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Rojava revolution: 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?  Part 6 of Witnessing the Rojava revolution.

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.

Kongra Star, women’s umbrella organisation, Rojava. Image: facebook.

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?

Read earlier articles in the openDemocracy 50.50 series: Witnessing the revolution in Rojava


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