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A Tribute to Hevrin Khalaf: “the loudest voice that fought for women’s rights in Syria”

On the afternoon of the 12th of October, Hevrin Khalaf was pulled from her vehicle, beaten and shot in an execution style murder on the side of a road, south of the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, also known as Gire Spi. She was also raped, and her body was mutilated. Her murderers were male troops belonging to the Free Syrian Army, a Syrian rebel group that is actively supported by Turkey, a member of NATO. We know all of this, because her murder, also now considered a war crime by many human rights organisations, was filmed by the executors. They can be heard laughing and jeering as she died.

She was the ninth civilian to be killed since the start of Turkey’s offensive in North Syria, 3 days earlier.

Hevrin was a politician, the co-chair of the Syrian Future Party and a member of the Syrian Democratic council, but her commitment to improving the lives of all communities in North Eastern Syria extended far beyond her career. For Hevrin, the struggle for gender equality was imperative, and a cause she committed tirelessly to. Just weeks before her death, she attended and spoke at the Forum of Tribal Woman Notables in Syria, in which she expressed the importance of allowing female participation in political, communal, and decision-making processes for the betterment of society. She talked of the female fighters who were crucial in the battle against the Islamic State, and how they had proved not only to the Middle East, but to the whole world, that traditional patriarchal narratives of women were false. She pushed and fought for gender equal political representation, appealing directly to women in communities where traditional patriarchal values were still entrenched. As well as this, she was one of an assembly of women who struggled to ensure that they would be equally represented within the democratic council of the autonomous region of Rojava. Hevrin’s voice was among the loudest, not just for supporting, but actively fighting for women’s equality in Syria. And yet, the methods of her death were designed to deliberately degrade and humiliate her in her final moments.

It was not just Hevrin her killers were targeting, it was everything she stood for as well; the strength, dignity, and equality of women.

Just over a year ago now, I was working with and reported on a group of Islamic State brides, who were in a women’s prison in the Kurdish city of Erbil. In the article, I stress how mundane and ordinary the women seemed to be, and how they somehow seemed familiar to me. What I did not stress enough though, which I deeply regret, is that this ordinariness and familiarity, should not be mistaken for innocence, and definitively should not be considered sufficient cause for sympathy. They are not the first case in which the behaviour of individuals can be considered conventionally normal, outside of the context of their crimes, which in the case of ISIS and its members, were virtually indescribable in their repugnancy. In light of Hevrin’s death, I feel the need to express this, because she was a beacon and a voice for women’s resistance, in a time where the ruthless Islamic State was hell-bent on destroying women’s rights in its entirety in the region. She did not settle for maintaining the existing political order, but instead made sure that the Rojava region made a permanent and major step towards gender equality.

Whilst some women chose to support the ideology that raped, violated, and degraded women at every turn, there were women like Hevrin. She was extraordinary.

She was buried on the 14th of October in her hometown of Derika, where she was mourned by her mother, friends, and hundreds of others. I have no doubt that Hevrin’s aspirations and beliefs will continue to live on, not just for Kurdish and Syrian women, but for feminists across the world. However, Hevrin’s death also tragically displays the continuing use of violence and rape against women, as a tool of warfare, and acts as a reminder that the future she fought for, one of true gender equality, has not yet been achieved. It is therefore a responsibility that I take on personally as a woman, and that so many women across Rojava, Syria, and the world share as well, to continue the fight for her. To conclude, I would like to share the brilliant mantra of the Kurdish women’s resistance movement:

Jin, Jiyan, Azadi!

Women, Life, Liberation!

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