By Dilar Dirik
In a capitalist world in which consumerism and individualism are increasingly taken to the extreme, where no cause seems worth fighting for, a collective resistance to the last bullet seems to be an inconceivably irrational act. Sacrifice, resistance, communalism, and the fight for justice and freedom have been pushed so far away from our consciousness that they seem only reachable as consumable commodities like vacuumed theoretical debates, occasional demos, adrenaline kicks on distortive screens, and sweatshop-fabricated rebel T-Shirts!
As refugee bodies kept being washed ashore and quickly diffused into statistics, many crimes against people’s hopes and dreams for a brighter future were committed in the name of “revolution” in the past couple of years. It is in this dark time in which yet another wave of trauma started invading the Middle East that the epic resistance in Kobanê against the so-called Islamic State ignited curiosity, excitement, and above all hope across the world. As dreams were brutalized and massacred in public spheres in the global south or preventively suffocated at birth in the advanced capitalist west, the willingness of an entire community to mobilize collectively to defend themselves against the dark doctrine of ISIS and beyond, to protect the diverse colors of the mosaic of the Middle East, to take their fate into their own hands resonated with struggling people around the world.
That women from a forgotten community became the fiercest enemies of the Islamic State, whose ideology is based on destroying all cultures, communities, languages, and colors of the Middle East, upset conventional understandings of political agency. It was not because men were protecting women or a state protected its “subjects” that Kobane will be written in humanity’s history of resistance, but because smiling women and men turned their ideas and bodies into the ideological front line on which the Islamic State and its rapist worldview crumbled apart. This resistance was not only a global victory against the most overtly fascist group of our time, but also a wake-up call for anti-system movements around the world, who, in the emergence of Rojava, saw theory and practice unify and find their most aesthetic manifestation in the smiles of the Kurdish women who fight rapist murderers with their philosophy.
Suddenly, Kurdistan turned into a pilgrimage site for anti-system movements and revolutionaries around the world. What is freedom, what is autonomy? Their eyes turned to Mesopotamia for perspective. The emergence of a radical democracy in the midst of an inferno constituted a moment of critical self-reflection of struggling people around the world. A popular systematic mobilization seemed to have been beyond the imaginary of the left for a long time, and now it should come from the Kurdish regions of war-town Syria? As if emerging from the secret, unwritten corners of history – with a smile nonetheless – was not enough, the Kurds are now given the task of passing the litmus test on behalf of all revolutions that ever existed. Is a revolution really possible? The burden of proof almost besieges them.
See, I could give an overview of the complex council and communes system of the three cantons, I could speak of the military victories of the defense forces, I could sing about how life was like for women before the revolution and how they organize themselves in all aspects of life today, I could explain the legacy of resistance and uprising of decades, if not centuries or even millennia of struggle in Kurdistan against centralism, the communalist cultural trades of the region, and the uncountable acts of heroism that have prepared the stage for today’s historic moment, I could get into discussions on what kind of psychology the pan-Arabist state mentality of the Baath party and its pervasive intelligence apparatus has inflicted on the population of Syria, and how we can only grasp the meaning and value of Rojava’s project behind this backdrop, but let that be a story for another time. Instead, let’s ask: what does Rojava mean for history, present and past? What makes ideas turn to practice? What does Rojava mean in the age of hijacked and abused revolutions?
Abstract, I know, but let me take you on a trip with me. Don’t worry, it’s for research purposes!
For a young person from North Kurdistan (Kurdistan in Turkey or Bakur), whose sense of Kurdishness has been shaped around a revolutionary leftist struggle of oppressed people, it is a bizarre feeling to arrive in the part that has globally been accepted as “Kurdistan” – the Kurdistan region of Iraq, or South Kurdistan (Başûr). The word Kurdistan is written out in public space, irritatingly next to Turkish company billboards, like everything was cool between them. Did Kurds plant these trees? Did Kurds open these schools? Among the post 2003 US-imported shopping malls, designed after the universal sterile concept that makes you feel like you could be in London, Paris or New York, even though ISIS is just a few kilometers away, among the fake Christmas trees and holiday parks, the luxury hotels and businessy-looking people, you wonder if this is where the epic resistance against Saddam Hussein once took place. Kurds in Turkey, an existence having been denied, lived an existence in the struggle, gave an identity meaning in action, reshaped it, rearticulated it, completely politicized the identity called “Kurdish”, turned it into a platform of radical struggle for democracy. A similar wind used to blow in South Kurdistan too at some point, but a new “freedom” concept has replaced it.
