Friends, we are in a make or break moment for the future of Rojava. Erdogan’s troops have entered Afrin city. To put a positive gloss on it, I hope that the Kurds will be able to pull victory out of the jaws of defeat – like they did at Kobane. But in Afrin they appear to be more friendless than in Kobane. The British government has allied itself with the dictators of the world. Here we are, seated at the heart of government, and yet our voices are too faint to reach the powers that be.
What is at stake here? There is the humanitarian disaster, of course, people killed, made homeless, becoming refugees and IDPs, all the brutal consequences of war. But more than that, we would lose an inspirational model of governance, a form of direct democracy and a co-op centred economy based on the principles of gender equality, racial inclusivity, and ecological sustainability.
What struck me most about Rojava, which I visited in 2016 to research a book that I am writing, is the way in which the revolution has foregrounded women, both theoretically and in practice. Unlike all the revolutionary struggles that have gone before where the rhetoric of equality may have been on full display and where during the struggle women may have achieved some degree of freedom – but never before were they the focus of liberation, in fact, never before was their liberation placed before the liberation of the homeland. As Abdullah Ocalan, their leader, puts it, ‘“To me, women’s freedom is more precious than the freedom of the homeland.”
And what is even more surprising is that they are doing this during one of the worst and most prolonged wars in recent times. War is the classic moment in which all rights get suspended or eroded. Who thinks about the importance of gender equality, or racial inclusivity, or direct democracy during war?
But that is the project that the Kurds are developing in Northern Syria. And all they want – is to be left in peace to do so. The political vacuum created by the rebellion against Assad in the south gave them that peace initially but then ISIS attacked. And ISIS represented not only an existential threat but an ideological threat to everything that Rojava stands for. So they had to fight back – in self-defence. And they did such a brilliant job – because they were fighting for a whole way of life – that the US coalition decided to back them in the fight against ISIS because they were more reliable than the ragtag, predominantly Islamist, factions of the resistance against Assad. Having liberated Raqqa, their self-administration areas cover nearly a third of Syria. And yet, shockingly, they have no place at the Geneva peace talks on Syria.
Democratic federalism is a form of direct democracy. In this ‘stateless’ bottom-up structure, neighbourhoods form communes and elect their representatives to the next level on the co-presidentship principle of one man and one woman sharing power. This is facilitated by a multi-party organisation Tev-Dem, the Movement for a Democratic society. The same principle applies all the way up to city and ‘national’ levels, including the running of co-operatives, schools, the army, the police force – in fact, any institution you care to name. At every level, from the commune to the city level, there are committees to deal with health, education, economics, utilities and conflict resolution or peace, which includes domestic violence and self-defence. On each of these mixed sex committees, 40% is reserved for either sex with 20% up for grabs depending on who puts themselves forward.
As if that was not amazing enough, Kongreya Star, the women’s umbrella organisation, runs a women-only, autonomous structure parallel to Tev-Dem to ensure that a feminist perspective is brought to bear on all issues. In fact they have the power of veto. The structure very clearly emphasises the fact that a level playing field can only be created by tilting power in the direction of women. In matters of violence against women, for example, only the Kongreya Star conflict resolution committees will get involved. If they are unable to resolve the matter, the case is referred to the women-only asayiş or police officers. If the courts rule that the perpetrator must be imprisoned, he is taken away, given gender equality training and returned to the home only if the woman wants him back and he appears to have reformed himself. The situation is then monitored by the conflict resolution committee.
There has been an extensive legislative assault on patriarchal practices: Child marriage, forced marriage, dowry and polygamy have been banned; they go further in fact and introduce a clause that countries like India could consider – any attempt to stop a woman marrying of her own free will is a criminal act; honour killings, violence and discrimination against women have been criminalised; women, regardless of their marital status, have been given the right to custody of their children until the age of 15; a woman’s testimony is equal to a man’s; a woman has a right to equal inheritance; marriage contracts are issued in civil courts. Impressive work when you consider that the women’s ministry was set up only in January 2014.
