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A Revolution in Making – Kurdistan & its Women


kurdish women

While Indian media has not bothered to cover it, the western media is only busy in glamourising the news reports on young women fighters of Rojava, a region where Kurds reside in Syria. After the ISIS assault in Syria one and a half years back in the city of Kobani, the self-governed Kurds in north of Syria bravely fought against ISIS. YPG and YPJ fighters, the men and women armed forces of Rojava, together reclaimed the region from ISIS control with the support of US led air-strikes killing around 2200 personnel of ISIS. Fighters were further successful to drive ISIS away taking control of the strategically important city of Tal Abyad. It is widely reported that ISIS, which has indulged in large scale violence against women, fears of being killed by a woman soldier of YPJ and believes it will deprive those killed of a place in heaven.

In 2006, People’s Defense Unit (YPG) was formed with three women in its command but in 2013 women opted for a separate unit of force named YPJ. Women’s Protection Unit or YPJ, is an all women Kurdish military force supervised by the political Kurdish party PYD. Women fighters now constitute 35% of Kurdish forces in Rojava. YPJ comprise of women of age 16-35 years in its force. Many of these young recruits have not engaged in any physical activities or sports previously. Both YPG and YPJ apart from getting military training, are trained in gender-equality and sensitivity, and democracy issues before getting into the field. Their education also continues. Though the structure of YPG and YPJ are separate, there is no hierarchy. Known for their fearlessness and dedication, YPJ initially had to fight for their roles at the front command during war. Women in YPJ know that they are not just fighting ISIS but also contributing to the autonomy of Kurdish land Rojava and their claim to public space. They are continuing the legacy of women’s contribution as fighters, activists, politicians, leaders, protesters and prisoners in the decades-long Kurdish struggle. They are becoming a part of the history of a self governed and equitable society, unwilling to compromise on their rights.

“At the front I am free, in society I wasn’t.” – YPJ fighter

“Appreciation for these women should not only praise their fight against ISIS,
but it should also recognise their politics. Those seeking to honour the bravest
enemies of ISIL can begin by actively supporting the resistance in Kobane, remove
the PKK from the terror list, and officially recognise the Syrian Kurdistan
administration.” – – Diril Dirik, Kurdish activist

Kurds and Kurdistan
Once the oldest civilisation in Mesopotamia, Kurdistan is a geo-cultural land inhabited by 30 million Kurdish population in an area of approximately 175,000 sq. kms. But it is not a country in itself! Kurdistan, ‘homeland of Kurds’, is divided among four nations – eastern and south-eastern part of Turkey (also called as Northern Kurdistan), northern Syria (Western Kurdistan or Rojava), northern Iraq (Southern Kurdistan) and north-western Iran (Eastern Kurdistan); a very small area of Armenia is also inhabited by Kurds. The history of this division dates back to 1639 A.D. after the Kasr-I Shirin convention when Kurdistan was divided into two, between the Ottomans and Persians. Later in 1923, an agreement known as Lausanne treaty was ratified by the nations who won WWI and Ottoman Turkey resulting in the largest ethnic group lacking a nation state. But, Kurds have continuously struggled to gain their identity.

In Iraq, Kurds won semi-autonomy in 1992 resulting in a Province of Kurdistan governed by Kurds and having their own armed forces called Peshmergas. In Turkey, Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) has pushed for autonomy of Kurds; PKK has since been listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and US. The Turkish
government has brutally tried to suppress their fight for autonomy, resulting in destruction, loss of lives and curtailment of civil liberties. Turkey even banned the use of the words ‘Kurds’, ‘Kurdish’ and ‘Kurdistan’ as well as prohibited the use of Kurdish language. In Syria, post the civil war of 2011, the Kurdish region called Rojava, which has three self-declared regions, is governed by locally set up committees of Kurds. While Syrian government agreed not to confront this system, Kurds on the other hand are not pushing for a separate nation.

