ALEPPO, Syria: Unveiled and barking orders at fierce-looking Kurdish men nearly twice her size, commander Engizek is a shocking sight within Syria’s male-dominated rebel ranks. A short, diminutive woman flanked by gun-toting loyalists, Engizek leads Kurdish combatants in Aleppo city’s embattled district of Sheikh Maqsoud, large parts of which were seized late last month from regime fighters.
“Women can shoot machine guns, Kalashnikovs and even tanks – just as well as men,” said Engizek, 28, wearing trousers and a sleeveless jacket, her dark hair bound tightly behind her head.
“Women are an integral part of our rebellion,” she told AFP in a deserted alleyway squashed between bullet-riddled and blasted buildings amid the sporadic crackle of sniper fire.
Fighters like Engizek – whose Committees for the Protection of the Kurdish People (YPG) brigade is 20 percent women – are the hidden face of Syria’s armed rebellion against the regime of Bashar Assad.
The YPG, which recently joined forces with Syrian opposition rebels, is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), widely considered the Syrian offshoot of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Unlike their Arab counterparts, Kurdish women have a long tradition of combat roles. The PKK’s fierce women fighters grabbed worldwide attention in the mid-1990s with their frightening zeal in launching suicide bombings.
But women combatants, no matter what their ethnicity, still stand out as a striking anomaly in Syria’s male-dominated rebellion.
Some media reports indicate that women are part of both pro- and anti-regime armed forces, but their presence is far less visible on the front lines compared to Kurdish fighters.
Engizek, who goes by a single name, says the YPG’s women fighters undergo the same rigorous training as men and fight alongside each other as well as eat together and share cooking and cleaning duties.
Standing on top of a bed and taking aim at a regime sniper from a pigeon-sized hole in a shrapnel-scarred wall, 18-year-old Mumtaz says joining the rebellion more than a year ago was a “liberating experience.”
The only fighter in her family of four, she says she morphed overnight from an unknown high school girl to a warrior after she joined a YPG training camp in her hometown of Afrin, a largely Kurdish town north of Aleppo.
“Picking up the gun was a personal choice,” said the sinewy bandana-clad fighter, a choice that bestowed freedom from rigid social mores that deem marriage the only culturally appropriate rite of passage for women.
As she spoke, her comrades, both men and women, took a break from duty in a nearby room in the desolate building, smoking, chatting and eating flatbread, cheese and fresh olives.
While the fighters mingle freely, the women live separately from male fighters and relationships are strictly forbidden. Engizek did not reveal what punishment awaits fighters who break that code of conduct.
Joining the struggle has exacted a heavy price – most of the female fighters have given up all hopes of having families of their own some day.
Engizek, for one, is staunchly opposed to marriage. “Marriage is enslavement,” she said. “I don’t want to be a slave, my girls don’t want to be slaves.”
The presence of women fighters in conservative Syrian society inspires both awe and shock.
“They are not women – they are men,” said one Free Syrian Army soldier with a bulbous beard. “A real woman is more feminine.”
He said he was particularly opposed to women on the front line because their presence can “seriously distract male fighters.”
It is a view that resonates strongly with Noor ul-Haq, a primary school teacher in Aleppo whose husband is a fighter with the Liwa al-Tawhid Brigade, one of the largest rebel groups in the war-torn city.
Syrian women of varied social and ethnic backgrounds, she says, have contributed to the anti-Assad revolution in other meaningful ways, from taking part in demonstrations to delivering food and ammunition to rebels.
“There’s no need for women to pick up the gun,” she said. “There are so many men out there.”
Engizek’s comrades dismissed such a view as “retarded.”
“This country will not be free until women are free,” said Lokman Abusalam, a 41-year-old fighter, adding that his male comrades have no problem in reporting to a female commander.
Engizek said the ascendancy of radical Islamist groups in Syria’s messy civil war has led to concerns that they may begin trampling women’s rights.
She expressed particular dismay about the rise of the Islamist Nusra Front, which has announced its affiliation to Al-Qaeda.
“We are not willing to collaborate with those who don’t accept women’s rights,” she said. “As a group we cannot accept that. As a woman, I cannot accept that.”