Revolution in Rojava, Northern Syria
Travelling in Rojava is to witness a revolution experimenting with a form of stateless, direct democracy with women’s liberation, race and class equality at the heart of it. Rahila Gupta's epic 6-part article gets to the heart of the Rojava Revolution.
Revolution in Rojava, Northern Syria
By Rahila Gupta /
Jul 29, 2016

1. A Revolution for our Times

When the ‘Arab Spring’ spread to Syria in 2011, Bashar Al Assad withdrew most of his forces from the predominantly Kurdish areas of Northern Syria to concentrate his firepower on the rebel forces in the South. The political freedoms of the Kurds had been heavily restricted by Assad, expressions of Kurdish identity were criminalised and their demographic density was diluted by Assad’s ‘Arabisation’ policy in which Arabs were resettled in Kurdish areas. The Kurds took advantage of Assad’s distractedness; under the direction of PYD (Democratic Union Party) which was influenced by the ideology of ‘democratic confederalism’ propounded by Abdullah Öcalan, jailed leader of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) across the border in Turkey, the Syrian Kurds set up a secular and ethnically inclusive, genuinely bottom-up democratic system. It is valiantly defended by men and women soldiers (YPG/YPJ) against ISIS which is unsuccessfully attempting to erode its Southern border.

This is the diary I kept on my recent visit to Rojava:

I am making preparations for going to Rojava, the Kurdish enclave, in Northern Syria against a backdrop of anxious family and friends, mostly anxious about bombs and shrapnel, while some are concerned that I haven’t informed the British foreign office and may be arrested as a potential terrorist. I am relying on my press card and history of journalism in the UK for my ‘get out of jail’ card. Meanwhile I’m more worried about reported shortages of electricity and water. I am going there to research my forthcoming book, Why Doesn’t Patriarchy Die?, co-written with Beatrix Campbell. I have discovered that there is a revolution going on (in the middle of a war?!) which both ideologically and in practice puts women in the driving seat.  

Commander and spokeswoman YPJ Womens' Defense Units, with Amina Ossa, Foreign Affairs, Rojava. Photo: Rahila Gupta

I have to fly to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan (Kurdish Regional Government) and then take a four hour drive to the border at Peshabur on a road that skirts Mosul, the ISIS stronghold in Iraq. This is the only part of my journey that worries me. But the journey turns out to be dangerous for very different reasons: the driver smokes at least 20 cigarettes; jiggles around and sings along to a Hindi film DVD that plays on a small screen on his dashboard so his eyes are rarely on the road even when overtaking; simultaneously juggling a phone and munching on the cashew nuts I offer him which leaves only his little finger on the steering wheel. When I see a plume of smoke in the distance and mime an explosion saying ‘bomb?’, a universal word, the driver goes ‘Naaah’.

The next worrying thing is the border. I had been told by almost everyone connected with Rojava that the KRG is making it very hard for people to cross because they are opposed to the revolution. I have written as often as is polite to the border control. The first email says I can cross if I have a press card but can only go once. The second email says in English that the rules have changed and under the new rules I would not have been allowed as a freelancer but "edition happened after agreement” so they would honour the arrangement. The border is ‘manned’ by a young woman, who asks me why I am going to Rojava. When I say to research a book on why patriarchy doesn't die, she asks what patriarchy means. When I explain it, she says “good, I hope it dies and never comes back”. This is what they must mean by soft power – she is gentle and lovely but would have no reservations in applying the rules.

She then walks me to the border. The border is the river Tigris.   For some reason, it brings a lump to my throat.  I have never been to a physical international border before unless we consider airports to be such. You can see Syria across the river; a little ferry takes people back-and-forth for free. Not everything is commodified here – one of many correctives to my Western mindset. We wait for about ten Syrians to load about sixty bits of luggage. There are more people returning to Rojava than leaving, an indication that it has a refugee problem of its own which is little known in the West. When we get to the other side, the contrast couldn’t be sharper – a steep bank from the river’s edge covered by slippery pebbles and small rocks with families sitting and waiting with their luggage – compared with the smooth concreted over jetty on the Iraqi side.

Border crossing, Peshabur, Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo: Rahila Gupta

With great difficulty I manage to clamber up with my two rucksacks wondering how I’m going to lug them to the top whilst anxiously scanning the faces of the men hanging around to see if anyone looks like they are waiting for me. As my hosts in KRG had so little English, I have come across equipped with just a name, Mr Karawan. I have no idea what I will do if Karawan doesn’t materialise. My hosts, Peace for Kurdistan, who have helped organise the trip have told me that I will be totally taken care of in Rojava. But nobody takes the slightest bit of interest in me apart from a helpful young man who sees me struggling with my luggage and carries it up for me.  What I don’t know at this point is that Karawan is the head of the border service and is unlikely to come to the water’s edge to pick me up.

Border crossing, Semalka, Rojava, Northern Syria. Photo: Rahila Gupta

This was to be a constant feature of my trip. One person would deliver me to a point in my journey with scant information, made more precarious by lack of a common language and then I’d wait, mouthing a name to anyone who’d listen and hope for the best. So I go to this desultory looking hut and throw the word "Karawan" at the man inside, he looks like he knows and I feel instant relief. I am directed to put my luggage in a van. Looking around I see how undeveloped this place is, the work of reconstruction of the revolution is already noticeable. In the distance I see a makeshift bridge which has lorries travelling in both directions, evidence that there is some border trade going on although I am told later on that the KRG has imposed a trade embargo.

Border crossing, Semalka, Rojava, Northern Syria. Photo: Rahila Gupta

As I get into the van, a random woman comes and shakes my hand and kisses me on both cheeks repeating warmly "welcome to Rojava", a greeting that is also repeated raucously by the driver of the van and the family that he is transporting. I’m immediately on a high. The road is uneven and rocky but in less than a quarter of a mile I am dropped off again at a half finished brand-new building and told to wait there and someone will take me further. Here I meet Daham Basha who speaks a little English which gets better as the day progresses. He is there to sort out my entry clearance. When I mention the name “Karawan”, it’s like saying “open sesame”; suddenly I go from being a random visitor to a guest.

