ESSAY

Kongreya Star conference in Kobane, May 2017 (ANHA)

24/06/2017 - 16:55 0
The centrality of women’s liberation in Rojava, Northern Syria

Part 2 of 2 (Practice)

Read part 1 here

The scene couldn’t be more jubilant. The sun shines brightly in a way that is simultaneously agonizing and unbearable, yet beautifully brilliant. Scores of packed cars and Toyota trucks with men and women clutching tri-color Rojavan flags make their way to a makeshift parking lot in the middle of what appears to be a seemingly endless field. The colors are vibrant and festive, indicative of the Kurdish nation’s cultural traditions and identity. Smiles abound as thousands descend on a massive public gathering, one that everyone knew was going to take place on this day, even though the location had only been announced the previous night. Security is tight. After all, this is still a warzone despite the liberatory feeling that reigns supreme.

Over what is otherwise picture perfect scenery of Dirbesiye, the newly constructed Turkish border wall isn’t far off. On that side of the divide that keeps this nation torn apart, Kurds are subject to the brutality of a colonial state they have been fighting for what seems like an eternity. Women too, Kurdish or Turkish alike, are subject to the demeaning policies of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP Party, an organization that proposed just last year that rapists should be pardoned if they marry their victims. Erdogan himself has proclaimed that women are not equal to men in blunt, and unmistakable terms.

Standing on this piece of free territory over the barely completed border wall, life couldn’t be more different. Today is March 8th, International Women’s Day. It’s a day that is easily one of the most important in the calendar in northern Syria, along with Newroz and perhaps March 15th, the day that Abdullah Ocalan was captured in 1999.

Driving through Cizire canton to get to the festival, banners lined the roads proclaiming ‘Adure 8’ as a day to be celebrated. Walls brightened up the city of Amude painted with the most stunning murals marking the importance of this day. Women hold up half the sky, the old Chinese saying goes. Here, the desire for the slogan to be more than just words is palpable. It’s not just that women have been given guns to defend their lives and their newly claimed freedom, although that’s without a doubt an important component of it, perhaps the most visual representation of all of the work taking place within the society to raise women up to genuine equality. Women’s autonomous organizations were among the first to be set up here, even before the revolution was announced in 2012. It’s groups such as Kongreya Star that have entrusted themselves with the responsibility of putting together this festive display of celebration and struggle.

As I walk through the field filled with thousands of people from all ethnic backgrounds and age groups, that spirit of revolution I’ve alluded to before grabs me and takes full hold of me. I’m startled by the juxtaposition of the stage in front of me, in which a banner of Serok Apo (Abdullah Ocalan) hangs proudly behind it, and the border wall that I can make out maybe a few hundred meters behind it. The Turkish forces have hung a flag of the increasingly fascist Republic over it, as if the disgusting slabs of concrete weren’t enough to cement the idea that the occupiers were always watching. And yet, Rojava’s self-defence forces are ever vigilant and ready to do battle.

A young man I’ve just met from one of the Turkish communist parties that has sent militants to fight in Rojava puts his arm over me and tells me, ‘on that side of the border today, women will be beaten and arrested for demonstrating. No matter if they’re in Istanbul, Ankara, or Cizre. Same shit.’ Here, though, women dance. Women sing. Women shout. Women demand their emancipation. As part of moving from object to subject, from oppressed to equals, women are in motion. They are the backbone of this revolution.

Kongreya Star

The day before attending the International Women’s Day festivities, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the head office of Kongreya Star in Qamishlo, both the capital city of Cizire canton and the Federation. As the women here are eager to tell me, the position of the women’s movement in Rojava today wouldn’t be even close to where it is if it wasn’t for the work the movement had done over decades prior to 2012 in all four parts of Kurdistan. Here, the first independent women’s organization Yekitiya Star had been founded in 2005, but they faced immense challenges in organizing freely due to opposition and restrictions from the Syrian state. This was the forerunner to the current organization that adopted its new name to reflect the entirety of the Federation.

As three women hevals are keen to tell me, theirs is a structure that aims to tackle hierarchy, and therefore organizes from the base. As the commune is the basis for the new society being set up in Rojava, it is within that structure that problems concerning women are first addressed (each commune has a representative of Kongreya Star within it). If, however, they cannot be handled within the commune, they then go to their regional Kongreya Star group. If the problem requires an even higher level of mediation or assistance, central Kongreya Star is then consulted. The aim of the organization as a whole is to tackle every problem that concerns the lives of women today in northern Syria, which is no small task given the backwardness that women have had to confront and attempt to overcome.

