Those of us on the progressive left, who have seen our hopes for another world dashed so often, approach new movements for change, with caution, alert to anything which might represent a downward trajectory – not wishing to be held hostage for our idealism by the naysayers.
Most activists understand that pragmatism is required to temper principles sometimes. It is always a judgment call. The question is how far do you stretch your principles? For how long and at what point does the original goal disappear from view? In Rojava, it appears that temporarily, at least, democracy and the search for peace between the diverse communities has trumped gender rights. The commitment to gender equality has been watered down in order to welcome the new Arab constituents of AANES who now form a majority of the population in the territories liberated from ISIS.
When officials tried to enforce the polygamy ban in Manbij, an Arab majority city liberated in 2016, anger from tribal leaders led to the granting of an exception here. Of course, the situation on the ground is dire. Manbij is of interest to Turkey, the Syrian regime and Russia. Turkey has declared that Manbij will be next on its hit list and Assad is doing his best to turn the Arab populations there against AANES. The pressure to placate the Arab population in Manbij is palpable. In the aftermath of protests in June, apparently orchestrated by the two large Arab tribes which are sympathetic to Assad, tribal leaders put forward 17 demands to the civil administration of Manbij, many of which were about economic issues, such as high prices, and conscription of young men. Interestingly, demand no 17 was, ‘Repeal all laws that conflict with Islamic law, such as the penalty for polygamy and inheritance.’
Rojava Information Centre (RIC), which has published a background note on Manbij, points out that polygamy is already legal in the Arab areas except for those working for the AANES or their armed forces. To counter claims from the tribal sheikhs that AANES has authoritarian intentions, RIC comments that ‘the current legal status of polygamy in Manbij is a testament to the AANES’ democratic attempts to marry traditional local practices with their vision of women’s liberation.’
Herein lies the nub of the problem.
There are similar reports from the other Arab majority areas of Deir Ezzor, Raqqa and Tabqa. In their report, Beyond Rojava: The Arab Regions Of North And East Syria, the RIC says, ‘The true test of the AANES’ utopian vision would be in these conservative, under-developed, war-scarred communities, where those already suspicious of the AANES are subjected to pressure and coercion by the GoS [Government of Syria], ISIS, Iran, Turkey, and other actors.’ ISIS sleeper cells have killed many of the Arab tribal leaders who have co-operated with AANES which gives us some idea of the difficulties faced by Rojava in getting Arab communities on side with their programme.
In these areas, the Mala Jin or House of Women is dubbed ‘House of Divorce’ or ‘House of Destruction’ by locals who are resentful of initiatives tackling domestic violence and sexual equality. The key to changing attitudes is raising awareness of the commitment of the revolution to gender equality. The educational system and curriculum are central to this project. But they have faced major pushback in the Arab areas and have been unable to introduce the AANES curriculum.
Instead of imposing Arabic on all children and banning the teaching of minority languages such as Kurdish as was the case under Assad, AANES offers education in the home languages of the children be it Arabic, Kurdish or Assyrian and the opportunity to study second languages as they progress through school. The curriculum includes jineoloji, which promotes women’s rights, and their specific take on history and natural sciences. However, there were protests in the Deir Ezzor region in 2020 against a secular, multicultural curriculum which went against their faith and customs and would ‘poison’ society.
Given Rojava’s commitment to democratic rights, it paid heed to the protests, withdrew the implementation of its curriculum and introduced an emergency UNICEF package which covers basic subjects likes maths, science, Arabic and English until the locals can get together and devise a curriculum which speaks to their values and needs. AANES administration officials are playing the long game to win over hearts and minds.
Women’s councils, the conduit for promoting awareness of women’s rights, have been proliferating in the Arab areas. According to the spokesperson of the Tabqa Women’s council, their ‘education committee has led campaigns against social problems in the region, such as child marriage, polygamy, moral corruption, drug abuse, and misuse of the Internet.” The content of the education seminars is determined by discussions with local women during home visits. Despite this, they are unable to implement the ban on child marriage. The women’s movement has attempted to deal with this issue, and that of domestic violence, through alternative means like the Reconciliation Committee of the Women’s councils. They have been able to help 13-14 years old girls who have been passed from man to man in multiple marriages and provided a refuge for battered women.
Recruitment of women escaping domestic abuse into the YPJ (Women’s Defence Forces) a welcoming, women-only space, and the gradual development of women’s agricultural co-operatives to give them economic independence are also beginning to change circumstances on the ground.
It is no surprise that Nadine Maenza, Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), who visited AANES in November 2019, was ‘stunned’ by the extent of religious freedom. She said that it, ‘was interesting for me to see churches with steeples to understand that there really was this religious freedom that we weren’t seeing in areas neighbouring North East Syria… It struck me in a different way than most places I had ever visited.’ In order to protect religious freedoms in the Middle East, Maenza has called for AANES to be recognised by the international community.
What is hopeful from the point of view of the revolution is that the longer an area has been liberated from ISIS, the more reconstruction has taken place and stability maintained, the more accepting the local populations are of the ideals of the revolution. The direction of travel is towards another world.