Since 2012, and during the civil war in Syria, “Rojava” or Democratic Confederation of Northern Syria has gained its de facto autonomy. “Rojava” is a Kurdish word and it means the West of Kurdistan. The majority of inhabitants in “Rojava” are Kurds. Other ethnicities and religious communities like Arabs, Syriac-Assyrians, Turkmans, Armenians, Circassians and Chechens also live in “Rojava” (Knapp, Flach, and Ayboga, 2016, p.18).
Since the establishment of self-governing system in the north of Syria , Kurdish women fighters have contributed to the fight against ISIS and other Jihadist groups like the Al-Nusra front in the northern Syria. One of the most outstanding phases of the struggle in northern Syria was the Kobane battle from September 2014 to March 2015. Kurdish women fighters’ contribution to the combat against ISIS was remarkable. In the Kobane battle, 80% of all fighters were women (YPJ: Women’s defense units, 2016). At the same time, women in “Rojava” have played an important role in the democratization process. Women have been present in leadership positions of different organizations. Furthermore, women have been organized in different areas: self-defense, economics, local government, etc (The women’s movement in Rojava, 2016).
The social and political events that occurred in the north of Syria (after 2011), including the establishment of Democratic Confederation of Northern Syria, were named the “Rojava revolution” by Kurds, the media, and international scholars. In order to understand Kurdish women’s uprising in the north of Syria, different effective factors are analyzed in this study.
The main research question in my study is: Which factors have contributed to Kurdish women’s uprising in the north of Syria? Therefore, I aim to analyze different aspects of Kurdish women mobilization in “Rojava” to find out effective factors.
In this research, when it comes to my own analysis, I prefer to use ‘the north of Syria’ instead of “Rojava” for two reasons; First, the word “Rojava” refers to the west of Kurdistan and therefore does not include other parts of Syria where self-governing system has been practiced. Second, the north of Syria is the habitat of other ethnicities like Arabs, Syriac-Assyrians, Turkmans, not just Kurds.
This article is based on 36 semi-structured interviews that I conducted with Kurdish women in April 2018. These Kurdish women were originally from Kurdistan of Syria, Turkey, and Iran which have contributed to “Rojava revolution” in the north of Syria. Most of these interviews were conducted in the north of Syria. In addition, I conducted some interviews in the Kurdistan of Iraq. Some others were conducted on the mountainous border between Iraq and Syria. In the north of Syria, I stayed in three cities: Qamishlo, Kobani, and Ramilan. In these cities, I visited different organizations which contribute to educating and organizing women in different aspects of the self-governing system in the region. I aim to analyze Kurdish women’s uprising in the region from the perspective of Kurdish women who have contributed to “Rojava revolution”. Field observation and secondary data also included to enrich my analysis.
Discussion: why Kurdish women joined “Rojava revolution”?
To analyze effective factors on Kurdish women’s uprising in the North of Syria, I conducted interviews with Kurdish women that participated in what is called ‘Rojava revolution’. Instead of analysis based on secondary data, this paper is based on Kurdish women fighters’ understanding of their struggle. Indeed this paper aims to reflect Kurdish women's voices. The effective factors on Kurdish women’s mobilization are classified in two categories: Macro level structures and meso level organizations.
1. Macro level structures
What happened in the social and political context of Northern Syria that contributed to Kurdish women’s uprising? Here, I analyze macro level factors that had an impact on Kurdish women’s mobilization in the north of Syria. I discuss historical oppression against Kurds in Syria, patriarchal relations, and also the impact of the civil war in Syria as political opportunities for Kurds’ uprising.
1.1 National oppression against Kurds in Syria
“We as Kurds have been under exploitation for many decades. wherever we can fight in Kurdistan, we go there...” said a P.K.K fighter that I met on the mountainous border between Iraq and Syria. Understanding the situation of Kurds in Syria is essential for the analysis of Kurdish women’s uprising in the north of Syria because it is a part of their liberation movement as a whole.
During 1918- 1945, when Syria was under French authority, Kurds in Syria had all their rights as Syrian citizens. They could practice Kurdish culture and language. In addition they had various political and social organizations (Meho, 1997, p. 15). However, after this period and with Syrian independence, the situation for Kurds changed.