Karawan, in charge of border control. Rojava, Northern Syria: Photo: Rahila Gupta

I get taken in to see the head honcho, the man in charge of border control. He spends the next couple of hours discussing world politics with me through Daham’s translations. Where in the world would the head of border control give me the time of day? I put to him my theory that once the Kurds have destroyed ISIS, the Americans who are providing air-cover ever since the battle of Kobanî, will turn on them because their ideas are dangerous to Western capitalism. Either things are lost in translation or his glasses are even more rose tinted than mine – he says that the alliance with the US is strategic, that they need the Kurds, that without US support they would lose even more people to the conflict. I say I am not criticising them for the alliance, just pointing out the dangers. He says that the Rojava revolution has the potential to influence the US, Russia and even the world. I ask him how come Rojava has brought the US and Russia on the same side when they are bitter enemies. He crinkles his eyes and laughs heartily. He says they want to live in peace with all their neighbours, they have no beef with anybody, not even Israel. He talks of the dangers of sectarianism, of Sunni versus Shia, of how the US has encouraged and promoted political Islam and then I hear a surprising analysis: what the US labels “Arab spring” in Syria is mostly an opposition organised by the Muslim Brotherhood and armed by the US. I object that there are democracy loving secularists in the FSA (Free Syrian Army). But I sense a deference in Daham, a reluctance to argue with his boss even though he’s just conveying my arguments. So I don’t push my point of view.

I ask Karawan about his female counterpart. Daham thinks I’m asking if he is married.  No, I’m talking about the much vaunted gender equality of co-leadership between men and women. Karawan says they couldn’t find a woman for this post out here on the border. I ask if it’s a question of money – perhaps there’s not enough work for two people. He brushes that off airily saying money is not important where principles are concerned but I persist – an economy has to be viable. When pressed, he says the border makes money - fees on entry and taxes on goods. Yet later Daham tells me that they have no Wi-Fi because they have used up their allowance of 40GB a month.

Then Daham takes me to lunch in the staff canteen where a couple of YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) fighters, celebrated for their courageous release of Yazidi women and children trapped by ISIS on Mount Sinjar, wearing colourful headbands enter in military fatigues. There is a YPG/YPJ outpost nearby. I discover that Karawan is ex-YPG (People’s Protection Units), a soldier with a prosthetic leg, although I hadn’t noticed. I also find out that he earns the same as Daham and 16-year-old Mohammad  who served us tea (less than $100 a month).

Daham Basha, border control officer with Mohammad, tea server. Photo: Rahila Gupta

I am in the presence of a revolution. I had been raised in a Communist household where adult conversations had soared with aspirations for another world even though, unknown to me,  the Soviet Union experiment had begun to sour by then with the invasion of Hungary. I never thought I would have the opportunity of seeing a revolution unfold in my lifetime, especially not after the bottomless consumerism and individualism of life in the neo-liberal West makes equal pay sound like a fantasy. I feel privileged. And I haven’t even left the border.

2. Rojava’s commitment to Jineolojî: the science of women

Travelling in Rojava is to witness the ways in which the different commitments to the revolution present a conundrum. How can one system satisfy the vast differences in human aspirations? 

Its 3.30pm and Daham Basha, the border control officer, is clocking off. He jumps into the car with me because his home town Rîmelan, is on the way to Amuda where I am to be hosted by the Media Centre. The rolling countryside is dotted with oil wells, one reason why Rojava may prove to be self-sustaining and why both Assad and ISIS might want to get their grubby hands on it.

Oil well in Cizire Canton, Rojava. Photo: Rahila Gupta

There are no hoardings, no malls, no motorways, no signs of capitalist excess, only largescale pictures of the ‘martyrs’ who have sacrificed their lives for the revolution usually erected by checkpoints situated on entry to and departure from every town and village. It could not be more different from Iraqi Kurdistan (Kurdish Regional Government).

Karawan, Daham’s boss, by contrast, never clocks off. He has dedicated his life to ‘ the service of the people’, never got married, sleeps, eats, and breathes the air of the  Border offices, working till midnight if necessary. His military training was acquired in the Turkish mountains fighting with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) which points to the overlapping histories of the Turkish and Syrian Kurds and will become clearer as my journey continues. When the revolution took place in Syria, these fighters came back to protect it.  These fighters included large numbers of women, one of whom, Hediye Yusuf,  the Co-President of Cizire Canton, the biggest region of Rojava (now co-president of the Democratic Federation in Rojava and North Syria which was declared on 16 March 2016), I was lucky enough to meet and interview.

Hediye Yusuf, co-president of the Democratic Federation in Rojava.Photo: Rahila Gupta

Yusuf crams us into an already busy day. We meet her in the morning when she attends the inauguration of the grand new building of Weqfa Jina, the Foundation of the Free Woman of Rojava, at which point she could only give us 45 minutes. So she agrees to see us at her home in Rîmelan, that night, which is a two hour drive away. The humility and accessibility of people high up in the administration is an aspect of this egalitarian society which never fails to surprise me. Her ‘home’ is apparently in a grand mansion in a complex of such buildings which have been turned into academies. This complex had been owned by the Assad government and was simply taken over by the Rojava administration. From a capitalist point of view, the mansion feels appropriate to her status. But the guard outside the mansion directs us to one of the academies in the same complex.

Hediye Yusuf has her modest living quarters in one of the academies. We meet in her living room which is simply furnished with a television and padded cushions arranged on the ground around three walls. Her bedroom is a tiny affair, kitted out with a bed and a wardrobe. Hediye joined PKK at the age of 18 (now 43) in 1990 and made a conscious decision not to get married but to give her life up to the revolution. She was put into prison for two years, three months (solitary for three months in bad conditions) for her political activities. “This is the life of the revolutionary”, she says. When I ask isn’t it natural for people to want to be in relationships, she says, “the biggest revolution is the one that needs to take place inside”. I am intrigued by this emphasis on personal transformation, unusual for revolutionary movements who normally believe that a changed system will transform human character. When I return to London and plough through Öcalan’s vast oeuvre, I see that this is one of his sayings. People everywhere quote Öcalan, a kind of sloganizing, although heartfelt, rings alarm bells nonetheless.

