On July 25, 2017, The Independent, a UK newspaper, reported that the world’s first LGBT military unit had joined the International Revolutionary People’s Guerrilla Forces, an anarchist battalion fighting alongside Kurdish armies in northern Syria. Two weeks later, on August 9, The Independent reported that the group, which called itself TQILA, The Queer Insurrection International Liberation Army, had been kicked out of the fight by the International Freedom Battalion (IFB) of the YPG, or People’s Protection Force, which gets small arms and air support from the u.s. government to fight the Islamic State and other insurgent groups in Syria. The IFB accused TQILA, and the IRPGF in general, of opportunism in “their using this Revolution as a loud speaker for their own agenda.”
This surprising, inspiring, frustrating and confusing story is a microcosm of the revolution by the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), known formerly and still unofficially as Rojava. The Rojava Revolution officially began in 2012, when the Syrian government, under siege from Islamic State and other insurgent forces, withdrew from the Kurdish-dominant areas of northern Syria, leaving the Kurdish-led militias known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) to defend themselves against IS. The YPG/YPJ, now part of a larger coalition known as the Syrian Defense Forces, SDF, quickly became the most effective fighting force in Syria and Iraq. The new york times and New Yorker and other western media featured glamorous photos of the YPJ women posing with rifles, without ever mentioning the democratic socialist feminist political institutions they are defending.
For many decades, the Kurds were heavily repressed by the Ba’athist regime of Bashar al Assad. Speaking Kurdish languages was criminalized. The government moved to undermine ethnic and national identity in the Kurdish areas by a policy of “Arabization” or resettling Arabs in Kurdish areas. In 2012, with Assad’s forces focused on fighting IS in the south, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) took advantage of the breathing room to establish a system of ‘democratic confederalism’ propounded by Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) across the border in Turkey. According to British journalist Rahila Gupta, “the Syrian Kurds set up a secular and ethnically inclusive, genuinely bottom-up democratic system.”
Ocalan and the PKK, which the Turkish government (and its ally, the u.s.) considers a terrorist organization, began as a Marxist/Maoist movement in the 1970s, with the goal of consolidating the Kurdish areas of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria into a nationalist socialist Kurdistan. However, in 1999, Ocalan was captured by Turkey with help from the CIA, the Mossad, and the Greek and Dutch governments. While held in virtual isolation, he somehow came into contact with the work of u.s. anarchist Murray Bookchin. He convinced other Kurdish revolutionaries to drop their demand for a state and instead work to establish “democratic confederalism.” He also became very pro-feminist, which Bookchin never was. According to feminist author and scholar Meredith Tax, who has written a book about the YPJ and is part of the North American Rojava Alliance, Ocalan’s feminist epiphany was brought on by the fact that “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.”
Bookchin’s romantic and professional partner, Janet Biehl, was introduced to the Rojava revolution after Bookchin died by Kurdish activists living in Germany. Biehl went on to translate a book they wrote called Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation. She traveled to Rojava again in 2016. According to Biehl, whom I interviewed for KPFA Women’s Magazine, the people living in the cantons of Afrin, Cizire and Kobane have stopped using the name Rojava because it is a Kurdish word (I have seen it translated as “west” or “sunset”), and they want their movement and the society they are building to be inclusive of everyone living in the region, which includes Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians, Chechens. Religiously it is diverse; there are Muslims, Christians, Alawites, Zoroastrians (Yazidis) and Jews. The area is also constantly receiving new refugees from areas of heavy fighting, hence becoming even more diverse. Its official languages specified in the founding compact are Kurdish, Arabic and Assyrian-Syriac.
The core of the organization is the “district commune,” which is composed of 300 member households, with two elected co-presidents, one male, one female. Eighteen communes make up a district, and the co-presidents of all of them are on the district people’s council. According to Tax, “The district people’s councils decide on matters of administration and economics like garbage collection, heating-oil distribution, land ownership, and cooperative enterprises.”
Biehl told me that food is distributed to every household through the “residential street” organization – basically, each street has someone responsible for making sure that everyone receives regular distributions of food. The region is very fertile – part of the Fertile Crescent, actually – and before the war was the bread basket of Syria. It also has oil. I’m unclear on how the oil is being managed and sold, but Biehl insists that as far as she knows, the u.s. has not demanded or received access in exchange for its military support.
All communes and councils are mandated to be at least 40 percent women but there are also parallel autonomous women’s bodies at each level. These determine policy on matters of particular concern to women, like forced marriages, femicide/familial killing, polygamy, sexual violence, and discrimination. Polygamy and familial killings are banned, and a man who practices them cannot participate in civic life. In an issue of primary importance to women, the women’s councils are able to overrule the mixed councils.
Autonomous women’s organizing in the cantons began in 2005, with the formation of an organization called Yekitiya Star. At that time, according to Turkish journalist Gamze Kafar, it was illegal to even observe International Women’s Day. Leading members of Yekitiya Star were arrested by the Assad regime. Since the liberation of Rojava, women have formed a confederation called Kongira Star. (Again, the name change was motivated by a desire to be more inclusive; Yekitiya is a Kurdish word.) Members of Kongira Star go door to door, talking to women regardless of whether they are supporters of the revolution, letting them know about their rights and the availability of shelters and other services. Because of this outreach, more and more Arab and Yazidi women have joined the movement.
Journalist Rahila Gupta traveled to Rojava in March 2016 and toured the network of cooperatives built by the Women’s Economic Committee of Kongira Star. She quotes Delal Afrin, head of the Women’s Economic Committee: “The woman is always oppressed in the presence of the man. Women still need to defend themselves from male violence. She cannot really express herself fully and freely yet. This is why the autonomous women’s organisation, Kongira Star was started: to build women’s confidence and knowledge. …Women have to be organised in order to mount an effective challenge to capitalist modernity.”
It’s hard to believe that Rojava is as utopian as it sounds. It’s also hard to believe that the u.s. government is sponsoring a decentralized democratic socialist feminist non-nationalist and non-state entity. There are also rumors that Rojava is allied with or support by israel, although the reports I have seen are questionable: a long article in an israeli defense newspaper quoting an “unnamed” “Kurdish leader” as saying “The Kurds have no other friends in the Middle East except Israel,” smacks of COINTELPRO, but that doesn’t mean it is.
War, however, tends to get in the way of ideological purity and make for complicated relationships. With Turkey now bombing Afrin, one of the cantons of Rojava/DFNS, and the u.s. – its ally – sitting on its hands, how long will the alliance prevail? Hopefully DFNS will survive long enough for some of us to go there and see for ourselves.
Kurdish feminist Dilar Dirik, writing on Al Jazeera, critiqued both the western “Orientalist” fascination with Rojavan fighters and leftist dismissals of them as western “public relations.” Those leftists, she said, “ignore the social revolution that preceded the armed struggle, which gave Kurdish women a reputation as important political actors and equal decision-makers. After all, Kurdish women have been fighting this cause with little media attention for decades.”