Eyewitnesses to the Rojava revolution: women empowerment

Nûdem Market

A small convenience store owned and operated by a women’s co-operative in Girkê Legê.

This great article by Debbie Bookchin, Emre Şahin and Marina Sitrin was published by ROAR Magazine on 4 November, 2019

The Rojava revolution is under attack. Debbie Bookchin and Emre Şahin share their thoughts on this unique revolutionary process after recently visiting the region.

hat has been taking place in Rojava is easily one of the most inspiring and exciting experiments in autonomous self-government to ever exist. It is also one of the most massive, and gender inclusive, often compared to the Spanish Revolution of 1936, as well as the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico. And yet, people outside the region know little about the different dimensions of the revolution taking place in Rojava. And now, this revolutionary territory is under military and political attack — its very existence at risk.

What follows is the first of a three part interview series with people who have had ongoing relationship to Rojava, and who have spent time in the revolutionary territory. The first two parts of the series are with Debbie Bookchin and Emre Şahin. Debbie, a journalist, author, public speaker and organizer is Murray Bookchin’s daughter and spent a part of the spring of 2019 in Rojava. Emre, a Kurdish PhD student and translator, spent most of the summer of 2019, traveling to 14 different towns and cities in Rojava, conducting research and in-depth interviews.

The third part is an interview with Carne Ross, Executive Director of Independent Diplomat and author. Carne left his career as a British diplomat, having served in numerous embassies and was Head of the Middle East section and Deputy Head of Political Section at the UK Mission to the United Nations. Carne made the film, Accidental Anarchist, based on his time in Rojava.

What was your overall impression? What is the first thing you would want to share about the process in Rojava?

Debbie: My overall impression is that we are looking at people who are profoundly transforming social relations in every aspect of life; the economy, politics and the environment. There is a commitment to changing the way society is organized completely so that every person, in every sphere of life, feels that they have control, has a say, are empowered and get to participate in the decisions that affect everyday life.

There was a long period of preparation for this. This is interesting, because a lot of people think the Rojava revolution happened overnight, but it didn’t at all. This society did not all of a sudden pop up to say, “Oh here is an idea let’s try this.” Rather, it took many years, starting already under the repression of the Assad regime. They were reading about this and watching the model grow, little by little, across the border in the southeast of Turkey where the towns were starting to implement what we call this democratic confederalist philosophy.

Kurds were being elected as mayors in towns across southeastern Turkey, and these mayors were deliberately empowering people based on their reading of various ideological texts. I know they were reading the work of my father, Murray Bookchin, since a lot of it is in Turkish, and because Öcalan recommended it. This was a very carefully thought-out process that required deep commitment to education, study groups and underground discussions about what kind of society is really the most empowering for people in their everyday lives.

Emre: What I found was that although communal and anti-capitalist, economic organizing is at its infancy in Rojava, there are more than 200 co-operatives and thousands of different communes and collectives that operate across the region. Most common examples are village communes, women’s collectives and agricultural, livestock, generator, canned food, garment, bakery, furniture and car repair cooperatives.

The most remarkable aspect of Rojava’s communal economy is its ability to emerge under conditions of war and embargo. I never could have imagined that a decentralized, need-based and diverse network of co-operatives and communes could take root under such conditions where food sovereignty and even daily sustenance for millions of people is at risk.

One of the most significant features of life in Rojava is the direct and participatory forms of democracy. Were you able to observe or participate in any of the popular assemblies or other democratic forms of decision making in Rojava?

Debbie: At the core of the Rojava revolution is this idea of democratic confederalism which is based on the principle that all power flows from the bottom to the top — the complete opposite of the way things are done almost everywhere else the world, with the Zapatistas in Chiapas being an exception to that rule. The idea is that society is strongest and healthiest and people feel the best when they get the feeling that the decisions that affect their lives come from the community rather than from some elected representative who proports to know what is best for the community. That is a dramatic difference even from what we would call democratic socialism in the US. It means that instead of power flowing from the top it comes from the bottom, and that means that people becomes invested in their communities.

I saw people coming together in local assemblies, which start on the very local level — the basic unit is the neighborhood commune — and they talk about all sorts of things affecting them, ranging from things like the traffic to the needs related to electricity and internet accessibility — all things that happen on the local level, including economic development. They make decisions together, often by consensus, sometimes by voting and then they ask that their position on a particular position be represented on the next level by a delegate.