Yusuf is, however, frank about the difficulties of co-presidentship, especially when your peer is an unreconstructed male although she doesn’t say this in so many words. Shared leadership between men and women at every level is a cornerstone of this society. As co-president of Cizire canton, she shares her post with the Arab leader of the Shammar tribe, Hamidi Daham al-Hadi, whojoked in 2014. ‘I didn’t ask to share power with a woman,’ he said, ‘They made me do it.’ Yusuf says that al-Hadi did not think she would be capable of fulfilling her responsibilities but after two years of working together, he has grudgingly come to accept her as an equal. She sees herself as more hard-working than him. I say that the compensation for working harder in shared jobs usually means more power derived from greater knowledge and familiarity with the work. She smiles mischievously.

Hediye Yusuf (left) at home with the author, Rahila Gupta

The academy of ‘Jineolojî’ is based in the same complex, an academic discipline which roughly translates as the sociology of women or the science of women (jin=woman), the Kurdish women’s unique take on feminism. It is ‘trying to overcome women’s non-existence in history… to establish a true interpretation of history by looking at the role of women and making women visible in history’ reports Janet Biehl, partner of Murray Bookchin whose ideas influenced Abdullah Öcalan, the guru of the Rojava revolution. Biehl quotes a tutor of Jineolojî who considers women to be ‘the main actor in economy, and economy as the main activity of women . . . Capitalist modernity defines economy as man’s primary responsibility. But we say this is not true, that always and everywhere women are the main actors in the economy.’ The entire population is encouraged to attend these academies to be educated in the philosophy driving the revolution.

In his pamphlet on women’s revolution, Liberating Life, Öcalan argues that feminism can never be totally successful in a capitalist system, that class and race equality in a secular democratic system is part of the struggle for women’s liberation and that ‘a movement for woman’s freedom should strive for anti-hierarchical and non-statist political formations.’ Öcalan has given up on the nation state because he believes it is inherently patriarchal and anti-democratic. This is why some Kurds cannot fully sign up to the Rojava revolution because they are no longer demanding a greater Kurdistan.

Nuvin, the woman who works at the media centre and acts as my interpreter for the first couple of days, is one of them. As a university student, she participated in the peaceful protests against Assad. She used to sneak away to Qamişlo, Rojava’s capital city, to give her family the slip, for variously themed protests every Friday: Freedom Friday; Free Children Friday; Day of Rage et cetera. When the protests became militarised and infiltrated by Christian and Muslim radicals, she left, disheartened. Some protesters joined the FSA (Free Syrian Army). Her motivation for joining the protests was the extensive history of Assad’s discrimination and criminalisation of Kurdish culture and identity. The Kurdish people have long seen themselves as ‘the largest nation without a state’ and some have yet to come to terms with the idea of self-governing autonomous regions remaining within the borders of Syria. Nuvin would like to see a greater Kurdistan uniting all the Kurdish areas in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. She is not dissuaded by the counter argument that the position of women in KRG, for example, is much worse than in Rojava.

Daham, on the other hand, is content to remain within Syrian borders because he is surprisingly pro-Assad; when I point out Assad’s historical discrimination against the Kurds, he agrees but says that everything has a disadvantage and an advantage. Assad is not as bad as Saddam Hussain. There was free healthcare, education and welfare under him. I ask Daham why he doesn’t live in Assad’s Syria. He says he would be forced to serve in the military. He supports the revolution but intermittently refers to it as the crisis. Daham sees himself proudly as Kurdish and Syrian and simply wants more autonomy.

There is also the question of money. Unlike his boss Karawan, Daham believes money is important; his salary barely covers the cost of his cigarettes. I ask if he minds that his 16 year old assistant earns as much as him. No, he says, he works very hard. Equality of income doesn’t bother Nuvin either but, like Daham, she feels the money is not enough. Nuvin gave up her hundred dollar job at a privately owned radio station for a salary of about $55 at the media centre because in this job she gets a chance to practice her English. 

Nuvin at a makeshift blockade near the offices of Kongira Star, the umbrella women’s organisation. Photo: Rahila Gupta

The different commitments to the revolution are already apparent which gives rise to the big conundrum: how can one system satisfy the vast differences in human aspirations. And which aspirations will get priority?  And if these aspirations are articulated through a genuinely democratic process, will everybody abide by it?

3. It’s Raining Women

In less than four years, the women’s umbrella organisation, Kongira Star, has set up an autonomous, grassroots, democratic structure which has resulted in shifting patriarchal mindsets and reversing gender discriminatory laws.

On day three of my trip to Rojava, Nuvin and Essam from the media centre take me to the offices of Kongira Star, the umbrella organisation for women, based in Qamişlo, capital city of Rojava. Like all the other cities, Qamişlo, is painted in the colours of a palette made from sand as it responds to the changing light of the sun travelling across the sky. It stands in dusty contrast to the fresh green of cultivated fields and the turquoise of the sky. I am told that by May, when the rains have gone, the green too will turn to khaki. We are stopped by a woman asayish (police officer) on the way, she looks frantically and nervously around the seven seater car. The asayish is made up equally of men and women but there is a separate women-only asayish force which polices sexual and domestic violence against women. Apparently they have information that an ISIS woman suicide bomber is expected in Qamişlo that day.

