The Women’s Revolution in Rojava

A women’s defense platoon in Rimelan. All photos by Janet Biehl.

It is well known that the jihadists of ISIS, in Syria and Iraq, have developed a system to enslave and rape women on a wide scale. But even without that system, women in the Middle East have generally long-suffered from entrenched patriarchy. Many women can be forced to marry, even as girls, and even as babies their marriages can be arranged, while polygyny and domestic violence are common. If a woman is raped, often she and not the perpetrator is blamed for it, and for supposedly having damaged the family’s “honor,” she must pay with her life: her male relatives will murder her in an “honor killing” or force her to commit an “honor suicide.” Excluded from education, employment and public life, many Middle Eastern women had and still have little to look forward to besides bearing and raising children.

In one place, however, the possibility of different life choices has emerged: a sliver of land in northern Syria, along much of the Turkish border, a place heavily settled by Kurds and that the Kurdish people call Rojava or West Kurdistan. Here women are moving out of the private hell of the domestic sphere and into full public life. They are finding their political voices, and employment to gain economic independence. Amid the sea of strife, brutality, and cruelty that surrounds them, the people of Rojava are creating a gender-equal society—and are arming themselves equally to fight ISIS and all the forces that are intent on destroying such a beacon of hope.

Kurds are the largest ethnicity in the world to lack a nation-state, left out of the process in the 1920s, when the victors of World War I carved up the Middle East. In the decades since, they have struggled to gain even minimal recognition of a public Kurdish identity, to speak in their own language, and to openly enjoy and advance their own culture. A Kurdish freedom movement that is both political and military has been at the forefront of this basic human rights struggle since its founding in the 1970s.

That movement, spearheaded by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), quickly learned to liberate and value the women within its ranks—its leading theorist and strategist, Abdullah Öcalan, has said that to waste the talents and intelligence of half the population is absurd and intolerable. Women have thus been well represented in the PKK, both in its political leadership and in its guerrilla army. Today Kurdish women train alongside men in the PKK in the Qandil Mountains, drilling with Kalashnikovs while receiving ideological training in the importance of gender equality and democracy. For the PKK has given up the Marxism-Leninism that was its original ideology, in favor of a new program for assembly and council democracy that it calls Democratic Confederalism or Democratic Autonomy. (For more information on the social ecologist Murray Bookchin’s role in this political history, see this article.) And in this new ideology the agent of revolution is not the proletariat: it is the woman.

In Turkey, government attitudes toward Kurds tend to oscillate between denial and bellicose rage; Ankara has long tried to crush the Kurdish freedom movement’s aspirations by waging war on them with high-powered weapons, razing Kurdish villages to rubble, and imprisoning and torturing Kurdish political activists, journalists, and intellectuals. The Kurds’ situation in Syria was little better, as the Assad regime negated Kurdish ethnicity there as well. Especially after the arrest and capture of Abdullah Ocalan in 1998, pro-Kurdish activity there was persecuted, and dozens of Kurdish activists were arrested and tortured and killed. But in Syria as in Turkey, organizing continued nonetheless, even clandestinely. And when the Assad regime targeted male activists, the women stepped forward to carry on the organizing, especially in the framework of the women’s organization Yekitîya Star, and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which shares ideology and some personnel with the PKK. In every city in Syrian Kurdistan, organizers formed local parliaments and committees.

Then in March 2011 the Arab Spring reached Syria, spurring the formation of an open opposition to the Ba’ath regime. However, that impulse toward freedom soon deteriorated into a civil war between the regime and the increasingly Islamist opposition. The Kurds refused to take sides between the dictator and the jihadists; instead, they struck out on their own “third path” in order to create that gender-equal, democratic society.

The result was an explosion of activity and organization. They held congresses and organized revolutionary councils. They opened women’s houses in every city. They created assemblies at the community level. They set up committees to take charge of education, justice, economics, and more. Women were fundamental to the entire process during this pre-revolutionary period.

Then one night in July 2012, in the city of Kobanê, the people came into the streets and demanded that the regime troops either go home or give up their weapons. Since they could expect no reinforcements, and with Assad’s army being busy in the south, the troops stood down, and the regime’s control over northern Syria folded. From that point on Rojava became a stateless democracy: the people governed themselves through a series of assemblies and councils.

A sewing cooperative in Derik

In revolutions in history, women take part especially at the beginning, but over time their role diminishes, and as in the Arab Spring, they end up excluded and marginalized and no better off than before. The Kurds of Rojava, acutely conscious of this pattern, refused to postpone the women’s question until after the revolution, and refused to “make the mistake of waiting until the war is over to achieve our rights,” as PYD co-chair Asya Abdullah declared.

The people tackled the women’s question head-on by means of education, establishing women’s academies in 2012, which are attended not by students alone but by people of all ages. These academies sought and seek to eliminate the thousands-of-years-old patriarchal mindset. Gender equality was and remains a major part of the curriculum, teaching that a revolution that does not alter the status of women is no revolution at all; that transforming the status of women transforms the whole society; and that women are primary actors in economy, society, and history. Such ideas were and are taught even in the academies that train the defense and security forces.

