Geopolitics

Kurdish Women Fighters Help Halt ISIS In Syria

As Islamic terrorists press forward in Syria, female fighters and commanders now make up a third of Kurdish forces. "Women can fight better than men," one says.

Kurdish women training to be fighters.
Kurdish women training to be fighters.
Ahmad Khalil and Karen Leigh

AL-HASAKAH — Ruwayda, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party's (PYD) commander for its first all-female brigade, oversaw 53 fighters to help the Free Syrian Army stop President Bashar al-Assad's forces from entering Aleppo's Kurdish neighborhoods.

After holding off the regime, she and her brigade returned to their home base, the predominantly Kurdish northern city of Afrin, where they then focused their efforts on halting the advance of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS terrorists.

"I believe in a greater cause, which is protecting our families and our cities from the extremists' brutality and dark ideas," she says. "I read Nietzsche and Marx, which they don't accept. They don't accept having women in leadership positions. They want us to cover ourselves and become housewives to attend to their needs only. They think we have no right to talk and control our lives."

Kurdish women, regarded as some of the most liberal in the region, have a decades-long history of fighting. Many have fought with the internationally recognized terror organization Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that works with the Kurdish People's Protection Units in southern Turkey.

Now, Ruwayda says, jihadists' repression of women has led many Kurdish to pick up arms, and that about 30% of the People's Protection Units — the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party — is now female.

Britan Derek, 33, a People's Protection Unit commander in Al-Hasakah (another Kurdish-majority city in the north that is threatened by ISIS, because of gains it made during a June takeover of Mosul) has been marching steadily north and east.

"Women can fight better than men," she says. "We remain calm and steadfast. We are usually snipers, or on the fighting fronts. Women don't have much to lose in battle. Men dream of starting a family, or returning to their families. Whereas women who have chosen this path do so willingly. They have no other purpose."

But even among more liberal Kurdish families, daughters must struggle to convince their parents to let them join the fight. Some are just teenagers.

"I quit studying Kurdish and joined training camps in Dirbasiyyah," adds Derek's friend Ameena, 19. "My parents tried to stop me, but they couldn't. My mother didn't talk to me for six months after I joined, but we are back to normal now."

After beginning her studies at a traditional Kurdish language school in Al-Hasakah, Ameena "joined Kurdish training camps, supervised by men and women who came from Turkey, and who have been fighters for decades," says her father, Mohammed.

"I tried to stop Ameena by all means, but I couldn't. Her decision was final. We are born in a liberated society that respects women and their decisions. I never imagined my daughter's decision would be to be a fighter, but I've become very proud of her. She is braver than I am, and stronger than her brothers. When she comes to visit us, all family friends come to take pictures with her."

Names of those quoted in this story have been changed for their protection.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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