Checkpoint on street housing various Ministries, Qamislo, capital of Rojava: Photo: Rahila Gupta

This sort of incident, along with check points as you enter and leave towns, barricades outside official buildings and soldiers positioned on rooftops surrounding large gatherings, are reminders that we are in a war zone.  And, unsettlingly enough, Raqqa, capital of the ISIS caliphate is only a two hour drive away.   The war situation profoundly affects every aspect of this society: shortage of goods; people emigrating as well as an influx of refugees; an economy on a war footing with meagre resources directed towards defence and survival; and psychological trauma of losing young men and women to the war. However, in the midst of all this, there is a vision and implementation of a democratic egalitarian society that is breath-taking, all the more so because it is taking place in such a difficult situation.

For the first time since arriving in Rojava, I feel as if someone has been expecting me.  At the border, they asked where I would be staying, when I arrived at the media centre offices I was asked the same question. To my embarrassment, I didn’t know because I had been reassured that once I got to Rojava, everything would be taken care of. At Kongira Star, the women are friendly and warm although no one speaks English so we smile a lot at each other. Everybody smokes, it’s a hive of activity and a woman in military fatigues mingles with them. She turns out to be Nesrin Abdullah, a spokesperson and commander in the YPJ (Women’s Protection Forces) who I interview later.

Kongira Star changed its name from Yekitiya Star because they decided at their conference in February 2016 to welcome women of other ethnicities (not just Kurdish) into the organisation and needed a new name to reflect the new reality. Kongira Star’s organisational network is deeply embedded across Rojavan society although they were only formally established in 2012.  Their structure mirrors the Tev-Dem, the Movement for a Democratic Society, which includes all ethnicities and religions, and is an exercise in direct grassroots democracy. At the neighbourhood level, they have set up communes ranging in size from 7 to 300 families depending on whether they are based in villages or cities. All the members elect a man and a woman under the co-presidentship rule to manage the work and to represent their interests at the next level, the House of the People (Mala Gel), a kind of regional council. The commune also elects members of specialist committees like health, education, services or conflict resolution which will be led by co-presidents. The same structure is reflected in the next level up in city assemblies. Only problems that cannot be resolved at commune level make their way up the structure.

The autonomous, parallel women-only structure set up by Kongira Star, with its own committees, which feeds in equally, along with Tev-Dem, to law and policy making, has brought all kinds of women into the public sphere. Women who could not read or write before the revolution have gone to the academies that have been set up and become educated and empowered. They have joined the various committees set up at the commune level; their very presence in the public sphere has transformed how women are seen and a new respect for women’s abilities has permeated every level of society. Not only must Tev-Dem be led equally by men and women, this separate structure implies that women’s liberation is not to be achieved by equal numbers but by tilting the scales in favour of women in order to achieve a level playing field.

Halima Haji, matriarch of the family hosting Rahila Gupta. Photo: Rahila Gupta

Halima, a warm and welcoming woman, the matriarch of the first family to host me for the night was illiterate before the revolution but has learned to read and write Kurdish since 2011. While watching TV, she would delightedly read the captions out loud. She started working on conflict resolution in domestic violence cases that came to the House of Women, (Mala Jin), until recently when her knee started troubling her. Although she’d had an arranged marriage and stayed at home to look after seven kids, she was influenced by Öcalan’s ideas. I ask how she came under his influence when she couldn’t read. She says she participated in political discussions with her husband’s friends who came to the house.

 I later find out from my interpreter that these “friends” are really PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party)  “comrades”, both men and women, who used to go from house to house, spend one night in each home, in order to raise awareness of their ideas in the general population. We have a lot to learn from this immersive strategy. Perhaps it owes something to the nomadic tradition of the Kurdish people.

 Whatever its origins, it is a tradition that Kongira Star continues by moving guests from house to house. In the ten days that I was there, the act of packing and repacking every day led to me being parted from my phone, my tablet, my camera, my notebook – all of which I was re-united with once I had retraced my steps.

In the main office of Kongira Star, behind the president’s desk, hangs a portrait of Abdullah Öcalan (photo left left), leader of the PKK, held in a Turkish prison since 1999.  On the facing wall, is a portrait of Sakine Çansiz, the woman co-founder of PKK who was shot dead in 2013 in Paris in an execution-style killing. I find this order of preference disquieting for a women’s organisation.

(Sakine Çansiz portrait, right)

The document describing the work of the organisation opens with a quote from Öcalan, the ‘Revolution that fails to liberate women is not a real revolution, and the organization that cannot organize women is not a real one.’ Of course, we should give Öcalan credit as the first ‘freedom fighter’ or revolutionary leader to place women at the centre of his revolution and to argue that the enslavement of women was the start of all other forms of enslavement. However, this feels like hero worship. Even though portraits of leaders are plastered in official places in many parts of the world, the cult of personality which is disavowed by revolutionary movements but nonetheless flourishes harks back to what happened in places like the Soviet Union.

Amina Omar, Head of the Women’s Ministry, bucks the trend with a stylised representation of the women’s symbol hanging on the wall behind her desk (photo, right). We pop in to see if she has time to talk to us but she is going to open a home for older women and asks us to return a couple of hours later. After our interview is done, she hands me a booklet, ‘Basic Principles and General Provisions for Women’ which begins with the priceless exhortation, ‘Fighting the reactionary authoritarian mentality in the society is the duty of every individual in the areas of Democratic Self-Administration.’

Amina Omar, Head of Women's Ministry. Rojava. Photo: Rahila Gupta

The booklet lists the Administration’s extensive legislative assault on patriarchal practices: Child marriage, forced marriage, dowry and polygamy have been banned; any attempt to stop a woman marrying of her own free will, will be prevented; honour killings, violence and discrimination against women have been criminalised; women, regardless of their marital status, have been given the right to custody of their children until the age of 15; a woman’s testimony is equal to a man’s; a woman has a right to equal inheritance; marriage contracts will be issued in civil courts. Impressive work when you consider that the women’s ministry was set up only in January 2014.

Sharia courts, in which women always get a raw deal, have been disbanded. Although Bashar al Assad claims to be committed to secularism, Syria has always had a network of religious courts to deal with personal law of the various denominations. In Rojava, there is a clear understanding of the need to keep religion out of the public sphere in a way that is far more advanced than even the UK. We have Muslim Arbitration Tribunals, sharia councils and Beth Dins (Jewish religious courts) in this country. Although their judgements are meant to be compliant with British law, I have written before on 50.50 about the ways in which they fail women.

