The Rojava Women of the Middle East
By Meredith Tax
In war-torn northern Syria, a democratic society — based on secularism, ethnic inclusiveness, and gender equality — has won significant victories against the Islamis State, or Desh, with women on the front lines as fierce warriors and leaders.A Road Unforeseen (Bellevue Literary Press, 2016), by Meredith Tax is a feminist and political activist who shares the story of these brave Kurdish women fighting alongside men in equal numbers. The following excerpt is from the introduction.
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August 2014, Daesh — the Arabic acronym for the terrorist group that has been variously called ISIS, ISIL, and the Islamic State — attacked the city of Kobane in Northern Syria, and I started seeing pictures of smiling rifle-toting girls in uniform defending the city. Who were these girls? After hours of searching the web, I realized that they belonged to a revolutionary organization of which I had never heard, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of the Syrian Kurds, which had liberated three areas, Cizire, Afrin, and Kobane, on the Syria-Turkey border, setting up cantons where people make decisions through local councils and women hold 40 percent of all leadership positions. As an entity, the cantons are called Rojava.
That such a liberated area even existed was big news to me. On that summer’s maps, Rojava — the Kurdish word for “west” — looked like three unconnected yellow blobs making up an area slightly smaller than Connecticut, surrounded by a vast and menacing gray field representing territory controlled by Daesh. In the summer of 2014, the ski-masked jihadis of Daesh seemed invincible as they swept down on the terrified towns and cities of Iraq, while the Iraqi army and the vaunted Iraqi Kurdish militia, the peshmerga, fled before them. Not until Daesh reached Kobane did they meet guerrillas who had built something they were willing to fight for. Since then, the Rojava forces have captured Tal Abyad, linking two of the three yellow blobs to make a larger contiguous unit; Daesh has also lost other territory.
The Obama administration had named Daesh an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” so the media were ecstatic to discover the photogenic young female guerrillas. The press tended, however, to avoid discussing what they stood for, and no wonder, for these girls did not fit into any acceptable Western narrative: They were feminists, socialists, if not indeed anarchists or communists, and led by a group linked to Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist organization by NATO, the UK, and the US.
Fascinated, I searched for more information and found it mainly on anarchist websites, for the anarchist movement has been following the PKK ever since its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, said American radical Murray Bookchin was a major influence on his thinking. But in October 2014, nobody else seemed to be paying much attention to Rojava or the PKK, as the anthropologist and activist David Graeber wrote in a Guardian op-ed. Comparing the struggle against Daesh to that of the Spanish Republic in 1937, when his father had joined the International Brigade to fight fascism, Graeber called for similar solidarity with Rojava, saying it is “a remarkable democratic experiment. Popular assemblies have been created as the ultimate decision-making bodies… and, in a remarkable echo of the armed Mujeres Libres (Free Women) of Spain, a feminist army… has carried out a large proportion of the combat operations against the forces of Islamic State. How can something like this happen and still be almost entirely ignored by the international community, even, largely, by the international Left?”
In December 2014, when the Kurds in Kobane had been fighting Daesh for over two months with no help from anybody, the monthly news magazine In These Times organized a panel that framed the issues purely in terms of US military intervention. One of the panelists, Richard Falk, a human rights expert, said, “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 US power in the region.”
To Falk, the only important question was one of US power, not whether Kobane needed help or had asked for it or even what other kinds of help besides bombing might be available. To me, this single-minded focus on the US smacks of imperial narcissism. Like the neocons they hate, some on the Left see the US as all powerful — in their view, any popular movement that is not fighting the US is being manipulated by it, and the only thing Americans have to worry about is opposing their own government. Personally, I think the world has more than one “Evil Empire,” and agree with David Graeber that anti-imperialist critique is insufficient without solidarity. That means supporting people who stand for the same things progressives elsewhere support — human rights, a strong labor movement, separation between religion and politics, equality for all, racial justice, women’s liberation, an end to discrimination on the basis of sexuality or belief — and coming through when they ask for help.
Kurdish Liberation Movement
The more I learned about the Rojava cantons, the more I heard echoes in my mind of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s saga of a lust for power gone mad and a handful of people pitted against it in a battle that will decide the fate of the world. As their strategy council decides, “We must take a hard road, a road unforeseen. There lies our hope, if hope it be.” Only by destroying the ring of power, rather than trying to use it themselves, can Tolkien’s heroes defeat evil; only by destroying that metaphorical ring of power called the state, built on domination and ruled by force, do members of the Syrian and Turkish Kurdish liberation movement believe they can create societies based on equality, democracy, ecology, and mutual respect.
