Wednesday, October 21, 2015

In war-torn Syria, a unique and successful democratic experiment

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In northern Syria, the citizen of the Kurdish region of Rojava have conducted a unique and successful experiment of a truly democratic society: popular assemblies have been created as the ultimate decision-making bodies, Assad’s regime property has been turned over to worker-managed co-operatives, and full equality between men and women has been achieved.

According to Janet Biehl, who was part of an academic delegation to the Rojava region in December 2014 – as reported by the magazine Dissent – “the district commune is the building block of the whole structure. Each commune has 300 members and two elected co-presidents, one male, one female. Eighteen communes make up a district, and the co-presidents of all of them are on the district people’s council, which also has directly elected members. The district people’s councils decide on matters of administration and economics like garbage collection, heating-oil distribution, land ownership, and cooperative enterprises. While all the communes and councils are at least 40 percent women, the PYD—in its determination to revolutionize traditional gender relations—has also set up parallel autonomous women’s bodies at each level. These determine policy on matters of particular concern to women, like forced marriages, honor killings, polygamy, sexual violence, and discrimination. Since domestic violence is a continuing problem, they have also set up a system of shelters. If there is conflict on an issue concerning women, the women’s councils are able to overrule the mixed councils.”


The academic delegation Janet Biehl was part of made this public statement upon its return from Rojava: “In Rojava, we believe, genuinely democratic structures have indeed been established. Not only is the system of government accountable to the people, but it springs out of new structures that make direct democracy possible: popular assemblies and democratic councils. Women participate on an equal footing with men at every level and also organize in autonomous councils, assemblies, and committees to address their specific concerns. Rojava, we believe, points to an alternative future for Syria and the Middle East, a future where the peoples of different ethnic backgrounds and religions can live together, united by mutual tolerance and common institutions. Kurdish organizations have led the way, but they increasingly gain support from Arabs, Assyrians, and Chechens, who participate in their common system of self-government and organize autonomously.”


In a very moving article published in The Guardian, anthropologist and professor at the London School of Economics David Graeber wrote:

“In 1937, my father volunteered to fight in the International Brigades in defence of the Spanish Republic. A would-be fascist coup had been temporarily halted by a worker’s uprising, spearheaded by anarchists and socialists, and in much of Spain a genuine social revolution ensued, leading to whole cities under directly democratic management, industries under worker control, and the radical empowerment of women.

Spanish revolutionaries hoped to create a vision of a free society that the entire world might follow. Instead, world powers declared a policy of “non-intervention” and maintained a rigorous blockade on the republic, even after Hitler and Mussolini, ostensible signatories, began pouring in troops and weapons to reinforce the fascist side. The result was years of civil war that ended with the suppression of the revolution and some of a bloody century’s bloodiest massacres.

I never thought I would, in my own lifetime, see the same thing happen again. Obviously, no historical event ever really happens twice. There are a thousand differences between what happened in Spain in 1936 and what is happening in Rojava, the three largely Kurdish provinces of northern Syria, today. But some of the similarities are so striking, and so distressing, that I feel it’s incumbent on me, as someone who grew up in a family whose politics were in many ways defined by the Spanish revolution, to say: we cannot let it end the same way again.


The autonomous region of Rojava, as it exists today, is one of few bright spots – albeit a very bright one – to emerge from the tragedy of the Syrian revolution. Having driven out agents of the Assad regime in 2011, and despite the hostility of almost all of its neighbours, Rojava has not only maintained its independence, but is a remarkable democratic experiment. Popular assemblies have been created as the ultimate decision-making bodies, councils selected with careful ethnic balance (in each municipality, for instance, the top three officers have to include one Kurd, one Arab and one Assyrian or Armenian Christian, and at least one of the three has to be a woman), there are women’s and youth councils, and, in a remarkable echo of the armed Mujeres Libres (Free Women) of Spain, a feminist army, the “YJA Star” militia (the “Union of Free Women”, the star here referring to the ancient Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar), that has carried out a large proportion of the combat operations against the forces of Islamic State.”

In times where most traditional models of government in the Middle East have practically if not utterly failed, the Rojava experiment may be something one should be considering emulating or at least getting inspired from.


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