Ever wondered what it might be like to live through a revolution? A revolution which puts women and young people at the leading edge of change? When society as you know it and all its institutions are turned upside down, virtually overnight, in the pursuit of ideals such as women’s equality or true democracy or environmental protection? Ideals which you may be passionate about but which constantly crash into walls erected by a society which puts profit before people and planet.
There is a revolution going on right now. A feminist revolution, led by women, in Syria of all places – a country of death, destruction, dust and despair, if we are to believe what we see on our TV screens. When I visited Rojava (now the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria) in 2016, all the journalists were heading to the front line. Among the forces that drove ISIS out of Raqqa – a battle of huge significance to the West – were a number of Kurdish women but you would have had to be extremely attentive to the news to notice them fighting alongside the men.
Influenced by the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdish freedom struggle, currently imprisoned in Turkey, who believed that "A country can’t be free unless the women are free," the women of Rojava set about building a society on the principles of democratic confederalism. With President Assad distracted by the rebel uprising in the south of Syria, the Kurds in this northern strip of land, an oppressed minority, were able to proceed with an almost bloodless revolution.
Neighbourhoods were formed into communes co-led by a man and a woman, which had committees to deal with local issues like health, conflict resolution and education, which had a guaranteed 40% quota for each sex. Representatives were elected by the local people and this structure was replicated all the way up to city level.
Alongside this structure was an unprecedented, women-only governance structure which had the right to veto any policies affecting women’s rights. Shortly after the women’s ministry was set up in 2014, a huge number of women-friendly laws were introduced; polygamy, child marriage and forced marriage were banned. Sharia courts which flourished under Assad and ISIS were disbanded.
What is life like for young women living in a revolutionary society? I particularly wanted to speak to women from different religious and ethnic backgrounds because the revolution is Kurdish-led but actively inclusive of all minorities, to the extent that the Kurds have voluntarily surrendered their majority in this area by sharing power with Arabs and Syriac Christians in parliament.
Soza Qamishlo, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, signed up with the women’s defence forces, YPJ, along with her sister in 2013, a month after the unit was formed. Coming from a family of revolutionaries, her decision to join the YPJ filled her father with pride. Although it was an easy decision, it is one that is constantly tested. She finds it hard to describe the pain she feels at the loss of her friends in the war, and the death of her sister in 2017. During the fighting there is a numbness, she says; the pain comes later. One of the most frightening moments she faced was when her fellow fighters ran away and she was left alone to confront ISIS.
Soza is a serious young woman who forswears marriage, wants to write books about her time in the YPJ and dreams of meeting Öcalan. She, like others I have spoken to in the YPJ, downplays the 'gals with guns' angle; their training focuses on their cause and history, on why women have to stand firm against the patriarchy. She says ISIS "didn’t give them a chance to protect themselves any other way".
Until Raqqa, the de facto capital of the ISIS caliphate, was liberated in 2017, life for women in the city was like "living in a room with closed doors," says Khawla Issa, a 27-year-old Arab woman. Her father used to run a cheese and bread stall in the market to sustain a family of 11 children which included 10 girls and one boy. After he lost his foot in an accident, three of Khawla's sisters took over the running of the market stall but once ISIS occupied Raqqa in 2014, women were no longer allowed to go out without a male guardian. This spelled starvation for the family, who had to rely on occasional handouts of bread from ISIS.
Afraid that their brother would be taken away to fight with ISIS, the family hid him. Khawla, who had been studying to become a lawyer, had to give it all up and stay at home, where she discovered the pleasures of dressmaking, an activity which fills her leisure time today.
Mariyana İsa, a 26-year-old Christian woman, also had to abandon university in Deir Azzor where she was studying chemistry when ISIS took over the city. She was lucky to be able to return to her family home in Qamişlo, Rojava. She was wise to leave when she did.
Khawla's sister was shot at 11 times for defying ISIS and driving the family car. The bullets lodged in four places and she had to lie and say that they were accidental in order to get treated in the ISIS-run hospitals. To this day, Khawla has issues with her ears, which she puts down to the nose bleeds she sustained when forced to wear the niqab in very hot conditions. Despite being covered from head to foot, she attracted the attentions of an ISIS soldier; she managed to deflect his marriage proposal by lying that she was already married. Like Soza, she has no intention of getting married.
Three of her sisters are already married; her parents have left it up to her even though Arab culture sees marriage as the natural destiny for women. Since Raqqa was liberated, Khawla has been working for the revolution, at the Democratic Council of Raqqa, running awareness-raising seminars on women’s rights for Arab women. When I ask her why she is wearing the hijab – the only one of the three women I interview to do so – she says that her work takes her into the heart of conservative communities who will ignore her work because her uncovered head will indicate that she is not a good Muslim. Although ISIS were brutal in the restrictions they placed on women, Khawla asserts that their ideas were not so different from those of Assad.
Soza describes how she discussed these ideas with an ISIS fighter who was taken prisoner by the YPJ. Asking her why women were taking up arms, she explained their ideology to him and says he was "touched". Unlike the YPJ, which is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the ISIS prisoner couldn’t really articulate what he was fighting for beyond the creation of an Islamic caliphate. She asked him what kind of rights he would get in this society and he was stumped for an answer. When he asked her the same question, she was able to quote chapter and verse.
Unlike ISIS, the secular Rojava revolution values all ethnicities and religious groupings, a point underlined by Mariyana. She believes that Christians are better respected by the Kurds than they were by Assad.
They are free to follow their religion but the new laws, which give better rights to women, allow them to divorce, which was not formerly granted by the Church. Even in cases of domestic violence, the best you could achieve was a three-year separation to give the man a chance to change himself. Mariyana says she would like to get married one day, and hopes "to choose a good person so that the marriage lasts because all girls in this society want to get married". For now, though, her priority is qualifying and working as a chemistry teacher.
Mariyana volunteers with Christian youth and the Assembly of Christian Women, undertaking small projects in the community. They have recently built a park for children. When I ask how she survives without an income, she says she asks for money when she needs it. This is something I come across often in Rojava; it is totally incredible to someone like me, raised with capitalist values. My translator says that because they are at war, there is not enough to go around, so those who need money are prioritised.
Before the revolution the communities were segregated, going to their own schools, learning their own languages. Mariyana loves the fact that "the revolution has brought us together" but if she has one frustration, it is that they don’t speak each other’s languages. However, the main languages are now being taught to everybody in school, so it is just a matter of time before this changes.
The future of Rojava is fragile but it will not stop these revolutionary young women from continuing to fight for their freedoms.