This interview was conducted by AMW with an anarchist volunteer from the US, who worked in civil structures in Rojava, predominantly at the Kongra Star Diplomacy office. Kongra Star is the administrative body that seeks to implement women’s liberation through increased awareness and involvement in civil projects.
How long were you in Rojava?
I was there for close to a year.
What inspired you to go?
After first hearing about the events happening in Rojava, I began to research it and felt that I couldn’t form any sort of real picture of what was going on there based on what I read. There was, of course, a lot of positive stuff coming out, but a lot of it had really similar content. I began to study Kurdish, hoping that by learning Kurdish I’d have more access to material about Rojava. I was hoping to go to study in Northern Kurdistan with family of some friends of mine, but it worked out that I had a chance to go to Rojava first. I didn’t know how long it would be possible to access Rojava, so I took the chance to go. I was also hoping to find an environment where people were creating a revolutionary movement that looked toward all parts of society. In my case, I was particularly interested in youth education: what would be the approach to teaching kids of a kindergarten/elementary school age, and what sort of culture would evolve around that? As it turned out, Rojava has fairly minimal structures of this kind. I’ve hear that in Bakur (North Kurdistan) there’s been more extensive work of this kind done, but in Rojava most schooling was piggybacking on the existing structures, with the biggest change being the inclusion of languages other than Arabic.
What structures / collectives were you involved in? What sort of work did you do? What were the goals of this work?
I began at the Internationalist Commune, for three or four months, then I transferred to working with the women’s movement at the Kongra Star Diplomacy office and on the Women Rise Up For Afrin Campaign.
Unfortunately, because of the threat of Turkish invasion in mid-December, a lot of civil projects got disrupted. We’d been discussing organizing a computer class for women located at the university. We were running into the issue of lack of computers, and by the time things returned to normal I didn’t have the ability to organize the class before I left. At Kongra Star we were mostly trying to develop the capacity of people at the office. A lot of people were eager to learn more about computers or English, but there weren’t many resources available, so I was trying to spread knowledge into the local community. I was helping with web/graphic design and translation. We had some formal lessons on computer skills, but I was also working in a more informal capacity - for example, checking over the english translations with the women who translated them, so they could improve their work. We also were trying to push for a transition to more secure online practices, like using Protonmail instead of gmail. Our office all had Protonmail addresses, now it just needs to spread to the rest of Kurdistan!
What kinds of relationships did you form through your work?
I made personal friends with some of the women I worked with, and would see them after work. Others I was on good terms with, but we didn’t spend much free time together. I met a lot of my friends’ families and extended families, who I would sometimes see walking around the city. I made friends with one of the drivers (and his family) as well as some of the security guards outside, who were part of the Asayish (basically the police, which was weird). I know someone else who’s a rapper who was able to tell me about the local hip hop scene, and unfortunate lack of a graffiti scene. He’s an awesome guy who’s really open, friendly and dedicated. His perspective on the city was really unique and through knowing him I was able to see a totally different side of things than I would see with some of my other friends. I have another good friend who I got to know, we keep in touch and she hopes to come out here to study English. She’s having trouble getting her paperwork from school, which is in an Assad regime supporting area. I guess somehow they heard she was working for the Self-Administration and are refusing to pass on her transcripts.
Did you get to experience any examples of collective life?
Everyday life in Syria tends to be fairly collective, organized around the family and home. This is doubly so in the villages, where the workload often includes tending to fields, trees, sheep/goats, and so on. The villages are often quite small, a few hundred people or less, so everyone knows each other and what’s going on with everyone else. The collective/communal projects in Northeast Syria take root in these kinds of relationships, which are longstanding and intergenerational.
Even in the city, there’s a village feel to the way people are interconnected.That being said, there are a lot of hardships that even a tight knit community can struggle to face, given the economic situation of Syria overall. Spending time in civil society made me understand how and why the Kurdish movement puts such a high value on collectivity, since families are generally a pretty high-knit collective unit.
