‘We never accepted surrender:’ the Yezidi women fighting back after genocide
Seven years ago, the world watched in horror as ISIS attacked the Yezidi (Êzidî) community of Sinjar. The armed forces of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government KRG left the region undefended and its people disarmed, despite knowing that the jihadist group was on the offensive.
In the days that followed, ISIS murdered thousands of Yezidi men and abducted thousands more Yezidi women and girls into sexual slavery. The brutal assault has since been recognized as a genocide.
For the international community, that was the end of the story. Yezidi women have been cast as helpless victims, devoid of agency of their own, and the genocide as a tragedy that could not have been predicted or prevented, stripped from the history of persecution and neglect that preceded it.
What this narrative has erased is the fact that, for seven years, some Yezidi women have been fighting back — organizing to defeat ISIS, avenge their people, and build a future where no such atrocity could befall their community again.
The Sinjar Women’s Units (Yekinêyen Jinên Şengalê, or YJŞ) are small as armed groups in the region go. They are estimated to number about 400 fighters, about one-fourth the size of the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ), with which they are affiliated. They are less famous than the other all-women’s forces that fought ISIS in Iraq and Syria, though they share roots with both. And their post-ISIS history is one of near-intractable challenges that often overshadow and threaten their achievements, both on the battlefield and off.
Yet their very existence is revolutionary. As genocide survivors, they did not wait for the world to bring justice for their people. They took it themselves, revealing the emptiness of many governments’ approaches to 21st-century mass atrocities. As a women’s militia trained by the only other such forces in the world, they proved that, even in the most dire of circumstances, women do not need to rely on men. And for their insistence on persevering, against all odds, as Yezidi women in their historic homeland, they have come under threat from nearly all sides of the multifaceted conflicts that have devastated Iraq, Syria and Turkey for the past decade.
Self-determination and its corollary, self-defense, are at the heart of every action these women have taken for the past seven years.
“As Êzidî women, we have survived many genocides. In the massacres that have been carried out [against us], the greatest suffering was inflicted on women. Women were kidnapped, raped, sold, trafficked. Women’s will was crushed. It was necessary, because of the suffering that women faced, to have a women’s defense force,” the Media Office of the YJŞ said in response to written questions.
“Just as how, in nature, every living being has the right to protect itself, Êzidî women are the same. We have a right to self-defense, to protect ourselves.”
This philosophy came to Sinjar with only other autonomous women’s armies in the world. The first armed forces to respond to ISIS atrocities in 2014 were the PKK and the YPG, who broke the ISIS seige and opened a humanitarian corridor to get tens of thousands of Yezidi civilians to safety in Syria. The all-women’s wings of both, the YJA-STAR and YPJ, played a critical role in the campaign.
Both forces fought alongside their male comrades as equals, but were not subordinate to their command structure. They believed that women had to defend themselves without relying on men, and that ensuring the freedom of women from all patriarchal domination was the key to ensuring the freedom of any given society. Faced with an enemy whose genocidal worldview was based on the subordination and enslavement of women, their organizational model gained a new relevance.
Unlike male-dominated state militaries in the region, the women’s armies of Kurdistan were not satisfied with beating ISIS back on the battlefield. They wanted to share the lessons they had learned over decades of struggle and sacrifice with women in the areas they liberated to ensure that the terror group’s atrocities, and the systems that enabled them, would not repeat.
The first formal steps towards the creation of autonomous Yezidi women’s units in Sinjar were taken in November 2014, when YJA-STAR Sinjar Command announced the creation of the Martyr Xane Êzidî Defense Academy and the graduation of its first training course.
“The struggle that YJA-STAR guerrillas have waged against ISIS has brought historic advances for women’s armed mobilization and the struggle for women’s freedom,” they said.
“We take achieving the freedom of the people and women of Sinjar and developing their right to legitimate defense as our main responsibility, with the will and power we gained from the history of the creation of our army and the experience we gained in these years of war against the ISIS gangs.”
At the new academy, the YJA-STAR would offer any woman in Sinjar who wanted it both military training and political education, focusing on women’s history and the importance of women’s self-defense. The first 12 women to participate had already joined the YBŞ.