Note that I am careful to say Syrian and Turkish Kurds, rather than just talk about “the Kurds,” as Western media often do in what sometimes looks like deliberate obfuscation. Because Americans have been hearing about the Iraqi Kurds since the Gulf War, many assume all Kurds are in Iraq. That is a misconception. Kurdistan was divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey after World War I. Today the dominant party in the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, led by Masoud Barzani, is competing with the Kurdish liberation movement of Rojava and the Turkish Kurds for ideological leadership. Like the little ethnic states that emerged in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War, the Iraqi Kurds want their own nation. In contrast, the Kurdish liberation movement thinks the nation-state is old-fashioned in an age of globalization; they want something more democratic, feminist, and ethnically inclusive, and are trying to build it in Rojava.
On New Year’s Day, 2015, I decided it was my responsibility to tell my friends about Rojava and sent out an email with a map and some links, saying, “At the end of such a dark and difficult year, one searches for light. It can sometimes be found in unexpected places.” Then I wrote an article for Dissent magazine, which was published in April 2015 and resulted in an invitation to write this book.
I agreed because I thought the matter was so urgent. But I had another reason: to answer my own questions about the Kurdish women’s movement and its militias. Because in all my years as a feminist on the Left, I had never seen an armed liberation struggle with women so clearly in front. They reminded me of the immigrant women of the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, of whom I wrote in my first book, The Rising of the Women. The strike was organized by a militant syndicalist union, the Industrial Workers of the World, usually called the Wobblies; the local workforce was mostly immigrant; and since everybody — men, women, and children — worked in the mills, the strike involved the whole community.
The employers mobilized anti-immigrant feeling to break the strike, students came out from Harvard to beat up strikers, and the governor of Massachusetts called out the National Guard. Thinking they had a better chance than men of facing armed police without getting shot, the women strikers used to march at the front of the IWW demonstrations. When reporters asked Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a Wobbly organizer, why the IWW was pushing women to the front, she said, “We don’t push women to the front — we’re the only organization that doesn’t hold them back and they go to the front!”
The leading role of Kurdish women in the war against Daesh, and what that implies about the kind of society they are trying to build, demands our attention. It is a crux, marking the stirrings of a new historical period. As Kurdish writer Memed Aksoy put it, “The Kurds and their country Kurdistan is the site of a great battle now, between freedom and enslavement, the womb from where a new civilisation has the opportunity to grow.”
I have lived through two such moments before: the sixties and the end of the Cold War.
“Free World” vs. “The Socialist Camp”
When I was growing up, the world was divided into two warring systems, called the “Free World” and “the Socialist Camp.” Each had its own narrative. The Free World narrative promised that an ever-expanding capitalist market would bring democratic rights, freedom, and prosperity to all. The US had come out of World War II in better shape than anybody else, with an economy so strong it could handle an enormously expensive arms and nuclear race and still have enough left over to fuel domestic consumption at unheard-of levels. The Free World narrative acknowledged that some would become richer than others, but promised that there would be enough refrigerators, cars, and Happy Meals for everyone. By the late sixties, the civil rights movement and youth rebellion had poked holes in US assertions of equality and democratic bliss, but the narrative still had a lot of power internationally.
To this dream of democratic consumerism, the Soviet bloc counterposed a narrative in which power and wealth were shared, everyone had free healthcare and education, and there was no gulf between rich and poor. The goal was “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” But there was a large gap between this promise and reality. The Soviet Union had lost huge numbers of people and most of its industrial base in World War II. By the sixties, it had managed to pull nearly equal in the arms race but only at enormous cost to its people, many of whom had to live three families to an apartment and line up to get basic subsistence needs. They longed for the consumer comforts of the West. And while they had jobs and health care, they lacked the freedoms that might have made them feel they had some control over their lives, for in practice communist parties were top-down authoritarian elites, and their people unwilling subjects.
In the eighties, when the USSR got stuck in the quagmire of a war in Afghanistan, its whole edifice became economically and politically unsustainable. In 1989, it withdrew its troops from Afghanistan. Shortly thereafter the Communist Party dissolved and the USSR itself fell to bits. The former Soviet empire became a collection of nationalist states, many run by demagogues and oligarchs, distinguished mainly for corruption and authoritarianism.
