Eyewitness to northern Syria’s feminist, democratic revolution

Fighters from the Kurdish-led Women's Protection Units (YPJ), based in northern Syria, in Raqqa after its liberation from ISIS.

Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink has just spent a year with Kurdish forces in northern Syria observing the democratic and feminist revolution unfolding in the region. During her recent visit to Australia, she spoke to Green Left Radio about her experience. Below is an edited and abridged transcript of the interview.


Can you tell us about the kind of work you have done as a journalist, especially around the Kurdish issue? 

I started my work in Istanbul [Turkey] as a foreign correspondent in 2006. In 2012, I move to Diyarbakir, the biggest town in the southeast of Turkey, where the population is majority Kurdish.

I’ve always written about politics and human rights. The Kurdish issue is the most pressing issue in Turkey when it comes to politics and human rights.

Then in September 2015, I was detained and expelled from Turkey.

The deeper I got into the Kurdish issue, the more I looked over the borders of Turkey to other Kurdish areas in Iran, Iraq and Syria.

I started travelling to Iraqi Kurdistan and Syrian Kurdistan. I met the movement in the north of Syria that is trying to set up a different administration.

What was your experience like in northern Syria?

Syria has been in the news because of this terrible civil war. What many people don’t realise is that in the north of the country, it has been relatively calm and safe. In 2012, the government troops of President Bashar al-Assad withdrew from the area because they needed to focus on other fronts in the country.

The Kurds in Turkey, where I was at the time, had already been working for a few decades — since the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK] started at the end of the 1970s. They had been working on building a local democratic system of bottom-up democracy based on local councils, even down to the neighbourhood level that have real decision-making power.

They tried to respect different cultures and also gave a lot of importance to women’s emancipation. So women’s participation is very high.

So when Assad’s troops left northern Syria, where the Kurds live mostly, they thought: “Hey, we have this system that we tried to build in Turkey, but now here we actually have the chance to put it into practice.”

They started building these local councils and encouraged women, and Armenians and Arabs and everyone in the region to participate.

It didn’t really get a lot of attention in the press because at the same time the Syrian civil war was raging — it still is — and the Kurds were trying to keep ISIS out of the area. ISIS were constantly trying to take over places, such as the battle for Kobane at the end of 2014, which became a symbol of the Kurdish resistance in northern Syria.

But at the same time, they were building this local democracy. It’s a pity there has not been much attention on it.

What role has Turkey played in this?

One of the foundations of the state of Turkey is its unity. Of course, every country has its borders, but in Turkey, it also means that everyone has to be the same, everyone has to be Turkish.

But the Kurds are not Turkish. They have a different culture and language, but this has been suppressed fiercely.

It’s not as bad as it was before the ’80s, when the Kurds existence was not even recognised. But still they are not free.

For Turkey, this has to do with the foundations of its state. If you give the Kurds more rights on the basis of their identity, they are afraid that Turkey will fall apart.

The Kurds in Syria have the same ideology as those in Turkey: they say they do not necessarily want their own state, like the Kurds in Iraq, but want autonomy at a local, regional level.

But this is too much for Turkey, which is a very centralised state. With [Turkish President] Erdogan taking more power for the president via a referendum this year, it’s only getting more centralised. And Syria has been like that with the Assad family dictatorship.

The Kurds in Syria are right on the Turkish border and parts of this border region are in Kurdish hands. This scares Turkey. People say it seems as though Turkey sees the Kurds as a bigger threat than ISIS.

But the Kurdish groups in Syria are a threat to Turkey in that they are trying to change the system, which is something that scares the hell out of Turkey.

Could you comment on how a strong feminist current has developed within the Kurdish movement?

In the beginning, the Kurdish movement was not that progressive on women issues, but in the ’90s their ideology started to change. They think that to solve the problems in Turkey and the Middle East, there needs to be more focus not just on women's participation but on making a feminist society.

They say the whole idea of a nation-state is a very masculine idea, of hierarchy, as opposed to a system of bottom-up democracy that gives importance to the community and not to one-man rule.

The idea is to rule yourself and to give importance to the strength of the community. They say that if we want to realise this, it means we have to give way to women and feminine values.

It is sometimes hard for feminists in the West to understand, because they don’t see it that way. In the West, feminism is more focused on participation, on positions in the state, on increasing participation in politics and getting more women on the boards of big companies.

But they say no, these are masculine values we need to get away from. It’s also an anti-capitalist movement.

They say if we don’t make women the forefront of these changes, it can never succeed. Women have to be at the front in society and on the battlefield.

What do you think is the future of northern Syria?

It looks now like Assad is going to win the Syrian civil war. Assad is a dictator, so he will want the whole of the country back.

Assad’s army may attack northern Syria. I don’t think the Kurds can count on the international community to defend them. The international community has supported the Kurds in the fight against ISIS, and if ISIS is gone, there is no reason for them to support this system that is against the nation-state and is in opposition to the ideology of US capitalism.

Then we may see how strong the Kurdish forces are against an official army. In northern Syria, they are the most important military force, but we will have to see if they are really capable of defending their territory.

It’s hard to say now how strong the Syrian Army is, but they do get Russian support. The Russians and the Kurds have historically reasonably good ties, so it also remains to be seen if Assad wants the Kurdish territories back, how Russia will react.

The Kurds are trying to get as much experience as possible with this local democracy system, but if it will hold in the long term is an important question.

Can you paint us a picture of how a reunification of Kurdistan may occur, because Kurds are pushing up against these repressive regimes in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Is the reunification of Kurdistan even a strategic goal for activists on the ground?

It is a goal for the Iraqi Kurds, who have a different system to the ones in Syria and Turkey. It’s also a goal for the PYD, which is the political group that holds power in Syria. But the PYD sees it in a different way.

The Iraqi Kurds are more state-centred, they want to state. On the other hand,  the PKK and PYD say with bottom-up democracy you make the borders irrelevant, and it makes it easy to travel again across the several areas of Kurdistan. In that way you reunite them in a different way.

Of course, this doesn't look realistic now. There is a lot of hostility against the Kurds, it has always been like that. The Kurds have this saying: “We have no friends but the mountains.”

They have friends as long as there is a common goal, like fighting ISIS. Then the US wants to be friends, but later they will be deserted again.

They say maybe we will have a free Kurdistan in two or three generations time. That is not usually the perspective that we have.

The fighters especially say we can die in battle tomorrow but it’s not about our lifetime, we have to invest in long-term changes.

So that is why they focus so much on education, not just for the fighters but for the community. It is so the communities learn about the system and can pass it on to their children.