A delegate is very different from just electing somebody based on a political platform, as for example we have in the US. A delegate is accountable to the assembly or the group from which it was sent, and if they do not represent the ideas of the group then they can be recalled. This means that people really have a very direct say at every level. In each case the delegates are mandated by the community, or council in some cases, and this goes all the way up to a confederated group of delegates who meet to decide policy for an entire region. All those policies are reflected upon by the smaller councils and communes, and even though people don’t always get exactly what they want, at least they all have a say and there is discussion and debate.

People meet together as neighbors and they know each other face to face. This has had an incredible impact in terms of re-harmonizing relationships among different ethnicities that were really encouraged to be at war with each other under the Assad regime. One of the ways that they kept people down was by sowing ethnic discord. This is one of the most tragic aspects of the assassination of Hevrin Khalaf [co-chair of the Future Syria Party] by Turkey’s proxy forces: she was most involved with trying to continue to build that sense of unity among different ethnicities. This was a crucial part of what I saw in Rojava, and this was really inspiring. To me it serves as a model for what we should be doing everywhere, which is empowering people at the local level.

I got to go to quite a few assemblies, which was quite a remarkable experience. For example in the town of Derik, which is a fairly large community, I witnessed an assembly in which people were talking about what to do about the local health situation, in particular about diabetes. I listened to a report by the Health Committee for Derik on how they are going to educate the community on the issue, and how they are going to go door to door and talk to people about it. They were coordinating with the local hospital to refer people and help them get training in how to manage this.

What struck me about this was this sense of empowerment people have, this sense that they are able to make a difference in their own lives and in those of their neighbors. The community comes up with a plan collectively on how to reach out to people, how to inform the community, how to work with other committees, etc. All of these needs are dealt with and it is really empowering and exciting to see the way that people feel they can engage with each other and the common problems that they face in their communities.

Emre: I witnessed assemblies in both rural villages and city neighborhoods. There are thousands of village communes across Rojava, and the members of these communes meet regularly to make collective decisions on the day-to-day running of their environments. For example, I visited the village of Carudi, near the town of Derik in northeastern Syria in early August, 2019, and participated in a village commune meeting there.

The meeting took place in a garden called “Şehid Kani” (“Martyr Kani”), a garden collectively owned and maintained by the entire village. Households take turns taking care of the garden and growing vegetables there, and the proceeds from the sales of these vegetables are used for the construction of a small arts and culture center for the young members of the village.

At the time I visited the assembly, the construction of the art center was on hold since not enough income had been generated by the farms. Villagers were discussing how they could increase their collective income in order to resume construction and several proposals were made, such as growing different produce and expanding the garden to increase its profitability. Then the discussion was put on hold to talk about a potential threat from Turkey and self-defense, and then the discussion went back to the art center.

In each instance consensus was sought. Throughout their discussions and organizing, members of the Carudi commune reflected they were realizing their desire for meaningful democracy. When Turkish soldiers shelled the village of Carudi and the surrounding area recently, they were not only targeting the self-defense forces of the village there but also the practice of a radical and horizontal model of democracy that inspires the progressive forces of the region.

Each assembly is different, and the biggest difference you can see is from the rural to the urban, as in the more urban settings the assemblies tend to have more secular participants, whereas the rural assemblies have more religious overtones. Sometimes you see men and women sitting on different sides of the room in a rural area, as in Carudi. The assembly took place in a garden, with men and women sitting together in a circle, but men sat in one part of the circle and women in the other. In the cities it is generally not like that, and neither at the higher levels. Of course there were always a male and female co-chair sitting together.

In a neighborhood meeting I went to in Qamishli, there were a number of different discussions taking place. One such discussion was about electricity. While there had been some challenges in the past, electricity had since become more reliable. As a result, some people were suggesting that the generator co-operative they had established some years ago might no longer be necessary. They argued how the cooperative takes time and a little money from each person each month, and with more stable electricity it was not really needed anymore. Then others argued that while things were more stable right now, they might still need it in the future.

What is interesting here is that there is no uniform way of making decisions or resolving disagreement or conflict. There is no uniform agreement that consensus will be sought in all areas, or if majority decision making will take place. Rather, it is decided in each place, on the ground, from specific instance to specific instance. Most decisions are not that controversial, so consensus does work in most cases, such as in the Qamishli neighborhood community, where people put forward that there was still a real risk of a Turkish invasion, so they decided to keep up with the generator co-operative. In some cases the issues are more controversial and then people decide if they want to go to majority vote, or put off the decision until there is more discussion and consensus can be reached. It is like that walk that the Zapatistas maintain, there is no blueprint, and you figure things out as you go along.