In January 2015, almost five months to the date after the ISIS massacres began, 27 Yezidi women members of the YBŞ and 17 YJA-STAR guerillas joined the first conference of the all-women’s group that would become the YJŞ: the Şengal Women’s Protection Units (YPJ-Şengal).
Like the YJA-STAR and YPJ, YPJ-Şengal was created to wage two wars: one against a brutal armed enemy, and one against the social and political basis of women’s oppression. The principles set forward in its program included “organizing the women of Sinjar on the basis of the science of defense;” “learning the philosophy of [imprisoned PKK founder and leader] Abdullah Ocalan, recognizing the nature of women on this basis, and waging a struggle against the dominant male mentality and its structures;” and “taking responsibility to fight for the freedom of the women who were kidnapped and taken hostage in the genocide of August 2–3.”
Today, the YJŞ Media Office stresses how these political and military goals were intertwined. In their view, reliance on foreign men for protection had directly enabled ISIS: “Before the genocide, there were many people here: soldiers, peshmerga, the Iraqi army. But when ISIS attacked, these people fled, they didn’t protect Sinjar,” they explain. “We Êzidî women can’t be left in anyone else’s hands or hope for their protection. We learned this lesson from the past massacres.”
With the battle for Sinjar raging, more and more Yezidi women took their place on the front lines. Others chose to address a related question gaining relevance as ISIS was losing ground: How could women’s freedom and ability to protect themselves be incorporated into Sinjar’s post-war governance?
Zehra Sileman Shengali, whose family was one of many evacuated from Mount Sinjar to Syria through the humanitarian corridor in August 2014, had her answer. In January 2015, she returned to Mount Sinjar to help establish the Sinjar People’s Assembly, along with other Yezidi refugees from Derik’s Newroz Camp.
“My mother was against it,” she told ANF News in 2017. “She said, ‘There is ISIS there, what are you doing going back?’ But I didn’t take back my decision.”
“On the one hand, the war was ongoing, but on the other hand, we were in our meetings,” Shengali explained.
“150 of us, men and women, joined the meeting and established our assembly. On January 14, 2015, we announced the 30-member Sinjar Assembly. From all the delegates who came from Newroz camp, 9 of us were elected to the assembly. I was one of them. What’s more, 7 members of our assembly were women. That was a very big step for Yezidi women from Sinjar.”
Shengali was driven to represent her community both by the horrors of the genocide and by the example of the women fighting to stop it. Before ISIS, she had not considered politics at all.
“In our society there was no women’s education, they didn’t work outside the home, they weren’t politically active. These things were seen as shameful. But we did all the work that was to be done at home. Women’s lives were really hard,” she described.
“After the genocide, both our martyrs and our women who had been abducted by ISIS greatly affected me. I asked myself, ‘What am I still doing at home?’ 7,000 Yezidi women were captured by ISIS. This was devastating for us. After this situation, as a woman, I understood that we had to strengthen our defense. If we didn’t defend ourselves, if we didn’t show our willpower, no one would defend us. I understood this myself. The guerilla, the Democratic Autonomous Administration, and the YPG and YPJ were a great help in this regard.”
Other Yezidi women were reaching similar conclusions. The civil council that Shengali joined was followed by a 27-member autonomous women’s council, the Sinjar Yezidi Women’s Assembly, in July 2015.
At the Assembly’s founding conference, nearly 200 Yezidi women from Sinjar were joined by women from North and East Syria, who offered support and insight from their experiences pioneering a unique model of gender-equal governance.
One year before, the Democratic Autonomous Administration had passed legislation mandating equality between men and women in political life, supporting the creation of all-women’s institutions, and guaranteeing these institutions a say in all legal and legislative matters that concerned women’s issues.
They planned to bring this blueprint to women in any and all regions of Syria that their forces would liberate. Supporting similar measures in Sinjar, where Yezidi women were openly calling for greater agency and autonomy, was a natural step.
A second Yezidi women’s assembly was soon formed in Newroz Camp, with the support of the YPJ and YPJ-Şengal, Kongreya Star, and the Free Women’s Center of Rojava. 165 displaced Yezidi women participated in the conference, electing a 21-member council.
