Something extraordinary has happened in a corner of north-east Syria. It is a little-known story that defies the usual narratives about Syria or Assad, civil war or ISIS. It is nothing less than a political revolution, which bears important lessons for the rest of the world. In this revolution, women are in the vanguard, both politically and militarily, often leading the fight on the frontline and sacrificing their lives against the most atavistic and anti-woman enemy there is: the so-called Islamic State – or Daesh, as it is more derogatorily known.
This place is called Rojava, the Kurdish name for western Kurdistan, located in north-eastern Syria. After the collapse of the Assad regime in 2012, Kurdish parties began an extraordinary project of self-government and equality for all races, religions and women and men. I visited Rojava in the summer of 2015 to try to understand what's going on there for a documentary film about anarchism, which you can watch on iPlayer.
Few journalists visit this swath of land along the Turkish border, which is about half the size of Belgium. It's difficult to reach and thus expensive, requiring a long journey from northern Iraq and a crossing of the Tigris by small boat onto Syrian soil. The Kurdish Regional Government of northern Iraq (KRG) is not sympathetic to the Kurds of Rojava, and makes access very difficult and sometimes impossible.
The few journalists who make it there tend to focus on the fight with ISIS, assuming that this is what most concerns western audiences. Rojava is safer than the main combat zones of Syria, but still suffers horrific suicide bombings, and western visitors would of course make a fine catch for Daesh kidnappers.
As a result, very little has been reported about the remarkable political experiment of Rojava.
What little commentary appears is often secondhand. It therefore frequently repeats earlier misconceptions or hostile propaganda put about, above all, by Turkey, which opposes the leading political party of the Rojava Kurds – the PYD – and the armed forces of Rojava, the People's Self-Defence Units, which comprise the mostly male YPG and all-female YPJ. Nor does the political character of the Rojava revolution fit familiar pigeonholes; it is neither a nationalist Kurdish project for an independent state, nor is it Marxist or communist, nor driven by religious or ethnic motives.
Perhaps most remarkably – and, sadly, uniquely – this is perhaps the most explicitly feminist revolution the world has witnessed, at least in recent history. Previously, this area was home to traditional peasant norms, including child marriage and keeping women at home. These traditions have been overturned: child marriage, for instance, is now illegal. There are parallel women's organisations in every field, ranging from the separate women's militia, the YPJ, to parallel women's communes and cooperatives. Self-defence is a principle of the Rojava revolution, which is why women are so active in the armed struggle – but the concept extends towards the right of self-defence against all anti-woman practices and ideas, including those of traditional society, not just the extreme violence of Daesh.
"From what I saw, this political transformation enjoyed widespread support from all: Kurds, Arabs, women and men, young and old. Why wouldn't it? The whole point is to give everyone a say in their own government."
In addition to ensuring complete equal rights for women, the feminist politics of Rojava aims to break down domination and hierarchy in every aspect of life, recasting social relations between all people regardless of age, ethnicity or gender, with the aim of achieving an ecologically and socially harmonious society. In terms of historical comparison, this project resembles most closely the short period of anarchism witnessed by George Orwell in Republican Spain during the Spanish civil war in the late 1930s. But the representatives of Rojava also reject the label of anarchism, even if much of the inspiration for this revolution came originally from an anarchist thinker from New York City, Murray Bookchin.
The political heart of the Rojava project is in the local communal assemblies, in which local people take decisions for themselves about everything that concerns them: healthcare, jobs, pollution... boys riding their bikes too fast around the village, as one woman complained about at an assembly I visited. Women and men are scrupulously given an equal voice. Women co-chair every meeting and every assembly. Non-Kurdish minorities, mostly Arabs but also Syriacs, Turkmen and Assyrians, are also given priority on the speaking list; at meetings I witnessed, interpreters were provided. This is self-government, where decisions for the village are taken by the village or region. If decisions cannot be made solely at the local level, representatives attend town or regional assemblies, but these representatives remain accountable to the communal level and may only offer views that are approved locally. It is a very deliberate attempt to keep decision-making as local as possible – a rejection of the top-down authority of the state.
Ironically, however, the inspiration for the revolution was very much top-down. Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK (the Kurdish guerrilla movement in Turkey), read Murray Bookchin's works while in a Turkish jail on an island in the Sea of Marmara (where he remains). Once a Marxist-Leninist and a ruthless military leader, Öcalan became convinced that self-government without the state was the way forward for the Kurdish people. He moulded Bookchin's philosophy for the Kurdish context, calling it "democratic confederalism". The Syrian Kurdish PYD is closely associated with the PKK. Following Öcalan, its cadres adopted democratic confederalism and implemented it in Syria.