I also experienced collective life in the Internationalist Commune. People participate in all activities communally, sharing time at meals, work, tea, education and so on. Although nominally collective, power was centered in the hands of certain individuals with a specific vision they wanted to implement. I understand that the people there are different now, so perhaps those with sympathies toward more authoritarian approaches are gone now. I can’t say. Overall I found it useful to be there to understand the mindset of the Kurdish movement, but there are big cultural differences that call for different approaches to collectivity in the US or in an anarchist context.
Did you get to view any of the revolutionary civil structures like HPC, the councils or work collectives? Or did you get to talk with anyone who did? What sort of impressions did they make on you?
Yes! A lot…
I was working in one, kind of. At the Kongra Star Diplomacy office the structure is more like a traditional office. We had a lot of work to do, like translation, web/social media, planning for events/delegations, and so on. We held intermittent tekmîl* but it wasn’t often necessary since our work generally proceeded pretty straightforwardly. Women were encouraged, but not required, to take part in a three-month closed education to learn some of the ideology of the Kurdish movement, which some did and some didn’t.
At the office, we were sort of what is called ‘heremî,’ which translates roughly to ‘locals’ - just average people who wound up working in the structure, whose ideologically commitment to the Kurdish struggle is not a precondition for joining. The salary was 60,000 Syrian a month, which is good but not enough to support a family on. Compare it to about 100,000 in some of the security fields like YPG or Asayiş. For some women, the pay was an important part of family income. For others, the experience of being outside the home/family was more central to why they worked there.
I also came into more superficial contact with many other civil structures, or people that were involved in them. The most impressive one was HPC-Jin (Women’s Force for the Protection of Society) which was made up of older women, mostly grandmothers or older mothers. They patrolled neighborhoods at night to make sure they were safe, helped provide security at events and marches, and did outreach to stay at home women to leach them about self defense and generally check on their well being. In my experience, the HPC-Jin women were incredibly involved in their communities both while they were in uniform as HPC-Jin and as citizens at home. They were generally very ‘welatparêz’ or pro-Kurdish movement, often with kids in YPJ/YPG. I was in Kurdish dominated areas so I don’t know what HPC-Jin looked like in, say, Hesekê.
I was in some contact with the youth movement but preferred to spend more time around the women’s movement. Many of the individuals were enthusiastic young people who were extremely genuine and dedicated to their beliefs, who I liked personally and enjoyed their company. However, I found some of the dogmatism and vanguardist approach to organizing opposed to my own preferences. I was much more at home in the womens’ movement, which is overall more open and dynamic. That being said, Jineology Ciwan [Young Women’s Jineology] was the most open and dynamic element of the youth, and was doing great educational and outreach work when I was there.
*tekmîl (said ‘tekmeel’) is a structured critique and self-critique process utilized in civil and military structures in Rojava as a way to reflect on exercises and actions
What were your observations or experiences of feminism on a day to day level?
Yikes, this is a big topic…as a female presenting person in women’s structures over there, I was around women most of the time. The rise of the women’s movement seemed to be the one of the largest changes in the region. When I asked people their feelings on the ‘Rojava revolution’ and other aspects of local politics, two things came up a lot. First, the change in living conditions for the Kurds. And secondly, the changes in the status and possibilities for women. I wasn’t there before, so I can’t speak too much to the changes that have happened. As I see things, the power of the women’s movement is putting some social force behind feminism, and helping these changes spread to the peripheries. For example, I was at a Jineology Ciwan camp. A lot of the young women were spending their first night away from home, ever, and a number of them had come from families that needed convincing to let them go.