The example of Rojava teaches us humility; not to assume that the Middle-East is an unremittingly conservative place and not to assume that the modernity associated with Western culture, especially capitalist modernity, is more likely to deliver a just and equal society.

4. Reshaping Masculinity

Rojava's battle with ISIS stronghold  Raqqa is not simply a military one, but an ideological one in which the position of women could not be more polarised.

Women's art and culture festival in Rojava, March 2016. Photo:Rahila Gupta

While I am in Rojava in northern Syria, the very first women’s art and culture festival takes place over four days. In a rundown theatre, a large number of women of all ages and ethnicities read/perform poetry which is impossible to translate simultaneously except in broad brush strokes. So I learn that the poems are mostly political – pondering on the war, the Kurdish question, women’s subordination and the tragedy of fellow Syrians abandoning the country and becoming refugees. Unfortunately, the poems are delivered either in plangent tones or at ear-piercing volume, defeating all my attempts to be a sympathetic listener.  The paintings, by contrast, speak in a universal language.

I wonder if the political nature of the poems is an attempt to bolster the revolution comparable to the partisan nature of Soviet art from the 1930s onwards. The organiser, Berivan Khalid, Head of Culture in Cizire Canton, tells me that while ‘they hope to represent their revolution to the world through art’, no selection process took place. She assures me that there was some love poetry but the overwhelmingly political focus reflects the concerns of the artist in revolutionary times.  All women over the age of sixteen were invited to participate in the festival and all were showcased. The festival had put out a call for entries across all the cities of Cizire canton. If quality was not a determining criterion for entry to the festival, the egalitarian nature of the entry process did not extend to the awards ceremony where three of the best in each category would receive prizes.

The significance of the event though is not lost on me.  Under Assad, any public expression of Kurdish identity or celebration of Kurdish arts and literature was criminalised.  Khalid says they have experienced a 180° turnaround in their freedom. Speaking Kurdish in the workplace and other public places as well as teaching and learning the language was illegal. In her book,  The Kurds of Syria, Harriet Allsopp says that organisers of Kurdish weddings had to sign agreements with the state that there will be no singing in Kurdish!  Traces of the Arabisation policy of Assad are everywhere to be seen: from my media pass written in Arabic to help me through checkpoints to interpreters who are more comfortable in Arabic than Kurdish although they identify as Kurdish. Now, Kurdish language courses are flourishing;  I also come across a number of adults who are more fluent in Arabic but are learning to read and write Kurdish to counter that.

Almost every Kurdish woman I interview talks about the twin oppressions of patriarchy and ethnic discrimination as a Kurd being the major factors in her politicisation. Nesrîn Abdullah, commander and spokesperson of the YPJ, (Women’s Defence Units) for example, explained why she joined, ‘I have two reasons to become a fighter. We were under the control of the Assad regime who abused us (as Kurdish people) and secondly, as a woman we were abused by patriarchy.’ The contradictions that arise from this positioning at the intersection between race and gender resonate with my own political history of being a black woman in Britain.  Where we differ is that the experience of racism in Britain has sensitised us to any attempts to argue that the incidence of domestic violence is greater in any particular community because such arguments are usually put forward in the service of a racist agenda – that the men of a particular community are more barbaric.  In this context, it becomes well-nigh impossible to talk about different histories, different levels of empowerment through employment opportunities and education of women and/or different patriarchal traditions although it is precisely these factors that we aim to shift in our campaigning work.

Logo of SARA, a Rojava-based organisation fighting violence against women

However, the women of SARA  in Qamişlo, the capital of Rojava, an organisation much like Southall Black Sisters in the UK, which supports women escaping domestic violence were far more relaxed about pointing out that Arab women face greater problems than Kurdish women because polygamy was much more extensive in the Arab community, as were honour killings. Given the long history of tension between the Arabs and the Kurds, I wondered whether these statements were inflammatory. However, the power equation between the two communities is quite different. The fact that the Arabs constitute a powerful majority in Syria versus the discriminated against Kurdish minority might be one reason; it is more acceptable to punch upwards. Rojava’s emphasis on ethnic inclusivity might be another. In the Legislative Assembly, their equivalent of Parliament, they have reserved quotas of 10 per cent for Kurds, Arabs and Christians respectively, regardless of the actual size of the communities in a region where the Kurds are in a majority. This is a really enlightened approach to racial inclusivity. In this context, an assertion that the position of women within a particular community is worse than in another isn’t received as a racial slight but as a statement of fact. It was precisely this inclusivity that attracted the Arab shopkeeper who I met in the souk in Qamişlo. He had fled from Raqqa, partly because he was disgusted by their persecution of all other religious and ethnic minorities. Of course when I asked about his commitment to the revolution’s ideals of gender equality, he robustly disagreed and said that his wife’s place was definitely in the home.

He does appear to be in a minority if a recent survey carried out by the self-administration is anything to go by. Of over 1200 people surveyed, approximately 500 men and 700 women, 85 per cent agreed that women should have equal rights. Almost all the questions relating to improvements  in women’s status, received support from 80-90 per cent of the respondents. Interestingly, the question that received the least support – 65 per cent although that is still a substantial majority – related to women’s rights after divorce, whether a woman should have custody of the children until they turned 15 and whether the father should be obliged to pay alimony. Until the revolution, Syrian sharia law decreed that if a divorced woman did not remarry, she could hold on to the boys till the age of nine and girls till the age of eleven. While sharia courts have been disbanded in Rojava, they thrive in other parts of Syria which are under the control of those Syrian rebels, infiltrated by Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate or the Muslim Brotherhood, and of course, in ISIS held territory.

