Politically active and writing till the very end of her life at the age of 80, Meredith Tax passed away on Sunday, 25th September 2022, having suffered from breast cancer for some time.
Meredith was a passionate supporter of the Rojava revolution and it is in that role that I came to know her best. She co-founded the North America Rojava Alliance and later the Emergency Committee of Rojava, often using her birthday fundraiser on Facebook to raise money for the cause.
The only time I came across her in person was in the East End of London in 2013 at the launch of ‘Double Bind: The Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left, and Universal Human Rights‘, a book that very clearly articulated the feminist secular line that activist of Women Against Fundamentalism and Southall Black Sisters had been trying to hold, in what had become an increasingly lonely political space. When we campaigned against Hindutva, we were supported by the anti-racist Left but they deserted us in droves when we brought the same analysis to bear on political Islam.
There have been many crunch points in the last 40 years which have clarified this alignment of forces; the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989; the destruction of Babri Masjid in India in 1992; the controversy over Amnesty International’s support for Cageprisoners (now known as Cage) which led to the high profile resignation of Gita Sahgal in 2010, then head of the Gender Unit at Amnesty International, among others.
The Cageprisoners controversy forms a substantial chunk of Double Bind, an analysis of which allowed Tax to pose the question which runs through the book and lay at the heart of Gita Sahgal’s much maligned stance against Amnesty, which is, ‘but what happens when people who are mistreated by the state violate the rights of women? Can one fight their violations while at the same defending their rights against state power?’
Tax challenged five tropes on the Left about the Muslim right; ‘that it is anti-imperialist, that the “defence of Muslim lands” is comparable to national liberation struggles; that the problem is “Islamophobia”; that terrorism is justified by revolutionary necessity; and that any feminist who criticises the Muslim right is an Orientalist ally of US imperialism.’
It was presumably Tax’s lifelong commitment to the importance of secular spaces for feminists and other progressives, much under siege the world over, which partly drew her to the Kurdish struggle for self-determination and the women’s revolution in Rojava.
It was during the siege of Kobani (started in September 2014) when Tax saw ‘pictures of smiling rifle-toting girls in uniform defending the city’ against ISIS that her curiosity was piqued. What she discovered left her stunned. She wrote to her friends on New Year’s Day 2015 to tell them about Rojava, “At the end of such a dark and difficult year, one searches for light. It can sometimes be found in unexpected places.”
The result of her interest was her well-researched book, ‘A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State‘, published in 2016, one of the earliest books in English on Rojava. I remember reading it after having spent two weeks in Rojava in 2016 and having interviewed dozens of Kongra Star activists, on the long road journey back to Irbil to catch my flight to London. I was both impressed and horrified that there were still major gaps in my knowledge that Tax’s book was able to plug even though it had been written at her desk in New York.
With Tax’s long history of activism, she had been witness to many false dawns of women’s liberation. Naturally she approached this feminist revolution with the same degree of hope and scepticism that I share: the question that simmers under this book is, ‘So what makes the Kurdish women’s movement different?’ A particularly pertinent question as it evolved out of PKK, (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) which began as a classic Marxist-Leninist party paying lip service to the equality of women.
In her preface, Tax says that the book revolves on two axes, ‘One axis is the collision of three visions of social organisation, all reflections of larger global paradigms but particularly intense in Kurdistan: the Islamism of Daesh, the “capitalist modernity” (Öcalan’s phrase) of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, and the new kind of leftwing, non-state, democratic formation developing in the liberated cantons of Syria. The other axis is the role of women in these paradigms.’
In my book review for Feminist Dissent, I wrote, ‘With all the doubts that Tax expresses about Rojava, for example the difficulties of assessing the strength of its democracy during war time, she concludes with a resounding affirmation that, “It is already clear that, even under wartime conditions, Rojava may well be the best place in the Middle East to be a woman.”’
I knew very little about the full extent of Meredith Tax’s long and rich history of activism. I discovered the following from a tribute written by her fellow activists in the Emergency Committee for Rojava: “Her 1970 essay ‘Woman and Her Mind: The Story of Everyday Life’ is considered a founding document of the US women’s liberation movement; while her 1980 history book ‘The Rising of the Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880-1917’ has remained a landmark study of American labour and women’s movement and was republished earlier this year by Verso Books. An acknowledged novelist, she also wrote two historical novels, ‘Rivington Street’ and ‘Union Square’, telling the stories of indomitable women who, like herself, wanted to change the world amidst the tumultuous events of the early twentieth century.”
We had many email exchanges on a variety of issues ranging from the controversy surrounding allegations of anti-Semitism in Öcalan’s writings to Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan. As with all great minds that pass away, we are left with regret for all the debates that we did not have, all ‘the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves’ that we did not disturb.
Rahila Gupta is a writer and freelance journalist for The Guardian and New Humanist, and as member of the Management Committee of Southall Black Sisters a leading feminist activist. Follow her on Twitter.