Women’s Rights in Rojava

The Kurdish Areas of Syria – Hassake and Qamishly

The Kurdish areas of Syria have attracted international attention. While Syria has maintained its territorial integrity over the course of the past seven years, different areas have developed in very different ways:

  • Areas permanently or for most of the time under the regime’s control (Damascus city, the coast, Homs)
  • Areas permanently under Kurdish control with regime presence and acquiescnce (Hassake, Qamishli) with a temporary intrusion of the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS)
  • Areas temporarily under Kurdish control, then taken by Turkey and its proxies (Afrin)
  • Areas temporarily under different rebel command’s control before being taken first by the so-called Islamic state, then the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) (east of Euphrates river) or being taken back by the regime (Daraa, Ghouta, Qalamoun, Quneitra, Aleppo province, East Aleppo, Homs)
  • Areas under rebel control (Idlib)

This study focuses on the areas permanently under Kurdish control with regime presence. These areas have experienced a quite different trajectory because they have been least affected by military fighting. While the human losses and damage suffered at the hands of ISIS should not be belittled, this area has hardly experienced aerial bombardments or fighting on the ground. Kurdish actors, for a long time tightly controlled by the Syrian regime, have been able to develop governance structures in parallel to the ones set up by the regime. While none of the Kurdish parties has openly called for independence understood as separation from Syria, Kurdish actors have come up with governance structures that explore the possibilities of autonomy within a federal state. They have come up with a constitution and an institutional design, and as far as it is in the range of their possibilities, they have been working on implementing it.

How shiny is the Kurdish silver bullet referred to as “The Kurds”? The briefest possible history of Kurds in Syria

For Western countries – particularly those that like Germany or Sweden host a considerable Kurdish diaspora – this has been an interesting development. On top of that, within the emergence of extremist and Islamic conservative stakeholders in Syria, Kurdish political actors are a focal point in the search for partners with a secular agenda, stressing the rights of a deprived community.

The Kurdish population in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran together comprises of an estimated 30 million – close to the population of France. By the drawing of the borders, the Kurds in the Middle East never accomplished a state on their own but were made a minority in four different states, whose treatment and sovereignty has varied significantly in accordance with their countries of residence.

Even within each of these countries, Kurdish experience has been manifold. There is not one single narrative about the Kurdish population in Syria.  The 1950s campaign of the “Arab Belt” led to forced re-settlement of Arabic population in the fertile Kurdish areas. A controversial census of 1962 arbitrarily deprived what today are more than 300.000 Kurds in Syria, the so-called maktoomin from their Syrian nationality, having a fundamental impact on their rights and life – inheritance, possession, and most important nationality. And while Hafez al-Assad in the “Syrian Arab Republic” – that already by its very denomination denied Kurds from being part of his Arab nationalist project, on the one hand banned Kurdish language and practice of traditions after 1970, he at the same time sought to uses the Turkey-based Kurdish PKK as well as its Syria based branches as a foreign policy tool against Turkey.

Kurdish-Arab relations: 2004 as a watershed

For the Kurdish population of Syria, it did not only matter, however, what status the regime would allow them but also how their compatriots supported them – or failed to do so. What can possibly be considered a watershed in Kurdish-Arab relations were the skirmishes that followed a soccer match between Kurdish and Arab teams in 2004, when the attention was not all on the playground but rather on the fans amongst which a fight erupted, with Kurdish groups – based on the Iraqi-Kurdish Anfal-operations in which Saddam Hussein had targeted them with chemical weapons in 1987 – expressed in light of the US-Intervention their opposition to Saddam Hussein and Arab fans waved posters of the Iraqi dictator. The Syrian regime at this point sided with the Arab fans, killing scores of Kurds in the ensuing protests with live ammunition. This undermined the trust of Kurdish political activists in the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime.

With this experience but also the lack of solidarity on an international level for Kurdish rights, the Syrian revolution in 2011 was a conundrum for Syrian Kurdish activists. Some of them, such as Meshal Temmo of the Kurdish Future Movement, explicitly expressed their support of the revolution. He and others paid for it with their life. With the Syrian opposition failing to detail their position on Kurdish and other minorities’ rights, the majority of Kurdish actors opted for carefully toeing the line between expressing their support for either side.

