The Gender Security Project
Beyond the nation-state: Feminist security in Rojava
By Charline Vandermuntert
The incorporation of a feminist perspective into the discipline of security enables the diversion from the gendered dichotomous way of thinking that reproduces violence at all levels of society and the recognition of the gendered language that generates differentiated views of the social world (Confortini, 2006). The war/peace dichotomy contributes to and maintains the gendered hierarchical order while sticking with peace in a patriarchal system, that is, ignoring the structural and cultural violence that affects non-male members of society in particular (Reardon & Snauweart, 2015; Roberts, 1984; see Shepherd, 2009).
Complementing this idea of a social order built on competition, authoritarianism, inequality and maintained by the coercive elite force at the head of the world economy and diplomacy, Barbara Roberts denounces the cult of violence as the traditional definition of power. And it is on this definition that the devices of the State with a monopoly on violence are based: the supposed security of negative peacetime does not eliminate any conflict. The nation-state, as an emblem of modern capitalism, perpetuates the negative peace. This idea of a violence reflex is objectively more in the national and especially diplomatic interests of the State - and leads us to the question: would a peace reflex, that is a promotion of positive peace, make way for peaceful existence? Would feminist security guarantee peace?
Let us consider the case of Rojava. An autonomous region in the north of Syria, its revolutionary political system, which has received little media coverage and study in Europe, applies the concepts of feminist peace and security. Rojava's ideology is democratic confederalism, a system that supports secular, socio-democratic, gender and ecological politics. It claims to be anti-State and feminist and thus already rejects two forms of violence: the structural violence represented by the State and the cultural violence through its distancing from patriarchy and the nation-state. In his founding text, the freedom of the people is linked to the freedom of women and ecology and proclaims that freedom can only be achieved through the defeat of the patriarchal and capitalist system, which imposes conceptions of femininity centred on fragility and victimisation and relegates respect for the environment to the background (Tank, 2017).
The concept of security applied in Rojava runs counter to this realist paradigm and advocates the feminist vision: it is based on social relations, situating decision-making power at the individual level and putting into practice the ideals of positive peace, rejecting structural and cultural forms of violence. Priority is given to non-violent measures, gender equality and environmental protection. This is illustrated by the committees that collaborate on decision-making through committees dealing with all issues and the local people's council that brings these committees together. The multitude of the population is respected at every level, including representatives from every commune (and thus every ethnicity). In addition to having a co-presidency at each governmental body - 40% of the functions are allocated to women, 40% to men and 30% outside of gender (Cuvelier in Bouquin et al. 2017: 20) - women have the parallel organisation Kongreya Star which votes on all decisions made by the joint council (Gupta, 2017). This organisation has already led to the criminalisation of honour killings, violence against women and the abolition of forced marriage, Sharia courts and child marriage (ibid).
Nevertheless, purely demilitarised security has not been achieved, as the creation of a People’s Protection Units, the YPG-YPJ, shows. Indeed, peaceful coexistence between the nation-state and democratic confederalism is possible 'as long as the nation-state does not interfere with any self-governing questions' (Öcalan in Bouquin et al. 2017: 63). Thus, the Kurdish liberation war is conducted based on the concept of legitimate self-defence (Dirik in Bouquin et al 2017: 152). YPG-YPJ are less a contradiction of democratic confederalism than life insurance of the Kurdish people allowing the autonomy of the Kurdish actor - and, in the context of the current conflict, serves the security of the Kurds. Their raison d'être lies in the conflict - and will disappear with the conflict. In this sense, they exist only because of the conflict with nation-states that only follow the call of capital accumulation (financial and cultural) and the motives of their rulers. Thus, they correspond to the realist vision of the nation-state that defends 'national interests', the role of rulers and the desire for power that it pursues. This is why the rejection of the realist paradigm, and the nation-state, is a guarantee of peace and security.
Between compromise and utopia: The Kurdish dream in practice
Three issues seem to hinder the Kurdish ideal and challenge the ideological paradigm of democratic confederalism: ethnocultural diversity, partial liberation and the legitimacy of the system. The regions administered by the PYD, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, are made up of a mosaic of peoples and faiths: Kurdish, but also Arab, Assyrian, Syriac, Circassian, Turkmen and Chechen; Sunni, Shia, Christian, Yezidi and Zoroastrian. The universalisation of the issue of women's liberation comes up against traditions in Arab communities, which, unlike the Assyrian population, do not have a women's union. Moreover, the co-presidency is not applied in the 'Arab zone', putting democracy before gender equality. This partial liberation also concerns other parts of society: the YPJ security forces, although exclusively female, refuse to hire married women. LGBTQ+ issues also remain little discussed in Rojava, denying freedom and liberation to a whole section of the population (Cuvelier in Bouquin et al 2017: 20; cf. Jones, 2018 and Miller, 2017).