Here, I look around and see two things that I am familiar with –Kurdishness whatever that means and on the other hand capitalism and its best friend, the state. But this is… capitalism, statism in Kurdish! Is that even ontologically possible?! Kurdistan, what’s in a name? Identity is clearly what you make it. Freedom is the system you choose to build. More later.
So there I was, leaving behind the glorious Kurdistan Regional Government which relies on yoghurt imports from Iran and chicken from Brazil, as if this geography hadn’t been part of one of the oldest civilizations, ancient Mesopotamia; I cross the Khabour, which leads to the Euphrates river that has nourished and given birth to so much life, to so many cultures, languages and civilizations and which now, in the current nation-state world order marks an arbitrary division between two artificial yet violently efficient monopolist constructs named “Iraq” and “Syria”.
“Welcome to Rojava!”
I don’t know if you will believe me when I say I could physically feel the revolution. “How does one feel freedom on a body?” you may rightfully ask. But – goddess Ishtar be my witness – as soon as I stepped on Rojavan soil, suddenly, I breathed freely for the first time in my life. And though I found myself in one of the most dangerous places in the world, I felt safer than ever. I was in the hands of our decades old dreams, they hug me, dance with me, wipe my tears away. Somehow a giant weight seems to be lifted off my shoulders, it seems millennia old, despite my age, and the bizarre alienation between myself and society blurs into meaninglessness. Something insidious and subtle, yet intrusively oppressive seems to have vanished. As if the non-existent eyes I always felt on me had disappeared and I for once become a subject myself. This is when I realized that the omnipresence of the institution State was missing. That Kurdistan was inviting history for a reconciliation dance. I feel human, I feel at peace. I feel lost and found at the same time… Somebody hugs me: “Welcome to Rojava!”
Everything is sacred, but not in the classical sense: not sacred as in frightening, not sacred as in taboo, not sacred as in there to maintain a status quo. All is sacred because it belongs to me, to you, to everyone. Because its preciosity relies on all of us collectively taking up responsibility for it, on us claiming it as ours, as everyone’s. Smiling people everywhere, so beautifully human you don’t dare looking. What is perhaps unintelligible between the written lines of official statements or social contracts to the outside world radiates from the eyes of the ordinary working people who see organization, mobilization as the only way to survive. The people who love life so much they are willing to die for it.
Neighborhoods that decided to organize themselves in the form of communes consist of the wretched of the earth- politics is becoming alive, as children’s laughter becomes the melody behind which decisions on electricity hours and peace-making committees are made. How inefficient, inofficial – but that is the beauty of it.
Giving power to people who never had anything requires courage, requires trust, requires love.
I stay at a family’s house – one son martyred, one son wounded in an explosion, one son a journalist, two in culture academies. The mother gets up at 5 to meet her friends at their cooperative women’s farm and brings home fresh vegetables, only to attend the women’s council meeting later. By mobilizing her community, she is declaring war on the nation-state system, living the autonomy that she desires, she deserves. The father goes off to the people’s house to listen to the neighborhood’s needs. Their home is always full. People randomly walk in with their children to criticize or discuss or suggest or share. Social issues become literally social, as they become everyone’s issue and everyone’s responsibility. A cleric explains to me the urgency of coexistence and his faith in women’s strength. The Syriac Christians teach me how to greet in their native language. A Chechen YPG commander laughs and puts his fluffy papakha on my head before we take a photo. The young Arab men who defend the checkpoints near al-Yaroubia crack jokes as we stop by. The “tilililililiii”s, bursting out of the wrinkles lips of highly politicized women in colorful robes, who now learn to read and write in their language for the first time rings in my ears. I notice the missing arm of a tireless administration member explaining the struggle of creating a free and independent mentality in society, a culture of democracy. I watch a children’s theater in which the “laborer cat” emancipates itself from the two “golden cats”. I cry silently by the plastic flowers that decorate the plain make-shift gravestones of the thousands of fighters and civilians.
