For years, the revolutionary movement in Syria was met with apathy and paralysis from Western leftist movements and parties. In the summer of 2014, an astonishing turn-around took place. Since then, a lot of attention has been given to the struggle of the Kurdish people in Rojava, West-Kurdistan .
As the resistance of fighters in the West Kurdish city Kobanî [Kobanê / Ayn al-Arab] became a world-wide symbol for autonomy and women’s rights, the international Kurdish community initiated a broad solidarity movement. What were the origins, what has been achieved so far, and what are the future prospects of this movement? To answer these questions, we will take a stab at analysing the current situation. We will shed some light onto specific details of the lives of Kurdish women in relation to the Kurdish freedom movement and the ideologies behind it.
Achievements so far
It is clear that the liberation war in Rojava has brought enormous progress for women, unequalled in the Near and Middle East. On 5th November 2014, the government of the Autonomous Canton of Cizîrê [Jazira Canton] issued decree no. 22 which stipulates the equality of men and women in relation to salaries, professional standing, inheritance law, and the ability to appear as a witness in court. The decree forbids polygamy as well as the marriage of young women without their own consent. This decree and the expansion of social and democratic rights can contribute to a consolidation of the transformations we have seen in Rojava. If they last, they are an excellent model for other regions in the Middle East.
Without the active participation of thousands of women in the self-defence forces of the YPJ, without the formation of women’s councils and the representation of women at all levels of politics and in all areas of public life, these developments would not have been possible.
A short history of the revolution
Unnoticed by the international public, in the middle of the Syrian Civil War, the Kurds of Rojava, West-Kurdistan, established their own political system . They took control over towns and cities in the Kurdish north of Syria, along the borders of the Kurdish regions of Turkey in three separate cantons, Afrin [Kantona Efrînê / Afrîn], Kobanî [Kantona Kobaniyê] and Cizîrê.
The Syrian Civil War, which had already lost hundreds of thousands, and which raged in other parts of the country, remained largely remote from the Kurdish part of Syria until the summer of 2013. The allegation that there was a kind of agreement with the Assad regime is disputed from the Kurdish side, but neither did the Kurds ally themselves with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which fought against Assad. In Rojava, they wanted to establish a so-called “Third Way” . This also meant that the Kurdish associations abstained from supporting the struggle of democratic and progressive forces against the Assad regime. This was not only a problem for the Syrian revolution, but also for the future of Rojava.
From July 2012 onwards, the Kurds began building their autonomy. They opened Kurdish-language schools, which in Turkey the government still prevents from springing up, any attempts being met by massive police operations. They also launched a university, their own judicial system and council structures that function as local and regional organs of self-administration. This is astonishing in view of the fact that all occupying forces in Kurdish areas, be they Turkey, Iran, Iraq or Syria, have oppressed the Kurds and denied their identity for a century. The area is inhabited by 2.5 million Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, Armenians and Chechens that live there together. These ethnic groups also have many different faiths.
The Kurds organised themselves; joining forces in 16 different parties and founding the “Kurdish High Council“ as an umbrella organisation. They managed to give shelter to 1.2 million people from the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Damascus that had turned into war zones, as well as to Yezidis from Iraq, who fled into the safe Kurdish cantons. The Kurds of Rojava managed to integrate all these people despite the embargo imposed on them by the Turkish state and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraqi Kurdistan to the East. This is a feat without equal.
Self-organisation as key
The women took on a pioneering role, just like the women in the Arab Spring revolts had done. Kurds and other national minorities organised councils that only partially included Arabs, who in general are economically better off. There are structures from the communes at neighbourhood level all the way to the People’s Council of West-Kurdistan. Many professional groups, women and youth clubs, as well as ethnic and religious minorities send their own delegates.
In parallel to this, women’s councils were formed. The Kurdish women demonstrated that self-organisation not only helps protect from outside attacks, but is also a safe means to fend off patriarchal structures within your own society. All forms of oppression of women are being discussed in the women’s council meetings, and are then brought back to society. The private becomes political, and the majority of the Kurdish population supports this system.
This political organisation is based on the fact that women’s liberation was never an issue that politically conscious women wanted to delay until after the revolution. The political programmes of the PKK and its sister party the PYD  explicitly name the oppression of women as the main contradiction and the main obstacle on the path to democracy. The achievements of the women in Rojava cannot be dissociated from the political battles of the Kurdish women. “The revolution in Rojava is first and foremost the revolution of women,” is coming from the slogan of Öcalan .
