Zibo asks, but no one answers. “Where is she?” her voice rises. They tell Zibo they need to dig her out and take her to the hospital. “I will not go to the hospital until I see Sosin.” 

At triage, Zibo refuses painkillers. The doctor tells her this is no time for valor. Her hip and leg are broken, and she needs an immediate operation because internal bleeding is filling her abdomen with blood. Three hours after the drone strike, Zibo still has no idea if Sosin is alive or dead.

The Home As Prison

Rewind to the early 2000s in Syria, a time of transition. President Bashar Assad had succeeded his father and proved he could be just as authoritarian, arresting activists and politicians. As the old proverb goes: When a cat wants to eat her kittens, she says they look like mice. Under the second Assad’s rule, the Baath Party kept its stranglehold over Syrian politics, as it had since the 1960s. But the Assad regime was more stable than the government coups and instability that followed Syria’s independence in 1946 and preferable to the decades of French rule that came before that.

Far away from the power plays of Damascus, in the northern Syrian district of Afrin, located snug on the border with Turkey, village life was serene. Olive trees crowded the countryside, and a wide river passed through the Arab-majority town. Nearly every house had a garden, where butterflies danced and children played. Men farmed the land and women stayed home.

Zibo was the third of seven girls in her family and the troublemaker of the bunch. Her name meant “flower,” but she was far from delicate, save for her mellifluous voice. She had thick chestnut brown hair, a strong nose, and a broad smile. Her laugh rang out like a bell. In Afrin in northeast Syria, Zibo told me, girls were not supposed to act like boys, but she did not care. Her mother called her “hot-blooded” because she was stubborn and liked to fight. Only boys were supposed to play football and ride bikes, but Zibo, who was short but strong, insisted she also do these activities.

When her father left to work the land each day, Zibo demanded to accompany him and sit atop his tractor. By age 10, she was driving the machine and the family’s motorbike. Villagers told her father, “It’s not allowed for a girl to drive. It’s taboo. ” Zibo found the criticism absurd. Her mother would eventually give birth to a boy, but at the time there were seven girls in the family, and her father needed the help. Zibo’s father continued to let her drive.

“Even if there was no abuse, Zibo saw marriage as equivalent to becoming a servant.”

The men in her extended family also continued to talk, which infuriated Zibo. “I used to see how a man came and went where he wanted, and laughed and screamed, and no one asked him why or held him accountable,” she said. “But when I laughed loudly, they said this was flawed.”

Zibo soon began to act out. She stole olives from trees. People in Afrin considered a tree as sacred as a child, but one day Zibo broke a branch anyway, and afterward avoided going home for days to put off a beating. She experimented with making explosives in her backyard, with some success, out of a lemon, water, a bottle and other household materials. On television, she repeatedly watched action films with thrilling fight scenes and also watched Syrian military parades — dreaming of joining their ranks, despite never seeing female soldiers. Her mother did not tell her these dreams were foolish, and Zibo adored her for it.

As she grew older, Zibo said she dreamt of becoming a military doctor, a position she knew women sometimes had in the Syrian military. But the more she studied, the more she disliked school. Her village was dominated by Arab families, with only four or five Kurdish families like hers; at school, she was not allowed to speak Kurdish, her native tongue. Kurds, a stateless minority, were oppressed in Syria as in every other country where they lived in large numbers: Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

Like most Syrian families, Zibo’s family were Sunni Muslims. But they were not ultra-religious, so she did not wear a head covering at home, unlike her Arab-majority school, where she was forced to don a burqa with only a slit for her eyes. She could not bear the long hours in stiff chairs and heavy dress and said she dropped out after seventh grade.

As Zibo continued to help her father work the land, tending to whatever local vegetables were in season, her questions grew: Why did her father own no land while other families in Afrin were wealthy? Why did some not have a loaf of bread while others lived in complete luxury? The treatment of women also bothered her. Syrian law made women dependent on their fathers or husbands. 

She was especially bothered by never seeing women in the military. She thought weapons would make her as strong as any man.

At 13, a neighbor’s relative came to ask for Zibo’s hand in marriage. Her mother rejected the offer because her daughter was too young, but Zibo knew other mothers would have agreed. She also knew that someday she’d be expected to become a housewife like many women in rural Syria. For Zibo, the home was a “mini prison” for women.