During the Cold War, people in the communist-influenced Left used to refer to the Soviet Union and its allies as “really-existing socialism” — meaning, okay, it wasn’t perfect, but it was the best people had come up with so far. Their whole world crumbled when the Soviet Union did. They lost their political bearings and also lost their language, not knowing what words to use anymore for the aspirations of social justice they still cherished. Many fell into a reactive anti-US stand that shaped their view of the entire world: Anything the US supported must be bad; anything that opposed the US must be good, including Islamist jihadis who said they were anti-imperialist. Their thinking was frozen in Cold War dichotomies and, if they no longer had anything to defend, at least they could still criticize the triumph of capital.
The “New World Order”
And capital had triumphed with a vengeance. With no ideological opponent to restrain them, US and European financial and business interests went on the offensive. Working through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and inspired by the gospel of free trade, they pushed open the markets of the world. Capital had always been mobile, but now it broke down national boundaries as never before. As American companies moved their work and resources from country to country in search of the cheapest labor and raw materials, labor unions in the US began to crumble and the living standards of most Americans declined.
The triumph of the capitalist narrative after 1989 fast-forwarded the world into a state of revolutionary transformation in economics, politics, and technology. In the name of free trade, Western financial institutions, led by the US, imposed “shock therapy” on the former Soviet bloc, creating a new ruling elite of thieves in which public goods were looted by government-connected oligarchs, and vast numbers lost the social benefits they once had without getting any richer. This cataclysm discredited democracy to the point that Vladimir Putin, a former KGB director, was elected president.
In much of the Global South, the offensive took the form of “structural adjustment,” opening countries up to world trade, forcing government-owned industries to privatize, and devastating fragile local economies. In exchange, the countries’ leaders were given loans, the repayment of which could eat up their entire social service budgets.
In this “new world order,” labor too became globalized, as huge numbers of migrants flooded Europe and the US in search of work that would enable them to support their families back home — families who could no longer feed themselves because competition from subsidized American crops, war, climate change, or predatory landowners had made farming unsustainable, or because they had switched from growing their own food to growing export crops for an international market whose prices fluctuated wildly because of speculation by traders in faraway world capitals.
In response to these changes, the international Left developed a critique centered on the concepts of “neoliberalism” and “globalization.” What both terms really mean is an unrestrained global free market based on an unproven economic theory that says any benefits gained by the rich will trickle down to the poor. And indeed, in some places, particularly China and India, while people at the low end of the economy remain profoundly poor, the middle class has expanded through the emergence of new industries and opportunities. But in many other places, this theory has led to unbelievable wealth for a few — the one percent — and declining standards of living for most. Workers in Italy, Greece, Spain, and the United States, for instance, have seen their livelihoods grow increasingly precarious, their government services disappear, and their labor unions and social benefits shrink.
In the Middle East, despite the fabulous wealth of oil-dependent elites, most countries are cursed with stagnant economies and very high levels of poverty and illiteracy. For many years their politics, too, were stagnant, the life crushed out of them by entrenched military dictatorships which had long since wiped out their left-wing opponents and were now threatened only by Islamists, whom they did their best to accommodate.
The Birth of ISIS
When the “Arab Spring” revolts began in 2011, their initial demands were economic — the poor simply could not survive. These uprisings were transformed within weeks by massive demands for democracy as well as economic reform. But, except in Tunisia, the social forces were not organized enough to develop a democratic alternative to dictatorships. Instead, the rewards of insurrection were scooped up by Islamists or the military — or in Egypt, first one and then the other. The autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, for all its tribalism and corruption, is a shining exception to this pattern.
Particularly in Egypt and Tunisia, women were active in the Arab Spring uprisings despite extreme sexual harassment from police, thugs, and Islamists — harassment that was especially violent in Egypt, where female protestors were assaulted by mobs in the public square and by police. Some were stripped and beaten, like the hijab-wearing “woman in a blue bra,” whose picture, being dragged off by police, went viral; others were subjected to forced virginity tests. The message of these attacks was a familiar one to women all over the world: Stay home if you want to be safe.
These assaults took place in a region feminist sociologists sometimes call “the patriarchal belt,” which stretches from the Middle East and North Africa to South Asia and is described thus by Handan Caglayan, a political scientist at the University of Ankara: “The patriarchal family in this geography is the main social unit, and the oldest men have rights over all the other family members. The main characteristic of the social structures under the patriarchal belt is the strict control over women’s behavior. In question is a strong ideology which relates the honor of the family to women’s chastity.”
