The Feminist Transformation in Radical Kurdistan

Photo: YPJ fighters in Kobani, December 8, 2014 (Biji Kurdistan / Flickr)

Reviewed: A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State, by Meredith Tax (New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2016).

After the fall of Aleppo, it’s only a matter of time until Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad fixates on the autonomous region of Rojava. As brutal civil war has devastated Syria and added to the massive refugee crisis, in Rojava—the predominately Kurdish region of northern Syria—a left-wing, feminist revolution is being carried out. This radical project has gained the support of a range of actors in the United States, with its combination of all-women militias; abandonment of the ethnic nation-state as the goal of revolution; and military victories over ISIS.

To be sure, the allure of far-away revolutions have led many to buyer’s remorse—including A Road Unforeseen’s author Meredith Tax, who visited Maoist China in 1973. Like many new Rojava supporters, Tax did not have a background in either Syrian or Kurdish politics, but was drawn to the struggle after seeing images of Kurdish women fighting in Kobane, the town in Rojava which fought off a bloody siege by ISIS from September 2014 to January 2015. Tax’s book is an on-the-fly intervention in an ongoing conflict. It smoothly shows many things at once, and she does a commendable job in creating a concise and readable account of this tangled situation. This includes: 1) the history of the Kurdish struggle, which spans multiple political parties in four countries; 2) the transformation of the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) from an orthodox Marxist-Leninist nationalist struggle into one advocating for feminist, multi-ethnic, political decentralization; 3) Rojava’s role in the Syrian civil war—infamous for its complex entanglement of multiple internal actors and numerous foreign governments; 4) the role of women in Kurdish society and political struggles; and 5) the evolution and spread of Al Qeada’s two offshoots in Syria, Al Nusra and ISIS.

The PKK emerged in the 1970s as one of many Third World Marxist national liberation movements. When the European powers carved up the Middle East after WWI, forcing disparate populations into superimposed nation-states, the Kurds were the largest ethno-linguistic population left without representation. This occurred despite the geographic unity of Kurdistan; instead, they became minorities in four countries (Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria). The imposition of nation-states led to intense oppression. Notably, the Turkish state attempted to destroy Kurdish identity itself, calling them “Mountain Turks” and banning their language, publications, and holidays.

The PKK itself is an unlikely hero for a libertarian socialist revolution. In the past it had a reputation as one of the most authoritarian and violent of the Communist national liberation movements. I first heard about the group in a Dutch squat in the late 1990s. The story revolved around the annual May Day pitched battle in Berlin, and how members of the anti-authoritarian autonome movement would tear down the placards of Stalin that PKK members brought. So I was surprised when, at a 2006 memorial service for eco-anarchist-turned-communalist Murray Bookchin, one speaker bragged about his influence on the PKK.

This transformation in political thought dominates the first half of A Road Unforeseen. Refusing to romanticize the PKK, Tax does not flinch at documenting its crimes in detail. This includes forcibly conscripting villagers, burning down schools and clinics, and murdering teachers. Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK, fostered not only a cult of personality around himself, but a “paranoid organizational style” which “ruled by fear.” Tax notes over 50 internal executions of party members for infractions such as breaking the commitment to celibacy that all members must make.

Despite the PKK’s problems, the violence of the Turkish state was disproportionate in comparison. It murdered civilians and opposition party officials, and razed villages. Of the 30–40,000 killed during the the PKK’s multi-year civil war, most who died were were Kurds, killed by the Turkish state.

This makes the PKK’s change­—from an authoritarian, nationalist, leader-cult into an advocate for bottom-up, left-wing feminist revolution—all the more striking. By 1995, the PKK declared it would stop attacking civilians and conscripting peasants, and declared that “women represent the strongest revolutionary dynamic force in society.” Separate women’s organizations formed in the 1980s were followed in the 1990s by a separate women’s military group. The party was also able to become part of a mass-based movement for Kurdish rights which had emerged in Turkey. Tax says, “Instead of training as guerillas,” Kurdish activists “could work in mass organizations, neighborhood committees, or a political party.” One of these related organizations, the PYD (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat‎, or Democratic Union Party), formed in Rojava in 2003.