In this critical time period, which we will shortly describe in detail, it’s hard to overestimate these achievements. In a permanent war situation, it is essential for every party and every peoples to use a large part of their own resources for self-defence─estimated up to 70% in the case of Rojava. This also means that the quasi-state powers in the cantons lie with the political leaders, especially with the PYD and the People’s Defence Forces, and not just with the “councils“ and the “grassroots“. This is inevitable to a certain extent. We don’t oppose an abstract “democracy model” to the needs of military defence. But it is also clear that the PYD as the leading political force holds a central role as concerns further development, progress, and the possible limits of women’s liberation and the understanding of the revolution. Before we dedicate ourselves to these questions, we will discuss the situation of women and not only the political structures in Rojava, but also the traditional societal division of labour in Kurdistan.
Oppression of women
In the same way as Kurdish women in the territories controlled by Turkey, the Syrian Kurdish women are subjugated to multiple oppressions. This makes their commitment and active role in the organisation of democratic structures even more admirable. They fight on the front, in commando positions and participate in economic production. There is practically no place in Rojava where there are no women.
Women have been main actors in the social upheavals in the Middle East from the outset. While women ended up in an even more precarious situation after radical Islamists took over in other countries, the women of Rojava were able to protect themselves from this─except for the attack the Islamic State carried out on Kobanê in the late summer of 2014. Just like Kurdish women in Turkey, Kurdish women in Rojava and other areas of Syria where Kurds live─for example, the cities─have been subjected to massive oppression. This oppression was carried out through the repressive, racist central state, which refused to grant Kurds their basic rights such as speaking their mother tongue or holding Syrian citizenship. The Kurds have also been strongly disadvantaged compared to the Arab population. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Assad regime fought against the West with all its might. Kurdish aspirations for independence were fought with full force.
These circumstances made it hard for Kurdish women to liberate themselves from the patriarchal oppression to which they were additionally subjected. Other things that are specific to the situation of Kurdish women are the family structures in a region that has always been politically and economically disadvantaged. Although PKK describe these family structures “feudal”, they also correspond to an “Asian form of production”, just like they did during the times of the Ottoman Empire.
The misery and powerlessness in the Kurdish areas helped keep the patriarchal structures in place. Despite this, the circumstances of Kurdish women vary greatly and the particular life situation and social position within Kurdish society always plays a role. A lot of factors have an impact, such as whether someone is in the city or the countryside, whether their families are small farmers or big landowners, their class affiliation or whether they are IDPs (internally displaced people); all these make a decisive difference to the workload a woman has, and to her material and financial conditions.
At the same time, national, racist, sexist and political oppression by the occupying states is a reality for all Kurdish women . Together with patriarchal oppression, this paints a gruesome picture. In general, both in Kurdish as well as in Arabic societies, there is a strict separation of male and female realms. Domestic chores and care-taking are female tasks, while wage labour, public issues and contacts with others are the domain of men. That this is not a fair division of labour in terms of workload goes without saying. Especially in agricultural areas, where people live at a subsistence level, women carry most of the weight. Often they have no rights at all and no social safety net. It becomes clear that the predominant structures are patriarchal in nature.
The traditional view of evaluating a woman’s status according to the number of her children persists. Yet, bearing children carries a big risk for women given the fact that healthcare is very poor. Women must work cheaply, give birth and live without any personal autonomy. As in all parts of Kurdistan and the Middle East, women traditionally get married young, sometimes becoming the second or third wife of a much older man. The “honour” of a man and the family traditionally revolves around the “virginity” and “purity” of women. These are pre-capitalistic traits of women’s oppression, in which a woman is not a free owner of goods, but someone who is considered a commodity herself─this can be seen in the fact that it has a price: the bride price.
Girls were prevented from attending schools or learning a profession ; marriage was the only prospective. Forced and arranged marriages are everyday occurrences, as is violence. Violence happens particularly within families and is perpetrated by fathers and men. Instead of rising against their own oppressors, Kurdish men perpetuated the economic and political oppression that they experienced at the hand of the state by oppressing their wives and children. On top of that, the rest of society still supports the idea that family honour hinges mainly on a man’s control over wife and children.
