The brutal murder of Rasha Bseis, streamed on social media by the perpetrators, horrified observers across the world. Bseis, a young woman from Jarablus, Syria, was killed by her brother, a Free Syrian Army militiaman, allegedly after he found out that she had been raped by a Turkish military officer. An off-camera voice encouraged him to ‘cleanse himself of shame’ before he shot her at close range.
Many organizations and activists shared images on social media and indicated their outrage at the abhorrent crime. Yet just miles from Jarablus, in SDF-held northeast Syria, the women of Rojava back up their condemnations with praxis, actively working to fight all manifestations of patriarchal violence.
The day after the video began to circulate, Kongra Star, Rojava’s organized women’s movement, issued a statement condemning Rasha Bseis’s murder in the harshest terms. “Women have always been the object of injustice and violence…We as Kongra Star in Rojava strongly denounce the crimes committed against women, and demand [that] human rights organizations which claim humanity show serious and firm positions against fascism and occupiers, [in order] to end these tragedies against women and society."
Kongra Star is the confederation of all women’s organizations in Northern Syria— including communes and cooperatives, assemblies, and cultural organizations. Founded in 2005, under the name Yekitiya Star, its role expanded after the Rojava Revolution began and Kurdish political organizations gained the freedom to work openly. Like other Kurdish women’s organizations, it is based on the idea that society cannot be free without women’s liberation, and that ending patriarchal violence— including femicide, domestic abuse, sexual violence, and authoritarian and Islamist policies that give men ownership over women— means combating the patriarchal mindset and culture wherever it exists.
Today, Kongra Star operates across Northern Syria, overseeing some of the most transformative aspects of the social revolution taking place there. Siham Muhammed, a Kongra Star member, described just how necessary this social transformation was. “During the rule of the Syrian regime, there was no deterrent against these crimes, because honour killing was seen as legitimate and the [killers] were acquitted. So, the killing of women in the name of honour was permissible, and was justified by law according to the Sharia,” Muhammed told The Region.
“Many crimes against women were concealed by claiming they were cases of suicide [or] accidental burns— while most of them were targeted killings. Investigations were not carried out by Syrian state courts.”
The revolution, she says, is changing this culture of impunity. “Over the last seven years, there has been a significant shift in the status of women in Rojava,” she told The Region. “Social awareness has developed among the community through the academies that were opened by the Star Congress organization and [through] popular organizations such as the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM).
Both legal changes and new institutions protect vulnerable women in a way that was not possible in previous years. “Women’s law [related to personal status] was developed by the Self-Administration. Prosecuting those who use violence against women or kill them led to a significant change. In addition, safe houses were opened to protect women who were threatened to be killed by their husbands, fathers and brothers. All their needs are secured until the threat is overcome,” she explained.
The safe houses that Muhammed refers to are an institution unique to Northern Syria’s women’s movement, created based on the needs and experience of women in the region and the philosophy of women’s freedom and autonomy that the movement upholds. The first mala jin, or women’s house, was founded in Qamishlo in 2011. Today, nearly every community in Northern Syria has one. The houses provide a place for women to seek refuge if they are no longer safe in their homes, conduct mediations, help women apply for divorce, and provide job training to help women support themselves economically. The houses are run entirely by women— a rare sight in a society where men have historically been responsible for writing and implementing laws with direct implications on women’s safety.
Despite these successes, building a feminist social revolution in a conservative society in the midst of one of the world’s most brutal conflicts cannot be done overnight. Women’s activists face several challenges as they fight for institutional and cultural change. “The first challenge is ignorance,” Muhammed explained. “The weakness of liberal social consciousness has greatly influenced the proper handling of this issue. The state of war also makes the issue difficult because of the limited capacities and instability. These affect the development of institutions that can organize the needs of women. The economic situation and the cost of living crisis also exacerbate the problems.”
Women around the world, Muhammed said, can do their part to support the women of Northern Syria in their struggle against violence by defending Northern Syria itself. “What is required of women in the world is to put pressure on the international community to protect the administrative system in Rojava, which guarantees the rights of women. Women’s rights cannot be protected without an inclusive system of democracy. Therefore, we need to protect our existing system,” she explained. “In this sense, an air embargo on Rojava is very important in order to avoid attacks by the Syrian regime and other external forces on our region. There is also a need for stability, [in order] to develop women’s rights institutions.”
The invasion and occupation of Afrin, she said, shows how other actors in the Syrian conflict will devastate the progress that has been made on women’s rights in Northern Syria if given the chance. “In Afrin, prior to the Turkish occupation, the rights of women were guaranteed, but now women are being exterminated every day. Women are also raped, abducted and tortured daily. This means, above all, that we need security and a democratic system,” she said.
The Kongra Star condemnation made the same point clear: “The Turkish occupation always boasts of creating security and safety in the areas occupied by it, but through this video posted on social networking sites again, [this claim] turns out to be mere lies and slander...A good example of this is what happened in Afrin. All the events are the same. The systematic violence against women comes from the same mindset.”
Crimes against women in FSA-held areas are a regular occurrence. Over the past several months, reports surfaced indicating that the commander of Sultan Suleiman Shah, a Turkey-backed Islamist milita operating in Afrin and in Euphrates Shield zones, had raped the wife of one of the group's fighters multiple times. After a pro-FSA media worker was arrested by Turkish officials, the milita with which the media worker was affiliated released evidence of Turkish participation in a human trafficking ring in Afrin, where local women and girls were kidnapped and sold into prostitution. Harassment and theats occur on a daily basis, and women are punished if they do not adhere to strict conservative dress codes.