Rojava’s commitment to secularism, where religion is strictly a private affair, owes much to Abdullah Öcalan’s ideas.  He is very clear about the role of religion in the oppression of women. In his pamphlet on women’s revolution, Liberating Life, Öcalan advances his three sexual ruptures theory of women’s enslavement and eventual liberation. The first rupture, or turning point, was the rise of patriarchy when Neolithic times ended and ‘statist civilisation’ arose; the second sexual rupture was the intensification of patriarchy through religious ideology. As Öcalan says, ‘Treating women as inferior now became the sacred command of god’; and the third rupture is yet to come, the end of patriarchy or as Öcalan puts it, ’killing the dominant male’ which is about reshaping masculinity so that it no longer defines itself in relation to its power over women.

This is the society that the women soldiers want to defend. When I ask Nesrîn Abdullah if she has come face to face with an ISIS fighter, she nods but refuses to go into detail, ‘It is not important to me if I kill an ISIS soldier, the most important thing is to kill the ideology.’ She is very keen to emphasise their philosophy of peace and defence, of non-aggression and fighting back only when invaded.  It isn’t merely the idea that women have the physical courage to stand up to the brutality of the ISIS fighters – an idea which was fleshed out by pictures of YPJ women rescuing Yazidi women and children from Mount Sinjar– but that the encounter between the two sides is bigger than that, it is an encounter of two very different political ideologies, of democratic modernity versus religious fascism  in which the position of women could not be more polarised.

An unusual sight in a women's office, Kongira Star HQ. Photo Rahila Gupta

Surely this battle between Rojava and Raqqa puts paid to the popular Western narrative of the clash of civilisations proposed by Samuel Huntington.  In 1992, he argued that the age of ideology had ended and the future would be characterised by cultural and religious conflicts. Central to this line of thinking was a clash of cultures between the morally superior West in terms of its support for human rights, equality, democracy, liberalism and the medieval attitudes of an Islamic ‘culture’ constructed as monolithic and universally opposed to these values. What I saw in Rojava is an attempt to build a radical democracy as described in Part 3, the like of which does not exist in the West. This battle is not for some mythical soul of Islam; it is being fought ‘outside of it’. Even if it looks as if ISIS is determined to impose its particular brand of Islam, the Qu’ran is simply its political handbook.  

5. On The Hoof

Rojava is a fast moving, dynamic place where things change by the minute. What are the material conditions which support this woman-centred revolution ? 

Weqfa Jina, the Foundation of the Free Woman in Rojava, based in a previously Assad-owned mansion 

There is a real sense of a people responding to the facts on the ground with the few resources they have to hand. Rojava’s frontline of the war against ISIS is constantly shifting – at the moment in a positive direction, outwards, encroaching into ISIS held territory such as Shaddadi in Hasakah province and Tal Abyad on the Turkish border – which means becoming responsible for new populations and the work of drawing them in to the radical representative democratic structure described in this series earlier. In order to accommodate these newly liberated areas where the Kurds are not a majority and where the population of Syriacs, Assyrians, Arabs and Turkmen may not fully sign up to the revolutionary ideals of Rojava, this region declared itself the Federal Democratic System of Rojava and Northern Syria in March shortly after I returned. Similarly, the women’s umbrella organisation which was known as Yekitiya Star (Kurdish for Star Union of Women) when I was planning my trip to Rojava, changed its name to Kongra Star (Star Congress) by the time I got there because they had decided at their last conference to open out its membership to women of all ethnicities, not just Kurdish women. Signs outside government offices are often computer generated notices on A4 sheets of paper, suggesting both lack of resources and the rapidly changing situation.

Homemade barricades, often oil drums filled with concrete or pipes welded together in spiky star shapes, are placed outside official buildings to prevent suicide bombings. Apartment blocks have been requisitioned for the administration’s offices. The media centre, for example, is housed in a block of flats in a residential area at a crossroads where three roads have been blocked off to cars by oil drums about a hundred yards from the office building. On the fourth road, there is a wide low iron gate which slides across to let official cars through.

Soldiers and checkpoints in the streets of Rojava. Credit: Nuvin Ibrahim 

The official TV station of the administration called QAM, which seems to be on everywhere, is simply a series of moving stills and texts. Although another channel, Ronahi, does broadcast film, it tends to favour endless static discussions with women in military fatigues.

At the border, a pontoon bridge supports lorries crossing in both directions with goods as and when the border is open. When I was leaving Rojava, I noticed that there was now a rickety iron table standing on the pebbly beach where members of the asayiş (police force) were checking the baggage of incoming Syrians cursorily for bombs or guns, which wasn’t there when I arrived a fortnight earlier. The standard time for arms training for their defence forces, both the YPG (People’s Protection Force) and YPJ (Women’s Protection Force) is only one month. Despite that, they are notching up remarkable successes against ISIS which they attribute to their commitment to the revolution. Nesrîn Abdullah, Commander of the YPJ, says 'We strongly believe that if you just fight without ideology, without developing your ideas and personality, your fighting will not be as good as it could be, and will not be done in the right ways.’  

All the grand buildings I come across were owned by the Assad government and simply taken over by the Rojava administration. For my first couple of nights I was hosted by the media centre at their villa, a rather grand building, which is the guesthouse for visiting journalists. The hotels in Rojava are owned by the Syrian government. As I was technically illegally present in Syria, having come across the border from Iraqi Kurdistan, I was told that I would be in danger of being arrested if I booked into a hotel.

Weqfa Jina, the Foundation of the Free Woman in Rojava, are also based in a previously Assad-owned mansion which had been handed over to the group by the self-administration and which they have refurbished to a very high standard with donations from abroad.

Similarly, land owned by Assad is being redistributed to agricultural co-operatives. Women-only co-operatives play a substantial role in the running of the economy and feeding the population. (Photo left: Member of the sewing co-op models a YPG flag.) As described in part 2, in Jineolojî, the sociology of women, an academic discipline developed by Öcalan, women are considered to be the main actors in the economic system as opposed to capitalism where men play a leading role. I met the head of the Women’s Economic Committee, Delal Afrin, who outlined their substantial achievements in a very short period of time.  As their primary focus had been on self-defence and the war against ISIS, they came late to the economy. It was only in August 2015 that the Committee came into being. They have set up 19 co-operatives, including six agricultural co-ops, many of which have been in existence for only a couple of months. This was the situation in March whereas a document produced in January by Tev-Dem (Movement for a Democratic Society) listed only six independent women’s co-ops – so information dates quite quickly in this dynamic place.