Marital rape was not illegal under Syrian law, nor was domestic violence. Even if there was no abuse, Zibo saw marriage as equivalent to becoming a servant. But whenever she talked to her sisters, they said marriage for women was a reality that could not be changed. Zibo thought they were just afraid of what people would say.

Cicek Mustafa Zibo at Sugar Palace. (Elizabeth Flock/Noema Magazine)

A Dream Realized

Zibo said that when she asked her father more about the Kurdish peoples’ struggle, he told her about a man named Abdullah Ocalan, who was the Kurds’ ideological leader. In the late 1970s, Ocalan and other Kurdish college students in Turkey had formed a Marxist group called the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which was dedicated to the establishment of an independent Kurdistan and would later launch an armed struggle. The PKK’s insurgency was brash and violent, using suicide bombings, kidnappings and assassinations to advocate for Kurdish rights.

Because of their actions, the United States and European Union designated the PKK as a terrorist group. Turkish forces captured Ocalan in 1999. They saw his ideology and the Kurds’ growing power as among Turkey’s greatest existential threats. Turkey considered Ocalan so dangerous that officials gave him a death sentence, which was later converted to life imprisonment. Ocalan was jailed on a remote island off the Turkish coast and the stories about him grew — that he was the island’s only prisoner (which may have been temporarily true), and that he, alone, was guarded by 1,000 men.

In photos, Ocalan looked to Zibo like a genial old uncle, with a bushy mustache and twinkling eyes. The aggressive persecution of Kurds and Ocalan made little sense to her.

“Ocalan wrote that ‘the 5,000-year-old history of civilization is essentially the history of the enslavement of women,’ and that it was time for women to rise up.”

The more Zibo learned about Ocalan’s ideology, the more she said she liked it. Even from his island prison cell, Ocalan, a brilliant thinker with a cult-like following, kept issuing updated guidance to the Kurdish revolutionaries. At first, Ocalan told the Kurds to fight for an independent state. He later revised this plea, saying that instead, the Kurds should call for autonomous rule wherever they were, while being inclusive of residents from other backgrounds.

A hungry reader of history and philosophy, Ocalan also emphasized women’s roles in the revolutionary struggle, writing in a later paper that “the 5,000-year-old history of civilization is essentially the history of the enslavement of women,” and that it was time for women to rise up. 

The PKK’s women, who wielded weapons in Turkey, had been saying this and organizing on their own for decades. An early founder of the PKK, Sakine Cansiz, wrote in her memoir, “Sara: My Whole Life Was a Struggle”: “[My mother] often said, ‘If only you hadn’t been a girl!’ and every time she did, I loved femaleness more.”

To Zibo, Ocalan’s ideology seemed created for her — that women could fight and be powerful, that Kurds have rights and that class and ethnic differences could be overcome.

In 2011, as the Arab Spring’s anti-government protests spread across the Middle East, demonstrations also broke out in Syria against Assad’s rule. In northeast Syria that January, a local man named Hasan Ali Akleh set himself on fire to protest the repressive government, and in March a group of teenagers in Syria’s southwest wrote graffiti that read: “It’s your turn now, Doctor,” in reference to Assad’s training as an ophthalmologist. 

The teenagers were arrested and tortured — their fingernails removed. By July, more than 100,000 people had protested across Syria. Although the unrest was intended to unseat Assad, it would also help make a Kurdish revolution possible.

As the rebellion against Assad spread across the country, underground Kurdish parties joined together to officially declare a Kurdish militia in northern Syria, where many of Syria’s Kurds lived. The militia was named the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, and while inspired by Ocalan’s ideas and the work of the PKK, they claimed that the PKK did not create them and that their goals were different. The PKK, designated as terrorists trying to overthrow the Turkish government, had many deadly clashes that year with Turkish forces.

Meanwhile, the YPG focused on consolidating Kurdish areas and defending them, to create an autonomous homeland in Syria. With Syrian forces busy battling rebel groups in conflicts that would eventually become the Syrian Civil War, the YPG was able to capture Kurdish-majority towns and cities across northern Syria without much conflict. 

