Tuesday, August 23, 2016 - 23:23

Published August 23, 2016 on openDemocracy 5050
Does the word “revolution” mean the same thing to the Kurdish liberation movement and to American leftists who supported Bernie Sanders? A little history...

 In the 20th century, it was clear what people meant when they used the word “revolution”. Mao Zedong said it as well as anyone: “A revolution is not a dinner cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another”.
The founders of Turkey’s PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) had this definition in mind in 1978 when they laid out a strategy of people’s war leading to an independent Kurdish state. They initially focused on “propaganda of the deed” and military training, building what eventually became an extremely capable force, as ISIS discovered in Syria. But their vision of revolution expanded enormously during the nineties, when a civil resistance movement called theSerhildan  took off in the Kurdish areas of Turkey, along with efforts to build a parliamentary party that could combine electoral and advocacy work.
This wasn’t easy since every time the Kurds founded a parliamentary party and ran people for office, the Turkish state made their party illegal—this happened in 1993, 1994, 2003, and 2009 and is now happening to the HDP (Peoples Democratic Party), despite (or because of) the fact that it won 13.1% of the national vote in the parliamentary election of May 2015. Erdogan’s response to this election was to call another election, and at the same time begin an all out military assault on Kurdish cities in southeastern Turkey, where civilians were subjected to bombardment, depopulation, and massive war crimes, their homes and neighborhoods destroyed. This was in the name of fighting PKK terrorism.
n fact, the PKK rejected terrorism over twenty years ago, at their Fifth Congress in 1995, when they publicly swore to abide by the Geneva Convention and laws of war, disallowing crimes against civilians while maintaining the right of armed self-defense against the Turkish government. At the same Congress, they founded a separate women’s army to build women’s capacity for leadership in the struggle. Co-mayor of Diyarbakir  Gültan Kişanak talked about the way the PKK transformed itself in a recent interview, saying that in the early days the perspective was to make a revolution first and then do something about women, but that changed in the nineties because of the influence of the international movement for women’s rights:
 “Within this new environment, women began to assume important roles and created their own separate branches, not just following what the general political movement says, but also creating alternative policies, which the party must follow.... These changes were not easy and the rights were not just given by men: Kurdish women have fought at all levels and achieved these changes despite barriers within patriarchal society and despite the resistance of some of our male comrades.”
The Rojava Kurds follow the same political philosophy as those in the Turkish movement. Thus, despite the newness of Rojava, which became autonomous in 2012, the movement there draws on forty years of accumulated political experience, the last twenty of which have emphasized the development of local democracy, community organizing, and women’s leadership.  
I began studying the Kurdish women’s movement during the siege of Kobane and soon became convinced that their story is so important that I had an obligation to get it out in English as fast as I could, even though I couldn’t go there and was limited by my lack of language skills. As I worked on A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State, I was constantly pulled up short by the radical nature of this revolution and the way it questions the most basic leftwing assumptions, not only about women, or about the relationship between armed struggle, mass movement, and parliamentary party, but about the state itself.
Marxist-Leninist revolutions of the 20th century were based on the premise that the state was an instrument of bourgeois class domination that could be captured and turned to the interests of the working class under the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.  At its Fifth Congress in 1995, the PKK described how that had worked out in the USSR:
      “Ideologically, there was a decline to dogmatism, vulgar materialism, and pan-Russian chauvinism; politically, there was the creation of extreme centralism, a suspension of democratic class struggle, and the raising of the State’s interests to the level of the determining factor; socially, there was a reduction in the free and democratic life of the society and its individuals; economically, the state sector was dominant and there was a failure to overcome a consumer society which emulated what was abroad; militarily, the raising of the army and acquiring weapons took precedence over other sectors. This deviation, which became increasingly clear to see during the 1960s, brought the Soviet system to a condition of absolute stagnation”.
In 1989, Abdullah Öcalan  was captured and charged with murder, extortion, separatism, and treaon; his death sentence was commuted to life in prison because of EU regulations. He started to study and write in prison, and began to seriously rethink the role of the state. In his 2005 Declaration of Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan, as well as his writings on women, he laid out a theory that is a complete break with the Leninist playbook. Today the Kurdish liberation movement argues that nation-states are intrinsically hierarchical, ethnically based, and sexist; and that rather than seizing the state apparatus, a liberation movement should be involved with the state only to the point of insisting that it be democratic and permit autonomy; beyond that, the movement should focus its energy on developing democratic economies and local self-governance based on anti-capitalist, feminist, and ecologically sound principles.  
This strategy, as put into practice in Rojava, has not yet been able to reach fulfillment because of war and the embargo. Rojava is surrounded by hostile forces on all sides: battling ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra (now with a new sanitized name) and other Islamists in Turkey; fired on by the Turkish army and recently bombed by Assad; and blockaded by Turkey's KDP allies in the Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region that borders Syria. Together Turkey and the KDP have imposed a brutal economic siege upon Rojava, refusing to let in food, building supplies, drugs and medical equipment, and making it very hard for people to get in or out. As UN aid shipments pile up at the border, Rojava can't even feedthe hundreds of thousands of refugees that have sought refuge there, the latest wave coming from Manbij and Aleppo. NATO has not put sufficient pressure on Turkey to insist that it lift the siege, nor has the US used its considerable influence with the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP)
July’s attempted military coup in Turkey - which was immediately denounced by the HDP - does not seem to have changed anything for the better as far as the Kurds are concerned.
Though the coup was led by the same officers who had been bombing Kurdish cities, Kurdish spokespeople see what has happened since as a counter-coup, with Erdogan intent on imposing an Islamist dictatorship rather than a military one. It is surely significant that the only party Erdogan has excluded from his post-coup grand democratic coalition is the HDP, party of Kurds, hipsters, intellectuals, feminists, minorities, and gays.
It was a strange experience to be writing A Road Unforeseen just as Bernie Sanders' “political revolution” was taking off in the US. I supported Sanders; it felt great to hear a politician of national stature use the language of the left which became virtually taboo in mainstream US after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  And it was extremely moving to watch a new generation respond to radical ideas. But Bernie never really explained what he meant by a “political revolution” and many of his supporters were young, had not studied much history, and seemed to think it was possible to make a revolution in one electoral campaign. Their pain when Bernie endorsed Hillary Clinton - as he had always said he would if she got the nomination - was understandable, as was their outrage that the party system turned out to be partisan, ruled by considerations of long-term career affiliation, and unfriendly to sudden democratic eruptions from outside.
The history of the Kurdish movement could teach them how hard it is to make a revolution, how long it takes, and why women are key to the process. AsFrederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” The history of US labour shows that when substantial economic interests are at stake, the powers-that-be fight to hold every inch. The kind of change we need in the US will not happen in one electoral cycle. It will not happen through electoral politics alone, or protests alone either. It will only happen through the kind of dedicated long term organizing the Kurds have done.  
The Kurdish liberation movement developed the strength we see today through many years of public education, building its own institutions, combining electoral and parliamentary work with nonviolent resistance and armed self-defense when necessary, striving to “serve the people,” as the Black Panthers used to say, and build democratically-run organizations that can be held accountable. This is why it is so important to support them as well as learn from their example.  


