The UK Government and its coalition partners demonstrate remarkable ignorance of the political realities of what is happening on the ground in Kurdistan – either that, or they are knowingly prepared to sacrifice the Kurds, who have been at the forefront of the fight against ISIS and hailed as heroes by the media, once their military value has been exhausted. We explain why below. In the meantime, while ISIS continues to preach hate and practice barbarism, in the Rojava province of Kurdistan a feminist revolution is purportedly underway.
A few days ago the UK courts remanded a young British woman, Shilan Ozcelik, who was charged with offences under the 2008 Terrorism Act – specifically for providing support to Kurds. The UK Government accused Ms. Ozcelik of offering aid to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which is still a proscribed organisation (mainly due to pressure from Turkey). Yet the PKK abandoned its armed struggle against the repressive measures of Turkey some years back and has since taken a leading role in the fight against ISIS while at the same time creating federalist democratic structures in Kurdistan. In any case, Ms. Ozcelik’s supporters argue her support was for the YPJ (Kurdish women’s militia), which is not a proscribed organisation. The YPJ and the YPG (Kurdish men’s militia) were responsible for liberating the city of Kobane from ISIS in January. Last August, together with the women’s guerilla units of the PKK, the YPJ rescued the Yezidis after they had sought refuge from ISIS in the Sinjar mountains.
The Kurds are a courageous and resilient people who have suffered decades of repression from their neighbours. Now they seek not just their liberty and dignity, but a revolution based on grass-roots democracy and with an apparent feminist agenda. It is a revolution that some have compared to the anarchist revolution of the Spanish Civil War and with the equally anarchist-inspired revolution of the Zapatistas in the Chiapas region of Mexico.
Let’s explore further…
[Note: the following is compiled from a number of authoritative Kurdish sources – see end of article.]
1. First, the influence of the Zapatistas
Twenty years ago the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (or EZLN, to use its Spanish acronym), though undefeated by the forces of the Mexican state, decided to disappear. But on December 21st, 2012 the EZLN reappeared in their thousands, quietly marching in the streets of towns and cities across the province of Chiapas. Their message was: “We never disappeared” and what had happened is that instead of fighting for revolution, they simply created it. Gradually it emerged that over the previous twenty years or more the Zapatistas/Mayans had been busy creating local democratic structures at every level – schools, housing, agriculture, etc. After their re-emergence at the end of 2012 (the 21st was a symbolic date, for it was the beginning of the Mayan millennium) they then melted back into the rural areas to continue to live as they choose. This was a very different kind of revolution to the top-down Soviet model and without leaders or hierarchy. Recently the EZLN have been pivotal in collaborating with the families of the thousands of the ‘Disappeared’, as well as the dispossessed and peasantry of Mexico, to form local and regional collectives that are quietly replacing structures of conventional government.
Similarly in Rojava (Kurdistan)…?
2. PKK adopts libertarian municipalism
Some years back the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) declared it no longer sought to create a Kurdish state but, instead, inspired in part by social ecologist and anarchist Murray Bookchin, had adopted the vision of “libertarian municipalism”, calling for Kurds to create free, self-governing communities, based on principles of direct democracy, that would then come together across national borders. Since 2005 the PKK, apparently inspired by the strategy of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, declared a unilateral ceasefire with the Turkish state and began concentrating their efforts in developing democratic structures in the territories they already controlled. Councils, assemblies and popular militias were formed, regime property turned over to worker-managed co-operatives – and all despite continual attacks by the ISIS.
3. The ‘Rojava Revolution’ and the Kurds in north Syria
Amid the civil war in Syria and the withdrawal of the Syrian Army in the north of Syria in 2012 the population of Rojava took control of their region and declared a democratic multi-ethnic and multi-religious autonomy, similar to the Swiss model, with three separate and geographically detached administrative regions or cantons: Kobane, Afrin and Cizire.