The feeling of an authoritarian PYD that has taken advantage of an institutional vacuum to give shape to its Rojava model is unshakeable. This allows us to argue that democratic confederalism cannot, in practice, necessarily accommodate the multitude of cultures, being historically very much rooted in cult culture (There is also the problem of reconciling a system that is meant to be anti-authoritarian with the personality cult of Abdullah Öcalan in Rojava).
All in all, democratic confederalism struggles to gain legitimacy internationally: many feminist groups deny the self-defence argument and take the YPG-YPJ as an obvious flaw in the system, being considered by terrorist units by surrounding States, which however ignores the whole context. Others support it, but not without an orientalist attitude, in particular when it comes to the YPJ, the Women’s Protection Units:
It is amazing to see all these Westerners applauding armed feminists without asking what the underlying ideas are. They think it happened spontaneously. A Kurdish tradition, perhaps? That's somehow contemptuous of Eastern culture, or just racism. (...) They don't realise that in Rojava they could go much further than where we got to in the West. They don't realise that the people in Rojava actually have principles that they believe in. (Graeber in Bouquin et al. 2017: 141)
The revolution is also questioned and accused of 'wanting to please the European and North American authoritarian left' to gain international support against Syria and Turkey. However, ideological support by advocating the complete rejection of the nation-state with libertarian ideas seems futile, while material support would be better achieved with Islamist ideals (ibid: 143). It is the statism of the actors that creates the wars.
Rojava was born in a region torn by religious conflict for decades, reinforced by the destructive nationalisms of State actors (Löwy in Bouquin et al. 2017: 7, 8). Economically, the inflow of food, weapons, reconstruction materials and humanitarian aid to Rojava is nearly impossible when the region is subject to embargos by State actors hostile to them (Gupta, 2017). The mass harvested wheat cannot be processed, the food rots due to lack of trade. With no environmentally friendly industrial refineries, the government has to sell some of its crude oil (with about half of Syria's crude reserves) to Syria in exchange for fuel. Turkey, for its part, controls the flow of the Euphrates River and rations the dams. Areas once occupied by ISIS are often mined with explosives and sleeper cells, preventing the population from expanding. Thus, Rojava must make concessions of its political project and forge temporary alliances with nation-states, which is contrary to its doctrine, to survive.
The PYD finds it difficult to find support among the powers involved because of the intersection of the fighting on all fronts: for example, the 2014 battle of Kobane made it impossible for the United States to support the Kurds because, despite being an ally, it feared that the weapons provided would be used against NATO member Turkey. Until the battle of Afrin, the Americans served as a shield for the Kurdish minority, but the request for an exclusive air zone was refused by the US, which preferred to decide in favour of the NATO ally. Thus their "military and not political or economic" support comes from the common enemy, ISIS, and is applied selectively.
This alliance is opportunistic and shifting, leaving the post-ISIS fate in doubt. Between US aid, Turkish rejection and occasional support from the International Coalition, the Syrian Kurds seem to be nothing more than a plaything exchanged between imperialist states and makes trust impossible, a situation reinforced by distorted reports on their activities, including an Amnesty International report (2016) accusing the Kurds of forced displacement of Arab populations, an accusation denied by the Rojava authorities (Dehort, 2018). Rojava must therefore constantly play off its dependence on these states while asserting its autonomy. This is related to the contradictory nature that the YPG has had to adopt to ensure its survival:
'There are contradictions everywhere. Originally, the Americans had no strategic intention to support the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces]. The Kurds know very well that the US is an imperialist state; but we are forced to maintain this paradoxical relationship, because our survival is at stake. (Court & Den Hond, 2018)
Rojava evolves within modern globalised capitalism interdependent with the nation-state. As the culmination of modern capitalist society, the nation-state contributes to societal distancing, both economically (inequalities of wealth and capital) and socially (ethnocultural animosity and conflicting nationalisms on the rise). This follows from the feminist conception of peace: without the nation-state, peace is possible. The implementation of feminist security within Kurdish democratic confederalism cannot be achieved in the context of inter-state conflict, i.e. the confrontation between the nation-states involved., due to inadequate circumstances motivated by the motives of these actors, rooted in the realistic political system of international relations. Without inter-state conflicts, the Kurds would not have to face economic problems, nor compromise on their environmental postulate (Dehort 2018), nor cooperate with anti-Kurdish actors.
