Rojava, the newly autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, became a household name in the summer of 2014, during the war between the Islamic State and the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) and YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) forces. At the same time, photos of the all-female YPJ units began appearing all over Western media, pitting the Kurds as a feminist alternative to other forces in the region. These media sources were not wrong when they called the revolution in Rojava a feminist revolution, however they often failed to go beyond images of female soldiers in understanding what feminism means for Rojava.
Abdullah Ocalan, founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), is the man behind the model of democratic confederalism, which forms the basis of the governing model in Rojava. Claiming that the history of civilization is a “5000-year-old history… of the enslavement of woman”, Ocalan argues that “the depth of woman’s enslavement and the intentional masking of this fact is thus closely linked to the rise within society of hierarchical and statist power.”
Framing women’s liberation in this way inextricably links it with anti-statist struggles. Abandoning the gender roles that have been ascribed to men and women, what Ocalan calls a “total divorce” of the 5000-year history of civilization, goes hand in hand with the revolution that is happening in Rojava. Ocalan came up with the “total divorce theory” in 1997, however women had already begun taking up more space within the Kurdish liberation movement before then.
Within the PKK, which was founded in 1976, women began playing an important role in guerilla fighting in the early 1990s. In 1992, a woman called Berîtan sacrificed herself in warfare rather than surrender to the enemy, thus becoming a role model for many Kurdish women fighters and an important symbol for the Kurdish women’s movement. The first women’s congress was held on March 8th 1995, and by 1999 there was a separate women’s wing of the PKK. The formation of separate women’s guerilla forces in the PKK can be seen as the precedent of the all-female armed forces of Rojava, the YPJ.
Talking about the reason behind forming an all-female military unit, YPJ commander Zozan Deniz said, “in contexts where women and men were together, women had this understanding that men would take care of things. We had to change that attitude, which is where the YPJ came in." Despite the importance of the YPJ, not all armed units in Rojava are gender segregated. Anyone can join the YPG, regardless of gender identity.
The YPJ creates a space for women to challenge internalized feelings of incompetency projected on them by society, away from the scrutiny of men. Deniz continued to say that at the beginning of the revolution, even the fact that women were driving the vans of the YPJ created a lot of excitement, as it was seen as a sign of women joining the public sphere.
Women who want to join the YPJ have to first go through a 20-day training together with YPG units. After this they work under the YPG in their local post, until they are deemed eligible to go through YPJ training. This includes training in gender studies and women’s history in addition to military training, and education on gender issues continues even in the battlefield. The emphasis on women’s education stems from the belief that a true women’s revolution has to start with women’s mindsets. Rûken Ehmed, a coordinating member of the women’s organization Yekîtiya Star, stated in an interview that “some things cannot be changed merely by politics or armed resistance. They need a more comprehensive struggle.”
Women’s Academies and Jineoloji
The Women’s Academies, mostly founded by Yekîtiya Star, are at the forefront of this comprehensive struggle. These academies are run entirely by women and are guarded by female soldiers. Both the academy and the role of guarding it are open to women of all ages. The academies offer at least 12 sessions per year, usually around 15 days each. The topic of each session is determined according to the needs of the community that each academy belongs to. Sessions are held in a non-hierarchical manner and rely on discussions and sharing experiences rather than instruction.
The main ideology of these academies is Jineoloji, a term coined by Ocalan which can be roughly translated as “the science of women”. Jineoloji is the creation of knowledge about women, by women. Dorşîn Akîf, who is one of the coordinators at the Yekîtiya Star Academy in Rimelan, said that Jineoloji aims to “overcome women’s non-existence in history” by recovering “the kind of knowledge that was stolen from women.” However, Jineoloji is not merely about constructing a history of women, it is also about an understanding how concepts, especially those related to the oppression of women, are produced and reproduced by social relationships.
Rojava is founded upon the principle of self-defence, both in a literal sense with the YPG, YPJ and local protection units, but also in a more metaphorical sense. Rûken Ehmed alludes to the fact that women’s education in academies is seen as a part of their self-defence, when she says that women from Arab, Syriac and Yezidi communities are coming to Yekîtiya Star to “strengthen their self-defence.” This is an indication of the extent of the importance given to women’s education.
Mala Jin or Women’s Houses
Another part of the women’s revolution happening in Rojava are the Mala Jin or Women’s Houses, which were formed to protect women from violence and produce solutions and justice with a pro-women approach. Similar to the Women’s Academies, the Mala Jin are also run entirely by women. They function both as a support mechanism for women, but also provide them with legal aid.
The legal aid process is as follows: a woman applies to the to the Mala Jin and reports a case of violence, the women working at the Mala Jin listen to and record her testimony, as well as collect evidence of visible signs of violence. They then present the case to the court and defend the woman as her lawyer. In the case of women applying for divorce, they first start a 15-day reconciliation period where the Mala Jin coordinators take care of the woman and try to reconcile the relationship between her and her husband. If the problems are not resolved by the end of this period, they present the case to the court again and act as the defence lawyer. In all cases related to women, the court appoints a female judge.
According to the coordinators of the Qamishlo Mala Jin, there has been an increase in cases since 2014, which is attributed to women feeling more comfortable with talking about domestic violence since the revolution, and the feeling of security thanks to the YPJ. Similarly Şemsê Ferhat from the Dirbêsiyê Mala Jin stated in an interview that they have solved 1151 cases in the first 6 months of the house.
Another way in which women are supported in the Rojava revolution is through the Women’s Protection Houses, which are centers founded for women to stay with their children for a period of time after they leave their abusive husbands. These centers both offer protection to women from their husbands, as well as skills-based training to help them find job and be able to sustain themselves. Children also receive education in the Women’s Protection Houses.
The final link of the women’s revolution is the women’s communes founded by Yekîtiya Star. In the communes, women make decisions about economic life, self-defence and education without the interference of men. Another part of these communes are the women’s coops, the first of which was founded at the end of 2014, and they aim to give women space in economic production. Each coop consists of about 13 people and the main item of production is wheat.
What has been called the feminist revolution of Rojava is not simply about women taking part in military struggles against the Islamic State. It is a much more comprehensive transformation of women’s mentalities, giving them the space and support to gain enough confidence in order to join all parts of society.
Ocalan, Abdullah. 2013. Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution. Cologne: International Initiative.
Marcus, Aliza. 2007. Blood and belief the PKK and the Kurdish fight for independence. New York: New York University Press. http://site.ebrary.com/id/10189763.
Demir, Arzu. 2015. Devrimin Rojava Hali. Istanbul: Ceylan Yayinlari.