Sunday, August 21, 2016 - 23:42

On Ian Masters'program Background Briefings
August 21, 2016

Friday, August 19, 2016 - 21:59

Published in The New York Times, August 18, 2016



Kurdish fighters in Tal Hamis, Syria, after it was freed from Islamic State control last year.CreditMassoud Mohammed/Barcroft Media, via Getty Images
Two years ago this month, the Islamic State attacked the Yazidis, a Kurdish religious minority who live around Sinjar Mountain in Iraq. The militants came down on unprotected villages like Byron’s wolf on the fold, slaughtering the men and taking away thousands of women and children to be sold as sex slaves.
Any Yazidis who could escape fled higher into the mountains without food, adequate clothing or even, in some cases, shoes. They remained trapped there for days, in harsh conditions and with little international support. Those who had originally promised to protect them, the pesh merga soldiers of Masoud Barzani’s political party in Iraqi Kurdistan, had melted away in their hour of need.
It was Kurdish guerrillas from Syria and Turkey who eventually fought their way over the mountain through Islamic State territory, opening a corridor to bring Yazidi survivors to safety in the self-declared autonomous area of Syria called Rojava, the Kurdish word for west.
Many of these guerrillas were women, for a basic principle of the decades-long Kurdish liberation movement is that women cannot wait for others to defend them, but must themselves fight to be free. Indeed, some of these women say that they fight for other women, because they know what horrors await those captured by the Islamic State.



Yazidis fleeing the Islamic State near Sinjar, Iraq, in August, 2014. CreditRodi Said/Reuters
In Rojava’s war against the Islamic State, women can be found not only in the ranks but also in command of guerrilla units. After their rescue from Mount Sinjar, some Yazidi women decided to follow this example, and started their own militia, the Women’s Protection Unit-Shengal (another name for Sinjar). Similarly, in Iraqi Kurdistan, Yazidi women rescued from sexual slavery have formed their own brigade.
Though female guerrillas have fought in national liberation struggles in places from China to Vietnam, Cuba to Nicaragua, Mozambique, Angola, Iran and the Palestinian territories, mainstream global feminist organizations have tended to follow the lead of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, founded during World War I, which holds that the solution to women’s victimization in wartime is, first, to oppose war and, second, to make sure women are at the negotiating table when wars end.
The Kurdish liberation movement’s approach, on the contrary, emphasizes self-defense in both military and social terms. Female guerrillas are meant to be seen as exemplars who show that female leadership is crucial in every sphere of society. In Rojava’s system ofautonomous democracy (the area is within Syria’s borders), there arestrong mandates for the participation of women in governance, and all organizations are led by both a man and a woman. Committees of women have real authority over problems like forced marriage and domestic violence.
But it is the female warrior in particular who offers a powerful counterimage to that of the raped and dishonored victim who is considered a source of shame to her family and community. Ancient, patriarchal ideas have made rape and sexual slavery a central strategy in genocidal conflicts, meant to destroy the very identity of the enemy. That’s how rape was used in Bosnia and the Democratic Republic ofCongo (and earlier, in the partition of India and the liberation war of Bangladesh), and that’s how it is being used today in Iraq and Syria.
Women like the Yazidis who have been subjected to sexual violence on such a terrible scale cannot easily be reintegrated into old patterns, nor will they thrive if they are seen — and see themselves — as shamed victims. Part of the process of rehabilitation has to involve challenging the stigma survivors face.
Of course, there are ways to do this without taking up arms. But the fact that some of the survivors in the refugee camps of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is still heavily patriarchal, have chosen this path indicates the influence of the radical Kurdish female guerrillas. A women’s council formed last July by Rojava-influenced Yazidis went so far as to declare that the goal should not be to “buy back” abducted women and children, as is common when dealing with the Islamic State, but to liberate them and at the same time establish new traditions of self-defense.
That won’t be easy. Two years after their capture, thousands of Yazidi women and children remain in captivity. Many more are scattered in refugee camps in Turkey, Iraq or Rojava, while others have tried to flee to Europe, some drowning on the way. But the epicenter of the Yazidi struggle remains Sinjar Mountain, the ancestral home to which many now in Iraqi refugee camps desperately want to return.
One barrier in their way remains the same Iraqi Kurdish forces of Masoud Barzani who abandoned them two years ago, and whose pesh merga have capriciously operated the checkpoint at the border crossing that leads to both Rojava and the north side of Sinjar Mountain, making adequate access to essential supplies and building materials difficult if not impossible. This has been done in cooperation with Turkey’s blockade of the Rojava Kurds.
Those of us moved by the plight of the Yazidis and the image of women fighting the Islamic State can, and should, do more than express admiration from afar. We need to help the American government listen to its own ideas about gender equality, democracy and pluralism. The United States recently promised Mr. Barzani’s forces a generous amount of military aid.
The price tag for that aid must be freedom of movement for the Yazidis, so they can return to their homes and rebuild, hopefully with full involvement by women and survivors of the Islamic State’s sexual violence, and a permanent end to the blockade of Rojava, whose guerrillas have been some of the only forces capable of fighting the Islamic State — not in spite of their feminism, but because of it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015 - 17:05

The Revolution in Rojava
Published first in Dissent, April 22, 2015
Meredith Tax ▪ April 22, 2015
Since last August, when I first heard about the fight against ISIS in Kobani, I have been wondering why so few people in the United States are talking about the Rojava cantons. You’d think it would be big news that there’s a liberated area in the Middle East led by kickass socialist-feminists, where people make decisions through local councils and women hold 40 percent of leadership positions at all levels. You’d think it would be even bigger news that their militias are tough enough to beat ISIS. You’d think analyses of what made this victory possible would be all over the left-wing press.
But many on the U.S. left have yet to hear the story of the Rojava cantons—Afrin, Cizîre, and Kobani—in northern Syria, or western Kurdistan. Rojava—the Kurdish word for “west”—consists of three leftist enclaves making up an area slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut, in territory dominated by ISIS. In mid-2012, Assad’s forces largely withdrew from the area, and the battle was left to the Kurdish militias: the YPG (People’s Protection Units) and the YPJ (Women’s Defense Forces), the autonomous women’s militias. These militias are not the same as the Iraqi peshmerga, though the U.S. press uses that name for both.
The YPG and YPJ have, for the better part of the last three years, been focused on defeating the jihadis, even as they continue to clash with the Assad regime (particularly in and around the city of Hasakah). On January 27, 2015, they achieved a major victory when they defeated ISIS in Kobane. They have since won the strategic towns of Tel Hamis and Tel Tamr (on the edges of Cizîre canton), but are, as of late April, gearing up for a renewed ISIS attack on the area.
While the Syrian opposition is understandably bitter that the YPG and YPJ withdrew most of their energy from the war with Assad, leftists worldwide should be watching the remarkable efforts being made by Syrian Kurds and their allies to build a liberated area where they can develop their ideas about socialism, democracy, women, and ecology in practice.
They have been working on these ideas since 2003, when the PYD (Democratic Union Party) was founded by Syrian members of Turkey’s banned Kurdish party, the PKK. By January 2014, they had established a bottom-up system of government in each canton, with political decisions made by local councils and social service and legal questions administered by local civil society structures under the umbrella of TEV-DEM (Democratic Society Movement). TEV-DEM includes people from all the ethnic groups in the cantons, who are represented by more than one political party, but most of its ideological leadership comes from the PYD.
According to Janet Biehl, who was part of an academic delegation to the Cizîre canton in December 2014, 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.
In short, the Rojava revolution is fulfilling the dreams of Arab Spring—and then some. If its ideas can be sustained and can prevail against ISIS, Kurdish nationalism, and the hostile states surrounding the cantons, Rojava will affect the possibilities available to the whole region. So why isn’t it getting more international support?
In October, David Graeber wrote a Guardian op-ed comparing Rojava’s fight against ISIS to the Spanish Civil War and asking why the international left was so showing so little solidarity this time around. The answer lies partly in how one defines international solidarity—which these days often seems to be limited to opposing whatever the United States does. In December 2014, an In These Times panel on what to do about Kobani framed the question purely in terms of U.S. military intervention. Richard Falk responded:

"The plight of the Kurds in Kobani and their courage in resisting ISIS poses a tragic predicament that does challenge the kind of anti-interventionism that I feel is justified overall, particularly in the Middle East. But to overcome the presumption against military intervention, especially from the air, one needs very powerful evidence. . . . [T]he ISIS intervention doesn’t seem designed to actually deal with the problem. Rather, it looks like a projection of U.S. power in the region."