If Rojava succeeds, against all odds, it will strengthen the resolve of all those around the world who put people and planet before profit. Even if it fails, it is a reminder that the human drive for justice and equality cannot be crushed indefinitely (Gupta, 2017).
AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL. Banished and dispossessed in northern Iraq (video) [online]. 20 january 2016. Available on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7A8oZok8j8 (Last accessed 28 July 2021).
BOUQUIN Stephen, COURT Mireille & DEN HOND Chris (coord.). La Commune de Rojava: L’alternative à l’État-nation. Critica: Brussels, 2017.
CONFORTINI, Catia. ‘Galtung, Violence, and Gender : The Case for a Peace Studies/Feminism Alliance’. Peace & Change [online]. 2006, 31, n°3, p. 333-367. Available on: <https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0130.2006.00378.x> (Last accessed 28 July 2021).
COURT Mireille & DEN HOND Chris. « Le Rojava entre compromis et utopie ». Le monde diplomatique [en ligne], 2018. Disponible sur : https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2018/12/COURT/59358 (Consulté le 3 mai 2019).
DEHORT Arthur. Au Rojava, la Turquie menace une révolution inspirée par l’écologie Murray Bookchin. Reporterre [online], 2018. Available on: https://reporterre.net/Au-Rojava-la-Turquie-menace-une-revolution-inspiree-par-l-ecologiste-Murray(Last accessed 28 July 2021).
GUPTA Rahila. The Rojava experiment, New Humanist [online], 2017. Available on: https://newhumanist.org.uk/5160/the-rojava-experiment(Last accessed 28 July 2021).
JONES Owen. Kurdish Afrin is democratic and LGBT friendly. Turkey is crushing it with Briatin’s help. The Guardian [online], 2018. Available on: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/16/turkey-democracy-kurdish-afrin-britain-syria-arming(Last accessed 28 July 2021).
MILLER Anna L. Is the queer brigade fighting ISIS in Syria a force for liberation or alienation?. The Intercept [online], 2017. Available on: https://theintercept.com/2017/08/10/is-the-queer-brigade-fighting-isis-in-syria-a-force-for-liberation-or-alienation/(Last accessed 28 July 2021).
REARDON Betty A. & SNAUWEART Dale T. (dir.). Betty A. Reardon: Key Texts in Gender and Peace. Springerbriefs On Pioneers In Science And Practice, 2015, vol. 27, p. 63-71, 10.1007/978-3-319-11809-3.
ROBERTS Barbara. The death of machothink: Feminist research and the transformation of peace studies, Women’s Studies International Forum, 1984, vol. 7 n°4, p. 195-200, 10.1016/0277-5395(84)90042-6.
SHEPHERD Laura J. Gender Violence and Global Politics Contemporary Debates in Feminist Security Studies. Politics Studies Review, 2009, vol. 17 n°2, p. 208-219.
TANK, Pinar. ‘Kurdish Women in Rojava: From Resistance to Reconstruction’. Die Welt des Islams [online]. 2017, 57, n°3-4, 404-428 https://doi.org/10.1163/15700607-05734p07(Last accessed 28 July 2021).
__  Negative and Positive Peace: Johan Galtung defines the positive concept of peace as (i) the total refusal of violence in all its forms, i.e. direct, structural and cultural violence, (ii) the promotion of a state of harmony based on human bonds such as respect, consideration and benevolence, and (iii) the dynamics of 'peace reflexes' instead of violence reflexes. This is an alternative definition to what is usually meant by 'peace', which Galtung calls negative peace: the absence of organised collective violence or 'direct violence', i.e. the absence of war. However, this empty definition may seem too abstract to be truly motivating, hence the proposal of positive peace, which designates a concrete process of living together peacefully. In essence, peace is not simply the absence of war, but a process in search of equity, social justice and development. For more information, see Positive Peace – Institute for Economics and Peace.