Kurdish women have pioneered the developments in northern Syria since 2012. They transformed the 'Arab Spring' into a 'People's Spring', and in the midst of the chaos of war, they seized the chance to wrest their own destiny from the hands of others. Throughout their own revolutionary process, women have taken on a leading role in many fields, from the defense of the homelands against Islamic State (IS) to daily politics, and from education to diplomacy. The atmosphere of the revolution has allowed women to broaden the space for extensive discussions on gender equality and women's self-defence. The conflict in Syria has shifted traditional roles within communities, and more women are starting to play leading roles in politics at all levels.
This process, called the Rojava Revolution, has been commonly referred to as 'the Women's Revolution'. Women from many parts of the world have joined the resistance of the Kurdish women against IS and have proudly become part of the growing feminist movement in the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, commonly known as Rojava.
As their struggle deepens even further, there necessary questions that we must ponder on if we are not only to understand the qualitative change of gender roles in society but propose a women’s system that will neither entail the marginalisation nor the sidelining of women in society. These are at least the three questions we must ask:
What was the position of women in society before 2012?
To what extent were the women of Syria already organised?
How did the Ba'ath Party and Assad sideline women in society and politics?
Undoubtedly, the struggle of women in Rojava did not come into being with the spark of revolution in Northern Syria. It has deep historical roots in the particular struggle of the Kurdish woman.
Under Ba'ath rule, women were at the forefront of the resistance against gender inequality, polygamy, femicide, sexual harassment and forced child marriages. And when, as far back as 1962, the Ba’ath Party stripped the citizenship of hundreds and thousands of Kurds with the publication of a new population census. Kurdish women in Northern Syria understood first hand that they were affected doubly: not only because their national identities were criminalised, but also because their female identities were disregarded.
Velide Boti (51) is a Kurdish woman who has been involved in the women's struggle since the '80s. Boti says that Kurdish women are marginalised on both fronts: as women and as Kurds. However, she also insists that women have not acquiesced to this multi-layered form of oppression, there has always been, she adds, an 'underground' struggle against this situation.
Velide Boti works in Kongra Star, a confederative women's organisation in northern Syria. Before that, she was part of the Yekitiya Star organisation, which was established in 2005. In 2010, while she was working for the Yekitiya Star, she was arrested by the Ba'ath party for allegedly threatening the territorial integrity of Syria and is still sought after by the Ba'ath party, which has issued a red notice for her name.
Visiting day in prison when Velide Boti was arrested by the Ba'ath party in 2010
Velide Boti's recalls a time in the not-so-distant past when organising of any kind (even the International Women's day celebration) was strictly forbidden. Women could not hold rallies or organise events for women's equality. Moreover, since women had little access to public space, the only place they could come together was at 'home'.
'Home meetings' of Syria's Kurdish women
Women also rarely received judicial justice. The state rarely punished "honour" killings or sexual harassment and often allowed the perpetrators of those crimes to go free. By law, the family members of murder victims’ could pardon the perpetrator, which often happened if it meant the retention of familial or tribal “honour”. In ‘honour’ crimes, where the killer of women was usually a brother, father, son, husband or uncle, the woman’s murder went unpunished, and in the rare circumstance where little justice was meted, perpetrators got as little as five months in prison. It was a situation that deepened the oppression of women and guaranteed that the shadow of feudal society tower over women constantly.
Velide Boti says that in the 1970's, under the rule of a hyper-nationalist, militaristic and patriarchal system, the school had a military education system and that children wore military uniforms to school. None was allowed speak Kurdish and women could not wear their own cultural and local clothes.
At the time, and moving forward, there were no Kurdish feminist organisations or women's organisations in Syria because they were not allowed. Due to the absence of an organised women's movement, Kurdish women fought for their rights under the umbrella of their national struggle from the 1980's to the 2000's.
There was, however, always a popular 'underground' current of resistance.
Kurds, for instance, celebrated Newroz, a national new-year festival, in the deserts where there were no regime soldiers. Women would attend these secret festivities dressed in their cultural clothes. Under other circumstances, Kurds even organised fake weddings to avoid any legal problems they would face for Newroz celebrations.
One of the Newroz celebrations in '90s
In 2005, Kurdish women felt that organising themselves within the national movement was inadequate to secure their interests and rights. They decided to establish their own women organisations within the organisational structures of the Kurdish movement instead, and in that same year, the first women's organisation in Rojava were declared under the name of "Yekitiya Star".
Although the participants of the conference were very small, they were not intimidated. They gathered at houses. According to Velide Boti, women turned house visits into organising efforts. Women were systematically visiting each other and discussing ways to expand and strengthen women's consciousness.
With the founding of Yekitiya Star, women formed their resistance structures, even if they were working underground at the beginning. Velide Boti said, "Everything was carried out under the pressure of the Ba'ath party and feudal society."
Women showed "silent" resistance against the Ba'ath party and patriarchy. Written brochures were distributed from house to house by women. These brochures were kept inside pillows or even hidden in their bras when needed. They celebrated 8 March, at their boys' circumcision feasts.
Celebration of International Women's Day
Velide Boti expresses that it has always been very challenging to discuss "honour" in feudal societies. Women needed to endeavour considerably to be able to break the chains binding other women. They had to be tactical, strategic and intelligent. They proposed that they were not against honour per-say, but how society defined it. Their motto was: the "honour" of a woman is her freedom. In this sense, women were asserting that they were not passive victims of femicide and patriarchy, that they could resist, and that they ought to secure their own freedom.
It is quite possible to argue that the roots of the women’s revolution in northern Syria are to be found in their "silent" legacy of resistance. Women prepared the revolutionary environment in Northern Syria with years of work, against both the Ba'ath party and broader feudal society.
From their discrete meetings at houses to the brochures they kept hidden in pillows, the women of Rojava have kept alive the universal flame for the international women's’ struggle.
The Women of Northern Syria are now fighting for the country, not just Rojava. In this struggle, it is no longer necessary to hide their voices and colours. Women are now omnipresent in society, fighting in the domains of politics, education, diplomacy and daily life. And while they have come so far, they have not yet reached their "final destination". Their struggle is inspiring not only the women of Syria and the region but women from all around the world.