According to Dr Alan Semo, PYD (the dominant political party in Rojava) representative based in the UK, the cooperative system contributes approximately 80 per cent to Rojava’s economy and the private sector represents 20 per cent of the economy. The Kongra Star co-ops, which are women-only, are independent of the Tev-Dem co-ops which are mixed. What this means in practice is that women are owners and members of the co-op but they may still employ male workers as they do in the Warshin sewing co-op I visited. The co-op has eight women owners and four male employees.

(Photo right: Derbasiye restaurant funded by the WEC.)

When I asked why they thought it was important to set up women only co-operatives, when gender equality was encouraged across society,  Delal Afrin said, ‘the historic imbalance of power cannot simply be corrected by introducing quotas for women or the principle of co-presidentship shared by one man and one woman. The confidence that men and women bring to the job will be different unless the confidence of women is built up through the self-reliance, knowledge building and training they acquire in the setting up of co-operatives. A society that is able to organise an economy where women are given productive roles is the sign of a mature and reflective society. When the economy is not in the control of men, women will be able to express themselves freely.’ 

Outside the Kongra Star offices is a drum filled with petrol where the official car tanks up – a health hazard and gift to ISIS suicide bombers. By contrast, what I had thought was the most basic filling station I had ever seen on my first journey in Rojava from the border, is a luxury. It was a tiny, dirty, oily, blackened shop front without signs. Attached to a standpipe was a hook on which hangs a rubber hose, of the gardening variety, with a spout tied to it with a rope from which petrol gushes. The hose came out of a makeshift tank with a lid and midway along the length of the hose pipe was a basic meter which notched up the amount delivered. Local people used small manual heaters to extract petrol from crude oil in primitive ways so the proper petrol stations shut down because they no longer had quality petrol and there was no price differential between them and these small outfits.   Daham, the border officer, lit up a cigarette right next to the hose pipe. I gulped but took a picture, nonetheless. 

Daham lighting a cigarette near a makeshift petrol station.

Under Assad, petrol used to be sent to Homs to be refined and then returned to Rojava. The Kurds have cut the pipelines so that they can keep their resources to themselves but without refineries in Rojava, the quality of the petrol is poor. Dr Alan Semo says that they refrain from exporting the oil because they see it as a national resource which should benefit all the people of Syria when the war is over. Assad had deliberately under-developed the Kurdish areas so that they would be economically dependent on the central government: for example, they were allowed to grow wheat but not bake bread. They are planting fruit trees which were banned by the Assad government which wanted them to be reliant on the south for their fruits.  In fact, all tree planting was prohibited by Assad which explains the strange treeless landscape of Rojava.

This is a revolution in a hurry, starting from a very low material base of development and overlaid by grand aspirations to equality in a hostile environment. It is nothing, if not ambitious.

Coop funding: Feed the revolution 

6. How Deep is the Change?

Is optimism in the future of revolutionary change misplaced in a region torn apart by war and a society where patriarchy has been so entrenched?

Members of Kongra Star, the women’s umbrella organisation in Rojava, northern Syria.

This is the obvious question to ask - but an extremely difficult one to answer, especially when the situation is as fluid as it is in Rojava. All the women I interviewed while I was there talked about how deeply embedded patriarchy was in their social fabric, how the revolution had made a start in all the ways that I have described in this six-part series on Witnessing the Revolution in Rojava, and yet gave no concrete examples of the ways in which it continued to plague their lives. From the homes I stayed in, it appeared that domestic work was still primarily the responsibility of the women. Oddly this seems to be the last frontier of patriarchy, the double burden that women carried even in the heady days of the revolution in places like the Soviet Union when they were taking on all the jobs conventionally done by men. I say ‘oddly’ because domestic chores seem like a small loss of privilege in comparison to the loss of status and income from jobs traditionally reserved for men. Having said that, the younger men appeared to be more self-servicing; Khaleel, who drove the official car of Kongra Star, the women’s umbrella organisation, said he shared the domestic duties of cooking, cleaning and shopping.

JINHA all women news agency, Rojava.

When I attempted to understand the feminist debates that were going on, I was told that they were all working for the liberation of women. When I tried to push the issue by arguing that there are many routes to liberation and gave examples of feminist debates in the UK, I got the impression that they felt I was trying to find fault. I tried to reassure them that I was simply asking to see what lessons we could learn on managing differences. When I went to meet the journalists of the all women JINHA news agency, I felt hopeful that they might have an overview of such debates, but they too said that the focus of their news reports was on encouragement and strengthening of women’s resolve. They said that the process of self-criticism was embedded in everything they did but it was within the context of supporting the revolution.

It was almost accidentally that I came across fairly substantial differences of opinion when I was interviewing the women of SARA, the organisation that tackles violence against women. We were talking about the disbanding of sharia courts in Rojava. I asked almost rhetorically whether everyone agreed that sharia was problematic. One of the women, a hijab wearing woman, on the co-ordinating committee defended sharia law, saying that it could be beneficial to women if correctly applied. I was not the only one to be surprised. The other women erupted in a chorus of shocked disagreement as if this was the first time they had discussed the issue. The same woman also said that she was anti-abortion when I asked whether abortion was legal – which it is. But this second exchange took place at a rally on International Women’s Day where our voices were drowned out by speeches from the stage and so further discussion was not possible. At my own debriefing session when I was leaving Rojava, Zeelan from Kongra Star which had hosted my trip, asked me for my critique.   I returned to the question of political differences. Zeelan said the differences lay only in the kind of projects they work on – some on violence, some on economic projects, and others on reforming party politics. Their internal tradition of criticism and self-criticism allowed them to come to a united view of an issue.

