ReportsCamilla Power

Feminist revolution in the Middle East hangs in the balance

ReportsCamilla Power
Feminist revolution in the Middle East hangs in the balance

MANY PEOPLE WILL HEAR for the first time about the revolutionary feminist experiment in Rojava, north-eastern Syria, just when it risks being steamrollered by the Turkish state.

Rojava’s multi-ethnic, multilingual, multicultural militias making up the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) are not about to roll over. These fighters smashed Daesh, with the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) taking a central role. The YPJ will be leading the struggle for their lives and freedom from the ‘Neo-Ottoman’ jackboot.

While there is a Kurdish majority, the area also hosts Armenian, Assyrian, Chaldean, Chechen, Circassian, Dom and Turkmen communities with significant Arab populations. Rojava simply means ‘West’ in Kurmanji, signifying Western Kurdistan. But the whole Democracy movement (TEV-DEM), and the system known as democratic confederalism, built on grassroots assemblies for community self-governance, is designed for peaceful coexistence of these inextricably mixed up communities. Asserting cultural and religious tolerance for Christians, Muslims and pre-Abrahamic Yezidis alike, the autonomous administration of northeastern Syria insists it is transnational and so transplantable to any community in principle. That makes the revolution organically opposed to any capitalist nation state.

Against the background of the ‘third world war’ in the Middle East, Rojava looks like some kind of miracle. It proudly offers itself as the pragmatic model for peacemaking not only in Syria but across the Middle East. Turkey, with a restive 20% Kurdish population denied civic and cultural rights, cannot tolerate it. Meanwhile the Assad regime waits in the wings to scavenge the remnants of any Turkish onslaught.

But after tasting seven years of freedom and autonomy, Rojava is young, hopeful and determined. The confederation now encompasses almost a third of Syrian territory, reaching right down to Raqqa and Deir Ez Zor, Arab tribal heartlands. Taking direct democracy into such intensively patriarchal cultural territory is no simple matter. But the Rojavan revolution has been pragmatically addressing problems as they arise. The emphasis is on communities working together to solve what is of common necessity, with lack of ideological constriction beyond the ‘red-line’ principles of grassroots representation, women’s rights and ecology.

I was recently invited by Rojava University on a solidarity delegation of US and European academics. We were taken all along the Rojava border towns to councils and working groups, research centres and university committees, as well as meeting disabled veteran fighters and women’s units. In a Yezidi centre, we heard the terrifying story of the Shengal massacre. Rojavan self-governance offers genuine emancipation to this persecuted group with its ancient religion.

We took a message of solidarity to the founding congress of the Women’s Council of Northern and Eastern Syria. This was launched by Foza Yusif, co-chair of the umbrella women’s organisation Kongreya Star, with the rallying cry: “If women combine forces, they can make a huge revolution.”

She really means it. Practical evidence for women “making ourselves powerful” and “building a new life” was all around us. The networks of women’s congresses, armed units and community organisations are clearly central to the entire project, from grassroots to the main co-ordinating bodies of the autonomous administration. Each local council or neighbourhood assembly right up to district and overall level must have a 40% quota of either sex.

In addition to this, women’s councils exercise vetoes over male decision-making. By these means, the gender balance of power is deliberately skewed towards women. While Kurdish and Arabic patriarchies still maintain traditions of child and forced marriage, women and girls have won material support and strategic means to understand their rights and resist gender-based violence.

Everywhere we went the theoretical plank of the revolution was jineology (women’s science, from the Kurmanji word jin for woman). All educators and security force members, men and women of all ethnicities, take courses in jineology and women’s rights.

So it is no accident that Rojava’s forces and Daesh met head on, each transcending mere nationalism, one fundamentally ‘matriarchal’ in outlook the other ultimately patriarchal. Militarily defeated, Daesh has certainly not gone away. Bombs and IEDs threaten Rojavan towns and civilians. The SDF hunt for Daesh sleeper cells inevitably leads to tensions and potential criminalisation of Arab communities.

Another divisive terror tactic has been the burning of Rojava’s crops, some 40,000 hectares, worth $33 million. The international campaign Make Rojava Green Again has launched a crowdfunding campaign ‘From Ashes We Rose’ to help farmers who have lost livelihoods. The autonomous administration is heavily burdened with responsibility for refugees, including Daesh family members, and receives virtually no support for this.

It is easy to celebrate Rojava’s achievements in the face of such difficulties. But there are niggling contradictions. Foremost is the lip service given to ecology when in reality Rojava relies on bartering poor quality oil to the Syrian regime. Raw spillages are heavy in oil-bearing areas. Secondly, for all the attention to women’s rights, class analysis has been abandoned.

A third major contradiction is Rojava’s reliance on US military support against Turkey. Political officials are well aware Trump’s US exploits them as ‘boots on the ground’ against Daesh. Erdogan doubtless calculates that Trump will lack the resolve to hold a no-fly zone over Rojava. The two NATO allies are cooking up a deal over a so-called ‘safe zone’ to reassure the Turkish state. Turkey’s annexation of Afrin, the westernmost canton of Rojava, in March 2018 has led to repression, torture, ethnic cleansing and ecological devastation.

What Rojava needs is international solidarity. After the 2019 Counter- errorism and Border Security Act was passed in February, the new Home Secretary is due to designate Syria as an area that no British citizen can enter. This means any international solidarity work for Rojava, even going to Rojava to give a lecture as I did, becomes punishable with a ten year prison sentence.

The link below provides a model resolution to resist this criminalisation of solidarity. Let’s hope we won’t need model resolutions against Turkish invasion by the time of the TUC and Labour Party conferences.

  • dont-criminalise-international-solidarity

  • to support Rojava’s farmers


Battersea CLP