Dismantling “Power” by building “Democratic Autonomy”

This article by Şervîn Nûdem was published by Radical Ecological Democracy on 12 April, 2021

“The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”

Audre Lorde

The past centuries have witnessed many anti-colonial and revolutionary struggles launched and fought with the aim of liberating people and their land from exploitation. They have aspired to gain peoples’ self-determination and self-empowerment, and a life of freedom, welfare and justice for everyone. In that pursuit, many liberation movements in Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East were able to force colonial powers to retreat physically from their territories, but not all of them were as successful in realizing all their declared aims. In fact, quite often, it was a group of new national elites who managed to secure political power and establish another rule without introducing any compelling changes in the structures of state and power. That was disheartening for the freedom fighters who had strived for genuine change, and, often, that feeling of disenchantment permeated down to the following generations. It seemed, as if, Margret Thatcher’s cynical declaration that, “There is no alternative to capitalism!” was tacitly accepted as destiny by people.

But, the human spirit continues to hope and strive for a better future. If we look at the first formations of communal life in which women played a leading and uniting role; if we listen to the pluriversal cosmovisions all around the world; and if we continue the search for giving meaning to our own lives on this planet, we realize that ecological, political and ethical societies based on the values of democracy, solidarity and justice have always existed, and still endure. We can learn from the resistance of the Zapatista, and the indigenous communities in Latin America who continue to defend their lives in the proximity of the Mother Earth; we can reach out to the village assembly of Mendha Lekha in India, which decided to collectively own and cultivate its land. And, we can draw inspiration from the democratic confederal organizing of communes in Kurdistan, as well as from the solidarity of neighborhoods resisting evictions in Palestine or Catalonia.

Need for a Paradigm Beyond State, Power and Violence

These efforts inspire us to face up to the challenges of the contemporary world: how can we forge a mindset, which is democratic, and establish a way of life that does not reproduce hierarchical power structures? And, how can we defend democratic, egalitarian social structures against the chokehold of the capitalist hydra? These questions have also been key to the reflections of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdish people’s freedom struggle launched in the vanguard of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). His analysis of the contemporary society proposes that the liberation of life and society can become possible only beyond the construct of state, power and violence. He laid the foundation of a paradigm change in the Kurdistan Freedom Movement. Despite having been arrested extra-judicially in 1999, and subsequently incarcerated in isolation on the Imrali Island in Turkey, Öcalan’s thoughts continue to inspire comprehensive discussions in the movement as well as in the Kurdish society, in all four parts of Kurdistan and the diaspora. He rejected the Machiavellian precept of “the ends justifying the means”, and asserted that “the revolutionary means have to be as clean as the revolutionary aims”, echoing Audre Lorde’s assertion that “it is impossible to dismantle the house of the master with the tools of the master.” Öcalan further affirms that state, power and violence cannot become the instruments of liberation, as they themselves have been the means of societal oppression. These key points have paved the way for a strategic reorientation and reorganization of the Kurdish freedom struggle firmly based on the pillars of women’s liberation, ecology and radical democracy. This process has opened out into the establishment of Democratic Autonomy, Democratic Confederalism and Democratic Nation as alternatives to oppressive, patriarchal and nationalist state structures.

Unity of Democratic Spirit and Body

During the last two decades, the Kurdish people together with the people of other cultures and ethnicities in the region have started to build structures of self-organizing in all four parts of Kurdistan on the basis of these concepts.

The authoritarian regimes in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria have had disparate colonial policies, and even though the conditions under their respective rules have also differed, oppression has been a common phenomenon in all the countries. Yet, the Kurdish people have negotiated these difficult circumstances using a common spirit, which is described by the term, Democratic Nation. This underscores the attainment of a nation as a democratic society through voluntary participation of individuals and communities, guided solely by their free will. Contrary to a nation-state, it is not based on the hegemony of one language, ethnicity, religion, culture or an enclosed territory. The term, Democratic Nation, further highlights a shared existence of different cultural, social or religious communities built on the foundation of a common life, a shared economy and a set of ethical principles. This novel spirit has found its body in the structure of peoples’ self-administration, namely Democratic Autonomy and Democratic Confederalism.