Despite economic hardship and a de facto embargo from trade with other parts of Syria, Turkey and KRG, the people of Rojava have been using their newly acquired freedom to experiment with radical democracy. They are applying the Democratic Autonomy project propagated by the still imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, and which is also being practised by the Kurdish movement in North Kurdistan/Turkey.
Within two years Rojava witnessed substantial institutional and political changes and for the first time in Syrian history the communities there are governing themselves without the intervention of an authoritarian central government. Referring to these developments as the ‘Rojava Revolution’ the people of Rojava have eagerly been involved in organising their own affairs, from running schools and hospitals, to generating electricity and even making their own tanks.
The most visible change has perhaps been the inclusion of women in the defence force and the police as separate units through the establishment of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) and the Women’s Security Forces (HAJ). According to various estimates female fighters make up between 7,000 and 10,000 of the Kurdish forces fighting in Syria, representing roughly one third of the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) in Rojava.
4. Rojava and the feminist revolution
The empowerment of women has been key to the Rojava revolution. A recent report on Rojava commissioned by the London based women’s rights and advocacy group. Roj Women, shows that since the self-declared autonomy Kurdish women have established a dozen women’s unions, associations and committees and have carried out gender awareness campaigns on a large scale in all three cantons. Among the new regulations instigated to combat gender discrimination are a ban on polygamy for men and underage marriage. Also, unusual for the region, cases of domestic violence are being taken far more seriously by being referred directly to the police and courts, while women and their children are provided with temporary safe accommodation. To ensure that women are represented in public offices and in civic life, positive discrimination measures, similar to those practised within the Kurdish movement in Turkey, have been introduced. These include the co-chair system where key decision-making positions are shared by men and women, and the establishment of various women-only bodies making sure that women’s voices and interests are no longer ignored.
Rojava’s model of empowering women is based upon the gender liberation perspective, developed by the PKK and applied by the Kurdish movement and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in Turkey, which runs the local governments in a number of Kurdish provinces in the South-East of Turkey or Northern Kurdistan. A strength of the PKK and the Kurdish movement in North Kurdistan has been their criticism of Kurdish society in terms of class and gender inequalities. Women’s participation in the armed struggle and their success as political activists has broken many taboos in Kurdistan as national movements very often do, but it has not stopped there.
While in the 1990s women were mobilised into the Kurdish national movement, primarily to support and legitimise the national cause, with the new political shift towards Democratic Autonomy, stronger emphasis has been put on everyday politics and of provoking change from below and within society, rather than waiting for the ‘big revolution’ to happen. [This is exactly what the Zapatistas did in Mexico and the anarchist-feminist Mujeres Libre did during the Spanish Revolution.] The Kurdish movement and the PKK put so much emphasis on women’s liberation, that women’s demands for more power and recognition within the movement could not be ignored.
In addition to this, but much to the dismay of many feminists, the women trusted Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK, in guiding them towards gender liberation. Despite his imprisonment since 1999, it was women who supported him most during the turbulent years following his arrest and the declaration of his new political, and at that time controversial, line. In return, Öcalan became more radical in his promotion of gender liberation and urged women within the party to question male dominance within their own ranks.
Thus, the ideological support provided by the PKK and its leader Abdullah Öcalan helped women within the Kurdish movement in North Kurdistan/Turkey to question and challenge women’s oppression and gender inequalities and many women began to develop a feminist consciousness. Thus women strengthened their position within the legal Kurdish movement and built autonomous and semi-autonomous organisations, including women’s assemblies within the pro-Kurdish political parties, women’s centres and associations, a press agency, women’s cooperatives, women’s academies and so on.
Within the guerrilla movement, women also organised as separate and independent units by setting up their own party, the Kurdistan Woman’s Liberation Party (PAJK) and their own guerrilla force (YJA-Star).
5. Kurdish feminist influence on Turkey
Today, women constitute a strong force within the pro-Kurdish parties in Turkey too. They have been working initially on low level grass-roots mobilisation, but have also demanded more recognition for their political work. This has led to the introduction of positive discrimination policies and includes the implementation of a 40 per cent quota of women by the pro-Kurdish parties in Turkey. It ensured that women were elected into local and national governments as councillors, mayors and as members of parliament.
