Women’s cooperatives: A glimpse into Rojava’s economic model

Amargê cooperative. Photo: Hawzhin Azeez.
Monday, February 27, 2017

Amid the horrors of Syria’s multi-sided civil war, a ray of hope has broken out in the north.

Led by left-wing Kurdish forces in Rojava following a 2012 insurrection that liberated the area from the regime’s control, the Rojava Revolution aims to build a new system on the principles of women’s liberation, a multi-ethnic participatory democracy, ecology and solidarity.

Resisting not just the regime, but attacks from ISIS and the Western-backed Turkish regime, the Rojava Revolution has sought to create a new model. The Kurdish-led armed militias have united with armed groups from other sectors to create the Syrian Democratic Forces to struggle for a new Syria based on the Rojava Revolution’s principles.

In the article below abridged from Kurdish Question, Hawzhin Azeez looks at an example of the type of model the SDF is pushing.

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For outsiders, the Rojava Revolution came to international attention in 2014 when ISIS terrorists laid siege to Kobane city. An epic battle ensued.

Outnumbered and lacking the heavy weaponry of their opponents, the tense resistance played out with the Kurdish fighters successfully defending and liberating Kobanê in January 2015.

However, even before the uprising against Bashar al-Assad in 2011 during the Arab Spring, and the subsequent Rojava Revolution in 2012, efforts were being made in the Kurdish north, known as Rojava, to implement networks of grassroots assemblies. The Amargê cooperative is one such example.

Established more than six years ago, the cooperative has been running consistently with the aim of providing women in Kobanê with economic opportunities. Currently, 17 women work in the cooperative.

The networks of grassroots assemblies and cooperatives in Rojava are based on the radical model of Democratic Confederalism founded by Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, jailed by Turkey.

Democratic Confederalism

The ideology of Democratic Confederalism includes three pillars: a democratic and autonomous society, ecological sustainability and gender equality. Within this framework, the economic model in Rojava is an alternative economy based on a social communal model.

Cooperatives are part of the autonomous networks of grassroots assemblies with the objective of achieving a free life for all.

Cooperatives are locally created, autonomous and democratically run enterprises aiming to allow people to meet their economic needs while providing the community with affordable alternatives.

For instance, the women’s cooperatives often attempt to produce locally based and sourced products. The products are often sold in the market at a lower price, resulting in higher demand for the items.

Cooperatives are also exercises in democracy, with the fundamental principle of “one member, one vote”. Each member

profits from the cooperative equally. This is in contrast to the investor based system within the capitalist market where profit is based on the level of ownership of a business.

Across the world, thousands of cooperatives operate in more than 100 countries including Britain, Spain, Canada, America, India and many others. But in Rojava, the vision is a little different.

Empowering the marginalised

In Rojava, the significance of the cooperative system lies in efforts to democratise all sectors of society, including the economy. For this reason, creating alternative avenues that allow traditionally marginalised groups such as women to actively participate is an essential aspect of the radical democratic model.

This alternative model allows society to bring the lived experiences of democracy to the grassroots level. Cooperatives also allow the community to create jobs at the local level that do not require specialised skills, allowing unskilled workers to gain skills and access to the market.

Also, the ongoing war is badly impacting on the economy, as is the ongoing embargo placed by Turkey on Rojava. The cooperative system help address ongoing economic problems.

The cantons within the Democratic Federation in Rojava and North Syria have economies based on agriculture and animal husbandry. For this reason, trying to address issues of unemployment, encouraging women’s participating, promoting an alternative radical economic and social model based on ecological protection, the cooperative is a natural form of organisation.

In Rojava, the women’s cooperatives are established and supervised under the leadership of the women’s umbrella organisation Kongreya Star (Star Congress).

The women’s movement was established in 2005 while the region was still under the authority of the Assad regime. Due to this established foundation, when the Rojava Revolution was launched in 2012, the women of Rojava had already gained experience in self-organising.

Women have continued playing a leading role in organising society. They run ideological programs, councils, communes and cooperatives, help organise self-defence, the justice system, around and more.