A women’s workshop in Rojava. Pic. Jineoloji Research Center

Democratic Autonomy denotes the creation of a substantial societal framework consisting of local and regional people’s councils, cooperatives, academies and self-defense forces outside of the existing nation state operating through the oppressive apparatus of its bureaucracy, police, army and other government institutions. With and through these structures of grass-roots democracy, the society can develop its own socio-economic policies, educational system etc. and fulfill the needs of its people without being dependent on the state. This framework is also known as State + Democracy, which simply means that it’s not necessary to overthrow the state in order to build grassroots democracy. On the other hand, by building people’s democratic, autonomous structures within an existing state structure, it’s possible to make the state diminish in its relevance. As a result, the ability of the state to exert power – including structural and militarist violence – over the lives of individuals and society reduces considerably under this new framework. Such a confederal system of organizing, which unites communities based on peoples’ congresses and assemblies across arbitrarily drawn borders, has already been established under the umbrella of the Union of Democratic Communities in Kurdistan (KCK) and the Kurdistan Women’s Communities (KJK). Importantly, for the Kurdish society, the principle of Democratic Confederalism is an essential mechanism by which it can reunite and bring into an integrated system the soul and limbs that had been chopped off by the physical presence of nation-state borders and their corresponding mentality.

The earliest and most resolute steps towards building Democratic Confederalism were taken in North Kurdistan in 2005. This is where majority of the Kurdish people live, and also have a long history of resisting and organizing against the Turkish autocratic regime. Subsequently, when various popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes and dictators took place in North Africa and the Middle East in the spring of 2011, the Kurdish people in Syria also took the initiative to claim their socio-economic and cultural rights and assert their political will. In Rojava (West Kurdistan), despite the repression and nationalist chauvinism they had suffered under the Syrian Arab Republic, the women and peoples had established a solid organizational foundation for taking control of their lives through clandestine political work and community organizing spread over a period of thirty years. In the last ten years, the society in West Kurdistan has continued to build this alternative system of Democratic Autonomy based on peoples’ communes, councils and assemblies in order to meet its vital needs. But, this has not been an easy process, and in the following sections I will address the challenges that have emerged, with the focus on the relations, and the contradictions, between power and democracy.

Women Challenge Power

In the Kurdish language there are two different expressions that we can use for translating the English term ‘power’: Hêz or Desthilatî.

Hêz connotes strength, and could be identified with a natural or democratic ‘authority’ that resists injustice, cares for the well being of society and affirms everyone’s dignity. In Rojava, we can experience this essence of hêz in the personality of the women – especially mothers – who went out on the streets to force the Syrian army forces to withdraw from the Kurdish regions in 2012. We observe this hêz in the eyes of the women who have taken up arms to defend their homeland against the attacks by ISIS and the Turkish army. And we can feel the hêz of women who are rejecting patriarchal norms that perceive them as the honor and property of the family, and who are insisting on speaking for themselves and taking their own decisions. This hêz is present in the women who have celebrated their liberation from ISIS by burning the black niqab, and wearing their colorful clothes again. It is the hêz of women who became teachers although they were refused school education either by the state because they were undocumented Kurds, or by their parents simply because they were girls. The hêz of women is manifested in the active and leading role they play today in politics as equally responsible co-chairs in all structures of Democratic Autonomy, and at all levels – from the communes to international relations. This hêz of wisdom and creativity allowed women to establish an autonomous women’s system including self-organization in the fields of economy, education, health, justice, self-defense, arts and culture. It also motivated them to insist upon the implementation of the general principles on women’s rights and freedom, know as the ‘women’s law’.

The women of Rojava have taken up arms to defend their revolution.

