In an exclusive interview with the Syrian Democratic Times, Newroz Ehmed discusses the future of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the US military presence in Syria, the women’s movement in Syria, the Kurdish experience, what motivates her on a daily basis, and more.
Newroz Ehmed is the co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the military of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). As a commander of the YPJ, Women’s Protection Units, she was featured in the newly-released New York Times Bestseller book, “The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice,” by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.
Syrian Democratic Times: What is your background? Where were you born?
Newroz Ehmed: I was born in Hasakah, Syria. I haven’t completed my secondary education, though I had a great passion for studying, and used to have a lot of dreams and hopes about my studies, but all were aborted by the loss of the future of the Kurds under the rule of the Ba’ath regime, in addition to the social and authoritarian mentality obstacles, especially the injustice and contradictions against women. Unfortunately, my life was affected by the mentality of feudal society and its religious and chauvinistic tendencies, and all this pushed me from my early days to search for new destinations where I could complete the building of my career. Thus, I had to leave school early, and I joined the women’s movement, and unions that were active with educating women, and empowering them how to protect themselves against the existing and domineering mentality. Here, I took my first steps in the struggle for the rights of my people in general and the rights of women in particular.
The suffering and injustice that began since my early days, appeared clearly when I was in school where the Arabic language was imposed on us, while my mother tongue, the Kurdish language, was banned, not only in school curriculum but even speaking with colleagues outside the class during breaks was prohibited. To make things even worse, most of Kurds could not complete their education at university and even postgraduate studies, as the ruling system was giving privileges to certain communities over others in the country. All this affected the situation of the Kurds in the region and made their future uncertain.
All this injustice and suffering affected my life and I felt them as contradictions like how to be deprived from your basic rights, as Kurds have a special culture and language, different from the other cultures in the region, but under all this persecution, we felt as if we had lost our identity. What made our life even worse was not only being deprived from basic rights, but also being persecuted through arbitrary arrests against Kurdish civilians, especially the penalties imposed on Kurdish students when speaking their mother tongue.
SDT: Why did you decide to join the women’s movement in North and East Syria?
Ehmed: I lived in a community where women had been vulnerable and marginalized to a great extent. Women’s life was restricted strictly by social norms, as they were not allowed to express their opinion without the consent of the family breadwinner, ie the father, brother or husband. The woman was almost deprived from the right of education and work and almost subjected to forced marriage at early age. So since my early days I had a reaction to these social norms and restrictions imposed on women at that time. This prompted me to make my decision not to live like the rest of women under the social norms tyranny. This made me reject everything binds me, especially the idea of being a housewife by force. Actually, my mother was pushing me greatly towards rejection of social norms, as she always used to tell me, “Do not spend your life as I did, and do not follow the same lifestyle imposed on me by society. You have many opportunities to learn, study and work.” These words were the main motivation for me to search for alternatives. Despite my great love for completing my education, this dream was aborted for the above-mentioned situation about the status of women and the dictatorship of the ruling authorities and imposing everything by force, and the loss of a future for Kurds under the ruling Baath Party regime and its totalitarian authority and security system, and the desire for seeking another future motivated me to search for other areas beyond education that distorts and bans my culture.
Despite the limited and different ways to struggle for the oppressed women, all goals used to agree on uniting the different groups that can fight the domineering mentality in society. Thus I joined the feminist organizations through which we can struggle for our rights and our natural role in a society governed by an authority that persecutes and marginalizes Kurdish people in general and Kurdish women in particular. So, we had to face all these challenges and strive to reach results in our favor, and this is what created a spirit of challenge before my family and society.
Most feminist organizations that existed at the time were formed within the institutions of the Syrian regime, and were unable to provide any support for women or society. Arab women were also suffering but Kurdish women suffer were double. This is why opportunities for Kurdish women were limited, and this is what pushed us, through secret organizations and meetings, to train and improve ourselves, with the aim of rejecting the existence of the fascist regime and demanding to change it permanently, and to change the situation of women, especially Kurdish women.
SDT: As a child, did you ever sense that your life’s path might be different than that of other girls?
Ehmed: I was fully aware of the aforementioned situation at a young age, as I was alerted not to be like other persecuted women in society, and not to accept what society imposes on me and women in general, which is the struggle to change the mentality that exists in society towards women and their role.
SDT: What was the first moment you knew that you felt you might need to pick up a gun and fight?
Ehmed: My experience with the Women Protection Units (YPJ) was special and exciting, as all that we learned previously from the secret and small organizations were carried out practically.
The YPJ is a feminist organization that builds confidence in the personalities of women to achieve all that they were deprived of because of the patriarchy, and also to empower women with the abilities to accomplish all that men can accomplish.
SDT: Why do you believe the YPJ benefits from being separate from the YPG or other men’s units?
Ehmed: Before the official establishment of the YPJ, women fighters and activists had been receiving several kinds of training. But as the number increased with the developments of the situation in the region, the YPJ was officially established. This positively affected society, showing the strength of women and their abilities to develop self-reliance, take part in fighting, build society, and many other tasks.