Zeelan, worker at Kongra Star, the women’s umbrella organisation in Rojava.

I also commented on the absence of discussions about sex and the sexuality of women, not just lesbian sex. Hediye Yusuf, co-president of the Democratic Federation in Rojava, had forsworn sex in favour of a revolutionary life. A wounded male soldier from the YPG explained that while society was still patriarchal, sexual relationships were bound to be oppressive and that was why cadres who had pledged themselves to the struggle renounced married life. According to the notes from a course on Jineolojî (sociology of women) kept by a European activist, Kimmie Taylor, currently in Rojava, it is Öcalan’s view that the sexual revolution did not bring freedom for women and was not likely to whilst relations between men and women were based on domination by one gender. Whilst I would agree with this analysis, celibacy is hardly the right answer, steering as it does dangerously close to religious monastic mores. Ideas of sexual abstinence fall on fertile ground in a conservative culture. Enforcing it in a mixed fighting force may be a pragmatic approach to policing sexual violence – if all sex is forbidden, there can be no blurring of boundaries between rape and consensual sex. It is also pragmatic because it reassures parents that their daughters’ virginity will be protected and so eases recruitment to the YPG and YPJ in a community which frowns on sexual freedoms, especially for women.  But this does not deal with the troubling question of sex: Amina Omar, the head of the Women’s Ministry, says that many of the spaces in their refuges are taken up by young women running away from the wrath of their families because they had become pregnant outside of marriage.

Alongside Jineologî and Öcalan’s teachings, sits another major and totally unexpected influence on the population of Rojava – a love of Bollywood films. My status was vastly enhanced by the fact that I was Indian and therefore, an avatar, not in the digital sense but the soul of Bollywood manifest. I was mobbed by young people wanting to take selfies with me. According to Daham Basha, the Border officer, I was the first Indian to visit Rojava – a dubious distinction. Bollywood sells the dream of romance to repressed young souls without challenging patriarchal norms or stereotypical gender roles, often criticised in India for undermining the institution of arranged marriages but running counter to everything being taught in Rojava.

Given this ground zero approach to sex, perhaps it is not so disturbing that LGBT issues do not appear on anyone’s radar. Aveen Ahmad, ‘psychological consultant’ based at the Amara Centre in Qamişlo talked of the work they did with children of the war and with men who wanted to ‘develop their personality’ (!).  She informed me that she did sessions with parents about homosexuality. Promising, I thought. However, her approach was to make them aware of the existence of such a phenomenon and her solution was to talk young people out of it because it was, and my interpreter had to look the word up in a dictionary, an ‘aberration’. When I asked whether this was not likely to make the young person more depressed, she confessed that she hadn’t actually come across a homosexual client. For the women journalists of JINHA, there were more pressing concerns than LGBT rights. Ditto for Amina Omar, the women’s minister. The question of sexuality goes to the heart of patriarchy. How it is unpacked will be central to the anti-patriarchal project.

Whilst the revolution has ensured that women are heading up co-ops, defence forces, police, government bodies etc, there are hardly any women running shops in the souk. We find one eventually after a few minutes of asking around because I want to do a vox pop with a woman shopkeeper.

Woman shopkeeper in Rojava, northern Syria.

I don’t spot a single woman driving a car while I’m there. In the restaurants, it is still men who do the traditional jobs like manning the ovens although there were also men in the sewing co-ops. When I visit the rehabilitation centre for YPG and YPJ wounded fighters, the women don’t agree to be interviewed but the men are queuing up. It’s moments like this that reveal the incompleteness of the transformation. These are all indications of the distance they have to travel.

There is also a worryingly essentialist strand to Ocalan’s writings on women. Whilst he acknowledges that gender is constructed, he also makes frequent references to ‘The emotional intelligence of woman that created wonders, that was humane and committed to nature and life…’ or statements like ‘The natural consequence of their differing physiques is that woman’s emotional intelligence is much stronger than man’s is’ or ‘her emotional intelligence gives her the talent to live a balanced life’. Any idealisation of women’s inherent superiority, think of all the Madonna metaphors in Western culture, has not done much for our struggle for equality.

Sometimes it is hard to step outside of subjective experience. Is the hero worship of a man by a feminist movement, the cult of Öcalan, that I have described earlier a cause for anxiety? The reverence for his words and the ubiquity of his thoughts echo the experience of Maoist China, Cuba, Soviet Union. This is brought home to me when I read an extract from the blog of a Red Guard, Yu Xiangzhen in China under Mao. In one post, Yu recalls the excitement of boarding public buses with her Red Guard comrades and spending entire days reading extracts of Mao’s Little Red Book to commuters. “It was quite fun,” she says. When you put these concerns to women in Rojava, they say that their revolution is quite different. Women have never been at the centre of a revolutionary movement before. Fair point!

I loved their optimism, even though it drove me mad, and I loved their determination. On the drive back to Erbil, KRG to catch the flight to London, (same driver, no distracting Bollywood film this time, just mournful songs of martyrdom) I read Meredith Tax’s manuscript of her forthcoming book on the Kurdish struggles in the region, A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State and marvelled at how many gaps there are in my knowledge and how many of those she had plugged. I may not have been there long enough to firm up the haziness of some of my observations, but I was certainly there long enough to witness the hospitalisation of patriarchy, and to learn the Kurdish (Kurmanji) for the title of the book that I am co-writing with Beatrix Campbell, Why Doesn’t Patriarchy Die? Chuma systema zlam na meren?

Rahila Gupta is a freelance journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and New Humanist among other papers and magazines. Her books include,Enslaved: The New British Slavery; From Homebreakers to Jailbreakers: Southall Black SistersProvoked; and 'Don't Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong (Playdead Press, 2013).  She is co-authoring a book with Beatrix Campbell with the title Why Doesn’t Patriarchy Die?  Follow her on twitter @RahilaG


This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. 

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Revolution in Rojava, Northern Syria