Falk immediately turns the question toward U.S. motives rather than whether Kobani needs help or has asked for it and what other kinds of help besides bombing might be available.
To Graeber, this way of framing the question is sadly one-sided; anti-imperialist critique is insufficient without solidarity. He visited Rojava as part of the academic delegation, and on his return, described it as “a genuine revolution”:

"But in a way that’s exactly the problem. The major powers have committed themselves to an ideology that say[s] real revolutions can no longer happen. Meanwhile, many on the left, even the radical left, seem to have tacitly adopted a politics which assumes the same, even though they still make superficially revolutionary noises. They take a kind of puritanical “anti-imperialist” framework that assumes the significant players are governments and capitalists and that’s the only game worth talking about."

What is the problem here?  Are we in the United States too cynical or depressed to believe anything new can happen? Are we able to recognize revolutionary ideas when they come from Greece, Spain, or Latin America but not from the Middle East? Are we so sexist we can’t take the idea of a feminist revolution seriously? Or is the problem simply ignorance? If so, knowing the story might help. Let’s start with the Yazidis.
Saving the Yazidis
Until August 2014, few Americans had ever heard of the Yazidis, an Iraqi Kurdish minority practicing an ancient religion close to Zoroastrianism. Then ISIS (also known as Daesh, ISIL, or the Islamic State) entered Sinjar, and the Yazidis—abandoned by both the Iraqi army and the much-hyped Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga—fled north into the mountains. Soon stories began to appear of genocidal attacks that wiped out the entire male population of villages and of hundreds of Yazidi women and children being raped, sold into slavery, or forced to marry ISIS fighters.
On August 6, Reuters reported that 50,000 Yazidis were trapped in the mountains above Sinjar in danger of imminent starvation. The next day, Obama authorized limited air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and air drops of supplies to the Yazidis. But this was hardly enough to remedy the growing humanitarian disaster. As the United States continued to “weigh its options,” the UK and Germany talked about sending aid, and the Pope condemned ISIS, the Yazidis remained trapped.
Then came a rescue so dramatic it was worthy of a Hollywood movie: the YPG and YPJ militias, without heavy weapons or air cover, crossed from Syria into the mountains of Iraq and cut a corridor to evacuate the Yazidis. Suddenly the Western press was full of pictures of attractive young women in uniform—there has been more than a touch of Orientalist fantasy in Western coverage of the women’s militias.  This coverage has barely touched upon their politics, beyond ominous references to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and Turkey.
Turkey, for its part, played a lamentable role in the battle of Kobani. Observers including David L. Phillips of Columbia University’s Institute for Human Rights assert that “Turkey is providing military, logistical, financial and medical support for Daesh [ISIS] and other jihadists.”
Kurdish spokespeople say the same. And President Erdogan did not allay their suspicions when he told the press that, for Turkey, the Kurds and ISIS were six of one, half dozen of the other.
Erdogan also predicted in October that Kobani would fall any minute. But, despite Turkey’s aid to ISIS and the Kurds’ lack of heavy weapons and supplies, the YPG and YPJ militias fought on against very heavy odds, and after months of battle, were able to drive ISIS out of Kobani  in January. Along the way, they began attracting Western volunteers, several of whom have been killed.
While the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds are theoretically allies against ISIS, the Iraqi Kurds are also allied with Turkey and this has led to significant tensions between the two Kurdish factions. There are enormous political differences between them on questions of governance, women’s rights, ecology, and nationalism. The political parties that lead the Iraqi Kurds, longtime favorites of the United States, are in the process of establishing their own petro-state, and, while women may be better off in Kirkuk than in the rest of Iraq, as Houzan Mahmoud of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq points out, they still suffer from “honour killings, FGM, forced marriages, early marriages, stoning, rape, marital rape and many other forms of violence.” The Barzani government has done little to address these problems. As Kurdish feminist Dilar Dirik writes in “What Kind of Kurdistan for Women”:

"It is interesting that the Kurdish entity that is most state-like, most integrated into the capitalist system, and which complies with the requirements of the local powers such as Turkey and Iran, as well as the international system, displays the least interest in women’s rights and the challenge of patriarchy."

Dirik notes Iraqi Kurdistan’s “lack of truly independent, non-partisan women’s organisations,” the dominance of “tribalist, feudalist politics . . . encourag[ing] patriarchal attitudes,” and a crowning irony: “Many women’s organisations in South Kurdistan are even chaired by men!” She contrasts this to the feminism of the Rojava cantons, where “Men with a history of domestic violence or polygamy are excluded from organizations” and “Violence against women and child marriage are outlawed and criminalised.” This is a reflection of the socialist-feminist praxis of the PKK, which has evolved significantly since its inception as a Marxist-Leninist party in the 1970s.
Who are the PKK?
The PKK, founded in 1978, grew out of the Turkish leftwing student movement and initially had much in common with other radical movements inspired by China and Vietnam. Its goal was to establish an independent and socialist Kurdish state by waging people’s war. Its cadres settled in the countryside to build a peasant movement; their first targets were feudal landlords who oppressed the people and acted as local enforcers for the Turkish military.
Two years after the PKK was founded, Turkey had a military coup followed by a period of extreme repression and a war on the Kurds. As in other guerilla wars, the government met the slightest provocation with overwhelming force, and villagers were caught in the middle, forced to choose between the PKK and the Turkish military. In a 1993 report, Helsinki Watch (the original committee of Human Rights Watch) cited atrocities including the assassinations of more than 450 people—among them journalists, teachers, doctors, and human rights activists—by “assailants using death squad tactics.” The Turkish government never investigated the killings and was widely suspected of being complicit in them. Helsinki Watch also noted that, during this campaign, Turkey remained the third largest recipient of American aid, after Israel and Egypt, and that the George H.W. Bush administration expressed vocal support for violence against the Kurds.
The PKK, too, committed human rights abuses: they tried and hanged informers, were reported to have killed civilians (for example, by bombing an Istanbul shopping mall in 1991 and shooting worshippers in a mosque in Diyarbakir in 1992), kidnapped Western tourists (who were later released), and coordinated attacks on Turkish offices in six West European countries, among other acts of terrorism. But the scale of their violence pales in comparison to the mass killings of Kurds by the Turkish state.
Since its founding, the PKK has been led by Abdullah Ocalan (pronounced “uh-djah-lan”). Though his critics say that Ocalan did not rethink the people’s war strategy until he was captured in 1999, insiders like Cemil Bayik, another PKK founder, and Havin Guneser, Ocalan’s translator, say that during the 1990s, he and others began to examine the need to find a political rather than a military solution to the conflict; he also put increasing emphasis on democracy and women’s rights. This was, in part, a reflection of the evolution of the organization. By the eighties, PKK membership was largely made up of rural Kurds whose villages had been attacked; in order to deal with the feudal and nationalistic ideas of these new recruits, women cadre realized they needed autonomous women’s organizations. According to Necla Acik, Ocalan himself was becoming more feminist because “it was women who supported him most during the turbulent years following his arrest and the declaration of his new political, and at that time controversial, line. In return Öcalan became more radical in his promotion of gender liberation and urged women within the party to question male dominance within their own ranks.”
The Birth of Democratic Confederalism
Kept in almost total isolation after 1999, when he was captured in a combined Greece-Kenya-Turkey-CIA operation, Ocalan did a lot of reading. He was particularly influenced by anarchist theorist Murray Bookchin, world systems theorists Immanuel Wallerstein and Fernand Braudel, and theorist of nationalism Benedict Anderson. He publicly disowned his previous beliefs in democratic centralism and armed struggle, writing in 2008 that a state-like hierarchical party structure was a contradiction to “principles of democracy, freedom and equality;” he also distanced himself from the PKK culture in which “War was understood as the continuation of politics by different means and romanticized as a strategic instrument.” Ocalan was similarly critical of nationalism and the goal of a Kurdish state, arguing that nation-states were intrinsically hierarchical and that the goal instead should be a confederation of Kurds and other peoples living in the region. The idea was that Kurds should withdraw their energies from their respective states and develop their own democratic economies and methods of self-governance—anti-capitalist, anti-statist, and environmentally sound. In short, they should work towards dual power.
Since his arrest, Ocalan has written several volumes of prison essays, selections of which have since been translated and released as downloadable pamphlets. The two most recent—Democratic Confederalism (2012) and Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution (2014)—relate directly to the emergence of the socialist-feminist cantons in Rojava.
Ocalan calls his political philosophy democratic confederalism. While this philosophy has much in common with anarchism, participatory democracy, and libertarian socialism, no other major left-wing movement, with the possible exception of the Zapatistas, has put women’s liberation so squarely at the center of its revolutionary project. In fact, despite slogans like Mao’s “women hold up half the sky,” Marxist revolutions have—at best—seen women as support troops or a stripe in the rainbow, not as a historically submerged and dominated majority whose liberation is fundamental to everyone else’s.  National liberation movements have been similar: women are encouraged to be politically active and even to serve as soldiers during the struggle, but, once the battle is won, patriarchal norms are reasserted in the name of religion or indigenous tradition. In contrast, here’s Ocalan in Liberating Life: “The solutions for all social problems in the Middle East should have woman’s position as focus. . . . The role the working class have once played, must now be taken over by the sisterhood of women.” This is an amazing statement for a former Marxist guerilla; only the most radical of Western feminists would even dare to propose it.
How much of this for real?
In the months I have been studying this revolution, I have frequently asked myself, “How much of this is for real?” I have known a lot of male leftists who talk a good line about women’s liberation but fall woefully short in practice. I also get nervous about the “stereotyped party writing” that comes out of the PKK. And I have seen more than one Potemkin Village. But revolutions are driven by contradictions; PKK style may resemble that of China in the 1970s but the content is different. And, though I have problems with what seems like a cult of personality, Ocalan’s main message for women has been that they should organize themselves.
The ten members of the academic delegation who visited Rojava in December went with questions similar to mine: “Do its practices really constitute a revolution? Do they live up to its democratic ideals? What role do women actually play?” Upon their return, they made this public statement:

