Washington Kurdish Institute
January 12, 2018
Since the establishment of the self-rule administration in Rojava (western Kurdistan, the part of Kurdistan lying within Syria’s borders) and northern Syria following the uprising in Syria, the role of the Kurdish woman has increased and concurrently gained prominence on the local and global stage. The world has been captivated and inspired by the heroic battle waged by armed Kurdish women against terror groups in Syria. While the female fighters of Rojava and northern Syria have attracted the world’s attention, the story of the revolution in northern Syria and the liberation and empowerment of the region’s women entails much more than the military victories of the Kurdish female fighters and their non-Kurdish allies.
In contrast to significant international coverage and discussion of northern Syria’s brave female fighters, much less has been said about the newly enhanced role of women in all other areas of society following the establishment of the revolutionary system in the region. Indeed, the transformation of society has had far-reaching consequences for women and other historically subjugated groups. In northern Syria, a co-chair system has been implemented in which all administrative and political bodies are co-led by two individuals- one man and one woman. Women are now decision makers with status equal to that of men, and are at the forefront of the ongoing revolution and resistance against terror groups as well as the stale, oppressive ideologies and structures which have long restricted the role of women in society.
The Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI) recently interviewed Ms. Nubihar Mustafa, a prominent activist in the women’s movement of northern Syria and member of Women’s Advisory Board to the United National Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura to discuss the region’s revolutionary system, the struggle of women in the region, and local development.
Nubihar Mustafa: With the outbreak of what is became known as the Arab Spring, a new light was shined upon Syria and the region. Many factors assisted the Kurds and other oppressed peoples of the Syria in intensifying their struggle to demand recognition and their national rights. Of course, their demands were not limited to these matters – the Syrian people as a whole united and rose up against the tyranny and to demand their stolen rights as Syrian citizens.
The northern region of Syria was more organized than other areas of the country. They were able to liberate their areas, fight the terrorism and built their own social system at the same time. They sought to pursue these activities in a cooperative and coordinated manner without leaving a vacuum that could cause these efforts to fail. Thus, the region was able to build its system of self-defense in concert with organizing the society, with both strengthening each other.
Initially, a democratic society was built by forming communes in the blocks, neighborhoods, councils, towns, and cities. Subsequently, the system of self-administration based on the consensus of the peoples of the region was built, which includes all of society’s components to promote coexistence and self-management of their territories according to a written social contract. After the success of this experiment, the political and communal powers declared the establishment of the project of federalism. The Northern Syrian Federation consists of three regions and each region includes two cantons. Two rounds of free and fair elections have been conducted in these regions for communes and councils.
Indeed, this experiment has been the focus of the democratic and patriotic, and has been targeted by warlords and chauvinists are concerned by this project and are waging military, political, military, and media campaigns against it. Additionally, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with support of the U.S.-led coalition, continue to defeat terrorist forces and liberated more areas like Raqqa, and in response to these victories, the attacks of those targeting this project intensify.
The majority of Syrian people reacted with joy to liberation of ISIS occupied areas, especially the Syrian woman who suffered intensely under ISIS and other terror groups. Some political factions voiced concerns about the success of the SDF and the liberation from ISIS – these voices stand against the democratic forces that supported the SDF in liberation of the region. Those hostile to the successes of Northern Syrian Federation have taken this position either due to their personal interests as agents of regional actors with their own agendas who are hostile to the success of the people of northern Syria.
WKI: Please tell us about the situation of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) in northern Syria – is there any aid coming from international organizations?
Nubihar Mustafa: Since the start of the Syrian uprising, the areas of the self-administration in northern Syria have functioned as safe havens due to existence of institutions providing basic services, and these become a temporary home for tens of thousands of Syrians from all over the country. Additionally, thousands of Iraqi citizens including Yazidis from Sinjar (Shengal) came to northern Syria, fleeing ISIS terrorists. The self-administration authorities and the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) worked to provide and supply the internally displaced person (IDP) camps. These IDP camps are:
- Al-Hawl Camp: Located south of Hasakah city, established in 2016 for Syrians and Iraqis. This camp hosts 2,700 Syrian IDPs who fled from Raqqa, Deir ez-Zour, and Albu Kamal. The camp also hosts approximately 23,300 Iraqi refugees
- Al-Aresha Camp: Established in 2017, hosts 30,000 IDPs
- Al-Mabroula Camp: Established in 2016 and received 100,000 IDPs from Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour. Currently hosts 12,800 IDPs
- Ayn Issa Camp: Hosts 28,600 IDPs from Albu Kamal and Mayadeen
- West Manbij Camp: Established in 2017, hosts 450 families
Additionally, over a million IDPs are currently living in the cities of northern Syria.
