“Woman, life, freedom” — the iconic slogan of Iran’s women’s revolution — has traveled far and wide. First chanted by Kurdish women on March 8, 2006, on the streets of Turkey, it came out of the Kurdish freedom movement’s longstanding feminist commitment. The rallying cry then spilled over across the border into Syria to accompany the Kurdish women’s heroic fight against ISIS (also known as Daesh). Last September, voiced in defiance after the brutal murder of the young Kurdish woman Jina (Mahsa) Amini, the slogan reverberated beyond the Kurdish regions of Iran, eventually reaching the whole world.
But Iran is not the first place where “woman, life, freedom” traversed ethnic boundaries, revealing its universal appeal. Less known — though not less profound — has been the spread of its philosophy in Syria, where women across the diverse ethno-religious landscape have found in it an inspiring model for radical transformation.
Women’s Revenge in the Former ISIS Capital
“When Raqqa was liberated from ISIS, we thought: If Kurdish women can organize in [the northern Syrian region of] Jazeera, why can’t we do it here?” said Mayada Ahmed, one of the four Arab women we met with at the Raqqa office of Zanobia, a women’s umbrella organization operating across Arab majority regions of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). Paradoxically, rather than forcing women into submission, three years of ISIS rule that saw women being bought and sold on Raqqa’s streets fomented their resolve to put an end to the region’s entrenched patriarchy.
Formerly the capital of ISIS, Raqqa is now part of a new political entity that emerged in the predominantly Kurdish northern Syria at the outbreak of the civil war and has since expanded to include a significant Arab population as the multiethnic Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) ended ISIS control in the region. The AANES now operates as a confederation, providing a unique model of interethnic and interreligious collaboration in the Middle East. In addition to pluralism, it seeks to put in practice participatory democracy, sustainable economy and gender equality, as part of what is commonly known as “the Rojava Revolution.” Despite governing one third of Syria and providing for about 5 million people, the AANES lacks international recognition and has been continuously threatened with annihilation by both Damascus and the Turkish state.
Raqqa’s women did not have an easy life even before ISIS. One of the Zanobia members we talked to was a victim of child marriage whose education was cut short just after primary school. This type of stunted future is all too common in Raqqan society, where much is still governed by traditional religious and tribal codes.
Raqqa and other Arab-majority parts of North and East Syria are a more conservative terrain, our sources said, compared to predominantly Kurdish north of the country. That is why certain changes like the ban on polygamy that had been first introduced in Kurdish-majority areas are being resisted by the Arab population of the AANES. In fact, Kurdish women have reached unprecedented gains: each institution of AANES now has a co-chair system (a woman and a man in every position of authority), with a 50 percent gender quota, and autonomous women’s councils with veto power over any decisions concerning women. Yet, these may be less a testament to a more enlightened society than a product of the four-decades-long fight that women have waged against their recalcitrant comrades in struggle and the conservative Kurdish society at large — first in Turkey and then in Syria.
While some of the gender equality mechanisms pioneered by Kurdish women have been introduced in the Arab-majority regions, many oppressive practices appear to be hard to root out. The attempt to ban polygamy, for one thing, has been firmly opposed in Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor and Manbij, and so the practice is allowed to continue even as it has been outlawed in other parts of the AANES. The new government is careful not to impose its most radical gender reforms from above — not only out of respect for its founding principle of decentralization, but also because it understands that this will only lead to more resentment. Historical mistrust between Syria’s Kurds and Arabs, produced by longstanding nationalist policies in the region, makes the issue even harder to approach.
In the meantime, Zanobia members have been quietly working toward greater transformations from below, crediting the AANES administration for the new opportunities. They, for example, visit families in their homes, trying to talk men out of marrying multiple women. They negotiate family matters, such as divorce, with conservative tribal and religious leaders, the main protectors of the patriarchal status quo. They also organize neighborhood meetings for women through local communes — the lynchpin of the new political system — often getting into standoffs with female ISIS supporters, who are still easy to come by in Raqqa.
The issue, our sources explained, is not men per se, but rather the so-called “ISIS mentality,” which persists in insidious ways among both genders even after ISIS’s territorial defeat. There are still many minds to win, and Zanobia members believe that theirs is a model that can be applied throughout Syria and beyond.
Armenian Women’s Double Struggle
Three hours northeast of Raqqa, in ethnically mixed Heseke, we visited the recently opened Armenian Social Council to talk to its women members. “Before the revolution, there was no organizing by Armenian women. We knew nothing about our identity,” said Losîn Ardemiyan, an Armenian language teacher at the council. Formed to complement an already existing Armenian self-defense battalion, the council works to recover the Armenian identity, culture and language among the assimilated descendants of genocide survivors who had found refuge in Syria more than a century ago. When she joined the council two years earlier, Losîn did not know a single letter of the language that had been her family’s mother tongue for generations. Now she teaches it to her colleagues, most of whom, just like her, have to learn it from scratch.
