Workshop Notes – Rojava (Jo Taylor)

See presentation slides here.

Notes to accompany presentation slides.

1. It is always difficult to know where to begin. Should we begin with the declaration of
revolution in Rojava (Kurdish for ‘West’) in Northern Syria, back in 2012? Should we go
back further, to the start of the armed conflict between Kurdish guerillas and the Turkish
state in the mountains of Bakur (Kurdish for ‘North’) in the early 1980’s, or to the
foundation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 1978? Or to any of the hundreds of
Kurdish uprisings before that? Or to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and foundation of the Turkish State? No, let’s go back further still, to 5,000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia. Because this is a frame of reference often used by the Kurdish freedom movement, and the women’s movement in particular, when they speak about “5,000 years of patriarchy and the mentality of the state”.

2. Mesopotamia – the land between two rivers – is a fertile region, known variously as the ‘cradle of civilisation’, or ‘the fertile crescent’. Civilisation as we know it was born here, along with writing, law, domesticated agriculture, hierarchy, slavery, and patriarchy. Much like the region known as Kurdistan – the land where Kurds live – Mesopotamia stretched between land now occupied by the nation states of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran (among others).

3. Over the last 5,000 years, many empires rose and fell. The last of these was the Ottoman Empire, which at its height stretched around most of the Mediterranean.

4. At the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire fell. It’s land was divided, predominantly by British and French diplomats, via a series of three different treaties. The first and most famous of these was the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

5. Here we can see the plan at this time.

6. The Sykes-Picot Agreement was never fulfilled. Nor, sadly, was its successor, the Treaty of Sevres, which would have given us a Kurdistan, and also a Western Armenia, in the wake of the Armenian Genocide.

7. The final treaty, the one we ended up with, was the Treaty of Lausanne. This gave no
rights to either Western Armenians or Kurds, expelled the Pontic Greeks from their
historical home in Anatolia, and granted a huge amount of land to the newly established
Republic of Turkey.

8. The Treaty of Lausanne split Kurdistan – the land where Kurds live…

9. …Between the newly created nation states of Turkey, Syria and Iraq, as well as Iran
(which already existed).

10. As we can see from this population density graph, the largest Kurdish population found itself in the new Turkish republic.

11. Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities in these new countries now found
themselves at the mercy of power-hungry nationalist dictators. The very idea of being
Kurdish was made illegal. In all of these countries, the Kurdish language (along with other minority languages) was forbidden, all names of towns, rivers, mountains and everything else were changed to Turkish (in Turkey) and Arabic (In Iraq and Syria).

12. There have been countless uprisings led by Kurds, even throughout the Ottoman
Empire.

13. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) can be seen as the most recent of these. It was
formally established in Turkey in 1978. It grew out of leftist student movements in Ankara, the Turkish capital. From the 1980’s, the PKK led an armed uprising against the Turkish  state in pursuit of an independent socialist Kurdish State. At that time they were a Marxist- Leninist organisation, like most other radical left organisations around the world at that time. In 1999, the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured in what Kurds call the “international conspiracy”, with the help of the CIA, MI5, and the Mossad. Since then he has been imprisoned, in largely solitary confinement, in an island prison in the Sea of Marmara. Aside from Abdullah Ocalan– known affectionately as Apo (or ‘uncle’) to followers of his ideas – another very important character is Sakine Cansiz. Sakine (code name ‘Sara’) was one of only two women present at the foundation meeting of the PKK. She was captured, imprisoned and tortured for 8 years by the Turkish state before the armed uprising had even begun. On her release, she and her friends established a separate women’s party, an autonomous women’s army, and she is generally seen as the founder of the Kurdish Women’s Movement.

14. After his capture, Ocalan spent a lot of time in prison reading and thinking strategically. His ideas developed a lot, and were especially inspired by a few specific thinkers, most famously Murray Bookchin, himself a former Marxist as well as a former Anarchist, who had later developed his own ideas of social ecology and radical municipalism. Ocalan saw in these ideas a new model, one that could work very well in Kurdish society. He also, importantly, came to the conclusion that the nation state model itself is part of the problem. Even if they were able to establish a Kurdish nation state, it would become oppressive, because that is the essence of the state itself. A new model emerged from Ocalan’s thinking: Democratic Confederalism. Rather than a nation state, this model is based on a matrix of autonomous, but accountable, neighbourhood assemblies (or ‘communes’), civil society organsiations, political parties, unions, cooperatives, etc. It seeks autonomy within currently existing borders, rather than
independence. This paradigm is based on three pillars: direct democracy (as opposed to representational democracy), women’s liberation (not just feminism) and ecology. The last of these is still the least developed, but we have been seeing a lot of progress in recent times with the establishment of the Mesopotamian Ecology Movement and some ecological projects inside Rojava.

15. In early 2011, citizen uprisings in Syria began, calling for the Regime to fall. By the end of 2012, this had spiralled into a proxy world war, with all of the world’s superpowers fighting on the battle ground of Syria via varying proxy forces.

