You know how people who meet the queen say ‘she was tiny!”. Well, I met the YPJ, and they really were tiny. Just kids in khaki, bouncing into a line to shake us each by the hand. Unlike the queen, as defenders of the Rojavan revolution, the girls had stashed their Kalashnikovs neatly round the corner.
As members of a delegation of US and European academics on an educational solidarity visit to Rojava University, we had been invited to tea by the Qamishlo Women’s Protection unit. We were late. We drove out of town into the surrounding countryside of ripe wheat, while black towers of ash rose from burning fields on every horizon. The fires are rumoured to have been set by Assad regime agents (or possibly Turkish or ISIS sleepers). This new ‘economic’ form of warfare opens yet another battlefront on the Rojava revolution.
The young women served heaped plates of precious fruit while we introduced ourselves. Then we asked if they could tell their stories, and how life had changed for them before and after joining the YPJ. The stories were various: ‘I’m from Afrin’, ‘I ran away from my family because they wouldn’t let me come’, ‘My brother’s in the YPG’, ‘My father agreed I should join’. Some of these girls are probably too young to be sent to the southern front yet, hunting down the remnants of ISIS, but they are training both with weapons and in jineologi, the women’s science of free life.
Against the background of turmoil in the Middle East – described to us as a ‘third world war’ – sectarianism, corruption, endemic human rights abuses, and warfare perpetrated by state regimes on their own citizens, against all this, Rojava looks like some kind of miracle.
It’s a miracle Rojava (properly now, the Democratic Federation of North and East Syria) even survives, with enemies on all fronts. After the heroic defeat of Islamic State, the multiethnic citizens of Rojava still face the threat of Erdogan’s fascist Turkey looming ever present. Relations with the Assad regime are tense, unpredictable and surely headed for collision at some point; while across the border in Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) maintains surly, hostile diplomacy and controls Rojava’s only gateway to the world.
Yet, amidst all this, the DFNES is implementing and expanding a multiethnic, multilingual project of democratic confederalism and peaceful coexistence. The stated aim is that community self-governance of this kind is not restricted to any one area, but is transnational and transplantable to any community anywhere. Rojava must expand or die. Automatically opposed to capitalist nation states, it receives no official recognition from western governments, despite the ongoing coalition against ISIS, its responsibilities for refugees, and the astonishing achievements for women’s rights in the region. It has secure claims as the most feminist government on planet earth, battling to confront patriarchal traditional cultures where child and forced marriage is still customary.
We brought a message of solidarity to the historic founding congress of Free Women of North and East Syria. This appeared to be the most genuinely multicultural event I have ever attended with simultaneous translations across four, five or more languages, and representation from delegates of multiethnic and multireligious communities, not only Islamic and Christian but also the preAbrahamic Yezidi. Women wore dazzling celebratory costumes showing off their traditions, alongside the YPJ’s military fatigues.
There is nothing marginal or nominal about the networks of women’s congresses and community organisations. They are clearly central to the entire project, from grassroots to the main coordinating bodies of the Democratic Federation. Everywhere we went the main topic for discussion and theoretical plank of the revolution is Jineologi (from the Kurmanji word Jin for woman). This word was coined by Abdullah Öcalan in his prison writings, and some feminists have been suspicious of a man advancing the ideas of Jineologi. But it is now being developed and elaborated by women themselves in so many different contexts that it surely has a creative life of its own. We met with university Jineologi committees, the International Jineologi research collective, regional Jineologi centres. It embraces a whole range of meanings from the study or science of women, women’s history and knowledge, to research for women’s support and empowerment, and accountability to women’s perspectives. Women’s equal participation in all aspects of life is the fundamental demand of the revolution.
Most moving of all was the ceremony held at the Martyrs Memorial in Kobane for a Heval (friend or comrade) who had died. Kobane’s rise from the ashes of the terrible siege four years ago is astonishing. Now under the burning Syrian sun, the entire community was celebrating, grandmothers in beautiful costumes, the militias – YPG, YPJ, Asayiş – with burnished boots and guns. Everyone is chattering, laughing, posing for photos with us. Today, Kobane justly claims to be “world capital of the human revolution’.