Revolution in Rojava: A Conversation With Janet Biehl

Now you can read us on your iPhone and iPad! Check out the BTRtoday app.

In Rojava, a remote region of Northern Syria about the size of Connecticut, an incredibly profound societal change is underway. In the wake of the revolutionary 2012 Arab Spring, Kurdish people in the region have declared themselves to be a stateless, self-governed, socialist-feminist society–and they’re implementing radical political ideals in their day-to-day operations.

Janet Biehl is a political writer who has travelled to Rojava twice, where she has spoken about the progressive political practices upon which the Kurds in the community are building their autonomous society. Biehl was the longtime romantic partner and intellectual collaborator of the late Murray Bookchin, the Anarchist theorist whose work the Kurdish people in Rojava are putting directly into practice today. She is the author of his biography “Ecology Or Catastrophe: The Life Of Murray Bookchin.”

Biehl is about to visit Rojava for the third time, but before doing so, she sat down with BTR to discuss exactly how this revolutionary political enclave came to be.

BTRtoday (BTR): You’re extremely familiar with Bookchin’s work. Could you explain the specific ways in which his theories are being implemented in Rojava?

Janet Biehl (JB): First I think it’s important to understand a basic fact about the Kurds, which is that they’re the largest stateless ethnicity on the planet. They were left out in the division of the Middle East after World War I, so they have no state. And their efforts to create one have been perpetually repressed for four or five generations now. Kurds who fought for one, or just tried to get basic rights even, have been repressed.

It was a brilliant stroke of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK [Kurdistan Worker’s Party] Chief to start thinking in terms of stateless approaches while he was in prison. In Western terms, that can mean Anarchist–and who was one of the most prominent post-war Anarchists in the West? Certainly Murray Bookchin.

BTR: Is it true that isolation played a pivotal role in the development of his ideology?

JB: Being in solitary confinement in a prison on a lonely island, in which you are the only prisoner, you tend to have a lot of time on your hands. Ocalan was a man interested in ideas and intellect and he was allowed to communicate with lawyers. So he requested that his lawyers ask his comrades for recommendations about books to read. Around that time (in the mid 1990s), Bookchin’s work had been translated into Turkish. His books “Urbanization Without Cities,” “Ecology Of Freedom,” and “Toward an Ecological Society” were all translated.

One of these books was brought to Ocalan, because it was thought that it might be of interest to him. This big pile of books was taken to him in prison, and he read the one by Murray Bookchin and he basically said, “I want more from this guy.”

Everything that had been translated to Turkish was brought to him, and after reading them he concluded that this stateless approach was the way to go; it’s about building a policy from the bottom up instead of the top down.

The idea that Ocalan had [from this] was to form a confederal council, which is actually a concept from Anarchism. It states that the lower level of the local people’s meetings send mandated delegates to confederal councils, and represent people over broader areas. From there, these delegates go to councils above them, and it continues to go up several tiers. That’s exactly what’s been done in Rojava.

BTR: How did they begin to implement these councils?

JB: They initially started with a neighborhood level, but after the revolution in July 2012 there were so many people pouring into these meetings. They had just been liberated from Assad (a brutal, brutal dictator) and they were so eager to be politically active that they were flooding the meetings.

Due to this extreme attendance, they created an even more basic level which is called “The Residential Street.” It’s hard to understand because we don’t have that here [in America]. It’s the idea that these densely packed streets can be a political unit, with only a couple hundred households. So that became the unit for the citizen’s assembly, which they call the “Commune.” And then the neighborhood itself came to be known a Council, which is the next level up. A Council is made up of many Residential Streets.

BTR: Each Commune then has a compulsory male and female co-president, is that correct?

JB: Every leadership position in the whole society. Yes. Mayors are co-mayors; there’s always co-leaders.

BTR: Often the narrative told in the West is that the Middle East is an extremely repressive place for women, and that women have no voice. Do you think this example stands in contrast to that idea?

JB: The Middle East is a very, very patriarchal society. This is a society where women basically have to stay home and raise the child. They’re subject to underage marriage; marriage of girls, marriage to a husband that already has wives. Women can be beaten with impunity. If a woman walks down the street and attracts a man, who then proceeds to rape her, its her fault, not his. She is considered to have shamed, or dishonored the family, and so her male relatives are entitled to kill her. And they do. That’s called an Honor Killing, or else they put her in a room with a noose and say, “Do the job yourself,” and that’s an Honor Suicide.

It’s not an exaggeration, it’s not a Western media exaggeration, this is real. This is really what is happening. In Kurdish society no less than other societies in the Middle East. I’m not saying that that’s universal, and of course in cities it’s different; we’re talking about traditional society here. There are progressive places in the Middle East, so I don’t want to say it’s one hundred percent bad, but it’s pretty consistent.

BTR: Does this kind of mindset factor into the military way of life too?

JB: In the 1980s the PKK started recruiting people, and they wanted a women’s army to form, and girls wanted to join. But their families wouldn’t let them. Not because they were worried that the girls might get killed in a war, but that they might dishonor the family. After all, they would be around men, and that would be dishonor. So the PKK solemnly pledged celibacy. If a male and female PKK fighter become romantically attracted to each other, they’re separated. That’s the only way they could make this work in that society.

Now we’re on the second or third generation of PKK women fighters. It started in the guerrilla armies, and its progressed as the PKK has begun to form new societies; especially in Rojava the women play prominent roles in society, as they had done in the PKK. The principle of co-leadership originated within the PKK. That’s been transferred to Rojava Society.

There’s also a 40 percent gender quota–no meeting has legitimacy unless it’s 40 percent women. Or, in case of a women’s dominated meeting, it’s must be mixed 40 percent men. The gender quota works both ways.

BTR: With this development of a stateless form of self-government, is there still a push towards gaining a sovereign state for the Kurdish people, or have they decided that the stateless approach is ideal even if given the opportunity to form a nation-state?

JB: That’s a serious hypothetical. It’s so unlikely. But, yes, that was originally why the PKK was formed in the 1970s. It was a Marxist-Leninist organization and it sought a separate Kurdish State. In the early 2000s it underwent this transformation, away from Marxist-Leninism, towards “Democratic Confederalism” as they called it, which is really a variation on Bookchin’s “Libertarian Municipalism” And they gave up the idea of the state.

In Rojava, for example, they don’t consider themselves independent from Syria. They are Syrians, and they’re happy to be Syrians. They want all of Syria to be democratized. They want a democratic nation. They aim for something called Democratic Autonomy Enclaves, based on ethnicity, based on whatever you want, but within a democratized Syrian nation. That’s the stated goal.

I think they’re amazing people. They’re very warm and wonderful. They’re high-minded people. They’re basically secular, they’re enlightened in terms of gender, they don’t have a way to be ecological yet but they understand the importance of ecology and they understand democracy. It’s as though they take these Western values and take them to the enth degree—their gender equality is so far beyond what we do!

They just want to be able to manage their own community affairs, and to be able to speak Kurdish in public, and to be able to publish Kurdish books, to have cultural human rights. They want to have political human rights.