Behind the frontlines in Syria, a self-governing Kurdish region is making a radical attempt at gender equality.
The brutal recapture of Aleppo by Syrian government forces and its allies at the end of 2016 does not bode well for another enclave of resistance: the predominantly Kurdish area in northern Syria. Here, in a long strip of land that runs almost continuously from east to west along the border with Turkey, a radical secular experiment with women in the driving seat has been under way since 2012.
Most journalists are, understandably, preoccupied with the death, destruction and refugee stories that have come to define Syria. But it means that many politically engaged people in Britain have never heard of Rojava, the name Kurds give to this part of their homeland, the whole of which is divided between Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran.
I was one of the last journalists to be allowed to cross the border from Iraqi Kurdistan in March 2016. The contrast between the two predominantly Kurdish areas in Syria and Iraq could not have been more stark. On the Syrian side, there was not a mall, billboard, skyscraper or motorway in sight – almost a rural idyll. The strangely treeless landscape was dotted with “nodding donkeys”; oil wells that explain partly why ISIS had attempted to establish its caliphate here and why Rojava will be bitterly fought over by all the regional powers. The entrance to and exit from every small town and village are guarded by checkpoints and there are concrete barriers in front of all official buildings, but there was none of the devastation that characterises the rest of Syria.
The volunteer defence forces of Rojava have fought ISIS so effectively that a US-led coalition is providing air cover and military expertise and are advancing on Raqqa as this goes to press. The women-only defence force, the YPJ, who fight alongside the mixed-sex YPG, gave Western audiences their first glimpse of this revolution via “sexy” pictures of Kurdish women in military fatigues and floral headscarves. They graced our television screens when releasing Yazidi women and children from the ISIS siege of Mount Sinjar in December 2014 and in liberating Kobani from its well-publicised siege by ISIS in January 2015. But we were given no clues as to the kind of society these women were building. It is possible to take the cynical view that women are being used, under the guise of equality, as fodder, simply because the war effort requires all hands to the pump. However, not only are women equally represented in the joint command and the military council which lead these forces but at every level as part of an explicit commitment to gender equality.
This self-governing region, with a multi-ethnic population of anything between 3.5 and five million people (accurate figures are not available due to the displacement caused by war), is experimenting with a bottom-up “stateless” structure, facilitated by the multi-party organisation Tev-Dem, the Movement for a Democratic Society, in which the PYD (Democratic Union Party), which has links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) of Turkey, plays a leading role. Neighbourhoods form communes and elect their representatives to the next level on the co-presidentship principle of one man and one woman sharing power. The same principle applies all the way up to city and national levels, including the running of co-operatives, schools, the army, the police force – in fact, any institution you care to name.
Kongreya Star, the women’s umbrella organisation, runs a women-only, autonomous structure parallel to Tev-Dem to ensure that a feminist perspective is brought to bear on all issues identified as important to the community. “The historic imbalance of power cannot simply be corrected by introducing quotas for women or the principle of co-presidentship,” says Delal Afrin, head of the Women’s Economic Unit. “The confidence that men and women bring to the job will be different unless the confidence of women is built up through the self-reliance, knowledge building and training they acquire in the setting up of co-operatives. A society that is able to organise an economy where women are given productive roles is the sign of a mature and reflective society.” Tilting the balance in favour of women settles the age-old argument about whether you need to go the extra mile to create a level playing field. You do.
There are committees to deal with health, education, economics, utilities and conflict resolution, which includes domestic violence. If they are unable to resolve the matter, the case is referred to the women-only asayiş, or police officers, who deal with issues of domestic and sexual violence. If the courts rule that the perpetrator must be imprisoned, he is taken away, given gender equality training and returned to the home only if the woman wants him back and he appears to have reformed. The situation is then monitored by the conflict resolution committee.
Kongreya Star was set up in 2012 and already they say they have succeeded in abolishing child marriage, forced marriage, FGM and polygamy. Honour killings, violence and discrimination against women have been criminalised. Steps have been taken to prevent any attempt to stop a woman marrying of her own free will. Women, regardless of their marital status, have been given the right to custody of their children until the age of 15. A woman’s testimony has been declared equal to a man’s. Women now have the right to equal inheritance. Marriage contracts will be issued in civil courts. Sharia courts, Assad’s favoured means of dealing with domestic disputes, have been disbanded in this part of Syria. Mona Abdsalam of SARA, an organisation based in the city of Qamişlo that supports women escaping domestic abuse, believes that the incidence of violence has halved since the passing of the laws.
