Building the Women’s Revolution: Women’s Communes in Efrîn Canton

The Martyr Bawer Commune Electricity Co-operative

A 23-member women's electricity co-operative of the Martyr Bawer Commune in Afrin.

This report by Meghan Bodette was published by Medium on 7 May, 2020

Before the Turkish occupation, Efrîn was a center of the ‘women’s revolution’ that North and East Syria has become famous for. Women’s institutions based on direct democracy and aimed at addressing gender inequality and other social challenges were active, and laws and policies mandating political equality had been put into practice.

Efrîn Canton saw minimal conflict in the six years between the withdrawal of Syrian government forces and the beginning of the Turkish invasion. It had also been a center of Kurdish movement organizing in Syria decades before the conflict began. This relative stability and strong political background made Efrîn an ideal site for the development of North and East Syria’s unique institutions.

The basic unit of self-organization across the region is the neighborhood commune. As with other institutions, parallel women’s communes existed in addition to mixed-gender communes that included all members of a given neighborhood. News reports from the region document the process of forming women’s communes in Efrîn, and the work that they did in their communities— an important historical record of what was targeted in the occupation, and of how North and East Syria’s political system functioned at its best.

Establishing Communes

In July 2011, months into the Syrian crisis, Kongra Star — which would become the confederation of all women’s organizations in North and East Syria, and was then known as Yekîtiya Star— held its fourth annual conference in Efrîn. According to a 2018 publication from the organization, 100 women attended, and the following evaluations were made:

“The need for a radical democratic change in Syria, which could be achieved through a democratic solution to the Kurdish issue, was discussed…The Congress eventually decided to build a self administration, assemblies and communes; and elected a 31-member body that would become Rojava’s coordination.”

Kongra Star would go on to play a key role in organizing local women into communes and assemblies.

In 2014, the Democratic Autonomous Administration of Afrin was established, with a Kurdish woman, Hevî Mustafa, as its president. The administration’s Women’s Commission was responsible for working with all other commissions of the administration to promote gender equality and women’s involvement in all areas of governance and society. Its mandate also included coordination with “women’s councils and community organizations.”

In early 2015, the establishment of a large number of women’s communes was reported across Efrîn’s seven districts. The communes were formed through meetings between women in a village or neighborhood and representatives of Kongra Star.

The following ANHA report was published in Kurdish in April 2015. It describes the process of commune formation in Shiye district. The report notes that, with 23 communes, the district was the first to have such institutions established in every village and neighborhood. A member of Kongra Star’s leadership assembly is quoted, explaining both the ideological basis of the commune system and their practical structure.

EFRÎN — The women of Shiye district and its villages, who began to build their own autonomous communes four months ago, have finished establishing 23 communes.

The women of Shiye district in Efrîn canton and all of its surrounding villages began to establish autonomous communes on December 1st, 2014, with the goal of organizing all areas of society. The establishment of communes had developed through meetings and explanations of the role of communes in society. In these meetings, the role of women and the ways of developing communes in all areas of life were discussed. After the process of meetings began, the first commune was established on December 1st.

Meetings to establish communes took place with the participation of dozens of women from the neighborhood or village where the commune would be organized. Women noted that they were ready to take their place in an active manner in women’s communes. After the establishment of the 23rd commune, communes had been established in all neighborhoods and villages of the district. With this, Shiye became the first district in Efrin Canton where the process of establishing women’s communes has been completed.

Kongra Star leadership member Resmiya Sido explained that establishing communes was a good step, and said: “The commune system was presented to Rojava by the Kurdish People’s Leader Abdullah Ocalan so that Rojava could advance towards democracy, freedom, and cooperative life. With this step, we return to the history of our ancestors in the field of equal life. This is an example of leadership on the correct path for resolving the crisis of the region.”

Resmiya continued to discuss women’s history, saying this: “Women’s history is full of pain. If we do not study this history, we cannot study the reality of women’s resistance today. To free women from the oppressive patriarchal system, it is necessary to do so with knowledge of history, because recognition of history is the recognition of women’s own personality. By establishing communes, we can build a better future.

Resmiya explained that their power was based on the ideology of Ocalan, who opened the door for women’s freedom.

Regarding the characteristics of women’s work, Resmiya said that each commune would elect three women as its leadership. She continued: “Commune leadership will follow and participate in the work of all the commune’s committees. At the same time, the voice of all commune members will reach the Democratic Autonomous Administration of Efrîn Canton. We have finished establishing communes, and until now, community centers for three communes have been opened.”

Regarding the number and work of communes, Resmiya gave this information: “In every commune, special committees have been established. The committees that have been established are as follows:

Social Committee: This committee has already been introduced. Within it is the Reconciliation Committee. The Reconciliation Committee of the Martyr Cahîda Commune in Haci neighborhood has brought two families together who had a dispute. The Martyr Servin Commune has reconciled between two families who had a dispute as well.