By 2012, Assad, overwhelmed by internal enemies and hoping for Kurdish support, had granted citizenship to thousands of Kurds and allowed them to control much of northern Syria, including Zibo’s home district of Afrin. The next year, the YPG, or People’s Protection Units, in the spirit of Ocalan and the PKK’s beliefs around gender equality, announced the formation of an all-female militia called the YPJ, or Women’s Protection Units. It would operate in parallel with the men’s units, under the same leadership and with the same mandates.

Zibo’s life was changing at a dizzying speed. One minute, her future was to be a housewife who rarely saw the world beyond her village, listening to her father’s stories about how Kurds lived in a community with few rights. Now, Kurds like her were suddenly in charge of their own region and Kurdish women could wield guns as if this was always so.

In the winter of 2013, Zibo, 17 and bold as ever, learned that the all-female militia would soon pass through her town. Since the announcement earlier that spring, she could think about little else. She’d heard units were being established in every district in northern Syria; hundreds, she had thought, maybe thousands, of women had already joined. 

Zibo could not wait to see what the woman warriors looked like in person. She recalled standing anxiously on the side of her village road as they approached wearing camouflage and smiles, cradling Kalashnikovs instead of children. With ribbons and scarves tied in their hair, their excitement was contagious.  “At that moment, I wanted to be one of them, and I began to imagine I was,” Zibo said. She imagined what it would feel like to carry a weapon of her own, to walk with confidence and be feared by others.

“Some had joined [YPJ] with parental permission, while others fled impending child marriages or strict households.”

Zibo went home that night and told her parents she would be joining the YPJ. Underground Kurdish political parties in the region tasked the YPG and YPJ with protecting the newly autonomous area and, as protests against the regime destabilized Syria, these Kurdish militias also began to face the rising threat of Syrian rebel groups and Islamist terrorists trying to step into the power vacuum.

Cicek Mustafa Zibo as a new YPJ recruit. (Elizabeth Flock/Noema Magazine)

Her parents expected the news, knew her stubbornness and did not try to stop her. Her father told her it was an honor to have her join and help the Kurds defend themselves. Her mother said she’d bitterly miss her but gave Zibo her blessing.

A week later, Zibo said, she left home for two months of training not far from her home village with about 30 other recruits. Some were as young as 14 or 15 years olds. Some had joined with parental permission, while others fled impending child marriages or strict households. 

International human rights groups would later criticize the YPJ for accepting — or even recruiting — child soldiers in their ranks, but Zibo felt the West didn’t understand what the girls were running from, or toward. They didn’t understand that women also wanted to fight.

Zibo was surprised to find not just Kurdish women in the YPJ. There were also Syrian Arabs and Armenians, and later, people from all over the world. They came from France, Greece, Spain, the U.S. and other places, attracted by the principles of the Kurdish revolution, which were not just to establish an autonomous region but also one that was democratic, egalitarian, and feminist in its rule. The revolution suggested an alternative to the autocratic regime of Assad and also to the democratic capitalism of the West. 

At training, Zibo learned that the fighters referred to each other as hevals, which meant “friends” or “comrades.”

Cicek Mustafa Zibo at her Tal Tamr base with a comrade. (Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images)

Instructors started by training them on YPJ ideology, which Zibo said she did not initially like because it reminded her of school. But the content was very different. Her instructors described YPJ’s plans for this new autonomous region they had begun calling Rojava, which means  “land where the sun sets.”

They explained to the recruits the democratic confederal system that Rojava was trying to implement, which would be bottom-up instead of top-down, with decisions made by local, interlinked councils.

An essential part of training was “jineology,” an ideology developed by Ocalan that looks at “the science of women.” Jineology classes delved into the possible birth of the patriarchy. They taught them that society had once operated as a matriarchy — where mother goddesses were worshiped — until roughly 5,000 years ago when power changed hands from women to men with the rise of monotheistic religions and the division of labor and production, where men controlled the surplus of goods in the city-state. (As academic Joost Jongerden explains, the story that Eve was created from Adam’s rib, for example, turned “women from creator into the created.” But many Western historians disagree with the notion of early matriarchies.) Zibo said the instructors also said it was important to have egalitarian rule, or else there would always be an oppressed group.

Sign on jineology classroom at the Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy in Qamishli. (Elizabeth Flock/Noema Magazine)

Ocalan said he wanted to kill what he called the “dominant male,” which was embodied by autocrats like Syria’s Assad or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. To kill these strong men, he believed, women must be mobilized.