Undoing patriarchal mentalities in men

One of the most difficult aspects of organizing has been the resistance to the notion of women’s empowerment that comes from men who are still rooted in traditional patriarchal mentalities. As one of the younger hevals explains to me, this is changing gradually, and a noticeable difference is already apparent in five years of organizing. She explains to me how even though the entirety of the Kurdish nation has been oppressed, men have had the power over women in the home. ‘Men often don’t want women working in politics, or outside of the home in general. There is a fear of them leaving their ‘mother role.’’’

It should come as no surprise that women receive education here about the history of the Kurdish women’s movement and the theoretical basis for women’s liberation in Kurdish society known as Jineoloji. What I found more surprising – and deeply impressive – is the lengths to which the organization is also going to educate men. I’m told that in the city of Afrin, there was just recently an educational strictly for men that focused on 5,000 years of male hegemony. There are classes across the whole of the region that last for weeks, or even months for those serious about ‘killing the dominant male’ inside themselves. These aim to do more than just educate – they are akin to a form of rehabilitation to overcome reactionary attitudes toward gender roles and patriarchal oppression. The courses are given by both women and men, and aim to cut out attitudes ranging from extremely overt sexism to the more subtle but still sexist attitudes of ‘I need to protect her because don’t want to see her hurt’ (assuming the position of men is to protect women because of the superior role of men and asserting that women cannot defend or protect themselves).

The youngest of the hevals continues, ‘Male chauvinism is obvious even in those who talk about women’s liberation. They might be able to speak on it theoretically, but often can’t really back it up in practice.’’ I find her words more than just relevant. How many of us men in the west who would call ourselves feminists, even those of us who have histories of many years in socialist and radical political life, fall short on questions of practice on this very issue? My experience has been that more than any other question, it is relations between men and women in which male ‘comrades’ often fall far short of the mark. To be sure, this cannot ultimately be rectified without revolution, and without a doubt the ominipresence of extreme sexism in our uber-capitalist societies can’t help but to taint even the most serious of male revolutionaries with a level of reactionary characteristics. Yet, it seems to me that the model employed here by Kongreya Star in how serious re-education for men is taken might be something that radicals in the west should consider beyond just simple theoretical pronouncements about equality.

Making women’s empowerment permanent

Although the idea of bringing men into the work being done Kongreya Star is an important component, men do not participate in any way in the organization’s structure. Just as the Women’s Protection Units (YPG) is an autonomous force fighting alongside the YPG that has its own structure of leadership, Kongreya Star makes decisions on its own without the input of men. As I’m told many times in Rojava, there are two struggles unfolding at the moment – a military one against Daesh, and a women’s struggle in all aspects of society.  For the women’s struggle to be successful, it is up to women themselves to achieve and defend their free life.

Of course, there are concerns among the women of Kongreya Star here about the long-term vitality of the movement. As Heval Amuda says, ‘In many previous revolutions, women would play a very central role including in fighting. But at the end of the day, they would go home, back to their previous positions in the traditional family. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen here. Sometimes a woman can think more like a man than a man himself.’

The women here have all experienced the transformation of liberation that has taken place both inside of themselves and in the greater fabric of society. As they don’t hesitate to point out, in the beginning many of them didn’t believe themselves (and these are now leaders!) that women could do everything that men could. It was a process that meant eroding the uncertainty of being able to be equal slowly but surely, while building the self-confidence needed to assert themselves. They are quick to point out that their freedom is not the western, liberal conception of what it means to be liberated in which ‘I can go, do, and speak what I want’ but it is inextricably linked up with the collective liberation of the entirety the people. They are blunt about their objection to this concept in asserting that this westernized notion ‘isn’t freedom at all.’ Theirs is a fight that is ideological, philosophical, and above all practical, one that takes stock of the historical role of the entirety of the revolutionary movement.

The work of Mala Jin

A short walk from the central organization of Kongreya Star is the local Mala Jin, or ‘Women's House’. This project was initially started by just four women, but today there are thousands who work in a number of these houses all across northern Syria. Their work focuses on giving women a place to come if they need help or strength, particularly in the fight against domestic violence and abuse.

