The Kurds are an ethnical non-arab group from the Middle East, with a population of around 30 million people, whom 28 million live in an area known as Kurdistan. Divided between Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Around ¼ of the Kurds live inside Turkish borders. This society are an interesting contrast to the classical notion of nation and that contests the Westphalian conception of Nation-State: they recognize themselves as a populace without linguistic and religious unity (most are Sunni or Shia) and with distinct phenotypes. Therefore, how come they identify as being part of the same folk? The short answer would be because they share a common history and were oppressed by the same despot.
The 1970’s represented a decade of rise for revolutionary movements around the globe. In Latin America the guerrillas influenced by Cuba and the USSR were spreading through the continent searching for ways of combating the dictatorships supported by the United States. In Mexico, the Zapatists, in Chile the Revolutionary Left Movement, in Brazil the MR8. Europe had its share of leftist uprisings, in particular Italy’s “Years of Lead”, starring Cesare Battisti, known as former terrorist and recently extradited after decades in Brazil. The Middle East was not left out from this wave: in 1978 at a tea house in Istanbul was founded the Kurdistan Workers’ Party known as PKK, by a group of university students. With Maoist, Leninist and Marxist inspirations, the party aspired the establishment of a free, independent and communist Kurdistan.
During the next decade, the group embodied a paramilitary character in a state of declared war against its oppressors, led by Abdullah Öcalan. The PKK promptly engaged in successful attacks and assassinations in the south of Turkey, which led to the booming of a consolidate recruiting unit. This prosperous endeavor in the party’s mission could be associated to two factors: the charismatic personality of Öcalan and his premise of not focusing only in the recruitment of men, but to engage women in the resistance as well.
The nineties arrived with structural changes in the international sphere, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and dismantling of the USSR brought skepticism regarding the PKK’s original goal of building a communist state. In addition, the weakening of their old tactics as bombings, ambushes and suicide bombers granting them the image of being “just another jihadist movement”. The Turkish government saw this decline as an opportunity to use the PKK as a pretext to burn down over 3.000 Kurdish villages, forcing the population to move to the cities, where they could be identified as Turkish. The end of the decade represented the capture of Abdullah Öcalan, which until today remains in the prison-island of Imrali.
Restrained at his lonely island in Turkey, Öcalan enjoyed the opportunity to study and dedicate himself to acquiring more knowledge regarding politics. During this period he was influenced by Foucault, Wallerstein, Benjamin and particularly Murray Bookchin, an American anarchist responsible for the conception of libertarian municipalism: a political ideology based on social ecology in which freedom is given institutional form in public assemblies that become decision-making bodies. The Kurdish prisoner adapted Bookchin’s theory into a new concept of democracy, the Democratic Confederalism.
The future of the Kurdish project was at stake with the persisting tensions against Turkey in the 90’s. Intrinsic authority abuses in the movement began to deviate and threaten the project’s mission. These leaders started to monopolize armaments, commercial routes, information and relationships with locals. From this point, the strengthened female uprising inside the PKK, supported by Öcalan, defied the internal conjectures that tainted the organization.
These insurgencies inside the party led Öcalan (2015) to reflect upon the root cause of all types of domination, either by the patriarchy, by the State or by the boss. All converging to one main source: the dominant male. From his point of view, capitalism, therefore, would be the consequence of five thousand years of female subjugation. Arguing that the desire of dominance derives from the ancient relations among gatherers and hunters’ society, where the outset relied upon the supremacy of men over women.
The secularization brought by the peace of Westphalia pursued a similar path, as the substitution of religious premises by the Nation-State envisioning, shifted the holy conceptions of power to the notion of a dominant top-down laic framework and its set of institutions organized to control its citizens. Thus, demonstrating how dominance relations merely adapt to the historical period, without losing its intrinsic nature.
In the beginning of the nineties, the PKK founded the women’s army YAJK (the Union of Free Women of Kurdistan). The fighters rejected society’s-imposed roles on them and became freedom combatants as they had much to win and little to lose. The goal was to subdue traditional gender-roles in the guerrilla. While training in the mountains, the YAJK developed new principles for the organization of the army, including dual leadership and a quota of at least 40 percent of female participation in all sectors. Nowadays, these principles are applied throughout all Kurdish areas (Ayboga, 2016).
Öcalan believes that around ten thousand years ago, primitive societies were based on communal and egalitarian social organizations. Distinct from nowadays for having matriarchal foundations and gender equality as a principle. He distinguishes this conception as “primitive socialism”. The transition towards patriarchy was studied by the leader through the analysis of ancient mythology.
Sumerian myths showed how notions of hierarchy and enslavement of men and women emerged from a new societal configuration where assigned identities should be performed by the male and “his wife”. In the Epic of Gilgamesh it is shown how the character perceived women not as human beings, but as objects for male pleasure. Öcalan assumed that the decline of society began with the fall of matriarchy, when mythology started to depict male identity as a tool of hegemony, transforming masculinity in a ruling ideology. The Nation-States powers as we see today are a representation of the oppressing dominance that derives back from ancient societies.
