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In the mainstream media, the Middle East is presented as a place that is both behind the times politically and extremely regressive for women. The stories broadcasted are often those of horror, of oppression and violence: they highlight honor killings, forced marriages, and denial of access to education. However, that monolithic perception is simply not the whole story.
While there is certainly truth behind the prevalence of problematic happenings throughout the area, the Kurdish people and their revolution in Rojava demonstrate a break from this narrative. Employing radical leftist theory in their quotidian community operation, Kurds in Rojava are pioneering a reimagined form of a directly democratic community.
“Rojava” is the Kurdish word for West, and technically speaking it is a region consisting of three areas: Afrin, Cizire, and Kobani. The area is about the size of Connecticut, and it is located in Northern Syria, which also makes up Western Kurdistan.
On the edges of ISIS controlled territory operates an autonomous region, fueled by socialist-feminist ideals. Here, women make up 40 percent of councils and communes; male and female co-presidents represent communities’ wishes, and a true bottom-up approach to government grows stronger every day. After the momentous events of the Arab Spring, something downright revolutionary is happening.
The development and strategies implemented in this area can be attributed, in large part, to the concepts of Social Ecology, which is an outgrowth of anarchist thought pioneered by thinker Murray Bookchin.
Social Ecology (also referred to by Bookchin as Libertarian Municipalism) essentially asserts that society should function as the environment does: non-hierarchically, cooperatively, with decentralized government and directly democratic communities. The philosophy is anti-capitalist and bottom-up, emphasizing the power and privilege of the people. It operates under the tenant that as long as humans attempt to dominate other people, they will approach nature with the same destructive mentality.
Daniel Chodorkoff, who co-founded The Institute For Social Ecology with Bookchin in 1974, writes in his book “Anthropology Of Utopia” that the ideology is “based in the understanding that environmental problems are really social problems, and that our attempts to dominate nature grow out of the domination of humans by other humans.”
Though it would be simpler to present the development of Bookchin’s ideals in Rojava as a miraculous fluke–a veritable light in the alleged darkness–it is far more complex and nuanced than that.
To understand how this visionary social experiment came to pass, it is imperative to examine the roots of thought which set the stage.
Eleanor Finley, a board member at the Institute For Social Ecology with expertise on the happenings in Rojava, explains, “If you really understand the history of the region, you see that it didn’t just pop up out of nowhere, that actually it makes quite a bit of sense.”
Cultural histories and ideological seeds planted over many years, coupled with a unique political moment, together allowed for the development of this visionary leftist enclave. Finley says, “I think that you can trace this to organic society, that there’s this kind of radical equality that’s existed in parts of Kurdish society for millennia.”
Rojava itself is now a liberated area, however, the Kurdish people as a whole still do not have their own state. With approximately 40 million Kurds throughout the Middle East, they are the largest ethnic group without statehood.
Janet Biehl is a political writer who has travelled to Rojava twice, and is about to visit for a third time. She was also the romantic partner and intellectual collaborator of the late Bookchin himself, and she wrote his biography “Ecology Or Catastrophe: The Life Of Murray Bookchin.”
She explains, “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.”
Like many disenfranchised peoples, the Kurds’ attempts to gain agency and rights have been thwarted time and time again. Biehl explains that their efforts to create a state have been perpetually repressed for four or five generations now. Kurds who fought for one, she maintains, or even just tried to attain basic rights, have too been repressed.”
Kurdistan is a geographical locale spanning across the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, but it’s not technically a sovereign territory. In 1971, the constitution granted Kurdish people independence and autonomy in Turkey. By 1974, after a military coup, constitutional amendments revoked these rights.
The region of Rojava itself, though, has a history of being a hotbed for political activity. Finley remarks, “That particular part of Kurdistan has been in a more rebellious position relative to Iraqi Kurdistan.”
This unique condition is due partially to the fact that the area historically served as a safe haven for activists who were forced into exile.
“Part of that traces to the Armenian genocide,” says Finley, “when people who were driven out of Turkey for political dissidence were moving to that particular area.”
Culturally speaking, for generations Kurdish people have operated outside of the norms of the Islamic world. Finley explains that they’ve always been rural and avoided building big cities. A connection to the land has allowed a village quality of life to persist.
Finley continues, “Kurds have their own form of tribal democracy, and they have their own histories of women being very empowered.”
Indeed, the Kurdish culture and geographical history set the stage for the emergence of a political ideology that privileged cooperative decision-making, decentralized government, and gender equality.
Finley says, “It’s a needle in a haystack kind of thing. But once you start unpacking it, and looking at the history of the Kurds and who they are, and looking at Bookchin’s ideas and what he had to say…it starts to really fit together.”
However, it was one man in particular whose interaction with Bookchin’s work was responsible for the sweeping changes in Rojava: a political leader by the name of Abdullah Ocalan.
Check back tomorrow for part two of this piece to learn how Ocalan encountered Bookchin’s work, and the inspiring ways it is now being put into action in Rojava.