Why Africa needs to pay attention to the feminist democracy in ISIS’ backyard

“Fighting is ugly. But fighting for this is beautiful. Fear is for your Western women in their kitchens.”

The New York Times Magazine piece on Rojava, also known as “land where the sun sets”, north of Syria, where women are front and centre of a radical plan to establish an autonomous state, mainly populated by Kurdish refugees that fled the ongoing terror in the Islamic State, is riveting to say the least. The article, written by Wes Enzinna, who is a deputy editor at Vice Media tells the writer’s experience of teaching students at a college in Rojava, but strikes a chord in problematising a disturbing reality. Rather than seeing Rojava as worthy of global attention, we focus on ISIS, disinterested in underscoring the truth- there is no such thing as a singular Middle East. There are rather different perspectives on how to govern, live and be. So why is Rojava still a mostly unknown revolution?

This revolution, which began with the vision of leftist Abdullah Ocalan in the 1978, sees women as protectors and leaders of the state, both in political and military capacities.

“The regime of President Bashar al-Assad doesn’t officially recognize Rojava’s autonomous status, nor does the United Nations or NATO — it is, in this way, just as illicit as the Islamic State. But if the reports I heard from the region were to be believed, within its borders the rules of the neighboring ISIS caliphate had been inverted. In accordance with a philosophy laid out by a leftist revolutionary named Abdullah Ocalan, Rojavan women had been championed as leaders, defense of the environment enshrined in law and radical direct democracy enacted in the streets.”

Rojava’s all-female force, known as the Female Protection Units, is part of their Peoples’ Protection Units (Yekineyen Parastina Jin or YPJ), together with whom they make up crucial affiliates to the United States, who has shown support by sending them Special Operations troops to advise and assist their fighters.

The soldiers in the YPJ receive two weeks of ‘feminist instruction’ training, after which they are handed weapons. According to a Yazidi student, the women fighters saved his life, and those of his family members, and their current status in Rojava makes him see women differently.

‘‘The battle made me think of women differently,’’ he told me. ‘‘Women fighters — they saved us. My society, Yazidi society, is more, let’s say, traditional. I’d never thought of women as leaders, as heroes, before.’’

Although the Kurds continue to live under threats of attack from the ISIS, and lack the support of the Turkish government over their quest which is being termed an “experiment”, they have shown great zeal in striving to achieve a utopia which is rooted in their social, religious, and political beliefs, which run contrary to the traditional ones upheld by most Arab-populated states and, most significantly, those of the ISIS.

In Syria, women who as little as attempted to dress differently or behave as such were victims of various forms of violence. They were also not allowed any form of studying, and this aspect represents a central focus of the government of Rojava, from which their youth – male and female – are greatly benefiting.

“In ISIS territory just 15 miles away, Kurdish girls were routinely tortured for being Westernized heretics — sometimes tied by their ponytails to car bumpers and dragged to their deaths. In Rojava, they were being educated.”

Supporters of the cause for which Rojava is fighting are calling to the rest of the world to pay more attention to the activities in the area, and not just because of their revolutionary military force, but also because of the ideology that has made it possible so far. The general attitude towards women in social and political capacities in the Middle East might be extreme in comparison to anywhere else in the world, but it still points out certain issues that other places such as Africa, for example, are overlooking.

Traces of female suppression and marginalisation can be found in numerous traditional African societies, up till date, particularly – but not limited – to those where patriarchy is predominant. Due to the aforementioned, practices on the continent are naturally biased and gender-insensitive.

Such practices include educational priorities, various ‘womanhood rites’, human/woman rights, and socio-political representation. In Nigeria, for instance, women occupy only about 30 percent positions in the public sector, and earn less than their male counterparts, no matter their educational background.

Interpretations in Islam place women as the inferior sex, which in predominantly Muslim societies often limits women’s access to liberty and freedom while simultaneously oppressing them. In such societies, to be part of a something as significant as the military, especially as demonstrated in Rojava, was not something considered as a possible reality.

This was also the case of the women in Rojava today, before Ocalan, but today, feminism is being preached to everyone, especially their young men. His vision has cost 40,000 lives till date, but that has not deterred them. According to Ocalan, true patriots needed to think like women, who not only fight for power, but are concerned about the environment in its entirety.

“He and his fellow students studied a text that Ocalan wrote on gender equality called ‘‘Liberating Life.’’ In it, Ocalan argues that problems of bad governance, corruption and weak democratic institutions in Middle Eastern societies can’t be solved without achieving full equality for women. He once told P.K.K. militants in Turkey, ‘’You don’t need to be [men] now. You need to think like a woman, for men only fight for power. But women love nature, trees, the mountains. … That is how you can become a true patriot.’ “

African societies do not necessarily need to be feminist to include women in vital representative aspects in its societies, citing the military as a case. The military is the backbone of every sovereign state, and if women could play important roles in prominent liberation struggles in African history, such as in Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, and many other countries, then surely the ‘anarchist’ labels can be left behind in order for them to play bigger roles in politically-balanced and liberation-supported societies.

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