Rojava revolution: On the Hoof
Rojava is a fast moving, dynamic place where things change by the minute. What are the material conditions which support this woman-centred revolution ? Part 5 of 50.50's series. Witnessing the revolution in Rojava, northern Syria.
There is a real sense of a people responding to the facts on the ground with the few resources they have to hand. Rojava’s frontline of the war against ISIS is constantly shifting – at the moment in a positive direction, outwards, encroaching into ISIS held territory such as Shaddadi in Hasakah province and Tal Abyad on the Turkish border – which means becoming responsible for new populations and the work of drawing them in to the radical representative democratic structure described in this series earlier. In order to accommodate these newly liberated areas where the Kurds are not a majority and where the population of Syriacs, Assyrians, Arabs and Turkmen may not fully sign up to the revolutionary ideals of Rojava, this region declared itself the Federal Democratic System of Rojava and Northern Syria in March shortly after I returned. Similarly, the women’s umbrella organisation which was known as Yekitiya Star (Kurdish for Star Union of Women) when I was planning my trip to Rojava, changed its name to Kongra Star (Star Congress) by the time I got there because they had decided at their last conference to open out its membership to women of all ethnicities, not just Kurdish women. Signs outside government offices are often computer generated notices on A4 sheets of paper, suggesting both lack of resources and the rapidly changing situation.
Homemade barricades, often oil drums filled with concrete or pipes welded together in spiky star shapes, are placed outside official buildings to prevent suicide bombings. Apartment blocks have been requisitioned for the administration’s offices. The media centre, for example, is housed in a block of flats in a residential area at a crossroads where three roads have been blocked off to cars by oil drums about a hundred yards from the office building. On the fourth road, there is a wide low iron gate which slides across to let official cars through.
The official TV station of the administration called QAM, which seems to be on everywhere, is simply a series of moving stills and texts. Although another channel, Ronahi, does broadcast film, it tends to favour endless static discussions with women in military fatigues.
At the border, a pontoon bridge supports lorries crossing in both directions with goods as and when the border is open. When I was leaving Rojava, I noticed that there was now a rickety iron table standing on the pebbly beach where members of the asayiş (police force) were checking the baggage of incoming Syrians cursorily for bombs or guns, which wasn’t there when I arrived a fortnight earlier. The standard time for arms training for their defence forces, both the YPG (People’s Protection Force) and YPJ (Women’s Protection Force) is only one month. Despite that, they are notching up remarkable successes against ISIS which they attribute to their commitment to the revolution. Nesrîn Abdullah, Commander of the YPJ, says 'We strongly believe that if you just fight without ideology, without developing your ideas and personality, your fighting will not be as good as it could be, and will not be done in the right ways.’
All the grand buildings I come across were owned by the Assad government and simply taken over by the Rojava administration. For my first couple of nights I was hosted by the media centre at their villa, a rather grand building, which is the guesthouse for visiting journalists. The hotels in Rojava are owned by the Syrian government. As I was technically illegally present in Syria, having come across the border from Iraqi Kurdistan, I was told that I would be in danger of being arrested if I booked into a hotel.
Weqfa Jina, the Foundation of the Free Woman in Rojava, are also based in a previously Assad-owned mansion which had been handed over to the group by the self-administration and which they have refurbished to a very high standard with donations from abroad.
Similarly, land owned by Assad is being redistributed to agricultural co-operatives. Women-only co-operatives play a substantial role in the running of the economy and feeding the population. As described in part 2, in Jineolojî, the sociology of women, an academic discipline developed by Öcalan, women are considered to be the main actors in the economic system as opposed to capitalism where men play a leading role. I met the head of the Women’s Economic Committee, Delal Afrin, who outlined their substantial achievements in a very short period of time. As their primary focus had been on self-defence and the war against ISIS, they came late to the economy. It was only in August 2015 that the Committee came into being. They have set up 19 co-operatives, including six agricultural co-ops, many of which have been in existence for only a couple of months. This was the situation in March whereas a document produced in January by Tev-Dem (Movement for a Democratic Society) listed only six independent women’s co-ops – so information dates quite quickly in this dynamic place.
According to Dr Alan Semo, PYD (the dominant political party in Rojava) representative based in the UK, the cooperative system contributes approximately 80 per cent to Rojava’s economy and the private sector represents 20 per cent of the economy. The Kongra Star co-ops, which are women-only, are independent of the Tev-Dem co-ops which are mixed. What this means in practice is that women are owners and members of the co-op but they may still employ male workers as they do in the Warshin sewing co-op I visited. The co-op has eight women owners and four male employees.
When I asked why they thought it was important to set up women only co-operatives, when gender equality was encouraged across society, Delal Afrin said, ‘the historic imbalance of power cannot simply be corrected by introducing quotas for women or the principle of co-presidentship shared by one man and one woman. The confidence that men and women bring to the job will be different unless the confidence of women is built up through the self-reliance, knowledge building and training they acquire in the setting up of co-operatives. A society that is able to organise an economy where women are given productive roles is the sign of a mature and reflective society. When the economy is not in the control of men, women will be able to express themselves freely.’
Outside the Kongra Star offices is a drum filled with petrol where the official car tanks up – a health hazard and gift to ISIS suicide bombers. By contrast, what I had thought was the most basic filling station I had ever seen on my first journey in Rojava from the border, is a luxury. It was a tiny, dirty, oily, blackened shop front without signs. Attached to a standpipe was a hook on which hangs a rubber hose, of the gardening variety, with a spout tied to it with a rope from which petrol gushes. The hose came out of a makeshift tank with a lid and midway along the length of the hose pipe was a basic meter which notched up the amount delivered. Local people used small manual heaters to extract petrol from crude oil in primitive ways so the proper petrol stations shut down because they no longer had quality petrol and there was no price differential between them and these small outfits. Daham, the border officer, lit up a cigarette right next to the hose pipe. I gulped but took a picture, nonetheless.
Under Assad, petrol used to be sent to Homs to be refined and then returned to Rojava. The Kurds have cut the pipelines so that they can keep their resources to themselves but without refineries in Rojava, the quality of the petrol is poor. Dr Alan Semo says that they refrain from exporting the oil because they see it as a national resource which should benefit all the people of Syria when the war is over. Assad had deliberately under-developed the Kurdish areas so that they would be economically dependent on the central government: for example, they were allowed to grow wheat but not bake bread. They are planting fruit trees which were banned by the Assad government which wanted them to be reliant on the south for their fruits. In fact, all tree planting was prohibited by Assad which explains the strange treeless landscape of Rojava.
This is a revolution in a hurry, starting from a very low material base of development and overlaid by grand aspirations to equality in a hostile environment. It is nothing, if not ambitious.