The Strength of Communal Resistance, Self-Defense and Organizing

Furthermore, we continue to experience the society’s hêz in the ongoing widespread discussions and actions to build up a democratic education system, which ensures that learning is imparted to all the communities in their own mother tongue. The hêz is instrumental in solving problems like insufficient water supplies, poverty due to the embargo, and the rising value of the dollar. It also inspires the community to fight a perpetual war, as well as defend the harvest under the scorching summer sun and against the fires caused by the acts of sabotage conducted by ISIS, and the Turkish and Syrian regimes. Last but not the least the hêz of society became obvious, when thousands of people from all generations and all parts of Kurdistan joined the resistance in Kobanê, when thousands of people from all the regions of Rojava joined the convoys headed to Shengal to rescue the Ezidis from the genocide committed by ISIS, and repeated that act when Efrîn, Giresipi and Serekaniye were bombarded and invaded by the Turkish army.

All these examples underscore the point that hêz – namely the courage, the democratic will, the dignity and the integrity – of women and the society, is constantly in conflict with, and under attack, by another form of power which we translate in the Kurdish language as desthilatî. The literal meaning of this term is ‘the raised hand’. It is the opposite of ‘bindestî’, which means ‘being under the hand’, and is translated into English as ‘subjugation’. The dichotomy of desthilatî (power) and bindestî (subjugation) is fundamentally antithetical to the perception of hêz, the ethical distinction and the political sensibility of democracy. Here, it is important to stress that democracy does not imply a capitalist state that simply allows its citizens the right to vote in a representative government every 4 – 5 year. Democracy, in fact, is an alternative to the state. It is the hêz of the communities to resist against any oppressive desthilatî-power, and to govern themselves without the state and without becoming a state.

Democracy is fundamental to an open and free society, where individuals and groups are political subjects and govern themselves on the basis of collective consensus. This concept as well as the construct of Democratic Autonomy spread quickly to other places, too. When the Kurdish defense forces, YPG-YPJ and SDF, liberated broad areas in Northern and Eastern Syria from the tyranny of ISIS, they also adopted it for their own administrative purposes. The model is evolving continually. Kurdish representatives are participating in the regional peace process using the precepts of Democratic Autonomy, and are also striving for its recognition by the international community. But, all through these positive developments, the Kurdish representatives continue to maintain their spiritual and physical autonomy and freedom.

The experiences of building Democratic Autonomy in the Rojava region for the last ten years, has strengthened the conviction that this model can help resolve the protracted conflicts and other issues in Syria, the Middle East and even other parts of the world.

Participants at a protest march in Rojava. Pic. Jineoloji Research Center

Building our own houses with our own tools

The most important challenge of democracy is: How do we overcome the mentality, habits and structures of power that have conquered and colonized the hearts and minds of individuals as well as the society for so long?

In relation to this question we have to be aware that our society’s existence has always been communal and democratic. Social development has been made possible by creativity, solidarity and cooperation, and not by power and violence. This is the democratic hêz of the mother-clan society that has continued to resist domination since Neolithic times. On the other hand, the 5000 years-old history of patriarchy, state civilization, wars and colonization in the Middle East have burnt deep scars of alienation into people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Whether it was the myths of the ancient societies, organized religion itself, or the positivist sciences, they all have been designed to persuade women and other exploited sections of the society that it was their destiny to be subservient to men and the ruling classes. Power hierarchies between men and women, and between rulers and the people were codified by utilizing soft and hard measures, and also by structural as well as physical violence. The fear of punishment for disobedience was complemented by inducements and rewards for collaboration and servitude. The matrix of patriarchal state power and hierarchies alienated and divided social relations, and diluted the democratic norms and beliefs of the tribes that once had their origins in mother clan societies. This is the reason why it has been so difficult to break and overcome the preeminence of power, both as a concept as well as practice.

Since the beginning of the revolution in Rojava, our daily life has been full of examples, which demonstrate the advancements as well as the challenges on the way of overcoming the impact of destructive power structures just by practicing democracy. I have chosen the example of the colloquial called ‘women’s law’ to illustrate some of the processes and discussions in the communities of Rojava, as well as North and East Syria, which challenge patriarchal power. These have been effective in addressing the relevant issues but sometimes they’ve also been controvercial.

