By Wiola Wiaderek/Shutterstock.com
What has been taking place in Rojava is easily one of the most inspiring and exciting experiments in autonomous self-government to ever exist. It is also one of the most massive, and gender inclusive, often compared to the Spanish Revolution of 1936, as well as the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico. And yet, people outside the region know little about the different dimensions of the revolution taking place in Rojava. And now, this revolutionary territory is under military and political attack — its very existence at risk.
What follows is the second of a three part interview series with people who have had ongoing relationship to Rojava, and who have spent time in the revolutionary territory. The first two parts of the series are with Debbie Bookchin and Emre Şahin. Debbie, a journalist, author, public speaker and organizer is Murray Bookchin’s daughter and spent a part of the spring of 2019 in Rojava. Emre, a Kurdish PhD student and translator, spent most of the summer of 2019, traveling to 14 different towns and cities in Rojava, conducting research and in-depth interviews.
The third part is an interview with Carne Ross, Executive Director of Independent Diplomat and author. Carne left his career as a British diplomat, having served in numerous embassies and was Head of the Middle East section and Deputy Head of Political Section at the UK Mission to the United Nations. Carne made the film, Accidental Anarchist, based on his time in Rojava.
How can one tell the success and effects of a revolution? Aside from meeting material needs and having power over one’s life, it is about how people hold themselves, how they feel, how they are different, more confident, self-assured and how their relationships to one another change. It is about dignity and new subjectivities.
Debbie: People I met throughout Rojava used the word “heval” to address each other. Heval means friend first and foremost and it also means comrade. This reminded me of Spain, during the revolution of 1936, and how the formal titles that people held fell away because everyone became a “compañero” or “compañera” — a comrade, but also a companion.
In Rojava the word heval plays a similar role, and there is something really lovely about it; you are a friend, you are a comrade and you are a co-worker because you are all in the struggle together. And this, in turn, results in “hevaltî,” which traditionally means friendship, but in Rojava comes to embody something more: a mindset of collectivity, of shared purpose.
There is a strong sense of care in Rojava, which is promoted quite powerfully through the women’s movement. The women’s movement permeates every aspect of life, and in many ways that was one of the things that surprised me the most.
I knew that Rojava was very much a women’s revolution and that one of its main organizational aspects is that it is anti-patriarchal and anti-hierarchical. I was also aware that at the heart of the revolution is the idea that you have to change social relations completely in order to create a just society. This idea comes from Abdullah Öcalan and is also present in the work of my father [Murray Bookchin], from whose work Öcalan drew inspiration.
What surprised me, however, and what I had not realized until I got there and saw it with my own eyes, was how profoundly important the women’s movement is in making this transformation happen. Under the auspices of the umbrella women’s organization Kongreya Star (Star Congress), the women’s movement reaches into every aspect of life.
To give you an example, there are the Mala Jinê, the Women’s Houses, which are present in every community that I saw in Rojava. These are places w here women of all ages, though largely led by elder women, sort out problems in the community. The Mala Jinê are used very frequently by a large swath of the community; instead of the police or the court system, they’re sort of the first stop for people who have disputes.
Many of these disputes are domestic, since there is a lot of education still to be done within the communities, and so you will often see women come who are having problems with their husbands or their fathers, but they are also used for other types of conflict, such as disputes between neighbors or economic disputes. Importantly, there are not only Kurdish members of the community who visit the Mala Jinê; for example, I witnessed an Arab woman coming in one time who was having difficulties with her father.
The focus is very much on education. For example, when a father thinks it is okay to force his adult daughter to stay at home, the women of the Mala Jinê first of all offer protection to the aggrieved party — they have a system in place where if a person needs to be removed from a dangerous situation, she can be, and together with her children, if necessary. Then they reach out to the aggressor party and they work things out by bringing them in, talking to them, creating a plan for how they can be educated to a more liberatory point of view and then having them sign a contract, which they then follow up on, seeing if they are actually making changes.
In this way they are often able to avoid the typical juridical state systems that we use, where people go to police or lawyers, go to court and sometimes people are imprisoned. That is very much a last resort for them. And this, the Mala Jinê, is one of many projects of the women’s movement.
They are also involved in education and supporting women-owned businesses. Up until the revolution, Kurds were not allowed to speak their own language, wear their own clothes, listen to their own music, much less teach their children the language. And women were at the receiving end of the worst forms of domination.
