Inside The World's Most Radical Experiment in Women’s Rights
The women’s movement in northern Syria is more like a women’s earthquake, in politics, governance, and the region's security.
QAMISHLI, Syria — The most radical experiment in women’s rights is now underway in what may be the world’s least likely place: northern Syria.
In my second reporting trip to the region in six months, this much was obvious: The women’s movement in northern Syria is more like a women’s earthquake. In this sliver of the Middle East a tectonic shift of politics and governance is underway in which women’s equality now sits at the center of everything that comes next for the region.
Atop the ashes of the ISIS campaign and amid the still-raging Syrian civil war is an experiment in what happens when women have their say in a secular local administration that is unfolding in plain sight and real time. It has been called socialist, utopian, marxist, feminist and more, but regardless of which adjective you choose, here is what you see: Facing Turkish tanks, regime pressure, al-Qaeda threats, and still battling the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Deir Ezzor, the Syrian Kurds nonetheless have pressed ahead with what they call their “democratic project.” And as has happened with women in so many parts of the world, the social openings created by the hell and horror and upheaval of war is what has made it possible.
The Syrian Kurdish women who spent the last four years battling ISIS have captured headlines. They are the most visible symbol of this exercise in expanding the principle of equality. The all-women People’s Protection Units, or YPJ, have played a central role in routing ISIS fighters from their Syrian strongholds. Spend time with these women who commanded men and women — Kurd and Arab— in the ISIS war and they will talk to you about the need to defend themselves and their people, and also to liberate women around the region. They discuss ISIS fighters and their tactics with an intimacy that is striking. For these women, ISIS is anything but an abstraction. For days, during battles, they heard ISIS fighters talking on their radios about wanting to behead and kill them, occasionally urging the women fighters to surrender before telling their fellow IS troops to avoid the "clever" women snipers. Young YPJ fighters lost enough friends to fill cemeteries across the region. But as they fought ISIS forces floor-by-floor in the houses and lanes of Kobani or Raqqa, they came to know their enemy’s ways, sometimes even looking them in the face before killing them.
“In general in Middle East society, not everyone believes that women possess power, that they have power within them. They wonder, 'Is she brave in battle, can she protect herself, or does she depend on men?’" says Rojda Felat, a YPJ commander. “That was the idea behind creating these units.”
When U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, took the east and west sides of Raqqa city, Syrian Kurdish women commanders led the way -- and Felat was among those leading the overall campaign. Talk to American special operations forces involved in the Syrian battles and it is clear they viewed Felat and other YPJ leaders as commanders in a partner force, just like any other. The fact that they were planning battles and plotting strategy with women and men was notable at the start, they say, but, in the end, proved beside the point.
Pictures of women killed in the ISIS fight adorn street signs across the region. A statue to a young woman who blew herself up battling ISIS stands in the middle of the town of Kobani, site of a prolonged ISIS siege in 2015. Visit cemeteries for the fallen and young women’s photos sit taped on to many of the rows of neatly arranged white tombstones.
But the frontline fighters are only the start of the story.
Drive down the street in northern Syria and you will see women standing guard at checkpoints and serving as traffic cops. Seek a permit from local security forces and you frequently will land in an office helmed by a woman. In the local areas women serve as defense ministers; in some cases, their deputies are men decades their senior.
Indeed, war-hardened military men are as likely to launch into a 30-minute discourse about the need to return to “feminine society” and the danger of objectifying women as they are to talk with you about tactics they used to wage battle against ISIS.
"The revolution in Rojava is a revolution of women,” Nori Mahmoud, veteran of the ISIS fight and spokesman for the all-men People's Protection Units, the YPG, said in an interview. “We see it as normal and right because it is her right. We achieve the aim of our revolution when women take their rights.”No one seems to find anything unusual about it, except visitors from the outside, and there aren't many of them.
But the changes go further than security forces. In the wake of those battles across northern Syria is a political experiment in self-governance in which women get rights and equality — at least on paper — that go well beyond the world’s custom.
Read the founding documents governing the autonomous region — a region that doesn't officially have the power to govern itself and administratively remains very much a part of the Syrian state — and you’ll see women at their center.
“Women have the inviolable right to participate in political, social, economic and cultural life,” says the Rojava charter of the social contract for self-rule. “Men and women are equal in the eyes of the law. The Charter guarantees the effective realization of equality of women and mandates public institutions to work towards the elimination of gender discrimination.”