The Rojava revolution owes much to the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, founder of the PKK, which has historically campaigned for an independent Kurdish nation-state in the region. In prison in Turkey since 1999, because of the ongoing conflict between his organisation and the Turkish state, he is denounced as a terrorist; indeed, the PKK is a proscribed organisation in many countries including the UK. His thinking evolved partly as a result of discussions with women in the party, particularly Sakine Cansiz, co-founder of the PKK, who was assassinated in Paris in 2013. In his pamphlet Liberating Life Öcalan argues that no society can be free until its women are free. He is perhaps the first such leader to put women at the centre of his revolution. He states that “no race, class or nation is subjected to such systematic slavery as housewife-isation” and believes that religion severely inhibits women’s equality.
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Öcalan had been mobilising the Kurds in Syria since 1980, until he was expelled in 1998. His presence was tolerated by Assad because it acted as a brake on Turkish ambitions in Syria. The PKK drew thousands of Syrian Kurds into its ranks in the 1980s and dominated Syrian Kurdish political parties. Many fought against Turkey on behalf of the PKK, which suited Syrian interests to such an extent that the Syrian state did not conscript Kurds into military service because serving in the PKK was recognised in practice as a substitute.
Those who have followed the history of the PKK, not least through its Stalinist phase when dissenters were assassinated, may be wary of accepting this new phase in Öcalan’s thinking. But his ideas have changed drastically in several ways: Öcalan has also dropped his demand for a separate state of Kurdistan. This is partly in recognition of the multiethnic nature of the region – where Arabs, Turkmen, Christians and Yazidis live side by side with Kurds – but also because he now sees the nation-state as inherently patriarchal and anti-democratic. Many Kurds who were attracted to the idea of a nation-state as a way of escaping the oppressions faced by their community in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran have been unable to sign up to these new ideas. While the PKK in southeast Turkey is struggling to implement Öcalan’s ideas amid a reopened conflict with government forces (as they are to a lesser degree in Iran), the Kurds in Iraq are running a de facto independent state on socially conservative, tribal lines within a capitalist economic framework.
Öcalan’s new focus on women’s rights is forward-looking, though not without its problems. His view is partly based on an idealised view of Neolithic society before the rise of the nation-state, especially in the Mesopotamian cradle, where Kurdish communities have historically been based. Meredith Tax describes this aspect of Öcalan’s thinking in biblical terms in her book A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State: “Now Kurdistan, the place of original sin, must become the place where this sin is reversed.” It implies some mythical state when all was well with the world and men and women were equal – Eden before the fall.
Similarly Öcalan’s edict to PKK cadres (many of them Syrian Kurds who returned home to fight in 2012) to forswear sex because “it is impossible to imagine another institution that enslaves like marriage” seems like a welcome critique of patriarchy – but it actually reinforces restrictions on women’s sexual freedoms. Amina Omar, the head of the women’s ministry, told me that the biggest demand for accommodation in their 12-bed refuge comes from single women who have become pregnant and are attempting to escape their family’s wrath. The one example of institutional inequality I found was that women, once married, were not allowed to join the YPJ, while married men were allowed to join the YPG, an inequality justified on the grounds of “our conservative society”. The widespread disapproval of sexual relations, whether couched in a progressive or conservative perspective, prevented any discussion of LGBT issues, which were dismissed as an “aberration” or as unimportant in a revolutionary context.
These internal contradictions, along with the shortages created by a war economy, are not the only threat to this fragile experiment. On the international front, so beleaguered is Rojava that even its friends are its enemies: Iraqi Kurdistan has closed its borders with Rojava and is building an actual trench to mark the separation. Their strings are being pulled by Turkey, with whom they have extensive trade links. The US is likely to turn on Rojava once ISIS has been vanquished; Rojava’s anti-capitalist project is a threat to the values that America holds dear. Turkey, on its northern border, is so afraid that the successful Syrian Kurdish experiment will spread to Turkey that it has closed the borders and has been sponsoring rival rebel groups to fight the Kurds.
