Michael Knapp, Anja Flach, Ercan Ayboga, Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan, Pluto Press, 2016, 285 pp, $27 (paper), $99 (cloth), ISBN: 9780745336596
A case for non-statist geographies
[Kurdish] women, who never cover their face with a veil … are brave like their men and carry weapons when needed (Élisée Reclus, 1884: 346).
In the last decades, “weak thought” philosophies and postmodern approaches have accustomed a great part of critical scholarship to think that revolutions are no longer suitable for the political agenda of the 21st century. According to the authors of Revolution in Rojava, the Rojava experience challenges this assumption. Based in Germany and in Syria, Michael Knapp, Anja Flach, and Ercan Ayboga have been direct witnesses of this revolution and provide an example of participatory and sympathetic social fieldwork that uses “a feminist, internationalist, ecological and left-libertarian approach” (xxvi). The book was translated into English by Janet Biehl, anarchist thinker and biographer of Murray Bookchin (1921-2006), and the foreword was written by another anarchist scholar, David Graeber, who argues that this experience upsets long-lasting assumptions that “peoples of the Middle East were desperately backwards” (xiii).
Graeber notes that the Rojava (men’s and women’s) revolution belongs not only to the transfer of European political ideologies, but also to the effects of local cultures and traditions, as Élisee Reclus had roughly grasped in the 1884 quote above. Graeber also highlights one of the key points of this revolution, namely that “the demand for a Kurdish state has been replaced by a rejection of the very notion of state, and an embrace of a principle of Democratic Confederalism based on a synthesis of the ideas of American anarchist and social ecologist Murray Bookchin, other authors, Kurdish tradition, and wide-ranging experience in the pragmatics of revolutionary organization” (xv). Euro-centric ideas of revolution are likewise upset by the protagonist role played by this region’s women, who do not only “participate” but also lead the revolution thanks to the principle of “dual power,” which means that, “in a commune or in a court, everywhere leadership is vested in two people, and one of them must be a woman” (69). In the Rojava municipalities, for instance, there is not a mayor but two majors, a woman and a man, while “all the councils observe the 40 percent gender quota and the dual leadership principle” (69), an achievement unmatched by any Western democracy.
Recent scholarship in anarchist geographies has shown the limitations of the state as the privileged analytical framework for political geographies and geopolitics, and the potential openings of giving up statist categories in a geographical understanding of the world (Ince and Barrera de la Torre, 2016). I would argue that Rojava should be considered as a major case for this research agenda and that this book is a stimulating starting point to reflect over non-statist solutions for this region and beyond. The first of the fifteen book’s chapters (each one addressing a specific aspect of the revolution in Rojava) is dedicated to an historical and geographical survey of the area. Relativizing the local notion of state, the authors argue that “(i)f Mesopotamia’s long history has lasted an hour, then the nation-state has existed for only a second” (9) and that “Rojava is creating a new form of society without a state” (130). The territorial basis on which the Rojava revolutionaries are challenging statism, and which should be likewise a topic for non-statist and post-statist geographies, is the autonomous municipality as conceived by Bookchin (104), which constitutes the privileged scale for self-government and the exercise of direct democracy. Then, delegates provided with an “imperative mandate” (89) attend the assemblies affecting the other decision levels, i.e. the neighborhood, the district, and the general confederation. Popular control on these councils is exercised by organisms such as the TEV-DEM (Movement for a Democratic Society).