These civil assemblies all recognized the importance of Yezidi women’s armed forces as a guarantor of their political autonomy and influence.
“Our conference sees the YPJ-Şengal as its defense force, and takes responsibility for strengthening it,” the Sinjar Yezidi Women’s Assembly program stated. Summarizing the aim of their entire political and military project in a single slogan, they proclaimed: “With the organization of Êzidî women, we will answer all the massacres.”
Both organizations adopted their current names in late 2016: YPJ-Şengal became the YJŞ, and the Yezidi Women’s Assembly became the Êzidî Women’s Freedom Movement (TAJE).
The shift reflected growing numbers, expanding political aims, and a commitment to self-defense, self-determination, and freedom for every Yezidi woman impacted by genocide and war that remained strong as ever.
Sinjar city was fully liberated in November 2015, one year and three months after ISIS attacked. But women there still considered armed and civil resistance, against any and all forces that might threaten them, to be inseparable.
As Farida Seido, elected to TAJE’s leadership after its first conference in 2016, told JINHA at the time: “This movement represents the will of all Yezidi women. As the TAJÊ, we see the YJŞ as our military force. YJŞ defends women on the frontlines; we organize women in the civil sphere.”
“Yezidi women need organization and self-defense more than anyone else,” Seido explained. “In order to put an end to the massacres, we have to strengthen ourselves in all areas — to expand our assembly, and also increase our military strength.”
YJŞ commander Dersim Şengal made similar comments. “The reason for the genocide was a lack of organization,” she said.
“For this reason, after the genocide, we quickly decided to organize, and we did organize ourselves in several fields.”
“We can’t, as YJŞ, be separated from the TAJÊ. They are the political wing, we are the military wing. The shared goal is the protection of Yezidi women,” Şengal continued, citing the founding declaration of TAJÊ, which recognized the role of YJŞ in doing just that.
One priority for all organized women in the region was the freedom of the Yezidi women and children still in ISIS captivity. The terror group was losing territory every day, thanks to the efforts of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Rojava and the YBS, YJŞ, and PKK in Sinjar. But by the end of 2016, more than 3,000 of the 7,000 Yezidis abducted in the genocide remained missing. Many, the world knew, were in Raqqa.
ISIS declared the Syrian city of Raqqa to be its capital in 2014, bringing all of its brutality with it. Terror attacks around the world that had drawn international powers into the ISIS fight had been planned there. Public executions were carried out and broadcast globally from its main squares. And the city formed the center of ISIS’ brutal system of slavery, as harrowing accounts from Yezidi survivors revealed to the world.
When the SDF announced Operation Wrath of Euphrates, with the goal of freeing Raqqa and the surrounding regions, its commanders cited the freedom of Yezidi women and girls and the need to avenge the genocide in Sinjar among their central motivations.
“Our main goal with the liberation of Raqqa is the liberation of women. Because ISIS took Raqqa as its capital. It imposed its system there, on women most harshly. We will never forget the attacks of the ISIS gangs against the Yezidi people and Yezidi women,” said Newroz Ahmed, general commander of the YPJ, in an interview during the first weeks of the campaign.
“We’ve said before that the YPJ opened the door for all women in the world. As the YPJ, we are proud that we have become the leading model for women. We have the power and belief to take revenge for all women, Yezidi women in particular.”
Nesrin Abdullah, another senior YPJ commander, reaffirmed this commitment in a New Year’s Day message reflecting on what the group had achieved in 2016 and looking ahead. “Operation Wrath of Euphrates is different from our other campaigns. The YPJ announced that it would take leadership of this campaign for itself,” she said.
“For us, this campaign is revenge for women. For Yezidi women in particular, who were killed and kidnapped and sold as slaves in the markets. It is revenge for the women who were captive under ISIS rule in Raqqa,” Abdullah proclaimed, stating that SDF forces had freed 601 captives so far.
In Iraq, the YJŞ were carrying out their own operations in the name of their missing sisters at the same time. On November 12, 2016, they announced Yezidi participation in efforts to fight ISIS south of Sinjar as the “Campaign of Vengeance for Yezidi Women.” But by the summer of 2017, when SDF forces were preparing to close in around Raqqa city, they knew their next mission was in Syria.
