As they Liberate Villages from ISIL, Kurds drawing Syrians into Feminist Democracy

By Rahila Gupta | ( OpenDemocracy | – –

Rojava is a fast moving, dynamic place
where things change by the minute. What are the material conditions which
support this woman-centred revolution ? Part 5 of 50.50’s series  Witnessing the revolution in Rojava, northern Syria.

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.

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

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.

Member of the sewing co-op models a YPG flag.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. 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.

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.

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 Sisters; Provoked; 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

via Open Democracy

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