Sharia courts which were Assad’s favoured means of dealing with personal laws have been disbanded but they continue to thrive in other parts of Syria which are under the control of Syrian rebels, infiltrated by Islamists. The greatest irony being that we, in Britain, have sharia councils but in Rojava they have got rid of them. This clear headed rejection of religion in the public square is refreshing especially when many on the progressive Left in the West no longer seem to understand its deleterious effects on women’s rights.
According to Öcalan, feminism can never be totally successful in a capitalist system, that class and race equality in a secular democratic system is part of the struggle for women’s liberation. I think that is absolutely right. It explains the race and class tensions in the feminist movements around the world.
Rojava’s emphasis on ethnic inclusivity is exemplary. In the Legislative Assembly, their equivalent of Parliament, they have reserved equal quotas for Kurds, Arabs and Christians respectively, regardless of the actual size of the communities. The Kurds have voluntarily given up their majority status despite facing a history of discrimination from the Arab population. This is a really enlightened approach to racial inclusivity. Rojava is so inclusive, in fact, that they have now dropped the name Rojava because it is a Kurdish word and renamed it the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria – a bit of a mouthful. And in terms of class, people are paid the same salary, regardless of position, or work for the revolution on a voluntary basis and their basic needs are met from communal funds.
The theoretical underpinning of the drive for gender equality derives partly from Ocalan’s three ruptures theory of women’s enslavement and eventual liberation. The first rupture, or turning point, was the rise of patriarchy when, according to him, Neolithic times ended and ‘statist civilisation’ arose; the second sexual rupture was the intensification of patriarchy through religious ideology. As Öcalan says, ‘Treating women as inferior now became the sacred command of god’; and the third rupture is yet to come, the end of patriarchy or as Öcalan puts it, ’killing the dominant male’. Killing – not in the literal sense – but in terms of the transformation of the patriarchal mindset which affects both men and women’s capacity for change.
This is the society that Erdogan intends to smash into smithereens, just as he’s attempting to do to the Kurdish populations of South east Turkey. A little reported war is going on there. The Turkish army is bigger than the population of Afrin. This is a David and Goliath struggle. Make no mistake. Erdogan is not going to stop at Afrin. He wants to create a 30 km buffer zone along Turkey’s southern border which would basically swallow up the whole of Rojava. Since when has it been legitimate for a country to protect its own borders by carving out 30kms of land from a neighbouring state?
While the overstretched Kurdish forces are focussing on Turkey, there are signs of an Isis resurgence in Eastern Syria. Even from a self-interested point of view, you would have thought that Western powers would lean upon Erdogan to desist and withdraw.
As always we are complicit in more ways than one. We have a roaring arms trade with Turkey. Many of us go on holiday to Turkey. It is within all our individual powers to choose to boycott Turkey. Our actions will hurt the aggressors not their victims.
If you take away one thing from this meeting, then let it be this – it is our responsibility to turn Turkey into a pariah state, a 21st century South Africa. We need to make it a toxic brand so that instead of welcoming it in to the bosom of Europe, governments around the world will isolate it.
Incredibly in the middle of death and destruction, Rojava has the potential to lead the world in the direction that all of us here would like to see. And for that very reason, it has also the potential to be crushed by forces which are hostile to a vision of a society built on equality and peace.
It is our political responsibility to ensure that the Rojava experiment does not end, so that it does not lend itself to yet another defeatist narrative that inequality and capitalist greed are part of human nature. No. Rojava shows us the beauty of life when it is lived co-operatively, when we grow the food we need and live in harmony with our surroundings, when we respect all ethnicities and give them equal say in a truly democratic society, when we put women in equal charge of our destinies.
Another world is not only possible, it is here. But this world is struggling to take breath. We have to keep it alive for all of our sakes. Even if it is simply to refresh and reconfigure our own struggles. This is our revolution too.