The struggles of Kurdish women in Rojava Kurdistan (Northern Syria) became known to many people in the world during the brutal attacks of ISIS against the city of Kobanê in September 2014. While Kurdish men and women were trying to defend the city with limited ammunition and inadequate weapons, Kurds worldwide took to the streets to be voice for Kurds in Rojava and Kobanê. From then onward, Western media and politicians have started to talk about the brave Kurdish women who are fighting against ISIS and its brutal treatment of women.
But a question still resonates in many ears: how do Kurdish women join the fight against ISIS in such numbers, and why are women on the forefront of the struggle? What is the history behind this remarkable departure from the norm, and what can advocates for systemic change and feminism learn from Rojava?
The answers to these questions lie in the Kurdish political, social, and military organising in the Middle East. Kurdish women in Syria have been organising themselves politically and militarily under the roof of Yekitiya Star, which is an umbrella organisation of the Kurdish Women's Movement in Rojava, since 2005. According to Yekitiya Star member Ruken Ehmed, as all sorts of social organising were banned by the Syrian regime, women were not able to organise themselves. Any social organising had to be conducted under the roof of Ba'ath party.
For example, women's right organising was done under the name of Ittihad Nisa (Women's Movement) — an organisation that belonged to the Ba'ath Party. Before the Syrian uprisings broke out, many Kurdish politicians were incarcerated in Syria's notorious prisons, including female Kurdish activists.
When regime forces left Kobanê in 2012, the Kurds took control of the city. Since then they have been fighting for the institution of a new form of self-governance in Rojava, which took on a novel dimension with the establishment of the autonomous cantons in January 2014.
Kurdish women have been at the forefront of this struggle, and have made it their own. The women I have interviewed insist that they don't just fight because they are Kurdish, but also because they are women. The struggle is also against male domination within the Kurdish community and in the larger Middle East.
The achievement of gender equality is one of the most important aspects of the struggle and an unprecedented example in the Middle East.
For Kurdish women, it is important to seek ways to make sure that women are not just instrumentalised for the national cause during the revolution and sent back to homes afterwards — as seen in the backlashes that women faced after the revolutions in Vietnam, Russia, and France.
Therefore, Kurdish women have started to organise themselves in fields that would enhance the status of women in local society. For instance, building new educational institutions has been a way to engage not only women but also men for long-term social change.
The co-presidency system with one man and one woman that is implemented in all institutions at all levels is another important marker for long-term social change.
The grassroots social organising in Rojava is inspired by the philosophy of Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, who has been held in solitary confinement on the Turkish prison-island of Imrali since his capture in Kenya in 1998.
While in prison, Öcalan's philosophy has undergone significant development, moving beyond a fairly orthodox theory of national liberation grounded in the Marxist-Leninist tradition to a much more ambitious frame rooted in a renewed conception of freedom, democracy, and community.
One of the main proposals of Öcalan's paradigm is to create a gender equal society. He insists that the transformation of women's position in society is very important for transforming society as a whole: “The level of woman's freedom and equality determines the freedom and equality of all sections of society” and “democratisation of woman is decisive for the permanent establishment of democracy and secularism.”
In order to create a democratic nation, Öcalan maintains: “We firstly need to know how to win within the ideological arena and to create a libertarian, natural mind-set against the domineering, power hungry mentality of the male. We should always keep in mind that the traditional female subjugation is not physical but social. It is due to the ingrained slavery. Therefore, the most urgent need is to conquer the thoughts and emotions of subjugation within the ideological arena.”
Enacting this critique, women in Rojava not only joined the armed ranks of YPJ (Women's Protection Units), but opened Jineoloji Institutes and women's centres all over Rojava to educate women ideologically for a democratic nation.
The system which existed in Rojava under the Syrian regime was one where women were largely in not entirely absent from the economy, education, defence, and social organising. The Rojava Revolution deconstructs the former system and created alternatives first of all by establishing the presence of women in every sector in which they were formerly absent.
In one of my interviews with Fatma Lekdo, the Minister of Afrin Canton's Women Ministry, she said the cantonal system was very much inspired by Öcalan's ideology of democratic autonomy. The constitution of the Rojava Autonomous Region does not recognise Kurds only, but also Armenians, Syriacs, Arabs, Turkmens, and Ezidis.
The idea of democratic autonomy is directly opposed to the ideology of the nation-state, which in the Middle East is tightly bound to ideas of cultural and ethnic homogeneity. The new system in Rojava is more of a multicultural, multilingual, and multireligious system that is designed to “allow the legal participation of individuals who will be able to mobilise and organise along the lines of ethnicity, religion, gender, class.”
It is a system of self-governance that rejects the model of centralised administration. This is also the model of self-rule advocated by the Kurdish movement across the border in Turkey. Women in Rojava believe that this system can and does enable them to organise, and to participate in all decision-making processes.
There are 22 ministries in each of the local canton governments—and a women's ministry is one of them. Each canton has a council of ministers, which is run by one male and one female co-leader, and they have three deputies, chosen to represent local ethnic and religious diversity.
Each canton has its own defence system, and women in that defence system have a separate military organisation: these units are the YPJ, which is the acronym for Women's Defence Forces.
Marriage at a young age is prohibited and a gender quota of 40% is implemented in all institutions and administrations. Only women judges look at the women related court cases.
There are also women's shelters established in each city in Rojava where women lawyers advocate for women confronting violence — be it political, social, or domestic.
There are centres called Mala Jinan (“Women's Houses”) which began to be established in 2011, where women seek help when they face problems. Violence against women is the primary issue these houses deal with. These houses also function as centres of mediation or dispute resolution centres — if the problems cannot be solved in these houses, only then are they taken to the courts.
Senior YPJ members Meryem Kobane and Roza Haseke told me: “The revolution did not change women's life in one night, but gave them visibility, women are now visible!”
They say female fighters were among the first martyrs of Rojava; they fight to protect their land and their people. Yet in order for women's agency to be recognised in society, the whole system needs to be changed. They say it is important to recognise that in Rojava women are not just fighters, as is covered by the Western media, they are active in all fields.
These women define self-protection broadly, not limited to participation in the military self-defence of the autonomous cantons, but also protecting themselves against male domination and ethnic oppression, protecting their thoughts, language and cultural rights.
For the women of Rojava, these all need to be protected, and if you do not protect yourself, you will be oppressed and attacked easily. Self-protection should not just be understood as taking up arms, but organising and struggling for your social, political, and civic rights and the right to protest.
The change underway in the autonomous Kurdish regions of Syria should not be perceived just as a shift of powers from the control of one government or ethnicity to another, but as a social transformation, one which is enabling minorities to have a say, and a share in the dynamics of power as a more equal society is constructed.
In the larger region, there is a backlash against women's rights — and Rojava is a promising example of a pathway to gender equality.
The West always presents itself as deeply invested in bringing change and democracy to the Middle East. Yet the Kurds, together with the other ethnic groups now administering themselves for a better future, have been historically and continue to be ignored by the international community, which has turned a blind eye to the Kurds in general and to Kurdish women in particular.
As they work to build a society grounded in a systemic commitment to gender equity, the women in Rojava want to be in dialogue with international women's organisations and share their experiences.
[Abridged from The Next System Project. Ruken Isik is a PhD student in Language, Literacy, and Culture at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.]