9 years ago, on 19th July began arguably the biggest revolution of the twenty-first century in Rojava. This revolution not only inspired hope around the world for the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist fights, but it also became a beacon of a socialist-feminist alternative to the nation-state. In their search for a homeland, the displaced Kurdish revolutionaries lodged a fight against capitalism, fascism, imperialism and patriarchy together, and dared to establish an autonomous, democratic, eco-friendly, and equal society.
“Jin, Jiyan, Azadi”-a slogan popularized by the Kurdish women fighters in the middle of an undemocratic patriarchal region of West Asia, literally translates to “Women, life, freedom”. Dilar Dirik, a Kurdish activist living in the UK, during an event at the University of Cambridge in 2016 said that a country cannot be free until the women are free. Kurdish women seem to embody Dirik’s sentiment. A fierce group of women leading an armed revolution for sovereignty all the while fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured the imagination of leftists all over the world in the recent past. Establishing a socialist feminist autonomous region in Rojava piqued their interest. However, the convoluted politics of West Asia with ever-changing political alliances and newer forms of imperialism, makes it a byzantine issue. To understand the Kurdish struggle and their socialist feminist ways, it is imperative to look into the geography and the history of the land and the people.
The Kurds, an ethnic group of around 30 million people, is recognized as the largest stateless national group in the world. Kurdistan comprises the bordering regions of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. After World War II, the Soviet Union supported the creation of a Kurdish state in the Iranian city of Mahabad in 1945 which collapsed in 1946, after the USSR’s withdrawal from the country. The then ruler of Iran Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was brutal towards the Kurds who actively participated in the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Post revolution, the newly formed Islamic republic under Supreme Leader Ayotollah Khomeini viewed the Kurds as outsiders due to different culture and language and went on suppressing them leading to armed conflict. Even though historically Iraqi Kurds lived between the Euphrates and Tigris river, due to a colonial treaty between British and French to divide West Asia, the Kurds had to seek refuge in northern Iraq. An autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan was established in 1970 after a treaty between Iraqi government and Kurdish forces but the treaty fell through in 1974 leading to violent conflicts. Only after the 2003 US invasion and fall of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist government, that the Kurds regained autonomy. Currently the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is governing the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq independently from the city of Erbil.
Rojava, the Kurdish word for “west,” is situated in northeastern Syria. It is inhabited by around 2 million Kurds, making them the largest ethnic minority in Syria. Rojava is broken into three cantons: Afrin in the West, Kobane in the center, and Cizre in the East. The 1965 “Arab Belt” project in Syria made vast demographic changes and took over much of Rojava’s agricultural lands. The project aimed at displacing Kurds from their own lands and settling Arab families in their place. The Belt was implemented in 1974 and 700,000 acres of lands were confiscated. The aim was to systematically eradicate Kurdish identity. They eventually became stateless as Syria refused to acknowledge their citizenship. In 2003, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) was formed by the Syrian members of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PYD not only had to fight against the Syrian forces but it also took up arms against ISIS. The famous People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) are the armed factions of PYD. YPJ-the all female armed force-has been lauded for their bravery in the battlefield against ISIS. During the Syrian civil war, the Syrian authority finally pulled out of Rojava in 2012.
Bakur in southern Turkey is in northern Kurdistan. The country is home to the largest Kurdish population in the world-more than 20 million. The division of Ottoman empire by imperial powers during World War I and the creation of an “influence zone” by the French and British under the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916, led to the division of the Kurdish population along the borders of the new states. After the end of WWI, the Treaty of Sevres was drafted to divide the occupied Ottoman Empire by the imperialist powers. The treaty kept a provision for a referendum to decide the Kurdish people’s demand for a homeland. The newly formed Turkey rejected the treaty. A new treaty named the Treaty of Lausanne was signed in 1923 after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk liberated Turkey. The Lausanne Treaty gave control of the Kurdish regions to Turkey and the provision for referendum was removed. Since then Turkey tried to ethnically cleanse the Kurds, eradicate their identity, denied them any rights, and banned their language. The Kurdish resistance intensified in Turkey over the years and in 1978, the most influential resistance group PKK was formed by Abdullah Ocalan.
Ocalan, PKK and Militant Feminism
Ocalan was a student at Ankara University when he got attracted to the Marxist ideology and formed PKK to liberate his people. The anti-colonial movements around the world and their leftist tendencies also played a role in Ocalan’s politics. PKK launched its armed struggle against Turkey in the 1970s but a military right-wing coup forced them out of Turkey to Lebanon where they fought alongside the Palestinian Popular Liberation Front (PELP)-a leftist and the oldest Palestinian resistance group-against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Ocalan was captured in Kenya and sentenced to death in 1999. Later his sentence was changed to life imprisonment after Turkey banned death penalty. But PKK was declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, its NATO allies. PKK’s goal was to establish an independent socialist Kurdish state through a people’s war. However, in the 1990s, Ocalan and PKK leadership started reevaluating their methods but the idea of a socialist feminist autonomous region for the Kurds became central. He gradually shifted from the idea of democratic centralism and nation-state for Kurds to a more decentralized form of governance. According to him, nation-states are hierarchical and there should be a confederation of Kurds. They should develop their own anti-capitalist and anti-statist economic model with bottom-up decision making. His philosophy of an anti-capitalist anti-statist confederation is known as democratic confederalism. Women’s liberation and gender equality was put at the centre of this philosophy.