The body of social affairs and organizations supervises and aids the camps in cooperation with local and international humanitarian organizations. However, the living conditions in these camps are poor due to the siege imposed on the northern Syria as well as lack of adequate contributions by the international organizations. These camps lack drinking water, a sewage system, electricity, sufficient medicine.
WKI: Since your work focuses on women’s rights, how do you describe the effect of the war on the Syrian woman since 2011?
Nubihar Mustafa: The Syrian women have experienced their share of the division that Syria suffered after two world wars. These issues cast a shadow over the society and culture of the country, shifting the society backwards and promoting patriarchy. Oppressive tactics employed included not only armed attacks against the resistance elements like women and the youth, but also ideological attacks that represented the forces of patriarchy which are authoritarian, monopolistic, and hostile to women and the youth.
WKI: What is the role of the Syrian women today in Northern Syrian Federation?
Nubihar Mustafa: The Syrian woman participated in all the revolutions, marches and national liberation struggle during the period of French colonization. She stood beside her husband, her father and her brother, but, in the end, she did not get the status she deserved in Syrian society. Her role was once again confined to raising children and managing the house. The participation of Syrian women in the Syrian revolution in 2011 was very effective, but Kurdish women’s participation in the revolution in Rojava took on a different character, because it was indeed not born at that moment, but was established years ago as part of their ongoing struggle. The Kurdish woman followed the theory of women’s revolution and the democratic ethos of the 21st century. Now we find that women in the northern Syria under the system of democratic federalism participate at all levels and have 50% representation in all councils and communes. The Northern Syrian Federation implements the co-chair system – one man and one woman share chairmanship of all the governing bodies, institutions, and organizations. Additionally, women have establishment their own organizations, and laws concerning personal status have been amended to protect the rights of women. Women have also formed their own defense forces, such as the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), the public security force known as Asayish, and the civil defense units inside the cities, towns, and villages.
Women in northern Syria were able to assume decision-making positions side by side with men, and achieved epic victories in their war against the worst enemies of humanity, ISIS. Thus, we can say that women’s achievements in the Rojava revolution can rightly be called a “women’s revolution” in every sense. The resistance of women in the city of Kobani is perhaps the best example. Women have sought to build a participatory economic system that will promote the participation of women in the economy, as well as the opening of educational, family centers and a women’s center. They were able to start intellectual courses in women’s academies and centers such as the Women’s Science Center and the formation of civil rights organizations.
WKI: And would you describe the reaction of the society to women’s important role in decision making?
Nubihar Mustafa: I briefly explained their role in all legislation and governing bodies, but this does not mean that there has been a total change in the mindset of the male society. These achievements are only one step along a thousand mile road. The path of women’s struggle is long. Having women in decision making positions pushes women to organize themselves and achieve participation in society and change the stereotypical images within society. However, women are still subject to pressures by ideas that rejects these changes to their role. It is not easy for a man to accept a woman next to him or to work under her administration, and that is why they attempt to ignore or avoid this and reject it. Thus, women’s insistence on struggle is important. Amending the civil laws and granting Women positions do not mean complete freedom has been achieved. It’s only one part of the struggle. The women in the institutions of Northern Syrian Federation work very hard to become decision makers, and there are several examples of female leaders who have become accepted and admired by society. People are realizing the greatness of this experience.
WKI: What is your future vision, and what are your goals concerning the role of women in Syria?
Nubihar Mustafa: We aim to build a democratic society based on the freedom of women in Syria. We seek to eliminate all forms of gender inequality. We are combating male culture. We are working to raise women’s awareness and organizing them in all fields to rebuild society according to free partnership between the genders. We will insure these matters will be included to Syrian constitution to guarantee equal citizenship rights and fair treatment of women in the civil laws.
WKI: Do you have any contact with international women organizations, and what is your message to the international community?
Nubihar Mustafa: The developments in northern Syria in terms of building a system inclusive of women, transforming to society, and heroically battling terrorism attracted the attention and support of many democratic and feminist movements. We were able to form a groundwork to build relations with those organizations and women’s movements. In addition, we will continue our efforts to reach out to and connect with Syrian women and their various organizations to form a joint platform to step up the feminist struggle. We have also sought to communicate with public figures and organizations in Arab and other foreign countries, but this communication has not yet reached the desired level. We are still far from defining our experience, our thought and our system of women in the Middle East and the world. We focus on women’s diplomatic work and we pay great attention to communication with the Western world and the conveyance of women’s voices. We want to break the barrier between us and the international organizations. Relationships between women in northern Syria and the international community were previously weak and must be intensified. We have high hopes and our determination will not waver. As women, we will work hard to communicate our ideas and make our voices heard by all, and make it known that the revolution of Rojava and northern Syria is the revolution of women.