Report – Revolution in Kurdistan: Autonomy, Feminism, and Ecology

Report of the lecture on Revolution in Kurdistan: Autonomy, Feminism, and Ecology by Joost Jongerden & Michael Knapp

On Monday, the 26th of January, the Resistance fighters in Kobani successfully liberated the city and broke the siege on the city by Daesh (ISIS), which had been going on for more than 20 weeks. Previously, Kurdish fighters had promised that Kobane would become another Stalingrad if necessary – highlighting their historical consciousness of past struggles around the world.

This victory, of course, was covered and celebrated in the mainstream media just as the previous 20 weeks of siege and streetfighting in Kobane. What has received very little coverage so far, however, is what exactly Kobane actually is – an emblem of the struggle against IS, sure – but also for the struggle against reactionary forces worldwide and for the ongoing creation of the Autonomous Region of Rojava.

“Rojava…?!” you may think now. Fear not: Michael and Joost are here to help.

In his Guardian article “Why is the world ignoring the revolutionary Kurds in Syria?” the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, lecturer at the London School of Economics and author of the recently published “The Democracy Project”, drew attention to the worldwide lack of knowledge about the revolutionary Kurds – sadly also widespread among the International Left.

One of reasons for this, we are informed by Michael, is that there has been an embargo in the media on releasing the greater background information surrounding the struggle in Rojava, which has been of course increasingly difficult now that Kobane has been liberated. Ironically, once the left media picked up on the events, the first question they asked was “Should the Kurds be working together with US drone bombers against Daesh?” to which they replied: “We wish you would have asked us first!”

From May 1st to May 25th, Michael travelled into the newly liberated territories of Rojava to gain knowledge about the social experiment taking place there, 40 kilometers from the frontline of the defense against Daesh.

So, what is happening in Rojava? Joost divided the ongoing ‘project’ into 3 aspects:

  1. The Democratic Republic:
    One of the concepts that is fundamental to Rojava is the disconnection of Ethnos (ethnicity) from Demos (citizenship). As it aims to be a fully inclusive new society, people of all ethnicities are welcome; as a pluralist society, ethnicity will not give anybody privileges.
  2. Democratic Autonomy:
    The core concept behind this is that people should control their own lives in relation to others.
  3. Democratic Confederalism:
    Inspired by the political philosophy of Murray Bookchin, this is a system based on a structure of various councils, from the household up to the government, in which people represent themselves to a large degree, instead of merely delegating power to higher authorities.

Michael then began explaining the Democratic Autonomy project by giving us a short history of Kurdistan. After the fall of the Ottomans, the territory the Kurdish people inhabited was split into 4 parts by the colonial powers: Syria, Iraq and Turkey[m1] , dividing people and even cities along new national borders once again after the Iranian part was split off 500 years ago. These new nation states were based on the ideas of French centralism and German ethnic-nationalism, meaning that there was One central administration and One central, dominant culture which tolerated no identification with other roots under the motto ‘join us or perish’.

The area known as Rojava is divided into 3 cantons: Afrin, Kobani and Qamishlo, which are also geographically divided by the territories held by Daesh. In Rojava, there are about 3.4 million inhabitants of a host of ethnicities and religions, thrown together and united by persecution and war from all sides – Christians, Muslims, Yezidis, Arabs, Kurds, Syrians and many more.

Not only are they fighting a host of enemies such as the armies of Syria, Turkey and Daesh (who coordinate their attacks with each other), they are simultaneously building a new society right under their noses. For this, they have created a system of councils and commissions to coordinate the organisation of daily life and the creation of new ways of living.

Bearing many similarities to the Mayan Zapatistas and the Spanish Anarchists, the hierarchy is constructed as an inverted pyramid – neighborhood at the ‘top’, then the block, city and government.

Especially important about the new structures is their basis of women’s emancipation. The councils have a gender quota of 40 %, and are also co-presidencies, meaning that one woman and one man must be elected for the ‘top’ positions (from a pool of all present ethnicities).

