Since last August, when I first heard about the fight against ISIS in Kobani, I have been wondering why so few people in the United States are talking about the Rojava cantons. You’d think it would be big news that there’s a liberated area in the Middle East led by kickass socialist-feminists, where people make decisions through local councils and women hold 40 percent of leadership positions at all levels. You’d think it would be even bigger news that their militias are tough enough to beat ISIS. You’d think analyses of what made this victory possible would be all over the left-wing press.
But many on the U.S. left have yet to hear the story of the Rojava cantons—Afrin, Cizîre, and Kobani—in northern Syria, or western Kurdistan. Rojava—the Kurdish word for “west”—consists of three leftist enclaves making up an area slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut, in territory dominated by ISIS. In mid-2012, Assad’s forces largely withdrew from the area, and the battle was left to the Kurdish militias: the YPG (People’s Protection Units) and the YPJ (Women’s Defense Forces), the autonomous women’s militias. These militias are not the same as the Iraqi peshmerga, though the U.S. press uses that name for both.
The YPG and YPJ have, for the better part of the last three years, been focused on defeating the jihadis, even as they continue to clash with the Assad regime (particularly in and around the city of Hasakah). On January 27, 2015, they achieved a major victory when they defeated ISIS in Kobane. They have since won the strategic towns of Tel Hamis and Tel Tamr (on the edges of Cizîre canton), but are, as of late April, gearing up for a renewed ISIS attack on the area.
While the Syrian opposition is understandably bitter that the YPG and YPJ withdrewmost of their energy from the war with Assad, leftists worldwide should be watching the remarkable efforts being made by Syrian Kurds and their allies to build a liberated area where they can develop their ideas about socialism, democracy, women, and ecology in practice.
They have been working on these ideas since 2003, when the PYD (Democratic Union Party) was founded by Syrian members of Turkey’s banned Kurdish party, the PKK. By January 2014, they had established a bottom-up system of government in each canton, with political decisions made by local councils and social service and legal questions administered by local civil society structures under the umbrella of TEV-DEM (Democratic Society Movement). TEV-DEM includes people from all the ethnic groups in the cantons, who are represented by more than one political party, but most of its ideological leadership comes from the PYD.
According to Janet Biehl, who was part of an academic delegation to the Cizîre canton in December 2014, the district commune is the building block of the whole structure. Each commune has 300 members and 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, which also has directly elected members. The district people’s councils decide on matters of administration and economics like garbage collection, heating-oil distribution, land ownership, and cooperative enterprises. While all the communes and councils are at least 40 percent women, the PYD—in its determination to revolutionize traditional gender relations—has also set up parallel autonomous women’s bodies at each level. These determine policy on matters of particular concern to women, like forced marriages, honor killings, polygamy, sexual violence, and discrimination. Since domestic violence is a continuing problem, they have also set up a system of shelters. If there is conflict on an issue concerning women, the women’s councils are able to overrule the mixed councils.
In short, the Rojava revolution is fulfilling the dreams of Arab Spring—and then some. If its ideas can be sustained and can prevail against ISIS, Kurdish nationalism, and the hostile states surrounding the cantons, Rojava will affect the possibilities available to the whole region. So why isn’t it getting more international support?
In October, David Graeber wrote a Guardian op-ed comparing Rojava’s fight against ISIS to the Spanish Civil War and asking why the international left was showing so little solidarity this time around. The answer lies partly in how one defines international solidarity—which these days often seems to be limited to opposing whatever the United States does. In December 2014, an In These Times panel on what to do about Kobani framed the question purely in terms of U.S. military intervention. Richard Falk responded:
The plight of the Kurds in Kobani and their courage in resisting ISIS poses a tragic predicament that does challenge the kind of anti-interventionism that I feel is justified overall, particularly in the Middle East. But to overcome the presumption against military intervention, especially from the air, one needs very powerful evidence. . . . [T]he ISIS intervention doesn’t seem designed to actually deal with the problem. Rather, it looks like a projection of U.S. power in the region.
Falk immediately turns the question toward U.S. motives rather than whether Kobani needs help or has asked for it and what other kinds of help besides bombing might be available.
To Graeber, this way of framing the question is sadly one-sided; anti-imperialist critique is insufficient without solidarity. He visited Rojava as part of the academic delegation, and on his return, described it as “a genuine revolution”:
But in a way that’s exactly the problem. The major powers have committed themselves to an ideology that say[s] real revolutions can no longer happen. Meanwhile, many on the left, even the radical left, seem to have tacitly adopted a politics which assumes the same, even though they still make superficially revolutionary noises. They take a kind of puritanical “anti-imperialist” framework that assumes the significant players are governments and capitalists and that’s the only game worth talking about.