Ideological Shift, the Revolution
The armed struggle in Turkey for independence of Kurds has seen an ideological shift where PKK is now looking for other options to gain autonomy. In Syria’s Rojava, the Kurdish revolution saw a concrete change from a Marxist-Leninist perspective to a democratic autonomy led by Abdullah Ocalan (under arrest by Turkish government since 1998) and other comrades inspired by the writings of Murray Bookchin. Since 2012, Rojava is being governed based on the ideology of democratic confederalism i.e. a democratic system without a state. This led to establishment of large scale committees to govern regions taking care of education, justice and economics to maintain democratic and gender-equal society.

Parallels have been drawn between the Zapatistas or Mayans in Mexico and Kurdish revolution who instead of fighting for the revolution, focussed on creating it in the everyday life by building democratic structures at every level in society – schools, housing, agriculture, governance etc. Kurds also focussed on creating free and self-governing communities based on the principle of power to the people. Rojava is a multi-ethnic and religious society where each group now has representation at all levels of self-governing territories. There is freedom to practice and celebrate one’s culture.

“In Syrian Kurdistan the people were prepared and knew what they wanted. They believed that the revolution must start from the bottom of society and not from the top. It must be a social, cultural and educational as well as political revolution. It must be against the state, power and authority. It must be people in the communities who have the final decision-making responsibilities. These are the four principles of the Movement of the Democracy Society (Tev-Dem). Credit needs to be given to whoever is behind these great ideas and the efforts being made to put them into practice, whether it’s Abdullah Öcalan and his comrades or anybody else.” Kurdish Anarchist Zaher Baher on the revolution
in Rojava.

The most fascinating nature of Kurdish ideology has been the participation and role of women – not only in the struggle for a Kurdish autonomy but also in the very existence and structures of Kurdish society.

Kurdish Women
Kurdish women have been subjected to double oppression based on her ethnic identity by the State as well as based on her gender under the patriarchal society. But women in ‘Kurdistan’ have participated in the struggle and at the same time asserted their rights as equal members of the Kurdish society, for which
the struggle is happening. As Dilar Dirik says, “Instead of evolving as a side branch of the party ideology, women’s liberation is a central part of the PKK’s theory and practice.” Hence, they have ensured that ideologically they create systems and space where women are able to spearhead the revolution from the very beginning, and the structure of their society itself propagates women participation; not leaving the question of gender equality till the end of the revolution as has been seen in other countries.

Women have participated in armed struggle and political activism for the larger cause of Kurdish autonomy, and there has also been emphasis on everyday politics of the Kurdish society by giving importance to women’s demand for more power and recognition. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan encouraged women
comrades to question oppression and inequalities. Women organised themselves into political parties and other associations which were independent units of Kurdish struggle. They took on the responsibility of organising when male activists were targeted by the oppressive regimes. Women died fighting in the armed forces through women’s organisations like Yekitiya Star, Democratic Union Party (PYD), YPJ etc. alongside Peshmerga fighters. PYD operationalised women’s participation in military as well as in the life of Kurds society through self-governing structures across Rojava.

In 2012, women academies were established and the idea of gender equality was made an important part of the curriculum emphasising that transformation of women leads to transformation in society. In 2013, through the efforts of Yekitiya Star, honor killings, under-age marriages, forced marriages and polygamy
were ruled out of the Kurdish self-governing society in Rojava. In 2014, through Social Contract new policies were adopted giving women rights to participate in political, social, economic and cultural spheres, rights to organise themselves, rights to run for and hold public office, equal pay, to divorce, to inherit etc. There is a call to eliminate all forms of discrimination, and violence against women is banned. Co-presidency with one man and one woman at all ranks is established and representation of women in all institutions is of at least 40% with veto power to women in issues impacting women. ‘Female only
police’ is constituted to deal with crimes against women and children, and shelter homes (safe houses) are established. Further, women committees, shelters, centers and meeting places are formed where women can engage in discourses, get legal and economic support. Influenced by the PKK’s feminist stance, the
majority of women in the Turkish parliament and municipal administrations are Kurdish.

Hence, this phase of Rojava Revolution has become a feminist revolution for women by women where participation of women can be seen as invigorating the larger cause of Kurdish autonomy.

(Baljeet Kaur, Student of Social Work, TISS, Mumbai)


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