Capitalist modernity, according to Öcalan, leads to the commodification of not only products, but lives and nature, thus isolating the masses to be ruled under the Nation-States’ elites and their purposes. The alternative, he proposes, is building an environment with councils where people are linked through activist citizenship, overcoming the statist capitalist modernity we currently experience.
“States only administrate while democracies govern. States are founded on power; democracies are based on collective consensus. Office in the state is determined by decree, even though it may be in part legitimized by elections. Democracies use direct elections. The state uses coercion as a legitimate means. Democracies rest on voluntary participation. Democratic confederalism is open towards other political groups and factions. It is flexible, multicultural, antimonopolistic, and consensusoriented. Ecology and feminism are central pillars. In the frame of this kind of self-administration, an alternative economy will become necessary, which increases the resources of the society instead of exploiting them and thus does justice to the manifold needs of the society”
In contrast with a centralist and bureaucratic conception of administration and power, Democratic Confederalism aims at building a structure where all political and social groups would have a voice in the decision-making process at local meetings and councils. Tackling the “representative crisis” of liberal democracy through reinforcing the autonomy of social actors and introducing politics to society’s daily lives.
Thousands of people perished in the Syrian war, urban and rural areas were damaged or completely destroyed. Millions of civilians could not foresee another alternative besides leaving their motherland and seeking shelter in nations where they could not speak the language or feel welcome by the population. Europe claimed a “Refugee crisis” and Syria was held accountable for most of the blame. However, in July 2012, a silent revolution in the northern part of the country liberated village by village from the Ba’ath dictatorship. A democratic system was established and Rojava flourished as an alternative for peace in amidst of chaos.
In 2011, when manifests against president Assad rose in Syria the Kurds soon joined the protests. On the next year, when over half of the country was taken by rebel jihadists and the government could not manage to control it, the Kurdish population surrounded the military institutions and took control of the majority of Rojava. A communal methodology of government was established, based on the thoughts of the imprisoned Öcalan and his studies of democratic confederalism (Machado, 2017). Considered a “third way” between the Ba’ath regime and the Islamist opposition, Rojava issued a declaration of Democratic Autonomy, settling “democratic-autonomous administrations”, ensuring a brand new pluralistic and inclusive structure.
Initially, three zones were established: Afrin, Kobani and Cizire. Each one had their own political configuration, known as autonomous democracies. The goal was that they would cooperate resembling a confederation. In order to maximize popular participation in politics the communes are organized following a bottom-up structure: basically, the whole population of a street, block or neighborhood would meet every two weeks to discuss the regions’ needs and projects. Usually, the regions are divided through where up to 400 families reside, thus being able to debate local issues. Decisions should be taken by consensus, when not reached could lead to a vote.
As a principle, the meetings cannot be composed for at least 40% of each gender and each role is assigned to two people, a man,and a woman. As well as 10% of quotas assigned to ethnical and religious minorities. All these guidelines are followed by other bodies. The upper level of government unites representatives from the three free territories that meet to design their objectives and next steps.
Moreover, it is worth mentioning the existence of communes, meetings and councils specifically for women. Where they meet and decide matters of their own interests, in these meetings were decided the ban on child marriage and polygamy, besides discussions of cases as domestic violence and rape. They detain veto power on decisions from mixed communes that pose a threat to women and are able to impede men who faced charges of violence against women to fulfill administrative functions.
Furthermore, the high-ranking political body is named Democratic Autonomous Administration and works in the execution of projects arranged by popular councils. Therefore, it is possible to draw a line in the functions of the councils and these communities’ coordination institutions.
In conclusion, the establishment of democratic confederalism is not yet completed as Öcalan designed it to be. A smooth consolidation requires time to strengthen itself and certify that the structures might not be dismantled for not being strong enough. Although, some may argue that these institutions could be paving the way for the development of an independent country, while others might disagree affirming that the central institution acts only to assure that the decisions taken by popular councils are implemented.
It is not our decision to assert whether the PKK and Abdullah Öcalan reached their goals, even though they changed along with its history, or if they still must keep working on it. What can be said is that democratic confederalism will only be able to be evaluated as a succeeding government structure once it reaches a balanced and firm condition. At the moment, it represents an alternative to democracy as we know. Once steady and performing its duties according to plan, the structures might increase as the Kurdish population expands and thus, we will be able to see if it could be a working alternative to an egalitarian and politicized society.
By Kurdishstruggle [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Abdullah, A., Ayboga, E., Flach, A., Graeber, D., & Knapp, M. (2016). Revolution in Rojava: democratic autonomy and women’s liberation in Syrian Kurdistan. Pluto Press.
Knapp, M., & Jongerden, J. (2014). Communal Democracy: The Social Contract and Confederalism in Rojava. Comparative Islamic Studies, 10(1).
Machado, L. (2017). ŞOREŞA ROJAVAYÊ: not only utopia, but also revolution is a feminine word. Revista de Ciências do Estado, Belo Horizonte, v.2, n.1, p.491-503, jan./jul.
Murray Bookchin (2015), The Next Revolution, London, Verso Press, p. 96
Öcalan, A., Biehl, J., Dirik, D., Nawratek, K. (2015). Towards Stateless Democracy – Ideological Foundations of Rojava – Autonomy and the Kurdish Movement in Turkey.