In Tal Abyad, a former Daesh stronghold, 27-year-old co-mayor Layla Mohammed is setting new precedents for the town’s inhabitants, particularly its women.
Daesh captured the town of Tal Abyad in June of 2014. The town is located 50 miles north of the militant group’s de-facto capital of Ar-Raqqa, and is a key locale along their supply route. Before being seized by Daesh, the town had fallen into the hands of Al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front.
In June 2015, Kurdish armed forces, YPG, People’s Protection Units, along with their allies from the Free Syrian Army, recaptured the town after a two-day siege.
Tal Abyad, an ethnically diverse town made up Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen, was declared to be a part of the Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava—also known by some as Western Kurdistan—a defacto autonomous region held by the YPG.
In October 2015, the 178 member committee that governs the town elected two ethnically and gender diverse co-mayors—Kurd Layla Mohammed and Arab Mansour Saloum (later replaced by Hamdan al-Abad).
Mohammed is the town’s first female mayor, and one of the youngest people in a place of political authority. However challenging Tel Abyad’s conservative and tribal norms is only one facet in the myriad of difficult tasks Mohammed must face.
Daesh, still vying for control of the town, recently launched a series of attacks, including one that killed seven people and wounded ten.
“I know my life is at risk, but I believe in my job,” Mohammed told Middle East Eye. “My friends told me not to go back, but if someone is controlled by fear, you cannot do anything.”
The town’s committee is committed to creating and upholding a culture of inclusion in Tal Abyad, beginning with plans to introduce Turkish in schools (Arabic and Kurdish are currently being taught). The committee itself is made up of Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen, representative of the town’s diversity.
Mohammed hopes her position of power will help dismantle many of the conservative conventions that prevented women access to higher education, as well as active roles in politics and society.
Tal Abyad is indubitably experiencing many changes, shifting from the hands of Daesh, who severely limited the mobility and freedom of women, to being co-governed by a woman.
“If we can’t raise free women, we can’t raise a free society,” Mohammed said. “But now people are accepting us somehow, and this motivates us.”
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