An LGBTQ brigade is fighting ISIS in northern Syria

It is not easy keeping track of the many, many militant groups that are currently engaged in a macabre dance of death in the Middle East with ever-changing partners and all identified by a confusing alphabet soup of acronyms. But Meredith Tax writes about a development in an autonomous Kurdish region of northern Syria called Rojava that took me completely by surprise.

Since last August, when I first heard about the fight against ISIS in Kobani, I have been wondering why so few people in the United States are talking about the Rojava cantons. You’d think it would be big news that there’s a liberated area in the Middle East led by kickass socialist-feminists, where people make decisions through local councils and women hold 40 percent of leadership positions at all levels. You’d think it would be even bigger news that their militias are tough enough to beat ISIS. You’d think analyses of what made this victory possible would be all over the left-wing press.

But many on the U.S. left have yet to hear the story of the Rojava cantons—Afrin, Cizîre, and Kobani—in northern Syria, or western Kurdistan. Rojava—the Kurdish word for “west”—consists of three leftist enclaves making up an area slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut, in territory dominated by ISIS. In mid-2012, Assad’s forces largely withdrew from the area, and the battle was left to the Kurdish militias: the YPG (People’s Protection Units) and the YPJ (Women’s Defense Forces), the autonomous women’s militias. These militias are not the same as the Iraqi peshmerga, though the U.S. press uses that name for both.

While the Syrian opposition is understandably bitter that the YPG and YPJ withdrewmost of their energy from the war with Assad, leftists worldwide should be watching the remarkable efforts being made by Syrian Kurds and their allies to build a liberated area where they can develop their ideas about socialism, democracy, women, and ecology in practice.

Anna Lekas Miller writes about another surprising development in Rojava. It is the creation of an LGBTQ brigade to fight ISIS called The Queer Insurrection and Liberation Army (TQILA, pronounced ‘tequila’). But she says that the situation, like everything in that region, is complicated.

But while TQILA’s rainbow flags and catchy banners may have been clickbait for certain parts of left Twitter, other activists and people with experience on the ground argue that masked foreign fighters are not the way to advance the rights of LGBTQ people in the war-torn region. Rojava, a politically autonomous region in the Kurdish region of northern Syria, has attracted leftists from around the world thanks to its radical experiments in participatory democracy and commitment to women’s equality. But LGBTQ activists say there is a long way to go.

While many in the Western left idealize Rojava as an anti-patriarchy, anti-capitalist socialist utopia, some visitors find themselves questioning how deep this liberation goes. As author and activist Rahila Gupta observed, while there is extensive female participation in the government and military, the majority of housework is also left to women. Gupta also noted that LGBTQ and minority rights are often lumped in with women’s rights and Kurdish liberation as Rojava’s alleged priorities, but sexual relations of any kind are frowned upon as distractions from the revolution, and often met with shaming and harassment.

Zoza argues that the new arrivals are being taken in. “None of these foreign fighters understand that Rojava and the YPG are not who they claim to be,” she said. “As a Syrian-Kurdish trans woman, why should I be fed this propaganda that it is this place that it is not?”

There’s more about these radical political developments in Rojava here.

After declaring autonomy, grassroots organizers, politicians and other community members have radically changed the social and political make-up of the area. The extreme laws restricting independent political organizing, women’s freedom, religious and cultural expression and the discriminatory policies carried out by the Assad government have been superseded. In their place, a Constitution of Rojava guaranteeing the cultural, religious and political freedom of all people has been established. The constitution also explicitly states the equal rights and freedom of women and also “mandates public institutions to work towards the elimination of gender discrimination.”

I had never heard of this radical experiment in participatory democracy in the middle of a war-torn region. On the surface, it is quite an extraordinary development and deserves to be more widely known.


  1. cartomancer says

    I had heard of this through the LGBT press, but you’re right, I’ve not seen anything about it in the mainstream media.

    Still, I’ve long thought the Sacred Band of Thebes was due for a revival.

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