The glut of new information gave Zibo and the other young women headaches. But it also made Zibo feel more educated, mature and confident than she’d ever been, especially since dropping out of schoo.

The teachings of jineology were meant to encourage women like Zibo to critique and fight the power systems around them ideologically while also physically fighting them. Plus, mobilizing women was a convenient way to double the number of Kurdish revolutionaries fighting for Ocalan’s cause.

While she was moved by the doctrines, Zibo much preferred the physical training that followed. The recruits ran up and down mountains, she said, learning to weave in and out of trees. They climbed single file for many hours without sleep, with more than 30 pounds of equipment in their rucksacks. They walked silently down the mountain in the dark of night. 

After this training, Zibo said, she was handed a Kalashnikov, the hardy automatic rifle of Russian origin, with 7.62mm x 39mm rounds that could tear through a body. The rifles were cheap, reliable and available on the black market across the Middle East. The recruits were taught to take the gun apart and put it back together again. They learned to shoot with a blindfold on. Zibo was surprised at how effortless it was to shoot a gun.

“International human rights groups would later criticize the YPJ for accepting — or even recruiting — child soldiers in their ranks.”

It was like the dialogue in that American movie “G.I. Jane,” when a journalist asks a female senator whether women are suited to join the military. The senator replies: “How strong do you have to be to pull a trigger?” According to Zibo, her first 12 shots hit the target.

ISIS Rises

After training, Zibo became a driver for the YPJ. Because of her experience operating her father’s tractor and motorbike as a girl, she was one of the few female fighters who could drive. During this time, Zibo said she closely followed the news of the Islamic State group, or ISIS (or Daesh) and its spreading influence.

With their black flags, black clothing, ski masks, long beards and ideology of terror, ISIS announced plans for a worldwide caliphate that would have domain over Muslims everywhere. They were Salafi Muslims, the word salaf meaning “past” because it was the past — the 7th century, specifically — to which they wanted to return. They preached that nonbelievers should be wiped out or made subservient while women should be utilized as brides or for sex or controlled, and they used ancient Islamic texts to justify their behavior.

Zibo watched the TV reports of public beheadings, stonings and rapes done by ISIS in the name of Islam. But she said it wasn’t any Islam she knew. Although Zibo was a Sunni Muslim, she was not devout. She watched the ISIS militants shout “Allahu Akbar!” or “God is most great!” as they executed a Muslim victim. It made no sense to her. They do not know the meaning of humanity, she thought.

Zibo was uncharacteristically afraid as she watched these reports, and sometimes cried in confusion afterward. “Why are they doing this?” she said she asked an older heval, who told her, “It is for this that we are training. We have to be well-prepared to face these dark powers.”

The hevals reminded her that they were fighting against ISIS to keep hold of Rojava. The Democratic Union Party, the largest Kurdish political party in Syria and the political wing of the YPG and YPJ, officially declared Rojava autonomous from Syria in January 2014. Kurds across the region had long hoped for something similar in Turkey and Iran — like northern Iraq had — but with little success. Rojava was a point of light.

That January in 2014 Rojava also ratified a constitution, enshrining gender equality and religious, cultural and political freedom as inalienable rights for all residents. The new constitution could not have been more opposite to the ideology of ISIS. In May 2014, ISIS kidnapped nearly 200 Syrian Kurdish college students, sent them to a jihadist school and threatened beheadings if they tried to escape.

In June, ISIS declared the Syrian city of Raqqa as their capital, where they began enforcing strict interpretations of sharia law, where those who did not follow were killed or forced to flee. And in August, ISIS militants attacked villages and towns near the Sinjar Mountain in Iraq, abducting thousands of Yazidis — a religious minority that includes some who identify as Kurds — and raping many women and girls, as young as nine.

The YPG and YPJ ultimately came to their rescue in Sinjar, carving out a corridor for the Yazidis to safely escape from the mountains of Iraq into Syria. Zibo followed all of this on TV the way she had once watched her Jackie Chan action films and Syrian military parades. But Kurdish-led militias were now the real-life heroes.

That September, ISIS launched a full-scale assault on the Kurdish-majority city of Kobani in northern Syria, just south of the Turkish border. 

As YPG and YPJ soldiers tried to defend the city, some without even guns, Zibo recalls being glued to the television. If ISIS captured Kobani, the dream of an autonomous Rojava would be dead, and the jihadists would have the run of the region.