This alienated them further from the mainstream of the Syrian opposition but allowed them to remain largely unaffected by the war. For the Syrian regime struggling heavily despite all international support to eliminate threats to its power, this allowed once more for a utilitarian approach: Kurdish control executed in Hassake and Qamishli relieved the Syrian regime from deploying troops there and freed resources to fight the uprising in other parts of the county.

However, the regime never made significant concessions to the Kurdish demands. It promised citizenship to the maktoomin which remained largely unaccomplished and otherwise postponed any decision on the status of Kurdish activism or the Kurdish areas.

This is why the Kurdish efforts to come up with alternative and different solutions matters: In all that has been tried and lost throughout the seven years of conflict, the Kurdish project sticks out as a constructive project in a setting in which most other efforts were doomed.

And this is why the Kurdish handling of the issue of women’s rights and their political participation deserve particular attention.

Women’s Rights – Human Rights?

The Assad regime, often being perceived as secular and a guarantor of women’s rights at a closer look does not have a convincing record. How can a state that discards and dismantles human rights be a beacon for women’s rights? The political participation of women in the Syrian regime is marginal, confined to a women’s quota without giving them a say. The Syrian regime has acceded to CEDAW, the international convention on women’s rights, but both the Syrian regime’s reporting on it as well as the shadow reporting tell a story of ignorance rather than promotion of women’s rights.

In contrast, the Kurdish vision for Hassake and Qamishli entails a constitution that puts female participation by quotas at the forefront. Paying respect to the oft-ignored half of the population that is female, the constitution establishes a high quota for women in all institutions and subordinate laws specify how laws in vigor in the Syrian Arab Republic – particularly personal status laws that in the current governance are referred to the respective religious courts – should ideally look to grant women equal rights.  

With the Syrian revolution, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) took the leading role in Hassake and Qamishli. Despite them stressing on “bottom-up” approaches and grassroots activism, established also in the political constituents of local governance, many of those in their territories consider the PYD’s rule as “authoritarianism light” – a constellation in which the Turkey-based PKK has prevalence over local affairs and seeks to control them.

In this setting, it seemed essential for us to take a closer look into how female participation is formalized on the one hand and executed at the other.

How to empower women in Syria’s Kurdish Areas?

Lava Selo, Kurdish researcher from Syria now based in Sweden, interviewed 29 practicioners, activists and academics to delve deep into opportunities, challenges and constraints. She provides an outstanding record on how theory and practice look like and thereby opens the horizon for those who are committed to women’s rights to address the potential there is.

From my point of view, this study is revealing three core points to be taken as a resonance board for meaningful support of Kurdish women’s struggle:

  1. While in the constitution and subordinate laws women’s rights are highlighted, the struggle is very much left to them. They are granted rights and space, yet it is made clear that they are put into a position to demand for it and achieve it on their own terms. What is absent is a vision for society and politics as such – the expressed intent not only to allow them but to enable and empower them.
  2. Political activism – as Selo details – is facilitated by having had military training and close relations to those involved in the PYD-led military struggle. That raises questions on how desirable and how acceptable it is to link the military with the political and – in essence – the right to exist as a civilian citizen.
  3. The expectations towards military enrolment of women in Kurdish areas happens under completely different prerogatives as the male military enrolment: Women face harsher conditions in terms of their personal life as well as the conservative setting they are acting in when it comes to be part of the military struggle: they have to be unmarried – a condition non-existent for male fighters. And at the same time, it is many more demands directed towards them. They should not only a) defend society from external threats (ISIS) but b) fight for including women c) fight against domestic inherited and traditional values and d) be a moral example. It is basically a legislation objectifying them once more instead of making them subjects taking agency. This is particularly manifest in the reasoning on whether or not to allow polygamy and second marriage.

So while on the surface and in theory being progressive, the understanding of women’s roles is still very traditional. Only if and when women are outsiders by traditional societal standards, they are tasked with a number of different and sometimes contradictory roles, that further alienate them from these.

For all those who are idealizing the Kurdish – and particularly Kurdish women’s – struggles, this papers offers a treasure trove of ways of intervention to support a real women-driven, agency-based and bottom-up approach.

By Bente Scheller

Product details
Date of Publication
July 2018
Heinrich Boell Foundation - Middle East
Number of Pages
All rights reserved
Language of publication
English and Arabic
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