The Arabization project, with emphasis on Arab culture, started in the early 1960s in Syria. The aim of this project was to assimilate non-Arab population into Arab culture. The Syrian state has considered Kurds as immigrants from Turkey and Iraq. The fact that in the 1920s and 1930s some Kurdish fled from Turkey and immigrated to Syria was the basis for the Syrian government to claim that Kurds are not original Syrian citizens. Therefore, Kurds in Syria were removed from their lands and were settled in new areas in order to change the demographic pattern of Kurdish areas. In addition, Kurds were not only forbidden from practicing their own culture but also deprived of citizenship rights as Syrians. After the 1962 census in al- Hasakah province, a lot of Kurds lost their citizenship rights. Those who were unable to register themselves in the census, have been called “Maktoumeen”. Others who have registered themselves but were unable to show the required documents, have been called “Ajanib”, meaning foreigner (Yildiz, 2005, p.91- 94). In this census, inhabitants in Kurdish areas were asked to prove their Syrian citizenship by providing these documents: “A Syrian identity card, a family card, and deeds that showed ownership and residency before 1945” (Ibid, p.33). Indeed, few Kurds in Syria had managed to preserve their rights as Syrian citizenship. As a result of the 1962 census in al- Hasakah, most of the Kurds in Syria have been deprived of the most initial citizenship rights. For instance, Syrian government did not provide basic facilities (electricity, water supplies, roads, etc…) for Kurdish regions (Ibid, p.37).
It is worth mentioning that not just in Syria but also in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq Kurds have been under national oppression for a long time. As Kurdish women fighters mentioned, national oppression against Kurds in Syria as well as in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq had been important factors in the Kurdish women’s participation in political struggle in the north of Syria.
As a result of decades of national oppression against Kurds, especially assimilation projects by the Syrian government, the culture of resistance has spread among Kurds. “The culture of defending society has always been dominant in Rojava because in the west of Kurdistan(The north of Syria), it was forbidden to speak in Kurdish. Our culture was forbidden. Syrian government wanted to assimilate the Kurds. At the same time, Kurds resisted assimilation projects” said Asya Abdullah. She has been the co-chairwoman of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) from 2012 to 2017. I interviewed her in the diplomacy center of TEV- DAM in Qamishlo. She also explained the specific role of Kurdish women in the resistance against oppression of Kurds especially in the Dersim battle in 1937 in Turkey. According Asya Abdullah “In the Dersim battle, kurdish women drowned themselves in the river in order to avoid being captured by the enemy.''
1.2 Patriarchal relations
“A lot of women have been killed under the name of honour. Because men think that women are their honours. We are not anyone's honour” said Heval Nozhin. She has been a PKK fighter for more than five years. She fought in Kobani for two years. I met her on the mountainous border between Iraq and Syria.
In most Middle Eastern countries including Syria patriarchal relations, in combination with Islamic traditions, have resulted in extreme oppression against women. Some of common characteristics of this oppressive relations are Polygamy, child marriage, forced marriage, bride exchange(exchanging brides between families), honor killing, etc. As Kurdish women fighters mentioned, in northern Syria, women and girls have suffered from polygamy, child marriage, and physical abuse even by their own families’ members.
In addition, the Feudal clan structure that has existed in most parts of Syria, especially in the north (Kurdistan of Syria) has put more restrictions on women’s lives. In this system, women have been considered both as honour of their families and the whole clan as well. Therefore women have been deprived of many social activities, because it is assumed that the honour of clan could be wounded(From interview with Asya Abdullah and Heval Aishe).
Indeed, the patriarchal relations have influenced the women’s struggle in different ways. For some of Kurdish women fighters, oppression against women was their first motivation to participate in the ongoing struggle in the Kurdistan of Syria. By joining political struggle in the region, they wanted to put an end to these oppressive relations.
For some of Kurdish women fighters, joining military struggle in PKK and in “Rojava” was the alternative to what patriarchal relations had decided for them, being a wife and a mother. “shahid Dejle is the first martyr in Rojava. She was supposed to get married against her will. Instead she joined this movement” said Heval Aishe, whom I interviewed in her house in Kobani. Heval Aishe has been one of the active women in the political sphere in northern Syria for more than three decades. Under Ba’ath regime, Heval Aishe was in prison for almost a year. Her husband, Salih Muslim, was co-chairman of Democratic Union Party(PYD) from 2012 to 2017.