The Mesopotamia academy of Social Sciences which was created in Qamishlo in September 2014, challenges hierarchical structures in academia, science, and thought. The academy criticizes the social sciences’ division into myriad parts and actively rejects status quo professionalism. Consisting of three terms, the school year begins with an introduction into history and sociology. Rather than memorizing established theories, the students discuss the importance of history and sociology to make sense of the world, as well as the subjectivity of the oppressor’s dominant history-writing. The second term deepens and focuses the readings and discussions. In the final term, students write a thesis or create a project, based on identifying a social problem in their community and come up with ways of resolving it. Social sciences are not merely seen as methods to categorize and analyze, but also as tools to serve the community. Students are not expected to have right or wrong answers, but rather to be able to interpret and criticize well and to produce solutions. Although students obviously learn from the teachers, people at the academy usually do not refer to each other as teacher or student, but as “heval” (friend or comrade), as hierarchies and power relations are trying to be eliminated. After each session, the teachers get criticized by their students. Students in their last term teach their fellows. Learning is then a constant process rather than something that can be completed. I hear stories of a 70-year old woman who recites traditional folk tales at the Mesopotamia Academy to challenge the history-writing of hegemonic powers and positivist science, a radical act of defiance against the former monist regime. Recovering wisdom and knowledge outside of the hegemony of the modern sciences is a central focus of Rojava’s attitude towards education. Knowledge is everywhere, it needs to be valued and shared. Apart from this academy, art, film, women, youth, music, sports, economy academies etc. have been formed to communalize education.
Dr. Agirî, a medically trained doctor and a member of a health council of which there exist several across Rojava, explains how health issues are often related to perspectives on life in general and thus require the politicization of the population. He claims that the deteriorating public health around the world is due to the fact that in the current system, humans are not seen as part of life. The capitalist politics of companies and industries cannot be separated from their impact on our life styles and social relations. “If society’s mentality is ill, the body will be ill”. Therefore, health, education, the protection of nature, political activism cannot be separated from each other and must all be seen as one. He explains how cultural assimilation by nation-states is related to the erasure of collective memory, which in turn is related to alienation from nature and communalist life. The fact that stress is the main cause for most diseases and is related to life conditions requires a rethinking of the system in which we live in. Elaborating on the impact of unrestricted urbanization and technology on people, emphasizing that despite being in crowds, people are lonely nowadays, as even in families people isolate themselves on their smart phones, resulting in robotized, virtual friendships, he believes this state to be one of modern slavery, in which there is no need for whips. In an era in which obesity is treated for beauty rather than health, he firmly thinks that “Health is ideological issue.” Therefore, in an attempt to create a healthier and more politicized society simultaneously, their health policies want to develop green areas for ecological socialization, though this is often impossible due to the embargo and urgency of war. The politicization of society with the cohesion between the health of the individual, society, and the environment is crucial to Rojava’s health philsosophy.
The defense forces in Rojava illustrate how self-defense can work without hierarchy, control, and domination: In the midst of war, the People’s Defense Units YPG and the Women’s Defense Units YPJ, as well as the internal security units, asayîş, focus on ideological education. Half of it is on gender equality. Academies educate fighters to understand that they are not a force of revenge and that the current militarization is a necessity due to the war. The asayîş academies work toward a community with an asayîş without arms, who verbally mediate disputes in the neighborhoods with the ultimate aim of abolishing the asayîş altogether by building an “ethical-political society” that will solve its own problems with the commune level being the most crucial unit of society. They reject the police label, because rather than serving the state, they serve the people, because they are the people. The asayîş academy in Rimelan used to be a secret service center of the Syrian regime. Some students who receive education in women’s liberation here and communally organize their sessions, gardening and kitchen work, have once been tortured by the Assad regime as political prisoners in the same building. There are disciplinary measures for those violating the military conduct of the forces. Fighting against an enemy like ISIS and maintaining ethics is difficult without a determined political agenda that commits to liberationist values. Commanders are elected by battalion members based on their experience, commitment, and willingness to take responsibility. This idea of leadership in the spirit of sacrifice is the reason why many of the martyrs of the YPG/YPJ were experienced, loved commanders.
