A detour by Rojava, radical gender egalitarianism on the Syrian front.
Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité does not sound French anymore. It now resonates as a broader European – or Western democratic – societal ideal. However, assuming that these principles should serve as the underlying basis of modern societies, where in the Arab world could we find a hint of democratic oasis? Are Middle Eastern cultures and history inherently conflicting with democratic values?
We should here be extremely careful, and consider democracy as a flexible concept that can – and should – adapt to one state’s political tradition and historical rules of governance. Neo-cons’ inflexible definition of what democracy stands for led to failures whose legacy manifested in the streets of Paris in November.
Some might cite Turkey’s almost centenary constitutional secularism as basis for democracy. But careful, Turkish secularism does not imply the separation between State and religious affairs. Others would name Tunisia, seen as the only relative success of the Arab spring. But again, the Arab Spring proved wrong Mr Bush and Mrs Rice’s democratic domino theory.
Yet, there might be at a different scale (in size, not ambition) another example suggesting that the Middle East is not doomed to social exclusion and religious tensions. Kurdistan, or – to be more precise – its various relatively independent factions, across the four countries (one could hardly define Syria or Iraq as a nation). Let us concentrate on one of them: Rojava, namely: Syrian Kurdistan. Here, French revolutionary ideals try to resonate, through the Democratic Union Party. And – surprisingly – they do: rule of law, social and political freedom, political representation in both ethnicity, language and gender. In fact, one could say, even beyond French Enlightenment ideals. Gender equality. From the Syrian Kurdish perspective, it does not appear as a societal end, desperately trying to be reached through social construction. It establishes itself as a core inviolable principle: a mean, not an end.
A feminist microcosm beyond a purely military dimension.
The youngest are eighteen, officers can be thirty. Many are pretty, all are timid. All are part of the so-called YPJ: “Women’s protection unit”, part of the YPG: “People’s protection unit”. Overall, 40% of fighters are women. Life, through the Al Assad’s dynasty’s oppression – from ostracism to banned Kurdish language – forged their fighting mentality. Through harsh training, lessons of political knowledge, frequent combats and injuries, they fight Daesh’s religious fundamentalism for two main reasons. First, survival. Second, the believe in their secular egalitarian system, of which they are the product. In fact, few would be those who would favour the first reason over the latter. Struggle for liberty deserves all sacrifices.
Two utopias are therefore conflicting on the Syrian ruins. On the one hand, a socialist and democratic revolution, mixing Christian ethic and its original Marxist dimension. On the other hand, an expansionist Islamic totalitarianism, aiming at returning to the Abbasside Caliphate destroyed by the Mongols during the 13th century. In fact: religious fanaticism against secular fanaticism, each actor drawing his fanaticism and enhancing it all the more so as geographically defying the other.
Through their faith in their homeland, in democracy, in multifaith society and in being in equal terms with men, YPJ fighters also fight for those women sold as slaves by Daesh for amounts ranging from $50 to $150 the thousand victims of genital mutilation and for the more numerous who prefer jumping over cliffs rather than giving themselves up to Daesh.
Unknown in History, these women entered the latter through their symbolic Joan of Arc moral strength, during the Kobanî battle, their “Kurdish Stalingrad”, playing a decisive role, between September 2014 and June 2015. In August 2014, rescuing along with the Peshmergas (Iraqi Kurdish fighters) thousands of Yezidi trapped on Mount Sinjar by the Islamic State also granted them global recognition.
For thirty years, Kurdish women’s role has been increasingly institutionalized. In 1987 the association of patriot Kurdish women was created, fighting for Kurdish women’s awareness of violence towards women. The 1990s demonstrated ideological and organisational enrichment, especially through women’s driving force in the riots opposing Turkish military operations against civilians in Eastern Turkey. The establishment of the Kurdish military movement in 1992 was in itself coinciding with the increasing role of women in the military sphere. Followed in 1995 the creation of the “Union of Free Women of Kurdistan” and in 1999 the political establishment of the “Kurdish Women Labour party”. Therefore, the creation of the YPJ in 2012 (along with the YPG) was not the purely pragmatic reaction to an increasingly military need. Al Assad would, in fact, later push women into the military solely due to a lack of soldiers. The YPJ, instead, emerged from political roots and from a strong feminist social establishment.
