By Sinam Sherkany Mohamad

Women are often left in desperate positions following war and conflict. Their lives may be shattered. Their homes may be ruined or uprooted. They may have been violently brutalized or subjected to sexual violence or slavery. Their fathers, husbands, and sons may have been killed. At the same time, women are left to pick up the pieces and carry their communities forward and bring forth the next generation. War and conflict disproportionately impact women.

For this reason, women are often the peacemakers — not the makers — of war. So the women of Northeast Syria have been tireless participants, working toward democracy. They see their participation in the struggle for democracy as a key to their liberation.

In many revolutionary movements, women participate in the initial struggle only to be forced back into their traditional roles when the dust settles. In Northern Syria, however, the Kurdish women’s movement has worked to ensure that all Syrian women can free themselves from this historic pattern and ensure that liberation is measured in the liberation of all women, rather than by the successes of certain individual women. Through this work, the movement has achieved a true revolution for women within their larger regional revolution.

Long before the conflict in Syria began, Kurdish women had been fighting two enemies: the oppressive nation-states that denied their ethnic identity, and the patriarchal society that confined them to their homes. Through their struggle, the Kurdish woman came to officially adopt women’s freedom as a central political goal, inseparable from the cause of national liberation itself. For 10 years, women in Syria’s Kurdish regions began to organize along these principles.

This level of preparation made revolutionary change possible when the Syrian government retreated from Kurdish areas. Unlike the Syrian opposition, whose disorganization provided ground for local extremists and foreign powers to exploit the opposition’s agenda, the Kurdish movement had years of organization and proven local support to build on. Rejecting narrow nationalism and religious chauvinism, Syrian Kurds invited members of Northern Syria’s diverse communities to take part in their political project, forming self-defense forces and governing institutions in which all could participate. 

Women at meeting/summit

Women played a leading role at every step of this process. The first mala jin, or women’s house, was founded in Qamishli in 2011, serving as a place for women to resolve domestic disputes and seek refuge from violence. The Women’s Defense Units (YPJ) were established in 2013 as an elite fighting force protecting the people of Syria.

Women are not waiting for anyone to give them their rights as some sort of offering. Women are claiming their rights through organizing. They are struggling in order to promote real democracy in society and to hold their positions as decision-makers. Women do not simply follow men who make the decisions. They take the mantle of leadership on their own shoulders, especially in times of war and conflict.

Women are able to protect themselves. That is why they organized their units, the YPJ. A woman will not wait for a man to protect her when she faces danger. For that, women have played an exemplary role in society, protection, economy, diplomacy, and governance.

Women’s representation in elected bodies — guaranteed by law to be no lower than 40% — was treated as a precondition for democratic governance, not a goal in and of itself. Before the war against ISIS put Northern Syria on the international stage, women there had laid the groundwork for a society that could not only beat extremists on the battlefield, but fundamentally challenge the ideology that made extremism possible. 

Today, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) has guaranteed more rights for women than any other political authority in the region. Officials there have made marriage and divorce into civil agreements, fought polygamy and child marriage, and protected a woman’s ability to keep her children in the event of a separation. Many women work outside of their homes for the first time in their lives as members of women-only economic cooperatives, and are learning the skills to defend themselves and their communities.

Women’s councils and committees are empowered to overrule mixed-gender legislative bodies on issues that relate to women’s rights. These councils have played an important role in educating women at a grassroots level. Recently, the Women’s Assembly of North and East Syria was established to coordinate between these institutions and strengthen women’s participation at the highest levels of government. Each woman in society has to play their part in women’s liberation according to their capabilities.

It is this social transformation that is at most risk when extremist militias and their authoritarian state backers threaten the region. When Turkey and the so-called Free Syrian Army invaded Afrin Canton in 2018, they quashed the advances in women’s rights that AANES had achieved there, imposing draconian fundamentalist rule in its place. Women in occupied Afrin today face the risk of sexual violence, kidnapping, murder, and human trafficking, and are no longer allowed a voice in their government. Those who fled the region struggle to provide for their families in refugee camps in Shehba, where displaced people lack adequate food, shelter, and medical care.  

The violence and suffering that women face under Turkish-backed rebel governance is often left out of discussions of Turkish intervention in Northeast Syria — though it has proven to be one of its most devastating consequences. The strongest voices against such a policy have, unsurprisingly, been the women who represent AANES on the international stage. 

I am the Representative of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) to the United States, and I am originally from Afrin. When Turkey invaded, my family was forced to flee twice — first from our village to Afrin city center, and then again to areas held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), facing Turkish bombardment all the way. This was after I had fled from Aleppo in 2012. I have spoken out repeatedly against the crimes that occupying forces have committed in Afrin, and the dangers that a Turkish safe zone might pose to the secular, feminist, and pluralist society that the people of Northeast Syria have built. 

“The SDF and its civilian counterparts have begun that work across Northeast Syria—building democratic institutions, protecting religious freedom and gender equality, strengthening local security, and preparing for a negotiated settlement to Syria’s war,” I wrote in January 2019. “A ‘safe zone’ under exclusive Turkish control would do nothing but turn this hard-won peace into further bloodshed and chaos.” 

A story like mine — I was honored to serve as the co-president of Northern Syria’s first autonomous governing body and as the region’s top diplomat before joining the SDC mission to the United States — would have been unthinkable for a woman under Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rule. The successes of AANES show just how harmful this discrepancy is for women. The women of Syria all deserve the opportunity to organize, lead, and transform their communities. 

Women must share in discussions on the future of Syria. Women’s rights leaders should be on the constitutional committee mandated by U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 to guarantee the rights of women in the new Syria.

As the international community seeks a resolution to the Syrian conflict, they must ensure that the gains made by women under AANES are expanded — not destroyed.