What is the problem here? Are we in the United States too cynical or depressed to believe anything new can happen? Are we able to recognize revolutionary ideas when they come from Greece, Spain, or Latin America but not from the Middle East? Are we so sexist we can’t take the idea of a feminist revolution seriously? Or is the problem simply ignorance? If so, knowing the story might help. Let’s start with the Yazidis.
Saving the Yazidis
Until August 2014, few Americans had ever heard of the Yazidis, an Iraqi Kurdish minority practicing an ancient religion close to Zoroastrianism. Then ISIS (also known as Daesh, ISIL, or the Islamic State) entered Sinjar, and the Yazidis—abandoned by both the Iraqi army and the much-hyped Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga—fled north into the mountains. Soon stories began to appear of genocidal attacks that wiped out the entire male population of villages and of hundreds of Yazidi women and children being raped, sold into slavery, or forced to marry ISIS fighters.
On August 6, Reuters reported that 50,000 Yazidis were trapped in the mountains above Sinjar in danger of imminent starvation. The next day, Obama authorized limited air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and air drops of supplies to the Yazidis. But this was hardly enough to remedy the growing humanitarian disaster. As the United States continued to “weigh its options,” the UK and Germany talked about sending aid, and the Pope condemned ISIS, the Yazidis remained trapped.
Then came a rescue so dramatic it was worthy of a Hollywood movie: the YPG and YPJ militias, without heavy weapons or air cover, crossed from Syria into the mountains of Iraq and cut a corridor to evacuate the Yazidis. Suddenly the Western press was full of pictures of attractive young women in uniform—there has been more than a touch of Orientalist fantasy in Western coverage of the women’s militias. This coverage has barely touched upon their politics, beyond ominous references to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and Turkey.
Turkey, for its part, played a lamentable role in the battle of Kobani. Observers including David L. Phillips of Columbia University’s Institute for Human Rights assert that “Turkey is providing military, logistical, financial and medical support for Daesh [ISIS] and other jihadists.”
Erdogan also predicted in October that Kobani would fall any minute. But, despite Turkey’s aid to ISIS and the Kurds’ lack of heavy weapons and supplies, the YPG and YPJ militias fought on against very heavy odds, and after months of battle, were able to drive ISIS out of Kobani in January. Along the way, they began attracting Western volunteers, several of whom have been killed.
While the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds are theoretically allies against ISIS, the Iraqi Kurds are also allied with Turkey and this has led to significant tensions between the two Kurdish factions. There are enormous political differences between them on questions of governance, women’s rights, ecology, and nationalism. The political parties that lead the Iraqi Kurds, longtime favorites of the United States, are in the process of establishing their own petro-state, and, while women may be better off in Kirkuk than in the rest of Iraq, as Houzan Mahmoud of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq points out, they still suffer from “honour killings, FGM, forced marriages, early marriages, stoning, rape, marital rape and many other forms of violence.” The Barzani government has done little to address these problems. As Kurdish feminist Dilar Dirik writes in “What Kind of Kurdistan for Women”:
It is interesting that the Kurdish entity that is most state-like, most integrated into the capitalist system, and which complies with the requirements of the local powers such as Turkey and Iran, as well as the international system, displays the least interest in women’s rights and the challenge of patriarchy.
Dirik notes Iraqi Kurdistan’s “lack of truly independent, non-partisan women’s organisations,” the dominance of “tribalist, feudalist politics . . . encourag[ing] patriarchal attitudes,” and a crowning irony: “Many women’s organisations in South Kurdistan are even chaired by men!” She contrasts this to the feminism of the Rojava cantons, where “Men with a history of domestic violence or polygamy are excluded from organizations” and “Violence against women and child marriage are outlawed and criminalised.” This is a reflection of the socialist-feminist praxis of the PKK, which has evolved significantly since its inception as a Marxist-Leninist party in the 1970s.
Who are the PKK?
The PKK, founded in 1978, grew out of the Turkish leftwing student movement and initially had much in common with other radical movements inspired by China and Vietnam. Its goal was to establish an independent and socialist Kurdish state by waging people’s war. Its cadres settled in the countryside to build a peasant movement; their first targets were feudal landlords who oppressed the people and acted as local enforcers for the Turkish military.