Tax describes how women became central to this process, and she says that the PKK is one of the only insurgent left-wing groups to place women as central to their struggle. (In Rojava, the PYD has two military forces: the YPJ, which is all-women, and the mixed-gender YPG. The anthology, A Small Key Can Open a Large Door, edited by Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness, says 50­–60% of the YPG leadership is women.) In Kurdistan, women and girls still face forced marriages, child marriage, “honor crimes,” seclusion, and female genital mutilation. For women, joining the PKK is a way of escaping, and fighting against these social conditions. In 1993, women comprised one-third of the PKK’s new recruits.

This feminist impulse is also built into Rojava’s governing structures. Every town must have two mayors, a man and a woman. Communes and councils have to be 40 percent women, and the PYD “set up parallel autonomous women’s bodies at each level.” They set policy on women’s issues, and had veto power over conflicts regarding women in the mixed councils. The PKK and Rojava also swim in the opposite direction of the patriarchal society surrounding them on all sides—traditional Kurdish society, Turkey’s neoliberal-Islamist ruling party, right-wing Kurdish parties in Iraq, and, most of all, ISIS.

The PKK’s feminism is tied up with Öcalan’s theories of self-transformation, which seem to emerge from Fanon-style anti-colonial narratives, which he then applied to gender. Öcalan calls for producing a new “personality” beyond patriarchal norms. While rooted in the classical socialist calls for a “new man,” this view also corresponds to military-style hazing and the cult-like practices of breaking and reforming individuals. PKK members had to cut ties with their families, become celibate, abstain from alcohol and tobacco, and engage in internal self-criticism sessions.While some aspects make practical sense for a hunted, mixed-gender guerilla army, they also smack of the strange Marxist-psychological cults that flourished in the 1970s and ‘80s. Tax quotes Ali Kemal Ozcan, who writes that Öcalan developed “an idiom peculiar to himself, engaged with more universal and philosophical concepts such as ‘humanization,’ ‘socialization,’ ‘human emancipation,’ ‘analyzing the Self,’ ‘freed personality,’ ‘pure human being,’ and so on.”

Part of this transformation was Öcalan’s abandonment of the PKK demand for a classic nation-state, to be won though guerilla war. Inspired by Bookchin, he instead endorsed “democratic confederalism,” where confederated groups of autonomous councils and communes make administrative and political decisions. Tax cites Joost Jongerden and Ahmet Hamdi Akkaya stating that, “Instead of autonomy based on ‘ethnicity’ or ‘territory’, [democratic confederalism] suggested regional and local structures which allow for the expression of cultural differences.”

In Öcalan’s new formulation, the councils and communes would function parallel to state, instead of declaring independence from it. This would allow a form of decision-making across the four countries Kurdistan straddles. After all, the PKK’s multi-decade national liberation war had not succeeded in any one of them. Today, this complex formula seems to be working incredibly well in practice.

By necessity, many questions remain open about the project in Rojava: How do gender roles function up close, beyond the abolition of the most obvious forms of patriarchal repression? What happens in villages captured by the YPG/YPJ but which do not wish to adopt democratic confederalism? Can this system lay roots outside of ethnically Kurdish communities? What happens if the PYD’s influence wanes in Rojava, and councils and communes adopt reactionary positions?

However, the mostly pressing question is—after the capture of Aleppo by Assad and the contraction of ISIS territory—what will become of Rojava? Will it be crushed by Assad, or will it make a compromise with his murderous regime? (History recounts how similar large-scale anarchist projects, which also briefly flourished in periods of civil war­—Ukraine 1918, and Spain 1936—were defeated as the situations stabilized.) If Rojava attains autonomy, how will it develop its economy, which is blockaded on all sides?

All of these questions remain open, but at present, for feminists and libertarian socialists, Rojava remains a very bright light amidst a sea of reaction. As Tax convincingly argues, right now “Rojava may well be the best place in the Middle East to be a woman.”


Spencer Sunshine is an associate fellow at Political Research Associates (, and is currently working on a book about unorthodox fascist movements in the United States. Follow him on twitter: @transform6789.