In 2013, at the instigation of Yekitîya Star, the women’s organization, the democratic self-government accepted several important measures:

• “Honor killings” were now to be considered punishable crimes against women and society.

• Underage and forced marriages are outlawed.

• Men who have more than one wife are excluded from all organizations and committees.

According to the Social Contract that the new polity adopted in January 2014: “Women have the right to participate in political, social, economic, cultural spheres and in all areas of life. Women have the right to organize themselves, and eliminate all forms of discrimination on the basis of gender.”

In November 2014 the self-government in Cizire issued a women’s rights decree calling for “equality between men and women in all spheres of public and private life.” It affirms that women have equal status to men in the eyes of the law. They have equal rights to run for and hold public office, to work for equal pay, to divorce, and to inherit. The minimum age for marriage for women is eighteen. Once again, polygamy, “honor killings,” and other violence against women are banned.

The result has been a double revolution in which women in Rojava are playing a leading role in politics, diplomacy, social issues, and defense, as well as in building a new democratic family structure. Girls are educated along with boys. Women can be trained for and enter any profession they choose. Violence against them is forbidden. In cases of rape or other violence, instead of blaming the woman, both sides are heard and the man, if guilty, is held responsible.  

The democratic self-government has started projects in areas to help women advance in politics, the economy, culture, and law. It has created female institutions, like women’s cooperatives, to help them achieve financial independence while building a non-capitalist economy. It has created women’s committees, shelters, and centers, meeting places where women can talk about their family and social problems and develop solutions, or flee an unwanted marriage. Women’s centers offer legal and economic support to victims. A woman who experiences domestic violence can bring the problem to a center or even a public meeting, where it will be discussed and investigated. When I was in Qamislo, I saw an all-woman meeting. Most of the participants there were older and wearing headscarves. Rather than trying to perpetuate ancient traditions, these women were willing to defy it and accept the lifeline that they and their sisters and daughters are being thrown. 

Not solely Kurdish women but also Arab and Christian women arrive at the centers looking for help; the problems of patriarchy transcend ethnicity and religion. Other projects seek to train women in skills so they can support themselves without relying on male relatives. At the women’s center in Qamislo, the most popular course is “women and rights,” teaching women that they really do have the right and the ability to conduct their own lives based on their own choices.

A women’s assembly near Qamislo

Above all, women in Rojava participate in public and political life. All leadership positions, in every institution or organization, are twofold: one male and one female. And according to the Social Contract, “The proportion of the representation of both genders in all institutions, administrations and bodies is of at least 40 percent.” That is, any meeting must consist of 40 percent women. This quota is observed in all mixed-gender people’s councils, organizations, and committees. And alongside the mixed-gender councils are corresponding all-women councils that have veto power over decisions that affect women. As a result, women have become a real political force. In the city of Afrin, over 65 percent of individuals involved in the administration are women.

Rojava follows a policy of legitimate self-defense, and since it has been under attack by jihadists since soon after the July 2012 liberation, it is on a war footing. The YPG (People’s Defense Unit) was founded around 2006, with three women in its general command. It was a mixed force, as women could join. In 2013 a separate women’s force, the YPJ, was established. The first all-female battalion – The Martyr Ruken Battalion – was founded on March 5, 2013, in Afrin. Thereafter female battalions were founded in other cities. Today the YPJ comprises between 7,000 and 10,000 soldiers, making up about 35 percent of the Kurdish forces, with battalions in all of Rojava’s cities.

While the YPG, the men’s force, is composed of fighters of all ages, most of the YPJ’s members are young women, aged 19 and 20. Most of the fighters are Kurdish, but Arab and Armenian women—among others—also take part.

Before joining the YPJ, women train intensely with the YPG for twenty days. Once they have completed it, they are assigned to a YPJ battalion, where their education continues. YPG and YPJ military structures and battalions are separate, but there is no hierarchical relationship between them, and the main barracks and the work systems are the same.

At the beginning of the defense of Kobanê, some YPG fighters wanted the YPJ positions to be separate from the men’s, but the women objected, and they share roles at the front. During the defense of Kobanê they became internationally famous, known for their commitment and fearlessness. They are fighting not merely for the survival of Rojava but for the liberatory system of self-government that they helped create.

Women’s liberation in Rojava is a work in progress, where patriarchal traditions are deeply embedded and bound up with religion. But the promise of rescuing women from the typical Middle Eastern oppressions is very powerful.  Today the women who fought for Kurdish freedom with Kalashnikovs in the 1980s and 1990s are older role models for the next generation of Kurdish women—and men. In Rojava, young people of both sexes are familiar with and accepting of women who are independent and outspoken, as well as tough and determined warriors. And their influence is spreading to other parts of Kurdistan as well. In August 2015, women in Turkey formed a freedom force there. “The YPJ fighters in Kobanê, who fought the hardest against the patriarchal mindset, became an example for the whole world,” said Arîn Amed, who lives in Silvan, a town that has rejected Turkish authority and is prepared to fight for its autonomy. “For us, we want to prepare for victory with the strength and morale we’ve gotten from these women.”

Janet Biehl is an independent writer who visited Rojava in December 2014, as part of an academic delegation. She is the author of Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin, forthcoming from Oxford University Press in October 2015.