And when decisions are made and consensus reached, there is a sort of mini celebration. You can feel that people feel that they are exercising something they didn’t use to have, this is something that is a part of the revolution, so people sing out, “Long Live Our Revolution,” and “Women, Life, Freedom” and so on.

What about leadership?

Emre: Of course there are some people who are more notable than others, or whose voices carry more weight than others. There were people with more experience that took up more time and space than others in the meetings I attended, but you could also see that people did not operate along hierarchical lines. So for example a 20-year-old, who in another context or place might be dismissed because of their age, would go up and make interventions in the meetings. Women and men, young and old, people speak with a confidence and awareness that they are a part of the decision making, not just speaking to be heard, but consciously contributing to a decision making process.

One hears so much about the revolutionary role of women in Rojava. What were some of your observations?

Emre: One of the biggest strides of the revolution in Rojava is the overarching gender aspect to every part of life and social relations. Women actively participate in mixed-gender political, economic, military and civil society organizations while simultaneously operating their women-only versions of every such organization. For example, there are Aborî Giştî (“General Economy”) offices in every town and these offices function as self-government branches responsible for economic coordination at the local level. All of these offices have two co-presidents, one woman and one man, and men and women make up at least 40 percent each of their overall membership. There are also Aborî Jin (“Women’s Economy”) offices in every town and they have the same function but are composed of only women and coordinate among women’s co-operatives and collectives.

These two organizations operate similarly and in coordination with each other, yet there is a crucial structural distinction between them. The women branches have veto power over the decisions of the general branches, but not vice versa. This principle applies to other fields such as political and social organizing. Women and their organizations function, not as vanguard parties shaping society in a top-down fashion, but as protectors and leaders of the revolution in Rojava. This vanguard role can be observed even in the way women walk, talk, and organize in everyday life.

In late June, 2019, I visited a small convenience store owned and operated by a women’s co-operative in Rimelan. The three women I met and interviewed there carried themselves with self-confidence and determination, like most women living in Rojava. As my interviewees put it elegantly, their decision to name their shop “Nudem” (“New Time”) in a town where commerce is dominated by men, reflects the revolutionary changes in gender dynamics that are taking place in the region.

In Rojava there are still many women who wear headscarves, though it is also the place where you will see fewer head scarves than most anywhere in the region. More than headscarves, though, was how women held themselves, how they walked. Walking with confidence, not waiting for men to speak first on a given issue in an assembly. For example, in many places in Turkey, because of a conservative, patriarchal history, politics and mentality, women will almost never sit next to a man in a public bus if there are any other seats available. But in Rojava, when I would sit in a public bus, I would see women of all ages come and sit next to me without fear or hesitation because they do not think they have to sit somewhere else to protect themselves from me.

This was one way where I could see that women were not only reclaiming their agency as women, but it was also visible and critical in their everyday practices as well.

Debbie: I was in Rojava in early 2019, when the revolution had already been underway for six years, so I got to see a generation of women who have come of age in that revolution. I spent one evening talking to two women and one of their daughters who was about 16 years old — meaning she was only 10 years old when all of this began. The excitement with which she expressed what it means to live in a new society, where women are true equals to men, was deeply moving to me. In response to my remark that the revolution was always under threat she replied, “We are never going back, this is here to stay, we are never going back.” She then added that she, her sisters and her peers at school know what it is like to live in a liberated society.

It is not a perfect project but at the meetings I attended, half the room was always filled with women. Official meetings were always co-chaired by one man and one woman, and not only that, but if for example the man was Kurdish, then his female co-chair would be of another ethnicity.

I spent a lot of time talking to a Christian woman in Kobane who said this is the first time they felt unafraid, that they felt they were truly part of the governing structure of the city. And even though Kurds are the majority of the city, she said that as Christians it was the first time they feel free to worship and participate in the public sphere.

The women’s movement is really strong. I expected to see it somehow theoretically, and even though I knew that by the Rojava Charter there has to be a 40 percent gender parity within any political body, but I didn’t quite expect to see how powerful the women’s movement was until I got there.

I have this beautiful photograph of the three women that I was just speaking about and the eye contact is so direct and they are so serious and thoughtful and you can see it in their eyes. These women say, “We are going to chart our own futures, and there is simply no other way before us but full and complete liberation of women.” I was very moved by that. These women invited me into their home and they stayed up until one o’clock in the morning talking to me about this. I think we talked for five hours about society, Rojava and what it meant to them. There was this sense of cross-generational unity between them. The mother of the girl that I spoke to was so proud of the role she played in raising a daughter who was going to be living in a liberated society.