Two years after the PKK was founded, Turkey had a military coup followed by a period of extreme repression and a war on the Kurds. As in other guerilla wars, the government met the slightest provocation with overwhelming force, and villagers were caught in the middle, forced to choose between the PKK and the Turkish military. In a 1993 report, Helsinki Watch (the original committee of Human Rights Watch) cited atrocities including the assassinations of more than 450 people—among them journalists, teachers, doctors, and human rights activists—by “assailants using death squad tactics.” The Turkish government never investigated the killings and was widely suspected of being complicit in them. Helsinki Watch also noted that, during this campaign, Turkey remained the third largest recipient of American aid, after Israel and Egypt, and that the George H.W. Bush administration expressed vocal support for violence against the Kurds.
The PKK, too, committed human rights abuses: they tried and hanged informers, were reported to have killed civilians (for example, by bombing an Istanbul shopping mall in 1991 and shooting worshippers in a mosque in Diyarbakir in 1992), kidnapped Western tourists (who were later released), and coordinated attacks on Turkish offices in six West European countries, among other acts of terrorism. But the scale of their violence pales in comparison to the mass killings of Kurds by the Turkish state.
Since its founding, the PKK has been led by Abdullah Ocalan (pronounced “uh-djah-lan”). Though his critics say that Ocalan did not rethink the people’s war strategy until he was captured in 1999, insiders like Cemil Bayik, another PKK founder, and Havin Guneser, Ocalan’s translator, say that during the 1990s, he and others began to examine the need to find a political rather than a military solution to the conflict; he also put increasing emphasis on democracy and women’s rights. This was, in part, a reflection of the evolution of the organization. By the eighties, PKK membership was largely made up of rural Kurds whose villages had been attacked; in order to deal with the feudal and nationalistic ideas of these new recruits, women cadre realized they needed autonomous women’s organizations. According to Necla Acik, Ocalan himself was becoming more feminist because “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. In return Öcalan became more radical in his promotion of gender liberation and urged women within the party to question male dominance within their own ranks.”
The Birth of Democratic Confederalism
Kept in almost total isolation after 1999, when he was captured in a combined Greece-Kenya-Turkey-CIA operation, Ocalan did a lot of reading. He was particularly influenced by anarchist theorist Murray Bookchin, world systems theorists Immanuel Wallerstein and Fernand Braudel, and theorist of nationalism Benedict Anderson. He publicly disowned his previous beliefs in democratic centralism and armed struggle, writing in 2008 that a state-like hierarchical party structure was a contradiction to “principles of democracy, freedom and equality;” he also distanced himself from the PKK culture in which “War was understood as the continuation of politics by different means and romanticized as a strategic instrument.” Ocalan was similarly critical of nationalism and the goal of a Kurdish state, arguing that nation-states were intrinsically hierarchical and that the goal instead should be a confederation of Kurds and other peoples living in the region. The idea was that Kurds should withdraw their energies from their respective states and develop their own democratic economies and methods of self-governance—anti-capitalist, anti-statist, and environmentally sound. In short, they should work towards dual power.
Since his arrest, Ocalan has written several volumes of prison essays, selections of which have since been translated and released as downloadable pamphlets. The two most recent—Democratic Confederalism (2012) and Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution (2014)—relate directly to the emergence of the socialist-feminist cantons in Rojava.
Ocalan calls his political philosophy democratic confederalism. While this philosophy has much in common with anarchism, participatory democracy, and libertarian socialism, no other major left-wing movement, with the possible exception of the Zapatistas, has put women’s liberation so squarely at the center of its revolutionary project. In fact, despite slogans like Mao’s “women hold up half the sky,” Marxist revolutions have—at best—seen women as support troops or a stripe in the rainbow, not as a historically submerged and dominated majority whose liberation is fundamental to everyone else’s. National liberation movements have been similar: women are encouraged to be politically active and even to serve as soldiers during the struggle, but, once the battle is won, patriarchal norms are reasserted in the name of religion or indigenous tradition. In contrast, here’s Ocalan in Liberating Life: “The solutions for all social problems in the Middle East should have woman’s position as focus. . . . The role the working class have once played, must now be taken over by the sisterhood of women.” This is an amazing statement for a former Marxist guerilla; only the most radical of Western feminists would even dare to propose it.
How much of this for real?