Challenges had appeared in the beginning of the war in the country, as woman fighters used to be deployed to back the men fighters on the front lines. In the beginning, many woman fighters were assigned to simple tasks other than fighting. All of this was promoted by the justifications of the prevailing patriarchal mentality, such as patriarchal ideas about the physical ability of women and their mental abilities in managing war. However, women later proved their proficiency in fighting. This contributed greatly to influencing the local and even international community in a positive way, so the role of women gained great merit during the war. This has also changed the mentality of men towards women — after all the sacrifices we have made and the struggles we have had, not only in times of war but also in times of peace.
Women’s experiences were something distinct, on intellectual, cultural, and philosophical levels. Therefore the character of women in our movement was different from the rest of the political and military movements, parties, and organizations. Women joined our movement — joined voluntarily by their free will — and this prompted many families to let their girls to join this movement. This joining was not temporary, and later this became a trend and a lifestyle, in which women take responsibility for their world, by gaining self-reliance and carrying out all the tasks assigned to them, in order to bring about a revolution in society and give another color to the Kurdish revolutionary liberation movement.
SDT: What do you think the rest of the world could learn from the women’s rights movement of North and East Syria?
Ehmed: Thanks to the sacrifices and previous struggles of women throughout the past years, women in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria were able to obtain their right to parity in governance and job opportunities with men. This shared management and leadership took place through improving the status of women and preparing to take part and have access to all political, military, administrative, service, and economic fields. Actually, the Autonomous Administration insisted on improving and continuing with this character building through the participation of women, in all aspects of co-leadership, and extending to all other aspects of life.
The system and shape established by the Autonomous Administration, especially with regard to women, is the most appropriate form to be applied to all other areas of Syria, and for all minorities, communities, sects, and others. It is the most appropriate form of administration to solve the problems that exist within the Syrian case.
There are however challenges and obstacles that we face in implementing this system of governance, such as the attempts from many parties to thwart the Autonomous Administration project, in addition to the mentality of the authoritarian and dictatorial regime, and its attempt to create disputes between the different sects, religions, and communities. There were recent attempts by some parties to send messages to the international community that the Autonomous Administration is governed by a certain community and is serving a certain community only, despite the fact that the cornerstone of the Autonomous Administration is serving all communities in its areas.
This is what appeared in a practical way, especially in the years of war, as the Autonomous Administration was able to stand up and face all the challenges and attacks that targeted it and wanted to eliminate it. The Autonomous Administration actually managed to continue to embrace all social, sectarian, and political parties and communities in North and East Syria.
The Autonomous Administration still has some shortcomings and faces difficulties. Yes, its communities, including Kurds, Syriacs, Circassians, and Armenians are taking part of it and not having any disputes. Most communities in the region see the Autonomous Administration as a solution and a model for a future Syria, while the Syrian regime is trying to promote itself as being able to find solutions to what is going on in Syria. This is a strange contradiction. How can the one who created all this chaos can find a solution? The Syrian regime statements in this regard are meaningless and contradictory. This is the mentality of the Syrian regime and the chauvinism of the ruling Ba’ath Party, whose ideas were based on the oppression, denial, and exclusion of peoples, and these ideas are still — unfortunately — continuing.
There are discussions, talks, and negotiations going on about the Syrian crisis on an international level, but we as a political or military body are excluded from these talks. The decisions on solutions must come from the peoples of the region by themselves — but the mentality of denial, exclusion, and persecution is ongoing. Furthermore, the region is suffering from economic and social crises, forced displacement of peoples, embargoes, the loss of a clear future, weakness in the educational and health sectors, and a high rate of poverty. All of this has further complicated and deepened the Syrian crisis.
SDT: Where do you believe the women’s rights movement is headed? What is its future?
Ehmed: The women’s movement made many sacrifices to reach this level. In the past there have been many cases proving that women obtain their rights through resistance and struggle. At the same time, the existing difficulties that target women have put before us great challenges. So we will continue our struggle, through the experience we have already acquired, including the duty of self-defense, which compels us to continue to defend the peoples of the region to obtain our freedom and rights.
SDT: What has your career been like within the YPJ? What positions have you held? What battles have you been involved in?
Ehmed: The military lessons that we learned in recent years have transformed my tendencies from women’s movements and women’s federations into the tendencies of a fighter. The attacks targeting the peoples of the region, especially after 2011, prompted me to think more about how to protect the region and organize ourselves. So we started with a small group of girls who joined us, and I was responsible for training them and organizing them in academies. Then I graduated to take my place as a leader participating in the management of battles, and also participating in the military campaigns to liberate our areas. Our battles began against the Syrian regime first, the “Free Army” factions and the Al-Nusra Front, followed by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist organization, while the phase that contained the largest participation of YPJ forces was in the campaign to liberate the Yazidis in the Sinjar region, and then the battles in Kobani, Manbij, Tabqa, Jazira, and Deir Ezzor.
SDT: What do you see as the greatest challenges facing the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria?