This phenomenon is prevalent in the Islamic world, yet it takes root in the economic bases of society, its structures and the dependencies arising from them. Tracing it to religion while ignoring other underlying factors can lead to anti-Muslim sentiments. Traditional Kurdish families don’t let their women have relationships with any man except their husband. If a woman infringes on this rule, she hurts the family honour which now is considered “stained”. In connection with this, it is of no difference if the sexual contact was consensual or not, which means even if there was a rape, it is seen as the woman’s fault. This was a big issue in Turkey when Turkish soldiers sexually assaulted Kurdish women. The women could only talk about these acts and make them visible after a long struggle. Yet even now, sexual assault can have the consequence that male family members kill a woman in order to prevent their own social death. Even laws cannot do much about this.
Considering these conditions, it is astonishing that the Kurdish women threw off the weight of these traditions and dared to take steps in the direction of self-organisation, even establishing women’s councils. In societies where the understanding of honour has a huge impact on people’s individual lives, these developments can only be seen as part of a larger political and societal force which organises women as fighters and strengthens their political consciousness. The PKK and the PYD offer an anti-patriarchal ideology to women, but also a life alternative to an existence as someone exploited in the household.
The decision for women to become actors in the public sphere presupposes, at the very least, that the original pressures on women to stay in the home were broken open at some point. In the Kurdish regions of Turkey, this happened as a result of the fighting against the Turkish military, when many women found themselves in the position of the sole provider for their children after the death or arrest of their husbands. This forced them to get work outside of the home which obliged them to have a public life. The political struggle in the Kurdish freedom movement also brought the question of women’s liberation onto the agenda.
It can be deduced from this that similar conditions prevailed in Syrian Kurdistan. The oppression at the hands of the Assad regime had a different background from the attacks by the Turkish military in North Kurdistan, yet Assad also feared independence aspirations and subjected the Kurdish population to massive repression. Thousands of women joined the PKK as guerrillas. This bears witness to the fact that family structures were so oppressive that women fled from them in masses. Especially since political struggles like the Serhildan or the war with the KDP from South Kurdistan, more and more women have shown their political will to fight.
In the ideology of the PKK, national liberation has been tied to women’s liberation right from the beginning. However, it was completely subordinated to the “main problem”, the resolution of the national question, during the first years.
Later, women’s liberation took over as the core issue, replacing national oppression. To further this, an ideology was formulated and developed not only by Öcalan, but also by female guerrilla leaders. This ideology legitimises focusing on women in the wider framework of the Kurdish liberation struggle. Its goal was not only the integration of women in the struggle; but clearly stated that without women the entire struggle is not possible at all.
In order to support this ideology, the existence of a former “matriarchy” in ancient Mesopotamia─that is to say, in the Kurdish region─was established . The matriarchy was deprived of power by a rising patriarchy taking control of the increase in societal resources. The enslavement of women and negative characteristics such as egotism, inequality, injustice and absence of liberty are led back to the origin of patriarchy, and are associated with maleness and negativity. The emergence of states and capitalism bear the same connotations.
Harmony, peace, freedom and democracy are ascribed to women as classic female values. Social competences are deduced from this, too. Because of their distinguished role in the matriarchal past, women are seen as the natural bearers of “socialism”. When patriarchy took over, not only were women subjugated and oppressed, ultimately this was the fate of the entirety of the Kurdish people.
The earlier period of a society dominated by women is portrayed as a golden age, the memory of which must play a role in the awakening of the Kurdish nation. The “Neolithic village revolution” is made out to be the reason for the longing humanity feels for a natural and free life. A myth about women being more connected to nature and therefore knowing more about the secrets of life because of their ability to give birth becomes a central theme in many of Ocalan’s texts as well as the Kurdish women’s movement.
The discussion about matriarchy and women is strongly linked to biology. Quasi-natural characteristics are attributed to both men and women . Women feel a natural responsibility to take care of children, something that men have to learn. Women are characterised as pacifist, while men are categorised as war-like. Women also have better conflict-resolution strategies, not because they have honed their skills more under pressure in an adverse society, but also because of an alleged biological predisposition.
