Every time I speak at public meetings in Britain about the gender equality and direct democracy experiment being carried out in Rojava, Northern Syria, I am invariably asked by an inspired audience what we can learn from there — and how can we implement it here.
Given the growing consensus in the west about the importance of equal pay and equal representation of the sexes at all levels of employment, one of the basic tenets of the Rojava revolution, co-presidentship — where every institution is headed up by a man and a woman — should not be too much of a hard sell.
Yet even co-presidentship cannot be easily replicated within a system like ours which, driven by profit rather that values, might simply discard the idea as untenable on the grounds of cost and over-staffing. After all, the state is being rolled back everywhere; NGOs are scrabbling for cash; and jobshares are simply not the same thing.
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So, until I attended the recent Challenging Capitalist Modernity conference in Hamburg — and met Hatice Kaya, co-president of the Hamburg Women’s Council, an organisation modelled on the women’s councils in Rojava to ensure that a feminist perspective shapes all policies — I was always stuck for an answer to those audience questions.
This was a massive three-day conference, attended by more than 1200 people, and organised by Kurdish activists and their German allies. Its organisation also reflected its focus, on what a post-capitalist society might look: It was free to attend, with participants who could afford to invited to make donations; local Kurdish families provided free accommodation; and vegetarian lunches were provided by a radical anarchist collective, with voluntary donations put towards conference costs.
Demand for free accommodation had boomed this year, for the third biennial conference in a row, from 30 to more than 300 people. But no one was left homeless as a result of the generosity of Kurdish families who opened up their homes. Kaya was one of them, hosting five participants.
A political activist originally from south-east Turkey, Kaya works in catering in Hamburg and has been elected co-president of the women’s council (which has 30-40 members) for two terms, each lasting one year.
Previously, she served two terms as co-president of the Hamburg People’s Council (70 members), where there is a minimum quota of 40% for each sex while 20% is up for grabs depending on who puts themselves forward for election. The women’s council is a parallel autonomous structure tilting political power towards women, who have been identified as the drivers of this revolution.
People’s Councils began to be set up in areas with sizeable Kurdish communities in 2005, be they in Europe, south-east Turkey or northern Syria, when Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdish freedom movement, introduced the concept of democratic confederalism — essentially self-governing communities in a bottom-up democratic structure.
In Rojava — recently renamed the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria — these councils are totally responsible for the running of society and all its functions from the economy to health, education and self-defence, even setting up the most successful forces in Syria in the fight against ISIS so far.
The success of the Rojava model has, in turn, reinforced the importance of self-organisation in Kurdish communities across Europe.
In Hamburg, women’s councils were set up in 2009. There is also a fledgling Roj Women’s council’s council in London.
In Bakur — the predominantly Kurdish south-eastern region of Turkey — this attempt at self-administration has been brutally quashed by Erdogan with bombing, killing, homes burned down and the arrests of elected co-mayors of various towns (then replaced by officials from the ruling AKP party).
In European cities, this system gives the Kurdish community a cohesive and united voice: to continue its political education, strengthen solidarity with the Kurdish struggle, gain practical lessons from the exercise of democracy and provide services where the state fails to do so.
Dilar Dirik, a Kurdish activist, who translated my interview with Kaya, said: “The motivation is to organise oneself wherever one lives.”
Dirik explained: “Because the struggle for self-determination is not just a territorial one, it is about being able to organise one’s life with minimal reliance on the state and its structures.”
The Kurdish community in Hamburg have divided the area nominally into nine regions where Kurds congregate. They aim to set up a people’s council and a women’s council in each region but so far they have managed to set up only three women’s councils and three people’s councils.
Each council has committees to deal with political mobilisation, culture, education, community support, peace and conflict resolution and public relations. The work of most of these committees is relatively self-evident. I was particularly curious about the peace and conflict resolution committee which, apart from dealing with disputes between neighbours and within families, deals with domestic violence.
Women from minority communities in Western Europe, and particularly Britain — such as those represented by organisations like Southall Black Sisters and One Law for All — have spent much of their political energy trying to weaken community mechanisms of mediation where the aim is to persuade women to remain married even where there is violence, looking to the state for solutions instead. Could a community influenced by the progressive ideas of Öcalan and implemented by feminists across the Kurdish diaspora offer a different, possibly more radical, option?
Kaya cites the case of a woman who wanted to separate from her violent husband. The woman asked the women’s council to help get rid of him as he refused to leave. The conflict resolution committee met with both of them separately and then together. They successfully persuaded the husband that the wife had the right to stay in the house as she was looking after the children. The wife started divorce proceedings in the German courts; the women’s council supported her through the legal process as she was not familiar with the system. They monitored the husband’s movements and ensure that he stayed away from the family home.
Kaya was at pains to explain that while they were wholly behind the woman, they were also keen “not to exclude the man altogether but to explain to him that a woman is not his property, why violence is bad, to give examples from the Kurdish resistance and tell him that the institution of marriage is not sacred, that even if at some point this woman had decided to marry him, she doesn’t have to live with him if she doesn’t want to.”
Kaya added: “We don’t want him to go away because he’s been forced to but because he understands what he’s doing is wrong. Ultimately he is a member of the community and we want to transform his thinking.”
Why is this community mechanism better than the state mechanism in responding to cases of domestic violence?
Kaya says that the state may hand out legal solutions, but it does not attempt to transform male mentality. Peer pressure is also an effective part of transformation; men in cases like these lose face in front of members of their community. This is different, though related, to the dynamic in conservative communities, where it is women who lose face as violence is often justified on the grounds that the wife had strayed or not performed her duties.
Of course, there is no compulsion to use the women’s councils, women come of their own free will, said Kaya. Often, they turn to the councils after they have been failed by the state.
To my anxieties that the state was being let off the hook, Kaya responded: “While we have our own autonomous systems, like language classes, doing work with our own youth, our own community, we also make demands of the state because ultimately we live in this state, our children are born here, grow up here, go to school here. We must make demands for legal changes.”
Here then are the beginnings of a way forward for the implementation of real democracy, from the ground up, in a failing neoliberal political system.
We do not have to build communities based on ethnicity; these could arise out of shared interests or shared locality. We already have groups of people who come together to prevent a library from closing or to demand better services from local hospitals. If such movements were structured around the ideas of democratic confederalism, a non-state social paradigm with race and gender equality at the heart of it, exercising our democratic muscles in this sustained manner would not just build a more engaged citizenry — it would also contain the potential to transform society and the state altogether.