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What Can Western Feminists Learn From The Women’s Struggle In Rojava?

John Dolva

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Points to disuss:

Without doubt, in this world of so much trouble there is a movement that promises a solution.

The following contribution by Stefan Bertram-Lee, 1st October 2015, published in Woman, http://kurdishquestion.com/index.php/woman/content/34-woman/, is worth reading and thinking about :

What Can Western Feminists Learn From The Women’s Struggle In Rojava?


1. We must build women’s self defence units

2. The Revolution must smile

3. Liberalism is death

4. Women’s Liberation is anti-statist

5. But to learn one needs to hear

1. It is a simply reality that we live in a world where men are prosecuting a war upon women, something that they are doing incredibly successfully. We live in a world where for a woman to be sexually assaulted is a rule rather an expectation, a world where 1/3 of women are physically abused, a world where ‘femincide’ is an existent term, a world where 99% of property is owned by men etc. etc.

A war is being fought against us, but we seem not to have noticed. Women all over the word are fighting for their liberation in their millions, but considering the extent to which we are being annihilated much of our response seems muted. If a war is being waged against us, why are we not fighting back with the same ferocity?Voltairine de Cleyre wondered over a century ago how women had not rebelled considering the extent of abuse we have suffered, and this question seems equally applicable in our present conditions.

There seem to be few places in the world where the will and the structures to fight a women’s war exist, and one of these places is Rojava. Not only does a women’s army exist in the form of the YPJ, but a whole ‘Women’s Society’, with ‘’women’s communes, academies, tribunals, and cooperatives’’ [1].You need more than an army to fight a war; you need a whole structure that can economically and intellectually replenish an army as to allow the continuation of the struggle, something that the Rojava women’s struggle seems to have in spades.

But what connection can be drawn between the YPJ, and the general women’s struggle in Rojava and that of our situation in the West? Clearly the way patriarchy has presented itself in the form of IS, and other radical Salafist groups, is radically different to the way it has presented itself in the West, so surely a radically different response should be taken? The first thing to note is that the struggle against IS isonly half of the women’s struggle in Rojava, the other half is that of the internal societal struggle to eliminate patriarchy in the revolutionary society in Rojava, the ‘’Killing of the dominant male’’.[2] The second is that what I am advocating is not particularly focused on the armed aspect of the Women’s Revolution in Rojava, (Although if you live in a nation like the United States where you have a right to bear arms, I would not discourage you from taking up arms) but a more in-depth analysis of its situation.

What I am advocating is moving from simply self-organising to self-defence. In recent years there has been a recognition in movements that I am a part of, that self-organisation of oppressed segments of the populace is essential to liberation. While such self-organisation has come under assaults from reactionary elements, most clearly seen recently in the attacks on Goldsmiths Welfare Officer Bahar Mustafa, [3] it has generally become mainstreamed among radical movements that I have witnessed. While there are examples in the West of oppressed segments of society practising self-defence, with ‘minority’groups in the United States drawing on the tradition of groups like the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement to form organisations like theHuey P. Newton gun club[4] and the Indigenous People's Liberation Party,[5] these ideas do not have made much headway in the Western Women’s Movement.

What does it mean to advocate for Women’s self-defence?Women’s self-defence means that women (And all other genders that face systematic patriarchal violence, i.e. all of them that aren’t men) should construct organisations geared toward protecting women and other gender oppressed groups from violence, may this be physical, emotional or any other kind.

And what does this practically mean? Clearly we have an example of a Women’s Self Defence unit, in the form of the YPJ, but how do we apply this to our radically different material circumstance? I would not seek to give a definitive list of ways the example can be applied, but simply give a few possible examples. It can mean making sure no one goes home alone at night, it can mean intervening in examples of sexual assault in nightclubs and elsewhere, it can mean organising women led self-defence classes, it can mean making sure people are aware that your couch is open to those whose who only other option is a bed they would rather not lay in etc. These are all actions I have seen happen on an ad-hoc basis, our challenge is to transform them from such into things practised consistently by large numbers of people. Clearly there is the will there for it; what we lack is organisation and articulation of such acts as directly ideological actions, as this articulation and organisation will encourage and push people to do and maintain this and other larger things

