General Zelal, 33, of the YPJ, photographed at a YPJ checkpoint base, Raabia, Kurdistan, August 2014
General Zelal, 33, of the YPJ, photographed at a YPJ checkpoint base, Raabia, Kurdistan, August 2014

Most photographs of “Narin Afrin” are fake. Few people even know her real name. Yet so striking is the idea of a woman not just fighting but commanding forces on one of the Middle East’s most dangerous battlefields, that she has become a local legend among the region’s stateless Kurds.

The woman who goes by the nom de guerre Narin Afrin tries to remain elusive. She wants to keep the focus on her all-female YPJ forces – a Kurdish acronym for the Syrian Kurdish Women’s Protection Units. “Military force is no longer the monopoly of men . . . The YPJ proves women can be the defenders. They can protect their own lives – and their nation,” she says, in a rare telephone interview from Kobani, the besieged Kurdish city in northern Syria.

Both male and female Kurdish fighters have become some of the most effective ground forces in the US-led coalition that is fighting off a three-month-old assault by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the jihadi group known as Isis. The YPJ has become a cause célèbre: the image of bronzed women toting guns is a rare symbol of female empowerment in a conservative region – and a stark contrast to a group taking female captives as slaves.

Afrin worries that the photographs of “girls with guns” mean the world ignores how serious her forces are about their ideological goals. “We’re not just a pretty picture. We are a way of thinking,” she says. “We have beliefs. And we have a cause.”

The YPJ is a Syrian offshoot of a group that the west labels as terrorists. The leftist guerrilla Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has fought a three-decade war for Kurdish self-rule against Turkey. Spread across four Middle Eastern countries, Kurds are the world’s largest stateless ethnicity. Despite the PKK link, Kurdish forces in Syria are now allies of the international coalition. Media attention on the YPJ may have helped win them support. “Whatever their flaws, they are a more democratic option whose ideas of gender equality are closer to the west,” says Aliza Marcus, author of Blood and Belief, a book on the PKK and its affiliates. “The women, the fighters, really helped sell the group, and work against Turkey’s push to have them labelled a terrorist group.”

For many Kurdish women, joining PKK-linked forces appeals both to their nationalist aspirations and a desire for gender equality. The PKK has often taken teenage recruits. More recently, Human Rights Watch, the global lobby group, said Syrian Kurdish forces, both male and female, were using child soldiers. The YPJ has been trying to address those criticisms in an effort to maintain international support.

The PKK is also totalitarian. After years of ideology ingrained during training, many fighters speak only in platitudes. “As a child I always dreamt of the idea of equality among humankind,” Afrin says. “I imagined that if I had the strength, I would create a society where there were no poor or rich, strong or weak.” When she turned 18, she met a female PKK fighter from Turkey. She was shocked by her freedom and confidence, and immediately went to enlist.

Women rename themselves when they begin military training. Narin was a name she loved; Afrin is a reference to her Kurdish village. “By picking a new name, you are separating yourself in every way from your old self and whatever that past may have held before you chose revolution,” she says.

The PKK and its affiliates have recruited women since the 1980s, partly because of leftist ideology, but also because women, half the population, were an untapped base. Grateful for the rare outlet for social mobility, women are often the most committed members. Every political and military leadership position is co-chaired by a man and a woman. Quotas ensure women get nearly half the organisation’s positions.

That doesn’t mean the struggle for equality is over. In a pink headscarf and black leather jacket, 40-year-old Fawzia Abdo, co-head of Kobani’s political leadership, is the epitome of an older generation juggling conservative customs and political advancement. “They accept that outside, we are playing an equal role. But at home, men still want the ‘golden days’. We still need to liberate the home front – men now have to accept they share a burden in child-rearing and domestic life. We’re not providing them a hotel service any more,” she says.

Like Afrin, Abdo sees the YPJ media obsession as a mixed blessing. On one hand, it raises their profile and increases regional interest in women’s roles. The semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq is now creating female security forces. The United Arab Emirates sent a female fighter pilot to help in the coalition bombing of Isis.

But Abdo also sees signs the excitement is superficial: “We share political leadership, but those women hardly get media recognition . . . That’s not just our problem – it’s the world’s. They focus only on female fighters, as if they were strange animals.”

Erika Solomon is an FT correspondent based in Beirut

Photograph: Erin Trieb

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