The language is quite intentional.
“We took lessons from revolutions that happened in other parts of the world," says Ilham Ahmed, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council and a longtime political activist in the region. "Women took part in the revolution and after that they had to go back to their kitchens. For that reason we put freedom of women at the center of our document.”
Political councils in cities across the region have male and female co-heads. This includes towns such as Tabqa, Ahmed's hometown, which are predominantly Arab. Mention this to those who study the region and they will often dismiss the move as “figure head” or “tokenism.” But see it up close and it is clear that while change doesn't happen in six months or one year, the fact that women are a mandated part of local governance is being noted, even by families in which girls’ education and women’s mobility are both limited.
Laws also are changing. Legislation now on the books bars polygamy and child marriage. Dowry has been banned. Parents caught trying to marry their children can face jail. Of course laws don't change traditions, but they do chip away at them.
“A culture of 5,000 years can't change in seven years," Ahmed says. She notes that she and her colleagues "had many meetings with sheikhs and priests about these laws.”
That dialogue is necessary and ongoing in the step-by-step quest to realize the vision of full access to opportunity for women, Arab and Kurd alike, leaders say.
“We focus on education," Ahmed says. “We change these societies slowly, slowly...we are educating young children to believe in in equality between men and women.”
Social structures are also shifting. I visited a women-only commune for widows and other girls and women who have no place to go, now under construction outside the town of Amudah. The women I met spent the day digging and prepping plans for the bakery that will be on site, along with a planned school, training center, and health clinic. (After our visit, I asked my Syrian colleague what he thought of the place. “Men are finished,” he said, laughing.)
An organization called Star Congress organizes women around ten committees in arenas from education to media and social affairs. The group says its work stems “from the conviction” that only a "strong association of women can form the self-defence system necessary to confront the existing male-dominated institutions. Only when women are able to organise themselves, we believe, will they be able to challenge the current patriarchal structures and mentalities in order to build viable, sustainable alternatives.”
And at the newly established Rojava University, the subject of jineology, or the “science of women” is now taught. Women’s rights are a key part of the course. A document from the region's foreign affairs committee explains the movement has roots 40 years old and credits Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan for opening the way for women’s rights in the region today.
“The Kurdish women in Rojava took advantage of the opportunity of the outbreak of the Peoples Spring Revolution in Syria, benefited from this theory, and contributed to enrich it through research, analysis and went deeply into subjects that concern women and their history. They put their theories on how to organize themselves, practice politics, protect themselves, and become free will. They also organized themselves within special organizations and strengthened themselves with the ideology of liberation based on Jinology, which became the main reference to prove their existence.”
Ocalan, of course, is Turkey’s enemy No. 1. Turkey considers the Turkish Kurdish separatist movement the now-jailed Ocalan founded, the PKK, to be a terrorist group. Turkey makes no distinction between PKK and the current Syrian Kurds the U.S. has partnered with to help create the formidable SDF force that has routed ISIS. Indeed, the Turkish military launched an offensive against the northern Syrian town of Afrin two weeks ago and is battling YPG and YPJ forces there today.
In other words, the women’s earthquake is struggling to stand up amid another potential geopolitical explosion, that between NATO allies Turkey and the United States.
In northern Syria, an isolated and politically oppressed minority is seizing a moment to put its radical ideas of self-governance and democracy into practice. In the process, the Middle East, a region hardly known as a beacon for equality, is showing the rest of the world what happens when women sit at the center of the fight, the constitution, and the law. For skeptical and cynical outsiders it can all seem too unlikely. Too far-out. Too much of a shift. For the generation of young women and men growing up here amidst the experiment of this fight, it’s just normal.
“In the name of religion, the law or tradition, women have become haram, banned, objectified,’” the YPG’s Mahmoud tells me as our discussion ends. “The women who has her own will, she can be a politician, a leader, she can protect herself. She can participate in every field of society — not by the permission of men, but by the will of women.”
Or as Newroz, a YPJ commander who led the campaign to retake the town of Manbij put it as we sat in the SDF headquarters not far from Raqqa, “in this region they have the notion that women are weak, so this was one of our challenges, to help women know their own power to organize themselves in this society. We built this by our own blood. Our own sacrifice. It isn’t just words."