2.But we cannot simply organise structures and expect our compatriots to line up: if this was all we needed the revolution would have been done long ago. There is a certain malaise among some western ‘activists’ wherebypolitical activity is conceptualised as a ‘task’, something that must be done, but should not beand is not fun, enjoyable, or in any substantive manner connected to the rest of their lives. This is the grim, po-faced seriousness of the ‘organiser’, whose work is very very important, and allowing it to be touched with a smile would corrupt the purity of it. This is an attitude that is incredibly destructive and counter-productive for various reasons. If your work as an ‘activist’ is something that drains and exhausts you, instead of something to that fulfils and energises you, if the product of your activity (if there is one) is something you cannot connect to your lived experiences, then all you have done is given yourself a job. A job equally soul-destroying and anti-human as any other in a Capitalist society – with the fact that you are your own slave-master, whipping your own back ‘for the revolution’ or ‘for a better world’, just making it all the more painful to watch.

And of course, this kind of activity is something that is only viable for a very small number of people. Perhaps it can be managed by a University student, but for the average wage worker the idea that they would have something that may as well be a second unpaid job to be properly engaged in ‘politics’, this is nothing but a brick wall. (If Comrades of the Marxist ‘Newspaper sellers’ party wonder why their party seem to be formed of everyone but the Working class, I offer an answer.) If we ever wish to truly win, our politics must be fun, our revolution must smile.

Now what is the connection between this and the Rojava Women’s Movement? In Rojava we do have a revolution that smiles. A revolution which dances, which sings and which laughs. Perhaps it is just the image which is presented to western eyes, but these occurrences seem to be predominantly led by Rojava’s women. We of course must recognise that there are very many parts of a revolution that are not particularly fun, when you are an armed combatant there is everything from the moment of armed clashed to latrine duty that may be less than fun. What I am saying is not that every moment should be approached with a smile, but rather that every moment that can be, should. To be a revolutionary is a serious business, which will more often than not involve a great deal of personal hardship, but to say because of this we should not smile and laugh in every moment we can is nothing but bisecting your own soul. Attempting to sacrifice your own happiness at the altar of ‘revolution’ is nothing but a counterproductive desire for a self-flagellating purity that does not serve you or anyone else.

Now what does this mean in the concrete? How do we make our politics fun? Once again I do not seek to give an authoritativedescription of what is ‘fun’ and what is not, but rather simply to give examples of political activity which I did enjoy, and examples of ones I did not. One of the best events I have witnessed is the Reclaim Brixton event of 25th April 2015. Halfway between a rebellion and a street party it was an event that had the things that should be desired from political activity. Enjoyment on the day was guaranteed by a carnival atmosphere and popular support. While literally doing things that we find fun in other circumstance in a political circumstance should not be the end of our attempts to make politics fun, (dancing in the expanse of space in our cities that is usually reserved for cars is probably not going to bring down the state, though you never know) it can be a nice start. The second part, popular support, was also very helpful to making the day enjoyable. Often on large ‘’national demonstrations’’ and the like you march through the streets of Central London where approximately none of you live, and in fact, barely anyone lives. It’s not only that these demonstrations are more often than not simply a spectacle for tourists, but that it would be difficult for them to be anything else. By contrast in Brixton we were going through an area where our demands were directly relevant to the local population, and had been very clearly articulated through extended community action, ensuring popular support. Beyond the simple pleasure of being cheered for, this popular support opens up much greater possibilities for action. If you know that not only the people around you won’t snitch you out, but also will be willing to hide you from the police, obstruct police interventions etc. a lot more can be done. Enjoyment after the day was ensured by the direct connection between our intent that day (to reject and attempt to turn back the efforts of gentrification in Brixton) and the actions that were taken that day (the smashing of an upmarket real estate agents that is buying up all the social housing in Brixton and pushing massive rent increases). We went away seeing our desires had been made reality in some way, we hadn’t won, but our actions had some product, and that product was a definitive victory.