However, Patriarchal relations did not always act as a motivation; sometimes they were obstacles for women who wanted to take part in the political sphere in Kurdistan of Syria. “For women comrades, it was so difficult to participate. Men were afraid of the possibility of the active women getting arrested by the government. Because women are considered as honour of men, honour of society. And the government or enemy should not take men’s honor. Because the government might do inappropriate things to the imprisoned women” said Heval Sara. She has been in contact with PKK for at least two decades. She was one of the women who established the Star Congressin 2004. Due to living under patriarchal relations, patriarchal mentality has been constructed amongst men and women in the region. As a result, some of the women in the region are reluctant to participate in political or social activities.
However, this patriarchal mentality has influenced women’s participation in the “ Rojava revolution” from another angel. “When ISIS attacked Rojava, some families arranged for their sons to move to other countries, especially to European countries. Families took action to save their sons because in comparison to girls, boys are of more value to their families. As a result, in most families, women and girls remained alone. They had to defend themselves on their own.” said Heval Ahora, who comes from the Kurdistan of Iran. Indeed, patriarchal relations not only have acted as a motivation for Kurdish women to join the movement in “Rojava”, but also pushed them to participate in this movement; they had no choice but to defend themselves.
1.3 The Civil War in Syria
“Revolution happens in chaotic situations. It was the civil war in Syria that provided a proper situation for these changes. It was important that we were ready in that chaos” said a YPJ fighter, whom I interviewed on the mountainous border between Iraq and Syria while I was waiting to cross the borders. For decades, under the dictatorial regime, Syria was in peace. In 2010 and 2011, political movements in Arabic countries, including Tunisia and Egypt, also called the Arab spring, inspired political actions in Syria. In February 2011, the first protest in Syria was held. Continuous political events led to civil war in Syria (Knapp, Flach, and Ayboga, p.49). Since 2011 different political groups in Syria have fought each other and also Bashar al- Assad forces, including “secular Syria, homegrown Islamist radical and foreign Sunni Jihadists” (Carey, 2018). According to statistics, between 2011 and 2016, around 400,000 Syrians were killed. In addition, “as of April 2018, more than 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and more than 6 million people are displaced internally” (Syrian civil war fast facts, 2018). When civil war erupted in Syria in 2011, the Syrian government decided to give Kurds the Syrian citizenship and also the right to work. However, this decision did not include all Kurds. Those who were not registered in the 1962 census, Maktoumeen, again were deprived of Syrian citizenship (Knapp, Flach, and Ayboga, p. 49).
As scholars of political opportunities theory have discussed, the potential for social mobilization exists in most societies (Viterna, 2013, p.41). Kurdish women in the north of Syria experienced gender oppression and ethnic discrimination at the same time. This oppressive situation could be interpreted as a latent potential for social mobilization. As one of Kurdish women fighters argued, women who had been under oppression for a long time, had more motivation to take this opportunity to attend the frontlines of battle and to fight for their own rights and freedom.
The start of the civil war in Syria also had an impact on Kurdish women in “Rojava” to join YPJ(Women’s Protection Units) forces. Indeed, war conditions accelerated women’s participation in military forces as well as the other parts of the self-governing system in the region. During the civil war in Syria, women found out that they were not supposed to stay at home, and be victims but they could fight like YPJ fighters. As Heval Sara mentioned Kurdish women’s resistance in the Kobani battle encouraged other women to participate in the “Rojava revolution”.
In addition, violence and brutality of war were important factors that encouraged some women to join the ongoing struggle in the region to protect themselves and other people as well. “When ISIS attacked us, they raped women. We had no choice but to fight and defend ourselves, otherwise they would have killed us or raped us” said Heval Barfin, a YPJ commander whom I interviewed in a YPJ camp.
Heval Tulhaldan Ghahreman is one of the YPJ commanders who I met in YPJ academy in Kobani. She was training a group of twenty young women who have recently joined YPJ in Sheikh Lar camp near Kobani. She narrated her experience of war in Kobani. “ When ISIS attacked Kobani, their tanks ran over people and they did not care they were civilians fighters. They wanted to kill everyone. There was blood all over Kobani’s streets. Around ten thousand members of YPG and YPJ died in the Kobani battle. Sometimes bodies were left on the streets for twenty days. We were not able to move them because ISIS members were waiting for us to go outside, they were prepared to kill all of us” she said.