The bulk of the work I was around was centered on feminism in some way - at times this manifested as women gaining the skills to be seen as equals as men, other times in education so women had knowledge and power about their own bodies. Sometimes gender/generational dynamics were more confrontational. For example, when I was there child brides were a controversial subject. The Self-Administration had a campaign against it, by building public awareness, some targeting of specific dressmakers that would sew dresses for child brides, and sheltering girls that ran away from their families. Girls would sometimes flee to YPJ or other structures with the aim of escaping an arranged marriage [or other reasons], which created a problem because YPJ couldn’t accept the child recruits. I met a few girls who were at YPJ-international learning English with hazy plans to possibly go to university later. I reencountered one of them a few months later and she had chosen to help in one of the camps for ISIS women and children. The girls I met seemed to be in a really good situation, but the possibility that girls will run away and join a structure in the Kurdish movement has led to families trying to marry off girls as a way to keep them from running away, sometimes at even younger ages than they would have before. When I was around there was a discussion of the pros and cons of making child marriage illegal; I believe at this time there hasn’t been a law passed forbidding it, since it’s believed that it would just continue in secret and the law would be ineffective.
Another big issue when I was there was health education. Most women haven’t had a basic know-your-body education, and young women often get false information about sex, pregnancy and similarly taboo issues. Jineology was teaching classes sharing basic information about anatomy, health and self-care.
There is some level of acknowledgment that feminism needs to become anti-patriarchy; that is, not just be a thing women talk about. Men need to confront their patriarchal behaviors, and do their own work in thinking about how internalized patriarchy has affected them. At this point, though, that’s not something that is happening in a systemic way.
If you had to take away lessons from what you observed in civil society in terms of revolutionary practices, what would they be? Or in other words, are there certain practices you think would be useful to adapt to organizing back home?
Well, the social context is wildly different from that of the US, so it’s hard to transfer things directly. The local politics of Northeastern Syria have had years to develop since the Rojava Revolution, so the problems and solutions develop out of that population. If anything, I saw the importance of knowing your local context.
One of the major things I was impressed with was the ability of people across different spectrums of life to engage in the political process. I have a number of friends who are in their late 20s or early 30s and still feel a desire to be politically active but don’t have the capacity to be involved in the standard ways. The Kurdish movement offers a lot of ways people can be involved. It’s easy to lend support financially, volunteer to house people, be involved in neighborhood self-governing structures, be educated for self defense, or make room for one’s children to do so. I wish we had this diversity of outlets for support, so my friends who are farmers, educators, social workers, parents, and so on felt like they could be meaningfully involved.
Did your political views shift at all due to your experiences?
I guess the biggest thing is that I’m more of an individualist now, in a way. I saw a bit of excess in the other direction coming from internationals, so I recognize the need for an element of individualism to uphold ideological diversity, creativity, and healthy group dynamics.
Are there any practices you experienced or saw that you think we should avoid or be wary of cultivating?
I view the projects going on in Northeastern Syria and Rojava as deserving our support and solidarity, much in the same way many people support Palestine. The ideology and political practice are very far from anarchism, but there are a lot of people from the region whose lives have been immeasurably improved by the lack of the Assad regime/ISIS.
The regional context is very different so a lot of my criticism has to do with specific things there, and don’t necessarily transfer easily to projects back home. So I have a lot of broad critiques linked to the system there, as I would any state-like structure, as well as more specific ones that would take a lot of time to explain their contexts.
From the defense of Kobane and Shengal to the establishment of the SDF and offensives on Raqqa and Deir-Ez-Zour, the character of the conflict in Rojava changed over the years. Do you think this influenced a shift in revolutionary work or outlook?
Yes. There’s a good interview on the Final Straw podcast with a Kurdish anarchist who discusses the change as the conflict there went from defensive to offensive. It’s worth listening to; I’ll link it at the bottom. That being said, I was there during Dera Zor. Other than the panic that took place about the Turkish invasion, which had a very negative effect since civil work was widely disrupted, I didn’t really see that much change. I’d imagine that now things are changing once again, with the rampant crop burning by ISIS and frequent bombings.
What do you see as the significance of having an anarchist structure in Rojava?
I believe in the importance of ideological diversity. Having structures that are ideologically different than the Kurdish movement is important in upholding this.