“Ezidi women were sold as slaves in Raqqa,” the YJŞ Media Office says. “The anger of [our forces] against these incidents was great.”
“Just like how before, in Sinjar, the campaign to liberate the villages of Sikeniye, Heyalê, Reska, and Tewre began as the Campaign of Revenge for Êzidî Women, the campaign to liberate Raqqa was the same. It was revenge for Yezidi women. We dedicated victory there to the women taken captive by ISIS.”
“On the occasion of the third anniversary of the genocide, we as YJŞ fighters promise that we will continue our fight until no single Êzidî woman remains in ISIS captivity and until all the massacred Êzidî women are avenged,” they said.
To avenge our massacred and burned women and to finish off the ISIS gangs, we are going to light our holy fire in Raqqa this time.”
Their numbers were small, but their participation was more than just symbolic. Many hoped to find loved ones who had been missing since the genocide. Some had survived ISIS captivity themselves.
One fighter, codenamed Heza, was brought to Raqqa along with nearly every woman in her family after they were abducted from their villages in August 2014. She was sold to multiple ISIS members before escaping to SDF territory.
In July 2017, she returned to the city, this time as a member of the YJŞ.
“I stayed in Raqqa for such a long time and saw so much pain, and shared [this pain] with all these [Yezidi] girls and mothers in Raqqa. So, my goal was revenge for them, and freedom from the hands of ISIS. That’s why I joined the armed forces,” she explained in a video interview conducted during the battle.
“With every bullet I shoot in Raqqa, I’m breaking the mentality of ISIS. I take revenge for these women and girls and destroy this brutality. I want to write the history of freedom in this war. We will free the Yezidi girls and women,” she proclaimed.
“I want to see freedom in their eyes. I will give my heart and soul, because our pain was the same, and so I want to make our struggle the same too.”
Heza and her comrades soon got part of their wish. Over the course of the Raqqa campaign, many Yezidi captives were freed. With the support of Yezidi institutions in North and East Syria and the Democratic Autonomous Administration in Sinjar, they were able to return to their families.
Day by day, YPJ and YJŞ flags went up over liberated neighborhoods. On October 19, 2017, female fighters declared the official SDF victory in Raqqa from al-Naim square, where ISIS once carried out slave auctions and beheadings.
“With this struggle of ours, we emancipated and glorified the trampled honor of Êzidî women. We have emancipated thousands of captive Êzidî women and children,” Nesrin Abdullah announced.
She emphasized that this victory belonged to women of many communities: “Arab women who have joined the YPJ during this process declared two battalions under which they participated, and gave a great struggle in the battle for Raqqa. Another battalion from YJŞ also took an active role and avenged their people in this campaign.”
The victory statement from SDF General Command commended Yezidi fighters as well: “We offer our gratitude to all the forces and groups under the SDF umbrella and who supported the SDF: the Shengal Women’s Units — YJŞ, Shengal Resistance Units — YBŞ, Asayish and Self Defense Forces, Popular Defense Forces, HPC, and internationalist brigades.”
In a world where few perpetrators face justice for even the most brutal of war crimes, this small group of genocide survivors had taken matters into their own hands and prevailed. Fighting shoulder to shoulder with men and women who practiced different faiths and spoke different languages, but who shared the goal of crushing ISIS and its fundamentalist vision, the YJŞ contingent in Raqqa turned “never again” from a platitude into a reality.
It would have been a fitting end to their story. But the YJŞ units who had fought in Raqqa returned to Sinjar, they were coming back to a homeland that the world, for all its horror at what ISIS had done, had abandoned to new challenges.
On August 23d, 2017, the local Sinjar administration declared “democratic autonomy.” The events of 2014 and afterwards, they said, had made self-governance and self-defense imperative.
In a 20-point program, they called for the “establishment of [an] Êzidîxan autonomy commission under the supervision of the United Nations,” which they hoped would then negotiate with Iraqi and KRG authorities for the terms of an autonomy deal.
