Northern Syria’s Feminist Revolution
When you think of women in Northern Syria, what do you picture? No doubt you’re imagining women displaced by war and/or oppressed by ISIS. What you probably don’t think of is its feminist activists and armed militants leading an unprecedented women’s revolution.
Although the Rojava Revolution receives little media coverage, it is fundamentally transforming Northern Syria’s legal, political, and socioeconomic institutions. The dramatic changes in the role, and status, of women in society is perhaps where the revolutionary changes are most apparent.
To appreciate the revolution’s impact on women’s lives, a basic understanding of the context it emerged from is needed. Patriarchal tribal traditions and male-supremacist religious beliefs dominate Northern Syria’s society. And the Syrian Arab Republic did little to overcome Syria’s gender inequality problem. In 2013, for example, the World Economic Forum reported that only 12% of the seats in Syria’s parliament belonged to women, and women only occupied 10% of government ministerial positions.
Before the revolution, women from Northern Syria’s large Kurdish population also faced discrimination based on their ethnic identify. The Syrian Arab Republic attempted to forcibly assimilate the Kurds into the Arab population. It denied Kurdish identity, and banned the Kurdish language. The Syrian state deliberately kept Kurdish-majority regions underdeveloped and set-up Arab settlements starting in 1973. Syrian citizenship was even stripped from hundreds of thousands of Kurds. Non-citizen Kurds were denied access to government jobs, subsidized healthcare, and post-secondary education. The government confiscated land from non-citizen property owners and gave it to Arabs. In 2008, approximately 300,000 Syrian Kurds did not have citizenship rights. The Assad government’s shift from “Arab socialism” to a neoliberal economic approach in the early 2000s also detrimentally impacted the Kurds. 80% of Syrian Kurds lived below the poverty line in 2007, up from 40% in 2005.
Not only did Kurdish women face discrimination because of their gender and ethnic identities, they were blocked from even advocating their collective rights through official political processes. Kurdish protests were met with vicious repression. During the 2004 Qamishli uprising, for example, Syrian police killed 32 people, wounded hundreds, and arrested approximately 2,000.
Indeed, to kill the dominant man is the fundamental principle of socialism.
— Abdullah Öcalan
The revolution is taking place within an alliance of four autonomous Cantons — called the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. The three founding cantons — Efrîn, Kobanî, and Cizîrê — were established in 2012. Kurdish militias took control of these Kurdish-majority areas after Syrian government security forces withdrew in response to civil war developments elsewhere in Syria.
To fill the power vacuum, two Kurdish political coalitions, the leftist Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) and the conservative Kurdish National Council (KNC) formed the Kurdish Supreme Committee in June 2012. Two militias affiliated with the TEV-DEM-leading Democratic Union Party (PYD), the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), served as the Committee’s de facto armed forces. They secured the Kurdish regions from ISIS and other Islamist extremists, and consolidated the PYD’s control.
In November 2013, TEV-DEM unilaterally announced a new interim administration. The KNC accused the PYD of monopolizing power and withdrew from the administration. After the KNC’s departure from the coalition, TEV-DEM has pursued a multi-ethnic political project called Democratic Confederalism. As the war has progressed, the YPG and YPJ have expanded their control into Arab-majority areas and formed alliances with Arab tribes and militias. Shahba was established as the Federation’s first Arab-majority canton in 2016.
Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party and Apoist Kurdish movement, developed Democratic Confederalism from his prison cell in Turkey. It is based in part on the works of libertarian socialist philosopher Muarry Bookchin. Öcalan views capitalism and the nation-state as intrinsically-linked structures that are the “monopolism of the despotic and exploitative male.” Democratic Confederalism is a anti-nationalist “non-state political administration” that holds feminism as a “central pillar.” Öcalan believes that “the level of woman’s freedom and equality determines the freedom and equality of all sections of society.”
In January 2014, the founding Cantons, ratified the Charter of the Social Contract, the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’s de facto constitution. The Social Contract significantly improves women’s legal rights compared to the Syrian Arab Republic’s constitution. Article 23 of the Social Contract guarantees “everyone” the right to express “ethnic, cultural, linguistic and gender rights.” Article 27 recognizes that women have the “the inviolable right to participate in political, social, economic and cultural life.” Article 28 entrenches the legal equality of men and women, “guarantees the effective realization of equality,” and “mandates public institutions to work towards the elimination of gender discrimination.”
In contrast, the Syrian Republic’s constitution made no mention of gender equality. Article 45, however, stated that the “state guarantees women all opportunities enabling them to fully and effectively participate in the political, social, cultural, and economic life.” Considering women’s abysmal participation rate in political and economic life in the Syrian republic, this supposed constitutional guarantee was effectively meaningless to most Syrian women.
In November 2014, Cizîrê Canton issued a decree that declared that women and men should enjoy equality in both public and private life. It stated that women have equal labour rights to men, the right to equal pay, and equal inheritance rights. The decree also banned polygamy, marriage under 18, and marriage without consent. It outlawed “honour killings” and “violence and discrimination” against women. In Kobanî Canton, “Women’s Law” mandates similar reforms.
After the Women’s Law was implemented, the women’s organization Kongreya Star sent activists to Christian and Arab village to educate people about the reforms.