“We don’t want the world to know us for our guns, but for our ideas”
“We don’t want the world to know us for our guns, but for our ideas”, says Sozda, a YPJ (women’s defense units) commander in Amûde, and points at the pictures on their common room’s walls: PKK guerrilla fighters and Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned ideological representative of the movement. “We are not just women fighting ISIS. We struggle to change society’s mentality and show the world what women are capable of.”
Abdullah Öcalan articulates that women are the first historical colony and believes masculinity to be at the core of societal problems: “Man is a system. The male has become a state and turned this into the dominant culture. Class and sexual oppression develop together; masculinity has generated ruling gender, ruling class, and ruling state. When man is analysed in this context, it is clear that masculinity must be killed. Indeed, to kill the dominant man is the fundamental principle of socialism. This is what killing power means: to kill the one-sided domination, the inequality and intolerance. Moreover it is to kill fascism, dictatorship and despotism”. Furthermore, he explicitly states that patriarchy, along with capitalism and the state lie at the roots of oppression, domination, and power and makes the connection between them clear: “All the power and state ideologies stem from sexist attitudes and behaviour. Woman’s slavery is the most profound and disguised social area where all types of slavery, oppression and colonization are realized. Capitalism and nation-state act in full awareness of this. Without woman’s slavery none of the other types of slavery can exist let alone develop. Capitalism and nation-state denote the most institutionalized dominant male. More boldly and openly spoken: capitalism and nation-state are the monopolism of the despotic and exploitative male”. The mass-mobilization of women in Kobanê did not emerge out of nowhere, but is based on a rooted tradition and regards itself as a continuation of the PKK’s women’s struggle. The same international order that praises the women fighting ISIS has for decades been using sexist derogatory language to characterize the PKK guerrilla women, who fight against Turkey, the second largest NATO army.
Today, the Kurdish freedom movement splits power equally between one woman and one man, from Qandil to Diyarbakir to Qamishlo to Paris. The Rojava system also applies this co-chair principle from canton presidencies to neighborhood councils. While this is often difficult to implement in the almost fully destroyed Kobane, the system is now rooted in the cantons Afrîn and Cîzre. Beyond providing women and men with equal decision-making power, the co-chair concept aims to decentralize power, prevent monopolism, and promote consensus-finding. Only women have the right to elect the female co-chair while the male co-chair is elected by everyone.
Apart from co-chairs and quotas, the Rojava cantons also created women’s defense units, women’s communes, academies, tribunals, and cooperatives in the midst of war and under the weight of an embargo. The women’s movement Yekîtiya Star is autonomously organized in all walks of life, from defense to economy to education to health. Autonomous women’s councils exist parallel to the people’s councils and can veto the latter’s decisions. Men committing violence against women are not supposed to be part of the administration and women are the primary decision-takers, judges, and policy makers in issues concerning women, such as gender-based violence. Gender-based discrimination, forced marriages, domestic violence, honor killings, polygamy, child marriage, and bride price are outlawed. Many non-Kurdish women, especially Arabs and Syriacs, join the armed ranks and administration in Rojava and are encouraged to organize autonomously as well.
For a meaningful freedom struggle, women’s liberation must be an aim, but also an active method in the liberation process. In fact, democracy is defined radically around the degree of women’s liberation. This of course does not mean that a feminist society has already been created, but the women’s liberation agenda of Rojava is truly revolutionary. As a large banner in the city centre of Qamishlo declares: “We will defeat the attacks of ISIS by guaranteeing the freedom of women in the Middle East.”
We grew up conscious of the fact that Kurdish colors wouldn’t mean anything if they aren’t accompanied by the victory signs of our hands. But here in Rojava, these ideas are being turned into life. Rojava tries systematizing freedom, democratizing identity. Not its perfection, but its realness, its honesty, its courage strikes out. It doesn’t claim flawlessness, but it dares to imagine utopia and creates steps to turn it to life. Strangely enough, utopia feels so natural, so human.
Heval Kînem, who instructs at the asayîş academy in Rimelan says to me: “It’s okay. Everyone who comes to Rojava cries.”