PKK did change its strategy gradually and declared self-rule instead of independence. But their goal of establishing a confederation was realized in the three cantons of Rojava. PYD established the People’s Council of West Kurdistan (MGRK) which organized the Kurdish society in councils, commissions and coordinating bodies. The MGRK consists of four levels of autonomous and self-organized councils with a bottom-up pyramid structure. This self-organizing system allows for a decentralized participatory democratic process. The process also challenges gender hierarchy and follows a dual leadership system. Every commune, council, commission have two democratically elected leaders and one of them must be a woman. Women must make up 40 percent of elected representatives. There are also separate women’s communes and councils in every district. Child marriage, honor killings, dowry, gender-based violence, domestic violence, rape are all criminalized, and abortion is legalized. Feminism in Rojava goes beyond civil society, and the security forces are trained in feminist ideals before they are allowed to pick up arms. Kurdish women have also developed the concept of “jineology”, the science of women. This particular variant of Kurdish feminism aims at bridging the gender gap in the writing of history and science, and tries to free the Kurds from a phallocentric knowledge system.
This “jineology” is also central to the YPJ, the Women Protection Unit formed under Syria’s PYD and affiliated to the PKK. YPJ was formed in 2013 as part of the Kurdish security team and gained international fame due to its role in the war against ISIS, especially liberating Yazidi women who were captured by the former and sold as sex slaves. Their first victory was successfully evacuating the Yazidi people from Sinjar mountain in 2014 followed by liberating Kobane from ISIS in 2015. This international recognition also forced the world to take note of the centuries old Kurdish struggle against occupation and move over from the sensationalism of “oriental” women’s fight against the oppressive Islamic State. The multi-layered conflict in West Asia and the silenced struggle of Kurdish women against occupation came to the fore. The YPJ fighters and activists associated with PKK vehemently opposed the Western liberal discourse of “female empowerment” in the “Middle East” which disregards the historical roots of the struggle and the role of a socialist feminist intersectional approach of the Kurdish movement – the reason why an all-female armed unit was formed in the first place.
YPJ was formed to liberate women from traditional gender norms and empowering them not only with arms but also with the politics of feminist philosophy. All YPJ fighters go through rigorous training in political ideologies where they learn Ocalan’s democratic confederalism and feminist theories along with military training. Their victories over ISIS soon attracted volunteers belonging to other ethnicities and nationalities. One major victory was in changing the mindset of people residing in the neighborhood. A Yazidi warrior of YPJ, Berivan Arin told the Middle East Eye that PKK saved them in Sinjar and moved them to Rojava where she started getting closer to their ideology and joined the forces. “I joined the movement because I wanted to fight against those criminals who abused and killed so many of our own. But I also wanted to be free from the system, the Yazidi one I belonged to where women are imprisoned at home and considered useful only for raising children and maintaining the household,” she said. Nuve Rashat, another YPJ fighter from Turkish Kurdistan also had a similar story. For her, PKK was the first organization for Kurdish freedom which centralized women’s emancipation and that attracted her to join the guerilla unit.
Even though YPJ is hailed as the one of a kind socialist feminist armed group, it was not the first female armed force of Kurdistan. In 1995 PKK established its first all female guerrilla unit in order to emancipate women. Even prior to 1995, Kurdish women were instrumental in armed resistance despite being from a patriarchal society. “For instance, in the late 19th century, Kara Fatma led a battalion of almost 700 men in the Ottoman Empire and managed to insert 43 women into the army ranks – very unusual for the period. In 1974, Leyla Qasim, at the age of 22, became the first woman to be executed by the Iraqi Baath party for her involvement in the Kurdish student movement,” Dirik wrote. For Dirik, this socialist feminist system is not only the result of Ocalan’s philosophies but also the culture of resistance among the Kurds. In Dirik’s opinion, the mass mobilization of Kurdish women stems from “the legacy of decades-long resistance of Kurdish women as fighters, prisoners, politicians, leaders of popular uprisings and tireless protesters, unwilling to compromise on their rights.”
Is it possible to fight Patriarchy and Capitalism together?
Despite PKK’s shift from armed freedom struggle and victory over ISIS, the YPJ and its militant feminist ideas are still relevant today. In a region fraught with refugees, PKK is working towards changing the refugee discourse and aiming at training women to be autonomous and creating self-governing zones in the camps. For example, the Makhmour camp in Iraq, mainly consisting of Turkish Kurd refugees, is taught the ideas of democratic confederalism, socialism and feminism. Guarded by the PKK guerillas, the refugees started their own autonomous system and also created a women’s council. Similarly they are working with multiple Yazidi refugee camps scattered in the region. But the Rojava revolution is far from over. It may have created an oasis in the Syrian part of Kurdistan but the other Kurdish regions are still dominated by patriarchal norms and by groups that are generally hostile towards PKK. That’s where the guerilla unit’s slogan of “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” needs to be heard and chanted loudly!
PKK and YPJ’s Rojava revolution which led to esablish three autonomous socialist feminist enclaves and the subsequent work with refugee camps and the commitment to establish a democratic socialist feminist confederation of Kurds can be a lesson to leftist feminist activists worldwide. In a world ruled by neo-imperial powers and capitalism, Rojava shows us an alternative path. Rojava makes it possible to imagine a fight against capitalism which is rooted in the question of emancipation of the marginalized. Rojava proves that it is possible to create an oasis of dignity, democracy and equality even within one of the most gender-unequal regions of the world. It rescues the idea of militancy from its masculine connotations, and places it squarely within the imagination of a free world for all. Even within revolutionary struggles women have been denied leadership historically, but Rojava shows to the world that an alternative model is possible – not only for a militant struggle, but also for the realisation of feminist ideals integrated within the revolutionary project itself. It shows us, it is possible to resist capitalism and patriarchy together.
Image Sources: ANF, Roj Women, Roar Mag, Behance, The International Labour Research and Information Group, The Kurdish Project.