"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."

I went on a similar trip to China in 1973, during the last years of the Cultural Revolution, and remember the way I tried to disregard my own misgivings and failed to recognize that much of what one hears from party activists may be more aspiration than achievement. But even if only half of what the academic delegation saw is real, Rojava is a game changer. Imagine what a liberated area with a secular, egalitarian approach to women, governance, economics, land usage, and ecological sustainability could mean for the Middle East. Kurdistan has borders in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey; if Rojava can survive, dissidents from the whole region will have a place they can run to escape forced marriages and get a secular education—for Rojava has started its own university, the Mesopotamian Academy of Social Sciences, which is now holding a book drive.
But to be a game changer, it has to survive. Kobani has been liberated, but the city was destroyed and needs to be rebuilt—after the land mines are cleared. And the YPG and YPJ are still fighting ISIS in the rural areas, hampered by a complete Turkish embargo that prevents them from getting weapons and keeps UN supplies and food from reaching refugees. These refugees include Yazidis, Arabs, Turkmen, and others from both Syria and Iraq, including Mosul. There is one flour mill for the whole area and not a lot of other food. The KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government—the Iraqi Kurds, led by Barzani) are not letting very much through on their side of the border because of their alliance with Turkey, and the UN has not pushed either Turkey or the KRG to let in supplies or move refugees to a safer place. The cantons have no money and a tiny economy, and because the PKK is listed as a terrorist organization, Rojava has no access to international aid.
Under these circumstances, international solidarity is not only an obligation; it is a necessity.
I recently spoke to someone from the Kurdish women’s movement in Rojava and asked what they need most. She said they need a massive international solidarity campaign, beginning with political education about the evolution of the PKK and its politics, including its emphasis on democratic governance, anti-sectarianism, secularism, ecology, and women’s liberation. In practical terms, they need all possible international pressure to be put on Turkey and the KRG to end the embargo and let supplies through. They need the terrorist designation to be lifted so they can travel and raise money and do public speaking. Their representatives should be allowed into the United States and other Western countries; though neither the PYD nor other Rojava groups are actually on the terrorist list, they are damned because of their relationship to the PKK; just this January, the United States rejected a visa application by Salih Muslim, co-president of the PYD.
Some oppose lifting the PKK’s terrorist designation because of its past violations of human rights. But, while caution is reasonable, people and movements have to be allowed room to evolve. The leaders of many liberation movements were once considered terrorists, including Jomo Kenyatta, first president of Kenya, and two prime ministers of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela was jailed as a terrorist and released after many years so he could negotiate with the Boer government. Like Mandela, Ocalan should be released from jail to lead negotiations with Turkey.
In 1988, I wrote an article for Dissent called “The Sound of One Hand Clapping: Women’s Liberation and the Left.” I concluded,

"The socialist movement can’t get on without the dream and language of transformation, applied to job and family as well as international politics. Socialism needs the ability to dream as much as women’s liberation needs the ability to think strategically. Only by creating a political culture that is not split down the middle by gender can any of us find the answers we need to change the world."

Starting from near-feudal circumstances, in the middle of a devastating war, people in the Rojava cantons are trying to create such a culture. We need to learn from them—and help.

For those who wish to inform themselves further about Rojava or support people there, here are some links.
Information and campaigning resources:
ANF News
Hawar News (Anha)
International Free Ocalan Campaign page
Jinha, the first women's news agency in the Middle East
Kurdish Question
Peace in Kurdistan Campaign (UK)
Rojava Report
Kurdish Question
Kurdish Resistance and Liberation Facebook page
Kurdish Revolution Info Group's Facebook page
Kobane Reconstruction Board Facebook page
Donations are being processed by the Kurdish movement in Germany
Help Kobani website
In the UK support for Rojava is being coordinated by the Rojava Solidarity Working Group.  The New York group is collecting books to send to the university in Rojava.
Rpjava Solidarity Committee UK
Rojava Solidarity NYC

The Kurds: a bit of background
[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015
The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  
Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.
Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.
Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015 - 13:09

How to help Rojava: links
For those who wish to inform themselves further about Rojava or support people there, here are some links.
Information and campaigning resources:
ANF News
Hawar News (Anha)
International Free Ocalan Campaign page
Jinha, the first women's news agency in the Middle East
Kurdish Question
Peace in Kurdistan Campaign (UK)
Rojava Report
Kurdish Question
Kurdish Resistance and Liberation Facebook page
Kurdish Revolution Info Group's Facebook page
Kobane Reconstruction Board Facebook page
Donations are being processed by the Kurdish movement in Germany
Help Kobani website
In the UK support for Rojava is being coordinated by the Rojava Solidarity Working Group.  The New York group is collecting books to send to the university in Rojava.
Rpjava Solidarity Committee UK
Rojava Solidarity NYC