Furthermore, there is always parallel women’s structure observing and organising all institutional functions, which are organised under the Yekitiya Star women’s movements umbrella organisation.

The political heart of all councils are designated communal meeting places, where citizens come to discuss problems and to find solutions to the many challenges their are facing. One of these is the problem of energy in many areas. Because Daesh controls the massive dam in Raqqa and due to the Turkish-Southern Kurdish embargo on the liberated territories, many Rojavans are dependent on diesel for energy. The problem with this is that since the upheavals began, the upper and middle class has left the area – resulting in a ‘brain drain’ of engineers and technicians. Therefore, it took a while until diesel energy production could be resumed and still remains an issue that needs to be discussed in councils.

It furthermore discusses matters such as families locking up their daughters, forced marriages and solutions to such problems, aiming at first at dialogue and then looking at possible other actions, such as an intervention by the Asayis-Jin (women’s security).

All areas are further organised and overseen by the various commissions:

Energy: Operates People’s Petrol Stations and oversees diesel distribution. Issue: resuming normal oil production.

Health: Responsible for obtaining and distributing Medicine. Issue: Turkish-led embargo on medicine shippings into Rojavan territories.

Agriculture: Giving land to worker-owned cooperaties and overseeing communal land management. Issue: Wheat produced in Rojava, but mills located in Southern Syria.

Economy: Regulates the the economy, such as fixing the price of basic staple resources such as oil and food, and overseeing the pay of the various commissions (equal pay for everybody.)

Justice: Divided into Malaa Gel (People’s House) and Malaa Jinan (Women’s House).
This is especially interesting as matters of patriarchal violence are brought in front of a special court operated by women.
The JC acknowledges that crime is a result of social inequality, and would like to find an alternative to imprisonment in the future. Similarly to JC, there is also a Human Rights Comission, which oversees and regulates the security and defense forces and brings mistreatment&tortureof prisoners (which is punishable by prison or exile) to the JC.

This brings us to the distinct Security Commission and Defense Comission.

Security: The security forces, “Asayis” are the first line of defense and present in the towns and cities as citzen’s militias. They are organised democratically, with commanders being elected and deposable; there are weekly debriefing dinners in which the squad criticizes their commander and there is an exchange. Furthermore there is also the Asayis-jin, the female-only security forces. One of the tasks of the Asayis is also the protection of the townhalls, as these are a prime target for jihadists.

Defense: This is the Rojavan Armed Forces, who are fighting on the frontlines. They too are organised in a democratic fashion, but once commanders are elected they receive special training in order to be able to lead on the battle-field, therefore of course being ‘less’ democratic than the Ayayis. They consist of the YPJ (female units) and the YPG. The military strategy of Rojava is the ‘strategy of the Rose’ – a rose uses its thorns only when under attack, meaning that the focus is on defending when attacked and then taking some of the enemy’s outposts and stopping there. Due to a lack of military hardware, we have seen developments very akin to those in Spain in the civil war such as the ‘DIY’ tanks, made from garbage trucks and bulldozers plated with heavy steel.

The military situation is of course a big issue within and outside of Rojava. There exists proof that the Turkish government is directly collaborating with Daesh, supplying them with weapons and resources as was revealed in files released last month, which show that the Turkish secret service was smuggling weapons into Daesh hands using Turkish NGOs as cover. There are also simultaneously coordinated attacks by Syrian/Turkish government forces with Daesh against Rojava.

Michael also asked the Rojavans about what is perceived as a cult of personality surrounding the PKK’s leader Abdullah Öcalan. Their reply as to his popularity is that he is a symbol for many different areas of struggle (i.e. he started building up the womens movement in the PKK).

To sum it up: In Rojava we are seeing an ongoing construction of a gender-liberated, pluralist, ecological, secular and democratic autonomous region focused on human rights, anti-centralism and new ways of communal organisation, with much promise for future developments and one of the few real bastions against the fascism of Erdogan, Assad and al-Baghdadi.


<href=”#_msoanchor_1″ >[m1]The Iranian part was split of 500 years ago