Saadi, a 13th century Iranian poet, once said, “a little and a little, collected together, becomes a great deal.” It’s difficult to think of a better description for the women’s rights movement in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, commonly known as Rojava, a region largely populated by Kurds. The Kurds have no official state, but the diverse ethnic group is spread out across several countries in the Middle East, including an autonomous area of Iraq overseen by the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG.
Since Wednesday, Turkish forces have been bombarding northeastern Syria, presenting a potential threat to the growing equality that Kurdish women there have worked for years to carefully cultivate. Last week, President Donald Trump’s White House issued a statement announcing that Turkey would be moving ahead with the military campaign, and that U.S. forces would be withdrawn from northeastern Syria. That move was widely seen as Trump giving his blessing to Turkish President Recep Tayipp Erdogan before he went ahead with the assault. Trump’s position was widely condemned and seen as a shocking betrayal to Kurdish fighters, who lost 12,000 members fighting the Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS, alongside the United States.
Amid the fight against ISIS and Syria’s harrowing, years-long civil war, an unexpected reality has taken shape in northeastern Syria: a government in which women are legally considered equal to men.
Women in Rojava are currently represented in every aspect of society, from the military to the local communal assemblies that direct so much of life in the territories, where every meeting is co-chaired by a woman. Women in positions of power are elected by their female peers, so as not to create puppet leaders for men, and they wield considerable influence in politics.
“It was taboo in the past, but now people were actually saying, ‘we trust women’s leadership more,’” says Dilar Dirik, a research fellow at Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Center. Government became “less corrupt” Dirik says, because many women “actually want change. They don’t want power; they want the system to transform.”
The threat to hard-won women’s rights in Rojava is receiving little coverage in the context of Turkey’s military campaign, but women there say Turkish aggression could wipe out these reforms and perhaps herald a return to the misogyny and sexual violence of militant Islamism. There is widespread concern about the possible escape of ISIS prisoners held by Kurdish forces, and on Sunday, it was reported that at least 750 people suspected of affiliation with ISIS fled a secure displacement camp in the chaos caused by Turkish shelling. In addition, several dozen “high-value” ISIS prisoners were reportedly left behind by U.S. troops when they retreated, the New York Times reported, and ISIS has already claimed at least two attacks in the area since the invasion started, including a car bombing that killed three people.
On Saturday, Turkish-backed fighters dragged Hevrin Khalaf, the leader of a Kurdish political party, out of her car and executed her in what Turkish state media called “a successful operation.” Turkey’s brutal border assault has reportedly killed at least 11 civilians thus far, and dozens of fighters on both sides. Turkey, which neighbors Syria, sees Kurdish militias as terrorists aligned with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), also a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. Yet the Syrian Defense Forces, known as the SDF — which encompasses several Kurdish militias, including the People’s Protection Units and the all-female Women’s Protection Units — have been instrumental in the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against ISIS.
Initially defensive of his decision to support the Turkish military campaign, Trump seemingly reversed course Monday by tweeting that he would “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if the country did anything he didn’t like. On Sunday, he was back to defending his original position, tweeting that “The Kurds and Turkey have been fighting for many years. … Let them!”
In pursuit of ‘a new direction’
Like all women in Syria, those in Rojava are no stranger to hardship.
“We have endured suffering like many of the women in the world, but we went through it twice,” says Evin Pasho, coordinator for Kongreya Star, a confederation of women’s organizations in Rojava. “Once, because our society was full of old norms and rules,” and then later, after the civil war started “because of death and suffering, it pushed the women here in a new direction.”
The Kurdish territories in northeastern Syria achieved de facto autonomy from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in 2012 and set about organizing themselves in an entirely new fashion, intended to break down the hierarchical control structures that had long dictated their way of life. This political and social revolution has taken on many forms, but its most remarkable aspect has been the rise of women.
Given Rojava’s location in a region which has oppressed and marginalized women for millennia, women’s rights are far from being fully realized — but that’s to be expected, says James Gelvin, a scholar of Middle Eastern history and professor at UCLA.
“In much of Kurdistan, you still have a patriarchal society,” says Gelvin, “You still have female genital mutilation, for example. You still have child marriage. Honor killings still exist in parts of Syria and Kurdistan.” The gains for women’s rights are “wonderful,” he notes, but there are still serious cultural and regional lapses.
Nonetheless, efforts to create a gender-equal society in northeastern Syria are noteworthy, as is the fact that gains have been sustained for so long.
Fear and outrage
Fowza Youssef, a senior Kurdish politician and board member of the Democratic Federal System for Rojava-Northern Syria, says she saw a troubling pattern unfold in Afrin, another Kurdish-populated city in northwestern Syria where Turkey launched a military campaign in spring 2018.
Erdogan’s army captured the district with the help of militias like the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA). Members of Turkish-backed Syrian forces have published videos of themselves mutilating the body of a female Kurdish fighter and raping a 13-year-old girl at a refugee camp.
When the Turkish army and Turkish-backed fighters entered Afrin, Youssef says, “everything changed. Women were kidnapped, force-married and raped by mercenaries run by Turkey.” Most of the women living there, “now are wearing veils, and are under tremendous emotional and physical pressure … Women are the weakest link and most affected by these attacks.”
The women’s rights movement in Rojava was originally seen by many as a response to the trauma of existing on the edge of ISIS’s former caliphate, where women were kept as sex slaves and treated as subhuman. Not only have Kurdish female fighters physically fought, and died, to defeat the terrorist group militarily, they are also working to become an ideological antidote to ISIS.
The fact that women in this region have done so much to combat ISIS, which many consider the greatest existential and national security threat to the United States, makes some women there even more outraged and wounded by the United States’ abandonment of its allies.
“We ask that the American people support women to continue in the efforts of maintaining this democratic system we have established. They call the Turkish attack the spring of peace,” says Youssef, referring to “Operation Peace Spring,” the name of the Turkish military campaign, “but women here call it the spring of death. For us it only means more killing and sexual violence.”
Sulome Anderson is a journalist based between Beirut and New York City. She has covered a wide range of topics, including the war against ISIS in Iraq, child suicide among Syrian refugees and Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon. She is also the author of “The Hostage’s Daughter.”
Editor’s note: Dilar Dirik’s title was incorrectly listed. It has been updated.