By Nathalie Bonney @nathaliebonney
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Videographer / director: Deniz
Producer: Nathalie Bonney, Ruby Coote
Editor: Sonia Estal, Joshua Douglas
Kimberley Taylor, originally from Blackburn, is with the Women’s Protection Units, or YPJ, fighting ISIS in its unofficial Syrian ‘capital’ Raqqa, in the north of the country.
In the battle of this ISIS stronghold, there are two incentives for the women to fight against ISIS. One: their chance to carve out a better future with more freedom and rights, and two: an ISIS soldier believes they won’t get to paradise if killed by a woman.
Kimberley explained: “When women are on the front line against Daesh - yes we are fighting against them physically but we are also fighting against their mindset: that women shouldn’t have a voice, that they shouldn’t even think about how they want to live their life or how others should live their life. They are not allowed to think anything or even speak it.
“So by us women being at the front line, it is also a symbolic action against the mindset of Daesh. This is why they attack us so ferociously. They want nothing but oppression. This is why they do not accept that we are on front line fighting against them.”
The 27-year-old is believed to be the first female Brit to have travelled to Syria to fight against ISIS – and made headlines earlier this year for her efforts. Originally planning to visit the region for just a few weeks, Kimberley made the decision to extend her stay indefinitely.
She explained: “I was invited by a women’s organisation to write about the women’s revolution.
“I came with two friends and was supposed to be here for, I think, ten days and then we stayed for like fifteen days and then they went home and I decided to stay.
“I realised that this is something that I could be part of.
“Why would I go home to continue studying books about politics and revolution when I can live the life of them? Everything that you do here matters and it makes a difference.”
Kimberley, also known by her adoptive Kurdish name of Zilan Dilber, joined as part of the YPJ’s media team but has since joined the fighting on the front line.
Fighting with her are Arab and Kurdish women alike. One fighter describes the freedom she has found on the front line:
She said: “My life here is so different. Here there is friendship, sacrifice, you fight for people.
“ISIS ideology is to enslave people, they enclose children’s minds and force women to wear black under the pretext of Islam. But true Islam is not like that. They do many things in the name of Islam and anyone who does not agree and conform with them, ISIS arrest and behead them.”
Sharing meals and battlefield tactics with the male soldiers of the male People’s Protection Units (YPG), the women soldiers wear trousers, uncover their hair and load guns. Another fighter compares her old life before she joined the YPJ to now:
She said: “In the past I used to be at home where I could not go out myself. I could not speak and express my rights unless my father permits.
“My three-year-old brother used to have more of my father’s trust than me – despite me being an adult woman.
“When I came here I could express my thinking. Now I feel like I am free.”
One Arab soldier joined the movement after witnessing “girls unwillingly forced to get married at a young age".
She added: “The goal we seek is to free nations, regain women’s rights from men and the women should have enough strength and courage to speak up and take decisions.”
Aside from fighting for their own freedom, female soldiers also offer a unique insight in battle that men don’t have, claims Kimberley.
She said: “Women are capable of every single thing that a man is capable of and not only that, we bring something different to it. Women have a different mindset than men do. When we are going to war, maybe men aren’t thinking about the children that are crying but the women do. We look at every civilian, we look at every circumstance in a different way than men do.”
Traditionally, fighting for the liberation of the marginalised Kurdish people, the YPJ and YPG are part of the US-backed coalition working with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who together have been steadily advancing on Raqqa. At present, US sources claim almost half of the city has been captured from ISIS forces since the assault started in June.
The UN estimates there are still between 20-50,000 civilians in Raqqa and has called for the US-backed coalition to call a temporary halt to its assault in order to evacuate more civilians.
For the YPJ women, fighting on the front line is about more than the immediate battle against ISIS.
Kimberley said: “I thought I would never agree with war. How can you agree with something that is so bad? Like it doesn’t seem like an answer, but in the YPJ it is different, it is about protection of the culture, of the land, of the right to live, of the right to have a life.
“Some years ago I would never think that I would do this, but it makes total sense to me now. “