Kongreya Star has head-quarters in each of Rojava’s three cantons, with each city within the cantons containing its own Kongreya Star office and staff. Kongreya Star coordinates with the Women’s Economic Board to support the establishment and running of cooperatives.

Midya Qamishlo, an agricultural engineer and representative for the Qamishlo Women’s Economic Board, said about 10 women’s cooperatives exist in Qamishlo city alone, with a focus on the textile, catering, dairy and agricultural industry.

Midya said the cooperatives “allow women to gain confidence and to support their family during the current economic crises. However, of more importance is the role that cooperatives play in collective efforts at achieving a free life and more specifically free women. They help to challenge the patriarchal structure of society by ensuring a level of equality is established.

“When women re-take their traditional role of being major contributors within the economy men are challenged to view and revise their perception of women’s role within society.”

New type

According to Midya, a new type of cooperative is being created, recently moving on from the early planning stages. These cooperatives involve women centred markets consisting of stalls led and run by women selling their own homemade and hand-made items. A Women’s Market in Dêrik is close to finishing, while the plans are being drawn and land allocated in Qamishlo and Amûdê.

This project is indicative of the effort of the people of Rojava to change the entire foundation of the economy by bringing women into every aspect of it.

Cooperatives within the Rojava system allow the community to veer away from traditional capitalist practices such as profit-focused objectives, encourages workers’ independence from the traditional bosses and the resulting exploitation, ensures that women participate in the decision making processes and produce a place where people can organise and develop their ideological consciousness.

Rojava is still dealing with the ongoing war with ISIS, continued clashes with the Assad regime, ongoing bombardments by the US, Russia and the regime, the recent invasion of Syria by Turkey and annexation of Jarablus with the help of the Free Syrian Army factions including various Islamist terrorist groups. As a result, thousands of people have been displaced with hundreds of villages, farms and homes destroyed. Unemployment has risen.

At the same time, each canton has received thousands of refugees, placing greater pressure on the local economy. Communities also face an embargo and border closures from Turkey and the pro-Western Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq.

Even humanitarian supplies are blocked from crossing into Rojava. Creating economic alternatives is essential to survive.

For this reason, large-scale cooperatives are proposed under the new system. One of the biggest cooperatives now operating is the Kasrek Cooperative Society, which consists of several projects, mostly focusing on agricultural and livestock output.

The project involves about 4000 people. Each participating member buys “shares” by contributing about US$100 to the project. More than 37,000 acres of communal (government) land was allocated to the project and the cooperative has started planting an array of crops.

Other aspects of the project include areas allocated for raising livestock, running a dairy factory and planting fruit trees. To ensure that the project continues, the cooperative has purchased agricultural machinery and established a veterinary clinic.

Another large-scale mixed cooperatives is Hevgirtin, which was launched more than six months ago. The cooperative has branches across the Cezire canton. The project’s goal is to supply the community with cheaper sources of food, while being run and organised by the community itself.

In Haseke, the first women’s cooperative was established last June to produce food. There is often cooperation between the various cooperatives, such as the Heseke cooperative sending their items to be sold at the Hevgirtin cooperatives.

Underdevelopment

The cooperative model supplements the needs of the communities within Rojava, but the long-term economic goals for the region are more complex.

The Syrian government engaged in a deliberate policy of underdevelopment in Rojava, especially in areas of infrastructure, education and health, which causes ongoing economic dilemmas. All major industries were located outside of Rojava in Syria’s predominantly Arab dominated areas.

For this reason, Rojava faces the ongoing challenge of developing its economic capacity long term. Further, considering the ongoing instability and conflict in Syria, retaining independence from the government and ensuring a well-functioning socio-economic status is essential for Rojava’s future.

The long term objective is to encourage industrialisation, but not in the traditional method of opening its economy to Western markets. Ensuring economic autonomy is also a means of self-defence for Rojava’s society.

Another key objective is ensuring Rojava does not become resource dependent, like the Kurdish region in northern Iraq whose economy depends entirely on oil and therefore foreign investors and markets.

In the meantime the Kongreya Star along with the Economic Board continues to establish more cooperatives as a means of self-protection of society and anti-capitalist resistance.