I deliberately do not use the term “the Muslim world” for this region. “The patriarchal belt” is a geographical designation, not a religious one, for the region also contains Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Parsees, Sikhs, Hindus, and many smaller religious groups, while Muslims themselves have a great range of doctrinal variations and cultural practices. And throughout the region, living alongside people who live by the old rules, are others who passionately rebel against these rules and think the defense of secularism and defeat of patriarchy are essential to real democracy.
As feminist sociologist Deniz Kandiyoti explains, the increased level of violence against women in this region is not a sign of the old patriarchal order’s strength but of its weakness: “The fact is that the provisions that underwrite the positional superiority of men over women in Islam are, sociologically speaking, in tatters. The male provider image jars with the multitudes of unemployed male youth who are unable to provide for themselves, much less protect women from bread-winning roles and the rigours of exposure to public spaces. We are witnessing a profound crisis of masculinity leading to more violent and coercive assertions of male prerogatives where the abuse of women can become a blood sport.”
This violence is intimately tied up with the rise of fundamentalist and other right-wing identity movements since the end of the Cold War, movements that invoke a dream of homogeneous ancient communities ruled by male elders. As these movements become more powerful, their capacity for violence grows and can lead to war with neighboring ethnic or religious groups. Control of women as the symbols and carriers of a “pure” national, ethnic, or religious identity is central to the programs of such movements, and when they go to war, rape is the weapon by which they demonstrate their victory over “the other,” by defiling “his” women and making them give birth to enemy aliens.
In a 2006 talk before the American Society of International Law, Gita Sahgal, a founder of Women Against Fundamentalism in the UK, defined fundamentalist movements as existing both within and outside the state, sometimes simultaneously. “While some of these movements may be represented by traditional power structures, such as the Catholic Church, many fundamentalist political formations are modern, frequently global, political movements, which draw their strength from large diaspora support and while insisting on ‘purity’ and ‘authenticity’ have little relation to traditional religious formations (which may be patriarchal and oppressive but are not necessarily fundamentalist). They recreate ‘tradition’ to provide new meanings to older practices, and in doing so invent traditions just as nineteenth-century European nationalism did.”
The year 1989 is notable for a great worldwide upsurge of fundamentalism. In Afghanistan, the Taliban moved into the vacuum left by departing Soviet troops and began to impose their brutal version of sharia law. In an alliance between the South Asian Sunni fundamentalists of Jamaat e Islami and the Shia fundamentalists who follow Iran’s leadership, Islamists mobilized globally against Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, burning books, staging riots in Islamabad, Bombay, and Dhaka, and bombing the British embassy in Karachi. The campaign culminated in a fatwa by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini that forced Rushdie underground for many years. In Yugoslavia, Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic consolidated his rise to power with a speech in Kosovo that looked back to the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of the region six centuries earlier and called on Serbs to go into battle to defend Christian civilization. In India, the Hindu extremists of Shiv Sena began their long climb to political power by winning local office in the state of Maharashtra. In the United States, Pat Robertson formed the Christian Coalition to serve as the organizational center of a drive by Protestant evangelicals to transform the Republican Party into the defender of Christian “family values” against the globalizing elites of the Northeast and the West Coast and their degenerate ways.
Why did these fundamentalist movements become so strong after 1989? Two reasons are usually given. First, with the removal of Soviet state control, nationalist and religious identity movements that had been building up steam for decades blew the lid off the pressure cooker. Second, with globalization, capitalist forms of organization and notions of individual liberty — wrongly defined as Western — penetrated to the most remote areas, bringing their values and media to threaten traditional male elites, who reacted violently. While the US interventions in the Middle East and South Asia — from the overthrow and murder of Iran’s Mossadegh in 1953 to the support of Afghan jihadis against the Soviets to the 2003 invasion of Iraq — have certainly destabilized the region, the seductions of Western media and the freedom offered by the internet have been equally upsetting to supporters of ancient traditions and power arrangements.
But I believe there is a third reason for the rise of fundamentalism around the world: the success of the global women’s movement, which has been growing in strength, despite numerous setbacks and massive cooptation. Its legal achievements peaked at UN conferences in the early nineties, setting off alarm bells in traditionalist enclaves from the Vatican to Saudi Arabia.
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