16. It was in this environment, in the summer of 2012, that Kurds in the majority Kurdish
city of Kobani on the Turkish border, announced their revolution. People took to the
streets. The regime, already weakened and fighting heavily on other fronts, receded from the area. Now this Kurdish-led (but increasingly pluralist) social movement was able to begin putting into practice the ideology developed by Abdullah Ocalan, that until now had been operating underground, in Syria as well as Turkey. It’s important to understand that different parties and organisations in different parts of Kurdistan, as well as in the diaspora, are connected through a shared ideology and principles, but are also autonomous. Now I will speak about some of the things I saw when I visited Rojava in the spring of 2016, to help us get a feel for what kinds of changes are taking place.

17. Education is one of the most important things, and education itself is being
revolutionised. First of all, now everyone has the right to study in their own language.
There are three official languages of the DFNS (Democratic Federation of Northern Syria), Kurdish, Arabic, and Syriac. Two of these (Kurdish and Syriac) were formerly forbidden. There is also an attempt to break down hierarchy within the classroom, by having a less rigid structure, and more emphasis on discussion and debate. Women’s education is a priority, and several women’s education projects have been set up.

18. Defence is another important concept concept. Without defence, there is no life. Aside from defending oneself from the Assad Regime, Turkish forces and the Islamic State, self-defence is also seen from other perspectives – being in a co-operative is seen as a form of economic self-defence, knowing and understanding yourself deeply is seen as a defence from the capitalist mentality. Being in a women’s organisation is a defence from patriarchy, etc.

19. Healthcare. Again, many projects have been and continue to be set up across the
region. There are scant supplies and many people cannot afford basic healthcare. In this picture is a small clinic where women and children can get treated very cheaply. Women walk miles from the villages to come here. This clinic was set up by the Women’s Movement. They are also running community education workshops on reproductive health for women and the aim is to have one in every neighbourhood in every city. Many women in the region do not understand their own bodies, we were told by some of the women who are running these projects, and see their bodies as shameful.

20. Justice. Like everything else, the justice system is also being re-envisaged. This is a time of war, and the criminal justice system courts and prisons inherited from the Assad regime are still in use, though mainly for captured ISIS members and other very serious cases. The more preferred option is a form of community mediation. There are Women’s Houses where women can go to get help with such issues, and People’s Houses where anyone can go. The emphasis is on restorative justice and education, rather than punishment.

21. Economy. The transition to a co-operative economy has been building slowly since the start of the revolution. From nothing, the co-operative economy has now been built up to about 7% of the economy. The next milestone is 25%, with an end goal of 80%. Private property is neither forbidden nor confiscated. Land reclaimed from Islamic State and other Salafist forces is collectivised though, so in that way, the amount of land in collective ownership has grown significantly. There is also a lot of help and support for co-operative projects. This picture shows a small women’s food production coop in Hasakah.

22. One year ago, I gave my first workshop at Ways Forward. Now here I am again. What has happened during that time?
• The Islamic State has been almost completely defeated, with many new areas now in
self-rule across the north of Syria, with their own citizen councils.
• Our project has developed, we have stronger connections with the movement
structures in Rojava, especially with the women’s movement, and are preparing to
begin a much bigger new phase of our project.
• We sent a solidarity statement signed by 35 UK coops and coop structures in the
UK, which was read out at the first Cooperative Conference of Northern Syria.
• There was a fundraiser for a women’s bakery coop in Kobani organised by member
coops of Radical Routes, which we were very pleased to support.

23. This has also been a very dark year. The Turkish State, led by an increasingly powerful Recep Erdogan, has continued its military oppression of Kurdish regions inside its own borders, massacring people, razing whole towns and villages, and removing all progressive elements from the government, media, institutions and education facilities. Turkey is now under complete military occupation, and the Kurdish-led movement there and their co-operatives have been forced largely underground. Turkey has now invaded Syria, and is continuing its military expansion, occupation, forced assimilation and massacres. Just as with the creation of the Turkish state back in 1923, the British Government bears a large amount of responsibility for this situation.

24. Afrin is now under occupation by Turkish forces and their allied Salafist factions. We
have no news from any of the co-operatives established there, whose activities we had
been following. It is vital that we continue to take action to condemn this illegal invasion, continue to raise awareness, and to demand that our government and political representatives also take action.

25. To end on a more positive note, here are some of the projects we will be supporting in our next phase:

• The Internationalist Commune of Rojava have started their tree-planting co-
operative to Make Rojava Green Again.

• Jinwar women’s village construction is well under way. It is being built co-
operatively, by hand, using ecological building methods. This will be the first ever

women-only village in the Middle East and is open to any women and their children
to live there for whatever reason (escaped ISIS sex slaves, widows and their children,
survivors of domestic violence, women who just want to live in community with
other women, etc..)

• The Union of Co-operatives has been established in Rojava, and we hope to be
working with them in our upcoming co-operative twinning or ‘sister coops’ project.

26. Thanks for your continued support. We hope to work with you more during the next
phase of our project, which will include a relaunch of our website and the new name for our project: Co-operation in Mesopotamia.

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