“I want to go and join them in Kobani,” Zibo told the senior hevals. She enjoyed driving her fellow fighters but was ready to see action.

Soon after, Zibo arrived in Kobani, a northeast Syrian city of tightly packed apartment buildings and Arabic-style one-story houses, surrounded by small hills and plains. The tendrils of the city’s sprawl follow the outlines of its major roads; many of the city’s inhabitants, mostly Kurds, had not yet fled.

“Because of her experience operating her father’s tractor and motorbike as a girl, she was one of the few female fighters who could drive.”

Zibo later recalled washing her face and hands in a heval safe house there, knowing it was the last time she’d be clean for a while. Then she changed into dark-colored clothing because she did not yet own a YPJ uniform. A senior heval told her to take a position outside a nearby building with a male soldier from their partner militia, the YPG, rifles in hand.

“This is the first time for me in battle,” Zibo said she told the male comrade in a low voice as they settled in beside one another. “I have never shot anyone or killed anyone before.” “No problem,” he replied. “Just load your weapon and try to shoot.” Zibo loaded. She thought of her mother and unexpectedly felt tears well in her eyes. She was still only 17. Then she thought of her jineology training.

They had learned that all mothers in Syria were their mothers, not only their biological ones. They were fighting for everyone’s freedom, not just their own family. I have bigger things to think about, higher principles, Zibo told herself. She aimed. She worried the bullet might ricochet back at her and accidentally kill her comrade. “You’ll be alright,” he said. “Just shoot at the enemy when they come, and you’ll feel encouraged to shoot more.”

She reminded herself that if Kobani fell to ISIS, her village could be next. They could behead her father, rape her mother and sell her sisters for sex. The ISIS militants were still a distance away from their positions, but her comrade told her to fire for practice. Zibo fired all 30 rounds in her rifle’s magazine and exhaled with relief. “How do you feel now?” he asked. She laughed, feeling the tension release from her body. “I shot a lot of bullets. I think I’m ready.” 

Fighting began in earnest that afternoon and stretched until 5 a.m. the next day, as rain poured and soaked the fighters. More ISIS militants kept coming, at first in small numbers, sneaking from street to street, then in larger groups with heavy weapons: tanks, machine guns and mortars, which they had bought with money made from oil production and smuggling.

The YPJ didn’t have that kind of funding or artillery. They had only secondhand Kalashnikovs, grenades and some makeshift tanks they’d made from pickup trucks. But they were trained guerrilla fighters and more nimble than the ISIS militants. Like other guerrillas around the world, Zibo was taught at Kobani to keep her last bullet so that in the event of capture, she could kill herself instead of being raped by the enemy. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, whose fighters also fought for an independent state of their own, similarly kept cyanide pills around their necks. Death was better than that kind of violation. 

Defending Kobani

Weeks of battles followed in Kobani. Zibo said ISIS militants would shout “Allahu Akbar! We are here to behead you!” as they approached the YPG and YPJ fighters.

Many of the days it rained, soaking her makeshift uniform of military coat, pants and boots. Between battles, she said, she hurriedly cleaned her face and hair, now nearly to her knees, tying it back tightly. She couldn’t always get rid of all the blood. And though she was hungry, she rarely felt it. She didn’t feel her fatigue either. For a soldier, acknowledging their exhaustion or their vulnerability meant risking death.

Tanks had already destroyed many of Kobani’s one-story houses — razing their backyard gardens to dirt. The city’s tall concrete apartment buildings had been punched with holes or reduced to rubble. The smell of decomposing bodies was everywhere, like sweet rotting meat. 

After killing her first ISIS fighter, Zibo said, she shot and killed around a dozen more in the days that followed. When her period came, she washed herself clean in vacant houses between battles, but there was so much blood everywhere it hardly mattered. 

Not long after her first kill, YPJ fighters near Zibo’s position captured several dozen ISIS men. Zibo later remembered swaggering up to the captured jihadists and saying: “Guys, do you want me to kill you?” with the bluster she’d acquired from surviving several weeks of war. They shook their heads. “Well, I’m not going to kill you,” she went on, and began moralizing instead: “Because you do not have a weapon in your hand. If you captured us, you would kill us without mercy. But this is not what we learned, and we will not kill you that way.”