Ehmed: The challenges grew significantly. As a general official of the YPJ, then holding more positions in the General Command of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), things were not easy, especially with a lot of challenges such as forced displacement and the spread of terrorism represented by ISIS and other organizations.
SDT: What are the ideas that keep you going when you face adversity or challenges?
Ehmed: What motivated me most to go on the path I chose was thinking about the future of our people, our comrades and our companions who made great sacrifices with their bodies and souls and fought to secure a free life for the people of the region, which is the same motivation that keeps me strong and still gives me morale. This is the essence of women’s liberation in our movement, which is the fight to live and have a bright future for everyone who lives and will live later on this earth, because the reality imposed on women is not her destiny and it is something that women can change through their struggle, and it always requires organization, training and high morale.
SDT: What needs to be done for democracy, the women’s rights movement, religious plurality, and multi ethnicity to survive in the Middle East?
Ehmed: There are still remaining challenges, but today we can say that YPJ has become a model for all women in the world, whether its lifestyle or through the ability to adapt and organize itself and develop its mechanisms and tools to combat everything that disrupts a woman’s life.
SDT: As a commander, what type of new support do you require of the Department of Defense?
Ehmed: Regarding the US-led international coalition, this matter was completely new for us, as the coalition forces came from all over the world to North and East Syria (Rojava). Of course, there are many differences in terms of the nature and culture of our people and their peoples, the pattern of work and the tools of thinking and implementation. But despite our limited capabilities, the courage and the pursuit of freedom, a bright future and sacrifice proved the efficiency of our military forces, which was exploited in addition to the high organization of the international coalition forces, their discipline, experiences and technologies that they enjoy, so the unification of the two forces came out with an important result, which is the victory over the terrorist ISIS organization. I am confident that we still have something to do in many political, military, humanitarian, and service aspects, after proving successful in the previous areas that we have gone through together since 2014.
The fight we waged was not based only on interests, it was a struggle of all peoples of the world and for the sake of humanity — because our great victories, especially against ISIS and terrorism in North and East Syria, was for all peoples of the world. There is still more to offer through continuous cooperation to eliminate the ideology of ISIS and its ideas. ISIS ideas are still spreading among the peoples of the region, as well as the desire for ISIS to revive itself. We have fought terrorism and ISIS on behalf of all the peoples and armies of the world.
SDT: How important is the continued US military presence in NE Syria?
Ehmed: We hope this cooperation and struggle continues. The presence of the US forces and coalition forces in the region is important for the peoples of the region and for their protection, and for the method and form of the solutions that have been reached so far in North and East Syria. Cooperation must continue and develop to the highest form. That is, the experiences that Afghanistan, Iraq, and many countries have lived must not be repeated to our region, and cooperation must continue until a solution is found. The geographical victory over ISIS is not enough. What I mean by the form of solution is that the solution encompasses all the people of the region, its peoples, doctrines, and their lifestyles, in an acceptable manner for all the peoples of the world and to be a role model.
SDT: What can you share about the SDF’s military and counter terrorism cooperation with the US military?
Ehmed: As a military leader in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), I can say that the fight against ISIS and terrorism is still continuing, because terrorist ideology and extremism still pose a threat to the region, and every day there are threats and assassinations in several areas of North and East Syria, and this is extremely dangerous. There are still many people who hold this extremist ideology, and we believe that we still need the world’s support and assistance so that all the sacrifices we have made do not go in vain. The main support needed is military training and technical expertise for our forces. This is explicitly to develop ourselves further and to prevent the region from turning into a source of terrorism.
I can also say that the democracy of the United States of America and the Western countries and the model that emerged from northern and eastern Syria (Rojava) must be the basis of the solution in the Middle East, and we hope that the US offers some of its experience to serve the peoples of the region, to produce together a project that is rich in ideas proportional to reality in order to be a new beginning for the world.
SDT: What do you say about the book, The Daughters of Kobani?
Ehmed: The book The Daughters of Kobani is an important intellectual depiction of the experience that YPJ had and its struggle over the past years, with the support of the international coalition, especially the US forces. We hope for this depiction to come out through this book to all countries of the world so that the readers and the world share with us what we lived from real experiences that led us to this form today. This book should be well known in US society and the societies of the countries of the International Coalition, so that their people also learn about the experience of their forces in our country, and the comradeship that we lived together throughout the years of our war against terrorism. The Daughters of Kobani is the voice of women in the struggle and woman fighters throughout the world. This book contains the significant details that happened in the region, and there are still many details that need to be documented. But what is really important is the continuation of this type of book that deals with the peoples of the region and the movement of women in northern and eastern Syria.
I would like to thank the writer Gayle Tzemach Lemmon and all those who contributed to publishing the book. The book will play an important role in introducing women’s experiences in the region to the world. The Kobani war was a war for all women and all peoples of the world.
The world and the woman met in Kobani. We want this voice to reach all parts of the world. This voice is a platform for us to thank all those in solidarity and sympathies with our cause, and all the participants in the war on our side and those who provided aid, we thank them once again and hope we will rise to the expectations and confidences that the world has seen in us.