The Rojava Women of the Middle East

Middle Eastern women are seen as symbols of religious identity in turn creating a rise in male violent crimes toward women of strength who embrace freedom.


| November 2017



woman

Women of the Rojava belong to the Democratic Union Party of the Syrian Kurds.

Photo by Joey L.

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?”