For example, in the 2007 national election the pro-Kurdish parties won 21 seats with a female representation of 38 per cent. This was a significant achievement as the overall female representation in the parliament of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the main opposition, the Republican’s Peoples Party (CHP) was only 9 per cent. In the latest local elections in Turkey, in March 2014, only 37 women were elected as mayors (out of a total 1,364), of which over half were women from the pro-Kurdish parties who applied the women’s quota rigorously. Besides the quota, the pro-Kurdish parties have been applying a pioneering power-sharing system since 2009 that allows key decision-making positions within the party to be shared by both men and women. This means that all elected mayors and councillors have a co-chair who share their salary as well as duties and have equal rights of representing their constituency.
This system has been expanded to other civil society organisations embedded within the Kurdish movement. These and other positive discrimination policies have been highly effective in bringing women’s issues to the agenda of Kurdish politics and raising the profile of women in politics more generally. Arguably, Kurdish women’s representation in political positions and parties has become a yardstick for democratization that has challenged other parties in Turkey to follow suit.
Rojava benefited from the political expertise of the PKK and the Kurdish movement in North Kurdistan/Turkey in setting up a self-governing system and in pursuing gender equality initiatives. The Rojava revolution might seem very ambitious, given that no regional or international power has any interest in supporting and maintaining them. Yet, it was their idealism and their belief that diversity in the Middle East is an asset, rather than a problem, that led them to take responsibility and to go to Mount Sinjar to rescue the besieged civilian population. Their vision of self-rule and their success in building political capacity has enabled Rojava to become a relatively stable and secure region, offering tens of thousands of refugees from Syria and Iraq, a shelter. This however changed with Rojava becoming the focus of intense ISIS attacks….
6. YPJ and its war on ISIS
The Kurdish women fighters (YPJ) of Rojava – the self-proclaimed Kurdish autonomy region in northern Syria – and the women’s guerilla units (YJA-Star) of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), along with their male comrades, were the first forces to respond to the calls of the trapped Yezidi refugees on Sinjar mountain. Setting off from Rojava, these fighters cleared more than a 100km passage through northern Iraq to Mount Sinjar and broke the siege of ISIS. They provided the desperate refugees with a secure corridor, which enabled them to embark on a 24 hour march into the relatively safe northern part of Syria/Rojava, where they received immediate medical attention, food and shelter.
The PKK guerrillas and the fighters from Rojava were the only force on the ground to respond immediately to the crisis, so preventing further ISIS massacres in early August. It was also striking that whole women’s units were among them, not just individual female fighters. ISIS fighters dreaded being killed by a woman, for they believed if this happened the door to paradise would be shut to them.
While such tales have certainly increased the popularity of Kurdish female fighters in the international media – there was even a feature on this in the Metro – the reality is that these women and men who dared to stand up to ISIS put themselves in a very vulnerable position and became the primary target of ISIS wrath. Although they have been the strongest to fight back against ISIS, only the Peshmergas have been supplied with weapons and included in the US coalition. The PKK and Rojava administration were neither consulted about co-ordinated actions against ISIS, nor were they supplied with weapons to defend themselves and the population against further ISIS attacks.
As the founder of Medecins Sans Frontieres Dr Jacques Bérès stated, the Kurdish women fighting ISIS have nothing but their “courage and Kalashnikovs”. Two months after the ISIS massacre on Mount Sinjar, it was again the women’s defence force of the PKK who protected the civilian population from ongoing ISIS attacks. They also vowed to find the thousands of abducted Yezidi girls and women.