The implementation of secular personal status law is a dramatic legal breakthrough for women in Northern Syria. Under Assad, religious groups set their own personal status laws. Shari’a law governed Muslim citizens, including inheritance, marriage, divorce, and child custody. Under this system, women only inherited half of what their brothers did, polygamy was legal, and girls as young as 13 could be married. In Shari’a courts, a woman’s testimony was worth only half of a man’s. The penal code was also lenient towards gendered violence, especially if the violence was a matter of “honour.” Rapists could escape punishment if they married their victim. Spousal rape was not a punishable offense. Jewish and Orthodox Christian personal status law also discriminated against women.
Not only are women benefiting from legal changes in Northern Syria, they have been actively involved in the political and legislative process. The Cantons’ have four levels of mixed-gender peoples’ councils, starting at the local commune level and broadening to a canton-wide council at the fourth level. All four levels are required to be a minimum of 40% women. This gender quota also applies to the judiciary and the legislative assembly. At every level, there is also a women’s council that is independent from the people’s council. Kongreya Star coordinates the women’s councils.
The women’s councils have veto power on “issues concerning women.” TEV-DEM spokespeople told Janet Biehl that what constitutes a “women’s issue” is determined on a “case-by-case basis.” For example, if the women’s council disagreed with the people’s council’s decision on a domestic abuse dispute, the “no of the women’s council will be accepted.”
Two co-chairs, one woman and one man, head most institutions in the Cantons. This rule apply to all four levels of council government, as well as “political, educational, medical, military, police, social and financial services.” The only major position that this rule does not apply to is Canton governor. Out of the four Cantons, one has a female governor. However, governors can appoint deputies, and these positions have been used to approximate a gender balance. Two of the three cantons headed by a male governor have a female deputy governor.
It is hard to determine how closely and consistently gender quotas are followed. Both anecdotal evidence and the Apoist movement’s documented past success with gender quotas in Turkey suggest that the quotas are being implemented in most cases. Nevertheless, there there is at least one example of the 40% gender quota minimum not being met. Out of the 49 people elected to the board of directors in Shahba region, only 17 were women (34.69%) — three women short of the quota. However, even this failure to meet the quota is an improvement compared to the percentage of women in the Syrian Republic’s parliament.
Not only are women playing an unprecedented role in government decision-making and the legislative process in Northern Syria, they are playing an unprecedented role in law enforcement. Since the beginning of the revolution, women have played a prominent role in the PYD’s paramilitary operations, notably in the women-only YPJ forces. Women also serve in the Cantons’ police force, the Asayish. Before being given a gun, Asayish trainees must take courses in non-violent conflict and feminist theory. An estimated 30% of Asayish personal are women, and, like most organizations under TEV-DEM control, executive positions are co-chaired by a man and a woman. There are also women-only units of Asayish which deal with domestic and sexual violence cases. Perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence must undergo gender equality training while they are imprisoned.
Kongreya Star is also working to increase women’s participation in the formal economy. This is being done primarily through the creation of worker co-operatives. The people’s councils establish mixed gender co-ops. The women’s councils establish women’s only co-ops. According to Kongreya Star, as of August 2016, there are women’s co-ops in “agriculture, animal husbandry and production and sales.” In Cîzîre Canton, there were over 1,000 women working in a women’s co-op.
The Cantons’ leadership sees women’s co-ops as crucial to empowering Northern Syria’s women. Delal Afrin, head of the Women’s Economic Unit, told Rahila Gupta that inequality between men and women cannot be resolved by gender quotas and the principle of co-chairs. As she put it, “The confidence that men and women bring to the job will be different unless the confidence of women is built up through the self-reliance, knowledge building and training they acquire in the setting up of co-operatives.”
Although there is no reliable data on women’s participation in the economy and even Kongreya Star estimates are quite modest, there is reason to believe women have a more significant role in Northern Syria’s economy than they did under Assad. Not only does the people’s and women’s council system put women in a seemingly unprecedented positon of power in the economic decision-making process, Kongreya Star believes that women’s entrance into the formal economy is essential to “changing the structure of society.”
Outside the formal political system, Kongreya Star’s primary strategies for empowering women are education and support services. Kongreya Star has established Star Academy in Rimelan. This school is for council women and Kongreya Star organizers. Kongreya Star also teaches courses at regular academies and universities.
Kongreya Star-run Women’s Houses provide women and girls counseling, protection, and shelter. Women Houses work with Women’s Academies, the Families of the Martyrs, the Peace Mothers, and other women’s associations to combat domestic and sexual violence and give humanitarian aid to people displaced by the war. Margert Owen reported that there is a Women’s House in every town and village TEV-DEM controls.
The revolution has improved the position of women in Northern Syria legally and politically. Women also seem to be becoming increasingly involved in the formal economy. We can assume that the transformation of women’s role in public life has also greatly impacted women’s role in private life. Although there are accounts of changing family dynamics, what these changes look like on a society-wide scale is difficult to determine. Domestic structures also seem to be the most resistant to change. In the homes that Rahila Gupta visited in the Cantons, “domestic work was still primarily the responsibility of the women.” However, she observed that some younger men were self-consciously taking on more domestic duties.
The ongoing war — and border restrictions — have severely hampered the flow of reliable information out of Northern Syria. Despite this, there have been enough eyewitness accounts the revolution from diverse sources to conclude that women are both a major beneficiary and a driving force of the political-socioeconomic transformations taking place in Northern Syria. The gains are most apparent in public life but women are also being empowered in private life. What is happening in Northern Syria today is, without exaggeration, a women’s revolution.