Kongreya Star goes door-to-door, inviting women of every ethnicity in every village, town and city, to come to the women’s academies where they can collectively experience their own empowerment, learn technical skills, and contribute socially and politically to the creation of what the Kurds call the “democratic nation.” And in rural areas, where women cannot necessarily travel to an academy, they give lectures on childcare, reproductive issues, economic empowerment, literacy, under-age marriage, and the like.
When I was there, I got to visit a curriculum center where people were literally re-writing all the text books that would be used, from primary school up to secondary and high school. The idea was that it would first represent the political and cultural history of all the people who live in the area — as opposed to history according to the Assad regime — and that every one of these textbooks would be published in three languages: Kurdish, Arabic and the Syriac language. Previously, all schooling was conducted only in Arabic.
Rojava’s social contract entitles everyone to be taught in their own language and they were making this a reality in the form of two million new textbooks. I saw beautiful primers that they had printed — which they were rightfully proud of — in all three languages. It is a very powerful expression of this culture of equality that comes through the women’s movement, because we care for our neighbors, we know our neighbors, we are a multi-ethnic and diverse and non-sectarian society that includes very much a culture of care.
Another unexpected observation was the way in which the people of Rojava feel that one of the biggest chains they had to release themselves from was mental constraints. Everywhere I went I heard people talking about changing their “mentality,” and that, in a certain sense is a very emotional thing, it is not just about, “oh, what kind of economic structure are we going to build,” or “how are going to save the environment,” but it is about “how are we going to become different people? People who respect other ethnicities, gender choices, or the environment?” Over and over they said, “We need to change our mentality. And for us that means self-criticism and education.”
I think the younger generation is starting out with an advantage there because so many of them have come of age already in this time of the revolution. And the older people also feel very committed to changing their way of thinking, and one of the ways they will do that is by engaging in dialogue with each other, with different texts, and with their communities.
In this process of empowerment there is almost a dialectic; the community gets stronger, and the individual becomes more empowered, and they in turn bring more wisdom to the community. This is something that I saw in almost every aspect of life in Rojava, whether it was in the town meetings, the university settings, or the hospital.
Emre: Throughout Rojava, people in their late teens and early twenties had a different sort of confidence about them, you could see and hear it; they spoke with much more confidence, held themselves differently. This is the first generation that has come of age during the revolution, as opposed to Assad’s dictatorial regime. They were more confident about the continuation of the revolution compared to the older generations, and they were definitely more committed in dedicating their time and energy to the revolution.
Another important gain of the Rojava revolution is the de-commodification of life and its impact on social relations. The satisfaction of most basic human needs such as shelter, food, healthcare, education and employment are not left to the mercy of the market and capitalist relations. Family-based, local, and regional networks of mutual aid and solidarity ensure that nobody is homeless or starving. It is almost impossible to find people sleeping on the street or begging for food or money across Rojava! Furthermore, there are no orphanages or elderly homes in the region, simply because communities take care of themselves.
The de-commodification of life helps bring people together and increases social solidarity, which in turn increases communities’ capabilities of self-sustenance. Furthermore, people operate outside the boundaries established by capitalist social relations, and relate to one another in ways that are not based on self-interest and competition.
In Rojava there is no space, as in most other parts of the world, where the state or private capital fills in the gap. In the west we have a lot of private and public nursing homes and orphanages and homeless shelters, basically safety net structures for the ones that society leaves behind.
What is different in Rojava is that you do not have any of this. The only exception are the Martyrs Houses, which take care of the needs of martyrs’ families in case they are having trouble accessing food or shelter. These houses are in every town, but they are the only institutionalized social care mechanism. For the rest, people take care of one another through family-, neighbor-, and other informal networks.
It is true that at different times in history, for different reasons, communities have acted like this, like in times of crisis after a natural disaster of some sorts, but in Rojava it is all the time. The difference is that there is a strong political awareness around it; it is part of the society they are developing. These networks of care, mutual aid and solidarity have been flourishing in the past seven years and people are trying to tie it to the concept of revolution and how we contribute to it.
When asked about some concluding thoughts, both Debbie and Emre spoke in an open way, concluding with an overarching reflection of an ongoing process.
Debbie: In Rojava they are finally asserting their right to be who they are and express the long-suppressed cultural identity of the Kurdish people, which is something that all people, any people should be able to express. This heterogeneity is something that the state by its very nature tries to take away from people, because it takes homogeneity as its foundation, putting forward this idea we are all together one nationality and what matters is all the ways in which we are the same.