Wednesday, March 18, 2015 - 14:50

On February 26, 2015, The Washington Post revealed that ISIS’s “Jihadi John,” who beheaded seven prisoners on video, was a college grad from West London called Mohammed Emwazi and was known to Asim Qureshi, research director of Cage.  Cage (formerly called Cageprisoners) then gave a press conference in which Qureshi said Emwazi was “extremely kind, extremely gentle, extremely soft spoken, was the most humble young person that I knew,” and that the only reason Emwazi had joined ISIS was resentment at his treatment by British security forces, who had refused to let him travel to Somalia and Kuwait.
Cage’s praise of Emwazi became front page news, reviving the scandal of 2010 when Gita Sahgal, founder of the Centre for Secular Space, said that Cage was a jihadi defense group not a human rights organization and Amnesty should not be partnering with it.  Under concerted attack, she had to resign from AI, where she was head of the gender unit; she has now been vindicated. 
On March 2, Gita was interviewed on BBC4’s “Today”, along with an AI spokesman, and said, “Immense damage has been done to Amnesty, not least because they won’t come clean about their association with Cage;” she charged that Amnesty has “taken their research from them, they have shared logos with them, they have produced briefing papers together, signed letters to the government together.”  On March 6, in a devastating exposure on BBC’s “This Week”, Andrew McNeill interviewed Asim Qureshi and could not even get him to disavow stoning.
After that the media storm could no longer be contained.  Kate Allen of Amnesty UK issued a press release on March 12 saying “Amnesty no longer considers it appropriate to share a public platform with Cage and will not engage in coalitions of which Cage is a member.”  The release, however, does not include any apology for past actions, or questioning of AI’s previous conduct.
In addition, the UK Charities Commission has come down hard on Cage’s two main charitable donors, the Roddick Foundation and the  Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, both of which have now issued statements that they will no longer fund Cage.  The Rowntree Trust organized a letter to the Times, published March 11 and signed by a massive list of notables, to show their support for its work “under regulatory pressure and media attacks.”
You can continue to follow this story and others on the Centre for Secular Space’s Facebook page.

Saturday, January 17, 2015 - 16:10

Women and Islamic Militancy: A Response
First published in Dissent, Winter 2015.
To read Rafia Zakaria’s original article, click here.
Why do Muslim girls in the West run away to join ISIS? Rafia Zakaria argues that they are responding to online propaganda that “underscores the thousands of Iraqis and Afghans killed in U.S. military campaigns but also professes to have created a post-national, post-racial, and perfectly just society ordered by Islamic norms.” She hypothesizes that ISIS may offer “an escape from a nation where to be an equal citizen requires abandoning the dictates of one’s religion.” While she emphasizes that the main duty of these girls will be to marry and propagate, she also describes them as “women warriors,” making an extended comparison between them and Aafia Siddiqi, who refused to “submit to traditional female roles” and whom she believes represents “an alternative, if highly controversial, portrait of empowerment that groups like ISIS use to appeal to other women.”
Let’s stop for a moment to note that ISIS has enslaved thousands of Iraqi and Syrian women, mostly from minority groups; it has even reportedly published a pamphlet detailing the proper way to treat female captives, which includes immediate rape, with no exceptions made for young children. One of its recent propaganda coups, according to an Iraqi news source, was to release a price list showing the costs of Christian and Yazidi female slaves of different age groups, probably as an inducement to foreign fighters; the youngest children are the most expensive and foreign fighters are not allowed more than three per person.
So, yes, it is important to try to understand why Western Muslim girls—or anybody else—would want to join such a violent group. The question is, how much do we really know about the runaways? Is Zakaria working from a sample large and well-documented enough to support her hypotheses, or are other conclusions equally plausible?
Two researchers at Kings College, London, have been tracking female recruits to ISIS from the UK. Melanie Smith of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation has a database of twenty-five such girls; she emphasizes the romantic lure of a man with a gun and says a number of girls have run away to marry jihadists they have met online. Indeed, some of the online methods used to engage these teenage girls resonate with grooming techniques used by pimps; a recent investigation by the London Times points to an organized ring of “facilitators” in East London, offering girls as young as fourteen passports, travel help, and money for travel to marry jihadists in Syria. The BBC interviewed a number of girls in Luton who said they wanted to go and some knew so little about either Islam or politics that they were not even aware ISIS was fighting other Muslims.
Another researcher at Kings, Katharine Brown of the Defense Studies Department, says girls who join ISIS do not all want the same thing: some want to be jihadi brides; some are drawn by the utopian vision of a caliphate; and many just want to be independent, get away from their parents, and have adventures.
Zakaria speculates on the attraction of ISIS for “French Muslim schoolgirls who are excluded from school for wearing headscarves [and who] live and learn in relative isolation from the mainstream of French society.” Certainly some French runaways fit this description, like fifteen-year-old Soukaïna, whose parents had no idea she frequented jihadist websites until they were warned by the cops; three months later she stole her sister’s passport and headed for Syria. Another fifteen-year-old French girl, Nora el-Bathy, came from a family that was Muslim but not Islamist and only donned her veil after she left home in the morning. She went to Syria thinking she could work in a hospital; when ISIS made her stay inside and do babysitting instead she wanted to come home but her brother couldn’t get her out.
According to Dounia Bouzar, the anthropologist founder of the Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Excesses Linked to Islam (CPDSI), most young French women who seek jihad do not come from particularly religious families; they are good students who want to go to Syria either to marry a devout Muslim or provide humanitarian aid. She says, “There is a mix of indoctrination and seduction. . . .They upload photos of bearded Prince Charmings on Facebook.”
Zakaria says most Muslim girls from the West who join ISIS are between eighteen and twenty-five and are attracted “because its political vision appears to offer a solution to some of the problems that plague them.” But are they adults capable of making mature decisions? They are certainly capable and well-enough organized to deceive their parents and find a network to help them travel. Zahra and Salma Halane, sixteen-year-old twin sisters from Manchester, the children of Somali refugees, had twenty-eight GCSEs between them (most students take eight or nine) and were enrolled in college until they ran away to marry ISIS warriors. Aqsa Mahmood, whom Zakaria quotes, was a twenty-year-old pre-med from Glasgow, educated in private schools; she is now married and produces a recruiting blog under the name Umm Layth.
But no matter how well-organized and educated they may be, most of the girls whose stories we actually know tend to be fifteen or sixteen. Can we really compare these teenagers to Aafia Siddiqi, a thirty-five-year-old PhD with degrees in biology and neuroscience, married twice, with three children, and a dedicated Islamist for many years, who, when captured in 2008, was reportedly carrying cyanide crystals and documents describing how to make chemical weapons and dirty bombs.
Zakaria also hypothesizes that some women join ISIS because they can more easily remarry there if they divorce or are widowed: “A divorced or widowed woman with children can rarely remarry in Afghanistan or Pakistan.” But no evidence of Afghan or Pakistani women joining ISIS has yet emerged, so how does this apply? And, while divorce may be disgraceful in Afghanistan, it is so common in Pakistan that more than 100 divorces take place every day in Lahore alone. So whom is she actually talking about here?
Zakaria posits that Muslim girls in the West see ISIS as an opportunity because the United States has destroyed the option of feminism in their countries. “Since the rhetoric of women’s liberation has been used to justify the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a group like ISIS which violently opposes those interventions can gain a degree of legitimacy unavailable to secular feminists in those nations, who are constantly and consistently under attack for propagating Western ideas and being handmaidens to foreign occupation.”
Let’s look closely at this thesis. Conservative opposition to women’s movements hardly began with 9/11. Patriarchal conservatives in the Global South have been calling local feminists tools of the West since at least the nineties and very likely since the nineteenth century. As I wrote in 1999, “To nationalist, communalist and religious backlash movements, feminism, no matter how rooted in local conditions, represents the globalizing forces that are undercutting patriarchal traditions. For them, it is intrinsically foreign, a fifth column undermining their efforts at unity. . . . the successes of the women’s movement are also seen only as symptoms of globalization, rather than as the result of an autonomous movement for female emancipation.”
But if conservatives see local groups like Shirkat Gah and the Women’s Action Forum in Pakistan, the Afghan Women’s Network, and the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq as a modernizing fifth column, doesn’t that make it all the more necessary for women in the rest of the world to show some solidarity rather than dismiss women’s desire for equality?
Rather than call for such solidarity, Zakaria cites Laura Bush and concludes that, because the Bush administration said it wanted to help Afghan women, “the very idea of gender equality [has become] tainted as a pretext for foreign occupation. This dynamic—repeated in Iraq and even Pakistan (with U.S-led drone attacks on one end and U.S.-funded women’s empowerment projects on the other)—creates a political opening for an alternative form of female empowerment, even though it is one that men control, and which allows the rape and murder of women who do not conform.”
Surely there is some cognitive dissonance in the idea of “an alternative form of female empowerment . . . that men control” which, moreover, “allows the rape and murder of women who do not conform?”
Let’s call the phenomenon by its right name: This is not female empowerment but a buy-in by some young Sunni women to a fascist ideology that gives them admission to a society run by an elite group of warriors who have life and death power over other women—Yazidis, Shi’a, Ahmadis, Christians. All they have to do to join this elite is consent to their own subordination. They have even been allowed to form their own little militia, the al-Khansaa brigade, to police other women. The bargain is exactly the same as that made by women who join other poisonous right wing groups based on racial or ideological purity, like Nazi women, women of the Hindu right, or the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan.
So if Zakaria is correct and some of the runaway girls from the West have made mature, considered decisions, we have to ask, what kind of decisions have they made? Is it sufficient to talk about empowerment in the case of Mujahidah Bint Usama, a doctor who posted a picture of herself in Raqqa holding a severed head, with the message, “Dream job, a terrorist doc,” followed by smiley faces and hearts? What kind of empowerment is represented by Aqsa Mahmood, who wrote in a September blog post:

Know this Cameron/Obama, you and your countries will be beneath our feet and your Kufr [unbelievers] will be destroyed, this is a promise from Allah swt [abbreviation for ‘glorified and exalted be He’] that we have no doubt over. If not you then your grandchildren or their grandchildren. But worry not, somewhere along the line your blood will be spilled by our cubs in Dawlah [your country]. We have conquered these lands once Beithnillah [God willing] we will do it again. Read up on your History, and know that it will repeat itself, you will pay Jizyah [tax on non-Muslims] to us just like you did in the past. This Islamic Empire shall be known and feared world wide and we will follow none other than the Law of the one and the only ilah [God]!

Another question: if Zakaria is looking for examples of female empowerment in Syria, why pick women in ISIS? Why not choose the determined women in local Syrian civil society groups who insist on holding meetings, educating children, and carrying on humanitarian work under the most unpromising conditions? Why not choose the Women’s Defence Units affiliated with the PKK—the Kurdistan Workers’ Party? Necla Acik has described how these women’s militias rescued thousands of Yazidis who, fleeing ISIS massacres and slave markets, got trapped in the Sinjar mountains last August:

Setting off from Rojava, these fighters cleared more than a 100km passage through northern Iraq to Mount Sinjar and broke the siege of IS. They provided the desperate refugees with a secure corridor, which enabled them to embark on a 24 hour march into the relatively safe northern part of Syria/Rojava, where they received immediate medical attention, food and shelter.

Dilar Dirik adds, “the mass-mobilisation of women in Kobane is the legacy of decades-long resistance of Kurdish women as fighters, prisoners, politicians, leaders of popular uprisings and tireless protesters, unwilling to compromise on their rights.”
The Kobane women’s militia members are not only women warriors, they are feminists, socialists, and secularists. Is that why Zakaria avoids making them part of the picture—because they disprove her thesis that egalitarian feminist ideas are no longer viable in war-torn Muslim-majority countries? The women who hold equal leadership positions in the Rojava cantons do not seem to feel that secular feminism is a hopelessly outdated and compromised idea. As their example becomes more widely known, I suspect many other women in South Asia, the Middle East, and the West will find their insistence on women’s equality a more useful model of female empowerment than that of high-school girls who run off to join ISIS.

Friday, January 2, 2015 - 00:24

New Year's Message: The Rojava Revolution
At the end of such a dark and difficult year, one searches for light. It can sometimes be found in unexpected places—like the Rojava cantons, Afrin, Jazeera, and Kobane.  These are three Kurdish-controlled regions in a mountainous rural area of Northern Syria, engaged in a life and death fight with the Islamic State (aka ISIL, ISIS, and DAESH). You have probably seen news articles about the Kurdish women soldiers fighting ISIS in Kobane but there has been very little in the Western media about the fact that these soldiers, who are part of a militia called the YPG, are feminist, secularist, anti-state, opposed to narrow nationalism, and engaged in a revolution whose current leadership is 40% women from the bottom to the top, including the military wing.
The YPG militias are associated with the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which was founded in 1978 as a Marxist-Leninist organization seeking an independent Kurdistan through armed struggle.  The PKK is on the NATO, EU and Turkish terrorist lists because until the turn of the century they carried out terrorist actions against the Turkish government and civilians.  That phase ended with Turkey's capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, in 1999, and he was held in solitary confinement on an island, where he did a lot of reading.  As a result he renounced Marxism-Leninism in favor of nonviolence and what he calls "democratic confederalism," a bottom-up form of libertarian socialism modeled in part on the theories of Murray Bookchin.  The PKK no longer calls for an independent Kurdish state but for a confederation in which local Kurdish regions would have autonomy but continue as part of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.
I have lived long enough to have seen the glow of many socialist revolutions vanish.  Nor I have been to the Rojava cantons, so I cannot speak from first hand knowledge.  I have however been following this story because I believe that feminism, grassroots democracy, and a secular state are fundamental to any kind of social change worth having. I am writing this to share some materials I have gathered.  
Two pieces by David Graeber of Occupy Wall Street

The consititution of the Rojava cantons.
Two articles by Dilar Dilip, a PhD student at Cambridge

Gönül Kaya, "Why Jineology? Re-Constructing the Sciences towards a Communal and Free Life," March 2014.  A more theoretical article calling for a sociology of freedom.
Necla Acik, "Kobane: the struggle of Kurdish women agasint Islamic State," Oct. 22, 2014.
Two maps show the location of the cantons and way they are squeezed between ISIS and Turkey. 
Here's a map of the war zone dated Sept. 15, 2014. The Rojava cantons are bright yellow.  As you can see, they are surrounded by gray ISIS controlled areas and they are not continguous.  The Kurds have been asking Turkey to open up a land corridor for them but Turkey  has so far refused.
Here is a map  from Aug. 2014 of the whole Kurdish area in all four countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
Happy New Year!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014 - 23:12

The Antis: anti-imperialist or anti-feminist?

A leftwing analysis that blames the suffering of women in Muslim-majority countries on the feminist movement - variously identified as "white feminists", "liberal feminists", or "colonial feminists" and their "native informants" or "comprador intellectuals in the South" - has become influential in US academic feminist circles. While its proponents call themselves "anti-imperialist feminists", in the interests of brevity I will call them simply the Antis, in tribute to the anti-suffrage leftists who considered women's rights a bourgeois distraction from socialist revolution.
A recent article by Deepa Kumar titled "Imperialist feminism and liberalism" argues that US liberals and feminists supported the invasion of Afghanistan and ignored the victims of the war in Iraq because of their "ubiquitous, taken-for-granted ideological framework that has been developed over two centuries in the West...based on the appropriation of women’s rights in the service of empire".

