The feminist movement must show sisterhood with the Rojava Women's Revolution against Turkish repression, argues Rahila Gupta
“She will not bow her head because the seal of slavery has been broken”, said Jiyan Tolhildan, a member of the Rojava Women’s Revolution, as she celebrated the 10th anniversary of the movement.
A few hours after her speech, she and two other women were targeted and killed by a Turkish drone. Jiyan had successfully led the Kurdish defence forces into battle against ISIS in north-east Syria.
Rojava, a predominantly Kurdish area of northern Syria, declared its autonomy from both the Bashar al-Assad regime and the various other armed organisations active in Syria’s civil war in 2012 – an autonomy bravely fought by women like Tolhidan.
Little is known about this inspirational women’s revolution outside small activist circles in the West even though the writ of Autonomous Administration of North-East Syria (AANES) – the region’s official title – runs across nearly one-third of Syria.
And yet, the women’s resistance is the most exciting political development of my lifetime and deserves to be more widely known, owned and acknowledged by feminists.
A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance
The women’s revolution was not expected to last beyond the moment of its birth in 2012, during the so-called Arab Spring when democratic resistance to Assad erupted in the south and created a vacuum in the north and east of the country, where the nascent Kurdish movement was flexing its democratic muscles.
The evolving situation gave the Kurds an opportunity to declare their autonomy. Under the direction of Democratic Union Party (PYD), Syrian Kurds set up a secular and ethnically inclusive, genuinely bottom-up democratic system with emancipation of women being its key goal.
The PYD was influenced by the ideology of ‘democratic confederalism’ – a political direction devised by Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), after he was jailed by Turkey in 1999.
In the 1980s, Öcalan began with the idea, underpinned by Marxist-Leninist political theory, of reconstituting the separate bits of Kurdistan into a single nation state. Kurdistan had been scattered across four nation states – Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria – by the Sykes-Picot line drawn in 1916 to satisfy competing French and British interests.
By 1999, however, he moved to a rejection of the state as an oppressive entity, opting instead for a localised form of direct democracy to be practised within the national boundaries of the states in which the Kurds lived.
Influenced by his readings of Western feminists in prison and his lifelong conversations with Kurdish women, he went where no other male militant leader has gone. He argued that women’s freedom was more important for him than freedom of the homeland and that, “no race, class or nation is subjected to such systematic slavery as housewifisation”.
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Öcalan’s new framing rejected the idea of an independent Kurdistan. His ideology neutralised any threat from an independent Kurdistan to the Turkish state.
But Turkey has always ruled its Kurdish region with an iron hand, crushing any attempts – peaceful or not – to further Kurdish aspirations to live free from discrimination. That iron hand is most obvious in its bombing of Kurdish areas and stationing tanks on the region’s streets.
Despite the opposition from the Centre, the Kurds brought about radical change at a local level in south-east Turkey by voting in a system of co-mayors, one man and one woman per local municipality.
The co-mayorship system was introduced in 2014. Within two years, Turkey’s authoritarian leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, arrested Kurdish mayors, although he did not disband the local councils. When Kurdish mayors were again elected in local elections, Erdogan did a second clear out in 2020.
A casualty of Erdoğan’s attacks against the ways in which the Kurds had seized the levers of local government were the women-friendly policies such as gender equal leadership. Any local municipalities which had introduced progressive women-friendly policies such as gender-sensitive employment contracts also faced pushback. These contracts stated that violent men or men who forced their young daughters into marriage would lose their jobs, and the jobs would be given to their wives.
In response, the Turkish state arrested many of the locally elected mayors and replaced them with state appointed deputies.
When the power vacuum in Syria allowed the Kurds, across the border from Turkey, to set up full-blooded democratic confederalism in Rojava, Erdoğan was worried the revolution would make his own Kurdish population restive. He was ready to crackdown on any resistance.
However, the political moment was favourable to the Rojava Women’s Revolution, not least because they were part of the global resistance against ISIS. The violent fundamentalist cult was gunning for Rojava and its promotion of women’s equality. Turkey, a NATO member, had to swallow the bitter pill of watching US forces support what it considered to be terrorists.
But when ISIS reached its death spiral, not least thanks to the efforts of women like Jiyan Tolhildan, and the US had less investment in supporting the Kurds, Erdogan and his followers were ready to fight back.
In 2018, Turkey’s attritional cross-border shelling developed into a full-scale invasion and occupation of the western-most canton of Rojava. Since then, it has invaded and occupied other towns and cities.
Erdoğan has vowed to “crush heads” of Kurdish fighters and said he will not rest until he has destroyed the revolution in Rojava.
Driving Erdoğan’s fear of Rojava, and his determination to crackdown on its revolution, is its dedication to up full-blooded democratic confederalism in Rojava, built on gender equality.
When Rojava set up its Women’s Ministry in 2014, it embarked on a legislative assault against patriarchal practices – banning child marriage, forced marriage, dowry and polygamy. It also clamped down on attempts to stop a woman marrying of her own free will. Honour-based killings and violence have been criminalised, as has all forms of discrimination against women.
Other progressive moves include recognising that, in legal cases, 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; and women, regardless of their marital status, have the right to custody of their children until the age of 15.
Sharia courts – the primary method by which justice is delivered across the Middle East – have been disbanded. Even in Britain, feminist attempts to have them disbanded have been unsuccessful.
All these developments took place while Rojava was fighting for its survival first against ISIS and then Turkey. But, since Turkey’s occupation of some areas of Rojava, progress has been reversed. Women have been forced back into the home, deprived of their newly acquired rights, facing strict dress codes, young girls are being forced into marriage and a substantial number of women have been kidnapped and killed.
Despite its treatment of the Kurds, Turkey has been active on the world stage through its mediation of the agreement with Russia to allow safe passage of grain from Ukrainian ports. It has polished its halo further as a peacemaker in the Ukraine war. Sweden and Finland have agreed with Turkey’s stipulation that their future membership of NATO must be conditional on the two countries agreeing to extradite Kurdish activists to Turkey.
Kurdish women are now demanding a no-fly zone over Rojava and the withdrawal of Turkish troops. While these demands require powerful forces to intervene and change the geopolitical reality on the ground, as ordinary citizens, we can, at least, withhold our support for the crumbling Turkish economy by refusing to buy Turkish goods and to bolster Turkish tourism.
Boycotting Turkey may seem an unusual cause for feminists to rally around but it should be the focus of our international campaigning if we want to preserve a template for our own futures.
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