They address each other as Haval

Houzan Mahmoud linked to an article about the 7,500 Kurdish women who fight ISIS in Syria.

“We have to be free from the Syrian government,” says YPJ member, Evin Ahmed, 26, (pictured above). She continues, “We need to control the area ourselves without depending on them. They can’t protect us from [ISIS], we have to protect us [and] we defend everyone…no matter what race or religion they are.”

Ahmed, like many of the YPJ, is fiercely loyal to her fellow-soldiers. She insists, “I love being a YPJ soldier, I love the other soldiers, we are closer than sisters. This is the only life for me. I can’t imagine living any other way.”

This sentiment, says Trieb, is echoed by all members of the YPJ, who live by a code of honesty, morals, and justice. “Their motto is ‘Haval’ or ‘friendship’,” explains Trieb, “and is of utmost importance to them. They treat each other (and treated me) with a sense of solidarity and sisterhood. They address each other as Haval, and when they spoke to me, they would call me ‘Haval Erin’. It enforces a constant sense of belonging and support.”

Like “comrade.”

Several of the women, like General Zelal, 33, (pictured below) one of the leaders of YPJ, expanded upon the idea of the independence the group brings women of the region: “I don’t want to get married or have children or be in the house all day. I want to be free.  If I couldn’t be a YPJ I think my spirit would die. Being a YPJ soldier means being free—this is what it means to truly be free.”

“There is a sense among the women,” says Trieb, “that the YPJ is in itself a feminist movement, even if it is not their main mission. They want ‘equality’ between women and men, and a part of why they joined was to develop and advance the perceptions about women in their culture—they can be strong and be leaders.”

It would be nice if it didn’t take life and death emergencies to make that possible though…

Sa-el Morad, 20, (pictured below), shared with Trieb that she enlisted in order to prove that, “we can do all the same things that men can do; that women can do everything; that there’s nothing impossible for us. When I was at home,” she recalled, “all the men just thought that the women are just cleaning the house and not going outside. But when I joined the YPJ everything changed. I showed all of them that I can hold a weapon, that I can fight in the clashes, that I can do everything that they thought was impossible for women. Now, the men back home changed their opinions about me and other women. Now they see that we are their equals, and that we have the same abilities, maybe sometimes more than them. They understand we are strong and that we can do everything they can.”

According to Trieb, the women are indeed seen as just as strong, disciplined, and committed as their male counterparts. They endure many months and levels of rigorous training in weaponry and tactical maneuvers before they are even allowed to fight. They are also wholly celebrated by their community, which Trieb notes is unexpected in a part of the world where women are often seen as inferior to men.

To some in the region, they are seen as potentially more of a threat to ISIS than male soldiers. As Trieb recalls, “The saying among many Syrian Kurds is that ISIS is more terrified of being killed by women because if they are, they will not go to heaven.”

Let’s hope they all go that way then.

Read the whole article, and see the stunning photos of the soldiers.


  1. quixote says

    “if they are, they will not go to heaven”

    That, I haven’t heard before. When will these fundie loonies stop surprising me to the downside?

  2. Blanche Quizno says

    They’re suiting up and arming *children*. The article pictured a 12-year-old, a 14-year-old, and a 17-year-old. That’s wrong no matter what side you’re on.

  3. Silentbob says

    @ 2 Blanche Quizno

    From the source:

    The women range in age from 18-40, though there are some younger recruits like Hevedar Mohammed, 12, (pictured below). Recruits under the age of 18 are not permitted to fight, though they go through some physical training and participate in the group by way of carrying out ‘household’ chores. Hevedar, like many YPJ, was inspired to join because of the group’s reputation for developing strong, independent women and because of its positive standing in the community.

  4. Maureen Brian says

    Blanche Quizino @ 2 and 4,

    Are you ever going to gain a sense of proportion? Not everyone in those pictures is carrying a weapon and all but one of them appear to me to be adult women. There may be a query about the age given in one caption.

    In an area which one way or another has been in turmoil since the Ottoman Empire collapsed – a century or so – and is currently having a bad patch, the 12 and 14 year olds are almost certainly safer fetching and carrying for a disciplined group of women.

    The alternative would be either an unofficial refugee settlement subject to attack and, from there, either forced marriage at maybe 11 or kidnap, gang rape and then being sold into slavery. Or possibly execution.

    All children parade and posture with weapons when they get a chance, more so in war zones. Tell me, how many of the annual firearms deaths in the US are the result of children showing off or inadequately supervised with a weapon?

    Beside that death toll in the US and the rising death toll in the Middle East, complaining about a teenage girl borrowing an AK47 to pose for a professional photograph seems a little over the top.

  5. says

    Holding a gun while posing for a picture is hardly the same as fighting. The training mentioned could perhaps include weapons training. What the actual situation is we can’t know. All we’ve got to go by is this article and that says they don’t fight. Maybe that’s true or maybe it’s propaganda. Who knows.

  6. Maureen Brian says

    We actually know a fair amount about Iraqi Kurdistan. Friends and colleagues of mine were among those organising emergency aid after Saddam’s forces chased the population into the mountains, post First Gulf War in 1991. (A mad cycling friend had been there a year earlier and it’s in his book about that trip.) They have their own Save the Children now, part of the global network of SCFs whose UK version is still advertising posts today in that region. Other NGOs from Europe are involved as, increasingly, are policy wonks, government departments and businesses with both the regional government and local NGOs. These links have been continuous and strengthening for decades.

    Like much journalism from strange, faraway places that piece looks as though it might be slanted to please its readership but just propaganda? Almost certainly not.

  7. says

    I don’t exactly mean that the article was propaganda. I was proposing that what the group told the reporters about their practices might be. It’s not as if it’s unthinkable for an idealistic group to decide that their lofty goal is more important than the well-being of their members. Since the reporter presumably didn’t accompany the group into action, all we’ve really got is what the group itself claims.