The revolution offered an opening not only for the revival of the Armenian identity, we were told, but also for Armenian women’s ability to stand up for their rights. Just a few weeks before my visit, 150 representatives of various organizations gathered in the First Armenian Women’s Congress, a product of 80 meetings held across North and East Syria prior to the event. While differing in ethnic identity, Armenian women’s experience with male domination is quite similar to that of their Kurdish and Arab neighbors.
We were given a long list of grievances: Women are prevented from going to school, can’t choose the number of children to have, and sometimes are not even allowed to leave home on their own — let alone to occupy a position of authority. Since the beginning of the revolution, things have been changing; but even now, 10 years later, some of these practices continue. Just recently the Armenian social council organized a home visit together with other community organizations, including the new interfaith Council of Religions, to dissuade a family from marrying their girl child off.
Similar problems are tackled with similar tools: Inspired by the Kurdish women’s advancements, Losîn and her comrades have adopted the autonomous women’s committees and co-chair system as part of all institutions. “In fact, we are in violation of the gender equality principle,” she said, jokingly. “Our current co-chairs are both women.” Now they are planning to open a women’s house — an institution that has proven key for Kurdish women’s self-organization and education. This one will be for Armenian women only.
A Revolution of the Mind
Mala Jin (“women’s house” in Kurdish) have proliferated since 2011 — the beginning of the revolution — when the first one was founded in Qamishlo, a Kurdish-majority city on the Syria-Turkey border. Seasoned in two decades of clandestine organizing under the Bashar al-Assad regime, its women co-founders went on to set up a women’s house in every locality, including Raqqa and other predominantly Arab provinces. “As soon as an area would be liberated from ISIS, we would travel there and establish a women’s house,” said Bahya Murad, one of the co-founders of the institution. There are 62 of these houses now, including two run by Syriac women — another ethno-religious minority in the region — who followed the Kurdish women’s example.
These spaces for mediation of family matters — called “divorce houses” by their opponents — protect and advocate for women mistreated by their families or spouses, in addition to providing education to both women and men on the newly established women’s rights. During our visit in September 2022, we witnessed a woman bring in her former husband who, having found a younger sweetheart, had unilaterally divorced his wife in the Syrian government’s court.
While the autonomous administration has set up its own justice system, this man opted for the regime’s court to avoid sharing child custody and marital property with his wife. He knew this would not fly in autonomous courts, as they uphold the new women’s law with its various protections for women. While this law — yet to be implemented in the Arab areas — has banned the most egregious practices, from forced marriage to honor killings, the women’s houses can hardly complain about a shortage of cases to deal with. Yet, with the revolution under way, women now have a place that advocates on their behalf to ensure enforcement of their newly won yet contested rights.
The women’s houses are a living testimony of the persistence of patriarchal mentality and the slow pace of social change. Time and again, we heard from women that the freedom they fight for can’t be won with a mere change of laws. Rather, what’s needed is a change in people’s minds, and for that, 10 years of revolution have proven to be insufficient. It’s not just a question of changing men — women, too, fall victim to patriarchal mentality.
Despite the groundbreaking role that women’s houses have played, some see even their emancipatory horizon as too restricted. While older women who usually run these houses try to balance the goal of women’s liberation with that of preserving marriage as an institution — more often than not, advising women against divorce as a solution to a failing relationship — younger women we met feel that this approach doesn’t go far enough. Some of them reject marriage as the only socially acceptable form of a relationship; others attempt to radically redefine the terms of their marriages, from labor division, to decision-making, to expanding their personal autonomy.
A lot of these new horizons are being actively explored in the field of jineoloji, a new “science of women and life” developed by the Kurdish women’s movement. A mandatory subject at the high school and college levels, it is also taught at all institutions of the AANES administration, including its security and military units. “Free co-existence” (hevjiyana azad in Kurdish) is proposed as an alternative to what is called a “hegemonic marriage” — one based on domination and inequality.
Jineoloji students learn about the long history of patriarchy, gender relations across different religions, and women’s struggles throughout the world. Since some topics addressed in classes are still taboo — notably sexuality — pushback to this new discipline can be found even in Kurdish-majority areas.
Indeed, the persisting resistance to teaching women’s science to broad swaths of the population is perhaps the best proof of this idea’s radical nature. In Deir ez-Zor, Syria, reportedly the most conservative of the AANES’ Arab-majority provinces, men and women took to the streets to protest the new curriculum that aimed to promote gender equality, as well as pluralism and secularism.
While jineoloji is not taught at schools in Arab areas, Raqqa’s Al Sharq University, the newest of the three autonomous universities currently operating in North and East Syria, tries to introduce the topic gradually as part of other subjects, like sociology. Social sciences are now part of the core curriculum, which was not the case under the Assad regime, and are taught to encourage critical thinking among both local students and professors, for many of whom religion and women’s freedom are still not open to debate.
Even with a feminist administration in power, the revolution of the mind that has united women from across Syria’s ethno-religious groups is far from being over. Yet, the women driving the revolution remain optimistic. As one of the Zanobia members told us, they have already come a long way and are now thirsty for more.