“Zibo was taught at Kobani to keep her last bullet so that in the event of capture, she could kill herself instead of being raped by the enemy.”

The women of the YPJ wanted it to be clear to the world that ISIS was the terrorist group here.

Contagious Idealism

The YPG-YPJ forces eventually won the operation for the villages around Kobani. When jihadists tried to stage a comeback in Kobani in June, YPG and YPJ fighters quickly dispelled them. ISIS was no longer the ferocious fighting force it had claimed to be; its power had dwindled after their loss at Kobani, against all odds, to the Kurdish-led forces. YPJ was integral to the victory and everyone knew it. It was especially embarrassing for ISIS fighters, who believed that if they were killed by a woman they would not go to heaven and get their promised 72 virgins.

As the Syrian civil war dragged on and ISIS clung to its diminishing caliphate, the Kurds continued developing Rojava. They split Rojava into “cantons,” or administrative areas. All governing bodies enforced a level of at least 40% female representation. 

Democratic governance was shared, though the leading political party, the PYD — originally established as a Syrian branch of the PKK in the early 2000s — held the most sway and operated in a coalition with the smaller parties. A coed university was opened in Rojava’s big city of Qamishli where Syrian Kurds were able to study in their native tongue for the first time in decades. 

Later, a town called Jinwar for women and children would be founded, welcoming women who had lost their husbands to war, did not want to marry or had escaped marriages characterized by domestic and sexual violence. Despite the chaos of war — and perhaps because of it — Rojava continued its feminist, egalitarian experiment.

In the fall of 2015, The New York Times Magazine published a profile piece on Rojava, describing it as a “dream of secular utopia in ISIS’ backyard.” The piece made clear that Rojava’s vision was radical not only for the Middle East but anywhere in the world. 

“We’re fighting for our ideas,” a teacher at a local academy told the magazine. “Ideas, like people, die if we don’t fight for them.” Other publications in the West soon picked up on the piece, including Slate; one article remarked that it was astounding that a region in northern Syria, “ruled by militant feminist anarchists,” wasn’t getting more attention. 

Anthropologist David Graeber, one of the few American thinkers who had been paying attention to Rojava from the start, told me by phone in February 2020 that this aspect of the women’s revolution alone was “an amazing historical fact.” We first spoke when I began intensively researching the region and the YPJ after years of following the female fighters’ exploits from afar.

To Graeber, Rojava was one of the most important and hopeful experiments of all time — a blazing bright spot amid the war and bloodshed in the region — especially in a modern era when he felt so much of progressive politics revolved around a “mood of international despair.” Graeber died suddenly seven months after we spoke.

In the canton of Afrin, where Kurds and Arabs both lived, Zibo’s mother, Asiya, joined a local commune that was responding to regional needs such as building and repairing hospitals, schools and roads. “We are making the area more beautiful,” her mother later told me by phone. “The cause has become like blood in our body that we cannot do without. I promise to protect it until my last drop.” Zibo’s mother sounded just like a YPJ fighter; many people in Rojava talked that way now. The idealism of revolution was contagious.

A woman with a complaint at Mala Jin in Qamishli is seated in front of two images of Ocalan on the wall. (Elizabeth Flock/Noema Magazine)

Crimes Against Women

In 2011, the YPJ had set up a network of women-run houses called “Mala Jin,” or “Women’s House,”  in Rojava to help local women. At the Mala Jin, women could report issues like domestic and sexual violence, forced and child marriages, polygamy and more. 

In the years that followed, dozens of Mala Jin popped up across northern Syria. The Mala Jin workers were trained in both Syrian and Rojava law, reconciliation and mediation, social work and data collection. If needed, the Mala Jin escalated the problem to the courts or the police.

When I visited a Mala Jin office in Qamishli, I saw a woman come in, shaking, her face and hand covered in white splotches from third-degree burns. She told the staff that she had set herself on fire after she unsuccessfully tried to flee from her husband, who beat her for years. The staff carefully listened to her story, told her they would take pictures to document the case and send it to court; they eventually helped her divorce the man and return home to her family.

“To anthropologist David Graeber, Rojava was one of the most important and hopeful experiments of all time — a blazing bright spot amid the war and bloodshed in the region.”