What evidence does Kumar present for this thesis? What historical documentation?  A CNN interview with Reza Azlan, an article from the Washington Post about a UAE woman pilot, an Amnesty International campaign on Afghanistan, and an ad for the HBO drama series Homeland.  These are hardly feminist sources.  In an article about American feminism, her only American feminist reference is to a 1991 piece on women and the military by Naomi Wolf.  If Kumar knew more about the US women's movement, she would know that, far from being a mainstream liberal feminist, Naomi Wolf has for years been concentrating on conspiracy theories about a US descent into fascism.  
The Antis misrepresent feminist movements, ignore the struggles of women against politicized  religion in Muslim-majority countries, and have a reductionist analysis of women's liberation. Kumar , for instance, claims that "Liberals and feminists in the US, going against the wishes of Afghan feminist organizations such as RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) who opposed US intervention, linked arms with the Bush administration and supported the Afghan war". 
This argument treats US feminists as a monolithic bloc and obscures the range of political opinion in the Afghan women's movement.  A closer look shows a more complex picture.  In 2009, for instance, at the same time that Malalai Joya and RAWA were denouncing the occupation, human rights activist Wasma Frogh and Women for Afghan Women (WAW), a substantial network of NGOs that work on violence against women, were calling for a continued commitment of coalition forces. And in the early years of the war,  RAWA did not oppose US intervention against the Taliban.  It opposed US support for the Northern Alliance, which is not the same thing. 
Throughout the nineties, the Clinton Administration tried to win Taliban support for an oil pipeline bypassing Russia and Iran; administration officials held a number of meetings with the Taliban and toured a dozen Taliban leaders around the country.  Opposing US diplomatic recognition for the Taliban, RAWA and the Feminist Majority, an American liberal group, worked together on a campaign about gender apartheid in Afghanistan, hosting celebrity events to raise money for girls' schools and calling for emergency aid to Afghan women.  RAWA was the Afghan face of this campaign, which was also promoted by Eve Ensler.  Because of its visibility in the West, RAWA became the go-to group for journalists, but when the war began, they made contact with other women's groups as well.  In 2002, the Feminist Majority bought Ms. Magazine and did a section on Afghan women, spotlighting Dr. Sima Samar, founder of the Independent Human Rights Commission.  RAWA objected strenuously, denouncing Samar and other Afghan women's groups as conciliators with fundamentalism. That is why RAWA and the Feminist Majority split, not because RAWA opposed the war.
It is also disingenuous to say that US goals in the war had anything to do with women; Ann Jones and others have documented the hypocrisy in this claim. Bush wanted to destroy al Qaeda, punish the Taliban for giving it shelter, and protect US oil interests. Nobody in the administration even mentioned Afghan women until six weeks after 9/11. Then, as it became clear the war was not going to end quickly, the State Department released a report on the oppression of Afghan women and children, and Laura Bush - hardly a feminist - gave a radio speech on the subject.  While some American feminists jumped on the bandwagon, many others saw this as a cynical use of women for propaganda purposes.  As Deniz Kandiyoti observes, "far from inspiring an unqualified response of international feminist solidarity, the US military intervention provoked a spate of critical reactions triggered by the naked instrumentalism behind the invocation of abused Afghan women."
In the wave of nationalist feeling that followed 9/11, many dissenters were feminists.  The Village Voice even did a piece on feminist opposition to the war, quoting a petition signed by Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker and others saying, "We will not support the bombing or U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, for it would only punish suffering people and increase the hatred on which terrorists feed."  A number of antiwar articles by American and international feminists can still be found on the website of Women's WORLD, including Barbara Kingsolver, Rosalind Petchesky, Anne Walker, Muna Hamzeh, the late Sunila Abeysekera, Barbara Ehrenreich, Ritu Menon, Nafisa Hoobdhoy, Ellen Willis, and myself, along with an online symposium about how to strengthen antiwar voices.
Photo: Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan
Though Kumar's subject is feminism and empire, she ignores the struggles of feminist movements in Muslim-majority countries, where empire and government are often closely aligned, and talks only of representations of Muslim women in Northern media.  But the best stories don't get into the Northern media.  A war has been going on for months in the Kurdish enclave of Rojava, where PKK women soldiers have been leading the battle against ISIS slave traders; Northern media have delighted in pictures of these women but said little about the political ideas that animate them.  But Kurdish secularists fighting Islamists don't fit into Kumar's paradigm; nor do struggles on the ground against the use of politicized religion as a tool of oppression and social control, documented in various regions by feminists including Karima Bennoune, Michelle Goldberg, Rohini Hensman, Frances Kissling, Gita Sahgal, Amrit Wilson, Afiya Zia, and many others.  For the Antis, the only struggle that counts is the one against imperial imagery.  As I observed in Double Bind, this myopia can be seen in several sectors of the left and peace movement, who have no problem allying themselves with any tendency they see as anti-imperialist regardless of its political agenda. 
Saadia Toor, another Anti and the author of The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan, goes so far as to characterise feminists as front women for US imperialism.  "As the United States draws down its troops in Afghanistan...we have begun to see this ‘imperialist feminism’ emerge once again from a variety of constituencies both within the United States and internationally. One such constituency locates itself on the left-liberal spectrum in the United States and consists of an alliance between self-defined left-wing feminists in the United States and feminists from the Global South (specifically Muslim countries such as Algeria and Pakistan)."  
No distinction is made between the Muslim religion and Islamism as a political project or between different shades of liberals and the left, and the threat of Islamophobia is invoked to shut down any discussion of the Muslim right.  To Toor, the continued vitality of "the meme of the Muslim woman who must be saved from Islam and Muslim men - through the intervention of a benevolent western state" points to "a palpable dis-ease with Islam within the liberal mainstream and portions of the Left, a result of the long exposure to Orientalist and Islamophobic discourses."  In fact, the "twin evils" of "capitalism and imperialism" are "at the heart of the problems faced by the vast majority of women across the world, and especially in ‘Muslim’ countries". 
This argument is becoming very tired. Indeed, feminists on the left have been arguing over such reductionism at least since 1848.  Is it true, as Toor says, that the problems of women can be reduced to side effects of "capitalism and imperialism"?  Or are there problems predating capitalism involving the family, cultural traditions, religious institutions, and systematic institutionalized sexism?  I always thought feminists believed in the second proposition, or at least recognized the existence of diverse patriarchal formations. 
Not these "anti-imperial feminists". For them the only battle worth talking about is the one between US imperialism and the working class. No need to focus on secondary issues like Islamism because, as Kumar says in an article on Hamas, "The class basis of Islamism is the middle class or the petty bourgeoisie. In general, this class does not have the social weight necessary to bring the system to a standstill or force concessions from powerful groups."  So much for the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat. 
Besides, she continues in International Socialist Review, Islamists are sometimes anti-imperialist and at those times should be supported, even if their attitude towards women is not what one might wish. This approach fits right in with the SWP's history in the Stop the War Coalition, where women's rights were called "a shibboleth" that should not impede unity with Islamist groups.  But such alliances may not always be productive, Kumar warns: "Islamist groups are self-serving entities that are not principled anti-imperialists. We should therefore not make the opposite mistake of offering support to all Islamists at all times."  
Rather than worry about Islamists, the Antis direct their fire at liberal feminists - whom they do not take great pains to distinguish from any other kind. But it is one thing for Deepa Kumar and Saadia Toor to attack "imperial feminism" in Socialist Worker, where few will read them but other TrotskyistsIt is another to make such attacks in Pakistan, where, as women's rights activist Afiya Zia says, "Their attempts to malign liberal and secular feminists and human rights activists as supporters of war, drones, and military intervention end up confirming right wing accusations of the same. While they clearly wish to offer themselves as the true 'radical' opponents of imperialism, in fact they offer no political resistance at all, simply empty talk that depends on delegitimising what little resistance there is in the country to Islamists and conservative politics". 
Since the nineties, feminists in many parts of the world have warned of the growing strength of fundamentalist movements - Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, Jewish, Orthodox and Buddhist as well as Muslim. We have warned that these movements were a threat to human rights and world peace comparable to that of fascism in the thirties. In Weimar Germany, the left was too sectarian to unite against the Nazis until it was too late. Today as then, an energetic defense of individual human rights - that cornerstone of liberalism - is essential to any workable leftwing strategy. That means we must fight both empire and fundamentalism. By focusing their attack exclusively on liberal feminism, the Antis demonstrate that they have learned nothing from history.