“A Revolution in the Revolution”.
In Rojava and its capital, Al-Qamishli, hate and revenge are prohibited. Even during combats, a moral effort is required. Although no war is neat, some are neater than others. Kurdish claim the establishment of a new Social Contract. Self-management, women’s emancipation in both families, companies and institutions, as well as anti-capitalism and political ecology. Are (declared) unconstitutional discriminations based on gender, death penalty and crimes of honour. Sensitization campaigns take place towards men, denouncing the patriarchal system, to fight against Daesh’s proselytising. “Rojava is a democratic model for the Middle East, a feminine revolution, it is a Revolution in the Revolution” coined a political official of the Democratic Union Party.
Within this feminist microcosm, social developments do not seem to imply positive discrimination towards women. Unity and equality appear as a broad societal consensus across genders.
Whereas emerging states tend to repress minorities to unify their main ethnic group (it seems useless to recall both Armenian and Tutsi genocides, the Holocaust and broader fascisms and national revolutions), Rojava does not seem to obey this 20th century’s conception of state-building. Here, identity building does not undermine unity. On the contrary, respect of minorities is a core value, intrinsically part of their identity. Beyond respect, it is representation. Rojava’s parliament (yes, it exists!) proportionally reflects its ethnic distribution: 65 Kurds, 20 Christians, 15 Arabs and 1 Yezidi seat in parliament. 45% are women, and parity is imposed in the administration and across the 22 ministers, from defence to human rights. Let us now recall the 10% women seating in the Hungarian Parliament, or even the poor 23% women UK MPs. Of the two Vice-Presidents, the first, Hussain Azam, is Arab; the second, Elisabeth Gauriyé, is Christian. But almost more importantly, she is a woman. Rojava also mobilizes towards the achievements for Arab, Turkmen, Assyrian and Alevi women of political and social collective solutions for their emancipation.
The growing international recognition of a feminist democratic stoicism
Since Sankine Cansiz – co-founder of the Kurdish Freedom Movement and the Union of Free women – was assassinated in Paris on the 9th January 2013, military successes took place and global recognition sharply increased. François Hollande met Saleh Muslim and Asya Abdullah, respectively co-chairman and co-chairwoman of the Democratic Union Party, as well as Nasrin Abdallah, commander of the YPJ. It reflected and allowed not only media coverage of the role of Kurdish women towards Westerners, but also its visibility to inspire other Middle Eastern countries.
Rojava stands as a feminist, idealist and value-led pragmatic democratic microcosm in the Middle East, overpassing original PKK’s Marxist influence to reflect a more social-democratic political line. However, borders and military instability, as well as regional tensions (Davutoğlu and NATO will be determinant actors in this political interplay) allow us to wish Rojava will not fall into military and political nationalist radicalism, or into consumerist aspirations.
Being a woman and fighting Daesh, not only demonstrates the existence of an egalitarian oasis in the Middle East, but advocates women’s rights. It asserts its position as an ideological battle between the feminist state of Rojava – as a non-proselytising Kurdish entity – and Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate – despising women, based on Hanbalite-Wahhâbite religious inspirations. Being a woman also represents an advantage on a military dimension. Indeed, any ISIS fighter fears – above all – being killed by a woman, as this would compromise their way to heaven, according to Daech’s incoherent and irreligious theological fanaticism. Yet, women are not military tactical tools, but the very core of what Kurdish people themselves see as progress. These women fight to survive, defend their vision of society, and keep alive the memory of those freedom fighters fallen after Daesh or Al Nosra’s bullets, in a revolutionary stoicism.
“The only excuse for going to war is that we may live in peace unharmed; and when the victory is won, we should spare those who have not been bloodthirsty and barbarous in their warfare.” (I, 34) – Cicero
Written by Guillaume Beaud, a 2nd year student of European Studies, at King’s. His personal interest tends to be driven by geopolitics, Middle Eastern conflicts and diplomacy