Their proposed local administration would not violate any existing laws, but instead be made “compatible with…[both] Iraq and the [South] Kurdistan Federation to avoid conflict in political and social life.”
Other points related to the status of local military forces and a road map for democratic elections. In both spheres, the role of women was taken into account: the 10th point of the program stated that “in all working areas…matters that concern women specifically are decided for by the women’s own organizations and the women’s councils.”
YJŞ fighters on the front lines in Syria lent their support to the declaration when it was issued. While regional powers had begun to compete for influence in post-ISIS Sinjar, they were all united in their willingness to shut organized Yezidi women out — sometimes by force.
A protest in the town of Xanesor revealed the stakes for politically active women in Sinjar almost six months earlier. The peaceful civilian march against presence of KRG authorities in the area turned deadly when KDP-affiliated security forces opened fire on Yezidi demonstrators, killing a member of the TAJÊ named Nazê Nayif Qawal.
The KDP immediately blamed the PKK for provoking the incident and claimed, falsely, that Qawal had been armed. Human Rights Watch said that they had “not seen any evidence that military forces in Sinjar had a legitimate reason to fire on protesters, who presented no apparent risk to their lives or others.” They called for an investigation; none ever took place.
Local women were furious. The same government that refused to protect Sinjar when thousands of Yezidi women and children were kidnapped had murdered a young activist in cold blood, blamed her for her own death, and attempted to use the tragedy they created to weaken Yezidi institutions.
“With the development of our women’s movement, the mentality of freedom and the necessity of organization was established among Êzidî women. When Êzidî women are mentioned, no one should think of suffering and helplessness anymore. Now, Êzidî women will be recognized for their will to resist and be free,” the TAJÊ proclaimed as they commemorated their fallen member.
They revealed that Nazê Nayif came from a family that never left Sinjar during the genocide, that she had lost four relatives in the fight against ISIS, and that her greatest desire was nothing more than to see the perpetrators of atrocities against her people held to account. She was only 21 years old when she was killed.
“Like every Êzidî woman, she rose up with the pain of her society. She was a woman who was deeply angry with those who inflicted that pain and suffering,” they said. “Now is the time for all of us, especially Êzidî women, to say “enough” to all forces who want to be oppressors in Sinjar.”
The KRG was not the only potential oppressor they had to fear. A month after the attack on the Xanesor protest, Turkish warplanes bombed civilian areas and military positions around Mount Sinjar, killing five KRG peshmerga, injuring at least two Yezidi fighters, and damaging the offices and broadcasting equipment of Dengê Çira, a local radio station.
It was the first time that Turkey had struck so far south in Iraq, giving new life to old questions about the country’s attitude towards ISIS crimes against Yezidis. Turkey did not recognize what ISIS had done in Sinjar to be a genocide, despite the United Nations determination that it was one. Nor had they taken any action to stop it, despite having more material capability to do so than perhaps any other state in the region.
While some Yezidi refugees fled to Turkish territory for safety in 2014, they faced discrimination as soon as they arrived. Municipalities run by the pro-democracy, pluralist Peoples’ Democratic Party had to set up special refugee camps for Yezidi families who felt unsafe at state-run sites. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused displaced Yezidis of collaborating with terrorism and referred to them as atheists, a lie long used by Islamists to incite and justify crimes against the community.
YBŞ and YJŞ General Command jointly accused Turkey of siding with the jihadist group against the Yezidi people, calling the attack “a continuation of the genocide the Turkish state and ISIS alliance perpetrated in Sinjar on 3 August.” Yet Turkish authorities maintained that they had only struck “terrorists.” The United States managed only a weak condemnation.
One early call for formal autonomy, addressed to the Coalition and the United Nations, was made by the TAJÊ after these two tragedies. Their “solution declaration” included the main points reaffirmed in greater detail by the Democratic Autonomous Administration months later, calling for the acceptance of governing bodies and military forces that Yezidis had created for themselves and warning of the dangers that outside rule had posed for women.
It also responded to the issue that regional and global powers had used to justify all of their threats: the continued presence of the PKK in the region, three years after their initial intervention.