The role of women in the struggle is so central because the Kurdish society, according to Öcalan, would like to return to the roots of ancient Mesopotamia─that is, to matriarchy. The oppression of the Kurdish people and the Kurdish woman can thus only be overcome by a view of liberation in which both factors are mutually dependent. Without the awakening of the woman, there can be no liberation of Kurdistan. Thus, the role of the Kurdish woman, which hitherto had always been a subordinate one, became greatly elevated. Women are assigned the role of pioneers.
The radical break with the image society had of women─an image that was created by occupying powers and clan structures as much as a religion that always justified oppressive relationships─leads to a deep-seated contradiction which has far-reaching consequences for the women’s movement. On the one hand, this contradiction is intimately connected to the enormous commitment women demonstrate, on the other hand, it unintentionally ties women to their traditional roles.
From a critical perspective, of course, the mythical reference cannot be endorsed. It should also be pointed out that, as important as women’s decisive role in the struggle for liberation is, these essentialised attributions are imposing enormous burdens on them . Not only is a consolidation of the image of women problematic in itself, but a set-back in the liberation struggle, or a harshening of outside conditions through powerful opponents could be attested to a lack of patriotism of women.
Missing class analysis
Ocalan’s theories neither make an analysis of Kurdish society, nor do they place the Kurdish struggle in the political situation of the existing states of the world. Yet, the Syrian revolution opened the doors and acted as a catalyst for the Rojava project. And whatever changes operate in the Syrian political mix will have consequences for it. Moreover, the question arises as to why socialism is not top of the agenda of the women’s movement, if socialism is ascribed to women as an immanent trait. This is an enormous and potentially fatal weakness of the programme of the PKK/PYD. Their understanding of socialism is taken from a “vision” of the “third way” between capitalism and socialism, whereby cooperatives play a key role in the “socialism” of the PKK and not state intervention or nationalisation, as in traditional social-democratic reformism. A society rid of the market economy or with a democratic, planned economy does not appear in the programme. Without being further examined, this model is de-legitimised from the start, along with a critique of Stalinism (state socialism).
The attribution of biological social characteristics to women further consolidates their role as mothers. Women are seen as the educators and personality formers of children, the transmitters of culture through the teaching of language, music, eating habits, morals and values. Despite the oppression of Kurdishness, the idea of women being deeply connected to tradition is a double-edged sword. When it comes to the transmission of culture, we are talking about a highly patriarchal culture that is currently being passed on by women, a culture in which they are imprisoned in the role of slave and the mentality associated with that. Can women get rid of this role only through the acquisition of a new ideology?
Culture and Nation
Besides the scientifically unfounded biological attributions, the division of labour is another point that finds its reasoning in the protection of Kurdish culture in the face of the oppressor states. Yet, it is precisely this attribution of responsibilities to women that consolidates their traditional roles. Women first have to liberate themselves from their subordination to men, and they need an economic basis for that. An exclusively ideological transformation will either not take place or will be reversed immediately by reactionaries if it does not base itself on the economic independence of women.
The criticism of the family is refreshingly sharp, understood as the “principal and most stable fortress of the man” , as the “smallest cell in the social dominion structure”, the “tomb of the woman”, and “a shaft without a floor” . Yet, at the same time, it is also seen as a hearth of Kurdish culture that must be preserved. The role of contemporary family structures is not fundamentally analysed as a function of preserving patriarchal and capitalist relations and as the place of private, unpaid, mostly female domestic labour. The role of family for a new Kurdistan is newly interpreted and must experience reform, yet is not questioned at its core.
Family and Wage Labour
No questions are asked about what is needed for women and men to be able to leave the rigid, oppressive family structures behind. Likewise, no questions are asked about which economic foundations have to be organised anew, including domestic chores usually done for free by “housewives”. Neither are there concrete ideas for new forms of societal coexistence, nor is there a hint about an economic foundation that makes that coexistence possible. The liberation from and overcoming of gender roles cannot be effected in a dictatorial way, in a way disconnected from new perspectives, demands and transitional concepts. With the life conditions that arise in capitalism, women again get the short end of the stick. Women’s oppression would not be ended, but only adapted to the new demands.
Öcalan, the PKK and the PYD obviously don’t have a concept for the liberation of wage labourers, the heart of Marxist theory about the liberation of women. Although “housewifisation” is denounced by capitalism as the most brutal method of the exclusion of women from the economy, a theory, a programme or even just demands about how Kurdish women can free themselves from this dilemma is missing. Participation in public life, first and foremost the participation in the production process, is the “second pillar” in the self-determination for women.