Education Committee: All education committees that have been established have met with the YPJ and women Asayish members, and commune members have learned how to use weapons. In addition, Kurdish lessons have been given to the communes.

Defense Committee: This committee works to defend women from the oppressive mentality and protect women from violence and oppression. In addition, they have worked with the Women’s Commission to implement the Women’s Laws.

Economy Committee: This committee establishes special associations and organizes women’s projects. In each commune, there is a collection box, and in this way, aid is gathered for needy people.

Young Women’s Committee: This committee is responsible for ideological education for young women in every commune.”

At the end of her speech, Resmiya said: “With the establishment of communes, we have seen many developments, and in this way, we are heading towards attaining women’s rights in all areas of life.”

Local media described in detail the various projects that individual communes took on as they developed. In one example, several ANHA reports trace the work of the Martyr Bawer Commune, one of two women’s communes in Şitka village in Mabata district.

The Martyr Bawer Commune was established in January 2015. In early May of that year, one report noted that a community center had been opened for the commune. Weeks later, another described one project that the commune’s Economy Committee had undertaken — the establishment of a 23-member electricity co-operative.

The Economy Committee of the Martyr Bawer Commune, which is comprised of three members, has completed electrical projects in the village, and in this way resolved the issue of electricity for homes of commune members in the village. This project has been presented to all members of the commune. 23 women, as members of a co-operative, have joined.

The women collected 725,000 Syrian lira, purchased a generator for 720,000, and brought electricity to the villagers. Members of the co-operative also collected money to purchase electric cables. The women’s co-operative brings electricity to 80 families in the village, each of which pays 500 Syrian lira a week. The profits of the project return equally to all members of the co-operative…

The generator runs for six hours per day and provides electricity to the villagers. The supervisor of the women’s project, Ehlam Umer, said that their main goal was to resolve the problem of electricity in the village. Two women, Ciwana Mihemed and Xalîde Ibish, said that the project was very good work, and that it benefitted citizens of the village.

In October 2015, ANHA reported on the collaborative efforts between members of the commune and members of the HPC (Community Protection Forces) to increase women’s participation in local self-defense efforts:

EFRÎN — The women of Şitka village in Mabata district who have taken their place in the HPC explained that defense is the basis of establishing a society, and called on all women in the region to participate in defense work and play a role in establishing their country.

After communes had been established across Efrin Canton, the HPC, which relies on the same communes, was officially established. Now, members of the HPC play their role in protecting the villages. In this way, the Martyr Bawer Commune in Şitka in Mabata district of Efrîn has organized its HPC members. Women HPC members guard the village every day from 7 PM to midnight.

HPC member and Kurdish language teacher Hêzdar Xelil explained that, in addition to the work of educating children, she has taken a place in the HPC. “Now, we are living a revolution. To defend the revolution, every person should take their place in revolutionary work. With the start of the school year, I teach children at school [during the day], and in the evenings, among the women of the village, I take my turn guarding the village.

By May 2015, communes like this one had been reported established in every district of the canton. In Rajo district, 54 women’s communes existed; in Shiye, 23; in Jinderes, 56; and in Sherawa, 28. In all of these districts, the number of communes outnumbered towns and villages — likely due to multiple communes being established in larger towns or city neighborhoods. Numbers for Efrîn, Mabata, Shera, and Bilbile are unclear, but it is likely that they were similarly prevalent.

Reactivating Communes

One challenge that the commune system has reportedly faced across North and East Syria is an insufficient level of participation. Given the undemocratic nature of the Syrian state and the particular oppression that Kurds faced, most members had no prior experience with a political system that allowed them to meaningfully participate.

Taking this into account, a campaign to ‘reactivate’ women’s communes in Efrîn was launched in 2016. Similar efforts were reported in all cantons, targeting both women’s and mixed-gender institutions. At its yearly conference in January 2016, Kongra Star in Efrîn Canton announced that “a campaign to reestablish communes and complete their committees will begin.”

ANHA reported on the reestablishment of a women’s commune in Axcelê village in Jinderes in 2016. The opening of a community center for a women’s commune in the village, the Martyr Ronahî Commune, had been reported in April 2015, and the founding of a women’s commune in Axcelê was reported in February of that year.

According to the brief report, two members of Kongra Star leadership spoke in the meeting. Their presentations focused on the specific importance of women’s participation in the commune system and the need for autonomous women’s institutions.

Those communes that remained active continued to work on the projects outlined when they were established. The following is a translation of a report from ANHA describing the work of various committees of a typical women’s commune, published in Kurdish in May 2016.