Heval Agrin is working in the women’s police force, Asayish Jin. She has been a YPJ fighter and has participated in the Kobani battle. She explained how the cruelty of ISIS made her and her comrades more certain that no option was left other than fighting ISIS: “In the Kobani battle, when a captured ISIS member saw that one of our female comrades was smoking, he got angry and shouted at her: "how dare you smoke? I will kill you”. He was imprisoned and yet he threatened our comrade. Or another captured ISIS member was crying and begging not to let a woman kill him. He didn’t want to be killed by a woman because according to their beliefs they would not go to heaven if they get killed by a woman. When we saw ISIS members and their brutality with our eyes, we became even more determined to fight”.
2. Meso level factors(Organizations and networks):
Analyzing different aspects of women’s participation in social and political movements requires the understanding of networks and organization’s importance. This aspect of mobilization is crucial since without networks and organizations it is unlikely that political and social circumstances lead to individuals’ mobilization and social and political movements.
Regarding Kurdish women’s participation in social and political movements in northern Syria, I found out that different organizations had contributed to Kurdish women’s mobilization. Here, first I discuss the organizations that were founded before the “Rojava revolution”. Afterwards, I discuss the organizations that have been established after the “Rojava revolution”, and the impact of familial networks on Kurdish women mobilization.
2.1 Organizations before “Rojava revolution”
Before the “Rojava revolution” and under Ba'ath government in Syria, women and women’s issues were absent from the political sphere in both Syria and Kurdistan of Syria as well. Political parties did not include women’s issues in their platforms. There was an organization for women in Syria, General Women's Union. That organization was under Syrian government control and the precondition to its membership was joining the Ba'ath party (From my interview with Asya Abdullah). Indeed, no independent organization or political party existed for defending women’s rights. In that situation, some organizations began to organize women and increase social awareness about women’s rights. Here, I discuss the most effective organization on Kuridsh women’s mobilization in the north of Syria. As I argue below, the presence of PKK(Kurdistan workers’ party) in the north of Syria has been the main source of women’s mobilization since the late 1990s up to now.
● PKK(Kurdistan Workers’ Party)
The analysis of the women uprising in the north of Syria cannot be completed without discussing PKK(Kurdistan workers’ party) and its role in mobilizing Kurds in the region. For Kurds in the north of Syria, Abdullah Öcalan(the leader of PKK) is beyond a leader. In the north of Syria, I saw the images of Abdullah Öcalan almost in every office and organization that I visited. In the late 1970s, PKK was established to address the Kurd’s issue in Turkey. When PKK was banned in Turkey in 1980, Abdullah Öcalan went to Syria and stayed in the north of Syria, especially in Kobani. In 1984, PKK started its official activities in Syria against Turkey’s government. Although PKK did not receive the full support from the Syrian government, it benefited the hostile relations between Syria and Turkey to spread its ideology and struggle among Kurds in Syria. During PKK presence in northern Syria, many Kurds in the north of Syria joined PKK; in the 1990s almost one third of PKK members were Kurds from Syria. In 1998, as a result of Turkey’s pressure on Syria, Abdullah Öcalan left Syria which resulted in his imprisonment in 1999 (Zaman, 2017). One of Abdullah Öcalan’s impacts on “Rojava revolution” was his ideas about women and women’s freedom. “The rise of the Apochi movement for women was like a new birth. It was like reviving a dead body. Apo(Abdullah Öcalan) is like a prophet who broke all chains from women's hands. He broke the wall of fear and slavery” Said Heval Aishe.
Abdullah Öcalan’s approach towards women’s liberation, has inspired Kurdish women to join PKK and military struggle in the north of Syria. According to Öcalan, society’s liberation in the twenty first century is possible through women and youth actions against the status quo; Especially in the Middle Eastern countries, women are the pioneer forces to liberate themselves as well as the whole society, as these two are strongly connected to each other. Therefore, it is not possible to liberate one without liberating the other one (Öcalan, 2013, p.58).
