From the start of the Rojava revolution in 2012, the Syrian regime has maintained control of a small area of the regional capital, Qamishli. Symbolic of its ongoing power and threat of return, members of the Syrian regime forces patrol what is called “security square,” or the Christian quarter. On the roundabout just outside the square stands a statue of President Bashar al-Assad set against the backdrop of the Syrian flag, with posters of martyrs who have died fighting for the regime.
At the next roundabout in the part of town controlled by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, Rojava’s self-administration, these symbols are replaced with those of the symbolic leader of the revolution, Abdullah Öcalan, and martyrs from the Kurdish People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ).
Examples like these highlight that the battle in Syria is not just over territorial control, but over knowledge, values and ideas of what the future of Syria — and the wider region — should be like. Along with my research partner Adam Ronan, from March to July 2018 I conducted fieldwork in Rojava, southeast Turkey and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. We researched what the Kurds in Rojava call the “war of education” and found that the creation of a new education system has been fundamental to the rise in support for the revolution’s core ideology of the “democratic nation.”
While it was not without its faults, we found that it was the basis of hope many young people felt about their futures — one they saw as being tolerant and inclusive of all ethnicities, religions and genders, and that was seeking to challenge the capitalist exploitation of nature. In a few years, the movement has made gains and the education system has had a chance to grow, but it now faces the threat of the Turkish invasion of Rojava.
A new education system
While much international media coverage has focused on the Kurds’ role in the battle against Islamic State, some claim that the more significant battle is that fought “with pens.” The Institute for Educational Science, established as part of the revolution, is tasked with designing a new curriculum to reflect the self-administration’s broader attempts at challenging the capitalist regimes that precede and surround it.
Following Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK with whom the self-administration share ideological roots, the institute proposes a system based on the three pillars of “Democratic Nation”: democracy, ecology and feminism. From its beginnings in secret Kurdish language classes prior to the revolution, the education system has grown to include a completely new curriculum, with over 3,000 schools now operating in the Jazira canton alone, and the opening of universities in Qamishli and Kobanî.
Many people we interviewed from within the education system described it in opposition to the Syrian regime, as was the case in Turkey. They separate their “old mentality” from the “new mentality,” based on the values of the democratic nation concept. They describe that under the regime, the education system was designed to increase subservience to the state. The old mentality was based on an ideology of “one language, one party, one politics,” instigated through an authoritative style of teaching and which forbids minorities, like the Kurds and Syriac people, from speaking their language and celebrating their unique cultures and histories.
In the southeast of Turkey, it remains the same: the Kurdish flag, language and cultural celebrations like Newroz (Kurdish New Year) are banned. As the Syriac representative in the Board of Education explained, in the past those in power suppressed Syriac identity, claiming they “are Arab, they are not a different nation, they have to learn Arab language.” Many Kurds in Rojava echoed this feeling, with one teacher describing Kurds as “lost people” prior to the revolution, without “our language, our culture; nothing we have for own people.”
As a remedy to this, Rojava’s Board of Education set quotas to reflect the multiple ethnicities living in Rojava. The Syriac representative described to us that in the new system, people welcome that “you are Syriac… Now, for the first time in Syria’s history we have Syriac representatives in all organizations, not only this one.”
The new education system does indeed aim to foster respect between the different groups in Syria. Classes are taught in multiple languages: Kurdish, Arabic and Syriac. Students are educated about their own cultures and histories as well as those of others, thus reasserting their own suppressed identities and building tolerance of others. These values are also embedded in class discussions with topics that include “how different nations can live together.”
Underpinning this is a belief in moral as well as scientific education, with education designed for “our benefit, for the benefit of our future in Rojava,” as described by a student at Rojava University in Qamishli. Middle school students described how they “learn many things about morals… how to be with each other, how to respect your friend.”
Students are also encouraged to participate actively in their education. They talk of “building each other up” through dialogue rather than critique, which includes a more holistic approach to exams, with different kinds of assessments to reflect different learning styles, an emphasis on morals rather than just grades, and accordingly, an inclusive approach to university entrance requirements which has allowed those who had been excluded by regime universities to study.
It is also evident with regards to discipline, with students and teachers saying it is important to build others “up to our system, not destroy them.” Students, teachers, and families also have opportunities for feedback and discussion at all levels of the education system, from curriculum design through to teaching methods.
While there have been serious complaints about the extent to which opportunities of this kind are genuine, those within the new education system appeared committed to the self-improvement that such a system fostered a desire for.
Challenging capitalist domination over nature and women
The reclamation of identity and fostering of democracy in Rojava’s education system has also included the development of agriculture in the region. In the regime era, farmers in Jazira canton had been forced into wheat monocropping. To help those in Rojava reclaim power over their land and historical agricultural identity, Rojava University has opened its own agriculture faculty. The Board of Education explains that “our organization and society need [these] specializations to improve our revolution and solve the problems of society.”
Accordingly, students are taught the value of diversifying crops and being self-reliant, by learning how to grow “barley, wheat, sugarcane, rice, tomatoes; about all vegetables in Rojava,” as described by a student in the agriculture faculty. While many of those we spoke to admitted that ecological innovations had been hampered by the “war situation” — no doubt exacerbated by the oil field upon which Rojava sits — students have begun participating in global climate strikes.
Though less prominent than the all-female YPJ in the battle against Islamic State, attempts to empower women in Rojava are also clear in education. The structure and teachings of the education system reflects Öcalan’s writings on the importance of women’s emancipation for an inclusive and democratic society — encapsulated by the term jineology the revolution’s approach to feminism.
As the Board of Education explained, “in the past, in general in our society… they said women are not equal to men. So, with our education [system] we want to break these rules [and] promote equality between men and women.”
Indeed, for almost every interview we conducted, leadership positions were divided between both men and women. Subjects taught in the elementary school curriculum also embodied these teachings, and at Rojava University they have devoted a faculty to jineology.
While change takes time, we saw men encouraging women to speak up where they might once have remained silent, and we met mothers thankful for the opportunity to study after missing the opportunity in their youth, and it is likely that over time the ripple effect on society of such positive actions would grow.
“We are sure the future will be bright for us”
However, in the weeks since the Turkish invasion of Rojava over 80,000 students have been displaced from Sere Kaniye (Ras al-Ayn) and Tell Abyad, and 45 schools in Hasakah city alone have been closed to house refugees fleeing the violence, according to a local source. Although Rojava University has reopened following a month of closure and begun campaigning against the Turkish invasion, the threat posed to the new education system in the months and years to come is immense.
As a representative from the Institute of Educational Science highlighted to us last year, the states around Rojava “want to make our system like their system. They want to destroy it.”
Those we interviewed from the new education system were uniformly positive about the changes it has brought, and demonstrative of the influence their education has had on them, it has gone on to frame what they want for their society. As one student explained to us “we want to succeed because we see ourselves in it, we see our society and culture inside it,” while another described that thanks to education “we are sure the future will be bright for us.”
In a region marred by conflict, it would be the greatest shame if they are now robbed of the opportunity to work towards the democratic future imagined within their revolutionary education system.
Elise Boyle Espinosa is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law at the University of Aberdeen. Funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation program, her research is on the role of ideology and education in the Syrian civil war. She is currently focusing on Islamic State, which builds on her research on the education system established as part of the Rojava revolution.