“If the problem of Sinjar’s security could be resolved with the PKK’s withdrawal, we as Yezidi society would have asked the PKK to leave before anyone else,” the TAJÊ acknowledged.
“But, until now, the PKK continues to play an important role in protecting our society. The PKK plays the role that the United Nations did not. If international organizations and the United Nations had risen to their obligations, there would have been no need for the PKK to be here at all,” they continued.
“We didn’t support the KDP, and international organizations turned their back on us. Because of this, before it can be said that the PKK should leave Sinjar, it’s necessary for international forces and organizations to fulfill their responsibilities.”
With these provocative words, the TAJÊ were desperately trying to bridge the gap between what the PKK’s 2014 intervention had meant for Yezidis on the ground, and what the international community, following Turkey’s lead, assumed about the group’s intentions.
In the eyes of many states, the Kurdish guerrillas who trained and equipped Yezidi women to defend themselves when no one else would were terrorists, legally indistinguishable from the genocidal jihadists they fought. In reality, their actions in August 2014 were more in line with globally accepted norms on atrocity prevention than the behavior of most UN member states at the time.
Any state or international organization could have brought besieged civilians to safety, helped create local armed forces, and liberated Sinjar from ISIS. Virtually all of them had far greater capacity to do so than the PKK and YPG did. The brutal truth was that these powers had simply chosen to look the other way — and were now threatening Yezidis for accepting the only aid they got.
Governments also refused to understand that local armed and political structures in Sinjar had goals and agency of their own. It was true that they had benefited from the PKK and YPG’s military experience, and that, as a persecuted minority surrounded by hostile forces, they saw relevance in Ocalan’s ideas about autonomy, self-defense, and women’s liberation. But the YBŞ, the YJŞ, and the Democratic Autonomous Administration had nothing to do with the PKK’s ongoing fight against Turkey, and no interest in any new conflict with Iraq, the KRG, or any other actor.
Their sole concern was ensuring that the people of Sinjar, and Yezidi women in particular, would never be subjected to another August 2014. As one YJŞ commander said in response to the autonomy declaration, “It has already been announced that the YBŞ and YJŞ will always protect the people of Ezidxan, wherever it may be necessary.”
“Whatever responsibility may fall on our shoulders as the YJŞ — for this assembly, for its decisions, for its autonomy, for the will of the people — we are ready for it.”
In the years that followed, those responsibilities have been great. Many have been determined by circumstances far out of the hands of the YJŞ themselves, or even those of the people of Sinjar as a whole.
The political competition that escalated in the area after the defeat of ISIS has continued. The PKK formally withdrew in April 2018, but Turkish bombs continued to fall anyway. The most recent Turkish strike hit Serdesht Camp last month; Turkey has targeted Sinjar more in the past year alone than they did when ISIS controlled the area. In recent months, Erdogan has repeatedly threatened a ground invasion of the province, raising fears of another mass exodus of civilians.
As ISIS lost its last territory in eastern Syria in the spring of 2019, more Yezidi women and children were rescued and returned to their homes. Yet the whereabouts of more than 2,000 remain unknown. Many are feared to have been killed by ISIS members or in airstrikes, or to have committed suicide. Others remain captive in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and beyond. Women’s organizations in Sinjar and international organizations alike continue to call for their freedom, the international attention that the issue once received has faded.
Much of Sinjar is still in ruins. Thousands of its former residents live in tents in IDP camps, or as refugees abroad. The lack of aid and reconstruction, and fear of future conflict, is likely to drive even more to flee. Many in Sinjar see these circumstances as part of a deliberate effort to depopulate their homeland.
In October 2020, the KRG and the Iraqi central government reached an agreement meant to normalize the status of Sinjar. In theory, an end to factional disputes over the area would have been a positive development.
In practice, there was a problem: “When that agreement was made, there was not one single Yezidi involved. Our will wasn’t in it,” the YJŞ Media Office explains.
The consequences of the omission were grave. As written, the agreement would have dissolved the Democratic Autonomous Administration and its armed forces, the YJŞ included. The existing Iraqi structures that were to take over in matters of governance and security had never included Yezidi women.