The authors challenge commonplace views of Rojava as a “Kurdish” revolution by underscoring its multi-ethnic and multicultural character. Avoiding essentialist generalizations of ethnic identities in the region, they argue that “cultural diversity has been reconceived as an indispensable element of common life and democracy” (25) in order to resist “Capitalist Modernity and the nation-state and construct a practical alternative” (41). If a key role in calling the world’s attention on Rojava has been played by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the region’s federalist process is inspired by a charter on Democratic Autonomy adopted by “a confederation of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Aramaeans, Turkmens, Armenians, and Chechens” (112). A general willingness to bring these principles outside the regions traditionally settled by Kurdish and Syrian peoples is shown by the choice of Arabic as the language of the 2016 declaration for a Federal System in Rojava/Northern Syria (FRNS) (117). The principle of Democratic Autonomy, also called Democratic Confederalism, differs from federalism because “Democratic Autonomy in Rojava (is) a way to create a society together without a nation-state” (52) while “federalism presupposes quasi-statism” (44).
Sharing a long struggle for autonomy with the neighboring regions of Turkish and Iraqi Kurdistan, the three cantons of Rojava, Afrîn, Kobanî and Cizîrê decided to implement an autonomous politics when the Syrian civil war began in 2012. It was decided that Rojava “would side neither with the regime nor with the opposition. Would it defend itself? Yes. Would it participate in the civil war? No” (50). The local idea of defense is expressed through the metaphor of the rose, which does not sting to kill its enemies, but to keep them at a distance. Rojava cantons first had to defend themselves from the so-called “Syrian opposition,” which were increasingly Islamisized and included groups like Al-Nusra (close to Al-Qaeda), and then from the so-called Islamic State, which targeted Rojava as one of its main enemies, in part to destroy the social experiments that were ongoing there. Rojava had to defend itself, not only from the Jihadists, but also from the Turkish state, which was accused of helping ISIS in its efforts to take Kobanî (229). Turkey is now trying to create a “buffer zone” beyond the Syrian border to impede the territorial unification of Afrîn and Kobanî at all costs (241). The Rojava defenders also face hostility from some of the Kurdish parties in Northern Iraq that were not interested in their revolution and were keen to collaborate with the Turkish government.
Another characteristic of Democratic Autonomy which recalls the anarchist tradition, as well as other experiences like that of the Neo-Zapatistas in Chiapas, is that its promoters are unwilling to take power in traditional forms, as they “respect the views of society and seek to create social self-governance” (124). Rojava revolutionaries promote social reforms without imposing them on the entire population. An example of the application of this principle can be found in their economic practices, which draw on cooperatives and aim to “achieve a social revolution” (198). Nevertheless, other forms of economy and trade are tolerated because social economy “is distinguished from both the neoliberalism of capitalist modernity and from real Socialism’s state capitalism” (197). This implies that water, energy and soil are considered as belonging to the community but the new system is spread through mechanisms of consensus rather than through forced collectivization. The drive for this social economy is the expansion of cooperative mechanisms from below, an expansion underpinned by a view of Democratic Autonomy as “an anti-centralist movement” with an economy “based on local decentralised production” (200). An important part of this economy are the local debates on social ecology, first inspired by a critique of anthropocentrism (e.g. “all human beings are part of nature, but they are not superior beings” ). The strong sense of voluntarism behind this choice is exemplified by the oil dilemma in canton Cizîrê, the richest of the three Rojava cantons, whose oil reserves used to contribute the most to Syrian oil production. Now, this resource is in the hands of revolutionary councils, which exploit it only partially and for local needs, due not only to the material constraints that limit exportation from Rojava, but also to a political decision by local councils. According to the authors, “the revolution is at a point where it can make crucial decisions to create an ecological society within the ideological framework of Democratic Confederalism” (221).
An anti-authoritarian inspiration likewise leads the reformation of the internal systems of justice and police in Rojava, where the “goal is an ethical society in which a justice system is superfluous” (66). Once the people of Rojava got rid of the institutions belonging to the Syrian state, considered there as a colonial entity, “the prisons were soon emptied” (165) of political prisoners. A complex system of peace judicial committees and public controls was then implemented, with consensus as its main guiding principle. Within this system, civil guards (Asayîs) are tasked to “defend society and as such are to be distinguished from police, which defends the state” (171). They are accountable to the people’s councils and have very limited powers in terms of detaining people. They also try to work as democratic organisms; for instance, they do not wear grade insignia and collectively discuss their leaders’ behavior.
