05/03/2015 - 00:00
Rewriting Women's History in Rojava - Part 2

05 March 2015

by Rojda Serhat-Şevin Şervan-Cahide Harputlu - JINHA

ROJAVA –This year in Rojava, women are preparing for March 8thwith as much excitement as pain. In spite of the intensifying attacks against women, women have made this a historic year for women through their work defending Shengal and Kobanê and building Rojava. Our series continues today with a grassroots' activist's history of the organizing that preceded the revolution; women's reflections on their work in government; and an interview with YPJ commander Meryem Kobanê.

Roots of the Rojava Revolution: decades of organizing for Kurdish liberation

Says Henife Husen, co-chair of the umbrella democratic political movement Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), women's resistance and struggle had a history long before Rojava.

 "With the supervision of President Apo [PKK Leader Abdullah Öcalan], Kurdistan's search for freedom came to Rojava, too. The women of Rojava accepted this from the beginning; they opened their homes, they gave up their children to this struggle.

"For the revolution to come this far took a lot of moral and material support," including the frontline fighting of the National Liberation Front of Kurdistan [ERNK] and President Apo's support, said Henife.

Abdullah Öcalan spent time in Rojava in the 1990s. "The leader's stay in Rojava Kurdistan had three main projects," said Henife. "The most important one was the women's liberation project. In Rojava, a lot of women attended his meetings."

Henife said the meetings resulted in a range of changes in society. While at first women only joined the guerrilla one by one, the popular uprisings across Northern Kurdistan in the 1990s resulted in an explosion of guerrilla volunteers. "The first martyr being a woman had a huge echo. Every martyr laid the ground for more people volunteering."

As Öcalan's philosophy spread, women started organizing all their economic activities, including domestic work. "Women began to do what no one else could do," said Henife. But after Abdullah Öcalan was taken prisoner by the Turkish state, said Henife, repression began to become intense in Rojava. The state facilitated a range of dirty policies that resembled closely those implemented by the Turkish state against the people of Northern Kurdistan.

"Hunger policies began. Unemployment broadened. These ten years caused immense devastation, especially against women," said Henife. "There was an alliance between the two states," both facilitated crime and corruption.

In a short period of time, prostitution, drug sales and spying became widespread in Rojava. "Older men would come from the north [Turkey] to buy young women to 'marry.' "After this, the local understanding of Islam changed, said Henife. Women also took part in this new Islam. Religious societies appeared everywhere.

Pro-Kurdish activity was forbidden, and Henife says dozens of her friends were arrested and tortured. Some were killed by their torturers. Narziye Keçe was arrested in 2004 and disappeared in state custody.

People began to fear political activity. Henife says Islamic organizations grew to fill the gap when people became afraid to organize in the Kurdish liberation struggle.The state's ongoing arrests of women resulted in further repression on the level of the families, where active women were threatened with being thrown out of the house or divorce if they stayed active in the struggle.

But, Henife says, they never stopped organizing, forming the organization Tevgera Jinan (Movement of Women) in 2005. Organizers formed local parliaments and committees in every city, even when attendance was low, including through Tevgera Azad (Free Movement). This level of organization continued until the 2011 revolution.

With the 2010-2011 period came an explosion of activity and organization. The first TEV-DEM congress, the decision to open women's houses in every city, women's organization Yekitiya Star's decision to organize itself in grassroots parliaments—important discussions and decisions took place one after another. Committees organized to take charge of education, press, economic and public relations. Most recently, women's academies opened in 2012.

Women were key to all of this, taking important roles and organizing themselves during the period of the revolution. Women were part of the revolutionary councils and decision-making bodies.

The co-chair system, in which every position has two representatives (one male, one female), came to be implemented in the local parliaments and communes. A 40% quota for women was also implemented.

"These developments increased popular participation. Women took a leading role in society," said Henife. Yekitiya Star became a space for women. Early in the revolution, women were taking part in the PYD, where the co-chair system was in place, and in asayiş (peacekeeping.)

Yekitiya Star began to give support to the YPG. After women organized as the YDH in secret, they then formed the YPJ. Kobanê became an example for women of Rojava and the world, with its most famous martyr being Arîn Mîrxan, who sacrificed herself for the city. "The thing that freed Kobanê was the spirit of comrade Arîn" and those like her, said Henife.

In Rojava's government, women research and solve their own problems

Minister of Women Hiva Erabu says the ministry was one of the first institutions founded after the declaration of autonomy in Cizîre Canton. Only women staff the Ministry—a first in the world.

"When we started work, we analyzed and researched experiences in a lot of countries, but we couldn't find a ministry specifically formed to address women's problems," said Hiva. "We started projects in areas of interest to women: economy, politics, child-rearing, development, violence against women, culture, law." Many projects take place collaboratively with women's movement groups.