Some have accused the PYD of domineering tactics, particularly at the start of this democratic revolution. Such conduct has given room for critics unreasonably to dismiss the whole project. From what I saw, this political transformation enjoyed widespread support from all: Kurds, Arabs, women and men, young and old. Why wouldn't it? The whole point is to give everyone a say in their own government – a radical innovation anywhere, let alone in Syria, a country long accustomed to dictatorship and repression. I spoke to many people at random. They were uniformly positive, and many argued that the Rojava model, of highly decentralised government, should be adopted in the whole of Syria and indeed beyond. But it's also a work in progress. In some of the assemblies I attended, women and men sat separately, a mark of the journey from traditional practice that this revolution is still navigating.
The revolution has suffered considerable assault. Turkey opposes Rojava and has prevented all supplies, trade and humanitarian aid from crossing its border into the region. Today, Turkish forces are attacking the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which subsumes the YPG/YPJ and Arab militias into a common anti-ISIS front. The SDF has been the most effective force in fighting ISIS and has driven it back across hundreds of miles of territory, at the cost of thousands of lives. Now, the SDF – led by a woman commander, Rojda Felat – has started the attack on ISIS's "capital", Raqqa. The SDF currently enjoys US and allied military support, primarily from the air but also from American and allied special forces on the ground.
Therefore, US and indeed western governments are involved in a grotesque contradiction in which they permit NATO "partner" Turkey to attack the SDF – their most important ally in the fight against ISIS – while also proclaiming unyielding commitment to defeating ISIS. Thanks to an almost total absence of press coverage, this absurdity attracts no controversy in western capitals. Kurds worry, with reason, that once Raqqa falls the US will abandon the Kurds to Turkish aggression. Indeed, with Turkish attacks against the SDF intensifying in northern Syria in a canton called Afrin, some argue that this betrayal has already begun.
The hypocrisies of international geopolitical manoeuvring, however, should not obscure the importance of the Rojava democratic revolution. Thanks to its horrific tactics, ISIS attracts the attention, but in fact it is Rojava that carries the more important message for those who care about democracy. Rojava offers an alternative and practical example where the people are in charge, and it works. Rather than replicate the disastrous centralised governments of Iraq and Assad's Syria, Rojava's self-governing institutions have proposed their model for the whole of Syria once the Assad dictatorship comes to an end – and indeed, Rojava has renamed itself the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria in order to emphasise its multi-ethnic character and its acceptance of Syria's existing borders, another divergence from the lazy western presumption that "the Kurds" want their own separate state.
But thanks to Turkish hostility, representatives of the Democratic Federation are excluded from the UN talks about the future of Syria – an injustice in which the US, UK and others acquiesce. The UN continues to pretend that "the Kurds" are represented by a party that is in fact a proxy of the KRG in Iraq. It is telling that international officials – mostly men who have never visited the area – still prefer outdated ethnic stereotypes to the more accurate cosmopolitan and feminist character of this project.
Meanwhile, the Rojava model is no less relevant in the west, where few can claim that democracy is in good health, with disillusionment and right-wing reactionary extremism – and, indeed, overt hostility to women (expressed not only by Donald Trump) – both ascendant. There are scores of westerners who, like the International Brigade of the Republican forces in Spain, have gone to join YPG and YPJ ranks. Several have lost their lives, including in recent days a former Occupy Wall Street activist from New York City. Some of these brave men and women have been prosecuted on their return home, punished for their commitment to democracy and equality. All suffer from the misrepresentation of their struggle in much of the international press. In reporting the death of the young Occupy activist, the Washington Post described the Rojava revolution as "pseudo-Marxist", when it is the very opposite. In this democracy, there is no place for the state, at all. The people govern, the antithesis of state communism.
Thousands of YPG and YPJ fighters have died for this cause. During my visit, I met Viyan, a young woman YPJ soldier, on the front line – a huge gravel berm that stretched from horizon to horizon across a barren plain in southern Syria. ISIS positions were a few hundred metres away. A rifle over her shoulder, she told me that never before in her country, or the region, had women been equal to men. Without equality for women, there could be no justice in society. She was prepared to die to defend this dispensation. Tragically, Viyan was killed several months after our interview, fighting ISIS in the town of Al-Shaddadi.
Our film about the search for a better democracy is dedicated to her.
Carne Ross's documentary film, Accidental Anarchist, is available to watch on iPlayer. This article represents his personal views only.