Women’s liberation is strictly linked to the military and geopolitical situation of the area, given that the revolution was made possible by the direct contribution of women to the fight for liberation from both Jihadists and the Syrian dictatorship. Fighting initially in mixed units, women have since created the YPJ (Women’s Protection Units), a female militia which not only intervenes as an armed force against ISIS, but also invigilates against patriarchal violence in the whole society since “it was understood that a liberation of the society could be achieved only through the liberation of women” (135). According to the authors, “people gradually got used to seeing armed women in the streets, and now the image of women has changed vastly” (137). Women’s involvement in military defense was, in this way, decisive for the realization of “something the West had thought impossible: a Middle Eastern society with women at its centre” (61). Indeed, the authors note that women’s communities are organized not only in Kurdish and Syriac territories, but also “in the Arab neighbourhoods and villages” (66) and that female leadership does not break with local traditions, but rather is sometimes embedded in them, as in the case of the Ezidi people (generally akin to the Rojava revolution), among whom “woman plays a particularly important role … as she gives life alongside God and is therefore sacred” (21). Nonetheless, the authors make clear that the process of women’s liberation is neither linear nor unchallenged, as the book contains several stories of the daily difficulties that women’s liberation encounters within families and local communities.
Liberation of women and anti-authoritarian concerns have led many authors to compare the Rojava experience with the Spanish collectivization of 1936-39, when exceptional attempts were made to conciliate the needs of the anti-fascist war with the needs of the social revolution and the liberation of the entire society (Ackelsberg, 1991). A point in common between the anarchists of that time and Democratic Confederalism today seems to be the idea that a social revolution is not a voluptuary good to be sacrificed for the supreme needs of the antifascist (today anti-fundamentalist) struggle, but exactly the way to enhance and spread this struggle. It is also clear that, today, the best chances for Rojava’s defence lie in its capacity to spread its ideas internationally and to receive increasing solidarity from abroad.
The authors’ conclusions and the afterword by Asya Abdullah, one of the revolution’s leaders, state unanimously that, if Rojava’s experiment succeeds, this will have consequences well beyond the region and inspire social movements all over the world by presenting them “an alternative model to the unitary and militaristic nation-state” (264). Graeber argues that the non-statist nature of Democratic Autonomy poses a number of practical problems to Rojava about the possible use of airports, international trade, communications, etc., as the international community is unlikely to recognize the confederation “unless the democratic self-organisation declared itself a state, and got someone else to recognize it as such” (xxxi). As a geographer, I would instead argue that the importance of this experience is exactly in the fact that it allows a rethinking of territories beyond and without states. More than asking how this experience can be geopolitically “normalized,” scholars should work on the suggestions it furnishes for thinking alternatives to the state and to electoral democracy, whose recent shortcomings (Brexit, US elections, worldwide advance of the far right…) render increasingly urgent a reflection on new models drawing on principles of self-government and direct democracy.
Sure, this revolution is not devoid of problems, contradictions and limitations; aspects such as the cult of the almost-sanctified leader Abdullah Ocalan and the Rojava militias’ willingness to collaborate “tactically” with other geopolitical actors like the US Army are not unproblematic from the standpoint of radical thinking. Still, as the Rojava militants are generous with their imprisoned leader, refusing to let alone someone who gave everything for their cause, so critical scholars and militants from all over the world should be generous with Rojava and not let it alone, as international attention is a vital need for these revolutionaries. This wonderful book serves this task first and foremost.
Ackelsberg M (1991) Free Women of Spain: Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Ince A and Barrera de la Torre G (2016) For post-statist geographies. Political Geography 55(1): 10-19.
Reclus E (1884) Nouvelle Géographie universelle, vol. IX Asie antérieure. Paris: Hachette.