Let’s talk a bit about ideas and the winds that carry their seeds then. About daring and living utopias rather than just theorizing on them. Let’s demystify the word “radical democracy”.
Clearly, there is no mathematic formula for freedom. But it has a lot to do with love for the community. It sounds so banal, but really, far more than theoretical ideas, radical democracy is becoming alive in Rojava due to the fact that unlike in advanced capitalist settings, the sense of community is simply not yet dead. I remember my first trip to Rojava – we had organized the first international academic delegation to the region. Although all of our members were leftists generally, I wondered how many could actually live in such a system.
How many people would dare to live in a system in which we share resources and solve our problems together with our neighbors, giving up the anonymity of state bureaucracies? Would we be fine with non-professionals being in charge of justice? Will we dedicate our energy to transforming the most marginalized and dehumanized people to political subjects without giving up upon spotting the first mistake? But not by “teaching” them, but just by being equal to them? Revolution fundamentally requires love and courage.
How many people actually believe that a poor domestically-abused mother of ten kids who cannot read could have a deeper political consciousness than them? How many would trust such a woman to become a decision-maker? How many of those who reject Öcalan’s leadership so strongly actually put themselves and “the people” on the same eye level? How many would have the patience and sacrificial spirit to dedicate themselves fully to a community so much that they would die for them, without their names being known? We cannot simply expect that thousands of years old mentalities and internalized oppression will disappear with a few councils and assemblies or theoretical principles, unless we talk about machines, not society. Most struggles begin with a demand for recognition, a place in history.
The imagination of some leftists from advanced capitalist countries who expect Rojava to be a spotless, perfect, contradiction-free, smooth and accomplished revolution and throw it away when it doesn’t look like they pictured it in their own versions, is quite illustrative of a broader issue of the left today: it is more occupied with talking about radicalism in an unaccessible way, assuming a group of fellow strugglers that enjoy the same set of privileges and vocabulary than it is with actually solving the Gordian knots of society. How radical is a struggle that fails to spread? As one friend in Rojava said “As much as we in the Middle East need to struggle to overcome the dogmatic authoritarian state-mentality, those in the west need to overcome their extreme individualism imposed by capitalism”.
In order to be in a more conscious and reflexive form of solidarity, people should reflect on their ideological purism which is an expression of privilege – not everyone can afford being ideologically pure, theoretically consistent, especially not in a life or death struggle. Even if we often do not receive the instant gratification, which the internalized capitalist mindset requires, in real life struggles, we cannot just drop historic moments of revolution very quickly if they don’t look perfect, while these politically mobilized mothers of ten kids continue to be the real threat to the status quo…
“Why do you travel alone as a woman? Where is your father, your brother? Why are you not married yet? How do your parents let you come here by yourself? So you think that your family allowing you to be on your own is something normal? So you think you are ‘free’ now?”
Did I wake up from a dream? No, I simply crossed the Khabour river again. I was being interrogated simply because I am a Kurdish woman travelling alone, enough to make the KDP suspicious of me. I am back in the state system, the international order. The status quo reminds me of its validity with a metaphysical smack in the face.
After debating new epistemologies for freedom, after interviewing refugees who build autonomous structures after fleeing ISIS, I was now sitting across this aggressive man who couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that I would dare to be my own woman. “Tell me, who is really with you!” I explained myself, but when I referred to Rojava as western Kurdistan, he widened his eyes in disbelief, yelled: “No, no, no. That is Syria, that is not Kurdistan! Kurdistan is here!” – Again, what is Kurdistan? I remember my conversation with students at the Mesopotamia academy, men who were receiving classes on jineolojî – the Kurdish women’s movement’s new epistemological paradigm… “I realized I had been just like the state with my patriarchal mentality”, one had said.
What marks such striking differences west and east to the river is an understanding of freedom and a perspective on life and its meaning. These two lines in Kurdistan did not develop coincidentally. It is a millennia old struggle – beginning with the Ziggurats of Sumer, the first standing army in the world, accompanied by the plots against ancient goddesses, which symbolizes the fall of the woman and community as well as the beginning of the end of human harmony, and finds its latest expression in the feminicide against the women of the Middle East by yet another self-proclaimed “state”.