One issue that came up during this study was about the fact that the women’s movement in “Rojava” as one of the most singular women’s movement, is shaped around a male leader, Abdullah Öcalan. “Most people ask how we can follow a male leader and still claim to fight for women’s rights. The point is that Apo(Öcalan) has killed his internal man. He has killed his masculinity” said a PKK fighter.
This idea of ‘killing the internal man’ comes from Öcalan’s attitude about masculinity. Öcalan has argued “class and sexual oppression develop together; masculinity has generated ruling gender, ruling class, and ruling state. When a man is analyzed in this context it is clear that masculinity must be killed” (Öcalan, 2013, p. 51). Thus, an important step in fighting for gender equality, according to Öcalan, is killing masculinity.
With the PKK’s ideology, the Kurdistan Communities Union or KCK (Koma Civakên Kurdistan) was founded in 2007 as an umbrella organization for Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria to organize Apoist political parties including PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), PYD (Democratic Union Party), PJAK (Kurdistan Free Life Party), and PÇDK (Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party). Political parties that have been established under the KCK umbrella, have contributed to the mobilization of Kurdish women from the other countries, to join political struggle in the North of Syria.
● PYD(The Democratic Union Party): The Democratic Union Party in Syria(PYD), was founded in 2003. Since 2011, PYD has been a leading party in northern Syria. In 2012, this party adopted a dual leadership principle. From 2012 to 2017, Asya Abdullah served as co-chairwoman with Salih Muslim Muhammad. In 2017, two new co-chairs were elected; Ayshe Hiso and Shahoz Hesen. Ideologically, PYD has the same roots as PKK; Abdullah Öcalan is the ideological leader of PYD(Moradi, p.2).
Asya Abdullah discussed PYD’s contribution to improving women’s social status. She said ”PYD as a new political project, placed considerable importance on women. Fifty percent of PYD members are women and women play an important role in this project”.
PYD as a new political project, as Asya Abdullah argued, is a completely new phenomenon amongst political parties in Syria, and in the Middle East as well, since most of the political parties in the Middle East are dominated by men. Although, since 2011, PYD is a leading party in the north of Syria, with the exception of Asya Abdullah, other Kurdish women did not mention the influence of PYD in Kurdish women’s uprising. It seems that Kurdish women do not differentiate between PKK and other organizations in the north of Syria. I assume the reason is that both PYD and PKK have the same ideology and the same ideological leader. In addition, in comparison to PYD, PKK has a longer history of struggle. Thus Kurdish women did not mention the importance of PYD in their struggle.
● Star Congress(Kongereya Star): The Star Union(Yekitiya Star), was established in 2005 in the north of Syria. Later in 2016, its name was changed to Star Congress (Kongreya Star). Since 2005, Star union’s activists have contributed to increasing social awareness among women in the north of Syria. Between 2005 and 2011, many of Star union’s activists were arrested by the Ba’ath government in Syria. Before the “Rojava revolution” and also after it, with the new name, Star congress, these activists went door to door to educate women and to help them get involved in political movements (Knapp, Flach, and Ayboga , p.64-65). Indeed Star congress functions as an umbrella for organizing women in different organizations in Northern Syria. In Qamishlo, I visited the diplomacy center of Star congress. Heval Evin, the spokeswoman of Star congress stated that Star congress is a political and social organization which aims to educate women about their rights and women’s roles in society. It contributes to organizing women in different organizations and different aspects of social life in the region. Star congress is comprised of different committees, including the political committee, the economic committee, the education committee, the diplomacy committee, etc.
One of the main star congress’s objectives is to educate women in the education committee. In this committee, women receive education about Abdullah Öcalan’s attitudes towards women and the whole society. Among different books by Öcalan, one of them, ‘How to live, what to do, where to start?’ is very critical material for those who participate in the education program. In addition, Jineology or women’s science is taught. After education programs, women can join different organizations to get involved in self- governing of their societies(from the interview with Heval Evin, the spokeswoman of Star Congress).
2.2 Organizations after “Rojava revolution”
Different organizations have been established after the “Rojava revolution”. These organizations have contributed to enhancing social awareness about women’s rights among people and especially women. They also have encouraged women to take action in different social spheres. Consequently, more and more women in northern Syria participate in social and political movements. Indeed, organizations which have been established during this revolutionary process, have also become an important factor in continuing this process. The most important organizations that have been established after the “Rojava revolution” can be classified in two categories; Armed forces, and organization for defending women’s rights.
