Margret Owen: My impressions of Rojava

Gender and justice in an emerging nation

In December 2013, Kurdish rights and women’s rights advocate Margaret Owen travelled to Rojava, in Syrian Kurdistan, just three weeks before the region officially announced self-government. Here she reports on her experiences in the conflict-zone and the PYD’s principles of gender equality in action.

15 year-old Kadria cried as she told me that, top of her class in her school in Aleppo, she had set her heart on becoming a doctor. Without schooling for the last ten months, living with three other IDP (Internally displaced persons) families in a barely furnished two-room cold-water apartment in an unfinished building in Derek, Rojava, obviously malnourished and deeply depressed, she said she felt she had no future.

Kadria and the few surviving members of her family had escaped from a village near Aleppo last year. Along with two other families headed by young widows, they are camping in an unfurnished and unfinished apartment block in Rojava’s capital, Qamishly, in the province of Hasakah. It has been the scene of fierce fighting in recent months between jihadists linked to al-Qaida and Kurdish fighters, mainly young women from the YPJ, the all-female section of the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Kadria is just one of the many children and young people among the 200,000 IDPs in Rojava, whose lives have been so totally disrupted by the Syrian civil war, now entering its third year.

Living rough in chilly empty office buildings, warehouses, and shop basements in Derik and Ramalan, I met several other IDP families. The women were mostly widows, or women whose husbands are missing, presumed captured and detained. Many of the older widows have children with the PKK in Northern Iraq; their husbands, PKK members, have been killed years before by the Turkish security forces. Sad as they are, these older women show extraordinary strength. “We are proud of our husbands, our sons and our daughters. Those who die for our freedoms are martyrs. We never try and dissuade our daughters from going “to the mountains [code for joining the PKK], nor the YPJ although we all know the risks”.

Among these women are Arab families who had to flee their villages attacked by al Qaida. They are being looked after by the Kurdish women’s organisations, which make no distinction between Kurds, Arabs, Christians or any other religious, tribal or ethnic group. The Syrian Kurds, for decades persecuted and denied fundamental rights by the Ba’ath regime, are now defending themselves against the fundamentalists linked to al Qaida, and from time to time, having to arm themselves against sections of the FSA (Free Syrian Army). In recent weeks several Arab villages on the border with Rojava have joined the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and allied themselves with the YPG to oust al Qaida affiliates from their land.

Only a very few people, journalists or aid workers, have been able to visit Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) in the north-east of Syria since the civil war erupted, although it is the only relatively safe region in the country. Turkey had closed its border with Syria so the only entry point is through Northern Iraq, but the semi-autonomous KRG had imposed restrictions on who could come and go, since the PYD took over control of much of Hassakeh province in the summer of 2012. I am fortunate to be one of those few.

I was invited to spend a week in Rojava at the end of December by the co-chairs of the PYD (the Democratic Union Party), Salih Muslim and Asiyah Abdullah. They asked me to observe the work of the many women’s organisations who are looking after the IDP families, and to help them to ensure that a representative of the Syrian Kurdish women participate in the Geneva II peace negotiations taking place at the end of January.

As an international human rights lawyer and advocate for women’s, and especially widows’, rights in conflict, everything I learned about the PYD administration had impressed me. There is an all-women’s party, the Star Union, and all other institutions, not just the PYD, but all associations, political, educational, medical, military, police, social and financial services, are headed always by two co-chairs, one man and one woman: an excellent method of ensuring gender equality across the whole spectrum of society, from the top echelons to the grassroots.

In every town and village there is a Women’s House, where women and girls can access advice, counselling, protection, and shelter, in the face of many forms of gender based violence, honour killings, post-traumatic stress, and physical and mental health problems. Domestic violence is widespread, especially among the IDPs, and many women have been victims of sexual violence. Everyone I met had experience of traumatic deaths of close relations, in prisons, on the battlefield, and through abductions and torture.

The Women’s Houses, the Women’s Academies, the “Families of the Martyrs”, the Peace Mothers associations all work together to address this endemic violence and support the displaced without any outside humanitarian aid and on a completely voluntary basis. They have been, in some ways, as crucial to the maintenance of Rojava’s relative peace in the last few years as the armed fighters and will remain so now they have declared autonomy.

But while Rojava remains the safest place in Syria, it is only a relative safety. It is fighting a continual war on its borders, but this is no longer against the Assad regime which has persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and killed its Kurdish citizens for decades, but now against the mercenaries of al Nusra, ISIS, and other militias tied to al Qaida. I met Kurdish women who told me of gang rapes after they had seen their husbands and brothers shot dead. A “fatwa” was issued by Arab Imams in the summer decreeing that it was “halal” to rape Kurdish women because they were “unholy” and infidels.

On my last day in Rojava, after meeting so many survivors of massacres, burning villages and evictions, I was invited to visit the training centre for the YPJ, set up in 2011 as the armed militia of the PYD and the female cadres of the YPG. It is this force, trained in one month in “ideology” (that of the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan) and military strategy, that is now defending the villages on Rojava’s borders against the attacks of the al Qaida-linked jihadists.

These young women, straight from school, are noted for their expertise with the gun and have in recent weeks succeeded in repelling attacks and retaking the villages they had previously lost. The tragedy is that so many of them have died as they guard their homeland. So my final trip before I left Rojava was to visit the Martyrs Cemetery near the Turkish border, where I walked around 122 graves of “martyrs”, all very young men and women, killed by al Qaida since last July. My interpreter, a 22-year old would-be journalist collapsed at one grave in tears. In it lay his best friend, whom he had known since they were small children.

I fear that this war will not end in my lifetime, but will continue for many decades. However, it seems clear to me now that with the declaration of autonomy in Rojava this month, Kurdish aspirations for self-determination are fast becoming a reality on the ground – whether it is acknowledged by the surrounding countries and their respective allies or not.

What is more, Rojava is developing a progressive model for gender equality, religious and ethnic freedom, and participatory democracy unlike anything seen in the region. It has the potential to secure far greater social justice than the simplistic reforms suggested by some in the opposition – which I suspect is why, perversely, it has so few international allies in spite of massive popular support on the ground. This is a reality that sooner or later, the US, the UK and the rest will have to acknowledge despite their repeated attempts write the Kurds out of history and out of territory.

Margaret Owen OBE is a barrister and international human rights lawyer with a focus on women’s rights. Her particular focus is on the status of widows in developing countries and particularly those afflicted by armed conflict, civil wars and revolution. She is the founder and Director of the international NGO Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD); is a Patron of the Peace in Kurdistan Campaign and the campaign’s adviser on Kurdish women’s and children’s human rights; and has co-authored reports to the European Parliament on women and girls in Kurdistan. She is well known as a writer, broadcaster, and activist on feminist issues both in the UK and globally.