7. What really happened during the siege of Kobane
Rojava paid the price for taking on ISIS and for exercising popular self-governance. Despite ongoing US air-strikes on ISIS strongholds the Kobane canton of Rojava came under heavy attack by ISIS since last September. The geographical position of Kobane made it difficult for any outside help from the other cantons and the PKK guerrillas to get through to help. Its border to the north with Turkey was heavily guarded. The rest of Kobane was encircled by ISIS. The surrendering of Kobane would have most likely set off another massacre similar to that on Mount Sinjar. Most of the estimated 160,000 inhabitants of Kobane fled the area, but for those thousands who remained, attempting to defend themselves, the future looked very grim.
An unclassified US memo written by the former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, suggested that Turkey was pushing for a Sunni-Islamic state in Syria, regardless of the demands of much of the opposition for a secular and multi-ethnic federation, as suggested by many Syrians and particularly the minorities such as the Christians, Alawites, Druze and Kurds. In the same memo, Turkish officials were reported to have suggested that a future Syrian constitution should be “Without mention of the Kurds and that any Kurdish problems should be resolved through local municipalities”. It is exactly this mentality of denial and the subsequent assimilation policies of the Turkish state – and similarly that of Iraq, Syria and Iran – that led to the uprisings of the Kurds in the region, causing the loss of over 40,000 lives in the conflict in Turkey alone.
Thus, despite being besieged by ISIS in Kobane, the Kurds in Rojava deeply mistrusted any Turkish military intervention, not least because they accused Turkey of actively supporting ISIS by allowing them to cross the border back and forth. For Turkey, struggling with concessions for their own Kurdish population, an autonomous Rojava run by Kurds affiliated to the PKK was an absolute non-starter. A Turkish intervention in Rojava would not only threaten the autonomy of Rojava, which represents a model for the PKK in Turkey, but would also threaten the peace process with its own Kurds in Turkey.
In January the YPG and YPJ, together with other Kurdish militias, finally liberated Kobane. From the ruins of the city there is now hope.
8. What next?
The autonomous region of Rojava and its unique population is illustration of what has long been understood from the Afghanistan, Iraq and other conflicts around the world: namely, that real democracy has to come from within. No military intervention from the West or from a third power can teach a country and its citizens how to reconcile differences and build a future together. Yet, the people of Rojava are being punished for trying to stand on their own feet and for their alliance with the PKK, which has helped them ideologically and logistically to set up their own administrations, as well as in their fight against al-Qaida and affiliated groups.
Although the PKK is still proscribed as a terrorist organisation and has been engaged in conflict against ISIS, their policies and strategies have been transformed over the last few years. And their popularity among the Kurds remains high, as they have taken a leading role in the struggle for civil liberties, political representation and recognition of cultural rights. The Democratic Autonomy project has been one of the key political projects of the PKK, devised as a long-term solution for the Kurdish question in the Middle East. Proposed as an alternative to a separate Kurdish nation state, it focuses on widening democratic forms of participation and developing alternative forms of governance and economy.
The progressive movement of the Kurds has not only halted the advance of ISIS but is also providing security and stability in the Kurdish areas and, furthermore, has empowered women and built an inclusive form of governance, involving many of the region’s diverse populations such as the Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, and Armenians. Moreover, nearly all the autonomous Kurdish cantons in Syria are now ruled by women. Hevi İbrahim is the prime minister of one of the cantons (Afrin), Asya Abdullah is the co-chair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) that rules the Rojava region, and Ramziya Mohammed is the finance minister of another canton.
But a secular, multi-religious and multi-ethnic Rojava, with democratic ambitions, constitutes not only an ideological threat to ISIS, but also to the conservative Islamic government in Turkey and possibly to the wider region, including Iraq and Syria. While the West complains about the paucity of democracy in the Middle East, its lack of support for such a progressive movement in Kurdistan can only be explained in crude strategic and geo-political terms – i.e. a preference for strong (authoritarian) states that will protect the oil supplies to the West.
In the meantime the Kurds remain at the frontline, keeping ISIS at bay, but with little or no thanks from the Western powers. And if – or when – ISIS is beaten and is no more, then the Kurds may have to take another leaf from the Zapatistas book and simply ‘disappear’ – not into oblivion, but to further their revolution, quietly and determinedly.