Even before people’s power could force the Syrian regime to withdraw from Rojava, women started to build up their own organizational structures to dismantle patriarchal power. They also started constructing their own houses using their own tools. Emîne Omer describes this process:

“In the beginning there were only a few women who were willing to take on the burden of responsibility. We didn’t even have our own rooms, but we really enjoyed our work. To stop the violence against women, we built up our first women’s center, which we called ‘Mala Jinê’ (Women’s House).”

Women’s Law and Justice

Xeliya, a young member of the Women‘s Justice Council shares the difficulties they faced in building an alternative system of justice:

“Until I started this work, I had hardly ever got out of home. And then suddenly I was confronted with the very serious problems of women and society. In the beginning, we mostly listened to our male colleagues because that was what we had learned to do. But, then we got together with the other women who had started this work. At first we cried together as we listened to women’s pain and despair. But, increasingly, we began to exchange ideas and figure out solutions. The discussions, as well as the constant self-reflection and questioning that women participated in became the source of strength for us in finding the right solutions. By asking ourselves, “what does justice for women mean?” we also gained the self-confidence to contradict our male colleagues and express our own opinions. We built our own foundations. Because of our socialization as women we have different approaches to social problems, perceive the same event in different ways, and come to different conclusions.”

The rigorous process of discussion with the women in the communes led to the drafting of “the basic principles and general regulations regarding the situation and the rights of women”. This was done to ensure gender equality in all spheres of private and public life. Women of all national and religious communities like Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Turkmens, Chechen, Ezidis, Muslims and Christians participated in this exercise. In 2014, the “General Council of Democratic Autonomy” formally adopted the draft. It comprises of 30 principles to ensure, “that women can develop on all levels, achieve a beautiful life, and defend themselves and their legitimate rights against all forms of oppression and violence.“

Since the enactment of the “Women’s Law”, the women’s movement in Rojava has campaigned in all the neighborhoods and villages of the region to create awareness and acceptance of these principles. In the beginning, the general male reaction was quite negative. But slowly, with educational programs at schools and with the assistance of other popular education academies, the laws are gaining widespread acceptance. Many women have revealed that their husband’s attitudes towards them, as well as the relations within the family have improved after they had participated in popular education programs on the principles of a democratic family, women’s history or Jineolojî.

Challenging Patriarchal Mentality and Violence

At present, the bans on underage and polygamous marriages are the most controversial and undermined points of the “women’s law”. Not just men, but sometimes women, too, claim that these provisions do not correspond to “social reality“, or have been introduced “too early”. Xelîya describes some discrepancies between the intention and the effects of the ban on polygamous marriages:

“Before the revolution, it was common for men to ‘get’ several wives. It was usually a very bad situation for women. They were used and played off against each other. But now, some men are pushing their wives to divorce so that they can marry a new woman. This is often perceived as much more humiliating by the ex-wife. Women’s laws alone are not enough; the mentality and morality of society have to change. ”

Women in the communes are raising awareness against patriarchy as part of their work to solve family and tribal conflicts. Pic. Media Team, Jinwar.

Consequently, women in the communes, in the [re]conciliation committees of the people’s councils and the Mala Jinê (Women’s House) raise awareness about the negative consequences of the patriarchal traditions and emphasize the need for discarding that mentality. In the beginning, they were often ridiculed and sometimes even physically threatened. However, with their tireless commitment, they have increasingly won respect from the society. Older women, in particular, are taken seriously as authority figures, as they have the experience to find and mediate just solutions. They have even been able to solve a large number of family and tribal conflicts that had persisted for decades and could not be solved by the Syrian legal system. Members of Mala Jinê explain:

“Our work is based on social interactions and that creates mutual understanding within family settings. We lay emphasis on the harm created by male dominance and the advantages of respectful family relations for everyone. On average, each Mala Jinê [in each town and surrounding area of Rojava] deals with 50 problem cases a month, of which we can solve around 20 simply through mutual understanding.”