"We took a report on women who experienced violence who came to the women's houses," said Hiva. "As a result, we started solidarity projects and women's shelters. Women in danger of death live here. We also have projects to help solve the economic problems of women living in shelters."

The Ministry gathered a range of previously unavailable statistics on women through research in Cizîre Canton. In addition to the total population of women, the statistics also recorded numbers of women who have experienced violence, polygyny, child marriage; who are in economic distress; who have divorced; and who are disabled. According to the research, there were 2,250 instances of violence against women in 2004 alone.

Now, the Ministry has helped in the development of a law that takes measures against a range of forms of violence against women, from child marriage, polygyny, disinheritance of women and bride exchange to domestic violence.These practices vary among the different groups in Rojava, with polygyny (for instance) widespread among Arab citizens, present among Kurds and absent among Assyrians and Syriacs.

A main 2015 focus of the Ministry is economic activity. The ministry plans to train women in skills they already have so they can support themselves without relying on male relatives. Another project creates centers for disabled children and youth.

Revda Hesen, co-mayor of the city of Qamişlo in Cizîre Canton, has seen women take their place in a range of projects since the beginning of the Rojava revolution three years ago—including the 30 women staff members at the municipal government. Women direct a range of all-woman municipal projects. Zin Xelil, of the city government's Asayiş (peace-keeping) force, says women play a major role in the defense of the city. She says self-defense of the women-led Rojava revolution is critical.

YPJ struggle for women's self-defense in every area of life

Meryem Kobanê, a commander in the YPJ, has been part of the Kobanê resistance from the beginning.

"There is nothing in nature without mechanisms for its own self-defense," Meryem says of the project of women's self-defense. She says the domination of women is not natural. Militarism and exploitation began with the tribal system and the idea that women can't take part in the defense of the community, but can only serve men, according to Meryem. But the state formalized this mindset.

"Throughout history, how are women described? 'Their nature is opposed to war.' Yes, of course this is true of wars of domination. But self-defense is different." She noted that self-defense is a fundamental natural property. War is a fine art, Meryem says, and women in particular approach it that way.

"They tell women, 'you don't have willpower, you're not strong, you can't be a leader, you can't protect your own life,'" said Meryem. "Women have taken part in so many revolutions in history, but their role has always been suppressed."

She noted that there were some difficulties for women at the beginning of the defense of Kobanê, as well, in spite of the long history of women's struggle in Rojava and Kurdistan in general.

"A number of comrades in the Kobanê resistance, including the martyrs Sozdar and Roza, wanted the YPJ positions to be separate from the men's—because our fathers and brothers told us 'you can't do this,'" said Meryem. But women struggled against the men who told them they had no business on the front. Now, their role is famous. Martyred women like Viyan and Peyman gave their lives for Kobanê. YPJ women have been at the forefront of the war in places like Serêkaniye and Efrîn, as well.

"Daesh made a marathon sprint from Mosul to here, but they were stopped at Kobanê," said Meryem. Saying they felt the need to show that women raised on Abdullah Öcalan's philosophy would never give up, she said "as long as there was a Kurd left alive, Kobanê would not fall."

Women are not just resisting in war, according to Meryem, but in everyday life. "Anywhere in society that there is a group that wants to resist its own exploitation, there must be a mechanism for self-defense—in every street, every house, every workplace.

"For example, women working in factories have to organize. They need to meet regularly and if there's an attack on one woman, they need to come together." Meryem said women's solidarity against economic and all other forms of exploitation needed to be a basic reflex.

"Women are pushed into prostitution as if they have no other option. Women are being stoned when they themselves are victims of rape. We are saying there is another way to live. And the solution isn't just weapons.

 "The struggle starts with knowing yourself," said Meryem, stressing the importance of education in the YPJ struggle. "We told the comrades coming to us to learn everything they wanted, including how to use weapons. Your mind needs to be open to everything," she said. From the beginning, studying the philosophy of Abdullah Öcalan has been crucial to women's efforts to organize themselves.

Meryem said rape, stoning, abduction, femicide and other crimes against women rise in the absence of self-defense. At Dera Zor, 700 women and children were beheaded before the world's eyes. Crimes against humanity like Saddam Hussein's Anfal campaign and the Daesh attack on Shengal were avoided in Rojava only thanks to the struggle of martyrs. She noted the names of the many women martyrs who sacrificed themselves in the front ranks: Rêvan, Gulan, Ozgur, Roza and thousands more gave their lives in order to freely live their identities.

History is full of such struggling women, according to Meryem, from Rosa Luxemburg to Leyla Qasim (a resistor killed by the Ba'ath regime) and the three Kurdish women militants killed in Paris. Meryem greeted the women continuing their struggle in the streets on March 8, International Women's Day. She particularly greeted the women who will be gathering in Nusaybin, in Northern Kurdistan, for the World March of Women.

"Women have to come together," she said. She said she hoped one day to see an international general assembly of women.

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