An example of a political event that I found completely hateful and entirely ‘’non-fun’’ was the founding meeting of the “Essex Radical Platform’’. It was a three hour meeting full of circular arguments, abstract discussions and an unflinching focus on defining what this organisation was when all it intended to be was a meeting point for various individuals and organisations to propose action. A three-hour-long discussion with no breaks is something that the vast majority will find tiresome and will simply be non-viable for those who are disabled in various ways. Being in a room with a large number of people you don’t know or vaguely know arguing with in regards to emotionally charged issues , with limited food and water, and if you want to use the bathroom you have to miss parts of the discussion, is not something that many people will voluntary subject themselves to many times. It can be argued that some parts of this process are inevitable, but as so few people can to subsequent meetings (The second one, amazingly, was an attempt to resolve the discussion started in the first) clearly something was being done wrong.

3. Of course our politics cannot simply be ‘fun’, ‘fun’ ensures that people come back, but effectiveness ensures we will actually change something. The Rojava Women’s Movement has clearly been effective, successfully recreating their ‘’Revolution within a Revolution’’, and I believe this comes from their willingness to engage in their struggle by whatever means prove necessary. As I have outlined above the Women’s struggle in Rojava is diverse, and reaches in to all parts of their Society, from a Women’s Economy to a Women’s Police Force (Which deals with all crimes relating to Women and Children).While Western Feminists seem highly limited in what tactics they are willing to employ, there are no such concerns in Rojava.

Of course I’m sure that anyone who suggested ISIS should be dealt with via ‘Non-Violent’ methods would be laughed out of the vast majority of rooms, not only in Rojava, but all across the world. But who has killed more Iraqis, ISIS or the British and the American Governments? The British and American states ‘win’ by a lengthy margin: from the British bombing of the Kurds in Northern Iraq in the aftermath of WW1, to every person killed by the UNSC sanctions during the 90s, to the invasion in 2003 and the subsequent occupation. If you want to see a group which has engaged in mass murder, torture, arbitrary imprisonment and displacement of religious minorities in the Middle East, then you don’t have to look toward ISIS, you can simply look at your own Government. So in that case why do you find the idea of dealing with ISIS ‘non-violently’ absurd, but would flinch at the idea of engaging in anything that could be classed as ‘violence’ against your own Government?

Western Feminism has a rich history of Militant struggle, from the British Suffragettes to Women’s Armed Resistance groups like Rote Zora in Germany [6], but such militancy seems to have been drained from the modern movement. While some groups in Britain such as Sister’s Uncut[7] and Feminist Fightback[8]continue this proud tradition of Women’s Direct Action, most groups that I have experience of seem to be limited to meetings and petition signing.

And this is not for a lack of situations that require a direct action approach, as there have been reports that an Abortion Clinic in the UK has recently been forced to close due to the actions of Anti-Abortion Protesters.[9]Feminist Fightback have directly combatted such actions by physically blocking Anti-Abortion protesters from going from their Churches to the Abortion Clinic, and this is the kind of tactic that we will need if we are going to defend the right to have an abortion for those people who have wombs. While I’m sure these kinds of actions would not be received negatively by the mainstream Feminist movement, it is rather a lack of reception of either the Anti-Abortion campaign or the reaction to it that is worrying. The right to abortion was one the largest Women’s Struggle in the 20th Century, now it seems to be being quietly eroded without much fuss. Perhaps it is because it is seen as past conflict that we have we won. Or perhaps it is because the focus of the mainstream Feminist movement is centred on making demands of the state, and struggles outside of this dynamic have become alien to the movement. And so since the toolkit that is required to deal with committed religious fanatics is entirely different to the one that is need to petition the state, the movement struggles to take action here.

I do not mean to disrespect ‘Non-Militant’ tactics: to have meetings and to inform others is the necessary building blocks before we can physically confront Anti-Abortion protesters and other reactionary elements. Rather, like the Women of Rojava, we need to be ready to confront Patriarchy on every front, and this means accepting a diversity of tactics and refusing to cling to non-useful concepts like ‘Non-Violence’.

4. Another problem in the Modern Western Feminist Movement is a lack of a Universal approach, as if feminism can only answer a few questions. Feminism is seen as relevant in the question of ‘Should women be payed equally to men?’ but not to ‘Should there be a wage system?’. Feminism is often an addition to a person’s ideology not the primary aspect. People from across the political spectrum will tack feminism onto the end of their ideology, Conservative Feminism, Liberal Feminism, Anarchist Feminism etc. But will rarely put it first, or see it as something which can provide a systematic answer to all of society’s ills.

