As the epicentre of a conflict that involves Islamic fundamentalist groups and a dictator holding on to power, Syria would probably be the last place you’d consider a hub of what has been characterised as a ‘social revolution’: a resurgence in ideals of radical women empowerment, secular liberalisation, democratic federalism akin to anarchist ideas of government, and freedom of religion. Yet just a few miles from the ISIS’s capital Raqqa, this very movement is in full swing- and it has been for a while now.
Since 2012, with the Syrian Civil War in full force, the region was able to gain autonomy under the name ‘Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’- better known as Rojava- and implement ideals that would spark what has been called the ‘Rojavan experiment’.
The situation in the region seems to be at a stark contrast to what has been happening in the rest of Syria. Journalistic accounts by the New York Times and the BBC describe extremely liberal attitudes to situations that are explicitly taboo in the rest of the country. Apostasy (renouncing Islam) is punishable by death in ISIS held territories, while the increasingly sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict has made religious violence very common. In Rojava, however, the separation of Church and State is explicitly enshrined within the entity’s Constitution, with there being a strong focus to protecting religious freedoms.
This is more than just state rhetoric; a conversation in a New York Times article describes a woman publicly stating that she was an atheist, something that would result in a call for imminent execution or at least social isolation in any other part of the country. Furthermore, with Rojava attempting to highlight itself as being multicultural, several religious and ethnic minorities have found refuge within the entity’s borders, such as members of the Yazidi ethnic group, who had been the subject of an ethnic cleansing under ISIS rule.
This freedom moves beyond religion. Rojava has been credited for championing a radical feminist ideology as the basis for its Constitution. Described as ‘jineology‘, the ideology is centered around “the principle that without the freedom of women within society and without a real consciousness surrounding women no society can call itself free”. Abdullah Ocalan and Sakine Cansız, Kurdish independence leaders and founders of the ideology, characterise the ideology as inherently ‘scientific’, intended to ‘fill the gap that contemporary social science has been unable to fill’. Combined with its anti capitalist nature, the ideology has been compared to anarcha-feminism at its core.
In practice, the ideology has resulted in women having equal status in property law, the banning of forced and underage marriages, and quotas for female political representation, resulting in women attaining roles at high political stations. At the same time, women form the bulk of Rojava’s armed forces: the YPJ, Rojava’s all female combat division, has been pivotal in taking over a number of ISIS strongholds. Realistically, Rojava still has a long way to go in achieving true feminist liberation; however, considering the terrible conditions in the rest of the country, with ISIS permitting the use of female sex slaves, the reclamation of women’s agency in such a short amount of time, and the first truly radical advocation of women’s rights in the region is revolutionary.
Alongside this, politically, Rojava follows a radically different democratic structure. It is set up on political theorist Murray Bookchin’s idea of libertarian municipalism: the Rojavan version of this has been described as ‘a bottom up Athenian style democracy’ focusing on representation at the communal level rather than the idea of a central government favoured by most states, including the USA.
The impact of this form of government is, according to Rojavan representatives, greater representation for the diverse array of minority cultures present in the region- a small community, for example one dominated by a Yazidi group, will be able to enact policies representative of its culture, and ones specific to that community, rather than a central government forcing policies that might not align with the values of an ethnic minority.
At the same time, its take on the criminal justice system is extremely radical too- one involving empathising with the perpetrator of a crime. Rojava deviates from most of the world’s systems by using empathy as a means to find out why exactly the perpetrator committed the crime and how they can learn from it. One journalist said that he was shaken when a murder victim’s brother, in teary eyes, held a ceremony for the murderer to make him understand the impact of what he had done.
The nature of this system is reflective of the wider belief that the Rojavan cause trumps individual self interest and is at a stark contrast to not only to the beheadings and imprisonment in the rest of Syria, but also to the very repressive prison system in the United States and other Western nations.
Keeping in mind with all of the above, it’s astonishing to think that the situation in Rojava has been so widely underreported. A political entity that is not only different from its own country, but most countries of the world deserves much more media attention, especially considering the precarious situation Rojava is in right now. Since Syria will not be keen on the idea of an independent Rojava, Rojava has conceded to remain an autonomous entity within the country after the war is over.
However, its future still remains uncertain. The region’s residents are trying to make the Rojavan name shine through: a subreddit exists where Rojavans discuss the daily events of their lives and the situation within. Regardless of what happens, however, the existence of Rojava has proven that a radical but just and humane solution to the Syrian struggle is still possible.