By Patricia McBroom
Women Warriors were just the beginning
They call her “Kurdistan,” not her real name. She fights in the sun-dried desert of Northeastern Syria to preserve an extraordinary revolution. Like others in this army of Kurdish women (YPJ), she carries the scars of a brutal beating by ISIS fighters who lashed her back until it was nothing but bloody ribbons of flesh hanging from bones. That experience among others drove Kurdistan to pledge “that no man would ever whip her again.” She is part of an amazing Kurdish effort to defend gender-equal democratic communities in the place known as Rojava, the autonomous Kurdish area of Syria.
I heard Kurdistan’s pledge in a podcast called “The Women’s War” published last year. She is one of about 20,000 women warriors in the region who not only stand up to male-dominated armies around them, but who, as political leaders, carry the ideals of equality back to their villages and towns. I hope she is still alive.
Since the Kurdish forces defeated ISIS in 2017, a brief period of celebration among the 30 million Kurds was followed by another assault, this time from Turkey. That struggle continues today as the Kurds persist in building a society unlike any other.
“This is a particularly crucial time for the women’s movement,” said Elif Sarican, a London-based Kurdish anthropologist. “We are facing attacks right now by the Turkish state,” many of which are aimed directly at the systems championed by the women’s liberation struggle, said Sarican, who spoke in May in a course on the Philosophy and Politics of Social Ecology.
What are they fighting for? What does this gender-equal society look like?
In many ways, the political system looks ancient, even prehistoric: small communities with direct democratic rule and communal ownership; separate women’s organizations; co-chairs representing men and women throughout all areas of social, economic, and military life.
Systems like this existed before the rise of patriarchy in Mesopotamia around the 4th millennium B.C. Moreover, “matriarchal,” or egalitarian indigenous cultures throughout time have been marked by parallel men’s and women’s groups that jointly exercise rule of their cultures. Having a separate platform for the woman’s voice ensures that its unique needs and wisdom can be heard. Women’s policies and perspectives can’t be hijacked by men.
But this is more than just a movement for women. Kurdistan theorists believe that all democracy — all good society — depends on the liberation of women from rule by men, i.e. from patriarchy. That is a central thesis of Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who leads the revolution from his prison cell on an island off the coast of Turkey where he has been held since 1999.
The oldest form of slavery is the “housewifization” of women, Ocalan believes. By that he means the 5,000-year-old rise of the nation state that engages in war and has taken economic power from women while confining her to the home. Society cannot be free without women’s liberation, says Ocalan. All hierarchy, class structure, capitalism and war emanate from male dominance over women, he explains in an 800-page tome currently being translated into English: Beyond State, Power, and Violence.
“We are not trying to recreate the wheel,” said Sarican. All of these things have existed in history, alongside the rise and expansion of patriarchy. She explained that Kurds do not believe that gender differences are innate or genetically based. Rather, they are rooted in history as women were stripped of authority and defined as different from men, leaving many social and ecological qualities in an inferior category, capable of being exploited. Changing that is a matter of socialization and education.
Similarity to cultural patterns of the past, however, is not the only notable thing about the revolution in Rojava. It’s also remarkable that Ocalan read the works of a Vermont political philosopher named Murray Bookchin whose theories of “libertarian municipality” became an inspiration for the Kurds. Ocalan guided the men and women of his homeland to set up direct democratic municipalities linked together in a confederacy, like those advocated by Bookchin, a communalist. Kurds have been building communities like this for about 20 years. There is no nation state as we know it in Kurdistan. The system survives today in a fragile and threatened condition, but it survives — so far.
There is poetic justice in the fact that this brave and visionary brand of egalitarian society should arise in the space near where state power and imperialism first appeared in ancient Mesopotamia. Since world War I, the Kurdish region has been broken up into four different states although it is very connected; Kurds trace their heritage to Iranian nomads of the 7th century. Their indigenous roots may go back several millennia before that. The population is surrounded by fierce exponents of toxic masculinity, such as Turkey’s islamic forces under Erdogan and ISIS. Both have captured, tortured and enslaved Kurdish women who learned in prison how to lead this women’s liberation movement and why it is so important.
There is no group of women in the world who are braver and more committed at building an egalitarian society, and it is currently under grave threat. As one example, Sarican said the co-chair system of the Kurdish movement in Turkey has recently been legally defined as “terrorist,” meaning that the basic instrument of gender equality is seen as an ultimate threat in that nation.
Turkey is also limiting the water released into Syria from its dams on the upper Euphrates River and elsewhere. “They are quite literally trying to dry up the revolution,” she said.
What is happening to the Kurdish people is a tragedy for us all. Their current struggle reveals the lengths to which patriarchal forces will go in halting the forward push of gender equality. We need to listen.
Dance of the Deities: Searching for Our Once and Future Egalitarian Society, combines memoir and anthropology, taking the reader on a journey to 10,000 BCE.