    If you know something I don’t and think that it’s unlikely, okay. I don’t feel like I have enough information to make any reasonable judgment one way or the other. I do think that Blanche Quizno’s accusation was a bit quick, assuming they based it only on that one article. As I said, a posed photo doesn’t really mean anything. Given the flimsy basis for speculation, I think this is nearing a derail of the subject, so I’m happy to let it rest.

    Back on the subject, I wonder what might happen in the future. If you’ve got a large group of young women, trained to be self-reliant and capable, and with a strong bond of sisterhood, coming home and joining the normal society. Could this be an opening for larger social change? Maybe I’m stretching for a silver lining, but one could hope that they’d be less willing to submit to social rules and lowered status, and organized enough that they couldn’t just be sidelined and ignored.

  8. Maureen Brian says


    I don’t want to get in a fight with you! Earlier on I just put “peshmerga women” into google and got half a million responses.

    The Peshmerga are one of the most effective militia forces and the Kurds are far more open to the participation of women in all sorts of aspects of life than the Arab communities to the South.

    As for what these women get up to in battle, well, we have some difficulty discovering exactly what our own neatly uniformed and annotated armies are up to. Sometimes we don’t find out for decades. So, in the friendliest possible spirit, I see your female Peshmerga group and raise you Fallujah.

  9. Ed says

    To ISIS members worried about being killed by women:

    A female fighter pilot from Dubai is among the international forces taking part in the air strikes. Not that I’m especially sold on the morality of the air srtikes, but if they must happen I love the idea of these cretins having no way to know whether the next explosion will send them to Heaven or Hell.

  10. Blanche Quizno says

    I’m not saying this isn’t a good group. I think it’s a very good group. However, it is recruiting and militarizing children, such as that 12 year old posed with a large gun. If it is bad for military organizations to recruit impressionable children, then it’s bad for military organizations to recruit impressionable children. Even if it’s a military organization we really, REALLY like. If it’s bad for Boko Haram and Kony 2012, then it’s bad for the YPJ. Leave children alone!

    I was just having a discussion with my uncle, the retired Christian career minister. He was all upset over some American 17-yr-old girl, from a moderate Muslim family, who was going off to marry an ISIS member. I pointed out to him that if she were a Christian girl, from a Christian family, who was going off to marry an Evangelical Christian missionary in Africa, he’d be delighted – he’d no doubt say things like, “Isn’t it wonderful to see a young person so on fire for the Lord? And she has awoken to her mission so early in life! God must be speaking to her! It’s certainly refreshing to see a young person who puts top priority on her walk with God and her Christian faith – so many kids are shallow, selfish, and frivolous these days. And imagine – she’s willing to devote her entire life to saving others by spreading the Gospel!”

    Everyone here on Butterflies should know by now what monstrous atrocities are being perpetrated by African Christians, on the basis of American Evanglical missionaries’ teachings of hatefulness. In an ironic turn of events, Nigerian Christian preacher and “witch-hunter” Helen Ukpabio, founder and head of the African Evangelical franchise Liberty Gospel Ministries, is planning a US missionary tour to whip up witch-hatred among American Christians. Why should witches get a pass over here?? She believes that “Satan” can possess children and through them do whatever “it” wants (see 2 Timothy 2:26), the children serving as “Satan”’s “witches” and “wizards”. This means that children are horrifically abused, even murdered, in the name of “exorcism”, with their abusers feeling entirely righteous about it, because God. Because Jesus. Because the Bible.

    But where’s the outrage? No shortage of outrage when it’s something the Muslims are doing! When Christians do the equivalent, ah, well, let’s just see if there isn’t something interesting on TV. So while I do not excuse atrocities of any kind, I rather wonder at Christians’ outpouring of outrage over those horrible Muslims – and silence over those horrible Christians. I realize that, with today’s corporate-controlled media, a lot of people may not have heard about those horrible Christians. “Those awful Muslims” sells a lot better nowadays to white conservatives (disproportionately Christian churchgoers) than “those awful Christians”, to be sure.

    Bottom line: If there is a behavior that is bad – but only when people you don’t like are doing it, some behavior that is lauded and admired when people you like are doing it, then there’s bigotry involved. In years and months past, many people, probably on this very site, have condemned militarizing young children. Turning young children into soldiers, indoctrinating them into the military mindset, promoting the military as a way of life – that’s not what children should be subjected to. An environment where a 12-yr-old girl is obviously *OVERJOYED* at being photographed in military dress, holding a big-ass killstick, is DEFINITELY militarized! No two ways about it. I don’t understand why I appear to be the only one who sees this as a problem.

  11. Maureen Brian says

    No behaviour is perfectly good or perfectly bad of itself. Context matters.

    Where there is a war raging, not a nice neat one with two uniformed armies lined up in plain sight and executing choreographed manoeuvres but a thoroughly messy one which ranges across thousands of square kilometres then no-one knows how many sides there are in this war or where they are because alliances break and reform and thus no-one knows who is winning, even at a very local level.

    Some things we do know – that the “laws and customs of war” which are the basis of the Geneva Conventions have long since gone out of the window and war crimes are the order of the day. At the moment this is raging across two large countries and women and girls are especially at risk – both because the whole thing is out of control and because a large number of the warring groups are driven by extreme ideologies.

    In an ideal world those teenage girls would be in school. This is not an ideal world. Where they are they have some protection.

    I would remind you that Joseph Kony was kidnapping and brutalising vast numbers of “child soldiers” – why not just call them slaves? – for decades before the US took a blind bit of notice. In fact, some gave him the benefit of the doubt because, despite the evidence, he claimed to be Christian.

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