In the months I have been studying this revolution, I have frequently asked myself, “How much of this is for real?” I have known a lot of male leftists who talk a good line about women’s liberation but fall woefully short in practice. I also get nervous about the “stereotyped party writing” that comes out of the PKK. And I have seen more than one Potemkin Village. But revolutions are driven by contradictions; PKK style may resemble that of China in the 1970s but the content is different. And, though I have problems with what seems like a cult of personality, Ocalan’s main message for women has been that they should organize themselves.
The ten members of the academic delegation who visited Rojava in December went with questions similar to mine: “Do its practices really constitute a revolution? Do they live up to its democratic ideals? What role do women actually play?” Upon their return, they made this public statement:
In Rojava, we believe, genuinely democratic structures have indeed been established. Not only is the system of government accountable to the people, but it springs out of new structures that make direct democracy possible: popular assemblies and democratic councils. Women participate on an equal footing with men at every level and also organize in autonomous councils, assemblies, and committees to address their specific concerns. . . . Rojava, we believe, points to an alternative future for Syria and the Middle East, a future where the peoples of different ethnic backgrounds and religions can live together, united by mutual tolerance and common institutions. Kurdish organizations have led the way, but they increasingly gain support from Arabs, Assyrians, and Chechens, who participate in their common system of self-government and organize autonomously.
I went on a similar trip to China in 1973, during the last years of the Cultural Revolution, and remember the way I tried to disregard my own misgivings and failed to recognize that much of what one hears from party activists may be more aspiration than achievement. But even if only half of what the academic delegation saw is real, Rojava is a game changer. Imagine what a liberated area with a secular, egalitarian approach to women, governance, economics, land usage, and ecological sustainability could mean for the Middle East. Kurdistan has borders in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey; if Rojava can survive, dissidents from the whole region will have a place they can run to escape forced marriages and get a secular education—for Rojava has started its own university, the Mesopotamian Academy of Social Sciences, which is now holding a book drive.
But to be a game changer, it has to survive. Kobani has been liberated, but the city was destroyed and needs to be rebuilt—after the land mines are cleared. And the YPG and YPJ are still fighting ISIS in the rural areas, hampered by a complete Turkish embargo that prevents them from getting weapons and keeps UN supplies and food from reaching refugees. These refugees include Yazidis, Arabs, Turkmen, and others from both Syria and Iraq, including Mosul. There is one flour mill for the whole area and not a lot of other food. The KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government—the Iraqi Kurds, led by Barzani) are not letting very much through on their side of the border because of their alliance with Turkey, and the UN has not pushed either Turkey or the KRG to let in supplies or move refugees to a safer place. The cantons have no money and a tiny economy, and because the PKK is listed as a terrorist organization, Rojava has no access to international aid.
Under these circumstances, international solidarity is not only an obligation; it is a necessity.
I recently spoke to someone from the Kurdish women’s movement in Rojava and asked what they need most. She said they need a massive international solidarity campaign, beginning with political education about the evolution of the PKK and its politics, including its emphasis on democratic governance, anti-sectarianism, secularism, ecology, and women’s liberation. In practical terms, they need all possible international pressure to be put on Turkey and the KRG to end the embargo and let supplies through. They need the terrorist designation to be lifted so they can travel and raise money and do public speaking. Their representatives should be allowed into the United States and other Western countries; though neither the PYD nor other Rojava groups are actually on the terrorist list, they are damned because of their relationship to the PKK; just this January, the United States rejected a visa application by Salih Muslim, co-president of the PYD.
Some oppose lifting the PKK’s terrorist designation because of its past violations of human rights. But, while caution is reasonable, people and movements have to be allowed room to evolve. The leaders of many liberation movements were once considered terrorists, including Jomo Kenyatta, first president of Kenya, and two prime ministers of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela was jailed as a terrorist and released after many years so he could negotiate with the Boer government. Like Mandela, Ocalan should be released from jail to lead negotiations with Turkey.
In 1988, I wrote an article for Dissent called “The Sound of One Hand Clapping: Women’s Liberation and the Left.” I concluded,
The socialist movement can’t get on without the dream and language of transformation, applied to job and family as well as international politics. Socialism needs the ability to dream as much as women’s liberation needs the ability to think strategically. Only by creating a political culture that is not split down the middle by gender can any of us find the answers we need to change the world.
Starting from near-feudal circumstances, in the middle of a devastating war, people in the Rojava cantons are trying to create such a culture. We need to learn from them—and help.