However, if it becomes difficult to find a solution to a problem, then the case is passed on to the Women’s Justice Council. In those cases, where physical violence or death threats against women arise, the Asayişa Jin (Women’s Security Force) gets involved. Thereupon, women can seek refuge in safe houses, whereas the aggressors are taken to justice.

Although, the laws and sanctions are not sufficient to challenge the patriarchal order and the perpetrators of violence, the “Women’s Laws” have functioned as an effective means of uncovering and condemning violence against women. Many women emphasize that the principles set in the law have given them strength and courage to take up the fight against sexist violence and discrimination in public as well as in their own private lives. These laws have advanced a collective understanding of social ethics, and also helped establish democratic principles within partnerships and family relations.

The confederal network of the women’s movement, Kongra Star has facilitated the implementation of the women’s law and also propelled social change towards strengthening women’s self-awareness, empowerment and economic wellbeing. By working, organizing and learning collectively, women have secured the possibility of more options in life. Up until very recently, it was difficult to imagine a mother living on her own with her children after a divorce or the death of her husband. Today, projects like women’s cooperatives or the women‘s village called Jinwar have enabled single mothers to determine the course of their lives and ensure care for their children within a community of women. The co-chair system in which women and men collectively represent the will of the group, and coordinate the works of all communes, people’s councils, and in all fields of life has empowered women’s role in society, as well as in many families. Today, women who once were seekers of help are themselves working actively at Mala Jin and in the women’s councils, or have joined the women’s defense forces to protect the lives and rights of other women.

Women celebrating Naoroz, the Kurdish New Year in Rojava. Pic. Jineoloji Research Center

Generating Alternatives

The discussions, and the consequent changes in the lives of women, families and the larger society as a consequence of the women’s laws are one example of the many attempts that have been made to establish a democratic system, mentality and a way of life. We can conclude that the common values and principles of Democratic Autonomy have laid the corner stones of a democratic society and freedom for everyone.

In a time of deep despair, human and ecological crisis, the example of Democratic Autonomy in Rojava has created hope, and given new inspiration to people in Syria and the Middle East. In fact, a lot of people in other parts of the world have become a part of this process and are connecting it to the struggles in their own regions. Despite all the shortcomings and numerous obstacles during the last decade, we have learned that the democratic confederal organization of society can fulfill many spiritual and material needs of society. We have learned that democratic transformation is a continuing process, which requires constant societal and self-reflection. Our achievements are not assured forever, if we do not protect and advance them.

We’ve learned about our shared pains and aspirations by listening to each other, and by sharing our experiences of life and struggle; while singing songs and telling stories of our ancestors in our own languages, as women from different communities. We have learned that we can find solutions to the problems in our lives when we blend wisdom with spirituality, and our analytical and emotional intelligence. These are our tools for dismantling the houses of the masters. At the same time, we’ve also created new tools for building our own houses and gardens – we’ve constructed a democratic society, by uniting our political thoughts and beliefs with our way of life. By transforming our needs and hopes into communal organizing and actions, we now experience democracy as an alternative to state and power.

The Rojava Revolution is alive, and spreading its wings.

Şervîn Nûdem has been working at the Jineolojî Academy in Rojava (West-Kurdistan) in the Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, since 2016. She works with the women from Kurdistan, Syria and other countries. Şervîn grew up in Germany and was active in the anti-fascist youth and autonomous women’s movement. Her interest in connecting political theory with practice, and communal life with the struggle for a free society led Şervîn to join the women’s liberation struggle in Kurdistan, and to participate in the work of the Jineolojî Academy. The main focus of her work is on popular education programs and collective, communal researches on the historical and social foundations of the women’s revolution and the system of Democratic Autonomy in Rojava / North and East Syria. Şervîn has also been active in the establishment of the Andrea-Wolf-Institute / Jineolojî Academy with the aim of connecting the struggle for democracy, justice and freedom worldwide with women’s wisdom.