Sometimes it feels impossible to believe in the utopias that we dream about, yet sometimes the line between the system and a revolution is just a river. But after all, the fight between the forces of resistance and the system of domination are almost just as old as the Euphrates.
I spend a few months in Iraqi Kurdistan; my body begins to normalize the constant harassment around me. How dare I be a woman? But ideas spread like polen, if the wind is right, even if their flowers are often cut, because the human mind tends to tame beauty sometimes, scared of its own creativity. I remember the curious eyes of the girl working at the border-crossing on the Iraqi side where I had been interrogated: “Is it really true what they say about Rojava? Are women really that strong?”
Near Kerkuk, only a couple of minutes drive from ISIS, a young men who used to be a KDP peshmerga tells me how young people here view the PKK guerrillas who have a presence in the area since last year: the way women and men interact as equals, their way of life (“We see what their table looks like, we see how they eat. They don’t own anything for themselves”), and the fact that they actually fight and die, not for oil, money, or land, but for the people. I have tea at an Arab family’s house, who don’t want me to publish their photos, who don’t let me record their voice, who even prefer to handwrite their story into my notebook themselves, because their home has been attacked three times by ISIS. The mother of the house, a woman who seems to be in her late 60s, gives me a beautiful scarf as a present, she got it from Mecca. We need translation but we love each other. She cannot express her affection for the guerrilla openly due to the security situation, so she secretly bakes and sends them bread.
In Slemani, I sit in a taxi and the driver, an old man, after simply looking at me in the mirror briefly and listening to the two sentences I said in my dialect, pulls out an old photo from his glove box: “My son was a PKK guerrilla and he was martyred in Botan in 1997”. He trusts me because he thinks I am a heval.
The Khabour may divide system from revolution – but who could underestimate the uniting power of the lawless wind that knows no borders?
Rojava is truly a revolution of the people, an attempt to dare imagining another world.
Rojava’s story sounds like an epic tale of heroism, the storyline of a novel.
But it is in no way a coincident that, just when the global order is diving into yet another existential crisis, these two lines -smiling, hopeful women on one side, and murderous, violent rapists, who build their hegemony of darkness on destruction and fascist brutality on the other side, clash in the place where the first state-like structure began to emerge, where women first lost their status in society. There is no clash between two civilizations the way the dominant system wants us to believe. In the meaning of Rojava, despite its shortcomings, we see another clash– the choice between enslavement or freedom. Between subjugation and domination or resistance and love. It is not a coincidence that those whose history has never been written have the heart to fight those who want to erase history altogether. Just like it is no coincidence that a couple of inches can divide two ideas of freedom in Kurdistan, if we conceptualize freedom as a system. The current order may be the legacy of millennia-old systems of hierarchical power, there may have always been oppression, but at the same time, there have also always been revolutionary, rebellious, resistance struggles.
So if freedom is nothing that can be granted or just claimed, but needs to be built, through sacrifice and solidarity, it is a task of people around the world to defend this revolution so it can achieve its potential and nourish our emancipatory human creativity.
Rojava is not the answer to everything, it cannot be described with one adjective. It may not be a perfect system, but it is a manifesto of life. Rojava is truly a revolution of the people, an attempt to dare imagining another world.
Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution
The Road Map to Democratization of Turkey
The Roots of Civilisation
The Ocalan Case
War And Peace In Kurdistan
Why Jineology? Re-Constructing the Sciences Towards a Communal and Free Life
Peacebuilding as Counter-Insurgency | Self-Determination vs Global ‘Counter-Terror’ Operations
The Kurdistan Woman’s Liberation Movement
Kurdish Women’s Unknown History of Struggle
Stateless Democracy : How the Kurdish Women’s Movement Liberated Democracy from the State
The Double Standards of the Western World According to PKK
ISIS Seen Through the Eyes of PKK Guerrilla Forces
Killing the Dominant Male
Revolutionary Women: Zapatista and YPJ-STAR Embrace New Gender Politics
Feminism and the Kurdish Freedom Movement
The Women Combatants of Rojava
Kurdish Women’s Radical Self-Defense: Armed and Political
The Philosophy that Inspired the Kurdish Resistance
Yazidi Women : From Genocide to Resistance