EFRÎN — Within a short time, the Martyr Leyla Commune has activated its committees, resolved neighborhood women’s economic and family issues, and advanced many projects in the health and service fields.

The Martyr Leyla Commune was established in the El-Yezîdiyê neighborhood in the center of Efrîn Canton on May 25th, 2015. The commune works from 9:00 AM to 2:00 PM each day, with a holiday on Saturday.

The Martyr Leyla Commune is one of the active communes in Efrîn center. It has 22 members, three of whom are in leadership. The commune is occupied with resolving the problems of women in the neighborhood. Creating projects for them is one of the commune’s ways of resolving women’s issues.

Members of the Health Committee have educated residents of the neighborhood on the situation of first intervention, high fever, poisoning, and needle injections. The committee was able to intervene in three serious cases, including diabetes and paralysis, and refer the affected civilians to Avrîn Hospital.

The commune’s Economic Committee focuses on developing the women’s economy. Work is made available so that women do not stay unoccupied and can develop economically. Neighborhood women produce various foods and have joined the Consumers’ Committee of the Women’s Commission. They also do assembly work, such as washing newly sewn clothing.

The Reconciliation Committee has become the committee that the neighborhood shares its problems with. They can consult with them for a solution and ask for help. The Reconciliation Committee has six members. Serious problems from the neighborhood are discussed, and according to each situation, can be passed on to the Asayish or the courts. In one year, the commune has resolved 50 disputes. Two were passed on to the Women’s Commission, three were sent to the Asayish, and two reached the Foundation of Martyrs’ Families.

All three members of the education committee, with the support of the Nuri Dersimi Foundation and the Kongra Star Academy, provide education for neighborhood women each week. The educational programs focus on the importance of the communes and on natural society. In addition to political education, Kurdish language education is also provided to the women.

The four-member Defense Committee and the HPC coordinate together to protect the neighborhood. Local women guard the neighborhood from 6:00 PM until 11:00 PM. Prior to participating in neighborhood defense, women receive weapons education from the committee.

President of the Martyr Leyla Commune Melek Mehemed Ali said that they were making preparations to open a health center for the neighborhood. Melek gave information on the preparations, and said that, with support from the Health Commission [of Efrîn Canton], medical equipment and personnel would be prepared.

Assemblies and Elections

The members of communes like this one went on to establish larger assemblies that included all women’s communes in a given district, as well as district and canton-wide assemblies made up of specific committees of all women’s communes.

In May 2015, district-wide women’s assemblies were reported established in JinderesBilbile, and Rajo. The founding meeting of the Rajo assembly had 203 participants — about three for each commune — and elected five women to its leadership commission. It was attended by members of Kongra Star’s coordination and the Kurdish Language Foundation.

Later that year, economic committees of women’s communes across Efrîn elected a leadership commission. The following ANHA report, published in Kurdish in August 2015, details this process:

EFRÎN — Yekîtiya Star, in cooperation with the Economic Development Center of Efrîn Canton, held a meeting with the leaders of economy committees of women’s communes. In the outcome of the meeting, a leadership administration for economy committees of women’s communes was elected.

20 leaders of economic committees of women’s communes, Yekîtiya Star Coordination member Zelal Cîger, Director of the Economic Development Center Roza Şêxo, and Women’s Commission president Fatme Lekto attended the meeting.

Yekîtiya Star Coordination member Zelal Cîger discussed the importance of women’s self-organization in economic committees, and said that, since ancient history, the economy had been led by women.

In her speech, Cîger explained that leaders and members of economic committees of women’s communes should correctly understand their role in establishing a social economy, and said this: “To observe the work of economic committees, an administration commission for these communes should be established.”

Fatme Lekto then discussed the projects that the Commission had undertaken in order to develop the women’s economy, and said that, in order to build the women’s economy in all areas of life, women’s participation and support for economic projects is very important.

Roza Şêxo said that the Center for Economic Development had opened several projects to support women, and they had many women’s projects planned. She explained: “So that economic projects from the economic committees of women’s communes can succeed, we will support you with all of our strength and opportunity. For this, an administration for economic committees of women’s communes should be established.”

At the end of the meeting, the door was opened to candidates for the election of an economic committee administration. In the outcome of the elections, five administration members were chosen: Mizgin Ebdilhenan, Cihan Mihemed Ibo, Feride Xorshid, Wehid Birimko, and Yetare Ezîz.

The process described here appears slightly different from the ways in which mixed-gender communes were built up into larger institutions. Elections for leadership were held among members of the communes in specific meetings — rather than as part of region-wide general elections for commune and municipality co-chairs, like those that took place in 2015 and 2017 in Efrîn.

Members of a women’s commune elect their commune’s administration in Efrîn Canton (ANHA).