July 19th marks the ninth anniversary of the women’s revolution in Rojava, what has now become the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). We mark it with wonder, trepidation and a degree of incredulousness that it is still going strong when all the regional and global powers are dead set against all its ideological principles.
We have seen the areas under its control expand and contract with bated breath. From a narrow strip along the northern border of Syria, it fanned out in its victories against ISIS in a triangular sweep down to the southernmost town of Baghuz. And then chunks of it were taken by Turkey’s invasions in 2018, when it occupied the entire canton of Afrin to the west of Rojava and again in 2019 when it gained control of two key towns, Gire Spi and Serekaniya on the border. Within the amoeba-like shape shifting area of AANES are a people who are fighting off external threats while at the same time fighting deeply patriarchal structures and mentality especially in the newly liberated areas with Arab majorities.
Even in the midst of these existential threats, the Rojava women’s revolution manages to look outwards. The website of Kongra Star, the umbrella women’s organisation, carries a message of solidarity with their sisters in Afghanistan who have been left to the mercy of the Taliban in the wake of the American withdrawal – a spirit of internationalism sorely lacking in western feminism. It is the same spirit that guided Öcalan’s eclectic readings (over 1200 books sent by his lawyers between 1999 and 2010) in prison which included books by feminist theorists like Judith Butler and Maria Mies – a wonderful example of cross fertilisation of ideas in which western feminists can take some indirect credit for the Rojava project.
In his pamphlet, Liberating Life, Öcalan argues that the enslavement of women was the start of all other enslavements, ‘no race, class or nation is subjected to such systematic slavery as housewifisation.’ Therefore the liberation of women was a precondition for achieving the freedom of all of society including liberating men from their patriarchal mindsets. Patriarchy, which pre-dates capitalism but serves it well, is the monster that must be slain. What sets this apart from other revolutions is that women have been identified as the vanguard by Abdullah Öcalan.
This ideological position is unprecedented. Especially from a male freedom fighter whose political life began with a demand for an independent homeland of Kurdistan which was subsequently modified by his declaration that, “To me, women’s freedom is more precious than the freedom of the homeland.”
Kurdish women had been putting these ideas into practice in Northern Kurdistan (SE Turkey), in the Kurdish diaspora in Europe and in NE Syria, since the early noughties, so when the civil resistance to Assad’s rule took off in 2011, Rojava’s nascent structures were already in place to take advantage of the vacuum of power by 2012.
Readers of Medya News may be familiar with its history and democratic structures but these are well worth rehearsing for mainstream readers. Ignorance of this revolution is widespread and shocking. The lack of coverage in mainstream media is so glaring as to invite the conclusion that it is a conspiracy of silence because the ideas underlying it are dangerous to the status quo.
It is hard for Rojava to become a role model for women in the Middle-East or in the West if people do not even know of its existence. Since my visit to Rojava in 2016, I have made a conscious effort to spread the word by writing and speaking about it to groups and conferences in UK and Europe. At a conference organised by the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain in 2017 where, of the 200 or so delegates, a substantial number hailed from the Middle-East, only a few hands went up when I asked who had heard of Rojava. I continue to do this straw poll every time I speak and I am gratified by the increasing numbers of hands that go up each time.
The first time that people hear about Rojava, their jaws fall open in disbelief. One woman said that a chill of excitement went down her spine when she heard me describe the place. It counters every prejudice that people hold about the Middle-East as being a relentlessly difficult place for women. In her book, A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State, Meredith Tax declares it is the best place in the Middle East to be a woman.
Rojava’s rejection of religion in the public sphere, its abolition of sharia councils (which flourish in Britain) and its clear headed understanding of the devastating impact of religion on women’s rights is refreshing when many on the Left have stopped challenging Islamism here. Nor is the emphasis on secularism as widespread among feminists here as it should be.
A co-presidentship rule ensures that women share every position in the self-administration equally with men. Democratic confederalism, a form of direct democracy, in which the will of the people is expressed through neighbourhood communes through the election of committees with equal representation of men and women who then elect representatives at every level all the way up to cantonal levels ensures that voices from the ground have real power. Additionally, a parallel women-only structure has the right of veto on any decisions considered to be detrimental to women. This also makes it unique. Whereas many feminists in the West fight simply for equality with men, this structure suggests that for women to be liberated, they need to go beyond equality.
While many feminists would share Öcalan’s analysis that feminism can never be totally successful in a capitalist system, that class and race equality in a secular democratic system is part of the struggle for women’s liberation, they are unable to put this into practice – precisely because they are living under capitalism. This probably explains the divisions faced by feminism in Western democracies where it is often derided as a white, middle-class affair which excludes working-class and minority women.
In Rojava, the focus has been on setting up cooperatives to drive forward economic development. Many of these are women’s co-ops, in keeping with their belief that patriarchy became entrenched by depriving women of economic power. To weaken it, economic reins must be handed back to women.
Rojava has used the ninth anniversary to call for political recognition which may provide a modicum of protection from the depredations of Turkey. The solidarity that the women of Rojava seek from feminists around the world is not limited to fundraising, lobbying and awareness raising. Ideally, they would like to see us replicating their model.
Now there’s a challenge!
Rahila Gupta is a freelance journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and New Humanist among other papers and magazines. Her books include, Enslaved: The New British Slavery; From Homebreakers to Jailbreakers: Southall Black Sisters; Provoked; and ‘Don’t Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong (Playdead Press, 2013). She is co-authoring a book with Beatrix Campbell with the title Why Doesn’t Patriarchy Die? Follow her on Twitter.