What the Kurdish people are saying is that we are a rich tapestry of many ethnicities, religions and cultural traditions and they want the world to understand just how important that is and to be able to exert their cultural identity as well as preserving that right for all ethnicities in the region.
It is also, on a much higher level about what it means to be a human being because you can’t really be a full human being if you don’t have that freedom and you can’t really live a good life if you don’t have a safe and ecologically-sound place to live. And this is what they ask. They ask for the right of self-determination. That is really all they are asking. We want to be able to self-govern, to determine our own lives in concert with the people whom we live with in our communities by establishing a politics of democratic confederalism built on direct democracy, non-hierarchy and particularly women’s rights, and an anti-capitalist, ecologically sound economy.
When I asked how can we help you, how can we support this profoundly revolutionary project, they said: the most important thing you can do is to go back and start to do it in your own communities. You can help us most by going and making these changes in your own cities and towns.
Emre: People living in Rojava are aware that there is a mismatch between what the world thinks about Rojava and what is really happening. People at all levels of society are aware that revolutions are a messy process. You know, in the West, we suffer when our theoretical discussions clash with a real life process. This mismatch often demotivates people. But in Rojava people are aware of the clash between the revolutionary theory and framework and how it is not always easy to translate this into practice on the ground.
The crucial point is; they are not discouraged by this. On the contrary, they see this as a natural component of revolutionary change and see a lot of potential there. For example, cooperatives were established, and over the years the hundreds of cooperatives failed to become thousands, and they see that as a part of the messiness of revolutionary change, and not so much obstacles, but rather as opportunities to be engaged with and exploited.
One time I had a meeting with a co-chair of a regional assembly. One of the topics we talked about was women’s liberation in the movement, and he praises the women’s movement, praises women’s roles, gives me all these talking points on the feminist nature of the revolution. And when the interview ends I reach for the coffee cups to bring them to the kitchen, and he stops me, holds my arm and says, “What are you doing?” And I say, “I am just taking them to the kitchen,” to which he replies, “There are women for that.”
Of course we still brought the cups to the kitchen, and when I later recounted this mismatch to a woman who in the local Abori Jin (Women’s Economy) office she gave me this smile and said, “Yeah, there are still dinosaurs like that, but don’t worry, as each day passes they are becoming more and more outnumbered.” She later explained that they are aware of these contradictions, and while taking it seriously it is not stigmatized nor is there an attempt to censure it. There was an openness to all of this.
Despite the ongoing war and embargo, which are quite debilitating on the ground, people continue to mobilize for the revolution. One example. I met with a young Kurdish journalist, Vedat Erdemci, a couple of times. Vedat was 27, had been a long time supporter of Kurdish freedom, and in 2016 he moved to Rojava. I met him in a restaurant, and one of the things we first talked about was how he had helped the new restaurant owners decorate. Among the decorations, such as traditional Kurdish patterns on the table cloths, were fragments of exploded mortar shells they had found in the street.
When I joked about it, he responded that he thought it was a great symbol of the revolution as it shows that despite the war, despite the embargo, despite so much, people are motivated, and give everything they have and use any and all materials available to them. It is not only useful but it also serves as a memory of past challenges, and new possibilities, with the restaurant as a space built by the revolution.
This comment became all the more powerful when recently we lost our friend and journalist Vedat, as he was killed in a Turkish airstrike on Serêkaniyê on October 10, while covering the invasion. His point was that we use and give one hundred percent, and his actions reflect that. As soon as the invasion began, with the little resources he had, he went back to frontline journalism. And now he is lost.
And, everywhere I went, I saw people with this spirit, a spirit of optimism despite everything, the Gramscian idea of pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. I saw this everywhere; despite being under attack from the second largest military force in NATO, and with very limited resources available to them, they still have this optimism of the will. You see this especially with women, who are claiming their space, walking tall, with dignity and not conceding space to men.
Despite everything, people continue their work and life with optimism, continuing to create a new society and sacrificing everything to defend it. There is no turning back. People’s relationships have changed, their sense of themselves has changed, and no matter what happens, there is no turning back from that process — this is a process from which there is no return.
Debbie Bookchin is an author, award-winning journalist and co-editor of The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy (Verso, 2014), a collection of essays by Murray Bookchin.