As I’m told, prior to 2011 the levels of domestic violence were high as this was a time before widespread education about the rights of women that the democratic self-administration ushered in. With the coming of the revolution in 2012, a process began to saw the domestic abuse numbers fall, though there was initially a considerable amount of threats by men against the house and its leadership because of the work they were involved in. These treats haven’t completely been done away with yet today, but as I’m told the situation is vastly improved. Also, as a testament to the transformation of family relations, most of the women who come to Mala Jin today are not coming from abusive households, but are Arab women who were previously in the hands of Daesh.

At this particular house, there are eleven women who volunteer their time to assist with the work. As is the case everywhere in Rojava, everything is built from the bottom up. It is families and individuals who have donated not just their time, but their money and resources to help in building this and other houses across Rojava.

I’m stunned to hear just how hands on Mala Jin truly is in insuring the liberation of their sisters, going as far as to go to homes with force to physically liberate women who are confined by their husbands. Yet, even when men initially appear beyond the point of rehabilitation, there is always an attempt made at resolution. If a woman is taken to freedom, or she escapes from home by herself, there will usually follow a collective sit down with the man and the family. If these efforts of resolving the situation aren’t successful, the man can then be taken to the Asayish (security service), but this is generally a last resort. Even then, a simple punishment is not the norm for men who have been engaged in domestic abuse, but restorative justice that attempts to actually change the man’s thinking and behaviour is applied. In all cases, women and their children can be taken to houses where they can live in safety and security if they are under threat of physical or emotional suffering.

With the coming of self-administration, a gap was left in terms of the law. As I was to find out, many changes have taken place in this sphere as it applies to the role of women. One example has been the outlawing of forced marriages. While common prior to 2012, now families responsible can be fined, or even imprisoned if absolutely necessary. In an effort to overcome polygamy, all religious marriages must now be done together with a legal marriage to make sure that a man cannot marry more than one woman. I’m also told that while marriage between relatives wasn’t unusual just half a decade ago, such occurrences today are few and far between.

Fear of freedom?

As I stand in the middle of such tremendous natural beauty the next day in Dirbesiye, I couldn’t think of a more ideal place to be spending International Women’s Day. Speakers take the stage to chants of ‘Jin Jiyan Azadi’ (Woman, Life, Freedom). Performers sing songs in Kurdish with the passion and urgency of a people who have kept their national customs under wraps – but always still in their sprits – for decades. Young children born after the start of the revolution carelessly play in the fields. Are they oblivious to the major historical earthquake that’s taking place here, one that they are part of whether they know it yet or not?  

I ask a young woman comrade I’ve just met from the Turkish-based Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP) if she’s encountered a fear from women in Rojavan society about grabbing hold of their own freedom. She seems perplexed, but I explain that I’m asking because of something that was said the day before at the Mala Jin. One of the women there had said that women are often fearful about coming to the house, but once they arrive, they’re often so moved by their experience that they end up not only breaking free from their household shackles, but they end up joining the revolution in some organizational capacity. The MLKP heval nods an approving ‘I understand’ then cuts me off quickly saying, ‘That’s true for all of us. I also had to overcome that traditionalist family environment and the subjugation that comes with it. But once you take that first step, the leap to being a revolutionary doesn’t seem that big after all. My family wanted to have me married off, but I became a guerrilla for the people.’

It seems that this ‘leap’ is precisely what the whole of society here has taken. The fear and uncertainty of self-administration, the doubts about women taking the reigns, certainly had to exist at some point. But just as so many individual women now walk chin up with an unbreakable confidence, the whole of Rojava appears as such to me. Even with Turkish soldiers positioned not far off with tanks and heavy weaponry, a confidence of victory pervades this strip of liberated land and its people armed with forty year old Kalashnikovs and ideas that belong to the future of humankind. My newest heval has to abruptly leave, so we exchange the customary handshake and ‘Serkeftin’ (victory). She leaves me with one last message, a slogan that plastered on a number of buildings and banners across Cizire canton: ‘If not now, when? If not us, who?’ It’s evident that for these women, there is no going back. Fear seems to been vanquished. It seems contradictory for me to say so of a society that makes every statement it can to confirm its anti-hierarchical and anti-vanguard sentiments, but these women are the leadership – not merely of northern Syria, but I would argue the world. I am free of any level of doubt that they are in fact the vanguard force of humanity.


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