Nor is Rojava getting the support you would expect from progressive forces interested in equality and human rights, which it desperately needs to break out of its isolation. The fact that it has received support from both imperial powers (Russia also provided air cover at one stage) has created suspicion among left-leaning people in the UK. The head of border control in Rojava, Mr Karawan, with whom I had a wide-ranging discussion on world politics while waiting for entry clearance, said they have to accept support from anyone who is prepared to provide it because their survival is paramount. The fact that Rojava has a clear line on religious extremism and is therefore prepared to fight the Islamist factions of the Syrian rebels antagonises some supporters of other anti-Assad rebel groups.
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There are more prominent criticisms, too. A Human Rights Watch report published in 2014, Under Kurdish Rule: Abuses in PYD-run Enclaves of Syria, investigated “arbitrary arrests, abuse in detention, due process violations, unsolved disappearances and killings, and the use of children in PYD security forces”. However, the report acknowledges that in comparison to the actions of the Syrian government and some Syrian rebels, “the human rights abuses committed by the PYD and its security forces are far less egregious and widespread”. Influential writers on Syria like Robin Yassin-Kassab (interviewed in the Autumn 2016 New Humanist) are also ambivalent. In an interview with the Socialist Worker, Yassin-Kassab said Rojava is a “disaster” because it is a Kurdish experiment being imposed on Arab areas but at the same time he praises the Rojava revolution. He describes the PYD as authoritarian while saying that it is “probably better than most political parties operating in the region”. In its defence, the Rojava administration will point out that when its forces liberated the town of Manbij from ISIS, self-governance was left to the predominantly Arab local population, who decided not to implement the co-presidentship rule. Gender equality was sacrificed in the name of democracy.
A 2015 report by Amnesty alleged that the YPG/YPJ had forcibly displaced people and razed Arab villages it had liberated from ISIS. In response, the YPG/YPJ said that residents were not allowed to return until the villages had been cleared of mines left by the retreating ISIS forces and pointed out that Amnesty’s interviews with Arab villagers had been facilitated by YPG/YPJ fighters themselves.
The central leadership of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom is also opposed to Rojava, although some local branches like the one in Brighton take a different line. This is baffling, as every objective they are campaigning for on behalf of Syrian women seems to have been met in Rojava. It may be that their support for peaceful solutions to conflict cannot accommodate armed struggle by the YPJ even if carried out in self-defence. At a recent meeting, Madeleine Rees, WILPF Secretary General, seemed to suggest that it was a matter of waiting it out because internal tensions in ISIS would lead to its implosion. Laila Alodaat of WILPF was also concerned that YPG/YPJ recruited children. A documentary on the YPJ, Her War, shot in 2015, did feature interviews with girls aged 16. The recruitment of children cannot be justified but for context, a UN report in 2015 found 24 children were recruited by YPG/YPJ as opposed to 142 by the Free Syrian Army, a major rebel coalition elsewhere in Syria. (A YPJ representative, Deniz Sipan, stated recently that the recruitment age is now 18.) I quote these figures not to condone YPG/YPJ practices but simply to maintain a sense of proportion.
Yet the Rojava experiment gives us much to learn from. Other rebel-held areas of Syria have tried to enact self-governance and direct democracy, yet Rojava, which has achieved 40-50 per cent representation of women – while some councils in rebel-held areas outside Rojava have only achieved 2 per cent representation despite huge amounts of human rights work by women on the ground – stands out on grounds of gender equality alone. The rejection of religious fundamentalism partly explains why; and this fact should inform the deliberations of other similar movements and their supporters around the world.
We need to be alert to evidence of crackdowns on free speech and human rights which may, like woodworm, rot the goals of the revolution from the inside. But for the moment we need to demonstrate critical solidarity with a daring initiative to build an alternative future. If Rojava succeeds, against the odds, it will strengthen the resolve of all those around the world who put people and the planet ahead of profit. Even if it fails, it is a reminder that the human impulse to justice and equality cannot be crushed indefinitely.
This article was first published on the New Humanist website