Friday, September 26, 2014 - 22:49

A Fresh Look: Towards an Israel-Palestine Two-state Solution
published in openDemocracy 5050 Sept. 22, 2014
With the ceasefire in Gaza and a projected unity government in Palestine, the spectre of a two state solution has again risen to haunt Netanuyahu.  He has responded by announcing the annexation of nearly 1000 more acres of Palestinian territory for settlements.  Meanwhile, a new post-war poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) shows that 79% of Palestinians think Israel lost the war and 72% favor an armed intifada in the West Bank.  That is a big change from a poll taken in Gaza June 15-17, when 73% said they favored non-violent resistance, though, as PSR  points out, Palestinian poll numbers always swing widely after a war: these changes might be temporary. 
The Gaza war has thus made it more urgent than ever to get serious about Palestinian nation-building.  As Israeli elder statesman Uri Avnery has pointed out many times, a secure, well-run, democratic state in Palestine is the key to progress and economic development for the region; it is also the only possible way either side can be secure. 
Recently, however, prominent Jewish liberals like Anthony Lerman and Jonathan Freedland have begun to say that a two state solution has become impossible because the growth of Israeli settlements have created an irreversible situation.  To Avnery, this idea is nonsense: "I can think of a dozen different ways to solve the settlement problem, from forcible removal to exchange of territories to Palestinian citizenship (meaning the settlers will become Palestinan citizens).... All the Herculean problems of the conflict can be resolved—if there is a will. It’s the will that is the real problem."
The majority of people in both Israel and Palestine are still convinced that two states are needed.  75% of Palestinians in the new PSR poll reject a one state approach.  Within the region, right wing Israeli politicians are the main ones talking about one state—and they certainly don't mean a state in which all citizens would be equal.  But the problem of political will is real.  Israeli society has succumbed to the despairing worldview of the Likud, which sees any talk of peace as either fantasy or treachery.  As David Grossman says, "the right has not only vanquished the left: It has vanquished Israel.... In the area most critical to its survival, today’s Israel is practically immobile, one might even say incompetent....(There is) a void of actions, a void of consciousness, a void in which an efficient suspension of moral judgment prevails, a failure to notice the injustice at the root of the entire situation."  
At this crux, people who still believe in a two state solution have got to get smarter and tougher, particularly in the US, where groups that support this goal have tended to be timid and overly focused on Beltway politics, hoping that, if they play nice, they will be accepted by conservative Jewish institutions.  This approach hasn't worked.
In fact, the only dynamic anti-occupation groups in the US are those that support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions ( BDS) - but they do not have a two state perspective.  The goals of the BDS movement are to end the occupation and dismantle the separation wall; give full equality to the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel; and promote the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes as guaranteed by UN Resolution 194.  The last demand, for the right of return, is usually understood to mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state. As Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein have both observed, this demand will limit the base of BDS support to college campuses and the left, making impossible the kind of broad-based movement needed to change US policy.
The US is Israel's chief enabler.  Congress, more focused on donors than on votes, is totally one-sided on this issue.  The Republicans, led by their Christian Zionist wing, can be relied on to push for war in the Middle East, hoping it will lead to the rapture, while even the most progressive Democrats, like Bernie Sanders, stand up for Israel right or wrong—Hillary Clinton now seems poised to make doing so central to her campaign strategy.  The Obama administration has been more reserved in its support than Congress, even holding up a shipment of Hellfire missiles in August because of the Gaza war.  But all are basically responding to a strong public identification with Israel.
On Aug. 28, 2014, after seven weeks of a war in which Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians received much more coverage than usual, 66% of those polled by the Pew Research Center sympathized with Israel. A broad coalition against the occupation needs to be able to reach the many Democrats who are "liberal on everything but Israel;" this requires much more energetic organizing for a two state solution.
Two main obstacles stand in the way of this solution.
The first is the religious-nationalist right on both sides—Hamas and the Likud coalition.  They have a symbiotic relationship: Israel's destruction of Gaza has enormously increased the popularity of Hamas, while the rockets of Hamas have strengthened the Israeli right.  And both have historically opposed a two-state solution, though on Sept. 5, according to the Lebanese weekly Al-Akhbar, Khaled Meshal, head of the political wing of  Hamas, agreed to accept two states within the 1967 borders.  Netanyahu, on the other hand, is more intransigent than ever, as he said in a speech last month: “there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”  
But Palestinian support for Hamas is not written in stone.  Hamas is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and, if it ever actually becomes part of the government of a Palestinian state, is likely to have the same problems reconciling its ideology with the need to govern as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia.  The youth of Gaza in particular have found Hamas politically incapable and far too repressive; they want peace, freedom and development, not a theocracy. Nor does Islamism mesh well with the secular ideals of the Palestinian National Charter, written in 1963 and amended in 1968, which calls for setting up a nation founded on "freedom of worship and of visit (to Jerusalem) to all, without discrimination of race, color, language, or religion." 
Like Hamas, the Israeli right is an obstacle to a two state solution, as shown by its practice for the last twenty years.  It includes the religious fundamentalists of the National Religious Right, who think God gave them the right to all the land "from the river to the sea," and the ethnic nationalists of the Likud coalition.  Some, like Netanyahu, are traditional maximalist militarists; others are open racists and advocates of ethnic cleansing, like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Moshe Feiglin.  Of the five parties in the current governing coalition, all except Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah are relentlessly opposed to giving up land occupied by settlements, sharing Jerusalem, or doing anything else that could bring about an independent Palestinian state. They do not conceal their views; Feiglin wrote a recent op ed proposing total war on the civilian population of Gaza, to be followed by ethnic cleansing:
"After the IDF completes the 'softening' of the targets with its fire-power, the IDF will conquer the entire Gaza, using all the means necessary to minimize any harm to our soldiers, with no other considerations....The enemy population that is innocent of wrong-doing and separated itself from the armed terrorists will be treated in accordance with international law and will be allowed to leave.... Subsequent to the elimination of terror from Gaza, it will become part of sovereign Israel and will be populated by Jews."
The second obstacle to a two state solution is a lack of concrete progress towards a Palestinian state.  Unless nation-building begins soon, the whole idea will seem like a hopeless fantasy.  
While the new coalition between Fatah and Hamas is a step in the right direction, it is a far cry from a democratically elected government based on the rule of law. Palestine needs a functioning economy, an updated secular constitution, political parties, transparent elections, and a strong civil society.  It also needs better leadership than it has at present— which is why freeing Marwan Barghouti must be a key international demand.  Nation-building will require capable honest leaders who are younger and less compromised than Mahmoud Abbas and are not militaristic theocrats like the leaders of Hamas.
The parameters of a two state solution have been clear for many years: a return to the 1967 borders with just and mutually agreed upon solutions to the refugee problem and the question of Jerusalem.  The details can only be settled by real peace negotiations leading to a settlement, not just by temporary breaks in a permanent state of war.  The urgent task of the anti-occupation movement is to build enough international pressure to force such a settlement. 
A concrete programme is needed to flesh out this strategy, including targeting settlement funders and a campaign to free Marwan Barghouti.  For this programmatic discussion, see my article "Ten Points Towards Two States" in Dissent. 

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