As the region looks to a democratic future, Jack Kershaw gives his observations.
‘A country can’t be free unless the women are free’
These are the guiding words of Abdullah Öcalan, and a fundamental principle of the revolution in Rojava. Rojava, a region in northern Syria that declared autonomy from Bashar al-Assad in 2013, is now on the brink of defeating the Islamic State inside its territory. Despite being jailed on a Turkish island since 1999, Öcalan has successfully shifted his party, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (otherwise known as PKK), from a national liberation group to a wider project focused on Democratic Confederalism and women’s liberation.
Democratic Confederalism is a political theory first developed by the anarchist Murray Bookchin, which now forms the basis of the democratic experiment in Rojava. In a Middle East ravaged by civil war, authoritarianism, and Western imperialism, Rojava has created neighbourhood assemblies and councils that assist not only in the struggle for political autonomy but also in creating a possibility of peace and stability in the region.The structure is split into three categories: neighbourhood assemblies, commissions and councils, and the popular militia.The assemblies are the most basic level of administration, and commissions discuss specific issues such as the role of women and environmentalism in the movement. Meanwhile, councils constitute the main legislative and executive body.
Any property previously belonging to the internationally condemned regime of al-Assad has been converted to workers’ co-operatives; heavy industry, mostly oil, has been taken into public ownership too. While some might claim that this replaces state bureaucracy with a similar culture of too many meetings, it is important to realise that each assembly is only established in regions when needed, and the delegate structures do not require full attendance at every level. Indeed, far from being a closed nationalist project like most revolutions before it, this is a movement that is both anti-state and anti-authoritarian. Rojava replaces the representative democracy we use in the West with consensus-based popular assemblies, while local disputes are largely settled through smaller councils rather than the national police. This transparently progressive, empowering system is woven into the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens: they make decisions in face-to-face assemblies, which elect recallable delegates to administer their decisions.
All of this change comes in spite of attacks by the Islamic State and Turkey’s continued oppression of the Kurdish people, which has taken steps to ban their language and culture, and instigate genocides, chemical weapon attacks, political imprisonment, and torture. This is far from a new phenomenon. Following the controversial dissolution of the Ottoman Empire by British and French imperial powers and subsequently Turkey’s first President, Kemal Ataturk, Turkish nationalists have repeatedly ignored and violently repressed Kurdish self- determination as a threat to their own state. For example, Turkish security forces burnt down more than 3,000 Kurdish villages in the 1990s, with the façade of combating militant members of the PKK, which NATO classifies as a terrorist group. However, these attacks did not dismantle the PKK and only attempted to destroy Kurdish culture and identity.To this day, Turkey continues to jail those who speak out against or report on the regime. In addition, the upkeep of social and economic embargoes by all neighbouring states has left Rojava economically dependent on others. One could say that this deep history of oppression has actually assisted in pushing the Kurdish people to form real, working systems that fundamentally challenge these power structures.
A Women’s Revolution
Alongside these structural changes, a women’s revolution is underway in Rojava. The Western media (and unfortunately much of the left) has fetishised the YPJ, the all-female Women’s Protection Unit, reducing them to the status of pin-ups only to be taken at face value – a problematic attempt to diminish their achievements and distract from other elements of the revolution.
A much deeper challenge to patriarchy is being forged by women. Legislative change has been achieved in key areas, such as banning forced marriage and legalising abortion, while at the grassroots level education programmes, women’s councils and centres, newspapers, radios and TV stations empower women. Re-education programmes also rehabilitate men who engage in harassment or other problematic behaviour. In all democratic structures, a 40% quota of women is required, with women’s participation actually estimated at 50-70%. Viewed in light of the conservative society (what my Kurdish friend refers to as “the birthplace of patriarchy”) from which this revolution has emerged, with strict separation of gender roles and often gendered violence, these moves are nothing short of remarkable. Contrary to more liberal western ideas of feminism, such as ‘boss feminism’ (in which elite women are encouraged in a structurally patriarchal system), women in Rojava are, in Öcalan’s words, “determining their own democratic aim, and instituting the organisation and effort to realise it”.
Lessons From Rojava
But what relevance does all of this have to us studying in London? Firstly, while the threat of the Islamic State has far from vanished, the Kurdish YPG and YPJ have dramatically reduced their hold on the region. As a consequence, global terror attacks have declined for the past three years. It is undeniable that the world owes a huge debt to those who have fought against fascism.We must also acknowledge, in the age of Trump, Brexit and a series of collective crises too long to list here, that liberal democracy is failing. Achieving popular sovereignty under our current system is impossible. Far from repeating the same mistakes of former communist states, notably authoritarianism and repression, Rojava offers us a genuine alternative to capitalist realism – what Öcalan calls “democratic modernity”.
So we too must realise the UK government’s complicity in the current threat to Rojava: Turkey.Turkey, as a key NATO ally, has detained tens of thousands of teachers, lawyers, students, judges and other officials amid a crackdown on dissent by the government of President Erdogan after the failed coup of 2016. There are now more prisons than universities in Turkey (381 and 180 respectively), and Erdogan has openly said Kurdish militants in Syria “will be buried in their ditches when the time comes”.This could be an approaching genocide – a reconstruction of the Ottoman Empire. It is undeniable that UK companies will provide and service the military equipment used, making our own government and industry complicit in these war crimes. Our government is willingly assisting in the destruction of an exercise in empowerment in Rojava, and that needs to stop.
The popular assemblies of Rojava offer hope for us to empower our own democracies, and more immediately, our university. The principal form of this is the General Assembly, which SUUCL describes on its website as “where all students come together to discuss important issues to students, education and wider society.” Far from student politics being a small group of communists, anarchists or bureaucrats deciding the actions of our Student Union, general assemblies should offer a place for students to collectively decide and organise what our university’s future will look like.We can aspire to more than a veiled bureaucracy that narrowly agrees to replacing broken microwaves.
We must remember that the breakdown of general assemblies and collective action on our campus is a reflection of the pervasiveness of neoliberalism in wider society: a system that has assisted in creating a culture of atomisation and individualism. Students today are the first to grow up poorer than their parents, while failing to see the power our common goals and position could have in shaping collective action. At UCL, we have seen years of students striking against excessive rent hikes, occupying over fee rises, demanding an end to UCL’s unethical investments, and fighting for better mental health funding. However, all too often, these protests are small or, when they gain mass appeal as Mark Fisher noted, “the euphoric outbursts of dissent are followed by depressive collapse.” We desperately need to learn from Rojava, and redevelop a culture of general assemblies which empower our universities and our societies to take collective action. We already have proof that it could work. As they say in Rojava, Biji Berxwedan – long live the resistance!
For those wishing to learn more about the Kurdish Freedom Movement, check out the UCL Kurdish Society, the more active SOAS Kurdish Society or the London Kurdistan Solidarity, a group recently set up to raise awareness of, provide education on, and campaign in practical solidarity with the Kurdish Freedom Movement.
This article was originally published in Issue 723 of Pi Magazine.