For the organized women of Sinjar, it represented a legacy of persecution that had threatened their community for centuries.
Recalling Ottoman-era massacres against the Yezidis, in which Muslim Turks, Kurds, and Arabs all participated, the YJŞ warn that Turkey once again is using local forces to achieve its dangerous aims.
“The Turkish state’s philosophy is authoritarianism. They can’t come to Sinjar on their own, so they want to come here through the peshmerga and the Iraqi army. They threaten [to invade] Iraq every day.”
“YJŞ, TAJÊ, and the Jinên Ciwan do not accept the October 9th agreement,” they say. “We want autonomy under Iraqi law. That isn’t against Iraqi law. We know that Turkey is also a part of this agreement between Baghdad and Erbil. As Yezidi women, we will never accept this agreement. We will stand against it.”
The women of the YJŞ firmly believe that, in insisting on self-determination, they are fighting for something, too — a future fundamentally different from anything the old regimes of the region have ever offered.
“We want to advance a just and conscientious politics,” they state. “We want a politics that is based on the essence of our society, not the politics of the oppressors. We want to advance democracy, the rights of society, the will of society, the will of women.”
“Everyone has a right to life and autonomy. We want autonomy on this basis. Our politics are based on women’s justice, on women’s thinking. We attack no one, but if anyone attacks us, we will resist.”
Despite the unthinkable tragedy of August 2014 and the compounding injustices of the seven years that followed, the YJŞ claim their struggle on the battlefield has begun to bring this new vision to life. Civilian women now feel protected by the existence of their forces, and have gained a new political and social confidence from witnessing their achievements.
“[The existence of YJŞ] has made it possible for many organizations to be established, for a women’s movement to be established, and for women to do politics in Sinjar, in Iraq, and even on the international stage,” they say.
“For example, mothers and young women can go to Baghdad for meetings without fear now. Why? Because they know there is a women’s defense force, that is, YJŞ, and they know that, if they are attacked, YJŞ will defend them. No one can stand in their way. They have power now, they have history.”
This glimmer of hope may be easy to miss. But it is unmistakably real.
Yezidi women did, quite literally, stand against the Baghdad-Erbil agreement. When Iraqi forces attempted to enter the town of Tel Ezer to enforce the deal in April, they led peaceful protests that helped stop them in their tracks.
While taking action, they clearly articulated their alternative demands. “Our children have been defending Sinjar for six years,” said one Yezidi mother named Nayfa, who participated in the Tel Ezer sit-in.
“From now on, we have no faith in any force that doesn’t come from our community. We have forces to protect us. We have our asayish, our YBŞ and YJŞ. They are our children. We will resist any attacks with these forces.”
“Thousands of women and children are still in ISIS captivity,” she stressed. “Let the Iraqi authorities go and liberate them. Instead of telling us ‘we’re here to protect you,’ go free our captives.”
They have also expanded their efforts to reach out to women from other communities in Sinjar, and in Iraq as a whole. An Arab Women’s Assembly affiliated with the Democratic Autonomous Administration has existed in Sinjar since at least 2020. For the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, a meeting organized by the YJŞ and TAJÊ brought Arab and Yezidi women from Sinjar together.
As part of their program of actions to mark the seventh anniversary of the ISIS attack, the TAJÊ has announced the creation of a women’s association meant to reach women across the country.
TAJÊ member Farida Shengali told JINHA the goal of the new association would be to “unite all Iraqi women, and address the overall issue of atrocities against women — and the issue of the Yezidi Genocide in particular.”
“We will work to ensure that the genocide of August 3, 2014 is recognized as a genocide around the world, and particularly that it is recognized by the state of Iraq,” she said.
“If we unify, we can rise up against slavery and genocide, and prevent new massacres against the women of Sinjar.”
The story of organized Yezidi women, and of their embattled homeland, is far from over. Since 2014, they have persevered against enemies and obstacles that would have shattered others. They show no signs of giving up.
“The culture of our society comes from the spirit of resistance,” the YJŞ Media Office proclaims. “We have resisted 73 genocides. We never accepted surrender.”
“Our culture has come face to face with annihilation. But we do not accept that fate.”