Everywhere in North and East Syria, women have shown their strength and capacity — in every role, from our highest government offices to farmers and members of economic cooperatives. Our co-leadership model provides an example of how women can recover from generations of oppression, claim our power, and become leaders and actors in our world. This model is in danger of being destroyed — by the Turkish occupation, by the Assad government, or by the Turkish-backed Syrian militias.
Our feminism project, which is fundamental to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, was the subject of an important online panel discussion entitled, “Are We Losing a Valuable Feminist Project in the Middle East,” hosted by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), which is funded by the European Union. Speakers included: myself; Ambassador Peter Galbraith; Dr. Amy Austin Holmes, Harvard University, American University in Cairo, and the Wilson Center; Dr. Anne Speckhard, Director of ICSVE; and Meghan Bodette, independent researcher and founder of the Missing Afrin Women Project.
During the panel, Dr. Austin Holmes presented data that shows that peace talks are 60 percent more likely to be successful when women are involved in the peace talks. She called for the inclusion of the administration of North and East Syria in the UN peace talks on the future of Syria. She presented her research showing that there have been over 800 violations of the Turkish ceasefire agreement signed with the United States in October 2019.
Dr. Austin Holmes also drew from her original survey and research on the demographics of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which were published by the Wilson Center in a report entitled, “SDF’s Arab Majority Rank Turkey as the Biggest Threat to NE Syria.” In her survey, Dr. Austin Holmes documented that the SDF is now majority Arab.
Turkish-occupied Afrin provides a dismal example of how our feminist project could be undermined. In the Afrin that existed before the Turkish invasion in January 2018, women were a powerful part of public life. The co-leadership model of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which requires that each position of power be held by two people of different genders, brought more women into public office than ever before. Not only did women hold public office, but they were business owners, property owners, writers, academics, thought leaders, soldiers, culture workers, and influential personalities.
Today in Afrin, women are kidnapped, ransomed, imprisoned, raped. The women who are still there have been pushed back into solely domestic roles. They are afraid to leave their homes due to continued harassment by the Turkish-backed militias. More information on these violations is available through the Missing Afrin Women Project, led by Meghan Bodette.
Afrin was targeted by Turkey because of our power, and because of our feminism. The patriarchal and oppressive Turkish government doesn’t want women to thrive as we were before their invasion. They don’t want our successful model to endure as an example of how a truly democratic and truly feminist system can work.
Our model has shown the remarkable and game-changing impact of the radical inclusion of women.
In most of the countries with high rankings for women’s representation, this representation has largely been achieved through policies of providing opportunities and eliminating restrictions, then waiting for women to rise up through the ranks.
In North and East Syria, our co-leadership model of requiring one woman and one man in each position of power acknowledges that women in our region need justice after years of oppression. When women are systemically oppressed, when girls are pulled out of school earlier than boys, achieving lower literacy rates, when their voices are silenced or missing, when girls see no women as leaders to be their role models, this can become a vicious cycle that can take many generations to recover from.
Sometimes, simply providing opportunities isn’t enough. Intentionally pulling women into every single government process, providing a requirement that women be involved — this allows individual women, one by one, to find the power within themselves, and become truly great leaders.
Our government includes many women across North and East Syria who may never have sought political office, if not for our co-leadership model. They may never have thought they could become the decision-makers — until it became a requirement, and a necessity of the times.
In astonishing numbers, women have risen to the challenge. They have become some of the most advanced and sophisticated leaders and decision-makers that the region has seen. The radical inclusion of our co-leadership model is the step that the women of our region needed to claim their power in these times.
Our model brings women’s minds and judgment, women’s experience and power and empathy, women’s new thinking and new problem-solving into our political process.
This model was born of a women’s movement that was many years in the making. As discussed by Ms. Bodette during the panel discussion, decades before the Syrian uprising of 2011, there were women in Syria bravely calling for equality under heavy persecution. Women’s organizations met first in secret, under penalty of death or imprisonment, in order to discuss women’s liberation. I was part of that movement, and marched in the streets for women’s rights even as the police tried to beat us and arrest us.
With our governance model now under threat, the future of our women’s movement remains uncertain. However, it will be difficult for anyone to stop a movement with our long history. After all, you may kill a person, but you cannot kill an idea whose time has come.
The administration of North and East Syria has called many times on the international community to support our project for true democracy and true feminism. We are under threat from the Turkish occupation, the Assad government, and the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces and militias. Even ISIS could be a threat if they rise again out of their sleeper cells.
We have said many times that we believe the best solution is through dialogue. We remain open to discussing with any state or group acting in good faith, including Russia or the Assad regime. We are calling for our region to remain self-directed and for our local administration to continue. We are calling for compassionate development assistance, for rebuilding, and for peace and stability in our region. We are calling for inclusion in talks on the future of Syria. We are calling for an end to Turkish occupation and aggression.
It remains to be seen whether the international community will do the right thing and stop Turkey’s aggression against us. The future of feminism in the Middle East is under threat from many sides. But no matter what happens to our model, we will endure as an inspiration and an example of what happens when women claim their power.