● Armed forces: During PKK struggle in Northern Syria, an important philosophy has spread which emphasises on the women’s self defence; Every one, especially women, should be able to protect themselves. With this philosophy, Kurdish women have been mobilized in different armed forces; YPJ forces, Asayish Jin(women’s police), and HPC(security forces).
YPJ(Women’s Protection Units): The most singular feature of women’s struggle in the north of Syria is the establishment of female militia units, Women’s Protection Units. YPJ alongside YPG(People’s Protection Units) are armed wings of PYD(Democratic Union Party). YPJ, which is an all-female militia unit, was founded in 2013 in the Afrin region of Northern Syria. Although most women's organizations in northern Syria are under the umbrella of Star congress, YPJ is independent from Star congress. In Kobani I visited YPJ’s academy, in which volunteers are approved as “Cadre” after two months of training. These volunteers are to join the struggle wherever they are needed, especially the frontlines of war.
“Women in Asayish forces and also YPJ guerilla, despite what society has always assumed, have proved that women are not weak creatures but they are strong enough to defend women and the whole Rojava. This has made it easier for other women to join Asayish forces and YPJ units” said a YPJ fighter.
● Women’s police: In Qamishlo, I visited the women's police center. The Women’s Police was founded in 2012. The idea behind this organization is to enable women to protect themselves even when there is no war or other crisis. Another perspective for Women’s police is that no man is needed for solving women’s problems; Women have some problems that need to be discussed and solved only by women. Therefore women’s police has been established with a center in each city while all these centers are interconnected.
Women’s police alongside YPJ units contribute to the ideological education of people in “Rojava”, with a focus on gender equality and women’s issues. They emphasize on the nature of current guerrillas units in “Rojava”, which are meant to protect the whole community, and not to take revenge (Dirik, 2015, p.4).
● HPC(security forces): During the war against ISIS, some academies were established to provide volunteers with military training. In those academies, volunteers receive basic military training in less than one week, even sometimes in three days. These volunteers join the HPC or security forces that protect streets and neighborhoods. They also made checkpoints in different parts of cities to inspect every car in order to make sure that ISIS forces would not penetrate the cities. Such academies, through simple and short programs, provide men and women who never had any military experiences, with necessary skills in order to become proficient forces in protecting cities in northern Syria.
“People in communes should be able to defend themselves because in critical situations, it takes time to find out who the enemy is and where they want to attack us. So it is very important for everyone to be ready to defend themselves and the whole community. Therefore, women are trained how to use guns. Thousands of women in Rojava have been trained as HPC” said Heval Evin, the Star Congress spokeswoman. Women’s presence in the front line of the battle in the trenches and checkpoints in the cities, encouraged more women to join the military battle against their enemy.
● Organizations for defending women’s rights: After eruption of civil war in Syria , in order to defend women’s rights and combat with violence against women, some organizations have been established in the northern Syria. During my field work, I had the chance to visit some of these organizations including Women’s House, Sara organization, Foundation of Free Women in Rojava.
● Women’s House(Mala Jin): This organization was officially founded in 2011. In Qamishlo, I visited Women’s House and interviewed the chairwoman of women’s house and she stated that all issues related to women and children were to be addressed in women’s house including domestic violence, forced marriage, polygamy, child marriage, divorce and inheritance issues.
This organization aims to defend women and children's rights in order to build a society in which all men and women are equal. As a result, women can be independent from their male guardians, they can join different social activities and also political movements. Women who work in Women’s House have been educated in Star Congress.
● Sara organization: This organization was founded in 2013. The main aim of this organization is to combat violence against women through increasing women’s knowledge about their rights. According to Mona Abdulsalam who worked at Sara organization, although people with different political attitudes are working in Sara, they all agree on women’s rights and on a new special law about women’s rights which was introduced in 2014 and act upon it. As a result of this new law women have received equal rights to men. In other words, all kind of common violence against women in the region, including polygamy, child marriage, honour killing, were banned (Ali Yosef and Doham al- Asi, 2014).