The Rojava Freedom Movement sidesteps this via having its theoretical basis derived from the works of Abdullah Ocalan. Ocalan sees class society (Capitalism, but also more generally all oppressive economic systems that base themselves on hierarchy and private property – so also including systems such as Feudalism) as originating out of the oppression of Women. So in order to deconstruct such a society we need to deconstruct gender divisions and ‘kill the dominant man’.[9] This moves gender struggles from the side of the struggle, (I.e. Feminism is a necessary part of Anarchism because we are against all inequality) to the centre (I.e. Women’s Struggle is central to our struggle because it is a necessity to deconstruct class society).

I believe this is an example to follow. I am not directly advocating Western Feminists adopt Ocalan’s historical and ideological perspective, but rather that there is a systematic effort to adopt some kind of historical perspective. No more simply struggling against the obvious gender discrepancies in our society without any analysis of what cause these phenomena.

And this means going beyond these obvious discrepancies, and looking more widely. If we conclude that everything in our society is at least partially shaped by patriarchy, and we conclude that patriarchy is unhealthy for everyone, then we need to question all aspects of our society. Hierarchy, private property, the state, all of these things emerged out of patriarchal system, so why should we assume that they should be part of a non-patriarchal system?

5. But in my analysis of the Rojava Women’s movement I refuse to simply engage in slavish admiration, the position of critical support is the only correct stance to have toward a comrade. One vital critique is the one that is brought to bear by Zaher Baher in his article ’’Why are Anarchists and Libertarians divided over Rojava?’’. Here he is critical of the apparent non-engagement of his fellow diaspora Kurds with the politics and civil society of the countries they reside in.[10] He argues that if the diaspora Kurds do not engage in the politics, and with the people, of their home nations, how can it be expected that the people of these nations will engage with Rojava? He says that the diaspora Kurds make demonstrations, but they are difficult for outsiders to engage in, awash with a confusing array of flags, banners and placards, with the chants being in Turkish and Kurdish. The Kurdish diaspora alongside the Turkish Left in Britain has demonstrated an impressive ability to mobilise, but these efforts do not seem to have really penetrated British civil society.

I do not make a demand of the Kurdish movement to educate me or anyone else, but simply that if they desire support among Civil Society in Western Nations, it is what they must do. I know many who are fascinated by the Revolution in Rojava (especially in regards to its revolutionary attitude toward gender relations), and wish to take action to support it, but they do not know where to start. I have spent a great amount of time reading about Rojava but I feel as if I am ignorant on so many topics, and when my fellows ask me questions I often cannot answer. For instance NYC Rojava Solidarity once mentioned that there are LGBT assemblies in Rojava, is this true?[11] It would not take much to confirm this, but I have not heard another mention of it in English language media, and so I cannot say anything about it. And looking more broadly, I think the vast majority of British Feminists know essentially nothing about the Rojava Revolution, but if they did many would be incredibly enthusiastic.

I feel that the supporters of the Rojava revolution among the diaspora have an immense chance to energise a western movement that is desperate for hope and success, and to show to Western Feminists the power of radical action. Imagine if instead of the paper-sellers each demonstration had supporters of the Rojava Revolution distributing literature explaining in short what the Rojava Revolution had achieved? There are so many out there simply waiting to support Rojava; they just need to hear about it first.


[2] Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution - Abdullah Ocalan



[5] https://www.facebook.com/pages/Indigenous-Peoples-Liberation-Party/1472793502987559?fref=ts

[6] http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/ann-hansen-julie-belmas-this-is-not-a-love-story-armed-struggle-against-the-institutions-of-pat



[9]For an in-depth explanation of Ocalan’s theory see his ‘Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution’


[11] Upon discussing with the editors of Kurdish Question, it seems that this information about LGBT councils in Rojava provided by NYC Rojava Solidarity results from a misinformation or confusion. The group may have confused this with LGBT groups operating within Bakur (North Kurdistan/Turkey).


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