Interview: Rojava sets democractic, revolutionary example

August 21, 2016
A commune meeting in Amude, in Rojava's Cizîrê canton, last November.

Hawzhin Azeez is member of Kobane Reconstruction Board in the largely Kurdish area of northern Syria and a former politics lecturer at Newcastle university.

In Rojava, a profoundly democratic and revolutionary experiment is underway. A multi-ethnic, feminist and socialist-oriented society is being built from the ground up, organised around communes and other bodies of participatory democracy.

The experiment began with an insurrection in 2012 that freed the area from the Assad regime and established a “liberated zone”. Rojava's revolutionary forces have also fought off the genocidal terror gangs of ISIS to survive as a democratic model and inspiration for the war-torn region.

Jacob Andrewartha and Zane Alcorn, from 3CR's Green Left Radio show, spoke to Azeez on August 12 about the revolution's gains and how to support Rojava's reconstruction. An edited and abridged transcript is below.


Can you give us the background on what's happening in Rojava and the Kurdish revolution?

In northern Syria, which is a strip of Kurdistan we call Rojava, we were attacked by ISIS — who we call Daesh — and so the Kurdish people were forced to defend themselves against these invading forces.

As a result, we created the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) and the Women's Protection Units (YPJ). We also had to discuss a lot of things about how to coexist with one another, because northern Syria is actually really multicultural. We have so many different ethnic and religious groups.

So in this process, we've been trying to build a radical democracy, a democracy based on three major ideas. The first is that we want to be multicultural and democratic. Secondly, we want to have a gender liberated society where men and women are equal — a very radical idea for the Middle East. Thirdly, we want an ecologically sound society.

So what we've been trying to do since the 2011 uprising [across Syria against the Assad regime] and the civil war is try to engage in this democratisation process in north Syria. We've faced a lot of challenges but at the same time we've actually achieved a lot of successes.

I have had the pleasure of being in [Rojavan city of] Kobane for about nine months helping with its rebuilding after ISIS attacked it. There are different communes, cooperatives, neighbourhood and city councils, which are being formed in order to create the forms for radical democracy.

This sort of democracy is very much based on the idea of reducing the power and influence of the state. It brings democracy back down to the grassroots level, where you try to democratise society and community and get the community to actually make the decisions for themselves.

This process involves a lot of education about civic responsibilities, what freedom actually means and involves, and about genuine democracy. So it's an incredible revolution at the moment that's happening in northern Syria, it's absolutely brilliant.

It has been described as a feminist revolution, can you tell us a bit about the sort of changes that are occurring?

Rojava really came to international attention when it was defending itself in 2014 against the invading ISIS terrorists. It really came to attention because of the Kurdish women who were picking up guns and going to the front lines. They have formed their own military units and were defending themselves very, very successfully against ISIS — a well-armed terrorist group.

But this feminist revolution is actually more than a military thing. It means more than just women picking up guns and defending themselves and their community.

What it really means is a revolution in the way that society is organised, a revolution in the way we understand freedom, a revolution in the way we understand gender equality and relations.

When I was in Kobane, there was the Kongira Star, which is an umbrella women's group that was really engaging a lot of education, actively trying to educate society, men and women, about their relationships with one another and their roles within society. What they've tried to do is bring women out of the private sphere, out of the home, and into the public area.

So we have women in all areas of public and political administration. In every place, every political party, organisation, NGO and civil society group, we have a gender quota which is at 40% women. We also have the co-chair system, which means that we have to have one male and one female in positions of authority, so that it's not just men dominating all the time.

Like in the Western world it has been very difficult for a woman get into positions of power. So we are really reordering and restructuring society and women are actively taking part in the revolution, actively taking part in reorganisation of the society.

Women are at the forefront of this revolution on the social, political and economical level. Women are creating the coopertatives and communes the are the backbone of the economy and this new society. The women are leading the way.

You talk about the democratisation of Rojava. Considering you are from Australia yourself, I'd like to know how does Rojava differ from say, the liberal democracy we have in Australia right now? How have things been done in Rojava compared to Australia or other liberal democracies?

That's actually a really good question. The difference is that when we live in the Western world, there is a propaganda process that encourages apathy towards the political process. There is this idea that being involved, being political, being an activist, is a really lowly thing to do.

Why would you want to do that when you have this incredibly wealthy rich country where you can go and be wealthy, make money and be apathetic and ignorant of the political processes? In Australia, we are not encouraged to be more humane, not encouraged to learn about what is going on in Syria, Turkey, Africa, Asia, in places and in countries and in groups and people that have no impact on us.

Rojava, on the other hand, encourages democratisation at the local level. What that means in practice is that at the street level we have councils, every couple of streets, you have one council. Then let's imagine in a neighbourhood there's 20 of these small councils, they come together and they have one neighbourhood-level council. Then in a city like Kobane, a rather small city, there's about 14 neighbourhood councils. All the local neighbourhood councils come together and form the city council.

So, it is levels and layers of democratisation. It is not about having an election once every four years where you're encouraged to vote for one of two political parties that have similar political ideologies that make absolutely no difference. No, it encourages people to be part of making decisions. People are making daily decisions about their community, their lives, the policy and decisions that impact them.

But this is not an easy process. Parallel to this we have a reorganisation of society through education. There is education happening at all levels. At the school levels, we have 89-year-olds going to these education classes to learn about what democracy means, learning about their civic responsibility.

We have everybody engaging in learning what their responsibilities are, what it really means to live democratically and what they actually have to do, and this is an important thing.

To live democratically, to live freely, it involves responsibility, it means acting, it means being knowledgeable. It means if I am going to live in a free society, I actually have to do something contrary to other so-called democracies where there is always a centralisation of authority and power at the government level.

So in a place like Turkey, for example, the Erdogan government is centralising more and more power and authority in the hands of a few political elites. This is the complete opposite of our radical democracy, where we encourage everybody in the community to contribute to the decision-making processes in their communities.

This is why it is a truly radical, truly new democratic system in Rojava.

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