● Foundation of Free Women in Rojava(Weqfa Jina Azad a Rojava): This foundation was established in September 2014. Its slogan is “The Woman is the basis of society”. This foundation aims to promote better living conditions for women and children in the north of Syria, regardless of their ethnicity. Its programs include promoting economic situations for all women and children in the region by providing work for women, holding educational courses and seminars regarding women’s rights, promoting women’s health condition, etc(From the organization’s platform handbook).
2.3 Familial networks
Familial networks were critical for mobilizing women in the north of Syria. In the absence of strong mass media, familial network acts as a secure source of information about societal changes and ongoing struggle. In the case of Kurdish women fighters, their families keep them updated on the ongoing resistance in society, especially regarding the PKK struggle in Kurdistan. Most of Kurdish women fighters have joined PKK and political struggle in the north of Syria through the knowledge and support they gain through their family members.
Although familial networks had an impact on Kurdish women’s uprising, in some cases family acted as a barrier. One of the principals of the Foundation of the Free Woman in Rojava whom I interviewed in Qamishlo, stated “Sometimes when a girl joined this struggle, her family asked our comrade to “give her back”. They insisted that instead of her, we could take three or four of their boys. In fact, most of the people could not accept girls and women to become fighters. The culture was so reactionary”. Even in some families which already had joined political movements, it was difficult to accept that their daughters would join political movements, especially an armed struggle.
Regarding the impact of organizations and familial networks on Kurdish women’s mobilization in the north of Syria, the importance of social and political context, in which these organizations are embedded, should be given serious consideration. Macro level structures including historical oppression against Kurds in Syria, patriarchal relations, and the eruption of civil war in Syria have shaped a context in which different organizations have been established to mobilize Kurdish women in the region.
Kurdish women in the north of Syria have made a great contribution to what is called “Rojava revolution”; They have played a critical role in the self- governing system in the region and also in the battle against ISIS especially in Kobani. In order to investigate Kurdish women’s uprising in northern Syria, I analysed effective factors in two different categories: socio- political structures and organizations and networks.
In macro level structures, the most important factors that had impacted Kurdish women’s uprising were national oppression against Kurds in Syria as well as Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. National oppression was a crucial factor since Kurdish women from other countries came to the North of Syria and fought for building a democratic system and liberating Kurds. Additionally, patriarchal relations which put women, and especially Kurdish women in an inferior situation, had impacted on Kurdish women uprising. Another important factor that should be taken into consideration is the eruption of civil war in Syria in 2011, which provided an opportunity for Kurds to build the self governing system in the north of Syria.
In meso level factors, I analysed the influence of different organizations and familial networks on Kurdish women’s uprising. Different organizations have been established before and also after the ‘Rojava revolution’ which have had a critical influence on Kurdish women’s mobilization. Among these organizations, PKK(Kurdistan Workers’ party) had fundamental influence. With the presence of PKK in the region, Kurdish women started to organize themselves as well as women of other ethnicities. Even the establishment of other organizations was inspired by the ideology of PKK. Indeed, other organizations in the north of Syria have adopted the ideology of PKK in order to educate women and organize them. Additionally, Star Congress as a social and political organization acts as an umbrella for other women’s organizations in the region, which contributes to educating and organizing women in different aspects of social and political spheres in the region. YPJ(Women’s Protection Units) as one of the armed wings of PYD, alongside women's police and security force(H.P.C) provide an environment for Kurdish women’s military struggle.
These two categories(macro level structures and meso level factors), are strongly interconnected. The socio-political structures as the context in which individuals are embedded generate different organizations to act upon this context. Organizations and familial networks have contributed to increasing social awareness among Kurdish women and mobilizing them.
Contrary to the image that has been reflected in the mainstream media about the Kurdish women’s uprising in the north of Syria, women's struggles in Rojava cannot be degraded to a mere feminist movement, as it cannot be reduced to nationalism either. Women in northern Syria, while fighting for the liberation of women and Kurds, also dream of striving to end all kinds of oppression around the world. Despite critiques of the ideological foundations of the Rojava movement, I assume it would be able to overcome its ideological barriers in interaction with other progressive movements around the world. At the same time, the Rojava movement and its achievements can be a guideline to action for other progressive movements.
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This article is originally a part of a study conducted as master thesis of social studies of gender at Lund university(Sweden) in 2019.
Star Congress is a social and political organization in the north of Syria which contributes to women’s education and mobilization in the region.
17 Feb, 2020