In 2014, Rojava had passed a “Women’s Law” that outlawed many old practices that were deemed harmful to women and children, such as polygamy; the dowry system; and the exchange of two families’ respective daughters as brides for the others’ sons, to knit two families together. But large swaths of northern Syria continued to rely on religious and tribal codes, which were rooted in a traditional idea of honor, and continued these practices. 

Zibo was stunned by some of the stories she heard at the Mala Jin. According to Zibo, one woman complained her husband was beating her, but at the same time, that woman planned to marry her nine-year-old daughter off to a 60-year-old man. To Zibo, this story perfectly encapsulated the difficulty in implementing social change in the region. It was one step forward and another step back. 

Zibo told me the Mala Jin worked with the couple to stop the husband’s abuse, and the YPJ took the daughter into their custody, as they sometimes did if a girl’s rights were being violated, often in coordination with Rojava’s police. The nine-year-old girl was shaken and traumatized — and now part of a militia — though Zibo insisted to me the girl would not fight until she was 16.

These experiences made Zibo realize that while the YPJ had focused on fighting ISIS and its crimes, gender-based violence was still rampant at home among her own people. “We saw our people doing the same thing our enemy was doing,” she said. “People are suffering, suffering, suffering and not talking. Then they finally talk, and you discover how big the problem really is.”

A Model for Autonomous Rule

By October 2017, the YPG-YPJ declared victory over ISIS in Raqqa, where the jihadi group had run a sex slave market and also displayed heads on stakes of those they’d killed. The capital of the caliphate had fallen.

Meanwhile, Ocalan’s jineology teachings had spread to at least eight cities in Rojava, where it was taught in college programs and master’s classes and even at an all-boys high school. Though some male military trainees grumbled about the classes, others told me it changed their thinking. 

One fighter, Dilbrin Rumailan, raised his hand in a class in the northeastern city of Al-Hasakah to say that he previously didn’t understand why women needed freedom. He hadn’t liked his sister to leave the house, or his wife to visit her family for more than an hour or so. But after taking the classes, he told his female instructor, who went by the name “Roken 23 Doshka,” after the machine gun, “I see that even the woman has a life, an ideology, and her own independent personality . . . I realize I misbehaved and offended her.”

When I sat down with Aldar Khalil, the male co-chair of the leading PYD political party in Rojava, I was surprised to learn that even he had studied jineology. After taking the classes, he told me, “Even I started to criticize myself as a man.” 

Khalil, who had fought in the PKK, said he was ashamed he’d once believed only men could fire a gun: “I hated myself as a man, how we treated women before, and how we couldn’t respect her and give her proper rights.”

Ocalan’s ideology had spoken to Zibo as a girl and the person she had always been: stubborn, combative and idealistic. The West criticized Ocalan’s cult of personality, but she pointed out that people in the West also adopted problematic ideologies such as capitalism, which she felt turned everything into a commodity. Like other YPJ fighters, Zibo did not wear makeup, buy unnecessary objects for herself or own a cellphone. She did not understand the appeal of consumerism or the desire to accumulate. It was Ocalan who taught her how to live as a woman, unafraid of any man.

Without his ideology, she believed she would be living like the conservative Syrian Arab women in her village — with her face covered in public and relegated to the home or fields.

In her book, “A Road Unforeseen,” feminist academic Meredith Tax argued that feminist teachings such as jineology made Rojava likely the best place in the Middle East to be a woman. 

In 2016, as women across Rojava sought to rebuild cities ravaged by war, they established a female co-op called the Inanna Agriculture Cooperative in Afrin. The women sowed onion, garlic, chickpeas, and other beans in a collective, as a model to grow the rural economy of northern Syria. Just as Rojava’s governance was shared and cooperative, so, too, did the women hope its economy would be.

“Feminist academic Meredith Tax argued that feminist teachings such as jineology made Rojava likely the best place in the Middle East to be a woman.”

Though Rojava was focused on the overwhelming task of its own development, many thought it could become a model for autonomous rule and direct democracy elsewhere. From Basque separatists in Spain to the Irish Republican Army, which wanted to end British rule in Northern Ireland; to Cooperation Jackson, a Black-led network of worker cooperatives in Jackson, Mississippi — all had exchanged lessons with revolutionaries in Rojava. Women from across the world were attracted to its ideals.