Despite ideologically missing an analysis and a program, many women’s cooperatives have been founded in Rojava. The goal is to get women involved in the economy and to enable them to become financially emancipated. Cooperatives are on the rise in economic branches such as flour, milk, cheese or textile production as well as in agriculture. There are almost no large private enterprises, the private firms that exist do not have more than 15 to 20 employees. The few larger firms left with the onslaught of the Syrian Civil War. We should add the fact that private landowners control around 20% of the land in Rojava. There are many small-scale farmers, and the Kurdish oligarchy shouldn’t be considered a decisive force in the political landscape. Several thousand hectares of state land have been given to landless farmers. Necessary tools and machinery were also given free of cost. Many of the new landowners cultivate their land as part of a cooperative.
However, the fact that the developments in Rojava only have a future within the framework of a successful Syrian revolution makes it clear that the relative weakness of big landowners and capitalists could turn out to be only temporary. In the case of a “democratic pacification” from above, this situation can change quickly.
In principle, the cooperative or cooperative society can be a means to integrate women more strongly and permanently into production. It is also a way to win over the rural population for a socialist transformation of the economy. But this is tied to certain conditions. The cooperative, the autonomous enterprise, is still a form of private property producing for a market. It can only become a vehicle for a transition if it is embedded in a strategy that involves the establishment of a workers’ and farmers’ government. For this, the democratic revolution must be made permanent and must be connected with the tasks of a socialist transformation. Only in the framework of such a strategy will the liberation of women be durable.
On the whole, the Rojava project, and above all the improvements for women, have a revolutionary, exemplary character. They can be a model for others, even if so far, the emancipation has been incomplete. Women have been invested in democratic reforms and institutions, yes. But complete economic liberation is still slow, since questions of property cannot be solved due to war and embargo. The ideological reasons behind the Rojava project and its women’s liberation are contradictory and need to undergo a Marxist critique. This applies not only to the question of where the oppression of women comes from, but also to the incomplete critique of the institution of the family they propose. Especially important is that every program of social liberation of the working woman should include the “socialisation” of housework. Only like this can undermine the family as the “grave of woman”. This approach is missing in Rojava.
Despite this, the developments in Rojava have brought about an enormous strengthening of women. The gender question is omnipresent in Rojava, because of the very strong organisational structures of women. This also finds expression in the self-defence units and women’s cooperatives. A good basis is created on which patriarchal structures can be fought without compromise.
The further fate of women’s liberation in Rojava will depend, in particular, on whether the self-government achieved can stand strong in the face of the Islamic state and the Assad regime─in other words, ultimately from the fate of the Syrian revolution. Secondly, it will depend on whether the democratic progress in Rojava can be connected to a social transformation in other Kurdish areas and in the whole Middle East, so as to eradicate the societal roots of women’s oppression. For this to happen, there needs to be further international support of the women’s struggle, the project Rojava, and the Syrian revolution.
(1) Zeller, Christian: Kobanê: Symbol of resistance and struggle for self-determination, in: Emancipation, 4, No. 2, 2014, p. 5
(2) Flat, Anja / Ayboga, Ercan / Knapp, Michael: Revolution in Rojava, p. 23
(4) Flat, Anja: Women in the Kurdish Guerilla, 2007, p. 48
(5) Civaka Azad Infoblätter: Focus: Revolution of women in Rojava (Nordsyrien), issue 6 / November 2013
(6) Brauns, Nikolaus / Kiechle, Brigitte: PKK, perspectives of the Kurdish freedom struggle, 2010, p. 220
(7) Flach, Anja: Women in the Kurdish Guerrilla, 2007, p. 29
(8) Ibid., P. 33
(9) PJA (Partiya Jina Azad [Free Women’s Party]), Free Women’s Party: Program; 2002, p. 66 f.
(10) Brauns, Nikolaus / Kiechle, Brigitte: PKK, perspectives of the Kurdish freedom struggle, 2010, p. 244
(11) Ibid., P. 245
(12) PJA (Partiya Jina Azad, Free Women’s Party), program; 2002, p. 14
(13) Ibid., P. 30
(14) Ibid., P. 71