The Struggles Of Birthing A New Society

In nearly all utopian societies, there is a moment when things go wrong. For the revolution in Rojava, it did not come from women like Zibo wielding guns, which they did adeptly and which even some of the most conservative Syrian men came to accept. 

Instead, the revolution soured for many northern Syrians in 2021 when the region spiraled deeper into an economic crisis. The reasons were many: A decade of war had stretched the autonomous region’s resources thin; warmer temperatures and less rainfall imperiled wheat production; and Turkey, which saw Rojava as a major security threat after decades of PKK-Turkish conflict, cut off the water supply of the Euphrates River, further bleeding northern Syria’s fertile farmland dry. ISIS had fallen, but Turkey, which hoped to stamp out the Kurdish guerrillas, had now launched offensives into northern Syria. And although oil pumps dotted the area’s landscape — producing 15,000 barrels of oil daily that should have made Rojava rich — the region barely made money from the resource.

Khalil told me that wartime sanctions on the Syrian regime by Europe, the U.S. and other countries made it impossible to sell the oil, “so we are forced to deal with smugglers who abuse us” to do so.

A remaining 40% of the oil the region couldn’t sell was designated for the Syrian regime, whose currency had become nearly worthless, and whose president, Assad, continued to hold on to power a decade after the uprising began.

For many Syrian-born Kurds, promises of a democratic, egalitarian and feminist revolution began to seem foolish when they lacked something as simple as bread. People grew upset even with the Kurdish-led militias that had so heroically vanquished ISIS. Rojava’s residents lacked essential services, but watched the YPG and YPJ build tunnel after expensive tunnel for military operations, in preparation for more expected incursions by Turkey. They popped up seemingly everywhere, like giant molehills.

Khalil admitted to me that 60% of the self-administration’s budget went toward the military but said that it was out of necessity. In Zibo’s home region of Afrin, for example, the self-administration had poured money for development, Khalil noted, “then in a short time it was occupied by Turkey and we lost everything. So we need to protect ourselves first. Then we can start building.”

Still, even some of the most disgruntled Rojava residents said they preferred self-administration over the rule of ISIS, Turkey or the Syrian regime, which had mercilessly squashed dissent and whose economy was in no better shape. In May 2022, after more than a decade of bloody civil war, Syrian President Assad freed hundreds of detainees from prison; many were hard to identify due to the extreme torture they’d endured. In the city of Qamishli in northeast Syria, people played tic-tac-toe on the pedestal of the once-sacred statue of Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad.

Clearly, Rojavan self-administration was better than the rule of a dictator or Salafists.

Or was it? Amid all the chaos in northern Syria, local journalists told me the self-administration was trying to squash dissent. From 2021 to 2022, nearly a dozen local journalists were suspended or arrested in Rojava, often after publishing reports critical of the revolution or the area’s self-administration. The administration claimed it was preventing journalists who lacked the proper credentials from working.

Another local reporter described the Rojava revolution as similar to George Orwell’sAnimal Farm” — the animals rose up to gain a better society and ended up in just as troubled a state as before.

Despite all this, there was no doubt that Rojava had effectively transformed the lives of its women: Zibo and countless others.

The staff at Qamishli’s Mala Jin noted that, at least anecdotally, it seemed that more women from conservative communities were speaking up about problems at home. Safaa Noori, a YPJ fighter who had grown up in a traditional Arab community, told me that seeing women wielding guns made her feel like another path was possible for her.

“For many Syrian-born Kurds, promises of a democratic, egalitarian and feminist revolution began to seem foolish when they lacked something as simple as bread.”

“I learned how they were fighting for women’s rights, and I thought I, too, should play a role in freeing the woman,” she told me. After she was married off at 13, she suffered years of abuse that included being locked at home “like a bird in a cage.” After two years, she fled the marriage and her village for the YPJ. 

The YPJ was a haven for women like Noori, and like for  Zibo, it was where they could smoke, drive, wield a weapon and sleep under the stars. Safaa hoped to learn to use machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The goal was not just to fight but also to transform Syrian society. 

“We have learned that equality between men and women will free both of them. Because not only have the women been enslaved but the man has also been enslaved by this masculine mentality,” Noori told me, taking a line from her jineology classes. She paused for a moment, before adding, “I think it is only together that we will build a new society.”